Sep 142014
 

ssample01Author Photo by Sally Anne Sample Ward

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Call me Magdalene. Not Maggie. Not Meg. And certainly not Dolly, for God’s sake. Call me Magdalene. Let the syllables roll off your tongue. Slowly…slowly…

Let the connotation seep into your stomach, your very skeleton, your middle there. Take a breath. Narrow your eyes. What do you want?

Think: do you really love your life? Your job…your grown children…your spouse? Is what you have now really enough for you? Take another breath.

Touch my cheek… my silver-sheathed breast…me. Keep breathing now.

Hear the raging air blowing all around us. Feel the wind’s unpredictability. Sense the precipice beneath our toes. Smell the gift. See how our bodies sway just before they’re beyond choice? How our chests cease to heave?

We fly for an instant, holding each other for an infinite moment of understanding. See the puffs of dust rise in frilly clouds that our bones make as they crack on the sun-scorched earth./

—Cynthia Sample

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Cynthia Sample holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in fiction as well as advanced degrees from University of Texas at Dallas and at Austin in mathematics and business. Her writing credits include stories published in Numéro Cinq, SLAB, Summerset Literary Review, Between the Lines, Wichita Falls Literary & Arts Journal, and others. She lives in Dallas.

 

 

 

Sep 132014
 

DSCF0087 Leon Rooke, 2014 bwLeon Rooke. Photo by Tom King.

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This brings us back again to the question of repetition, if such may be seen as a question. Take Jack. The question as pertains to Jack was Jack’s fear of repetition. In our view Jack was counted a failure as a musician because Jack refused to repeat himself. He would not play or sing a number twice — never in public, that is, and rarely in private except to a restricted few — because that meant he was without any new ideas and had become the wretched musician who went on performing the same old material over and over. Such is how we saw it, and furthermore saw the same when it came to his compositions. Here, too, he failed, because if he played out a bar or two he could never bear to repeat that bar or bars a second time, the result being that all his compositions were inadequate. We had no doubts as to why this was so.

We said to Jack, Jack, you are in love with Zulu, are you not? Yes, Jack said, I am head over heels in love with that woman. We said, Well, Jack, you have told her of this love, have you not? Jack said, Yes, I have declared my adoration in no uncertain terms. We said, Well, Jack, that was our exact expectation, that you had spoken of this love, which is to say, you have said it out loud to Zulu, but there is this also, which we expect you know, a woman certainly is not going to be content with an expression of love delivered once and never again, a person, Zulu among them, requires an updating on the love question once in a while, needs reassurance, we are saying. I know what you are saying, said Jack. We said, Jack, how long have you and Zulu been together? A few days over a year, said Jack, which has been my great  good fortune. Yes, we said, but when was it you last expressed you love for dear Zulu, whom we love also? We would wager you said ‘Zulu, I love you,’ or something similar, long, long ago, most likely in the early days of your relationship, would this not be so? Jack said, I believe I can say I expressed my adoration of this woman in the very earliest days of our relationship, probably, in fact, sometime during the first hour I found myself in her presence. We said, we would expect no less of you, Jack, the fact of the matter is that Zulu has told us she was leaning against a wall and you were leaning against her and whispering this love business in one ear and another within five minutes of your very first meeting. That rings a bell, said Jack, I recall the very building we were standing against and what time of day it was, and that it was winter and snowing and we both had on these thick coats and what hell it was, how frantic we were, I mean, to get our hands beneath those coats all the while we were kissing and not aware of any other person on this planet. Yes, we said, that corresponds exactly with our sense of the event, inasmuch as we were in a Hudson’s Bay entryway watching, asking each other who that woman was Jack was kissing, how long has that been going on, when did she come into the picture? Asking such questions as that because until that moment we had all been feeling a little sorry for you because there was no one in your life you loved and never had been, so far as we knew, when we were all of us pretty well covered on that front and recognizing how lucky we were. Yet there you were suddenly in passionate embrace of this woman we had never seen before. Behaving, that is to say, in a manner we thought shocking at the time, because this was so unlike the Jack we knew that we could not believe our eyes. Jack said, Yes, I was more than a little shocked myself, and hardly believed it myself, all those honking horns and stunned pedestrians, because almost within seconds of catching sight of each other there we were pressed against the wall and fumbling to get inside those coats. Yes, we said, that is just as we saw it, the falling snow, moreover it was freezing cold out there, one could get frostbite in a minute. Well, Jack said, I don’t remember being cold, I believe it would be fair to say that Zulu and I were totally unaware of weather, although I do recall we had these little sniffles in the days following. We said, we can’t speak of that, Jack, because it seems you and Zulu disappeared for about a month, although of course at that time we didn’t know her name was Zulu. Yes, said Jack, a month, that’s accurate. We hid away in bed that full month, hardly ever eating and seeing no one. We said, Well, that brings us to our point, Jack. Jack said, What point is that, I hope this is not going to be embarrassing. We said, It well might embarrass you, Jack, our question is, well, it really isn’t a question so much as an observation. Jack said, What is this observation? We said, It is this, Jack, we were thinking surely during that month, given all that passion, you must have expressed your love for Zulu a second, third, or fourth time, however much this does not square with your obsession with this question of repetition, if that indeed is a question. Jack said, I am going to say this only once, the truth is simply that you do not understand. We said, So explain it to us, Jack. Jack said, I am sure these expressions of love passed back and forth between us during that month, and since. Where you are making your mistake is in assuming there is only one way to say I love you whereas there are about ten thousand ways of expressing these endearments, few of which I regard as repetitious, the same applying, I would argue, to what you deride as my compositions. We said, Be that as it may, Jack, or as may may be, still you must admit that now a year and some have passed and if you are telling us that in the whole of this time, these endearments firing back and forth, you have not repeated yourself, then we simply are not going to believe it, and as for that we very much doubt Zulu would confirm this ludicrous, not to say far-fetched notion you are preaching. Jack said, Be my guest then, why don’t you go and ask her. We said, Jack, old friend, it is not our intention to intrude into your affairs in the manner you are suggesting, it is enlightening, however, to learn that in matters of love you claim infinite variation, yet in your professional life you contrarily refuse to play or sing a composition more than once, which fear of repetition explains why all your creations are imperfect, worthless, a waste of time, and that’s why, to make no bones about it, as an artist you are an abject failure. Jack said, Oh, abject, am I, a failure am I, is that so. We said, How else would you put it, to which Jack said For your information I do not need to sound out those bars on any instrument since I hear those notes perfectly well in my head, thus these passages you apparently believe mandatory are rendered unnecessary for any and all judicious ears, but you deem me an abject failure even so, am I understanding you correctly? We said, Yes, unfortunately, but yes, yes. Jack said, Well, that is nice to know, it is nice to know that my supposed best friends, esteemed colleagues in the musical world, view me so unfavourably. We said, It is our contention, Jack, sad though it be, that you have not lived up to your potential. Fine, Jack said, I suppose you are entitled to your opinion. We said, It is not only our opinion, we bet if you asked Zulu she would say the same. Jack said, You are mistaken, you do not know Zulu. We said, All right, we will go and ask her. Jack said, You do that, you are in for a big surprise, you will return with tears in your eyes, begging my forgiveness, I doubt I will be able to, at least not for a week or two, for a week or two your lives are going to be utter hell.

We said, We will see about that.

Jack said, Kindly take these beautiful strawberries to my darling, such is what I was sent out for, you scorpions will be first to know Zulu is having our baby.

—Leon Rooke

Leon Rooke has published more than 30 books, including novels, short story collections, plays, anthologies, and “oddities,” and more than three hundred short stories. He exhibits paintings at the Fran Hill Gallery in Toronto. Rooke’s many awards include the Governor General’s Award for Fiction (for Shakespeare’s Dog, 1985), the Periodical Association of Canada Award for the English-Language Paperback Novel of the Year (for Fat Woman, 1982), a Pushcart Prize (1988), the North Carolina Award for Literature (1990), and the Canada/Australia Literary Prize in 1981, for his body of work. Also the W. O. Mitchell Literary Award, for his writing and his mentoring, and the ReLit Short Fiction Award. Rooke has taught at more than a dozen Canadian and U.S. universities. He lives in Toronto.

Check out Rooke’s earlier appearances on NC below:

Sirens & The Red Hair District: Paintings

Thou Beside Me Singing: The April Poems

Heidegger, Floss, Elfride, and the Cat: Fiction

Son of Light: Fiction

Four Paintings

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Sep 032014
 

Bydlowska What Women WantPhoto Credit: Jowita Bydlowska

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I get up to close the curtains. Lit-up against this darkness we must look like a dinner-party diorama.

“I was cutting the umbilical cord and I just thought to myself, that’s it buddy, it’s all over now.” Rick laughs so hard the table shakes.

“What’s over?” Helen, his wife, says. She doesn’t look at Rick.

“Oh, you know. Life as you know it,” says my husband. “I’m kidding, Babe.” He smiles at me.

“Although there are many good things about it. Milk breasts,” says Rick.

Helen gets up and goes into the kitchen where she stands by the stove. I follow her.

“Do you have any cigarettes?” she says when I come in.

“I quit.”

I open small drawers punched into the kitchen furniture. Candles, string, tape, sunglasses, a Valentine’s Day card. You are my love and my life.

“The one fucking night we get to spend time with each other,” Helen says and shakes her head.

“There are old Marlboros in a drawer somewhere,” I say and find them. “He’s just drunk. They’re both drunk.”

“We should get drunk,” she says.

“Look what I found.” I show her the Valentine’s Day card. “He thought I was joking.”

“Were you?”

“I don’t know. Yes.”

She lights her Marlboro.

I turn on the kitchen fan.

“My grandmother told me every woman wants her husband dead eventually,” Helen says.

“The black fantasy.”

“What?”

“The white is when you dream of your wedding.”

“That’s right.”

“’You’re supposed to just wait it out. It’ll turn. Secret to marriage.’ My mother.” I say the first part in my mother’s voice.

“Amazing.”

We don’t say anything for a while. We can hear Rick and my husband laugh in the other room. They are probably still talking about breasts. Milk breast. Breastfeeding breasts. Leaking breasts. Breasts.

“Are you trying to be writers again?” Helen says.

“He’s reluctant. He thinks it’s a waste of time now.”

“Oh. What an idiot.”

“I don’t know. He says, either you really do it or you’re just dabbling. Anyway, we plan to try again this summer. But it’s hard with Emily,” I say and think how there still isn’t anything I’d like to write about anyway. Maybe a children’s book, something about penguins.

Helen looks away, her face distracted. “I can’t do this anymore,” she says.

She turns on the tap and holds the cigarette underneath it.

“What?”

“This,” she points with her chin towards the dining room.

I put my arm around her shoulders and she leans her head against me. She smells of Marlboro. “Christ,” she sighs.

We go back to the dining room.

Back in the dining room, Rick says, “Genes. Helen’s second cousin gave birth to a retard. They call a child like that something else now, but let’s be honest, that’s what we all think when we look at a child like that. What?”

Helen’s eyes are closed.

I watch the candle wax slug slowly toward the tablecloth. I stick my finger underneath it like a child. The burn is pleasant, quick then it’s gone.

My husband shows his bottom teeth in a yikes-smile, “Bro.”

I’ve never heard him say that, bro.

“No, but really, bro. The wife’s brother, right? And the husband’s aunt? And yet, they still chose to go natural. What a legacy. All I’m saying is that genes are not always the best thing to preserve. There was an unusual aggregation of you know in their family.”

Rick sits back and stares at Helen.

I try to imagine him on top of me. I used to be able to but now I no longer can.

“Nina says you might try to write this year again,” Helen says. “What about the book that you were working on?”

“I’m looking at some cottages,” my husband says. “I’ve lost that manuscript.”

“No, you haven’t,” I say, unsure if he has.

“I have.”

“Well, write something new then. You should write about us,” says Helen.

“Write what?” I say.

“About him,” Helen says.

Rick says, “I don’t want to be written about.”

“You know how the saying goes, ‘If you don’t want to be written about, don’t have a dinner with a writer?’” Helen laughs.

“Not true. We would never write about our friends,” says my husband. “Anyway. Nobody’s writing anything. Maybe Nina is.” He tops our glasses.

Helen takes a big sip of her wine. “I would,” she says and stares at Rick. “I would write about my friends saying shitty things.”

“I wouldn’t,” I say.

I would.

“Why do you want to be written about anyway?” my husband says.

“I don’t really. I’m just saying we should be careful. Everyone should be careful around writers,” Helen says and laughs again.

“In that case, you have nothing to worry about,” says my husband.

“Good,” says Rick. “We’re so boring and predictable anyway.”

“You are,” Helen says.

/

Later that evening, my husband has sex with me.

I worry about our daughter coming into our bedroom, seeing us.

I wait for the break in thrusts, when he rests his body on top of mine, and I ask him to close the door.

He gets up and closes the door.

I turn off the light.

He lies back down beside me and runs his hand from my collarbone down to my thighs.

“Let’s just go to sleep,” I say.

“Sure. Whatever you like.” He kisses my neck. He pushes against me.

“I’m sleeping,” I say and help to put his penis back inside me.

He thrusts.

I fantasize about repainting our bedroom, the whole house. When he’s gone.

“Nina,” he whispers into my neck.

His body feels like heavy rubber on top of me. A rubber man. It’s not anything he’s doing or not doing.

He stops. “What is it?”

“I’m not feeling it.”

“Oh, baby,” he says as if I needed consoling.

“Sorry,” I say.

He kisses me on the lips; his tongue is aggressive. He grabs the back of my head in the way I used to like and he pushes himself further inside me staring hard into my eyes.

“How does this feel?”

I smile.

Lately, there have been a lot of articles about my husband raping me. Not about my husband specifically but about husbands who rape. The grey area of consent, the drunkenness, the middle-of-the-night inserting, this – what is happening right now.

I don’t feel raped. Many women are speaking up about it. The articles are asking women to speak up. But there’s nothing to talk about. It’s only biology. Traditional marriage: women belonging to men. We sleep next to men with our vaginas right there. What do you expect?

I’ve never stopped him before and I never would. I am not traumatized. I don’t interpret the sex in a negative way because magazines suggest I should. The articles are horseshit.

He is done now.

He wipes his cum off of my thighs, lovingly.

It is moments like this, of tenderness, that are important. I collect moments like this now because every little bit counts, every good thing between us is precious because there are so few of them.

*

Before I had my daughter, I went to Mexico with my father for an All-inclusive vacation.

It was there that my father told me about his father who moved his mistress into the house while the rest of the family was on vacation. Because of that my father as a young boy was homeless for two months and lived in a motel.

That’s why, he said, as if his past was enough of an excuse to explain what he had done to my mother, why he’d left. But it was okay; I didn’t care. We were all grownups now. I had my own life to fuck up.

On our vacation, we swam and sun-tanned on the beach during the day.

In the evenings at the resort, I watched my father take photographs of the local girls dancing in sequined costumes on the stage.

You could see their nipples through the cheap fabric. The girls were beautiful – young and with black hair, dark skin.

There were free drinks everywhere. Everything smelled and tasted of coconut.

On Christmas Eve, a band entertained the tourists in the cafeteria. Jingle Bells and Holy Night.

A young woman dressed as the Virgin Mary sat on a roll of hay and held the beach ball under her robe beatifically.

There were live chickens and rabbits and a donkey. At one point, one of the chickens escaped the enclosure and ran around the cafeteria.

My father got up and chased the chicken with the other tourist men.

A young guy from the band caught the chicken.

It’s Pedro he always does this. He laughed.

The guy’s English was perfect, I thought, just a little bit of an accent.

The reason why I was on an All-inclusive vacation with my father was because I needed to decide if I was going to leave my husband.

I decided yes.

/

He was picking us up at the airport and when I saw him, I felt nothing. He was just a guy picking us up at the airport.

He drove my father to the train station. My father was going back to Montreal where he said he lived with a woman, not anybody I would know.

My father told the story about the chicken, how he caught the chicken.

Before he got on the train he hugged me and whispered in my ear, I never stopped loving your mother.

It sounded like a bad line from a movie. It upset me but I said nothing, just hugged him back.

On the way to our house, my husband talked about how much he missed me and how a houseplant died and how he replaced it so I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference but he had felt guilty about it, which is why he was telling me.

I thought about how I didn’t want him to talk. Or how we shouldn’t talk about houseplants because we needed to be in a serious mood. How the shyness of seeing each other at the airport was a good prelude to seriousness and how he was ruining it now with his chatter.

But I said nothing.

After the plant story, he talked about something else, some product launch he attended or a gallery opening. Jokes, who he saw, who got drunk and sloppy.

At home, I unpacked all the sand from my suitcase, and he came up behind me and put his hands around me.

I moved his hands and wrapped them around my neck.

I pressed my back against him.

He said, Whoa.

Whoa, I said.

He said, You smell of coconut.

Tighter, I said.

He did it tighter.

Tighter.

I wanted to feel actual pain, bring myself back to him. But he would never squeeze as tight as to hurt me.

I wanted him to. I wanted him to be someone else – a guy who could hurt me.

—Jowita Bydlowska

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AuthorJowita2014

Jowita Bydlowska is a writer living in Toronto, Canada. Her first book, Drunk Mom, was a national bestseller. Her novel, Guy, is coming out in 2016.

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Sep 012014
 

Rheims Cathedral on fire.

The novel is called The Martial Artist, and it’s based on the life of Gabriele D’Annunzio, the poet, playboy, war hero, proto-fascist statesman and sometime prince of pirates on the Dalmatian coast. This story is being narrated by D’ Annunzio himself in 1923 to his ex-lover, Eleonora Duse, once the most famous actress in the world, who has come to visit him at Il Vittoriale, the museum-palace on Lake Garda where Mussolini keeps him a virtual prisoner—and figurehead of fascism. In this reminiscence he is telling Eleonora about his first visit to the Western Front in 1914. D’Annunzio was instrumental as a propagandist in bringing Italy, which was supposed to be neutral, into the war on the Allied side, and later fought with great distinction in all three services (he became the most decorated Italian of the war, although he enlisted at the age of 52.)

—Garry Craig Powell

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First Battle of the Marne, September 1914

The Peugeot waiting at the kerb outside my hotel in the Marais is as shiny and black as the carapace of a beetle. It coughs politely as Bertillon, the owner, cranks the starting handle with his gauntleted hand. Rocco, my valet, loads the trunk with leather suitcases and lays hampers on the back seat. I have had him pack petit-fours, tongue, caviar, paté de foie gras, fruit in abundance, as well as baguettes, pain au chocolat, eau minerale, and a bottle of burgundy for Ugo Ojetti. The engine growls, but before Bertillon can reach the driver’s seat he finds that I have beaten him to it. What is more, Ojetti, in a plain grey suit and trilby, is already in the passenger’s seat beside me. With his upturned moustaches and malevolent monocle, he winks at me.

—Mais monsieur, —Bertillon begins. —I understood when your friend engaged to hire the car that I would be driving.

I fix him with a lordly look. My eyes pierce the Frenchman’s with the certainty that I will be obeyed. I am wearing English riding breeches with puttees, a russet overcoat trimmed with yellow fox fur that curls like a collar of gold around my neck and ears, and a tweed motoring cap.

—I always drive myself, —I say. —You need not fear. I am a superb driver.

Although Bertillon declares he has never before entrusted his machine to anyone, he relinquishes control as if he has no will of his own. He is a plump little creature, as white and doughy as a bread. He climbs in the back, and the bête noir is soon lumbering along the lanes of Picardie. The roads curve like banderols, those ribbon-like pennants one sees in paintings of medieval saints. Pigeons burst from the hedges as though the wing of an angel has suddenly opened, and fall around us in grey squalls.

With my high celluloid collar—oh, so uncomfortable!—I sit erect at the wheel, my shoulders squared like a horseman with a handsome seat. We drive through villages of smashed shops and houses. In one of them we stop and stretch our legs. It is a ruin, deserted: it would touch some archaeologist of the future. On a stucco house-front, blue shutters flap in the wind, banging lazily against the wall. In another dwelling, roofless but intact on one side, a pile of rubble on the other, there is a toothless cottage piano, a vase of artificial flowers such as the gypsies make from pipe-cleaners and silk, and grimy dolls lying on a dusty carpet like the victims of a massacre. Back in the car, leaning forward nervously, M. Bertillon talks incessantly about the brutality of the Germans. I am not listening. I look at the farmhouses, the still-smoking stubble and black sheaves of wheat, the skinny Frisian cows with swollen udders. We see a couple of human corpses, a fat old woman reclining on the grass verge as if taking a nap, and a bony old man on his knees beside her, his face in the grass as if he were grazing, his arms at impossible angles. Then a boy, face down on the road, legs flung out, stiff as a cardboard puppet. Ojetti sighs, moans, perhaps weeps. Bertillon keeps saying Mon dieu, mon dieu, les sauvages. I feel nothing. Too many live, as Nietzsche says. We need this blood-letting to purge us. My heart thumps, excited at the car’s power and speed, or because I will soon be at the Front where I will finally see Death and discover my mettle. Or is it because I am still remembering yesterday afternoon with Mme. Fournier-Kasinsky? It was a routine seduction, nothing out of the ordinary, except that for a bourgeoise she was quick to take to the pleasures of oral love, and surprised me by flinging open the drapes on the windows, although she was naked, apart from her black silk stockings, which were embroidered with cherries.

—You don’t mind the neighbours seeing us? I said. ˗˗˗The lights are on.

Tant mieux, —she said, pouting her lips like a spoilt schoolgirl. —I want them to see us. J’en trouve très passionant. Et vous?

I felt as if I were onstage in a cabaret in the Pigalle. But yes, it was exciting. The smell and taste of her sweaty armpits, the stretch-marks on her breasts and belly—for some reason I cannot get them out of my mind. She raised her upper lip in a sneer as I fucked her, repeating mon Dieu, mon Dieu, as if she were unable to believe what was happening, yet never once looking me in the eyes, which I found disconcerting. So what? Could it be that as Death draws near, the urge to procreate becomes imperative? I must find a prostitute in Soissons or Rheims, I decide as I drive. No, the primitive urge is not merely more imperative, but more significant, more numinous. As the car clatters along the narrow lanes of Picardie between the high hedges, a procession of women flee past, most of them nameless, even faceless, though I recognize many: Splendore, Giselda, the two Marias, wife and Gravina, Olga Ossani, Barbara, you, naturally, Alessandra, Giuseppina, Nathalie, Isadora Duncan, Ida Rubinstein, Romaine Brooks, Luisa Casati… Perhaps it is the faces of these women, it occurs to me, that I shall see on my deathbed, and not the spines of my books. Maybe my loves have invested my life with meaning.

But the rumblings and detonations that I assumed was distant thunder are growing louder, and judging by the Frenchman’s agitation—the man yaps like a lapdog—I have been mistaken. A bombardment is underway. We pass muddy army trucks, marching infantry, pack-horses, and tents in the fields, including one with a red cross. The landscape becomes lunar, drained of colour, blighted. Blasted trees stand like scribble against a grey sky. Craters pock the desert surface. Dead horses and mules lie on their backs like beetles, their bellies inflated, their legs in the air.

—So now we are at the Front, Monsieur, we have seen everything and we can turn around, —Bertillon says in a high, strained voice. —N’ est-ce pas?

I speak to Ojetti in the middle of the Frenchman’s utterance, pretending not to have heard him. Ugo keeps up a gay and lyrical banter as we reach the outskirts of Soissons, driving along roads lined with rows of little brick workers’ houses, and factories and warehouses, and elm-trees, dogs running in a frenzy, and a line of blind soldiers, each touching the shoulder of the man in front of him. We pass a parabola of big black nests: in each slumbers a plane. At a barrier a corporal halts us and inspects my pass from General Galieni.

˗˗˗The Germans are shelling the town, ˗˗˗he says. ˗˗˗Do you not hear?

˗˗˗Are you saying we cannot continue?˗˗˗Ojetti asks.

˗˗˗You may proceed, ˗˗˗the soldier says, ˗˗˗although you will probably be killed.

I thank him and put the car in gear, ignoring Bertillon’s womanish wailing. We climb a low hill, winding past carts filled with the wounded, and from its crest gaze upon the city: the twin spires of the cathedral reaching for the grey sky like imploring hands, and between them, it seems to me, an angel balancing on the roof. Without pausing, I take my hands off the wheel and stretch them towards it. All is beautiful. Suddenly there is a flash, like sheet lightning, and the air breaks, buffets us. One of the spires has gone. Now only one arm is raised to heaven, one arm and a mutilated stump. I cry out to the wounded in the carts, who, it seems to me, are bleeding on behalf of that bloodless stone.

Presently we are in the main square. A pond of blood pools in the middle of it: a scarlet man and a scarlet horse lie glistening in it. I halt the car. Beside the red lake is a smashed mess of broken wood, wheels, leather harness, bones and hunks and strips of meat, the remains of a team of horses. Bertillon begs me to turn around and leave at once. One of the towers of the cathedral has been neatly sliced off at the level of the roof of the building; the other still points to the sky like the arm of a prophet. Out of one of the houses a French officer comes running. Even with his crested helmet on, he looks like a teacher or a professor, with his horn-rimmed glasses, but he shouts furiously as he reaches the car:

—Who the hell do you think you are? What the hell are you doing?

—We are here to watch the bombardment, —I tell the lieutenant with a slow smile. —We have a safe-conduct pass from General Galieni.

From the pocket of my coat I extract the pass and wave it at the officer. He snatches it.

Frowning, the Frenchman reads. His eyebrows rise and he shoots a look at me, at last taking in the pointed beard, the waxed upturned points of his moustache, the penetrating eyes.

—You are M. Gabriele D’Annunzio, the writer?

—At your service.

—Monsieur, allow me to express my surprise. I am the greatest of your admirers. I have read all your novels, seen all your plays; it is only your poetry that I don’t know well, because little of it has been translated into French. But what am I saying? I am desolated by my rudeness. Please forgive me.

—Of course.

—I only wish I had a volume of yours here, so that I could beg you to sign it.

Le Triomphe de la Mort would be appropriate, no? Can you tell us where the battle is?

The lieutenant’s eyes widen. —But this is the battle, M. D’Annunzio. You are in the middle of it. The Germans are less than a hundred metres away, over there.

—Excellent. Might I be permitted to give some cigarettes to the men?

—Naturally, monsieur. You may do anything you wish, though I must warn you that it is very dangerous to remain here.

Bertillon chimes in: —You hear, monsieur? It would be prudent to leave at once. It is very dangerous!

—Don’t tell me you are afraid, Bertillon, ˗˗˗says Ojetti.

Bertillon clutches the secretary’s shoulder with a hand like a talon. —I am mortally afraid, monsieur. Are you not?

Ojetti smiles, impervious to fear, casting an ironic glance at me. I climb out of the car, pocketing the keys in case Bertillon decides to leave without us, and take a big blue box of Gauloises I have brought with me from the back seat. The lieutenant points to the house he has come from, and trots in that direction. Bertillon scampers after him, his arms flailing as if he were falling off a cliff. Ojetti and I follow like men out for a Sunday stroll. When a shell whizzes past or bursts in the air, we gaze around with dreamy expressions. On reaching the shelter of the house, we find two platoons of poilus, who eye us with amazement and disdain, then with amusement and camaraderie, when they discover that I am the playboy they have read about in Le Petit Parisien, Le Matin, and other illustrated papers. As I open the box and throw cartons of cigarettes at the men, they cheer and shout ribald remarks:

—So what’s La Duse like in bed, eh? Big tits? (That is exactly what they said.)

—How does it feel to have Rubinstein’s legs wrapped round your neck, I want to know!

Il est tant petit, ce gentilhomme.

Il doit être grand là bas, où la taille a plus d’ importance. Tu sais ce qu’ on dit des italiens.

He’s got balls, I’ll give him that.

—How about changing places with me, Italian? I want to ride Isadora Duncan. Just once!

—You lucky little bastard!

—And this is how he does it: by writing fucking poetry. Right? You talk about tenderness, and sighing, and the deep pools of their eyes, when all you’re after is getting inside their knickers. Have I got it right?

I grin. —You have discovered my secret.

—But what the fuck are you doing here? a poilu asks. —Are Italians all mad?

—We are mad with love for our Latin brothers and sisters, —I say, with a manly nod at Ojetti, who nods back, —and mad with hatred of the barbarians from the north. I have come here because I want to see the war for myself. And this is my pledge to you: I will not rest until Italy is fighting beside you. I will use my voice to convince my countrymen that they must do so. And if I succeed, I swear I will fight alongside you myself.

While I am speaking, the men grow quiet and stare at me with an intensity I know: at my first speech in Venice—remember?—I learned I had the power to move people deeply with my oratory. When I am finished, there is a moment’s stunned silence. Then the lieutenant cheers, everyone joins in, and soon everyone is crowding around me and Ojetti, slapping our backs and shaking our hands. These are the first steps to the alliance.

 /

That night, while I visit a backstreet brothel—I have a ferocious Fleming, a tall redhead with a heavy chin who allows me to tie her to the bed but has the temerity to bite me back when I sink my incisors into the freckled white flesh of her shoulder—that very same night, Rheims Cathedral fulfils itself in flames. I am a celebrant at that great, sacred rite.

No, not the night before, my love, but that same one. You are obstinate! And your memory has never been accurate. Yes, I am sure.

And what’s more, strange to recount, I am there too. You can read the accounts in the newspapers. “Monsieur D’Annunzio sat calmly taking notes in his automobile while the conflagration lit up the night sky.” I read it myself in Le Matin or Le Petit Parisien, or perhaps Le Journal: so it must be true, eh? Surely you are not accusing me of making this up?

I remember the dizzying, dazzling flash, but no crash—only an eerie, preternatural silence, an eager, expectant silence, as when the mob gathers in the square beneath the guillotine with bated breath to hear the head of the innocent roll into the basket. Finally there is a crash so loud that I feel it more than hear it, like a box on the ears, a blow from a heavyweight. The earth shakes; the air ripples. From the roof of the cathedral an aurora borealis of flame pours and waves, a cauldron of colour, crimson, orange, butter and black. Sparks fly among the stars.

Someone, Bertillon or Ojetti, tries to stop me, but I cannot help myself. Like a man mesmerized I stumble towards the conflagration at a stately pace. Bertillon is screaming, Quel désastre, quel désastre, quelle tragédie! He squeals at me to stop, but I reply, or perhaps only think, Can you not see how beautiful, how perfect, this is? I hear Ugo guffawing. Perhaps I sleepwalk? As I step into the church, the great rose window, lit by the fire outside, starts to rotate, and the colours of the stained glass—the richest reds and blues, the deepest purples, yellows and greens—are liquescent, sublime. Some madman is still inside, playing a Bach cantata on the pipe organ while the window slowly spins like a kaleidoscope and the fire crackles and spits. Beside myself with ecstasy, I pick up a shard of stained glass, a stone flower, and a strip of twisted lead. I stuff the last two in my pockets but hold on to the thick gold glass as if it were a talisman, choking and spluttering as the smoke billows around me. Rafters rain from the ceiling, forcing me to retire from the glorious spectacle, but not before seeing that a miracle has occurred: the building is freed by the fire from the burden of its weight, and the entire edifice, this vast stone ship, is sailing unmoored into the oceanic sky. Church and firmament are one.

Outside once more, as the fire consumes the roof and I hear the groans and bellows of crashing timbers and masonry, Ojetti appears, Disque Bleu Caporal alight in his lips, to drag me away, shaking his head. I tell him my rapture is not merely aesthetic, for this holocaust is a rebirth, a resurrection, the soul of France is undergoing a Messianic awakening. I have never needed a God to prop me up or comfort me, but there is a spiritual exaltation in all this. It reminds me of the night I hired the organist in St. Stephen’s cathedral at Mulhouse in Alsace, where I had gone at night with Tom Antongini and two bovine Alsatian girls, and sat in the chilly dark for hours listening to Buxtehude and Bach, never once thinking of fucking—or very well, rarely thinking of fucking. Later, when I found myself in a half-timbered inn room with that blonde dairymaid, practical and matter of fact as she was as she took off her clothes, she turned into an ethereal creature, a fleshy seraph like one of Raphael’s, a nebula of stars spinning from her grey eyes like the silken threads of a spider’s web, and I found that I was floating on a vast, sunlit cloud, beyond Time, rippling aloft with that cool-fleshed creature, far above the world, impossibly slowly, impossibly gently; I knew sex as sacrament, just as the fire was a sacrament.

What really happened the night Rheims Cathedral burned? Did I hallucinate my recollection of being there? I would consume cocaine when I became a fighter pilot, to stay awake, but that was later. Could I have been in two places at once? The artist can; the super-man can. I only know what burns on the altar of my memory. No man knows more.

 /

Certo, Eleonora, they accuse me of lying, of making things up, as if that were a crime. The literalist swine say that the next day I did not see with my own eyes the dead poilus bound upright, to stakes, in bands of ten, in mud and blood-spattered uniforms, their puttees lacerated by barbed wire, their boots broken, cheeks sprouting stubble, open eyes staring like those of soulless madmen. I did not smell the stench of soiled drawers, of stale sweat; nor did I hear the buzzing of the flies around the open wounds. When I said that this sight reminded me the fasci, the rods bundled around an axe on ancient Roman coins, they did not believe me. I only pretended to see and think these things, the pettifoggers insisted. I invented this image of the fascio because it was such a potent symbol, the axe the bringer of life and death, the soldiers standing together like staves around it, strong and stiff even in rigor mortis. This is what they do not understand: that an act of imagination can transform reality. I dream, therefore I am.

—Garry Craig Powell

/

Garry Craig Powell

Garry Craig Powell was born and educated in England, but now teaches creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas. His linked collection of stories, Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press, 2012), which is set in the contemporary Persian Gulf, was longlisted for the Frank O’ Connor Short Story Award and the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. He is completing the novel The Martial Artist, whose protagonist, Gabriele D’ Annunzio, was in real life the most famous writer and playboy in Italy, as well as the most decorated war hero, a pirate leader, the founder of a short-lived utopian state on the Dalmatian coast, a proto-fascist statesman, and eventually a prince.

/
/
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Aug 092014
 

Lee Thompson

 

George and Chiara spotted the sea monster not far from where they had set down their picnic blanket and basket.  It was George who had recommended this spit of rocky tongue that overlooked the sea, but not because he thought a monster might be floundering a stone’s throw from Chiara’s smooth, tanned knee, but because he wanted to be alone with her, away from the hotel, and on Chiara’s map she had written ‘hidden lover cove’.  But it was while gazing at her knee – which had small, pale scars – and while letting his gaze slip higher that something beyond her hip caught his eye.  That hip now, the hip he had held and pulled to him last summer, that hid beneath a thin summer dress, there was no reason for his eye to leave that hip, especially as his cock began to stir against his thigh.  It is not so easy this time, Chiara had said as they set the blanket down.  There are… complications.

It is hungry, was what Chiara said, after they had wandered to the shore.

It was green-black, serpentine, had a dog’s head and fur here and there where its stubby limbs joined the body. The fur was more a bronze colour, and thick.  It didn’t look real.  It had nostrils that flared and closed, like a seal, and Chiara said it is just a weird sea lion, George, and George remembered her way of saying weird, and other strange inflections.  Its mouth, when it opened its mouth, was wide, sucker-like.  OK, it is not one of those, said Chiara.

I do not like it.

But we should feed it.

.           

If there was divine form in the universe, it was that sweep of hip, that fall and cradle for a cheek or a palm. In bed last summer, in Chiara’s childhood bedroom, her mother having stepped out to get a few things at the market, George had thought this and tried to tell Chiara.  You think too much, George, she said.  Once, I thought too much.  But no more.  Do you understand?  And she had moved over him so slowly, like a curse, and took him in her mouth.  She did not stop when her mother returned, calling out from down the stairs, nothing George understood for he was distracted and not good at Italian.

How did he feel when she went below and then kissed her mother on the forehead?

And how did he feel when her mother kissed her, on the lips, and then met George half way up the stairs and kissed him, too?  I love… this man, she said, proud of her daughter’s choice, and her own passable English.  Keep him.  And they ate.

.

Why does it not like fish, George?  It is a thing of the sea, it has the smell of the sea, but look, you throw it fish, dead fish, alive fish, and it is like you give it shit.

George told her not to stand so close.

Why, it won’t eat me!  Chiara stuck her foot toward the monster, told it to take a bite, and before George could move – for they were on slick rock – the thing had lunged and perhaps only her falling back had saved her, that and her swearing.  She had bloodied her elbows but was never one to feel pain, unless it was the pain of the past.

It needs a pig, she said.

So they left it in its shallow pool on the edge of the spit and gathered their picnic blanket and basket and hopped in her old French car and drove inland, to the mountains, where she said they would catch a pig, a wild boar, with their hands, no, but with the blanket and put it in the basket, yes, that was a better idea.  George recalled last summer when she would not make love in the forest for fear of boars, and now she wanted to scoop one into a basket?  She laughed.  Just a baby one, but you will have to keep the mama away.

They did not catch a wild boar.

But she told him about the complications.

.

There once was a man and a woman, George.  And the man and the woman lived very far from each other.  They lived so far from each other that there was water between them.  So much water.  And the water was full of salt, like tears, like crying tears, not tears like rips.  Am I saying it right?  Tears. Teers.  Stupid language.  Why is your language like this?  Why do you not fix it?  How do you English talk to each other without every body saying what, eh, huh, excuse me?  Squid!  Stop the car, turn around, George!

It’s context.

What? Turn around.

At the roadside market she bought too much squid, but she liked it, too.  And squid was also a weird word, she said.  She squeezed her hands together, delighted.  Squid squid squid, she said, pretending to squirt something then looking him in the eye and saying oh Georgie, I want to squid you.  I am very serious. So they drove back to the serpent while the sun sank through the sea and set the blanket down once more and made love.  The serpent thrashed in its shallow pool.  Its odour, and the odour of the squid in the bag, and the scent of Chiara’s hair and the musk of her body lotion and the breeze from the shore had George drunk and not worrying about anything beyond Chiara’s movements.  Her mouth covered his and she held him between her thighs, would not let him pull out.

I am pregnant, she said afterwards.  So do not worry.

Naked, they threw squid into the tidal pool.

But it did not eat.

.

It wasn’t his, and that was the complication.  She would not say whose it was, saying only there is so much water, George. He had his hand on her brown belly, his pinky finger in her pubic hair and his thumb over her navel.  A baby?  She shrugged.  Are you sure?  She nodded.  I stopped bleeding, did the stupid test, now it grows in me.

Could he make love again?

She took hold, tried to tease it back to life.

Why won’t you eat, she said to it, then laughed.  She spread her thighs.

They left the motel and stopped the car alongside the highway, for there was a stench.  A bag of hot squid in the trunk.  George said it was a waste but Chiara said the sea birds and homeless cats would not let it go to waste.  But yes, it is sad to throw it out.

The tide had ebbed, flowed, left behind wrack and dreck, had easily washed over the sea monster’s pool, but had left the creature behind.  It is dead, said Chiara.  And I am hungry.  Throw a stone at it.  George lobbed a stone underhand and the sea monster sloshed its tail.  Chiara swore, said she would not spend her vacation doing this, said let’s grab it and George said we should just tell someone.  Who?  Isn’t there a marine centre, or?  They have seals and dolphins, George, not these.  She took off her sandals and before George could stop her – he had returned to the car for his camera – she  entered the pool.  Are you fucking crazy, George shouted. Chiara, turning, made a small sound deep in her throat and collapsed.

.

He would rescue his beloved with her car.  He would put it in neutral and push it over the edge where it would tumble down the rocks and land atop the beast. He stood at the edge of the pool and saw the car topple, pin the sea monster. Just kill it, kill it.  But how do you put a standard transmission in neutral?  Where are the keys? Hit it with a rock!  Who had she fucked?  Why did she do that?  There was a metre of water between them.  If he leaped in?  Distracted it? Call, call for help.  If it ate her it would also eat her baby.  He couldn’t watch it eat her.  He was doing nothing.  How could she just stroll in like that?  Really, how messed up is that?  It’s like you’re that kid who strolls into the tiger exhibit holding out his sandwich.  But that’s it, isn’t it?  That explains why she had fucked around.  And come on, there was Paul, remember?  George, Paul will not be happy with me, I should not see you.  What about Ringo?  She paused, then laughed, was sputtering, was crawling for the edge of the pool reaching for George, who pulled her out.

If anything, the sea monster had moved farther from her.

It won’t even eat me now, George.

It was electric, she said, lying in his arms.  Zap.  Zap zap.

____

Days later, when Chiara could walk again, for she had indeed taken quite a shock, they returned to the tidal pool. It was dusk and high thin clouds swirled.  On the salmon-hued horizon a sailboat’s mast swayed and they could hear the sea crashing.  This is the Ostro, Chiara said, or the unhappy wind, so we mustn’t stay long.

He told her he wished she wouldn’t.

My hair?  It is mine to do with.

But I love your hair.

You are leaving, George, what do you care?

On the drive along the rocky spit she had said she could feel it in her hair, the creature, that it had discharged in the pool, peed or squirted something, but you wouldn’t understand.  This is because no one understands.  She placed her hands on her stomach.

She hadn’t lost the baby.

At the hospital George changed the story Chiara had burbled while under pain killers.  Not a monster, he said, non e monstro, non e animale, era… uh, lightning… rumble sounds and sky gestures.  The doctor’s brow furrowed, una tempesta? ieri sera?  Si, George said, ieri sera, tempesta, ma… piccola tempesta.

You should not even try, Chiara had said.

Little storms pop up all the time, George had said.

You are foolish, Chiara had said.

And the mood was no better an hour later.  Why should he be bothered if she wanted to cut her hair?  It was long and black and cutting it would make her much less attractive and, but what did that matter, too?  She was expecting another man’s child.  How did that happen?  With him she was always  insistent on condoms, saying a baby would be a disaster, there would be rumours in her hometown, her father would know she’s not a virgin (she laughed), she’d have to quit her job teaching kids to dance, which would leave those kids with nothing to do all summer and maybe they’d start smoking, drinking, get pregnant…

The sea monster was still there.

.

We will get gasoline and set the pool on fire.  But we should do this at night, when no one will see the smoke.  I know what you are thinking, but smoke will hide the flames.  No, I do not have experience with this, George. But it is common sense.  This is cruel, though, so we won’t do this.  We should get a shark and put it in there.  Well, a small shark, please George I am not stupid.  But we have to do  it. It is our responsibility.  What if children come here to play?  It will kill them all.  We will be guilty.  Maybe you can throw a stone at its head?  You throw stones well.  But that could take a long time.  A gun?  No that is crazy, you cannot get a gun on the island.  Why are you looking like that?  You don’t think we should kill it?  It tried to eat me, George.  Let’s wear boots and drain the pool, OK?  Yes, this is the best way – it will leave the pool when there is no water, or it will die.  Both of these things are the best things.  So we need the little buckets and rubber boots.  But you cannot buy rubber boots here, we must steal them from fishermen, who buy them off the island.  They only sell sandals here, and flip flops.  No, no we don’t need to stand in the water, we’ll just scoop the water out.  We will do this tonight.  I will make us sandwiches. 

.

To Chiara, a sandwich was a brick of dry bread with a chunk of brie stuck in the middle and George wondered what kind of wife she would be.  She had a fear of corners, and she talked about this as if it were a common thing.  My fear of corners is worse than most.  She didn’t allow him to touch her clitoris directly, but would tear the hair from her loins with a brutal, buzzing device.  He watched her while she did this, one leg set on the bathtub ledge.  You like to watch me torture myself, George?  But everything was a kind of torture. 

In bed she was erotic, but a prude.

She often called him a sorcerer.

You have a big belly (he didn’t!), so how do you do this to me?

They lay in bed, the sheets soiled from two weeks of heat and secretions, his cock aching and his underarms rank.  She was two months along, she’d said.  She liked not having her period, not bloating like a seal.  It hadn’t set in, really, that she’d be a mother.  She asked if he was angry?  She said no you are not, you do not anger, and George shrugged.  Or is it only fucking, George?  He said it wasn’t, but it was, though it wasn’t, so he didn’t say anything for he saw her as volatile, not dangerous, not a storm, just…  Well, admittedly, if he’d arrived and she’d said I’m pregnant and we cannot have sex, it would have been different.  He’d be unhappy, yes.  She started to stroke him, no longer surprised that he was hard again.  She wondered if it, the monster, had a cock.  Maybe he only wants a girlfriend?  Maybe he is the last of his kind.  Poor guy.  She stroked him slowly.

.

As midnight approached and the rising moon slipped in and out of mackerel clouds, the creature began to keen.  Above the falling surf it keened, a sound that was not like a baby’s mewling, though that’s what George thought of.  It keened as they scooped seawater from the dark pool and Chiara said it knows what we are doing, George, but George said perhaps it keens every night.  Chiara started to cry.  George held Chiara.

They were racing against the tide.

There is too much water, said Chiara through her tears.

.

They slept in the car, the back seats set back and Chiara sprawled over George, who woke to the sound of rain.  The remnants of a dream slid across the rear windshield and the car shook.  His heart raced.  It had been in here, or it had tried.  Through the rust it had moved, the vents.  The car shook and it was the wind, he knew, lashing from the sea. The Ostro whistled through the rocks below and he moved out from under Chiara, an arm numb, moved out and slipped into the front seat, started the car and turned on the headlights, saw sheets of rain and white crests of waves, tried to put it into gear, stalled, remembered that she had parked too close to the edge, the drop was there, the passenger side.  He turned the headlights off, then the car, slept in the front seat until the sun woke him.

When it did, his lover was not there. The car’s rear hatch was open.

And he did not find her down at the shore, sitting at the edge of the tidal pool, watching over the  serpent, which was gone.  He walked, then ran along shore, stumbling over rock, seaweed, stung by plump purple jellyfish when taking to the water, thought he saw her offshore, on a jagged excuse of an island the locals called Scoglietta, the Little Stone, so he stripped nude and swam part way, but nothing was there and the current took him far from the spit.  He drifted, tread water, trusted the tide would return him to shore.  After an hour he stopped calling her name.  After two a local on a surfboard helped him to a beach, which was filling with sunbathers.  His nudity did not shock them, but the violet blisters from the stings did.

____

George, wake George.  Wake up please.  Why can’t you wake up, George?   We don’t have all day.  Can I slap him?  Why did he swim?  What kind of fool swims with jellyfish before breakfast?

George.

He felt a soft touch on his face, then his cheek being pinched.

Were you looking for me, George?  You were?  Yes?  No?  He heard her ask if people swim in their sleep, heard a grunt in reply, heard her say he talks in his sleep all the time, talks nonsense.  He could see her gestures, but the rest was a blur.

You are a mess, George. You are like… bubble wrap.

Crap, he said.

I don’t think we can have much fun on your last week.

Damn, he said.

She whispered, Well maybe you can watch.

She said that, he knew, to wake him, rouse him under the sheet.  Was there stirring?  He was very tired, he said, but tried to smile.  You swim for, like, ever, George.  They found you in the lido next over!  I drove to the hotel for my phone, and then there are sirens so I thought yes, those are for George….

You know me well, he said.

And then I thought no it’s just a crazy man showing his penis to every body.

Oh…

She sat on the bed next to him.  But I kind of recognized…

.

Chiara drove George back toward the hotel the following morning, happy that he’d only truly been suffering from dehydration and exhaustion.  The stings would heal, but leave purple scars.  She liked scars, she said, scars told the truth.  Her mother, she told him, was arriving later that evening, so they had to meet her at the port.

My mother likes you, George.

The sea monster, she said, laughing, it was some kind of plant.  Like a vine.  She’d gone down to the pool while he’d slept snoring like a toad, and everything was a mess, seaweed and sand and garbage and there it was, George. I gasped. It was trying to get out. It was crawling toward the car and I had no time to wake you so I grabbed a piece of drifting wood and I thought it’s going to eat me and my baby but I smashed it.  I am a tiny woman, you know, but when I get angry, bam bam bam.  She laughed, then shuddered.

It had strings in it, and green blood!

Strings?

You know, like rope, like… sedano.

Fibres?

It was a stupid stupid plant. That is all.

Well, but… no, Chiara, that’s not

Yes, and it lives in the ground, George.  I bashed it and it started to move, just a little bit.  And I said George, George come and see and then like, like a noodle it was sucked back in.  Into the hole, George!  And then all the water, too.  I must be hallucinating, I must be dreaming this.  And then I go back to the car and you are gone, so I run down the road looking for you.

Crazy, crazy morning.

.

Chiara did not stop at the hotel, but drove on through the royal palms and roadside agave saying she hated the hotel and wasn’t it too much like a hospital room?  You smell like a hospital, my lover.  On the west side of the island there will be no one, she chirped, the beaches are too rocky, but the wind is happier.  It is the Mistral. We will lay you out on the shore, George, take off your bandages, cover you with a soothing balm and we will kiss you where you have not been stung.  Will you show us where you have not been stung?

George’s cock stirred against his thigh.

And then we will go get mother.

—Lee D. Thompson

 

Lee D. Thompson was born and raised in Moncton, New Brunswick. His fiction has been published in four anthologies, including Random House’s Victory Meat, New Fiction from Atlantic Canada and Vagrant Press’s The Vagrant Revue of New Fiction, and in more than a dozen literary journals across Canada and the US. Lee’s first novel, S. a novel in [xxx] dreams, was published in 2008 by Broken Jaw Press. An e-book, Diary of a Fluky Kid, appeared with Fierce Ink Press in February 2014. In addition to writing fiction, Lee is a guitarist and songwriter who records under the name Pipher.

 

Aug 062014
 

imageDavid Hayden

In his novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Proust famously introduced the concept of involuntary memory where the taste of a madeline dipped in tea brought back to his narrator, Marcel, a memory of the past, the memory being triggered unconsciously, effortlessly, by a sensory experience. Memory researcher and cognitive psychologist, Marigold Linton, rather poetically, described these involuntary memories as “precious fragments,” and I was reminded of these precious fragments when first reading David Hayden’s story Memory House.

Generally by placing events in sequential order and suggesting a connection between them, the writer gives meaning to plot, the narrative allowing causality to be inferred, but here the construct of the narrative replicates the fragmented process. If we accept that selfhood exists in the continuity of memory, then the narrator’s search for identity lies in the retrieval of encoded past experiences. In this regard, Hayden’s vivid language is rich with the sensory detail necessary to provide the triggers. Ultimately, however, we learn of the narrator’s personal history not through the memories themselves (which are not described) but through their metaphorical impact.

Metaphor, as we know, is not simply a figure of speech but a form of thought, and the associative nature of Hayden’s writing coupled with the sheer power of his imagistic words reveal marvellously the internal unseen world.

—Gerard Beirne

/

Memory House

/

The memory house is in my mind; today and everyday. Each thing is itself and is a way out to another object or to a time that happened or almost happened or didn’t happen.

I am the broken plate lying on the kitchen floor. Eight main pieces are grouped together on the yellowed linoleum that is cool beneath my bare feet. Scores of fragments are scattered in the greasy shadows, or wedged under the heels of the table.

The warped, lemon-shaded light is my mother’s eye. It gives off a gentle heat and can see nothing. Each chair is a misplaced friend. If I sit down I will remember who, and why they became lost and, perhaps, where they are today.

The table is a stony beach on a Cretan shore. Facing north, a salt-thickened breeze pushes back my hair. There are lights out to sea but none behind me. My baby boy rests warmly on my hip, his eyes narrowing as he looks out into the future.

From upstairs I hear the blunt crack of steps on a broken board. I should be alone here. I’ve always been alone here. But lately I’ve found evidence of a visitor. In the bathroom I found a damp, half-smoked cigarette in the sink. The sink is my broken tooth with taps for tears; hot and cold. I didn’t see the assailant’s face and I still wonder if he cut his hand.

The air is coloured with the smell of bay rum and sandalwood. I look into the empty bath. It is the smile of a girl I liked at school forty years ago. I open the window and the staleness is sucked out into the dark leaving the room cold and alert.

I’m on the stairs sounding like a horse and then comes the kitchen.

From the shadowed pantry three white eyes stare out. They are flour, rice and sugar. Clouds of flour become thoughts cased in bone, grains of rice pulse out from my wooden heart through cracked ceramic veins, sugar crystals swell in my bladder.

I must go.

Down two steps, across the rushing carpet its pattern forming, distending and breaking; the floor underneath could be one great muscle. I am at the bottom of the stairs and at the top of the stairs with no motion in between. I follow the urinous smell to a battered door.

I pull the pure cord in the dark and something white and sticky pours from the ceiling; it is light. The cord is clean from the fat circular fitting at the top but halfway down turns brown as a stick, ending in a grey, plastic bell fragment.

I relax my muscles and micturate a stream of sugar into the bowl which piles up on the slope before slumping into the water. I shake and grains patter on the floor.

The hair moves on the back of my neck, tall, dry grass, my head a rounded dune travelling slowly to the shore, a mud-choked littoral, the smell of ozone, sewage and tobacco smoke. I turn around to see a fat, white cigarette left on the top stair post, it is burning rapidly and by the time I am within reach it is all ash.

There is a clatter in the kitchen but from where I am I cannot move. Someone shouts and the sound billows out behind me then funnels away before sweeping back over my head and down the stairs. I follow, passing the mirror at the bend in the staircase. I look into the glass and a seagull gazes back, stone blue pupils, yolk yellow iris, beak wide open dripping black tar. I hiss back.

Downstairs the sea crashes against the windows, a pane shatters, the grey water plunges in then the wave rescinds taking the glass with it.

All stills.

In the kitchen a broken umbrella and belted raincoat lie on the table. I don’t recognise them and return to the living room where I squat in front of the fireplace placing coal in the grate a piece at a time from a galvanised bucket using a pair of brass tongs. The matches are damp but one flares and I start the kindling. Moonish smoke rises from the pyre and begins to fold on top of itself, layer after layer. I lie on the mossy sofa, a spring pressing into my back. The fire begins to roar orange and my fingers unclench in the easy warmth.

Rolling forwards, one hand forks over my face and I sneeze, a green smile twitches on the floor like a tapeworm. The smile ripples towards, then over, the tiled surround, puckers slightly then kisses the hot coals. I hiss again, bitumen breath and a white gas cloud the size of a sugar cube puffs from my mouth. I put my hand behind my back, dig under a cushion, pull out a bag of broken biscuits and begin nipping off the hard pastel frosting. I throw the biscuit discs towards the fire but I miss each time.

The radio comes on loud in the yellow bedroom. I feel like my teeth are going to fall out. I get up and the sofa’s skin stretches and snaps back to itself. I stumble for the stairs. Light is washing and blinking around the trembling frame of the bedroom door. The handle rattles. I know I will be shocked if I touch it. There’s a rushing sound behind me and I run into the bathroom waving steam away. The shower is on, yellow, green, red, sprays from the head into the tub and onto the floor. I close my eyes and grab the tap turning and turning, and when the flow stops I stand up and hear silence where the radio’s clamour was. I undress and get into the bath which frees me of the need to sleep that I have had for as long as I can remember.

The dark, unfilled rags that are my empty clothes wrap around each other on the floor. I step back into them and walk into the yellow bedroom. A young, well-fleshed dog fox is sitting on a stool in front of the dressing table its brush trailing on the floor. In the mirror I see the fox’s jaw exposed, fizzing with yellow maggots, its eyes staring steadily, wisely into themselves. On the bedside table there is a glass full of water in which is a pair of dentures made with far more teeth than can be contained in a human mouth. A small metal box, a radio, shines next to the glass. I switch it on and there is a loud belch followed by a round of applause. I switch the radio off.

On the stool in front of the dressing table is a coat. From behind me there is a gagging then a throaty gurgle, a wet, chunky evacuation, perhaps through the nose as well as the mouth. On the bathroom floor in front of the toilet bowl lie strands of tomato and lumps of shrimp. I clean the floor and open the window, which slams shut immediately that I release it as if the outside air were resisting the gastric stench within. On the third attempt I manage to wedge the window open with a toothbrush.

I look up through the glass into the massing sky, bruised silver-grey and violet, and raise my arms, my hands, thinking through the sudden pain in my head, and see a frozen lark fall at great speed before exploding on the concrete path, scattering its music all around the garden in numberless, glittering fragments.

I open the back door and for the first time walk outside and when I look back I see nothing but trees. I sit on a rock and watch the nearest one to me. Silver bark crumbles from the trunk and snows onto the ground. The tree trembles.

I stand up in brilliant sunshine and turn to look over a rotten stile at a meadow that slopes away; long grass, scrubby, clumping weeds with tight pink buds, yellow butterflies twitch in the air, white mushrooms nose up through the damp soil, swallows dip and roll. In place of the sun a giant, golden, severed hand radiates in the sky. The hand closes into a fist making the world dark. Turning around, I run for the trees, eyes twitching up to the trunks and boughs that are scarred with hoops that glow orange ember. I trip over the step and fall into the kitchen smoke rising from my jacket.

The smell, like toasted marshmallows, makes me feel sick and hungry at the same time. I roll to my feet and approach the bread bin, carefully lifting the lid and, as I put my hand in the loaf scuttles into the corner pressing up against the side, palpitating under the bag tie.

This is my hunger.

I put the hand under the tap and watch it turn red.

Walking quickly from the sink I step out of my shoes, they float away and I feel lighter and truer. There is a breakage far in the distance but still inside. The stranger is coughing and laughing in the parlor.

I reach the door which gasps softly as I push against it and sighs as I pull it back. I refuse to do this again.

I step onto an irregular orange rug, the burning sand cradles my feet, one move, two moves and I am struck by a jag of glass that pierces my foot to the pith and I stand bleeding freely. The desert turns red and I become blue while my foot pulses. I move off into a corner and reach for the floor which spins around to meet me. Within reach there is a narrow bed and, propped next to it on its side, an empty television. I can’t remember all the programs I must have watched there when it had a screen but I know the time must have passed because here I am inside, looking at myself, watching nothing. I cough and, for a moment, I think I must be the stranger – I am a man after all – but I hear laughter outside the window, and then I think that he must be a piece of me that has broken off and is living a happier life than the one that I lead but, somehow, still cannot completely escape the original self who now lies maimed on the parlor floor.

But then I remember.

I don’t smoke.

I can’t be the stranger.

The pillow ascends and approaches as if interested in my breath. It becomes as big as the moon; or maybe it is merely close and white and glowing cold like a pillow does before one falls into its plump, lightly wrinkled face with one’s own red, heavily wrinkled, bewhiskered one. The moon or the pillow is behind me and my face is in front of me and the lack of a breath is not troubling me and I grow calmer and darker, waiting for the world to fall away not knowing whether it will fall up or down. I land heavily on my knees. (There will be a bruise.) The room shakes awake and I long for a blanket. I hear a long crisping sound, a suck and a pout, nearly silent, and a louder, but still quiet, exhalation, sour smoke drifts over my head and I struggle to stand, to turn, to see the secret smoker, to seize him – because it must be a him – to push him over, to crush his pack and kick away the yellow lighter, with its grind wheel and shimmering liquid gas, into the shadows of the shadows under my bed where I will reach for it in the morning – should the morning come.

I scramble sideways, pull myself up and balance on toe-tips, fingertips, before shuffling forward and rising in one long stretch. On the stairs I hear the rolling grind and fat thump and thump of a heavy ball descending.

I press my fingers into the palm of my left hand to dig out a chemical itch. I hold the sparkling hook in the air above my head before dropping it into my mouth and swallowing. There’s a fishy wiggle and a tickle and then it’s gone into the acid darkness.

There is a tapping under my feet, not on the plaster ceiling some distance below, but a hard, sore-knuckled rapping on the boards directly beneath the coarse leather of my shoes. There is a muffled shout from the same place; it must be hard to breathe there. I stamp my foot twice, three times and the sound stops. I fold over and put my ear to the warm wood.

The dark is hovering in the dark and behind these are the walls.

“Are you there?” I say but when I realise that I’m talking to myself I stand up.

Vines twist around the iron loops and knots of the bed head. There is a force of sweetness passing through these living cables, swelling the grapes that group together and nod towards the pillow. Dragonflies rise and fall in the turbid air, rapid wings making a deep hum and I imagine that this is what makes my glasses tremble and slip down my nose. I go to lie down and I’m relieved to be that little distance further from the earth, pleased to be upheld, and I recognize the vastness of the effort required to keep flesh, bones, skin, frothing blood and the soft, thinking matter of the brain from parting, each from the other, and sliding into the soil.

I sense the possibility of no more happening.

There is a sudden fall, a cough, of soot in the chimney and a small cloud passes over the tiles and settles on the carpet.

The stranger’s sounds make sense for the first time.

He is saying: “Get out of my house.”

I turn around and a man is standing close to me swelling large on the in breath, shrinking and warping on the out breath.

I talk and my words run backwards but I pull the sounds in and blow them out in the right direction.

“This is my home… my house. I have the deeds in my pocket. I always carry the deeds.”

I hand them over for his inspection.

“You see,” he says, waving the papers in the air. “I have the deeds. This is my house.”

“But all of this is mine. It’s what I’ve lived. Look – look… The rug there – it’s the skin I tore from my back when I fell off my boy’s scooter after steeping down a gravel path in the park.”

“Everyone has skin.”

“My books. All my books. I’ve read them.”

“No one has the words. The mind is on a slope and the words pour off like water and who knows where they go?”

“Not the words. The books. They’re mine… Downstairs… in the drawer. The knives. They cut my food.”

He has folded his arms and begun a slow, wet smile that I fear may never end.

“There’s no food in this house.”

I point upwards to the ceiling, his gaze follows and he cries out at the rough, fibrous shag of an over roasted slice of beef; wet strings of fat hang down, bloody drops pendulate, hesitating to fall.

The stranger reaches over and returns the deeds.

“It’s your house. It is.”

He stands wavering; thinning out.

“What am I doing here?”

“You’ve been scaring me.”

“I was happy scaring you. I never thought that it was my house. I was lying.”

“I know.”

“I couldn’t live in a house like this.”

“Neither do I.”

The stranger looks down at his shoes and so do I. They are just shoes.

“The truth is… I can’t remember anything.”

—David Hayden

/

/

/

An Apple in the Library

/

The librarian sits at her desk; unblinking, because unable to blink, unmoving, because unable to move. Air rushes between the stacks making a hoarse throat-music. The lamps are on and the ceiling is covered in scars.

The books know but are still.

The reader pushes at the door, considers his choices when it resists him, then pulls on the door, which opens. There is no knowing what the librarian is thinking. It is possible to know what the librarian is thinking.

The reader approaches her.

“Do you have an apple?”

If it were possible she would be nodding, not talking, nodding; indicating the shelf behind the reader where the apple is. He turns around and turns back.

“I’m sorry. I need the apple. And you can’t help me?”

The librarian stares at the reader. She knows that she cannot help. He smiles, considering his own simple appetence, it is a lovely thing, perhaps better than the apple sought; but still he must have the apple.

“Who brings you here? Are my questions cruel? I don’t feel cruel although I know what it is. I can look at you and in seeing you not see you, only a dark part of myself which I do not recognise as myself but as you; the surface of you, made a thing; a thing I see and want, or don’t want, to look at, to act on.”

Every day. Every single day,” thinks the librarian.

This is a loud thought but the reader can not hear it. She thinks it again.

Every single day.”

“I’m sure the apple is near,” says the reader.

“I have the idea of it in my hand. I possess the weight of the idea; not much, it is sufficient and, while lighter than many ideas, it is, at the moment, larger and more present than all those other thoughts.”

You are loud, unsheathed and boring, but you have a good smell; cleanliness with a superadded element, a bright unguent applied on the face with the fingers of each hand in a soft, swirling motion that awakes the skin, makes it live and feel like my skin, my flesh, once felt; a good smell; the odour of self-love, of care, of caring to be seen, of inhabiting one’s aliveness and feeling it both never ending and short-lived.”

The lights blink off and the library stages a presentiment of endless darkness. The reader can smell the apple now; it is behind him or, perhaps, over his head, floating. He reaches up into the dark pursuing his sense and the lights blink on and he is staring at his hand reaching out to nothing.

The librarian has a thought but it is not in words. The reader wants to be guided to the apple by words, by the alphabet even, but the fruit is before, or outside of all that; it is possible that the apple leads to the words but not the other way round.

“I will look at the books. It’s all right that I look at the books?”

The reader looks again into the librarian’s face.

“Everything I need to know today is in there. What do you do with it all, I wonder?”

Love. It’s enough.

“The apple is near and you are here and if I take the trouble to search I will find it.”

You are so vehement. It’s right behind you; you might not find it; perhaps you will.

“I like being here with you; so little moving.”

Your lips are moving.

“Everything that I need here and unable to leave.”

Nobody talks like you; it’s not credible; it’s not a good thing.

“There’s no resurrection except in small moments.”

The reader turns and finds the apple; the apple finds his hand. The apple is more than one simple green, perfectly imperfect as a minor sphere with spongy facets that can take the light and appear white in patches, but never completely. Wood, a stalk, and a tiny, heart-shaped, serrated leaf which, when lightly tugged, pulls back, belonging to the apple. He pushes the fruit into his mouth; his tongue’s memory of other apples creates an unthought motion to test, to paint the smooth, cool surface. Between the head and the hand: the apple; and out of the head, the mouth, the teeth. The reader is biting and chewing and it’s all happening very quickly.

The librarian thinks:

Is he eating the apple? Is the apple eating him?

The apple is finished.

The reader stands with one arm and hand free, the other bent slightly at the elbow; the core pinched lightly between his thumb and fore and index fingers.

“What I have had must come back to me; a thing, an event; done to, done by, me or who or her or him. The core turns brown, my fingers wet and sticky and fragrant.”

My eyes pour out meanings, longings – not him – meanings that stop at my eyes, which are dry; terribly dry.

The reader raises the core to his mouth and his tongue works, the teeth click and snap, and white flesh pulses out and around the fibrous, seedy pith and the apple grows fuller and more itself, and a waxy, green ribbon peels out from the reader’s mouth and spins around the fruit until it is complete.

The reader places the apple back on the shelf.

“Thank you.”

The librarian blinks.

The reader leaves.

—David Hayden

 

David Hayden’s short stories have appeared in The Yellow Nib, The Moth, The Stinging Fly, Spolia and The Warwick Review, and poetry in PN Review. He was shortlisted for the 25th RTÉ Francis MacManus Short Story prize. Memory House is from his unpublished collection of short stories titled It’s Darker With the Lights On.

Aug 042014
 

saer2

La Grande was Juan José Saer’s final novel, published not long after the Argentinian author’s death in 2005.  Recently translated by Steve Dolph and published by Open Letter Books, La Grande follows Nula Anoch, Willi Gutiérrez and a host of other characters over the course of a single week. Set against the backdrop of Argentina’s long and tortured history, the characters contend with memory, loss, love, betrayal and hope in the days leading up to a party at the Gutiérrez compound. Part mystery, part  philosophy, part answer to the question, What is the novel? Saer’s masterwork is a wonderful example of why the novel remains relevant and very much alive. Saer reminds you of John Fowles, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, all rolled together into a South American exile with a Paris address.

In this excerpt. Nula (five years before the major events of the novel) has been swept up in a strange, sordid relationship with a married couple, Lucía and Riera. For months, LucÍa fondles Nula on the couch with her husband’s permission, but she refuses to bring him to orgasm or have intercourse with him. Still, Nula is mesmerized, and progressively becomes a puppet to this couple, until, in a heart-cringing scene, Lucía and Riera have sex on the bed while Nula watches television on the floor.

Saer’s ability to precisely render a scene, coupled with his unflinching gaze into the heart of human desire, offers a tense, gripping and unforgettable view into the mystery of existence.  We may not understand it all, but we will never forget it.

—Richard Farrell

lagrande

/

After that October night, for several months, until the following fall, they were almost always together. Lucía didn’t work, which meant she had lots of free time, but Riera went to the office early, and later, during his lunch hour, and in the evenings, he made house calls; Nula worked at the law school kiosk several times a week, and when he stayed home he pretended to prepare for his philosophy exams in November and December, but the thought of returning to Rosario, of leaving the city and Lucía, and Riera too, even for a single day, seemed intolerable: it would have been like stepping out of a magical world, a novel and seductive place, not exempt from sordidness and cruelty, to return to the uncertain, grayish days, with their perpetual seesaw between doubt and serenity, where he’d been treading water, resigned, since his childhood. He wanted to be Lucía’s lover, but he was barely her friend, her confidant, and sometimes he even reached the status of lap dog. Even though it would’ve been enough for him to know her, to sit calmly and silently at her side, she allowed him certain gratifications: every so often she let him touch her, kiss her, put his hand down her brassiere, and even suck on her breasts, and two or three times she’d accepted, submissively, when he guided her hand to his open fly, squeezing his penis in that strange way, squeezing and releasing, but once when he’d put his own hand over hers, forcing her to rub until he finished, she’d jumped up, rearranging her clothes, indignant and flustered, protesting, Oh no, not that, definitely not that! And she’d practically run to the bathroom and the bedroom to clean up and change. But despite that, when she returned she seemed content, with an abstracted, placid smile. After being with them a few times, Nula realized that Lucía and Riera were joined by a feeling, or whatever it was, that wasn’t exactly love, in the altruistic sense of the word at least, but actually something more turbulent that combined with a sort of voluptuous interdependence in which their differences generated a sarcasm more mocking than violent and their affinities a blind, impulsive, almost animal fusion. It was strange to see how the most insulting nonsense from one, verbal or otherwise, first produced indignation and then complicit laughter in the other. Nula felt momentarily excluded in those situations, but they, together or alone, always rushed to recover him. There was always the perpetual enigma: were they manipulating him, were they laughing at him, were they using him for some incomprehensible ends? Or did they really appreciate him and acted like that with everyone? Even now, lying face down on the mat, his chin resting on the back of his superimposed hands, feeling the sweat run down his face and back, even at this very moment, when they’ve reappeared, unexpectedly, into his life, he still doesn’t know. The fact that he’d been with Lucía two days before, finally possessing what five years before he’d sought in vain, and then the coincidence that Riera had called to announce his arrival from Bahía Blanca, restarts the mechanism of the past, and though he knows that he’ll never be trapped by them again, a distant, even vaguely ironic curiosity suggests that he should be alert in the days ahead. With his eyes closed, his face sweaty, pressed against the back of his hand, Nula laughs, shivering expectantly, and he realizes that his affection for them persists, but that its charge has been reversed, that it doesn’t have the same painful dependency of the first period, which had lasted a while after he voluntarily decided to stop seeing them, and has now taken on a paternalistic forbearance, a sympathy without a trace of possessiveness, governed by a completely atheoretical and in fact sporting inclination, to anticipate their curious reactions, for pure entertainment, without inverting any sentiment in the issue. This attitude provokes in him an excessive impatience to see them again.

Lucía was rich, but Riera, on the other hand, had come from a family of petty merchants in Bahía Blanca, and he always said that because petty merchants and the rich had more or less the same things weighing on their conscience, that it was only a difference of proportion, he and Lucía had been made for each other from the start. Lucía always complained that, because she was expected to marry rich, she hadn’t been allowed to pursue secondary studies. She’d had a rancher boyfriend, but she’d left him for Riera. Her mother disapproved of the relationship (Lucía’s father had died long before), but her own sentimental complications didn’t allow her the occasion to worry about Lucía’s future; Leonor, for her part, had been born rich, and because she’d married a rich man from whom she’d inherited a second fortune, she knew instinctively, and from personal experience, that money made intelligence superfluous. But Lucía’s ignorance tormented her: when Nula and Riera discussed science and philosophy (each loathed the other’s specialty), Lucía’s mood would sour, and Riera, mercifully, would change the subject. The sexual disarray of Riera’s life contrasted with his professional diligence. When he finished at the office he went on house calls, and he also worked with a group of doctors who treated people from the shantytowns and the countryside free of charge; they distributed medicine, and, in the worse cases, sent them to the hospital. He also saw the novitiates of a semi-clandestine brothel and though the owner paid him he gave the girls condoms and free samples that pharmaceutical salesmen had left with him. One Saturday afternoon, Nula was in Riera’s car with him when suddenly he stopped, opened the door, and ran out onto the sidewalk, leaving the car running; they were downtown, and because it was Saturday, it was crowded on the street. The row of cars and buses behind Riera started to honk, but Riera didn’t seem to hear a thing. Nula got out and saw that a boy who was about ten, a shoe shine who always worked on that corner, was lying on the ground, convulsing and drooling. Riera bent over him, and with two or three quick operations, did something to his jaw and laid him on his side, trying to contain his seizures. It was an epileptic fit. The boy calmed down gradually—the scene lasted two or three minutes—and Riera told Nula to open the rear door of the car and then to pick up the shine box, while he himself picked up the boy, laid him down on his side on the back seat, set the shine box on the floor of the car, closed the door, and sat down behind the steering wheel. He told Nula to kneel on the front seat and watch the boy in case the seizures started again. The boy was pale but calm, and seemed lost and drowsy. Riera took him to the hospital, to the neurological office, and didn’t move until he was sure he had a bed and a specialist to examine him. Nula had gone to his office to meet him for an afternoon swim at the beach in Rincón (Lucía had gone to Paraná to see her mother), but at two thirty they were still at the hospital, so when they left, shortly after three, they ate a slice of pizza standing up at a pizzeria across from the hospital, and Riera, although he didn’t usually work on Saturday, decided not to go to the beach after all, and leaving him at the entrance to La India’s, went back home.

In late November, Nula had a fight with La India because he’d decided not to take his philosophy exams in December and push them back to March, under the pretext that he still wasn’t prepared. You’re one of those people who thinks that the mayonnaise gets made whether you beat the eggs or not! La India had exploded; she’d noticed that something strange had been going on with him since September, though she didn’t mind that he was staying in the city, working at the kiosk and living at home. Ever since their father had left, and especially after he was killed, her sons’ emotional life worried her, and she preferred to always have them on hand, but it was difficult (with Chade, who was more reserved, almost impossible) to talk about things in a clear and direct way. The offhand and somewhat aggressive talks she had with Nula contributed more to hiding the real problems than to revealing them clearly. Nula listened with a serious expression to La India’s remonstrations, but every free moment he had he spent with his new friends. Sometimes he was alone with Lucía at their house, or they went out walking, and other times he met up with Riera for a beer and they’d talk a while, but what he preferred was for the three of them to be together, because he got the feeling that Lucía and Riera really appreciated him and did everything they could to make him feel welcome. But with them there was always something false that came through despite the fact that everything they did seemed so natural, so much so that Nula ended up thinking that they must have been unaware of it. Riera would sometimes take him to Cristina’s—he remembers a week in December when her son was in Córdoba, at his grandparents’ house—and the thing that seemed unconscious with Lucía became obvious, even brutal, when they were with her. Riera’s political theories were as expedient as they come: the problem with society wasn’t the poor but rather the rich families that controlled the banks, the military, the seats of political power, the media, the factories, the press, and so on. Because they were very few, the simplest solution was to kill them all, but because this was impossible, they had to start by corrupting their women, and he’d taken on the task of corrupting the wives of the bourgeoisie in order to precipitate social change. And he always followed that brief discourse with that terse, somewhat degenerate laugh that no one, male or female—and he knew it—was capable of resisting. Cristina wasn’t particularly rich: if her family did have money, it was certainly less than Calcagno’s fortune, of which Riera never touched a dime, referring to it often with contempt and even disgust. Riera subjugated her, and she, Cristina, accepted everything he gave her. Sometimes, in Nula’s presence, he even ordered her around, and one night even suggested she should sleep with him, something she accepted immediately, but Nula, although he was very excited, didn’t dare do it and went home. He heard them laughing as he went out to the street, and then, after taking a few steps along the sidewalk, he stopped and stood for a couple of minutes, thinking about going back, but he changed his mind and went home, past Lucía’s house, which was dark and silent, and since it was almost midnight he didn’t want to ring the bell, so he just went to sleep.

The summer passed in this way; March, and the exams, were approaching. Nula studied, and because the law school shut down from early December to early March, the kiosk closed too. The bookstore, meanwhile, closed in January, for the judicial holiday, and reopened in February, half days only. Nula worked there twice a week, Thursdays and Fridays, which allowed La India to spend long weekends in the country or at the shore. Riera and Lucía didn’t leave the city all summer, and all that time Nula was trapped in the aura that they secreted, trying to prove to himself that he was capable of controlling his desire, his suffering, and even his lust. Their company became a kind of addiction: wherever they were was the center of the world, solid and brilliant; everything else was soft, shapeless, and gray. He knew he wasn’t getting any farther with Lucía, but while they continued to make him feel like he existed as something other than the theater of their wretched war—a feeling he often had—he’d be able to tolerate their machinations. One night in early March, having already decided to go to Rosario for his exams, he decided never to see them again. The heat was dreadful, so they ate in the courtyard, but suddenly, in the middle of their conversation, a storm drove them inside. After the lightning and thunder of a dense and turbulent storm had passed, a rain settled in that would surely last till the morning. Lucía proposed that they watch a movie she’d rented, a detective story that had made a big splash the previous winter, but which she hadn’t been able to see in the theater. They moved to the bedroom, with fruit and cold water, and sat down together at the foot of the bed to watch the movie. After a while, Lucía said she preferred to lie in bed to be more comfortable, and five minutes later, without saying a word, Riera followed her. Nula felt his heart beating harder and harder in his chest. His throat dried, and he opened his mouth to breathe, trying to be silent, because it felt like he was drowning. At first he thought these were the symptoms of desire, but immediately he realized they were of pain, and that, in fact, he wouldn’t have been able to tell them apart. The unnamable, the inconceivable, was happening. Because they’d turned on a bedside lamp so as to not watch the movie in the dark, the room had a warm glow, which from time to time brightened even more when the film passed from a dark image to a clear one, and which meant that everything happening was perfectly visible. But Nula didn’t want to turn around. Suddenly he heard Lucía’s voice behind him saying, Poor thing, we left him alone, and then, directly to him, Are you alright there, on the floor? with a distant, absent voice, as if she were falling asleep. But Nula was sure that she wasn’t falling asleep—just the opposite; their barely audible voices, their movements, their sounds, signaled not only that they weren’t sleeping, but that in fact they were wide awake, though in a somewhat different state of consciousness, which may have even pushed them radically farther from consciousness than a dream, believing they liberated in a whirlwind of sensation that defined them most intimately, when in fact they had been possessed and were now controlled by what was most external to them. Up till that moment, Nula had thought that the strange laughter that connected them precluded intercourse, that they left that extenuating labor for others—an illusion that, later, when he thought it over, seemed at once hilarious and pathetic. For several minutes, he was frozen, rigid, leaning against the edge of the bed, trying to ignore their whispers, their laughter, their moaning, the squeaking and creaking of the bed, the rustle of the sheets, but when Lucía finally started to emit a guttural noise, increasing in intensity, he crawled out on all fours, like a cat, trying not to make a sound, all the way to the hallway, where he stood up and walked out, practically running, through the darkened house that, over the last few months, he’d come to know by heart. Except for the morning when he’d seen them from a taxi, in Rosario, he never saw either of them again, until about a month back, in March, five years after that night, when he saw Lucía come out of the swimming pool in a green swimsuit, and when Gutiérrez, looking at him, had said, It’s not what you think. She’s my daughter. After the March exams, Nula stayed in Rosario under the pretext that classes were starting soon and he didn’t want to get behind that year, and when he came to visit La India on the weekends he almost never left the apartment, and if he did he never took the walk around the block; he always walked straight to the city center. Later, from Cristina, who he bumped into that winter, with her husband, he learned that Lucía and Riera had moved to Bahía Blanca. That October he met Diana, and he forgot about them completely; with Diana everything seemed easy and transparent, which was why, when she got pregnant and she told him she was willing to get an abortion he responded that it would be better if they got married. With his Greek philosophy professor he’d studied Problem XXX.1, attributed to Aristotle, or to Theophrastus, where the affinity between wine, sex, poetry, and philosophy—common ground of the melancholics—was discussed, and because he had to find work and just then an introductory seminar in enology was being offered at the Hotel Iguazú, and which created the possibility of finding a job if he did well, he enrolled with a loan from La India, and, soon after, with another brief course in Mendoza, he was offered a job with Amigos del Vino, which meant that the next year, when Yussef was born, he had enough to provide for him, and by the time Inés was born he was already one of the top salesmen for Amigos del Vino, at least the only one who Américo allowed to bend the rules. And now he’s lying on the mat, face down, tanning in the sun, feeling the sweat drip down the corners of his face pressed against the back of his hands superimposed on the edge of the mat.

 —Juan José Saer, translated by Steve Dolph

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Juan José Saer (1937–2005), born in Santa Fé, Argentina, was the leading Argentinian writer of the post-Borges generation. In 1968, he moved to Paris and taught literature at the University of Rennes. The author of numerous novels and short-story collections (including The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, Scars, The One Before, and The Clouds, all published by or forthcoming from Open Letter Books), Saer was awarded Spain’s prestigious Nadal Prize in 1987 for The Event.

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Aug 012014
 

BattleofIssus333BC-mosaic-detail1Detail of the Alexander Mosaic, representing Alexander the Great on his horse Bucephalus, during the battle of Issus. via Ancient History Encyclopedia

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 History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.
—Karl Marx

…Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.
—W. B. Yeats

Anderson, slender and bespectacled, and Haggerty, who retained the musculature of the high-school wrestler he once was, had been roommates in graduate school. They had been rivals then and ever since. Before they knew one another, each had decided to major in Classics, and they had both applied to the same top-tier graduate programs in that field: Princeton, Brown, Berkeley, Chicago, Michigan, Stanford, Penn, UNC-Chapel Hill, Yale, Columbia, and Harvard. Both had been brilliant undergraduate students, excelling particularly in history and languages, including, of course, Greek and Latin. Since they had also been fulsomely recommended by their dazzled college professors, it was no surprise that, even in the fiercely competitive struggle to gain admission to these formidable programs, both had been accepted by all the universities to which they had applied. As Fate, and the rankings, would have it, both chose Princeton.

Fate once again took a hand in throwing them together as roommates, and, for whatever reason, both found themselves, after the first year, gravitating toward the study of Greece in the fourth century BCE, focusing particularly on matters Alexandrine. Here their paths diverged, and sharply, for they quickly and adamantly adopted antithetical positions regarding the Great one.

Following, with some sophisticated nuances of course, in the line of the venerable W. W. Tarn, Anderson, in a beautifully-written article in the Classical Quarterly and a well-received contribution to A Companion to the Hellenistic World, honed the image of Alexander as not only a forger of Greek-Persian-Oriental unity, but an idealistic believer in the ultimate unity of all man-(and woman-) kind. Though he was deeply troubled by his hero’s brutality in suppressing the early rebellion at Thebes, Anderson adhered in general to the line of thought so movingly laid out by Tarn back in the 1930s and recapitulated and amplified after World War II in his celebrated two-volume Alexander the Great (1948). The result was Anderson’s own magisterial and eloquent Alexander the Far-Seer (Harvard UP, 1995), in which he directly engaged the problematic “situation” at Thebes, gingerly depicting that slaughter of men and enslavement of women and children as ultimately humane: Alexander’s admittedly severe but effective way to punish betrayal and to preempt subsequent mutinies among the other Greek city-states.

Tarn’s image of Alexander, as embellished by Anderson, was that of a chivalrous (Exhibit 1: his exquisitely courteous treatment of the captured mother, wife, and daughters of the defeated Persian king, Darius) and visionary conqueror, a man more than two millennia ahead of his time. The appeal of this Alexander no doubt explained why, once he had become a professor himself, at Columbia, Anderson had been sought out by both Martin Scorsese and then by Oliver Stone in connection with Alexander film projects. Anderson, who had been remunerated handsomely as a consultant in both cases (enabling him to purchase and furnish a spacious apartment on Riverside Drive), regretted that Stone’s film had actually been made, starring an unfortunately blonde-wigged Colin Farrell, while Scorsese’s, which was to star Leonardo DiCaprio, had fallen by the wayside.

As for Haggerty’s Alexander: that was an altogether different kettle of fish. Haggerty had been powerfully and permanently influenced by the scholarship of the formidable Ernst Badian, who had been kind enough, even in retirement, to read and comment on a paper Haggerty had sent him unsolicited. For Badian, Tarn’s image of Alexander was a starry-eyed idealization created by a brilliant but UN-influenced scholar who had imposed his own well-intentioned but dreamy twentieth-century global utopianism on an ancient blood-letter, a brutal conqueror whose legacy, far from any unified world, was a Hellenistic and post-Hellenistic morass of division, endless war, and misery. Haggerty’s long-gestating major study, Alexander: The Myth vs. the Man, published by Peter Lang in the very month (May, 2011) Ernst Badian had died, exhibited, despite its relentless thesis, some modicum of scholarly balance. But it was too little, too late. More than occasionally, prior to that belated publication, Haggerty, fatally injuring in the process his status in the scholarly community, had succumbed to sensationalism, most notoriously in his scathing review of the second edition of his former roommate’s Alexander the Far-Seer.

In this jealousy-fueled assault on Anderson’s magnum opus, the legitimate son of Philip was summarily dismissed as a “murderous bastard and drunken thug,” not to mention being “homoerotic and undersexed.” Haggerty’s most vitriolic scorn was poured on Anderson’s “mendacity” and “patent hypocrisy” in rationalizing the “bloodbath at Thebes.” In Haggerty’s telling of the tale of Alexander, only Bucephalus—chosen, but not himself at liberty to choose his master—fared well. In fact, in his concluding sentence, Haggerty tossed a single contemptuous sop to his rival by unqualifiedly praising Anderson’s “justified admiration of the psychotic’s innocent warhorse,” a “four-legged hero who had played no part whatever in the bestial and bloody atrocities inflicted by his master on the unfortunate citizens of Thebes.”

§

Before the rivalry between Haggerty and Anderson had intensified and then petered out into a typical academic power-struggle evoking the spectacle of two impotent serpents hissing at each other, they had interacted, in their Princeton days, in a civilized and gradually friendly manner. Just as Fate had made them Classicists, sent them to Princeton, made them roommates, and drew them to the study of Alexander, so that uncanny and intertwining Power arranged for them to date, interchangeably, two very different women, having only beauty in common. At first, Diana had been with Haggerty, Alicia with Anderson. But at some point (the quartet could never pinpoint the precise moment of transposal), there had been a sudden switch. However incongruously, sensuous, pouty-lipped and opulently breasted Diana ended up with the delicate, even slightly effeminate Anderson; delicate, slim-hipped, ash-blonde Alicia with burly Haggerty.

Separately but simultaneously, the couples married the year after the men graduated from Princeton. As ambitious as her husband, Diana was not in the least reticent when it came to charming whoever might be in a position to advance her husband’s career. And that career did advance, rapidly, thanks to the combination of a burgeoning list of publications, entrée to the New York Review of Books, very occasional but still first–name relationships with “Marty” and “Oliver,” and that ample and strategically-located Riverside Drive apartment—all voluptuously enhanced by the social and related skills of a stunningly attractive hostess-wife.

Though it took well over a decade, it seemed, at least to an envious and increasingly embittered Haggerty, no time at all before his old roommate was a chaired professor in the Classics Department at Columbia, his considerable salary buttressed by an inherited but shrewdly augmented stock-portfolio. Meanwhile, Haggerty, professionally scarred by the “intemperance” of his savaging of Anderson’s much-applauded Alexander the Far-Seer, labored in the obscure vineyard of a second- tier small liberal arts college in upstate New York. On occasion, Haggerty would come down to New York City to work for the day in one or another of the libraries; then scurry back to the sticks on Amtrak. However, on their brief biannual visits to Manhattan to take in a show, he and Alicia were, at least at first, invariably invited to stay with the Andersons, who “wouldn’t hear” of their friends  “putting up at an expensive hotel.” The other unheard-of matter, ever-present but never addressed during these visits, was the attack on Anderson’s book: what even Alicia, the most candid of the four, simply accepted as the Great Taboo.

gemitoAlexander the Great mounting his horse Boukephalon. Vincenzo Gemito (1852-1929) via Wiki Media Commons.

As the years went on, these visits always seemed to coincide with parties, during which Alicia, though still attractive, was inevitably outshone by Diana, who had become ever more glamorous, a Bergdorf blonde whose champagne, salon-tended coiffure made Alicia’s unpretentiously-styled, naturally ash-blonde hair seem dishwater-dull. For his part, Haggerty, though he stood over six feet and had retained more than the remnants of an athletic physique, almost literally felt the testosterone drain from him during these affairs. He would drink too much, and still find himself self-conscious and cringing, surrounded by Manhattan theater people, and, even worse, by higher-paid and better-known academics. When the subject as to where he “taught” came up (as it always did), the cosmopolitan professors would predictably and condescendingly observe that they had heard “good things” about his little college “up there.” Eventually, both he and Alicia wearied of these petty humiliations, and either skipped coming down to the city at all, or slipped furtively in and out of town without informing the Andersons.

§

Then came the fateful autumn day. Haggerty, in Manhattan to do research in the Berg Collection of the 42nd Street Library, stopped at the Wine Bar in Bryant Park before heading to Penn Station. Suddenly feeling as leaden as the sinking light of dusk settling over the park, he realized, with a shock of recognition, that his current project, whatever its initial excitement, had palled. Even if he supported with solid evidence the point, or quibble, that had been preoccupying him for several months—so what? He needed at least one drink, maybe more, before setting out on the long, dark trip back along the Hudson and Mohawk. And there, a sudden burst of light in the darkness, was Diana! She had just tucked her cell phone in her bag, and was sipping a white wine. She glanced up, saw him, and smiled, then smiled again, this time differently. She was never more radiantly gorgeous, and Haggerty hadn’t seen that particular smile since their nights together back in Princeton. After three or four drinks, Diana pressed her warm lips to his ear and whispered, “I think it’s time we moved this act to a more intimate setting.”

Haggerty concurred, wondering only briefly if he could get away with using his Amtrak ticket a day late; tonight, at Diana’s insistence, they would be “putting up at an expensive hotel.” She called and made a reservation at the nearby Grand Hyatt. After they’d each discreetly attended to their other necessary phone calls (two, he noticed in Diana’s case), they headed out at full tilt to the hotel. Stopped by a red light at 42nd and Madison, Haggerty, unable to wait, pulled her to him and kissed her with a passion fired by genuine lust and a fury of jealousy and anger that had been simmering for years.

At the desk, he had to hold his briefcase in front of him to conceal his erection, and when they finally got into the room, he once again couldn’t wait. As it happened, neither could she. Their first fuck, up against the wall and half-clothed, was violent, almost savage. It was fantastic while it lasted, but he was too hot to control himself for long. He came earlier than he intended, and explosively. She groaned, but was far from finished. They stripped, had a drink from the mini-bar while he recovered, and then hit the bed. He went at her breasts like a starving baby, and then he was deep inside her. She felt familiar and yet different, better and certainly blonder. It was during their third encore that she murmured, “You’re making me crazy,” and she meant it.

§

That autumn, winter, and spring, Haggerty found it imperative that he work in the Berg Collection at least twice a month. Simultaneously, Diana discovered that her own delicate psyche demanded “quiet time,” when she needed to be “by herself” for a day or two. This need for contemplative solitude arose twice monthly, coinciding with her bi-monthly hair treatments and re-colorings at Bergdorf Goodman’s. As fate would have it, these restorative hiatuses also coincided precisely with Haggerty’s research expeditions to the city, during which he never had occasion to renew his “Special Visitors” card, the catalogued riches of the Berg Collection going unexplored while Haggerty devoted his energies to exploring the more palpable riches of the opulent Diana.

Anderson was not unaware of his wife’s flexible interpretation of their marriage bond. Aware as well that her exuberant sex drive dwarfed his own, he tended to be tolerant. But these twice-monthly absences eventually proved too much even for him. Suffering from unaccustomed jealousy and a festering sense of betrayal, he found himself becoming distracted from his current research—on Callisthenes, nephew to Aristotle and official historian on Alexander’s expedition into Persia. His research into Callisthenes’ possible (probable?) involvement in the Royal Pages’ conspiracy to murder their warrior-king fueled Anderson’s growing sense that he too was the victim of a conspiracy.

Awaking from a troubled dream one night, his scholarship and his likely cuckolding suddenly converged in a single name: “Haggerty!” A week later, on a bright Tuesday morning when Diana had set off for her regular bi-monthly salon visit to Bergdorf’s followed by her bi-monthly “rest,” Anderson phoned the hinterlands. Alicia answered. When, after the routine pleasantries, Anderson asked to speak to his old pal, she informed him that Haggerty was, “in fact, in Manhattan, doing some research, though he would be back Wednesday night.”

“Really,” said Anderson, concealing his emotion. “He should have arranged to stay with us.” The pretense of civility, hypocritically maintained over years now, had never ceased to amaze Alicia. Though Haggerty’s ferocious attack on Anderson’s book had in fact shattered their friendship, the offending review was never spoken of, or even alluded to, by either man. Always there, but never mentioned, it had long been the perennial elephant, or the warhorse, in the room.

“Well, there have been several trips of late, and he didn’t want to bother you and Diana.”

“Hmmm,” said Anderson. “Just what is it he’s working on?”

Alicia chuckled, but it was mirthless; her awareness of the men’s professional rivalry, like her husband’s suspiciously frequent trips to the city to do “research,” was far more a source of pain than of amusement. “I wouldn’t be at liberty to tell you if I knew. But, to be honest, I don’t. It must be going well, though; he always seems to come back…rejuvenated.”

“I just bet he does,” said Anderson, in a tone Alicia found more than usually difficult to decipher. Her own resigned tone touched Anderson, who found himself wondering, as he often had over the years, how it was that, betraying his heart and even against his will, he had turned from Alicia to Diana. Not that the turn was ever quite complete. Anderson had flirted with Alicia on a few occasions; and there was that night a few years back when, having had one scotch too many, he had kissed her when they were alone for a moment in the Andersons’ dining room. His attempt at seduction, if that’s what it was, ended before it began, with Alicia unresponsive and murmuring something about her “husband,” a loyalty that embarrassed and, even more, angered Anderson. But so be it: for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, it would be Anderson and Diana, Alicia and Haggerty. Perhaps old Pindar had it right: “that which is fated cannot be fled.”

Anderson let it all marinate. The longer it did, the more furious he became. Diana’s sensuality, at an earlier stage an ancillary means to career-advancement, had begun to degenerate into potentially embarrassing sexual indiscretions. But this treachery—with Haggerty of all people!—went beyond the endurable. Conscious of the melodramatic touch, he nevertheless vowed vengeance on both miscreants. Perhaps, afterward, he and Alicia, no longer bound by loyalty….

2801624-bucephalusAlexander Taming Bucephalus” by Francois Schommer, German, late 19th century. Via Wiki Media Commons.

As for Haggerty, Anderson’s resentment now soured into much more than professional hatred, though his emotions also leached into his scholarship. In a New Republic piece, he introduced a detectable caveat to his central Alexandrine thesis: the conqueror’s ultimate vision of universal unity and concord as the end to which all the bloodshed was merely a tactical means. “The end of art is peace,” said the late, great Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, in accepting his Nobel Prize. He acknowledged borrowing the phrase from his predecessor, the late, great Irish Nobel laureate, W. B. Yeats; who’d borrowed it from the not so-great, non-prize-winning, non-Irish 19th-century poet, Coventry Patmore; who doubtless lifted it himself. Anderson couldn’t speak for “art,” but he had long been sure that the end, as well as the beginning, of academic scholarship was not peace but war. Now he was beginning to wonder if the end—the purpose—of war was, not peace, but just…more war. He would soon, at his publisher’s request, be undertaking a 4th edition of Alexander the Far-Seer. Anderson decided to defer further historical speculation to that new—and very possibly substantially revised—edition of his masterwork.

§

In the meantime, he prepared to bait a trap. His plans were delayed when he wrenched his knee while jogging in Riverside Park, missing his step because of his preoccupation with his stratagem. But with some rehab, and a brace and cane, he experienced only minor pain, and productively utilized his un-Diana-like “rest period” by polishing the details of his version of Hamlet’s mouse-trap.

One particularly fine spring morning, when birds were singing and whatnot, he informed Diana over breakfast, just before she headed out for her bi-monthly highlighting and hiatus, that he had come to a decision regarding his estrangement from Haggerty. He had, he said, long since forgiven his erstwhile and underpaid friend for his intemperate review of Alexander the Far-Seer; indeed, to be candid, he had been “slightly” rethinking his own thesis. He even had enough equanimity to chuckle at Haggerty’s having limited his agreement with the book to the sentence in which Anderson had praised the brave and blameless Bucephalus, who, along with performing magnificently in battle, “had played no part whatever in the anomalous episode at Thebes.”

In any case, it was “high time” to “let bygones be bygones,” to “bury the hatchet, as it were.” What—he wanted to know—did she “think about a get-together? Perhaps dinner next week in Manhattan with the four of us, my treat, including their trip down from upstate.”

Though caught off guard, Diana, her feet as quicksilver as Mercury’s, instantly adjusted, responding that she thought the idea “fine,” even “delightful,” though she wondered if it might not be too much too soon on his knee.

“Not in the slightest. Wednesday, then, this week or next. I understand from Alicia that he’s been doing some mid-week research at the Berg twice a month.”

Diana was lighting a cigarette when he came out with that, but only the eye of a detective (or Anderson’s) would have caught the slight trembling of her hand as she flicked the lighter. What occasion had he to be speaking to Alicia? Was it just to do with his sudden idea for the men to make up over dinner, reuniting the two jolly couples of Princeton days? And what exactly had Alicia said, other than to blurt out the news about Haggerty’s “research” trips to the city? Best, Diana thought, to pass over all that terra incognita, and focus on the dinner plan.

“Wonderful. Where?” she asked, dilating her pupils to what she calibrated was the appropriate degree to convey surprised delight.

“Smith & Wolensky, I think. Not far from the library, and Haggerty loves a good steak.”

“Great. But I must dash.” Forgetting that she had just lit it, Diana stubbed out her cigarette, pecked him on the cheek leaving a faint imprint of lipstick, and was gone.

§

When, following their afternoon coupling and some rather more amorous imprintings of her lipstick, Diana informed her lover of this peace offering, Haggerty was instantly suspicious.

“Do you think the devious little prick knows about us?”

She thought not, and mentioned the unmentionable: Anderson’s specific reference to Haggerty’s review of Alexander the Far-Seer. He had even laughed, she reported, at what Haggerty had singled out as their one point of agreement: the praise of splendid Bucephalus.

“For whatever reason, he’s forgiven you. He recently injured his knee. Maybe he’s mellowing with age. In any case, his new attitude seems to be ‘live and let live’.”

“Arrogant son of a bitch; he doesn’t leave us much choice, does he?”

When Anderson phoned the following evening and extended his invitation, Haggerty, armed by Diana’s advance warning, worked up as much feigned surprise and enthusiasm as he could manage without puking. Actually, he was now looking forward to the meeting. He had decided to show up with his own peace-offering, a “Greek gift.” Triggered by Diana’s reference to Anderson’s injured knee, the idea had solidified into a specific shape. He had some shopping to do.

§

The following week the four met as arranged. After the somewhat strained handshakes and obligatory kisses, Haggerty checked a long package in the cloakroom adjoining the entrance. “A gift,” he winked at Anderson. The two couples had several drinks at the always inviting copper bar, and then adjourned to their reserved table. The evening, lubricated by several bottles of a fine red, was unexpectedly convivial. Warmed by the wine, and experiencing a vestige of the old friendship, Anderson began to waver. At one point he came close to jettisoning his plan to expose the clandestine lovers. But as fate would have it, that was the very instant that Haggerty and Diana exchanged furtive glances, fleeting and yet so unmistakably intimate that it re-fueled Anderson’s rage. Only the most Herculean effort at self-restraint enabled him to maintain his false veneer of bonhomie.

Though controlled, his hostility, squirming beneath the lacquered surface, took the form of several supposedly innocent questions intended to goad his rival: queries as to how Haggerty’s research in the Berg Collection was going? Whether he had received any grants and/or secured a publisher—other than “Peter Lange”—for his current and “long-gestating” book? What the “cost” was these days for a round-trip Amtrak ticket to the city? He even expressed a sincere wish that Haggerty hadn’t “spent too much” on the “gift” he’d checked in the cloakroom.  Diana grew a bit suspicious and restive, but, to Anderson’s annoyance, Haggerty refused to join in the petty professional game-playing by rising to the bait. Whether he was oblivious to Anderson’s barely camouflaged taunts, or simply basking in the confidence that comes from secretly fucking the wife of one’s interlocutor, host and rival, Haggerty remained maddeningly complacent and convivial.

Just as they were finishing their steaks, and Anderson was ordering yet another bottle of Pibarnon, Haggerty, who had been so animated and voluble during dinner that Alicia had suggested at one point that he try being “still” for at least a moment, excused himself. He returned with his package, presenting it to Anderson with a jovial yet enigmatic grin. Once unwrapped, it proved to be an exceptionally handsome mahogany cane, its oversized knob adorned with a silver horse’s head inscribed… BUCEPHALUS.

photo_verybig_129490Warrior (possibly Alexander) on a Horse, Macedonia, 2011. Photo by EPA/BGNES.

Only Alicia seemed puzzled, until Haggerty re-explained the inside joke. Diana, who required no explanation, wondered where it was all headed. Nervous, but anxious to alleviate the palpable tension at the table, Diana laughed. In fact, they all laughed—with the notable exception of Anderson, whose face reddened with repressed fury. He understood the joke beneath the joke. Haggerty was still rubbing it in, repeating, with that silver Bucephalus-head, his original assault on Anderson’s magnum opus. Anderson had brought them here, at considerable expense, to expose the sordid liaison between Haggerty and Diana. Softened by the wine, the fine meal, and the dinner conversation, he had considered abandoning his plan; and now, Haggerty, turning the tables, was not only cuckolding him, but making him the butt, rubbing salt in the old wound by bringing up that goddamned review. True, in the end, the attack had backfired, damaging Haggerty’s reputation far more than his own. But that sarcasm and ridicule still smarted, indeed stung even more, because, in his heart of hearts, Anderson had slowly come to realize that Haggerty’s critique, however snide and hyperbolic, was largely accurate.

He also realized (though no one at the table noticed at first) that his body was shaking.  Suddenly, in a spasm of uncontrollable rage, Anderson took up his steak knife, and—unaware of making any conscious decision, apparently guided by the inexorable Fate that had bound them together in so many other ways—leaned across the table and plunged it into Haggerty’s chest.

As the women screamed, the surprised stabbee clutched, as well he might, in the general vicinity of his heart. But the old wrestler in him rallied and he staggered to his feet, knocking his chair backward, grunting in pain and rage, and stretching out his trembling but still powerful hands toward his assailant. Shrinking back at first, but then rising to the occasion, Anderson hefted the heavy, Bucephalus-headed cane, and brought it down, battering his rival’s skull repeatedly, until Haggerty, strong as he was, finally collapsed on the table, the blood spurting from his chest and head-wounds forming two stains—distinct, then unified, then again separating—which, between them, soaked most if not all of the fine S&W linen table-cloth, turning the white one red.

Continuing to shriek, Diana and Alicia looked on, open-mouthed but catatonic. The stunned patrons round about them, having finally snapped out of their momentary paralysis, rushed belatedly to disarm the caner and assist the victim. The bludgeoned Haggerty twitched twice, then lay, finally, and in both senses of the word, still—in accord, ironically enough, with Alicia’s earlier suggestion. Struck dumb herself, Alicia gazed at her husband’s body, then at Anderson—who turned to Diana, then to Haggerty, then back again. The gesture implied causality: a causality into which Alicia—who now joined Anderson in staring at a for-once unnerved Diana—had a sudden, all-illuminating insight.

In the moment before he succumbed, providing he retained some minimal ability to appreciate irony, Haggerty may also have experienced a graphic insight:  in his case, into the all-too-human and universal nature of the wine-dark, mysterious impulses driving the bloody violence he had always dwelt on, perhaps to a fault and certainly glibly, in writing about Alexander. And, had he been able to articulate the thought, he might conceivably have expressed regret regarding his ill-chosen (or fated) gift of that formidable, Bucephalus-headed walking stick.

For his own part, Anderson experienced, albeit more consciously than his rival, a similar double-illumination. He felt that now, at last, he fully appreciated the sterling virtues of Bucephalus, and further, that, for perhaps the first time in his career as an Alexander scholar, he had grasped the immediate point and lasting impact of his hero’s Theban policy.

—Patrick J. Keane 

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Patrick J Keane smaller

Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College and a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

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Jul 142014
 

photo(7)Michael Bryson & friend

 

There was the matter of the orgasm. Years later he suddenly remembered. She hadn’t been the first, but she was the first on a regular basis. She wanted him, and he wanted her, and they did it almost every day. He was thirty-one and his sexual self-esteem had crashed harder than the Leafs in the playoffs. Woody Allen had called masturbation “sex with someone you love,” and Barry had long lost any shame associated with being alone. Then he met Sherry, and she would unzip him almost before he’d closed the door to her apartment. She would fondle his penis when they went to the movies. One time he was watching the news and she told him to relax. Unzip. Ping. She went down on him as Peter Mansbridge went out of focus. But she almost never came.

That was a long time ago now. Thirteen years ago. He was with Sherry two years, and their second Christmas together he knew she was angling for a proposition. Knew it very late. He thinks now the thought crystallized on Christmas Eve at her sister’s house. Sherry had made mashed potatoes and fretted over them. She had told him how the dinner would go. Everyone was making a different dish. A certain standard had to be upheld. The potatoes had to be creamy without being milky, spiced with a hint of garlic but not rot full. The food would be served, places taken, minor words of religiously neutral thankfulness spoken. Dig in. Dished out. That’s nice, oh, that’s nice, oh, that’s nice. And that’s exactly how it happened.

You learn something in every relationship, and what he learned from Sherry is that two years isn’t long enough to get to know anybody, but then again maybe they were just at that age when they were still changing. They were in their thirties and unmarried, childless, living out an extended youth. He knew she wanted four children. He’d said he was okay with that. He’d thought about marrying her, but he wasn’t going to propose over Christmas, and he wasn’t going to do it at New Year’s either. Then he suddenly caught the hint that she was expecting it. Who had given her that idea? Certainly not him. Her mother, probably, or her sister, or some girlfriend. Some girly conspiracy had indicted him in a test case. They were watching. He would fail.

Getting through Christmas, having fun, sharing laughs about the silly family stuff, these were his tests. In the first week of January, would they still be friends? Could he imagine himself with these people, her people, twenty years hence? Would they show any interest in him? Any empathy? Any common cause? Sherry had already warned him repeatedly about her father. Mid-way through dinner he would go off. “Just duck,” she said. “Let him blow it off.” And he did, J. Edgar Hoover style. Barry was good at nodding. Listening, noncommittal. Something similar had happened at Thanksgiving. This was 2001. The American’s hadn’t yet attacked Afghanistan. The towers were still smoking. “It’s terrible how they treat women,” Sherry’s mother had said. She was prepared to go to war for that.

He remembered walking home through the park after that October dinner, Sherry raging at her parents’ stupidity. She had a Master’s degree in Public Administration. They weren’t interested in her opinion on any subject. She worked for a major polling firm as a senior manager. Her title was Vice President. In her spare time, she painted. She wanted to paint more. She was tired of statistics and politics, but she knew she was good at statistics and politics, and it paid the bills. Barry was the antithesis of her parents. He encouraged her art. He affirmed her social analysis. He got hard for her every night, but he couldn’t make her come. Sometimes she came close. She would squeeze tight and the friction on the head of his penis would make him explode.

He didn’t propose, and she got mad at him, and on New Year’s Eve she didn’t want to touch him. “I want to be alone,” she said, so he went back to his place. Two days later she called him. “I want to see you.” They were all over each other in the hallway. Her roommate was away. They went into the roommate’s bedroom, and she came, the best ever. “Why can’t we do that every time?” He didn’t know. He hadn’t done anything different. When he thinks of her now, he remembers her easy smile and her soft tongue, the struggle of her personality to find peace in the world. She was tall and beautiful. Sweet and large-breasted. Smart and confused. Talented and lost.

Weeks turned into months, the new year progressed, her unhappiness worsened. “So quit your job if you want to,” he said. “Let’s move in together.” It wasn’t marriage, but it was something. He still needed to know they could be happy together, not just compatible. She quit her job and became more unhappy. Barry became more concerned and suggested that she see her doctor. “I think you’re depressed,” he said. He went to work and came home and she said she hadn’t done anything all day except watch TV. “Don’t tell my parents, okay?” She hadn’t told them she’d quit her job or that they were moving in together. They practically lived together anyway, just he still had his place, which he was giving up. He’d given notice.

Then one morning she woke up with a dead zone look in her eyes. “I don’t feel well,” she said, “and we didn’t even have sex last night.” Barry said, “Yes, we did.” He straightened up and touched her face. Whatever this was, it wasn’t depression. This was a separation from reality. He told her to lay down and went to fetch a glass of water. What else? What to do? Buy time. She sipped the water and laughed. “I feel strange,” she said. “Strange how?” he asked. She said, “Just strange.” He considered calling his mother. No, this was his to deal with. He couldn’t leave her like this. Something had to be done. “Do you want me to take you to the hospital?” he asked. “Do you want me to call your sister?” Sherry indicated she wasn’t sure, then she was. “Sister. Call my sister.”

Her sister came, and by then Sherry’s confusion had multiplied. She asked the same questions every ten minutes, not remembering she’d asked them before. The sister decided to take her to her shrink, the one Sherry had ridiculed for the weak marriage counseling the sister and brother-in-law had sleep walked through. “She told them they don’t have any issues! They just need to talk more!” Well, that day she spent an hour with Sherry and then told everyone that they needed to back off. Everyone was putting too much pressure on Sherry, and she needed to be able to make her own decisions in her own time. Then she sent Sherry home with Barry, but this time they went to his place.

He tried to feed her, but she wasn’t interested in eating, and a day later they hopped in a cab back to the shrink because Sherry felt crazy sick again. Then they went back to her place, and she called her parents. “I need to go home with them,” she said. “I need them to look after me.” Okay, he’d said, but he should have taken her to the hospital. Fuck your parents, he should have said. You’re coming with me. But he wasn’t that kind of a person, not then. He wasn’t that kind of a hero. A month later, though, he knew what he should have done, but then maybe she wouldn’t have let him. When her parents finally did take her to the hospital, it didn’t take the doctors long. Her brain was ringed with lesions. Her sister told him Sherry had a brain of a 70-year-old. Multiple Sclerosis, significantly progressed.

When he visited her in the hospital, she was happy. What she had had a name! She wasn’t going crazy! Holy shit! When he visited her in the hospital, her father was sitting in her room and he wouldn’t leave. They made small talk until he got the hint. She had an IV on a poll, and she took him on a stroll around the ward. The woman across the hall was a couple of years older. She had a six-year-old and a husband, and she came to the hospital about once a year for treatment. Steroids. To calm the inflammation. It was a quick, brutal and effective intervention, best administered as soon as possible. Barry thought about that month-long wait and knew he would never forgive himself.

They went into a room full of exercise equipment and closed the door behind them. He leaned in for a kiss and put his hand under her shirt. “I missed you,” he said. “I missed you, too,” she said. They wandered back into the corridor and around a corner where they came to a dead end and encountered a man with half a face. “Oh,” she said, “I thought this went somewhere.” She looked at the half-face man and asked, “How are you?” He smiled at her and went back into his room. Barry loved her then, more than at any moment before or since, her uncomplicated compassion on magnificent display.

He was concealing on that visit the encounter he’d had with her father shortly after her parents had spirited her away a month earlier. “If I find out you’ve given her drugs,” her father had confronted him, “I’ll fucking kill you.” “I haven’t given her anything.” “We’ll see.” It was unbelievable! Him! A drug pusher! Of all people, no, no, never! And what a crime noir fantasy anyway. A ludicrous cliché. But Sherry had warned him, hadn’t she? Those were her parents, ludicrous clichés. Her father a hardened GM executive, her mother a neurotic housewife turned late-life real estate agent. They had separate bedrooms and would never divorce, Sherry had told him. Her father couldn’t get it up.

“How do you know this?”

“My mother told me.”

He went to visit his own doctor, who advised him to break off the relationship and prescribed him anti-anxiety pills to help him sleep. Oh, what crazy stress. He started smoking. He stopped eating. He had to move out of his apartment because he’d given notice. There was no way he was going to move into her apartment, so he had to scramble to find a new place. One weekend he came home from work on Friday and went to bed at 6:00 pm. He got up the next day at noon, then went back to bed at 6:00 pm. Then did that again on Sunday. No, he thought now. I was never going to marry into that family.

He didn’t follow his doctors orders immediately. He tried to stay friends with Sherry, who moved back in with her parents after leaving the hospital. He spoke to her on the phone and she was getting bored. She wanted to get away. He suggested he book a hotel and take her away for a night. Dinner and dancing. He picked her up, and she was in a foul mood. “I don’t want to talk about it.” They drove in silence. He tried to make small talk. Finally she said, “My father said something that made me mad at him. I don’t want to tell you what.” Barry said, “Okay.” By this point, he didn’t want to talk about it either. He just wanted to forget about it, forget about her father, forget about everything that had happened and try to pretend that they were together like they had been before. They had had good times. They had been happy. Was that all they were going to get? Was there more?

The dinner was okay, the hotel room standard. They were tentative with each other as they undressed, washed, brushed, slipped between the sheets. He reached for her, but she was unresponsive. She rolled towards him and kissed him, but she was cold.

He said, “I know what he said.”

“Who?”

“Your father.”

“What did he say.”

“He said, ‘Barry only wants sex.'”

She nodded. “How did you know?”

“I can’t believe it,” Barry said. “I can’t believe he actually said that. Like we were teenagers. Like you weren’t thirty-one. Like we need his permission.”

“I didn’t want to tell you,” she said. But you did, he didn’t say.

And then they had sex, but it was dry and uncomfortable, and very, very bad.

A month later, she visited his apartment for the last time, and they fucked every which way, but she didn’t come, and then she said, “We probably shouldn’t see each other any more,” and he said, “You’re probably right.” A week later, she called him, she wanted to see him, and he said he would see her, but he had to say this first. “I’m not going to sleep with you. That’s over.” So they got together and talked, and she said she guessed she would never have children, but he said she shouldn’t think like that. “You would be a great mom,” he said, and she cried, and he kept smoking nine months after that. Four years later, he met Jessie and her two kids and proposed inside six months. Three years after the wedding, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Twenty-one months later, she was dead.

—Michael Bryson

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Michael Bryson tweets @buzithecat. He is interested in how things fall apart and what’s left after that. In 1999, he founded the online literary journal, The Danforth Review, http://www.danforthreview.com/, which has just published its 51st issue of new short fiction. He blogs at http://www.michaelbryson.com/ and posts the odd book review at The Underground Book Club, http://thenewcanlit.blogspot.com/.

 

Jul 052014
 

Dawn Promislow

 

My husband and I were driving down a country road, a two-lane highway in Amish land of western New York, rolling green farmland and countryside, in the late afternoon. The road unfurled as we drove, and we spoke, then were silent, and the light was the old light of September, golden. But a black horse, glossy and young, and unharnessed, appeared ahead of us in the middle of the road: cantering, stopping, then cantering again. We slowed, my husband slowed the car. The horse cantered past us, a few metres from the car, down the road. I’d seen his dark eyes, clear, his smooth coat. We drove on.

And then we saw an Amish man standing on the side of the road, a horse harness in his hand, and a group of women alongside, dressed in long dresses and bonnets, in the still heat. The man was in black, his hat was dark against the surrounding green. We realized it was their horse running loose and free. We continued driving. Then my husband said, perhaps we should help them? We realized, it dawned on us slowly, slowly, like the afternoon, or like a morning, that they needed to chase the horse, but they could only chase the horse on foot, as they had no car. Feeling guilty that we hadn’t offered them a ride before, we turned around, my husband made a turn in the middle of the road, carefully, and we drove back. The man was walking along the road in the direction of the cantering horse, I seem to feel he was limping, although perhaps he wasn’t – but the horse was out of sight now.

We offered him a ride, he accepted without a word, and got in the back of the car. With his black pants he wore a white shirt, it was a worn white, almost not white, and loose, as he was lean, and he was bearded so his voice was soft it seemed to me, or there was a strange accent in which he spoke, and together with the horse harness he was carrying a pail with oats in it.

We drove back along the road, the three of us looking out and around, across the fields and farmland and clumps of trees, the fields were beautiful and golden in that afternoon light. The car slowed, there was just its low hum, no other sound, and we saw slanting light and pale blue, and green green green. But we did not see the horse. I kept imagining we would see him, I wished to see him, to catch sight of him, of his live, living black, moving against the green golden, or under some trees, shaded. But we didn’t see him. The man said, never mind, he was sure the horse would be found. I couldn’t think how he would be found. The man said let’s go back, he wanted to go back, I felt his strong wish to go back. So we drove him back to his farm on the side of the road (I saw its red barn, I see it still in my mind’s eye), and we dropped him off, saying we hoped they’d find the horse.

My husband and I drove on, we followed on that two-lane highway through the countryside of western New York, green-clad. We wondered about it as we drove, we wondered what would happen to the horse, and to the farmer who had lost him. The afternoon wound down in its beauty as we drove, and we neared home, our home. It became less beautiful because it was the city then, but I have imprinted the green-gold, and the black-trousered man, and the coal-black horse (and the red barn), and the few words, but soft ones.

My husband thinks they must have found the horse after we were gone, when the afternoon became so late that it ended, but we don’t know, and we won’t know, and we’re in the city now, and far away, and it’s not that afternoon any more, it’s even winter now and white here, and night as I write this.

—Dawn Promislow

 

Dawn Promislow was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, and has lived in Toronto since 1987. Her debut short story collection, Jewels and Other Stories (TSAR Publications, 2010), was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2011, and was named as one of the 8 best fiction debuts of 2011 by The Globe and Mail (Canada).

 

Jun 172014
 

Dave smiling (1)

“The Connoisseur of Longing” is a wry, dry, witty story about a man, a writer, who fails to live up to his own press. Mandalstram, late in his career, wins a prize for a little book based on a love affair deep in his youthful past. The jury calls him a  “connoisseur of longing,” a phrase that captures his imagination and propels him into a search for meaningful people from his past (wives, daughter, friends). The results are comically catastrophic. Everything Mandalstram remembers is not true. The story is told from Mandalstram’s point of view, deadpan and serious, except, you know, that he is wrong. Right down to the fact that his Holocaust-survivor parents weren’t Jews. This story is excerpted from Dave Margoshes brand new story collection appropriately entitled God Telling A Joke and Other Stories (Oolichan Books, 2014). Dave Margoshes is an old friend from my Saskatchewan days (Fort San, the Qu’Appelle Valley, the Saskatchewan School of the Arts — the memories!). He is one of Canada’s finest short story writers. And in years gone by, when I edited the annual Best Canadian Stories, I included him four times out of the ten collections I put together.

dg

MARGOSHES-God Telling A Joke-Cover-DD02

 

Many of Mandalstram’s books were overlooked by his peers; a few were shortlisted for minor awards, an achievement and honor in itself, but didn’t win. Finally, fairly late in his life, he won a major award for a slim novella, Disconsolate, a delicate love story that was, in fact, a revised version of a story he had written when he was in his twenties. The passion in the prize-winning book, so admired by the jurors, was all from that period of his life, when he had pursued an unrequited love affair with a certain woman from Madrid and had burned with ardour, the sort of ardour only a man in his twenties can experience. But the craft, those tricks of the writing trade which make a story so compelling, was all from that later period of his life, the period of revision, a practice he had mastered. Passion and craft were a happy marriage, and they worked well for Mandalstram. Disconsolate, the jurors wrote, ached with the agony of a spurned lover, exquisitely rendered, and Mandalstram himself, they wrote, was a “poet of the heartbroken, a connoisseur of longing.”

He smiled at that latter phrase—“connoisseur of longing,” which seemed, he thought, to fit him like a well-tailored jacket—and, as he slept restlessly that night in an unfamiliar hotel bed, in Toronto, a city he didn’t particularly like, the words chimed through his dreams like the cream-rich tones of a clavichord. He awoke amused by the possibilities. A publisher might create a Library of Longing, with paperback reprints of all his out-of-print books. The CBC might prepare a reality show, Canada Longs, with chipper Wendy Mesley as host and Mandelstram himself as featured guest. A restaurant might prepare a Menu of Longing, with dishes inspired by plots and character from Mandalstram’s stories. He arose, turned on the electric coffee pot and showered. Then, feeling pampered in the hotel’s fluffy white robe, with a cup of weak coffee by his elbow—oh, how he longed for something stronger!—he sat in sunlight at a small polished marble table—whether true marble or faux he couldn’t tell—and, on creamy hotel stationary, began to make a list. This small pleasure was interrupted by another—the first of several telephone calls from the mass media.

Back in Halifax, where he had lived for the decade since his third marriage failed, he found himself still propelled by the momentum of his unexpected victory. The money that accompanied the prize—more than he would ordinarily earn in two years!—was a godsend, no doubt there, but more important was the boost to his career. It would have been better, far better, to have had this twenty years earlier, fifteen, even ten, but he still had another ten productive years in him, another three, four, maybe five books if he approached them with more discipline than he ordinarily could harness.

He expected the invitations to start rolling in: lectures, interviews, workshops, residencies, festivals, readings of all sorts before all sorts of audiences. He’d had his share of that sort of thing, of course, but never enough to provide more than the most meager of livings. Always, he’d had to teach a class, take on an editing job for someone of lesser talent, even, on occasion, lower himself to the indignities of writing a review or article for the popular press. He looked forward to refusing those routine kinds of offers, to enjoying more of life’s little comforts while, at the same time, being able to devote more time to his own work, which meant he’d have to asses the new opportunities carefully. Perhaps there’d be an unsolicited grant, maybe even a call from one of the agents who hitherto had spurned him. He looked forward to the possible pleasure of telling one particularly nasty agent to fuck herself.

In the meantime, while he awaited these opportunities, he should allow euphoria to propel him into a regimen of inspiration and momentum. The backbreaking, spirit-snagging novel he’d been working on for several years, which had all but defeated him, now seemed manageable, its completion and publication inevitable. He would throw himself into work with a renewed vigour, informed by the sort of passion that had so impressed those jurors. Yes, passion was what had been missing from his latest work; passion, propped up by artful craft, could be his salvation.

But not just yet. His telephone was still ringing, interview requests from reporters and congratulations from friends and—this most delicious—acquaintances who now wished to be friends. Serious work was out of the question with such interruptions. And at any rate, a day or two of diversion, to savour the moment and let its meaning sink in, would do him good. A perverse, compulsive pleasure, but pleasure nonetheless, like tonguing a sore tooth.

Mandalstram consulted the internet and, fortified by a cup of espresso, telephoned his first wife, who lived now in Milan, where she had a thriving practice as a designer of high fashion, knowing full well what sort of response he was likely to induce. They hadn’t spoken in over twenty years, and that only as the result of accident, but he had kept up with her comings and doings, another perverse pleasure.

“Louella,” he announced, “it’s Franklin.”

“Calling to gloat?” Her voice sounded older, leathery, but with all of its old bite. To his disappointment, she didn’t seem at all surprised to be hearing from him.

“Gloat?”

“I read about your triumph.”

“Hardly that, my dear.”

“Considering what came before it….”

“Well, yes. And thank you for the implied congratulations. But gloat, no, that isn’t what I’ve called about.”

“And that is?”

He hesitated, betraying himself. “To apologize. I am sorry. For…”

“Oh, fuck you, Franklin.” She hung up.

Mandalstram was stunned by the sharpness of her response, though it did not extend far beyond the realm of what he had considered possible—he certainly had known she wouldn’t be pleased to hear from him, regardless of the circumstances. They had both been young and inexperienced in their brief time together—she had come into his life during that bleak period when he was nursing the wounds inflicted on his heart by the Spanish woman—and it had ended badly, on so sour a note that a stain on the abilities of both of them to form healthy relationships had remained for some time, only gradually fading. As to be expected, Mandalstram had blamed Louella, she had blamed him. Over time, he had come to realize that probably neither was to blame, that they had both merely been caught up in forces beyond their control. Louella, apparently, had not yet attained that stage of perspective and clarity.

Having worked his way through that brief analysis, Mandalstram broke into a smile and brewed himself another cup of strong coffee—this was a morning for indulgence. Although the call had not gone as he’d hoped, he still drew grim satisfaction from it. He made a mental check on the list he carried in his head, a duplicate of the one he’d drawn up in Toronto.

*

Mandalstram’s parents had been Holocaust survivors who were loathe to talk about their past. He was a bright, inquisitive child, with a fertile imagination, an only child often left to his own devices, and though his parents provided few clues, he grew up surmising that they were Jewish. Indeed, they attended a Reform synagogue and his father was a reliable contributor to the minion. It was only in his teenaged years that he learned they weren’t Jews. Berliners, intellectuals, journalists the both of them, they were Communists persecuted for their politics, not for race or faith. Mandalstram’s father was an atheist, whose own parents had been Catholic farmers; but his mother had been raised a Lutheran and came from a well respected middle-class family of lawyers and teachers, good Aryan stock. True, the name Mandalstram did smack of Jewry, though it was in fact solidly Germanic, but had not his father and mother both written inflammatory articles attacking National Socialism in a suspect periodical, they would likely have gone through that terrible period of history unscathed. At the very least, they would have been able to escape with body and conscience intact.

Instead, they rejected several opportunities, first to emigrate in orderly fashion, later to flee in haste, and were rounded up and sent in cattle cars along with hundreds of fellow travelers to Bergen-Belsen, where, somehow, they managed to survive.

Prying even these minimal details out of his parents had been something of an achievement for the high-school-and-college-aged Mandalstram, so he never did learn anything of their lives in captivity, the bargains they may have been forced to enter into.

At any rate, after the war, the shattered couple was able, finally, to emigrate to the United States, where they attempted to rebuild their lives, taking up residence in a largely Jewish neighbourhood in the Bronx and devoting themselves—or so it seemed later to their son—to a quiet pursuit of redemption, not that they were in need of any. It was perhaps inevitable that these survivors of Hitler’s death camps should seek the comforting company of other survivors, the teenaged Mandalstram conjectured; if not inevitable, it had at least worked out well. The elder Mandalstrams lived a quiet, humdrum existence, working as minor government functionaries—his mother as a clerk at the borough hall’s property tax department, his father with the post office. As a child, teenager and young man, Mandalstram, of course, had chafed against the restraints of his parents’ orderly lives, had rebelled against it, but in time he’d come to understand it. As a refugee from the U.S. to Canada during the inflammatory years of the Vietnamese war, he found himself replicating their steps to a certain extent.

Mandalstram’s parent were now dead. He had no living relatives on this side of the Atlantic, at least none he was aware of, and no knowledge of any relatives on the other side. That was one area of his past that was immune, then, from his present preoccupation. Nor could he think of any offence he might have caused any of the millions of people involved in that sordid chapter of history. No, if there was an apology owed, it certainly wasn’t from him.

*

Mandalstram had no idea where his second wife, Margarita, was now. He mined his address book and, again, the internet for clues, without success, and made a few calls, but the mutual friends he consulted either did not know her whereabouts or were disinclined to reveal them to him. His call to Arthur Behrens, a friend from those days, an art school classmate of Margarita’s, who had climbed through the ranks of the federal cultural bureaucracy and was now an assistant deputy minister, was typical.

“I don’t think she would want to hear from you, Franklin—even if I knew where she was.”

“Which you really don’t, I presume?”

“Of course.”

“Well, you said she wouldn’t want to hear from me. I thought perhaps…”

“No, I’m not lying. If I did know, I’d say so, but wouldn’t tell you where. I’d be willing to pass along a message, that’s all. But as I said, I don’t…”

“So what you’re willing or not willing to do is irrelevant,” Mandalstram interrupted.

“Yes, but your ill-temper does little to engender sympathy, quite frankly. Congratulations again on your prize. Now goodbye.”

Mandalstram attempted to apologize for his impatience, but Behrens had already hung up. A few more calls that were no more productive only served to abrade his nerves and cause him to reappraise his day’s activities. What exactly was he after?

He put on his walking shoes and a warm jacket and set out from his small rented house (should he try to buy it? he wondered) to the waterfront, less than half a mile distant. It was along its serene shores, watching bobbing fishing boats and seagulls, that he often did his most creative thinking. There was a blustery wind but the temperature was unusually mild for November.

It was Mandalstram’s affair with Margarita that had triggered the breakup with Louella, and his second marriage had ended just as badly as the first. Even worse, perhaps, because there was, to use a phrase he found delicious in its ironies, collateral damage. Again, they had been young, and ill prepared not only for the poverty-dogged relationship but the parenthood that had accompanied it. Margarita was a painter with a promising future and the detour that motherhood caused in her career embittered her, not toward the child, thankfully, but toward Mandalstram, as if everything that followed from that first passionate coming together had been the fault of his sperm, her egg having been merely an innocent bystander.

Of course, it helped not a whit that Mandalstram was a terrible father, incompetent and disinterested. After the breakup, he made half-hearted attempts to keep in touch with the child—a delightful little girl named Sunshine, whose blond ringlets and cherubic cheeks seemed almost contrived—but they had eventually become estranged. The last time he’d seen her, when she was nearing puberty, most of the shine had already rubbed off the girl, and she was cocooned in an impenetrable swirl of hurt and sulk. Mandalstram hadn’t thought much about either his daughter or her mother in the years since—though Sunshine’s birthday would always bring him pangs of guilt and regret—but now he found himself inexplicably filled with an intense longing to see the girl—she would, in fact, be a woman of close to 30. According to one acquaintance he’d phoned, she lived in Southern California and was well-established as a publicist for Hollywood films, often traveling abroad to be on location—her name could be seen at the end of the occasional movie in the fast-moving welter of credits; although she had disavowed her father, she inexplicably continued to use his name, apparently.

Mandalstram bought a chicken salad sandwich on a French baguette at an open-air stand near the dock and, while leaning against a railing overlooking rocks and water, washed it down with an ice-cold locally produced root beer from a bottle. This lunch was so simple and brought such pleasure, but previously had been beyond his means other than as a very occasional treat. He had hopes now of enjoying such a midday meal once or even twice a week.

He fed crusts of bread to gulls and ducks as he contemplated his next steps. Apology, he now realized, was the driving force behind this project, which was still taking shape in his head. At first, he’d thought of it strictly as an exercise in clearing the decks, touching base with people who had been important to him at this, a significant moment in his life. It wasn’t their congratulations or good wishes he was after—he’d thought he merely wanted to assure himself that things were unfolding as positively in their orbits as they were in his, so unusual was his good fortune. His clumsy attempt to apologize to his first wife for old crimes, real and imagined, had surprised him as much as it must have her. Now it was becoming clear to him that what he was after was, if not redemption or even forgiveness exactly, something along those lines. “Poet of the heartbroken,” the jury had written, “a connoisseur of longing.” He had focused on the latter, the longing part of that curious equation; now, the former was resonating more. Was not giving voice to the heartbroken the special brief of the novelist?

At the same time, he realized, he still wasn’t exactly sure what those labels meant—so laudatory, on first reading, but were they really? Had the jury intended some form of sly irony?

*

When Mandalstram had begun to write, over thirty years earlier—first poetry, then moody, introspective stories, then complex, layered novels—his art was very much informed by the experience of his parents, though he knew so little of it. A large supporting cast of Jews, Communists, Germans and refugees from one disaster or another crept into his stories, usually as minor characters, though occasionally one would shoulder his way to the forefront. Many pieces involved children of Holocaust survivors; a story and several poems were actually set in concentration camps. One academic critic, writing about Mandalstram’s third novel, identified exodus—flight, persecution, the refugee experience—as a major theme in his work. Still, when an article in Border Crossings, a magazine primarily of the visual arts, mentioned his name in connection with a growing number of Canadian artists of various disciplines influenced by the Holocaust, he was surprised.

He began to be invited occasionally to do readings at temples or participate in Jewish book fairs, and to be mentioned, along with better known writers, like Richler and the Cohens, Leonard and Matt, as representing a new Canadian Jewish literary renaissance, a misapprehension he did nothing to correct, and from that point on—the Border Crossings piece—the Holocaust specifically and genocide in general became central preoccupations in his work. The recent novel that had won the award was the first in almost two decades in which those themes had been entirely absent, and it had been produced during a pause he had taken in a big novel, his most ambitious undertaking yet, overwhelming, really, that revolved around a large cast of Holocaust survivors, perpetrators and collaborators, and their children.

It was to this novel he now intended to return, with renewed vigour. But first he needed to play out the admittedly perverse string he’d begun that morning.

*

Here was the score, as he recorded it on the back of that sheet of hotel stationary on which this plot had first been hatched, only a few days earlier. Wife one, a strike out; wife two and daughter, both missing in action. That left wife three, but Mandalstram wasn’t yet ready to tackle that particular challenge, which might, he knew, prove to be the thorniest.

There had been a number of other women in his life, of course; he wasn’t sure which of them he might want to now pursue. Nor had he given up on the search for his daughter, and, should he find her, she might direct him to Margarita. He was thinking all this as he sat tossing pebbles into the placid water under his favourite tree, an expansive oak that leaned seaward from a spit of land jutting in the same direction. All the signs seemed to be directing him eastward, toward Europe, the familial homeland. With each pebble, he counted the concentric rings produced on the face of the water. There were other dusty corners of his life worth investigating, he thought. On the list he’d drawn up, after “wives,” “lovers” and “family,” he’d written “friends.”

He had been an indifferent and undistinguished student. Of his grade school and high school years in the Bronx, he had few pleasant recollections, and there certainly were no teachers who stood out in his memory. Unlike some of his friends who spoke warmly of the influence one particular teacher or another had had on their lives, Mandalstram had encountered no such mentor, not even in college, in the States—where he’d attended City College in Manhattan for two years before the furor over the war had overtaken his studies—or university in Canada, where he had finally obtained a degree, in comparative literature, from Concordia. A few professors had been friendly, certainly, but none to the extent that a friendship off campus had evolved. None had even been particularly encouraging, as far as he could recall.

As far as friends went, though, there was one old childhood chum, whom he’d become reacquainted with out of the blue a few years earlier, and quite a few from later years, including a handful of close friends from student politics days, on both sides of the border. As he walked back toward his house, he sorted through various names and faces, drawing up a tentative list of people to call. At the top was Hal Wolfowitz.

*

There was an email, several actually, he was looking for. They weren’t in his computer’s in-basket, or in the folder marked Friends, nor were they in Trash, where thousands of old email messages of all sorts gathered dust and, for all Mandalstram knew, plotted conspiracies. Finally, though, in the Sent directory, he found an email he’d written in reply to one from Wolfowitz that contained a record of previous exchanges.

The thread began with a note from someone—the name had rung no immediate bell—asking if he was the Franklin Mandalstram who had once lived on West 183rd Street near the Grand Concourse in the Bronx? If he was, then perhaps he would recall the author of the email, Hal Wolfowitz, who had been a classmate and friend all through grade school. He was now a professor of history at—of all places—the University of New Mexico, having traveled even further from the Bronx than Mandalstram had, at least in terms of miles.

Once having adjusted the context, he remembered Hal very well—in his memory, they were not just friends but best friends, the boy he’d spent countless hours with swapping comic books and records, talking baseball statistics and girls—and they’d exchanged several nostalgic emails since, mostly pondering how it was that they had drifted apart and lost touch—though none in the last year or two. A reading of the email trail seemed to suggest the fault was chiefly Mandalstram’s. Now, having secured a phone number on the internet, Mandalstram was listening to a phone ring in a university office somewhere in Albuquerque. The voice that answered, though, was female.

“Professor Wolfowitz, please,” Mandalstram said.

There was a pause. “May I ask who’s calling?”

“Franklin Mandalstram. I’m calling from Halifax, in Canada. For Hal Wolfowitz? We’re old friends.”

Another pause. “I’m sorry to have to tell you then that Professor Wolfowitz is dead.”

“God,” Mandalstram said.

“It just happened last week, a heart attack, at his desk. The funeral was Monday.”

Mandalstram poured himself a stiff shot of Bushmill’s Black Bush Irish whiskey, his drink of choice when he could afford it, and bolted it back, then poured another to sip from. This wasn’t going well, and he was beginning to wonder what exactly he was hoping to achieve. It was only mid-afternoon, though, and having come this far, he determined to persevere.

Mandalstram and Martin Semple had come to Canada together as draft resisters in the early ‘70s and had even lived together briefly in their first months in Montreal. Martin had gone back to the States after the amnesty of 1977, but they had kept sporadically in touch, though Mandalstram couldn’t remember the last time. Semple had finished university, gone on for a doctorate in French literature and now was a professor at NYU—presuming he too hadn’t prematurely died. The first number in his address book, a New York City number, was not in service; but a second number, with an unfamiliar area code, produced a ring that was eventually answered by someone with a very young voice, sex undeterminable. After the usual semi-comic interplay—“is Mr. Semple there?” “Mr. Who?” “Well, let me speak to your father…?” and so on—Martin came on the line.

“Franklin?” he said after he finally understood who was calling. “What the hell do you want, you son of a bitch?” A sentence like that, pronounced in a jocular tone, could be the start of a pleasant, jokey conversation, but Martin’s tone was not particularly jocular, making Mandalstram wary.

“I’m just calling to say hello, Marty.”

“For Christ’s sake, what is it?”

Mandalstram was confused. Unlike his first wife, whose enmity he fully understood, he had no recollection of any bad blood between him and Martin.

“Just that, Marty. No ulterior motives, honest. Not wanting to borrow money, asking no favours, nothing like that. Not even calling to spread gossip.” Mandalstram chuckled, then paused to allow Martin to respond, but there was no response, so he went on. “Actually, there was something I’ve been wondering about, something I wanted to talk to you about.”

“If it’s about the money you already owe me, forget it,” Semple said. “I wrote that bad debt off long ago.”

“Money? I didn’t realize I owed you money, Marty. That I owe you, yes, of course, but money? I don’t recall.”

“Listen, like I said, forget it. Water over the bridge.”

“It happens that I’ve recently come into some unexpected money. How much was it?”

“Didn’t you hear what I said? Forget about it. I have.”

“Well, then, I’d like to ask you about…well, you remember that year we lived together.”

“How could I forget?

“And you remember Ingrid? That waitress you went around with for a while?”

There was no response.

“This will seem crazy, but do you remember, once we had a very brief argument over her?”

Again, silence from the other end of the line.

“I don’t remember what I said exactly, but something about her that you took exception to. You probably don’t even remember this, it was so trivial. I don’t think we ever discussed it again.”

More silence.

“Marty, you still there?”

Silence, then, finally, a frigid “I’m here.”

“So, do you remember….”

“I remember you fucked my girlfriend, you asshole, I do remember that. I remember you didn’t say anything about that.”

“Martin, I….”

“I remember you fucked the woman who became my wife, shithead. And there was something you wanted to ask me? Forgiveness?”

“Well….”

“Listen, Franklin, don’t call here again.” With that, the line went dead.

Mandalstram was stunned. He only barely remembered having had sex with Ingrid, and had no idea she and Marty had gotten married. That must have happened after he went back to New York—she had followed? Mandalstram’s memory of that period was murky at best. He hadn’t even known they were serious, although that must have been why whatever he had said back then caused the argument. A brief trivial argument, at least that’s what he had thought at the time.

Mandalstram went to the window in his bedroom, which had a better view of the street than the living room’s. He stood for a long time watching foot and vehicle traffic. A Buick from the ‘80s pulled up across the street and expelled a man in an ill-fitting dark suit who consulted a piece of paper from his pocket, then re-entered the car, which sped away. A truck rumbled past, driven by a man with thick dark hair on his arm, which swung like a symphony conductor’s from his open window. Two boys on bicycles rode by, their laughter trailing after them in the balmy air. An attractive young woman in a polka dot dress walked down the street swinging her handbag, followed by an old woman, the woman who lived two houses down, in black. A dog, a nondescript mutt, zigzagged across the street, then back, sniffing the air.

A dark stream of sadness coursed through Mandalstram as he watched the tableau of life, limited as it was on this particular street in this particular city, unfold before his eyes. In his mind, he drew a line through the name of his third wife, having determined to let that particular sleeping dog lie. He still had a longing to connect with his daughter—and he would, he determined—she was out there somewhere, and he would find her. How many Mandalstrams could there be in Hollywood? And might not she actually be pleased to hear from her father, estranged though they were? But in other respects, he would leave the past alone. He had enough trouble coping with the heartbreak of the present, with his longing for a future.

—Dave Margoshes

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Dave Margoshes is a Saskatchewan writer whose work has appeared widely in Canadian literary magazines and anthologies, including six times in the Best Canadian Stories volumes. He was a finalist for the Journey Prize, Canada’s premier short story award, in 2009. He’s published over a dozen books, including Bix’s Trumpet and Other Stories, which was named Saskatchewan Book of the Year in 2007, and A Book of Great Worth, a collection of linked short stories that was among Amazon.Ca’s Top Hundred Books of 2012. “The Connoisseur of Longing” is part of a new collection, God Telling a Joke and Other Stories, published in spring 2014. A new novel, Wiseman’s Wager, is due out in the fall. He lives on a farm outside Saskatoon.

 

Jun 122014
 

 EPSON MFP image

This is a wry, witty, ingenious story, a tour de force of whimsy, not really a single story, but ten completely different micro-stories hung on the same peg. Tim Conley is a bit like Scheherazade; you get the feeling he could spin out a different story every night ad infinitum. He sets you up with an introduction in the voice of a folklorist or linguist who’s found a peculiar idiom in rural Quebec — le voisin n’a qu’une maison. It means something like “the neighbour has only one house,” which, well, makes no sense. But the folklorist opines that there might have been a story behind the idiom, a tale lost to the ages. With that, Conley is off to the races, inventing those tales, from slapstick to faltering romance, completely different sets of characters and life-situations, wonderfully told.

dg

 

In a small agrarian town in northern Quebec, they have a saying: le voisin n’a qu’une maison, “the neighbour has only one house” or “the neighbour only has a house,” depending on where one prefers to hear the emphasis. Exactly what this phrase means has proved a puzzle for linguists and sociologists. Though not altogether inhospitable, the steely-eyed townsfolk do not much care for the questions of outsiders. Suggestions of an unknown story behind the expression –of its being a mnemonic tag (of no known specific use), of its being part of an allegory or homily (perhaps distorted by abbreviation, the way “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” has disintegrated to the incoherent “the proof is in the pudding”), or of its having some historical basis (an account of a specific someone’s neighbour, maybe, or a particular house)– all remain unverified. Unfortunately, it has not even been determined whether the following scenarios are accounts of real incidents or inventions produced for the very purpose of illustration, but they are faithfully recorded here as they were found, received, or told, with as much detail and context as were available.

After a long rainstorm, a man out walking is struck by a large, sodden branch that breaks off from a very old tree and pins him to the ground. Two sawyers working nearby rush to his aid and he informs them that he is barely able to breathe; they must hurry. But the branch is too heavy for them to lift. The first sawyer offers to run and fetch a saw, not sixty paces away, but the second sawyer becomes concerned that the pinned man might die in the interim, and while the first sawyer would be subsequently commended for his fast thinking and valiant efforts, the second sawyer would look like a dolt waiting and helplessly watching the man die, and so the second sawyer tersely accuses the first sawyer of not lifting his part of the branch with all of his apparently little strength. So the sawyers again try to lift the branch, and ultimately collapse with even more huffing and panting than before. The pinned man signals that he is without air. The second sawyer announces that he will fetch the saw, and the first sawyer, seeing what his unscrupulous partner is playing at, promptly socks him in the jaw. The second sawyer gets up from the ground and rushes headlong into the first, the two of them crashing together into the tree. This impact causes another branch to break off, and it bounces off of one end of the first fallen branch, neatly knocking it off the gasping man, who crawls toward the other people who have now gathered at the scene. The two sawyers have hit each other half a dozen more times before they realize what has happened. A witty bystander might aptly remark: le voisin n’a qu’une maison.

Children play in such tall grass that they cannot see one another. They soon become separated but, each thinking that the others must be together, none wants to be the first to cry out for help, and thus the first branded a coward and surely taunted ever after. One finally has the ingenuity to call out accusing another of being lost. Years later, the friends recount this story at a reunion and own up to their common fears, but they cannot agree which of them came up with the solution. Angrily the inspired one leaves the party, muttering, c’est vrai que le voisin n’a qu’une maison.

Making summer afternoon love by a stream, a young couple is interrupted by cries for help, but they cannot see who is calling and cannot bring themselves to break their exquisite rhythm. The voice shouts that it is drowning, drowning, drowning, but neither lover can see anyone in the unconcernedly flowing water, and their ardor won’t let them part. By the time they are sated, the cries have stopped. They explore the area, and walk downstream a good mile or more before they give up. When they say goodbye to one another, each seems embarrassed and uncertain. Each attends closely to the local news and town talk for days afterward, but neither finds any report of any drowning, and the absence of any such report stymies their communications with one another. They can speak of nothing else, but of this subject they have nothing to say. She changes her hair, and he silently judges the style wrong. He is offered a new job in the next town, a town the two of them had habitually remarked upon as an undesirable place to live, and she tries to be encouraging. After he has moved and eventually finds that the job and the town both suit him, he writes a letter to his friend and tells him about the incident that summer afternoon, and reflects on how fickle the heart is. His friend’s reply: “You idiot, le voisin n’a qu’une maison.”

A father accuses his son of stealing his boots, and the offended son leaves home. In a distant town he finds work as an assistant to a rheumatic sawbones, a kindly man who recognizes the young man’s talent for swift and acute diagnosis, begins to teach him about more than the ordinary ailments and tried remedies. The young man devotes himself to medicine and becomes so trusted by the local people that he very gradually takes over the old doctor’s practice. Within a few years he finds himself brought in to deliver the mayor’s child, a difficult operation because the woman’s cervix is, like her husband, anything but flexible, and the labour lasts three days. On the morning of the third, a message is brought to the physician: it is from his father, who reports that he has found his boots, and all is forgiven. The mayor’s wife pauses in her shrieking when she sees her doctor’s face momentarily lose its imperturbable aspect, and asks him what is wrong. He answers, le voisin n’a qu’une maison, and resumes his work.

Complaining of his breakfast at an inn, a guest unconsciously runs his fingers through his beard as he is dressing down the manager, a woman who takes this gesture as a lewd suggestion. She takes greater offence than she might because, sordid truth be told, she was feverishly fantasizing about this very guest’s beard the night before, which is not at all the sort of thing she would normally do. She more than matches his barrage of insults. Not accustomed to hoteliers abusing him, and surprised and upset to hear that his beard-stroking was in any way vulgar, the guest begins stammering an apology, whereupon the manager, realizing that she has overdone it, herself begins to apologize. She says that his dinner will be on the house, and he replies that he will only accept if she will dine with him. Just then the manager’s miserable, lazy, and cleanshaven husband, who has just been stealthily coming down the staircase behind them, snarls, le voisin n’a qu’une maison, but chokes on the last word, and rolls down the remaining stairs to the floor, never to be revived. On his headstone his widow has written: le voisin n’a qu’une maison.

An unmarried schoolteacher arouses the distrust of a student’s mother, who thinks that such situations are ghastly beyond words. This mother circulates the story that the schoolteacher is known to walk the streets at night, perhaps asleep but perhaps not, and the story’s vagueness ensures that it spreads like wildfire in a high wind. The schoolteacher finds herself unwelcome in certain places and unacknowledged by certain people. One day she overhears two of her students recounting a version of the story, and she decides to take up walking the streets at night, but dressed in her mother’s bridal gown. The story evolves and diversifies in quick response to witness accounts of her wordless, almost ethereal perambulations: she is a widow, longing for her dead husband, in love with a ghost; she has been seduced by some man in the community, who will not do right by her, perhaps because he is already married, and these nightly marches are her mute but moving protest; she is a lunatic, imagines herself wed to the moon; she has been hypnotized by the wicked schoolchildren, and unknowingly seeks a groom every night; she is holy; she is cursed; she is the picture of sorrow; she is a sign of hope. The mother’s original story and spite are eclipsed. Without exception her students all become more attentive to their studies. One cloudless night a man walks out to intercept her in the middle of the street, falls to his knees and asks for her hand in marriage. She says with a voice not her own, le voisin n’a qu’une maison.

A man loses his boot walking through an extremely muddy field one rainy evening. He arrives home and his father-in-law, with whom the man, his wife, and their children live, asks him what inspired him to go out in such weather in one boot. Trying to assume the patience necessary for dealing with this suspicious, narrow-minded old goat, the man explains that on the eve of the feast of St. Bunions it is considered good luck to walk in the evening with only one boot. His father-in-law scoffs but is still thinking about it when he retires to his room. He wonders whether there is some truth to the story, or whether it is simply some excuse meant to conceal something, and his inability to decide between these possibilities sends him out later that night, when the others are asleep in bed, in one boot, determined to find out which is the case. In the now quite fierce wind and the rain he hobbles and anxiously looks about, without having any set idea as to what he is looking for, and before long he is completely lost, though he does not admit as much to himself, and keeps hunting for his answer. He is found, shivering in a small wood, early the next morning. A doctor asks him some questions as he examines the old man sleepless in his bed, but obtains only nonsensical answers about hidden treasure, his many enemies, a saint nobody has heard of. The doctor is asked by one of the children whether grandfather will be all right, and he answers, “It is difficult to say, but le voisin n’a qu’une maison.”

A daring fox has been attacking a number of adjacent poultry farms, inspiring wagers in a popular tavern as to who is to be the next victim. One evening, when the betting is high and the laughter loud, the odds-on favourite, a grizzled and gruff man to whom life has seldom been kind, loses his composure and openly sobs into his drink. Early the next morning, the fox is killed by hunters and its carcass is brought to the sad farmer. He holds it up by the tail and says, le voisin n’a qu’une maison. The next day he puts the farm up for sale and leaves the country.

Recounted by a nonagenarian in a Sherbrooke nursing home: “If you threw a stone in a pond, and there was this large pond near the old cottage, one of my cousins nearly drowned there, and we teased him for years afterwards, called him the fish, there goes the fish, he hated that. What they don’t know, I’ll tell you, is how long a grievance can last. And I doubt their medical credentials, I’ll tell you that. But it was the pond wasn’t it, to return to our subject, if you threw a stone in a pond, you would naturally expect what are they called ripples, yes, but if you threw a stone in the pond and there were absolutely no ripples, and though this has never happened to a stone I threw, and look at me, I’m not going to be throwing any stones now, but do you know, never count anybody out, I’ll tell you that, never count anybody out. But that pond. Any pond, really. The trick is to throw a stone into it without causing a single ripple, and once I saw this done by a small girl nobody thought capable of anything, she was always following our gang around, and after all of us gave up on the game, she picked up a stone and threw it right in, not a single ripple. That girl went on to marry a big shot, I heard, I don’t remember who told me, but what I said when I heard about it was le voisin n’a qu’une maison, as my grandmother used to say when she cut up the lemons. And that really summed it up, you know.”

A talented singer finds herself unable to master a particular score that she has agreed to perform. The piece is not especially demanding, she admits to her mother, but invariably her breathing becomes irregular somewhere in the middle and her enunciation falters. She must impress this patron and cannot turn down the commission without injury to her reputation and career. Her mother assures her that everything will be all right, that she will surely master the piece soon, that it is probably just nerves. The daughter seethes in silence: how she wishes her mother could be more severe with her, slap her across the face and shout at her to work harder, or else be less encouraging, say to her that the commission doesn’t matter, that this only shows that music was never really her future; but instead it will always be all right, according to her mother. She decides that she will disgrace herself on stage to shatter her mother’s unwavering faith in her, and ceases practising for the concert. The night before the concert, however, her mother accidentally reveals that she is having an affair with her daughter’s patron, and it is only as a favour to his lover that he has invited her daughter to perform. The daughter appears to applause the next evening wearing the gown her mother has bought her for this occasion and, instead of singing the advertised work, trills the words votre voisin, n’a-t-il qu’une maison? to the tune of a ditty she learned in childhood.

—Tim Conley

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Tim Conley’s short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in various journals in seven countries. He is the author of two collections of short fiction, Whatever Happens (2006) and Nothing Could Be Further (2011), and a book of poetry, One False Move (2012).

 

Jun 112014
 

Jody Bolz

Shadow Play recounts in untitled and narrative poems a journey across Asia taken in the mid-1970’s through the contemplative eyes of its narrator decades later. At its core is the dissolution of a young marriage and the imagined discourse the narrator has with her former husband about the mystery of love, whether it ends or not. Her perplexity over the question leads the narrator to conclude that “Love’s a puzzle. A test. / A miracle, I guess.” Inconclusive perhaps, but hard won, as she argues with herself through the conjured voice of her former husband. As far-flung as Shadow Play is in setting,  it’s also domestic and close to the heart. These are poems with the intelligence and vigilance that Paul Valéry says might serve to represent and restore what “cries, tears, caresses, kisses, sighs, etc., try obscurely to express…”  Herewith is an excerpt of Jody Bolz’s novella in verse, Shadow Play.

—Jason DeYoung

bolz

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Shadow Play

On the train across Java
we slept in a knot:
my head in your lap,
your head on my back,

two hundred miles
through the tropical dark
in shuddering third-class.
At every major stop,

a skirmish of shouted light—
vendors hawking tea and rice
to sleep-drugged passengers—
receded in a rush,

the jasmine-scented silence
sweet and abrupt.
When the station’s speakers
keened their exit song,

the train lurched on.
Whirr of palm and banyan,
gibbous moon, skewed night sky—
green stars above the village mosque

jumped and scuttled by
in deranged constellations.
We stretched, switched positions:
your hair red as rose stalks

against my faded dress,
my braids strict shadows
on your moonlit back,
our fractured dreams resettling….

Outside Bandung at dawn,
I shook my buzzing limbs,
cracked our dusty window open
to mountain air.

A boy wrapped in a shawl
shot past in the brightening field.
One child, then another—
a horde of barefoot children

in tattered pastel sweaters
raced beside the tracks,
calling out for coins,
for candies,

falling far behind us
by the time we reached
their shanties: tin roofs
at the rail-bed’s edge—

doorways set in sloping walls,
a threshing floor,
an open sewer.
As our train slowed

a pregnant girl,
waist-long hair undone,
stepped out of a hovel
fastening her sarong.

We passed her without speaking,
tugging at the taut string
of our marriage
as it rose over rice-fields,

climbing into monsoon clouds,
swaying there—spiraling—
not some thing,
not a child’s kite:

our common life, flown
above another Asian city
in the year we made a home
out of our bodies.

§

I’m shaping a mosaic
out of broken bits…
not exactly a gift.
Not exact—

a waking dream of India,
brazen as a blue-skinned god
rank with rotting marigolds
or silent on a riverbank:

the Hooghli in Calcutta—
sludge-gray, chest-deep water
blossoming with saris.
Young matrons bathe together,

an old man squats and strains near
a woman filling copper jugs.
A bloated ox, stiff legs up,
slips by under sail,

a vulture on its belly
coiled in slick entrails.
We linger on a bridge,
transfixed by the blind beak

gently teasing white from pink.
The rotting vessel
slowly shrinks,
then floats out of view.

What corpse am I
scavenging for you?

§

You’re offering me a metaphor?

But—we were there.

You’re looking for something more.
What is it?

I’m not sure.

We have other lives now.

This isn’t a betrayal.

How can you tell?

§

Twenty years ago, you woke me
in a hut near Brujenkhola
reeking smoky thatch and goat dung.
Beyond the unglazed window,

full night on the valley floor,
featureless, obscure—
but you pointed to the sky.
Your shoulder pressed mine.

A triangle of coral light
hovered in the blue-black dark:
the mountain
we’d walked days to see,

fish-tailed Machha Puchhare,
flaring like a sun
an hour before dawn.
We lay on our bedrolls,

awake, and watched the light grow.
Later, after clay-red tea,
we gathered up our packs,
paid our host and said goodbye.

The inn-keeper’s deaf daughter
waved, chasing her sister,
as we started for the river.
Ten minutes to a narrow bridge

across the Seti Khola,
wooden slats half rotted—
cables frayed, too far apart
to grab with our arms out.

We had to walk a line of boards
nailed loosely down the center,
bisecting our vision
of pale-green glacial water

in its bed of chalky boulders
more than twenty feet below us.
You tapped your toe
against each plank

and made your way across,
agile as a gymnast,
hands see-sawing for balance.
After heart-stopping seconds,

you yelled above the rapids’ roar
Wait there and dropped your pack.
Faster, you retraced your steps
to bring me back,

coaxing from three yards ahead,
Take a step—
now take another.
Don’t look at the river
.

Head throbbing,
I stepped staring
at the battered boots
that moved in jerks

above the milky current:
one foot, then the other,
stepped—and stepped again—
until I stepped on land.

We shouted and kissed there,
laughing as we sprawled on shore
guzzling water,
brown and iodine-bitter.

Soon we were singing,
climbing the stony track
through thick rhododendron,
juniper, yew.

By noon, dry and dizzy,
we trudged into a clearing
where an angel was waiting
in a whorl of dusty sunlight.

Poised on the ridgeline,
a shirtless boy, eight or nine—
beautiful despite one blind-blue eye—
held out a bowl of oranges

Suntalla, sahib?
and they glowed like gold.
We bought as many as he’d sell,
tore away the bitter skins

with stinging fingertips.
Back to back
in the shade of a banyan,
we sat eating oranges

as if nothing could harm us,
no crossing part us.

§

You’re policing failures.

We spent fourteen years together—

And the next fourteen apart.

Which proves the first a failure?

You forget that you loved
someone else for most of that time.

I loved you.

And—

I was eighteen when we met.

I was a child too.

Now you’re close to fifty.
Why don’t you forgive me?

—Jody Bolz

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Jody Bolz was born in Washington, DC, and attended Cornell University, where she studied with A.R. Ammons. After receiving her MFA, she worked as a journalist for two major conservation organizations (The Wilderness Society and The Nature Conservancy) and taught creative writing for more than 20 years at George Washington University. Her poems have appeared widely in such magazines as The American Scholar, Indiana Review, North American Review, Ploughshares, Poetry East, Poetry Northwest, Prairie Schooner, and Southern Poetry Review—and in many literary anthologies. Among her honors is a Rona Jaffe Foundation writer’s award. She edits the journal Poet Lore, founded in 1889, and is the author of A Lesson in Narrative Time (Gihon Books, 2004).

Jun 032014
 
jose_luis_sampedro bw
José Luis Sampedro © José Aymá via Komunikis

La Vieja Sirena (The Old Mermaid) is a novel by José Luis Sampedro first published in Spanish in 1990. It is the second title in Sampedro’s trilogy Los círculos de tiempo (Circles of Time) which also includes Octubre, Octubre (October, October) (1981) and Real Sitio (Seat of Power) (1993).

As the novel’s epigraph from William Blake states: Eternity is in love with the productions of time. So is Sampedro, whose colorful, skillfully layered drama set in ancient Alexandria, Egypt, in the third century A.D., follows three principal characters: the mysterious and exquisitely beautiful slave Irenia; a power-hungry businessman named Ahram; and Krito, a philosopher employed by Ahram, who experiences the classic blessing and curse of Tiresias as he alternately experiences life as both a man and a woman. The story which then unfolds is one of the complex attractions between these three characters, interpolated with the Irenia’s memories from her life before Alexandria.

The novel’s opening pages present a compelling variety of voices and perspectives: the narrator setting the scene in the ancient Alexandrian marketplace with its delightful cornucopia of wares, and describing the formal transaction between the haughty Amoptis, scribe and son-in-law to Ahram, and the cringing slave dealer who sells him Irenia. Then Amoptis’s cold, selfish, scheming thoughts, governed primarily by ambition and fear. In the final third of the selection, we see life through the eyes of Irenia herself, and how, in this ancient, hierarchical world, her lovely internal monologue introduces the cipher of love as a response to royal pomp and power’s brutal indifference.

One work that The Old Mermaid especially recalls is Flaubert’s great historical fantasia Salammbô (set in ancient Carthage). Sampedro’s novel works a tangible magic with its ability to transport the modern reader to a time and place usually depicted on the plane of relics, tombs, silent hieroglyphics; instead we experience a drama fraught with personal anxiety and wonder at the teeming variety of life and its astonishing experiences.

—Brendan Riley

20091222154839-laviejasirena

 

Part I. The Slave (257 A.D.)

Eternity is in love with the productions of Time
William Blake

Chapter 1. The Land of the Gods

During the warm morning of the Egyptian spring, the summer already close at hand, the market of the third days in Canopus is a continuous vibration of light, color, and voices. The air is riddled with a heady mix of intensely pungent smells and the cries of the merchants who hawk their wares while seated on mats of woven papyrus. Make way! Make way! come the constant shouts of those trying to move through the throng, more densely crowded today because many farmers have harvested their crops and are enjoying the free time imposed by the annual flood which will soon be announced from the great southern Nilometer on Elephantine Island. Some seek care at the hands of the barber surgeon, some pass the time playing the serpent game, while others stop and visit the quack doctor with his magical herbs for cases of love or sickness. Because they are happy, they also permit themselves the luxury of buying barley water from the water vendor who advertises the drink with the jingling of his bells. At last, the plague of the tax assessors has left their fields, the scribes who monitored their reaping like eager crows, estimating first hand the taxes payable on demand for the ripe grain.

Towards midday, farmers and merchants go about packing up their stalls and stands. The smells –sweet or pungent, fermented or aromatic– intensify as the goods and produce are moved about: fava beans, lentils, smoked delta fish, meats and viscera, small sycamore figs alongside the very juiciest figs from true fig trees, dates, pistachios, snails, wild honey gathered in the Nubian oases, sesame, garlic, and so many more, inedible, objects: goatskins, flax, hides, tools, firewood, coal, farming implements, sandals and sun hats woven from papyrus. The plaza empties out, but on the adjacent streets and alleys small shops with more select merchandise remain open: silks and transparent linens suitable for pleating, goldsmiths and other artisans of fine metals, silver and lapis lazuli from the Sinai, imported amber and cosmetics, amulets, perfumes, wigs for men or women, and belts in the latest style. Coming down along one of these streets, the one that descends from the hill crowned by the exalted temple of Serapis, is a rider mounted on an ass whose height and lustrous coat reflect the quality of his personage: a mature man with a clear complexion, small shrewd eyes, and slender lips. From time to time, he checks the correct position of his black wig. One slave opens the way for his mount and another walks at his side, carrying his lord’s staff and sandals; three porters follow behind with bundles of goods acquired in the market.

The rider’s smile indicates pleasant thoughts. Certainly, the words heard in the temple could not have been more promising, dispelling his fears that the new Father of the Mysteries might not grant him the same protection as his recently deceased predecessor. The priestly community thinks in the long term and has not altered its expected plans in defense of the divine interests; nor has it forgotten the services rendered by the rider ever since he was a young scribe in the temple.

“Be patient, my son” the Father has said, “time labors for Heaven. The sacrilegious plundering of the lands of Tanuris, perpetrated by the emperor Caracalla forty-two years ago, will be corrected with your help. Serapis will recover that property and you will no longer be solely the majordomo of your impious patron, but the administrator for life of that estate in the name of the temple.” The rider will command in Tanuris. He will eventually build for himself, on the hilltop overlooking the canal, a tomb with a beautiful sarcophagus, one worthy of a scribe born of the priestly caste, where he will live on in the world of Osiris. His mind delights in contemplating the means necessary for hastening the recovery process, and he does not omit the possibilities of his daughter Yazila who, though barely ten years old, already promises to become a maiden of highly desirable charms. If he manages to get the young master to notice her…!

Meanwhile the slave guide has brought the retinue out of the market district, leading it toward the banks of the Alexandria canal, an area of concentration for the delightful activities that have made Canopus one of the most luxurious spas and pleasure centers in all Egypt. From the small riverside pavilions and pleasure houses and from the colorfully decorated party ships comes the ringing of cymbals, the rhythm of hand drums, and the melody of cithers and flutes. Some barges transport tourists from Alexandria but the majority belong to rich financiers and high society families whose names appear in the street satires or in the erotic epigrams scrawled by night upon certain walls in the capital.

As one additional public service this quarter sports one of the best slave markets, specializing in youths of both sexes trainable for pleasure. The master rises hastily from his shady seat on the porch as he recognizes a regular buyer: the grand majordomo of the House of Tanuris, property of Ahram the Navigator, inhabited by his son-in-law Neferhotep. The rider halts his mount. He condescends to hear the merchant’s flattery but impatiently dismisses how the man sings the praises of his merchandise because he has no intention of making a purchase. The salesman insists:
“At least come to have a look, noble Amoptis. I have an authentic rarity on hand, something never before seen. If this were not true, how could I have dared to detain you?”

In response to a gesture from the rider, his staff bearer hastens to kneel down, placing the sandals alongside the ass. He helps his master to dismount and put them on his feet. Then, handing him his staff, he follows him along the portico to the patio where he then stands waiting for Amoptis to return.

In a room apart from the communal chambers, a woman is lying upon a stone bench set into the wall, covered with a woven mat of rushes. She sits up as she notices the entrance of a possible buyer and, with customary indifference, lets fall to her feet the robe which covers her. Filtering through the latticework blind, the oblique rays of the sun turn her smooth white shapely hips gold. Nevertheless, she fails to provoke the visitor’s interest, for the reason that Amoptis prefers androgynous physiques over her slender body with its erect, high-set breasts whose arrogance resides more in their predictable density than in their volume. Besides, her flesh is not young: she is more than twenty years old, and thus the majordomo is sorry for having entered. He looks reproachfully at the old salesman. But this is what the man was expecting, and without a single word of excuse, he smiles craftily and pulls away the veil covering the woman’s face.

All at once an incredible cascade spills down to her naked shoulders, framing her face with a golden clarity very much like the shine of freshly cut copper. She is not one of those redheads frowned upon by Egyptian superstition: her living mane of silk, which writhes in long waves with her every movement like a gently swelling sea, has the deep, strong, sweet blonde color of ancient amber or fresh honey. Fascinated, Amoptis approaches and caresses the wondrous hair with a trembling hand while the woman remains indifferent. For the first time he contemplates the feminine face: he is astonished by her eyes—somewhere between green and grey—that make him feel guilty of insolence although they do not even deign to look at him. No, they do not see him. Distant from everything as if she were alone, the woman offers his masculine contemplation a figure that now seems marvelous: the discreet fullness of her lips, the delicate nose, the slender neck set upon well-rounded shoulders, the lightly pointed plum-colored nipples, the smooth line of her belly and the perfection of the navel, the tender pubis, and the long full statuesque legs with impeccable knees. As is normal in such transactions, Amoptis might wish to test with his own finger to see if the woman is a virgin, but inexplicably intimidated he suddenly turns his back on the slave and walks towards the door. The astonished salesman follows and closes the door behind him.

“Is your nobleness displeased?”

“At her age I suppose she’s not likely to be a virgin.”

The slave dealer gives a helpless shrug: “If she were, and young, too, she would have it all. But, my lord, that head of hair! I’ve never seen another like it in my life!”

Amoptis acknowledges it, and in that instant conceives of an idea that can win him greater influence over his wife, as well as—although he does not admit it to himself—free himself from his ridiculous inhibition before a mere slave. Such an absurd sentiment for the Grand Majordomo of Neferhotep, son-in-law of Ahram the Navigator, thanks to whose influence he is a member of the Municipal Council of Alexandria!
Amoptis opens the negotiation disdainfully.

“She’s not really worth a great deal. The only thing valuable to me is her hair. If you would sell me just that I would leave you the body.”

And as the salesman looks at him strangely, he concludes:
“So I could offer a wig to my wife. She would take delight in dazzling the ladies of Alexandria with it.”

With the price finally agreed upon—not very high because the salesman has had to admit that she is already twenty-three years old and a Christian terrorist—Amoptis reenters the room, where the woman gets to her feet, guessing the outcome.

“Be content: you are fortunate in your new master,” begins the salesman, “none less than the powerful Ahram…”
Amoptis silences him with a gesture and orders the woman to disrobe.

“Turn around and bend over,” he orders imperiously, thus discovering the harmony of the female back, covered almost to the waist by her hair.

The woman obeys, holding herself at a right angle, with her hands on her knees. Amoptis approaches her suggestive buttocks, and with humiliating brutality thrusts his hand between her legs, forcing them apart. Apparently he is simply following custom but in reality he exercises a vengeance for having felt intimidated before her. Although to do so, he has to touch those impure folds of female flesh, hardly attractive to one who was initiated into sex through the virile adolescent backsides of temple choirboys. Amoptis then orders the slave to dress and forbids her to uncover her hair unless he orders it: he wants to surprise his wife.

“Where are you from?” he asks in Egyptian.

“From the island of Psyra, sir,” she responds, also in Egyptian, though clumsily. Her voice is seductive without trying to be.

“Your name?” continues Amoptis in Greek, proud of his learning.

“Lately they have called me Irenia,” responds the slave. An imperceptible stab of pain wounds her heart as she remembers when she joined the wandering Christians that it was Domicia who gave her that name which means peace.

As he pays for his purchase, Amoptis orders some papyrus sandals to be brought for the slave. With an hour’s journey to Tanuris he does not wish to ruin the delicate feet that add value to his merchandise.
Upon arriving to the villa, Amoptis considers that it has gotten too late to show off his discovery. To ensure the surprise he orders them to take the slave to his own room, spread out a mat for her, and serve her food. And so when, with other obligations accomplished, he ascends to his chambers, he finds the woman there. He would prefer to be alone but decides to take advantage of her presence to have her remove his shoes and wash his feet with natron water, first ordering her to uncover her amazing hair.

Lost in thought, he lets her work. As she caresses his feet in the washbowl he suddenly notices that her feminine gestures are singularly soft and delicate. Leaning forward he studies the pair of delicate hands encircling his ankles. They lack the roughness of one who has run with a band of terrorists. Each movement of her bowed head makes her hair ripple and expand. Amoptis runs his fingers across that silk and feels an almost forgotten desire beating in his old veins. Meanwhile she has finished drying his feet and removes the vessel.

“You’re skillful. Are you trained in the arts of massage?”

“I have practiced them, my lord.”

The man stands and orders her to help him undress, then he stretches himself out face down on the bed, displaying a scribe’s narrow back with the spine slightly crooked, flaccid buttocks, and thin legs with knotty knees. He indicates a flask of oil on the shelf. Her feminine hands begin to caress, prod, and stimulate his lean flesh. The man sighs, pensive: Who would have imagined…that this happen to me, at my age…? If my little Yazila could learn these massages, I’m sure that the master would take delight in her flexible body, in her cinnamon skin…I will manage it, she will have to help me…ah, this woman, this woman! So cold, and knowing so much! Softly skinning me alive, removing my skin to go deeper inside…Where could she have…

“Have you ever worked in brothels? Don’t lie!”

The woman looks at him stupefied. Why would she have to lie?

“In Byzantium, my lord.”

Byzantium…they say that the pleasures there…I’m sure that…He suddenly turns over and before thinking about it, his body orders his voice:
“Suck me!”

The slave does not reply. Already kneeling, she lowers her head over his groin and her mouth knowingly begins to caress his circumcised member as her hair brushes against his half-opened thighs… Slow, slowly… The man sighs, pants, trembles, feels delight… His body feels disconnected, dispersed, liquid: he has never known such feverish dissolution… The woman returns to the alcove for the washbowl, returns with it, and carefully washes his shrinking member.

“Put out the lamp,” orders the man at last, “but leave that candle burning.”

Amoptis closes his eyes, not so much to fall asleep as to make her, and the confusion she causes him, disappear. He is always so self-assured! How is it that this woman who seemed to be ignoring him has driven him to such distraction? He begins to wonder if he has not perhaps brought some evil creature into his house. Suddenly he is frightened to recall that, as rumor has it, the carriers of the strange plague which has lately flared up, thrive among those who live badly. The very next morning, once her hair is shorn, he will consign her to the kitchens. No, to the stables, where he will not even see her, where she will pose no risk to anyone. Instinctively he raises his hand to his sex, as if to protect it, and begins to mutter the charm to appease Sekhmet, the powerful, the destroyer.

Thus was purchased the slave Irenia for the exalted Lord Neferhotep of the House of Tanuris in the first days of May in the year 1010 from the foundation of Rome, quarter of the reign of Caesar Gaius Publius Licinius Valerian, in the month which the Egyptian scribes call Mesore and the people know as the season of Fourth of Shemu, before which the tears of Isis, away in the remote south, cause the rising of the Nile and its flooding across the millenary land of the pharaohs.

* * *

What’s happening to me? What is it that affects me so? That pompous personage who has purchased me and who still lies awake, unable to sleep, must be thinking perhaps that the thought of him, or my other news masters, keeps me awake; but that is not the reason, it is really everything that has happened since they brought me to this land, Egypt… Barely three weeks since I arrived here and only from watching along the road, listening on the patio, of eating differently, of smelling the air and feeling the night, I am enveloped in a world I never imagined… Egypt! Before it was only a name to me, like Syria, Armenia, Sogdiana, Cyrenaica… When we traveled with Uruk, Fakumit amazed me with her greatness, she spoke to me about her gods, I had to learn something of his language to understand her, according to her there was no finer land, no greater empire, it sounded like her nostalgic exaggerations, but it was true, this is a different world, what a flood of lives and mysteries! I’m continually amazed, though nothing in life matters to me any more, though I expect nothing, I am drawn by this abundance, which must be how the world was when it was newly created, full, overflowing, giving birth every moment to waters, beings, gods, just yesterday, emerging from the house of slaves, in the corner of the patio, that hyacinth, the day before yesterday it was not there, sprouting in a single night, with its tender arrogance, fragile and powerful, its stem, its flowers, its slender leaves, launching its perfume like a cock crowing, the day before yesterday it was not there, this land never sleeps, giving birth to lotuses, crocodiles, papyrus, ibises, birds, palm trees, serpents, bulls, hippopotamuses, and the dazzling greenery, even here in this town by the sea, everything roiling with heat, the palm fronds, the shimmering air, this world overwhelms me, penetrates me, engenderer, multiplier, waster of lives, what a contrast to Cyrenaica! Not only that prison, with its sweating clay walls, its swill and filth, even free at the oasis everything was precarious, palm trees besieged by the sand, water in a puddle or enclosed in a well, a few scanty oleanders alongside the dry avenue, while here there are wide flowing canals and the arms of the delta, Egypt creating lives, as well as all its many gods, Sobek the sacred crocodile, Bast the cat, Udjit the cobra, Hapi the Nile River, Nefertum the lotus, Hathor, mother of Osiris… No, his daughter, I’m mistaken, Seth who is both good and bad, all divine, the water, the wheat, the beer, because everything gives life, “Life” is the key word, thus so much hope, here the people smile though they are naked and without possessions, and even the dead live on in their tombs, it is only I without a soul, how do I go on living after my disaster, she died in the amphitheater but the morays did not devour me, Domicia’s death killed me, too, I hear her voice everywhere in the silence, right now, that whispering, her wisdom in the serenity, and her hand, her hand, no one ever caressed me like that, not Narsus on the island, no man in Byzantium, nor in the harem, no, not even Uruk, he was something else, but Domicia’s hand was a dark heat, endless friction, burning but quenchable fire, no one else like that, none remembered nor forgotten, she smiled at my ecstasy, and explained it like this: “No man understands a woman’s flesh, only another woman.” She knew that I felt it, feeling with me at the same time, how she created pleasure, how her fingers and her tongue set me on fire! It was a world of women although there were also men following the Mother, I had already heard talk of Christ, when Uruk took me down the Oronotes past Antioch, I remember well, but they said that the Messiah was really a woman, that his masculine garb was only a disguise, the so-called Christ was born a girl, with a girl’s body and a girl’s soul, raised as a woman, that new goddess attracted me, and Domicia’s love had a hold on me, her absolute certainty, she lived safely removed from everything, and so she raised me to a new height, different from a man, I will no longer enjoy such moments, the revelation of life, the soul breaking free, once they were simply passions, caresses or excitations, hidden places in the flesh, but Domicia was the mistress of everything, including the spirit. Oh, how she began to show me! Writing! Words of Latin between her kisses! The geometry of the flesh! She had studied in Syracuse, she was from a rich family, that explained why she was a deaconess to the Mother. I’m dead without her! She was everything! It’s a devastating memory, the emptiness torments me, missing her lips on my sex, on my nipples, my own hands trying to imitate her are no replacement, I can’t recall, can’t remember, but impossible to forget her, I carry her in my skin, since her hand touched me, laying it on my arm, in that shadowy dungeon, her caressing voice, “Will you tell me your sorrows, my sister?” I groaned for Uruk, months had gone by and I was till crying for him, it was the first time she called me sister, me: born without anyone, her inexplicable appearance on a beach, she brought me to the clear light at the tiny window, I noticed on her cheek the purple welt, a whip had lashed her face, but in her eyes the serenity, immutable, her certainty in the faith, I confided, for the first time, I was able to speak to someone about Uruk murdered before my eyes, I transferred to her my desperation, and since then we were never apart, her peace flooded into me, she showed me that a woman’s love is not found in the games of a brothel and harem, but in putting the soul into the flesh, and the flesh into the soul, she pulled me out of my sorrow, without making me forget about Uruk because she embraced him, too, she had known a man’s love before, she could understand me. Why do I remember if it pains me so? Our embraces in the night, the oasis, dark island of silver moonlight on the sands, our walks together holding hands, envious but also admiring, and censured, by the men of the group especially, lusting after the two of us, I know that I saddened the deacon, he was in love with me without confessing it, I might have been his, she would have understood it, but he denied it to himself, he loved me from afar, only for the sake of faith, for salvation in the next life, which I reject! Impossible to understand him, although perhaps the secret in his past, perhaps the way I am now indifferent to everything, Domicia’s death ended my world, she changed my name, another name in my life, like reincarnations, but this time the last one, I am finished, I would have preferred to have cut my hair right there, before her body pierced with arrows, the hair she adored, so many times sliding over her calves, her breasts, her buttocks, pleasure that gave me chills, but they stopped me from doing it, it makes me more valuable, after the morays devoured me they would have cut it off to sell it, like this old man, sure, it’s what he has thought, what does it matter, nothing matters to me at all, and nevertheless, my world also sank when they killed Uruk, also before, when my poor daughter, my little Nira, knifed by the pirates, destroyers of my life, but I go on living. Life is so resistant! How life maintains its grip on us! And especially here in Egypt, an anthill of beings, fertilized by the Nile… Nothing matters to me at all, but I didn’t kill myself, as easy as it was, how strong is the blood against sorrow! Will everything be repeated? It seems to me impossible, then, why do I go on breathing amid this choking distress? A tormented panting but I go on, unable to forget those hours, that eternity by Domicia’s side, in the Church of the Divine Mother, among the femmes as they called us…

—José Luis Sampedro Sáez; translated from Spanish by Brendan Riley

 CapturePhoto by Gonzalo Cruz via ABC.es

José Luis Sampedro Sáez was born in Barcelona, Spain in 1917. He led an extraordinarily active and productive life, pursuing a dual career as economist and novelist. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) he joined the Republican forces and spent the war in Melilla, Catalonia, Guadalajara, and Huete, in Cuenca. Following the war he worked as a customs agent in Melilla, and later studied Economics in Madrid. In 1948 he joined the research team for the Banco Exterior de España and in 1951 became an advisor in the Spanish Ministry of Trade. Throughout his long career he published ten books on economics as well as a dozen novels and assorted other volumes, including collections of short stories and essays. In 1990 he was elected as a member of the Real Academia Española, and in 2011 he was awarded the National Prize for Spanish Literature. He was known for as an advocate for human rights and ethical economic practices. Sampedro died in Madrid, in 2013, at the age of 96.

 Brendan Riley

Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes.

May 142014
 

Dede

Dede Crane writes the anatomy of an affair of the heart in her story “Tattoo,” which is, yes, the story of a tattoo and what that can lead to. Two sisters lounge on a Mexican beach; it’s their last day; the sisters practice their sibling rivalry; Corona beers mark the hours in the sun. A Mexican tattoo-artist, auspiciously named Jesus, plops down beside them and starts his spiel. The narrator has not been lucky with men; she rescues dogs instead; she is acutely aware of stereotypes and the tepid bourgeois agonies of the North American tourist class. Should she? Shouldn’t she? She wants to pay; Jesus considers it a gift. Something is happening. Eventually, there is dinner and more drinking and Jesus ends up carrying the drunken and unconscious sister to their room. And then he stays. What follows is not, as I have somewhat disingenuously called it, an affair — something else, more revealing and innocent, surprising and right.

dg

 

 

Late afternoon, we had ordered beer and tortilla chips. Two ahead of me already, my sister thanked the waiter for her third Corona and squeezed the slice of lime down its neck. Our last day in Mexico and she seemed determined to squeeze as much good time out of it as possible.

It was only my second.

I’d had enough of the sun, the salt and my know-it-all sister. I felt like going back to the room, packing for tomorrow, ordering dinner in and finishing reading Donoghue’s Room.

The last of the daytime hawkers were trudging down the beach with the same cheap goods you found in the market, half of them made in China. Yet another one, a backpack slung over one shoulder, was making his way over to us. I sipped my beer and looked right through him at the banana boat about to flip its thrilled passengers into the sea.

“Henna tattoo for your shoulder, ankle, breasta,” the hawker announced in slow but impressive English, all his T’s crossed. He stopped in front of us, blocking the sun for which I was grateful.

“No gracias,” my sister and I said together, a reflex now, like brushing away a fly.

I scooped guacamole onto a chip. Did he say breast?

“My tattoos are the besta, they last longest and do not wash off in the ocean.”

I ate my chip ignoring him. I’d instructed my sister not to respond to hawkers a second time. “It’s like training dogs,” I’d said, “you give the command once not six times or you’re training them to not respond until after six commands.”

“Today, ama feeling generous.” He spoke in such a grand yawning accent that I looked up. Taller than most Mexican men but with the same barrel chest, he had a goatee and bare hint of a moustache. The black curls that blew round a face that made me think of third grade and the boy I’d loved, Freddy Quintana.

“Two for the one price.” He held up his fingers like a peace sign and smiled.

Like Freddy, his cheeks bunched high at their corners when he smiled and his round-cornered teeth gave them the appearance of Chiclets. I used to imagine the sweet taste of Freddy’s teeth.

I was about to break my own rule and repeat ‘no, gracias,’ when my sister said, “Let’s see your tattoos then.” Seeing my expression, she said, “Jim thinks tattoos are sexy.” Jim was my brother-in-law, a mortgage broker and former college football player. “Come on. I’ll pay.”

The hawker dropped to his knees in the sand and swung off his pack. He looked up at my sister with sad gratitude like some sort of beggar.

No, he didn’t. His eyes ran the length of your legs.

My sister was an emergency room nurse. Forty-one, she lived in Denver with her husband and thirteen-year-old son. She’d paid off her mortgage, had a pension plan, an investment portfolio, and international condo shares which was the sole reason I was in a wet bathing suit watching a fleet of bucket-mouthed pelicans fly over the Pacific. Waves crashed on the beach before me while the narrow streets of old Puerto Vallarta, its white stucco buildings and clay tile roofs, raced up the hills behind me.

I lived in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, in a rental house, and my life savings amounted to two thousand dollars. Never the stomach for a nine-to-five, I grew medical marijuana for cancer patients and painted houses, interiors.  I rescued dogs and found homes for them. At any given time I had between three and eight mongrels warming my bed. A dog, I discovered, was more faithful than a husband.

On the beach that day: for the first time in years I had shaved my legs, knowing my sister would have felt embarrassed on my behalf. I’d also allowed her to buy me a pedicure and my toenails were a shiny Bruised Plum. I hadn’t used nail polish since junior high and every time I looked down, my feet startled me, as if they were someone else’s.

The hawker handed us a black binder of sample tattoos and of photos of smiling teenage tourists wearing his product. My sister paid his two-for-one asking price which seemed no cheaper than two tattoos, then picked a lotus flower for the small of her back. He introduced himself as “Hayzeus” was what I remembered, but my sister remembered him saying the English “Jesus.”

She lay down in the sand while he straddled her legs.

He did not straddle me. He sat beside me.

His back arced over her, his bare thigh muscles taut as he pressed a rectangle of paper along her bikini line to transfer the image. Apparently he wasn’t an artist but a professional tracer. He took up his ink bottle and squeezed out not the brownish-orange color of henna but a black viscous line that looked like crude oil. What sort of cheap and unregulated substitute did they use down here? I imagined blood poisoning, raised welts, skin cancer.

When he was done, he told her not to wear her cover up nor sit in her chair until the ink had completely dried. He stood and kneaded his right thigh.

“How’s it look?” she asked me.

It was precisely like the lotus picture in the book and not at all smudgy. “Nice,” I said. “It’s very black ink, just so you know.” I waited to see if this might concern the nurse.

“I’m going to get a prawn skewer,” she said, eyeing the vendor down the beach. “Want one?”

I shook my head, not trusting shellfish that had been out in the sun all afternoon, and Jesus said, “Thank you, yes.”

We looked at him and a smile raised the flags of his cheeks. My sister laughed and walked away twisting happy feet in the sand, her newly painted black flower swiveling side to side.

I’d looked through the book filled with dragons, skulls, hearts, geckos, swastika-like armband and anklet designs and didn’t see anything I cared for. I didn’t have someone at home who thought tattoos were sexy and didn’t want to further tax Jesus’s thighs.

“I choose for you?” he said and his face turned serious. Then, as if searching for something, his eyes, yes, did run down my legs. Shaving had raised and reddened the pores and my pale legs resembled the skin of a plucked chicken.

“Sure.” I was not at all sure. What was in that ink? I should have asked for an ingredient list. He took the book from my hand and tossed it on the sand.

“Please stay in seat” – he looked around for another chair – “I want to work on your feet.”

“My feet. Okay.” It was still winter back home, so the swastikas would be safely covered when I returned. I watched him pull over a chair, knowing that chair cost the price of a drink. The head waiter, also watching, promptly came over and said something in Spanish, the sounds curling up and over each other. It was a language, I thought, born beside the ocean.

“Cervaca por favor,” answered Jesus and pointed to my bottle of Corona.

The waiter gave me a strained look as if he wanted to tell me something but didn’t have the English. A warning? Did he know this Jesus fellow? Was Jesus just a name he used on female tourists?

“Me, too, gracias,” I said and waved my bottle in the air.

I was embarrassed by the whole tourist invasion thing. Jesus could speak near perfect English and I couldn’t say more than ola, gracias, quanto questa and el bano.

Jesus took a paintbrush from his pack and squeezed out a pool of ink onto a plastic lid palette then sat directly across from me. His short sleeved shirt was missing its first two buttons and revealed the same hairless brown chest of the male dancers we watched the night before on the malacon. A professional group from Mexico City, twenty couples performed traditional folk dances. The men were mesmerizing with their bull fighters’ posture, their macho, muscular movements, feet beating down the floorboards as they led the women with such forceful yanks and throws, and at such speeds, the women wouldn’t have had a second to resist much less think. It was breathtaking.

Jesus inched his chair forward until our knees almost touched. He was my age.

He was thirty-three, tops.

Without asking he lifted my leg and planted my foot on his thigh which caused me to slip down further in my slouchy chair. “I painta top of foot.”

I smiled warily and sipped my beer, tried not to think of my bathing suit, old and too small. I had shaved my legs but that was as far as I’d go.

He hooked his entire arm under my calf to steady my leg and wiped down my foot with a rag drenched in what I trusted was rubbing alcohol judging by its coolness. On the beach in Puerto Vallarta, I imagined telling my friends back home, Jesus washed my feet.

Skipping the paper transfer, he began directly with his ink bottle.

“You’re improvising?” I pictured a cartoon-eyed gecko, a smiley faced sun.

“I like to painta,” he said.

The waiter arrived with our beers. As he set them on the table, Jesus did not look up. I pointed at myself and scribbled on my hand. “Our tab, please.”

When the waiter left, Jesus gave me a shy glance. “Thank you.”

“Thank my sister. I don’t have any money.”

“Then we are not alike. Because none of my sisters have money.”

I laughed and though he was concentrating on my foot, I sensed a smile.

Down the beach waving her half eaten skewer – and was that another beer in her hand? – my sister was bopping up and down alongside a small Mariachi band and its harried sounds of forced cheer.

Staring at the top of Jesus’s head, I wondered if I should make conversation – did you grow up here? Where did you learn your English? What sort of work do you do on the off season? I could tell him I legally grew marijuana for profit, see what he thought of that, considering his country’s drug wars. I said nothing, took off my hat instead – it was past sunburn time – leaned back and let Jesus have his way with my foot. Keeping my eyes closed, I tried to guess what he was drawing… something that started between my first and second toe and fanned out towards my ankle… a lop-sided heart? The waves inhaled and exhaled the distant music, the exclamations of children and broken conversations in Spanish. Jesus blew his cool breath around my toes. Being touched felt ridiculously good and I relaxed in a way I hadn’t since meeting up with my sister in the Phoenix airport.

After an unknowable amount of time, Jesus carefully placed my foot on a towel and then raised my other leg. Would two feet, I wondered, still count as one tattoo? Was it his pride making up for the free beer? He said nothing and I pretended to sleep.

You were sound asleep and snoring.

I was snoring?

I must have drifted off because I woke to my sister’s lightly distrusting voice, “You’re still at it?” before it dropped into genuine surprise, even admiration. “Oh wow. Now that is amazing.” The click of her phone camera and I reluctantly opened my eyes as she apologized to Jesus about the prawn skewer. “I was really going to get you one but he ran out.” She was slurring a little.

I was not slurring.

“Let me buy you a beer to make up for it,” she said and signaled the waiter.

“You already did,” I told her and tried to sit up to look at my foot but Jesus said, “No, don’t move.”

“Well, let’s have another. I’d like one.”

“Not for me,” I said, but she ordered three anyway and talked at Jesus’ bent head as he painted up the inside of my ankle. “My sister lives next to a reserve,” she told him, “Native land, and once a month drives over there and picks up half dozen undernourished dogs and puppies.”

“I know many of the families,” I said so it didn’t sound like kidnapping.

“And they’re happy to let her take them. They can’t feed them, don’t keep track of them and let them roam in packs and breed like… dogs.”

I had told my sister these things with an exaggerated exasperation, knowing it would rouse her sympathies.

“Yet, yet” – her finger shot up – “when she offers to have her vet friend come spay and neuter the dogs, for free I might add, they refuse the offer.” She shakes her head. “It would drive me crazy. Why bring all these unwanted dogs into –”

“But they are wanted,” said Jesus. He blew on my ankle and a shiver sailed up my spine. “If those people not let the dogs do what dogs do, then your sister will not be able to rescue them.”

My sister laughed as if he was being funny but Jesus didn’t smile. And in that instant I saw the reserve situation differently, saw it from above the fray of human interference and labels of right or wrong, as simple cause and effect. The notion that I was some kind of savior to these dogs rang not so much false but unnecessary.

Part paisley, part labyrinthine, part Japanese art, yet not any of those, fanned out from between my first and second toe to cover the tops of my feet, the left design curling asymmetrically up the inside of my ankle like a rogue wave. My first thought was that nothing in my wardrobe would do my painted sandals justice. My second was how much worse my blood poisoning was going to be compared to my sister’s.

“Painted on shoes” – my sister spread her hands as if surprised no one had thought of it before.

“I be back,” said Jesus, his eyes brightening. Leaving his bag and book, he jogged off down the beach, the muscles of his calves being worked by the soft sand.

My sister snorted, a little puff of air. “What’s he doing?”

Though we wanted to head back to our condo to shower and change for dinner, we couldn’t leave Jesus’s pack.

You thought there might be a bomb in it.

I was kidding.

Fifteen minutes later, we startled when he came up behind us.

Jesus, I said, not his name but His name, and I wondered how often his head was turned by swearing tourists. From his sagging shirt pocket he drew out a silver anklet. Little filigree bells hung from the chain and as he lengthened it between his hands, it swung back and forth and the bells made a dull tinkling.

“Lovely,” I said.

“My friend, he makes them.”

Quanto questa?” I asked because nothing in this country was free. Cheap yes, free no.

He drew a quick breath and gave me a hurt sideways look.

“Sorry” – I felt terrible – “but I assumed you had to –”

“Dinner.” A mischievous smile.

“We’d love to take you to dinner,” my sister said then looked right at me. “Being  local, he must know the best places.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“That I do, yes. What time shall I meet you?”

My sister suggested in an hour’s time and he gave us directions to the restaurant of his choosing.

“Why did you invite him for dinner?” I asked once out of earshot. “I was planning on staying in. Packing and finishing my –”

“Come on. It’s our last night. I want to go dancing.”

“I don’t dance.”

“I know. That’s what Jesus is for.”

True, I didn’t dance except around the privacy of my living room with a couple paws in my hands. It was a great way to stop a dog barking. “Aren’t you worried he’s just using us?”

She waved me off. “Relax. Maybe we’re using him?”

My only real sandals wrapped up to the ankle Roman style or had a thick strap across the top of my foot. Both threatened to ruin my tattoos.

“Go barefoot,” said my sister. “You won’t be able to tell.”

“Barefoot, suggests the nurse. On these streets.”

“Not going to wear your anklet?”

“It’s something a thirteen-year-old would wear,” I said, guessing that’s what she was thinking.

“Looks like a dog collar for a Chihuahua.”

I had been going to put it on, thinking Jesus intended it to compliment his tattoo. But the adolescent in me still cared what my sister thought.

On the way to the restaurant, I purchased a pair of black flip flops which blended in, sort of, with my foot art. Jesus was waiting for us on the street outside a dingy looking building whose stucco was cracked and stained. His hair was wet or greasy, I couldn’t tell which, and he wore what looked like a brand new white shirt which lay open at the neck and had the sleeves rolled up. A gigolo’s shirt. His backpack from this afternoon hung from one shoulder and for a minute I wondered if maybe he was homeless.

“You’re not still working?” My sister pointed at his pack as he shrugged good-naturedly.

“I never know.”

We followed Jesus up a single flight of stairs to a dim lit room with a tiled floor, rusty punched tin walls and no more than eight or ten tables. The restaurant was full, not of tourists but Mexicans talking noisily over flickering votive strewn randomly over the table. As the head waiter showed us to our seats, he and Jesus laughed and joked in Spanish. I listened hard, hoping to understand but it was as though I was hearing them from underwater and if I could only reach the surface I’d comprehend the words. As we were shown to our table in the far corner, I could have sworn we were walking ever so slightly uphill. The head waiter gallantly pulled out my sister’s chair for her and Jesus pulled out mine.

Jesus must have told him who was paying.

I don’t think so.

The wooden chair with their thick woven backs were uncomfortably upright and each mango yellow tile on the table’s top was cracked or chipped. There were darkened spots on the red cloth napkins. Grease stains? From a dramatic height, the waiter filled our water glasses before I ordered a bottle of Evian. I’d had my bout of Montezuma’s revenge and that was more than enough.

“It is naïve spelled backwards,” said Jesus.

“What?”

“Evian.” He recommended the margaritas.

“Our margaritas?” echoed the waiter and kissed the fingertips of one hand and my sister ordered a pitcher.

The margaritas turned out to be the perfect blend of sweet and tart and strong. I only hoped the alcohol killed any bugs thriving in the ice. The best guacamole I’d ever tasted was mixed with a pestle at our table in a rough black bowl of volcanic stone – “a molcajete,” Jesus told us – and topped with a deliciously salty cheese, “cojita from Cojita.” The homemade tortillas melted in one’s mouth, the beef for a change was tender, even the refried beans somehow tasted fresh. We exclaimed over the food and Jesus looked genuinely pleased. It was not until half way through the meal did I realize that the room not only had no overhead lights but no roof, and that the dim lighting was moonlight.

“What happens to this place in the rainy season?” I asked.

“It gets very wet,” said Jesus.

My sister laughed too loud.

He pointed back toward the entrance. “The floor, she is tipped a little. And the far wall does not quite reach the floor, you see.”

I pictured rain drumming on the tiled tables and floor, water gushing over the eaves to the street.

“It’s called the washing season,” he added and my sister rolled her eyes.

“Is it true?” I asked.

“Everything is true,” he said. “What else could it be?”

“False,” barked my sister and poured herself another margarita.

After dinner, we went to a crowded disco two stories high, where they played an eccentric mix of the Beegies, Santana and Lady Gaga. I kept watch over our table and a bland and watery pitcher of margaritas safe and while my sister danced with Jesus. During the slow ones, her face rubbed against his white shirt like a rooting infant and I wondered how my brother-in-law would feel about it. And if I was the one with the high stress job and investments portfolios, I’d also need to dance in public, get drunk and rub my head on a stranger’s chest. Jesus’ cheeks bunched every time my sister called something into his curls yet I thought he looked a little bored.

On our walk back to the condo, the alcohol catching up to me, I was drunk enough to believe that the night air off the ocean was the source of the surrealist sculptures that graced the malecon. When you lived in a place where you couldn’t tell where your own skin ended and the air began, ordinary perceptions, I decided, didn’t stand a chance.

I pointed out my favorite sculpture to Jesus; a free standing ladder to the sky, thirty feet tall, with two caped girls made of the same burnt-gold metal, climbing it, one nearly at the top. Their hooded heads were shaped like fat triangular pillows, their capes hanging down their back in severe pleats. A larger version of the girls, the caped, pillow-headed mother, stood down on the ground, her open O of a mouth and extended arms imploring them to come down.

“That is Bustamante,” said Jesus. “It is named In Search of Reason.”

“The mother seems to be saying, don’t go up there,” I ventured, “as if she knows their childhoods are about to be lost.”

“The sculpture,” he said, “makes reason look very dangerous.”

“Ladders are meant to be climbed,” my sister said, steering unsteadily toward a nearby bench. “I can’t walk anymore,” she muttered and laid down on it.

I sat down on it.

“Not far now. I’ll carry you.” He hooked his left arm inside the other strap of his backpack and hiked the bag onto his back. Then he hoisted my sister, too drunk to resist, into his arms.

I felt I should have protested but I could neither carry her nor leave her there so what would have been the point? Besides, like a dog who instinctively trusts certain strangers, I realized I instinctively trusted this one.

“I know a short cut,” he told me and soon I was following him down a narrow alley.

Despite the hour, men, women sat around open doorways, some smoking, others cooking on hibachis, playing guitar or cards, nursing babies or beers. A small pointy eared dog, something larger mixed with Chihuahua weaved around our feet, nose to ground, tail wagging as it hunted. Jesus greeted people and people greeted him back.

“Ola Hayzeus. Como esta?”

I was glad to hear the name was really his. No one in that alley seemed the least bit troubled or impressed by the sight of him carrying a drunk, middle-aged white woman. Was it a regular occurrence? A young Mexican woman pointed at my feet and clucked, then said something to Jesus in a teasing tone.

“What did she say?” I asked when we’d passed.

“That you must have inspired me.”

“Amused you,” I said.

“Amuse, yes,” he said though he may have meant a muse for all I knew.

#

Arriving at the condo, he laid my unconscious sister carefully on the couch.

I was not unconscious.

I arranged her arms and legs and though the air conditioning was off, covered her with a sheet and blanket. As I stood there watching her settle into sleep, Jesus, now standing by the French doors to the balcony, asked if he could paint me.

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” I said, flattered.

At dinner we’d learned that Jesus drove cab in the off season and painted watercolors, his real passion – “of the old buildings and churches” – which he sometimes sold at a gallery in one of the big hotels. So I’d thought he meant paint me on paper. But that wasn’t what he meant.

Then he proceeded to undress you.

He did not.

I went to the bedroom and undressed. For an awkward second I considered putting on my bathing suit then thought of how silly dogs look in doggy raincoats and sweaters. My nakedness felt utterly ordinary as I walked back to the living room. He was outside on the narrow wrought iron balcony, adjusting the placement of a lamp he’d moved outside. As I passed my sister on the couch making sure she was sleeping, I imagined her bolting upright to rip the figurative needle from the record. She didn’t move and when I looked up, Jesus was looking at me with an eagerness akin to hunger. Whether artistic hunger or sexual hunger I didn’t know though both, in that moment, seemed aspects of the same urge, the same need. I continued towards the deck and Jesus stepped back as one steps back to appreciate a painting before he gestured where he wanted me to stand.

Hidden from neighbors across the way by a jungle of parota trees, the balcony overlooked the bay below and vast sky above, the single blackness lit by a three-quarter moon that much larger than the one back home, its reflection spilling a wavy path along the water.

He took my arm and turned it over. “If the moon were flesh,” he said more to himself than to me.

The single point of his brush was achingly soft where it defined my skin, traveling from elbow to shoulder and down to my breast only to turn and go back again.

He stole the cash from my purse.

No. You bought dinner with cash and left a ridiculously big tip.

We didn’t speak but it was a conversation nonetheless, an exchange of charged molecules, vibrations and wonder. Angled into the light, I arched my back for him, extended an arabesque across his knee, draped my hands shameless behind my head. His depth of concentration stilled my thoughts and made me feel cherished for the simple fact of possessing a body. Only later did I wonder if it was a case of an artist unable to afford his paint and canvases.

He probably drugged our drinks.

The horizon was a pale line of fire by the time his painting reached my inner ankle where it hooked under the wavelike curve of this afternoon’s tattoo. As if all evening he’d been patiently waiting to finish what he’d started. As I turned in a circle, arms in the air, his design spiraled up one side of my body and down the other. He asked me to put on the anklet, then had me keep my face averted as he took several pictures with his phone. Said he planned to transfer me to the canvas some day, that he’d send me a photo of the painting.

“Maybe I’ll buy I,” I said.

“With your sister’s money,” he said and we laughed.

His art and I one and the same, when we kissed he was careful as to where he placed his hands.

He was a con artist.

He was an artist.

Afterwards, energized and unable to sleep, I felt a curious presence in the air as if we were being watched but my sister remained sound asleep on the couch. If there had been eyes in the trees, well, it was too late now.

Jesus left well before the harp sounds of my sister’s ring tone sent her rolling with a groan off the couch. By then I had covered the evidence with long pants and sleeves, a turned up collar, was all packed for the flight home.

I woke to stamping and the tinkle of bells. Saw you dancing on the balcony, hands twisting in the air.

You must have been dreaming.

No, you must have.    

—Dede Crane

 

Dede Crane is the author of five books of fiction and co-editor along with Lisa Moore of Great Expectations, a collection of essays on birth. Her work has been shortlisted for the CBC literary prize, a Western Magazine award, the Victoria Butler Book Prize, the Bolen Book Prize and a CLA prize among others.  Her most recent book, a novel in stories, is Every Happy Family.  She lives in Victoria, B.C. with her husband, writer Bill Gaston, and their children.

 

May 132014
 

Photo on 2014-01-28 at 09.48

This is Donald Breckenridge’s brutal, sad memoir of his father dying. Stark and beautiful and full of our common humanity; pity, love, kindness, stubbornness, squalor and valor. The language is matter of fact, the only apparent artfulness is in the unconventional punctuation and, sometimes, the way the dialogue breaks up the sentences. There are two narratives: one works back and forth over the story of a life, two lives, father and son, and the father’s declining days; the other, more mysterious, follows Breckenridge to a diner, the subway, the train station. We get detailed accounts of conversations with the diner owner. We oscillate between donuts and staph infections, but by the genius of construction and understatement, horror and hopelessness accumulate. The word “love” isn’t thrown around, but the son patiently bandaging dabbing medication on those awful sores tells you more than words. You are fascinated, cannot turn away.

This is from a memoir/novel in progress, a new book (please read the NC interview with Breckenridge and two earlier pieces of fiction we’ve published here — links at the bottom of the piece), equal parts fiction and autobiography. This is the first autobiographical section.

dg

 

I asked the waitress for a chocolate donut and told her that I didn’t need a bag. She handed me the donut with a serrated sheet of wax paper folded over it, “That will be ninety cents,” and two napkins. I removed a dollar from my wallet and gave it to her. She rang up my purchase then handed me a dime. When I thanked her she told me to have a nice day. I pocketed the dime, pushed open the door and ate the donut while walking to the corner. I wiped my mouth with the napkins then dropped them and the wax paper into a trashcan before descending the stairs at the subway station entrance.

I was washing the dishes when the phone rang. “Can you get that?” A cigarette was burning between his fingers, “It’s not for me,” another one smoldered in the ashtray. Poker chips, two soft packs of Marlboro 100’s, wallet, magnifying glass, notepad, checkbook, beige coffee mug filled with ballpoint pens, and a worn deck of cards were crowding his end of the table. Three chairs, “Of course it’s for you,” with the brown vinyl cushions torn open, “it’s your birthday,” that leaked powdery chunks of yellow foam all over the floor. “So?” December sunlight filled the broad row of casement windows in the living room, “Why would they be calling here,” facing the tall trees, “if it wasn’t for you?” Brown paper grocery bags, empty cigarette cartons, five or six months worth of the Washington Post, beige plastic shopping bags overflowing with the blue plastic bags the Post was delivered in, glossy color circulars for Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Labor Day, Back to School, July 4th were piled on the floor. He tried sounding resolute, “You get it.” Pizza boxes stacked atop the microwave. My hands were submerged in warm water, “I’m busy.” Blackened chunks of rotten countertop surrounding the sink held puddles of suds. My sister hired a maid service to come and clean his townhouse twice a month but they quit a few years ago. My father got up, “It’s a robot,” and made his way into the kitchen. I turned to him while saying, “You can’t know that until you pick it up.” He was wearing flip flops and tube socks, jeans that were baggy at the knees and stained with urine from the crotch to the waist, an oversized grey cable-knit wool sweater pocked with cigarette burns, long wispy grey beard, an eye patch coated with dried mucus, and a Band-Aid that covered most of the large open sore near his right temple. “Someone is trying to sell me something.” I saw him, “You shouldn’t be getting those calls anymore,” once and sometimes twice a month during the last few years of his life. He cleared his throat, “They still call.” I washed the dishes and did his laundry, bought groceries, vacuumed the carpet, and occasionally cleaned the bathroom. “A hundred dollars says it’s not a robot.” Coffee grounds, dropped food, ashes, spilled milk, strands of pasta glued to the splintered linoleum floor. He had a distinctive smokers croak, “You’re sure about that,” that I still hear while recalling this conversation. I would open the window above the kitchen sink to get some air and frequently lingered there—especially in winter. “Absolutely.” The window overlooked a well-tended lawn, clusters of bushes and trees, a park bench at the foot of a towering Sweet Gum tree, and rows of two-story red brick townhouses constructed during the Second World War. A high-rise dominated the skyline and the faint drone of traffic from 395 always accompanied the view. Despite his grumbling, “We’ll see about that,” there was no mistaking the anticipation in his voice. He picked up the phone and said hello. I turned off the faucet then dried my hands with a paper towel. He told the caller that he had, muttered thanks and hung up. Tomato sauce was smeared on my elbow. “And?” He walked through the kitchen, “The phone company was asking about the yellow pages,” returned to his chair. “What?” He picked up the cards, “They wanted to know if I got the new one,” and began to shuffle them. I stood in the doorway and said, “Those assholes.” He turned to me with a deflated smile, “You owe me a hundred dollars.” I balled up the paper towel and tossed it in the trash. The garbage disposal was still working. Filmy water vibrated in the sink before being sucked down the drain.

I encountered the owner of the diner and an elderly waitress standing behind the counter. They were discussing the best place to display the sign for a new online delivery service. The owner greeted me like a long lost friend while handing me the sign, “You can order what you want on there.” I recognized the logo, “I’ve seen this advertised on the subway,” placed it on the counter and asked the waitress for a coconut donut then added that I didn’t need a bag. The owner proclaimed, “You can now order that on your computer through the internet.” I was taken by his enthusiasm, “That’s really great,” although I’ve never purchased anything, “I hope you get more customers that way,” except the donuts, “Your donuts are really great,” the food has never looked appetizing, “the best in the neighborhood.” Bleached color enlargements lining the walls above the counter are backlit by dim fluorescents and feature dozens of greasy dishes undoubtedly made with the cheapest ingredients available. The waitress handed me the donut with a serrated sheet of wax paper folded over it, “That will be ninety cents,” and two napkins. I removed the dollar from my wallet and handed it over while wondering if a purchase this small would make the minimum for free delivery. If I asked the owner that, even if he knew I was joking, it would only prolong our conversation. He proclaimed, “This will change the way my customers order food.” The waitress rang up my purchase then handed me a dime. When I thanked her she told me to have a nice day. I pocketed the dime then congratulated the owner while pushing the door open.

I removed the metrocard from my wallet and swiped it at the turnstile. A woman picked up her baby in the stroller and hoisted it over a turnstile. Another woman was pushing an old man in a wheelchair. They were headed toward the stairs leading to the Manhattan bound trains. A rowdy group of high school kids were on the platform yelling at each other and clearly enjoying the aggravation they were causing around them. All of the seats on the bench were taken—the West Indian homecare attendant eating a bag of BBQ potato chips, two old Asian women talking quietly, a teenage boy dressed in black with techno leaking out of his earbuds and two teenage girls in Catholic school uniforms engrossed in their cell phones.

In 1968 (the same year I was born and adopted) the doctors removed a small growth from the tear duct of my father’s left eye. Further tests revealed a massive brain tumor behind his nose. After being told of his condition, he overheard a group of doctors in the next room discussing his x-rays, and one doctor expressed surprise he was still alive, all of them doubted he would live more than a few years. He was 31. My father underwent a number of invasive brain surgeries over the next decade to remove those tumors. My brother and sister were born in ’76 and ’77; having two biological children with my mother while fighting for his life gave him the strength needed to defeat cancer. In the early 80’s he took part in an experimental neutron procedure to rid his brain of the tumors. The operations of the previous decade had taken an awful toll on him and the doctors were out of options on how to approach his cancer. At the time only three patients were willing to undergo this experimental procedure, of those three, he was the only one who survived.

When the donut was gone I wiped off the corners of my mouth with the napkins then dropped them and the wax paper into a trashcan before descending the stairs at the subway station. I removed the metrocard from my wallet and swiped it at the turnstile. The train arrived and the doors opened. It had been a long day and I was (finally) on my way home. I took a seat. I was going uptown to my job on 207th street. I was going to the Port Authority to catch a bus. I was on my way to JFK. Our flight to Athens was in three hours. I had to catch a train at Penn Station. The Chinatown bus left for DC every other hour. I was meeting my publisher for drinks at Grand Central. My corduroy jacket was too thin and I left my scarf at the office. They couldn’t start the reading without me. The subway ride to the bus that went to Laguardia would take an hour. I had to meet with the bank manager before 5 o’clock. The library book was overdue. I promised to mail all of these documents yesterday. I needed to take a piss so hopefully the train wouldn’t be delayed. I was late for my next appointment across-town and hadn’t called ahead. I should have brought a book. It was a warm spring evening growing dark and I wouldn’t get to Alexandria until early in the morning.

I would dab at the sores on his forehead with a paper towel that was soaked in rubbing alcohol before covering them with an over the counter ointment for Staph infections. “That hurts.” After searching the Internet I’d concluded that it was a Staph infection. The puss-filled lesions were black around the edges and gradually tearing through his broad forehead already scarred by repeated brain surgeries. “Does it burn?” The most familiar looking images of Staph infections that I found were from photographs of corpses. The sweet smell of rotting skin is stronger than cigarette smoke.  He looked up at me with obvious discomfort, “It tingles.” In the summer of ’04, a horn-like bump appeared on his forehead, instead of consulting a doctor and getting it removed, he simply cut it off with a pair of scissors.

Seated across from me were two teenage boys in blue tracksuits and running shoes, an Orthodox Jew with poor eyesight reading the Talmud, an old woman staring vacantly at the subway floor.

Cigarette smoke effectively mutes your sense of smell and it’s only hours after leaving a smoke filled environment that it returns. My sense of smell would come back on the bus, usually a few miles before we pulled into the Baltimore Travel Plaza, and although I knew what to expect, the stench of nicotine on my hair and clothes always embarrassed me.

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When you sleep time no longer exists. Sleep is the best relief for pain. Death is better but you cannot will yourself to death. The sores gradually burrowing into his forehead began as an ugly thumb-size wound that appeared above his right temple in the late spring of ’08. He refused to see a doctor, and the infection gradually spread from there. My father passed two kidney stones in the summer of ’08, alone and lying on a couch in his sweltering living room, with a broken air conditioner, no fan, and the windows closed. When I saw him that August, I begged him to go to the hospital, pleaded with him, cursed him, and ultimately failed to convince him to get any medical attention. A few years earlier my siblings and I attempted an intervention—to get him to give up his car, sell the townhouse and move into an assisted care facility—we only succeeded in hurting his feelings. “I think that means that it’s working.” He was tired of living and wanted to die but dying is hard work. “How would you know?” Understanding why someone you love wants to die isn’t the same thing as accepting that decision. “I don’t.” Standing by as my father continuously refused medical care while living in absolute squalor was one of the hardest things I have ever experienced. “Why don’t you go and see a doctor?” If you can go through your life without entering into this kind of agony, you may be short on experience, but you are very fortunate. “I’ve had enough doctors.” We were nearing the end of our very long thread. “Then tingles means it’s working.” I stood above him and applied band-aids to what became the lethal skull infection that killed him ten months later. I was completely helpless and tremendously grateful for all of the time we had together. My father lived far beyond everyone’s expectations. I was so afraid that he would die at any time, and my only regret, now that he is gone, was not lingering after saying goodbye. I never rushed out the front door but leaving him in that filthy townhouse after we embraced always made me feel unkind.

He would go weeks without answering the phone. I would call the fire department and ask them to check up on him and tell them to tell him to call me. I got so fed up with being unable to reach him, after the third or fourth time of having the fire department check in on him, that I took a Chinatown bus down to DC and woke him up long after midnight. The ringer was off because answering the constant barrage of telemarketing calls was a pain in the ass and he simply forgot to turn it back on. Getting those calls to stop was as simple as putting him on a do not call list. Surviving could have been as simple as making an appointment and taking a cab ride to a doctor’s office. His insurance offered fairly good coverage but getting him to care about his health was impossible. “Ok, doctor.” He was still smoking three or four packs of cigarettes a day depending on how many hours he slept. He would only leave the house to go to the supermarket. “It’s almost finished.” The ancient looking man with grey hair and a scraggly beard, eye patch, glasses with heavy black frames, brown windbreaker, white dress shirt, worn at the knees blue jeans, canvas sneakers dyed beige from nicotine slowly pushing a shopping cart through the Giant on South Glebe Road once a week. That was my father. Maybe you saw him there? He always paid with a check. His diet consisted of waffles drowned in syrup, black coffee, tall glasses of milk, candy bars, ice cream, occasionally canned vegetables, bananas, sometimes pasta, mashed potatoes, and grilled meat that would frequently begin to rot in the fridge before he got around to cooking it—unless one of his children found the souring Styrofoam packages first and threw them away.

The West Indian nanny feeding grapes to an unhappy child strapped in a stroller, the young Mexican mother with her two daughters wearing identical pink dresses and haircuts although one was a few years older and taller than the other, the West Africans standing around the metal pole having an animated conversation in French, a scowling Haitian teenager texting someone, the Dominican boy playing with a Spiderman action figure, an attractive brunette reading a paperback and showing plenty of thigh, two young black boys jumping on their seats antagonizing their distracted and clearly exhausted mother, an old drunk with his eyes closed and head resting on the window, the Chinese man slowly walked by playing something that sounded vaguely like Mozart on a bamboo flute and there was a lull in the noise as everyone took in his waltz-like refrain.

The neutron procedure worked and my father beat cancer although he lost an eye and his ability to smell. His marriage ended soon after, my mother had stood by him through some of the most difficult years of his life, but now found him changed physically and mentally to the point where she could no longer live with him. They split-up in ’83 and he moved from Virginia Beach to Alexandria for work. I joined him in his townhouse two years later, attended high school and lingered under his roof for another year before moving to New York City. My father never remarried, never dated, after being downsized in the early ’90s he never held another job, and rarely left his townhouse.

I grabbed a few pairs of socks and some underwear. Monday was our laundry day so my options were limited. A few clean T-shirts, a dress shirt, a pair of jeans, toothbrush, and the phone charger went into the backpack. A paperback copy of Théophile Gautier’s My Phantoms got tossed into the backpack—although I doubted I’d be able to read on the train.

Born and raised on a dairy farm in Oneida County, New York, my father was the third of six children. Photos from his teens reveal a very handsome and ambitious young man. He was the high school senior class president and the only one in his family to finish college. He earned a masters degree in mechanical engineering from the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He commanded a Swift Boat in Danang, Vietnam in ’69 -’70 and saw combat although he never talked about it. He was the cool sailor in dress whites and the decorated officer with a storied and distinguished career. He was a plainspoken dairy farmer. He possessed an intrinsic sense of decency and extraordinary tenacity in the face of impossible odds. He was an epic procrastinator. He had a terrific sense of humor. He never locked the front door to his townhouse. He was incredibly stubborn–pigheaded to the point of being a public menace. It was only after plowing into a DC Metrobus and totaling his car while driving legally blind on an expired license that he started taking a cab to the supermarket. My father wasn’t vain, and although he rarely acknowledged it, the drastic alterations to his physical appearance were extremely difficult for him to accept. Every look in the mirror—regardless of how diminished his sight or filthy the reflection—was a reminder of what cancer had taken from him.

I tried calling after purchasing the ticket—thinking he would be able to get off the couch, walk across the living room and answer the phone. Or maybe the phone was on the coffee table and he would be able to reach it. I wanted to tell him that I was on my way. I would be there as soon as possible.  It rang and rang as I crossed Penn Station then the line went dead. I tried again and finally gave up after a recording informed me that the person I was calling was unavailable, that I should try calling later. The TGIF was nearly empty. I ordered and downed a shot of Jameson but didn’t have time for another because the train to Washington was boarding.

Wake up around 8, have coffee and waffles, read the funnies, do the crossword, play a few games of Solitaire, Sudoku, then nap until lunch, nap after lunch, watch television, more Solitaire or left hand vs. right hand Scrabble, have dinner, watch the local and national news, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, sports or sitcoms then fall asleep on the couch around 10—nearly everyday for two decades. I walked to the supermarket while he napped and picked up a steak, some potatoes, and a container of mixed greens. I brought down a strawberry cheesecake from Juniors and a bottle of red wine. We always drank good wine together. If I’d known this was going to be his last birthday I would’ve bought more wine. Why hadn’t I forced him to go to the hospital? I could have just picked him up, tossed him into the back of an ambulance—strapped him onto the gurney and away we go. I could have prolonged his life. Everyone who loved my father tried to convince him to take better care of himself and now he is gone. A few bites of steak and half a helping of mashed potatoes, he barely touched his salad after drowning it in Ranch dressing and only drank half a glass of wine—it was a Saint-Chinian—but managed to eat a sizeable wedge of strawberry cheesecake and washed that down with a tall glass of milk. I finished off the wine and smoked his cigarettes with the filters torn off while we sat at the table talking and playing poker. My brother called while we were watching How I Met Your Mother to wish him happy birthday. He was 72.

Four months later he took a cab to the supermarket and fainted in an isle. He told me later that he was simply tired and needed to lie down. The manager called an ambulance. He spent three days in the hospital before he was released, took a cab home, made it up the stairs and collapsed on the floor. He lay on the carpet for two or maybe three days before a neighbor called to tell me that the newspapers were piling up on the porch, that he wasn’t answering the door, or the phone. Should she call an ambulance? Would it be okay to check on him? I told her to go in and that I would stay on the line. Instead she promised to call me back when she knew what was happening. I spoke to him after she got him onto the couch and he assured me that there was nothing to worry about, that I shouldn’t come down, everything was going to be okay.

I was lulled to sleep after Newark and woke up just as the train pulled into Baltimore. I could have been the only person in the car. The weirdly glowing vegetation that clung to the rocky embankments surrounding the empty platform and my reflection in the window gradually superimposed over a warehouse. We crawled by deserted loading docks, a staggered sequence of orange lights as the train curved through a tunnel, slipping by blocks of desolate row houses, theatrically lit graffiti adorning brick walls, running along a tall chain link fence topped with razor wire, a billboard glaring defiantly into the darkness, carried above empty intersections, through swaths of dark green, long white lights and patches of trees, flashes of suburban lawns, parking lots, illuminated vegetation glistening beneath streetlights, prefabricated condos, darkened strip malls just off the highway now adjacent to the tracks, red taillights vanishing into headlights casting onto rain-slicked roads, gas stations like small islands awash in cold fluorescents, empty intersections, darkened houses, churches, restaurants and racing over a large body of water while watching for a sign that never arrived.

When hailing a cab outside of Union Station I learned that drivers pick up two or three passengers going in approximately the same direction before leaving the station. Since the Metro closes at midnight and there is a shortage of cabs I shared the ride with a chubby Delta Airlines pilot who had been stranded at BWI due to a thunderstorm and a sleep deprived Army officer just back from Afghanistan. The officer, seated on my left, remained silent throughout the ride to Crystal City. The pilot was seated beside the driver and never stopped talking about how he had been inconvenienced by the weather. His car was in the long-term parking lot furthest away from the arrivals building at Regan National. He drunkenly apologized for parking so far out of the way, had he known that the storm was going to cause his flight to be diverted, had he known that he was going to take the train down from BWI in the middle of the night, had he known that he would have to take this ridiculous cab ride, had he known all of that he would have parked much closer to the airport. He wouldn’t shut the fuck up and when we finally reached his car he couldn’t get out of the cab fast enough. I was relishing the thought of kicking his ass until I realized that would have only prolonged this unbelievable delay. I asked the driver stop at the 7/11 closest to my father’s place so I could get cash out of the ATM to pay for the ride. It was two-thirty in the morning when I finally pushed open the door and climbed the stairs. My father was lying on his back between the couch and the coffee table. He had fallen while attempting to answer the phone. He was soaked in piss and shit. I picked him up and got him onto the couch, assuring him that I was there, and that everything was going to be okay. Would he like a glass of water? Yes. A cigarette? No. Would he like to take a shower and change his clothes? No.

 —Donald Breckenridge

Donald Breckenridge is the Fiction Editor of The Brooklyn Rail, co-editor of InTranslation, Editor of The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology (2006) and The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology 2 (2013), and the managing editor of Red Dust Books. In addition, he is the author of more than a dozen plays, the novella Rockaway Wherein, and the novels 6/2/95You Are Here, and This Young Girl Passing. He recently completed his fourth novel, And Then, and he is currently working on a new book and a one-act play.

 

May 042014
 

CaptureGiulio Mozzi via www.wuz.it

“I read Giulio Mozzi’s first book with real enthusiasm. What struck me most was his everyday language. Even when his subjects rely on metaphor, his words are plain, and so turn mysterious.”
—Federico Fellini

Giulio Mozzi’s This Is the Garden is an astonishing debut short story collection that English readers can now enjoy thanks to Open Letter Books. First published in 1993 (and winner of the Premio Mondello) and translated this year by Elizabeth Harris, these short stories all play in some way in the garden of the mind, the sandbox of introspection. Reminiscent of the work of Borges and Kafka, Mozzi’s psychologically acute, trenchant prose explores the self-conscious idiosyncrasies of the troubled mind. 

The story below is “Claw,” in which Mozzi imagines the later years of Yanez, the right-hand man of well-known Italian fictional pirate Sandokan. The once-infamous Yanez, known as the Tiger’s white brother, has now for years sat peacefully in his small, square, and white house, relying for subsistence and cigarettes on the daily visit of a woman from the nearby village. He sits in his small, square, and white house, smoking his cigarettes and looking meditative—but we do not believe he is meditating. The villagers react to the arrival of their “first real Englishman,” a threatening missionary who claims to be a saint sent by God. The villagers wonder how their own outsider Yanez will react. You can read my review of This Is the Garden by clicking here.

—Tom Faure

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he house is small, square, and white. The roof is flat. The door, centered on the eastern side, is just a curtain with red and yellow flowers. The other sides have one square window, also centered. There’s no glass in the windows, just yellowing, loosely woven cotton rags nailed to the wood like mosquito netting. The house sits on a slight rise in the middle of the plain, and anyone looking out the windows could see a long way. Down the slope from the door, there’s a water pump. A leather razor strop hangs from a couple of nails in the pump’s wooden handle. A small washboard rests against the pump. The house has just one room. A hundred feet to the west, there’s a small shack for bodily functions. The house has a packed dirt floor. Two feet off the floor, a built-in shelf or bench runs along all four walls, interrupted only by the doorway. At the center of the room, there’s a wooden table, a single chair. A few things sit on the shelf: a bowl with a set of flatware, one fork, one knife, one spoon; a covered metal bucket with a curved handle and inside, a thick soup or mash; a basin with a few soap chips and a brush; a tiny, round mirror in a metal frame, a straight-edge razor resting on the mirror; a small rectangular basket with a lid, probably for linen or clothing; a rolled-up mat. On the table, there’s a white enamel pitcher with a blue rim and next to it, a slightly flared drinking glass, the bottom thick, rounded. The glass is cloudy, tinted pink. On one corner of the table, there’s a canister of cigarettes with a lighter. There’s a white man sitting on the chair. He has on khaki trousers and a light, collarless jacket, also khaki, but faded nearly white. He’s extremely thin: those clothes were meant for someone more muscular. The man’s face has a few deep lines. He doesn’t have a hair on his head. He could be fifty, someone who’s spent his life outdoors, but you can tell he’s extremely old because he’s so unnaturally thin. Another way you can tell his age: he barely moves. The man sits, facing the door, smoking. He’s not looking at anything in particular, or maybe he’s focused on the red and yellow curtain stirring just slightly in the breeze. The man sits rigid on the chair, left hand in his lap, right hand resting on the table, holding the cigarette, bringing it to his lips now and then. This man is Yanez, the Tiger’s white brother, and this ground where his house stands is far, far from any sea, in a part of India that appears on British maps as just a milk spot scratched with a few uncertain paths that could be swallowed up at any time by thriving forests or flooding rivers.

Once a day, in the morning, a woman comes from the village (which is close, just past the line of trees to the south), and she carries the bucket of food, and once a day, in the evening, she takes the empty bucket back again. Yanez has lost his teeth and his sense of taste; the bucket holds a milky broth with small bits of meat, boiled vegetables, rice. When he started eating only from the bowl, he gave the woman his metal plate but kept the fork and knife in case a large piece of meat needed cutting. Over the years, his throat has nearly closed. The woman also brings him soap and cigarettes when he runs out and sometimes a lantern wick or a piece of flint for the lighter. Sometimes the woman brings Yanez a shirt or a pair of pants, used, but still good enough to wear. She’s the only one who goes inside his house. Anyone could, but no one does. Yanez hasn’t asked to see anyone in years. For what the woman gives him, Yanez gives her nothing in return. When he dies, his few belongings will clearly go to her. But no one will live in the house—no one in the village can live outside the village. Yanez only leaves the house to fill the pitcher at the pump, or to wash his few clothes or to wash himself, pouring water over his body with the soup bowl; or else he’ll go to the small outhouse and relieve himself. To work the pump, Yanez must lean on the handle with all his slender might. Once a year, around the time of her wedding anniversary, the woman goes to Yanez’s house with her three sons dressed in their newest, cleanest clothes. She has her sons wait by the door, she pulls back the curtain, and Yanez looks at them a while. Years ago, there were two sons, and before that, one. Yanez looks at the young man, the youth, the child, and after a while, he smiles. Then the woman drops the curtain and sends her sons away. They’re healthy, handsome boys, and she’s a healthy, handsome woman—she hasn’t really changed with age. Yanez has never seen her husband. Years ago, Yanez went to the village by himself sometimes for supplies. The villagers knew who he was, but they never asked him any questions. The woman went to his house for the first time after they all realized no one had seen Yanez in nearly twenty days. She went once a week in the beginning; for years now, she’s gone every day. The two times she was in labor, her mother-in-law took her place, but didn’t go inside the house; the bucket of food she left outside the door in the morning was there by the door in the evening, empty. Yanez has given the woman two gifts: the metal plate, and on another occasion, his one book, a volume the size of his hand, three fingers thick, an English merchant vessel’s log of a voyage along the eastern coast of China.

The book was filled with small pictures: strange animals, strange plants, strange buildings, men and women with narrow eyes and strange clothing. The woman’s sons spent hours on boring or rainy days staring at those pictures, imagining all the strange and wonderful things he must have seen in his long, long life—this thin, silent man that people spoke of as a hero, a sea voyager, a great hunter of man and beast, brother in spirit to the Tiger. One day, before the youngest could even walk, the two older boys crept as close as they could to Yanez’s house and hid in the high grass and brush and watched Yanez leave his house with a torn shirt, the basin, the brush and soap. They watched him strain to pump a little water in the basin and wash the shirt, scrubbing it on the small washboard with the soap and brush. Then Yanez pumped a little more water, rinsed the shirt, and hung it over the pump handle to dry. They were quite impressed that he’d done this women’s work so easily, and they decided he could do anything at all. They never told anyone about their expedition and only admitted it to their little brother a few years later, after he swore a thousand oaths of secrecy. Their little brother knew he’d been made part of a great mystery, and he always kept his pledge.

No one knew what went on in Yanez’s mind. Some of the villagers thought he’d grown old and simple. Others thought he passed the time, in the absolute silence of his house, remembering his great adventures, his friends and brothers in spirit killed by accident or men, the thousand places where his name had been pronounced with reverence or rage, friendship or fear, love or loathing. When he first arrived from an unknown place and built his isolated, small white house, even then, Yanez was silent. He only said his name. And apparently, though he’d never been to this or any other nearby village, he knew his name would be enough for whatever he needed. And he needed little. He barely spoke, only if he needed something. When he still went to the village marketplace, he barely spoke a word. For years, the rumor had been that Yanez had died, but then he arrived in the village. The village boys imagined he’d taken refuge in this safe and tranquil place to plan his next great adventure. And they waited for him to tell them that they had to choose: either the safe, boring life of the village or the brief, glorious life of the hero.

But Yanez never told them. After almost a year of talking, meeting, stalling, the most spirited boys finally gathered up their courage and went to his house. They sat by his door and waited. Yanez came out almost at once, and then the boys spoke to him, taking turns, speaking passionately, for a long time. They recalled his great adventures, told him of their own desires to win glory in this life and honor in the next. Any adventure would do—it didn’t matter—it would be a glorious adventure, and they were ready for victory or defeat, because defeat at the hands of an overwhelming enemy would also bring glory on earth and honor in the heavens; they didn’t know their enemy, but they weren’t afraid; they’d fight anyone in his name, on the plains or in the mountains, in the rocky desert or the woods, even on the ocean that no villager had ever seen, but they knew it must be like a river with just one bank, and they weren’t afraid of any river or riverbank. Yanez stood in the doorway and listened, paying close attention to each boy, fixing his eye on the one who spoke, and when they’d all said their piece, and it was clearly his turn, the minutes passed in silence, and then he bowed stiffly and stepped behind the curtain. The boys spent a long time talking about this silent answer, what it could mean. Some boys started belittling Yanez, almost mocked him. Suddenly his race mattered. Others said, “The Tiger’s Claw has broken,” and they were sad. It took a few years—time for the village boys to become village men—before most of them realized what Yanez’s answer meant. The village was isolated, distant, and no one had ever seen an Englishman, but there still wasn’t a home without something made in England that had passed through a thousand peddlers’ hands. One villager, though quite suspicious, bought a sack of seeds from a bragging peddler, and it yielded thirty times the normal crop; from that year on, the children grew stronger. Some of the young men who longed to travel had gone off with peddlers to villages closer to the English, and they came back with stories of English medicines that cured almost anything and tools and machines that helped with every sort of labor. Who could resist the English when they brought such useful things? The village men wanted to consult with Yanez—he’d know everything about the English, everything good and bad—he’d fought them for so long and, really, was almost one of them, and the men wanted to know whether it was right or wrong to let the English take the village, even with fertile seeds, and strong medicines, and useful tools. The men talked a long while, but in the end they never went to Yanez—it was absurd, really—they could never keep something out that made life so much better. And then, around that time, a small caravan of peddlers arrived and brought the village its first real Englishman.

He was extremely robust, both muscular and fat, dressed all in black, with strange hair the same color you saw behind your eyelids when you closed your eyes and faced the sun. The Englishman’s hair shone in the sun, seemed almost to course with blood—not the dark blood of the body—a thinner, brighter blood. The Englishman could almost speak their language, but he used strange-sounding words, and once in a while, he’d go on and on when he was really saying something fairly simple, the same way children ramble when they’re first learning to talk. In the village square, the Englishman’s voice thundered that he was a saint of the English god, come for their own good, to save their souls from certain death, a death they’d all soon face, he insisted, if they refused his help. The village elders met for a long time, and finally they went to the square and told the Englishman they truly didn’t understand how a god, even the English god, could want or even allow men to die whom he hadn’t known existed until yesterday. The English saint laughed and said he admired the village elders for their intelligence and thought their answer was especially appropriate, coming from men who had understood the best ways of thinking when considering gods; but, he added, perhaps he hadn’t made himself quite clear, or the elders hadn’t quite understood. He asked permission to stay a while in the village, and they agreed. For a year, all the children, women, men, and elders listened every night while the English saint told stories about his god and the people to whom his god had first appeared. The English god treated his people (who weren’t English yet) like any good, stern father might treat his young son bursting with energy, both good and bad. When his people made mistakes, he punished them severely, and when they behaved, he rewarded them with his moderation. In the end, the English god wanted to teach his people a definitive lesson about the one true path, so he came down to earth as a man, yes, a real man who left his home and family when he was thirty and traveled around teaching the true path and living off the charity of others. Was he a buddha? the village asked. No, he wasn’t a buddha: he was god. An avatar? Something like that. A person could get along with this English saint; his topics were interesting and sparked debate. And he knew so many other useful things: how to cure certain childhood diseases, how to get an even larger yield from English seeds. The village men thought the god of the English saint seemed just and good, though they weren’t sure what to make of this idea of one god only; they might be willing to admit that he was a great god, and maybe—and this was extremely delicate—even a god more dignified and powerful than all the rest; but the English saint just kept insisting, ignoring all the evidence, that his was the one true god, and this, the village elders thought, was virtually insane; this pretense, this boundless pride was so out of character for a god who seemed so just, and kind, and good.

The English saint had been there almost a year, when much to everyone’s surprise, Yanez—who hadn’t left his house in years—showed up one night in the village square. He asked for the Englishman—so this was why he’d come. The English saint was astonished to see him, though Yanez didn’t say his name, at least in public, and somehow no villagers had mentioned it, either, so they’d kept Yanez hidden almost a year by just not saying anything. The English saint and Yanez wanted to be alone; they shut themselves away in the room of a house, and someone spying on them through a crack in the planks said Yanez dropped to his knees before the English saint, and stayed on his knees for over an hour, almost whispering—you couldn’t tell what he was saying—and the English saint listened, face attentive. You couldn’t see Yanez’s face, but his voice, that voice you couldn’t understand, that was the voice of a crying man, a man pleading to a vast superior, even pleading to a god. After a long time, the English saint and Yanez came out from the house, the saint in front, looking as if he could scarcely believe what he’d seen with his own two eyes; behind him came Yanez, his face, as always, revealing nothing. Together they went to Yanez’s house; meanwhile, in the village, people were making up stories; some were furious that Yanez had bowed down to this English saint, who maybe wasn’t so saintly after all; some said if the Tiger’s Claw welcomed the English saint into his home, the English saint must be good; but then others wondered if this applied to him and him alone, or whether all English saints were good (the English saint had said there were many saints like him spread all over the world, commanded by a saint of saints who lived in a very ancient city with a name that rolled beautifully off the tongue . . . Rome); and then what about the rest of the English—saint or otherwise—were they good, too? They discussed this in their homes; later, in the village square; finally, in the council of the adults and elders; and since they couldn’t send a delegation to Yanez and violate his privacy, they went directly to the English saint and questioned him in the square for an entire day, the people crowded all around him. They wanted to know—and the English saint could see the change right away—they wanted to know what his intentions were, not as a saint of his god or a saint in general, but as an Englishman, if he was there on his own or if he’d been sent by other Englishmen, and if anyone else, saint or otherwise, might be coming; quite simply, they wanted to know who he was, this man who’d made Yanez kneel down and cry and plead, this man who could break the Tiger’s Claw with just his presence, or better, who was so powerful, the Tiger’s Claw had come down to the village of his own free will, to be broken. But their questions served no purpose. The English saint still seemed like a good man, English, yes, so different from other men, but a good man all the same.

He’d lived in the village nearly a year and told wonderful stories. He’d taught the children new ways of doing figures. He’d taught the boys and men how to make English seeds yield more. He’d taught the women how to lower a child’s fever. He’d talked with the men and elders about the gods, about suffering and death. He’d laughed at births and cried at deaths, always in good measure. But he’d humiliated Yanez, they all said or thought. That isn’t true, someone stood up and said: Yanez humiliated himself. Following this day of questions came a night of talk, and in the morning they all said: Yanez humiliated himself. It was a surrender, not a defeat. The English saint could stay.

After his confession, Yanez barely slept. When it grew dark, he would unroll his reed mat and lie down, but he barely slept. He’d always been a light sleeper, but he slept often. Now he lay stretched out on the mat with his eyes closed, not sleeping, and this was like sitting and staring at the curtain moving slightly in the doorway, and really, if staring at the curtain was doing nothing, staying awake with his eyes closed was doing even less. He had only a short time to live, and he wanted to live every second of it, awake. He’d made himself a bet: if the priest absolved him and kept his confession, then god existed and was good and great, because only a true, and good, and great god could do great deeds with small men; and Yanez knew that he’d committed many large sins and pardoning them was a great deed, but above all, Yanez knew that even the smallest sin was enough for damnation, so even pardoning the smallest sin, and saving a soul from damnation, was a very great deed. If the priest refused to absolve him, then he had every reason to doubt the priest’s god. Yanez always knew the only one he could really count on was himself. He’d sailed a hundred seas, built and destroyed cities, been king and beggar, Portuguese and Oriental, loather and lover, friend and foe, only to find in the end that salvation comes not from what you take or lose, but from the gifts you’re given and keep forever. Yanez had been given three gifts: the friendship of the pirate Sandokan, the Tiger of Malaysia; the friendship of the woman who brought him food; and, maybe, the friendship of god. Sandokan had been dead for many years now, but their friendship wasn’t dead. They were friends together and friends apart, and now the great distance between them didn’t matter at all. Sandokan died young and handsome, as he should—a life like that couldn’t end with a frail body, a toothless mouth, a nearly closed throat, and soup trickling down your chin. This was Sandokan’s gift: the lesson that all lives are different, and each ends as it should. The woman was alive and gave Yanez almost everything, asking almost nothing in return; she fed him, honored him, named her sons for him. Yanez didn’t mind the woman’s devotion; he knew the woman considered this to be right because of what he was: an old man who needed her. Yanez knew the woman honored him for his age and for the wisdom gained with age. That’s why Yanez wanted to gain some wisdom, after so many years of life, because it was all he could give the woman in return for all her silent care. His desire for wisdom was the woman’s greatest gift. The English priest came just when Yanez realized that, for all his effort, wisdom was slipping away, because, quite simply, he wasn’t worthy: he’d wanted to live a thousand lives instead of one, the right life, his life. Perhaps the priest had the power to free him from all those superfluous lives, to strip him down to the least, the poorest. This power, perhaps the priest had it, and Yanez went to the village the day he felt strong enough and weak enough to find out. Now Yanez lies stretched out on the reed mat, awake, eyes closed, and he feels like a newborn child in a basket of rags who doesn’t know yet that he has arms, legs, a belly, and a back, who sees those limbs waving all around him without knowing that they’re his. Yanez grabs his left hand with his right; he clasps his hands, knits his fingers; he touches his face, his neck, his chest, his belly, and his thighs; he squats, hugs his knees, caresses himself, lightly kneads his lower back; he counts his toes, touches his hard soles, the backs of his knees; he hugs his shoulders, touches his throat, the back of his neck. He struggles to his knees, as he’s done only a few times by choice and as he was forced to do as a child. On his knees, almost without thinking, he prays, he gives himself.

Now he can die. When god’s claw decides to strike him.

—Giulio Mozzi, Translated by Elizabeth Harris

Giulio Mozzi was born in 1960 in the small town of Camira Vicentino in Northern Italy. He is the author of over two dozen books of fiction, poetry, and writing craft, and is credited with helping to launch the careers of numerous young writers in Italy. “The Apprentice,” a story from This Is the Garden, appeared in the anthology Racconti italiani del Novecento, edited by Enzo Siciliano for Mondadori Press. Mozzi lives in Padua.

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harris

Elizabeth Harris‘s translations include Mario Rigoni Stern’s novel Giacomo’s Seasons (Autumn Hill Books), Giulio Mozzi’s story collection This Is the Garden (Open Letter Books), and Antonio Tabucchi’s novel Tristano Dies (forthcoming with Archipelago Books). Her prizes include a 2013 Translation Prize from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Culture (Rome), a Banff Centre Translation Residency, and a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant from the PEN American Center.

 

Apr 152014
 

Andre Narbonne

More fable than short story, yet also something of a noir parable, a grim psychological mystery of compulsion and erotic self-abnegation, André Narbonne’s “The Doctrinal Murder of a Socratic Beggar in St. Suzette” tells the tale of a frustrated artist whose wife commits a murder to save her husband’s work from mockery. André Narbonne is an old acquaintance; I selected a wonderful story of his for the 2006 edition of Best Canadian Stories (in the time before time when I edited that estimable volume).

dg

 

At first, Martin Verloc drew pleasure from the slowing of the crowd. They were construing him; he recognized the pace. He watched from above, peering through rust-pocked metal railings while rush-hour pedestrians beneath the bridge hesitated at the sight of his installation—a five-panel theatrical fixture, sculpted and embossed, entitled The Shield of Achilles. Occasionally, Martin observed an expression of admiration and he felt himself pleasant: disconnected and attached.

Securing funds for his creation, his Gesamtkunstwerk, had been a long and uncertain process, which had galled Martin considerably. When he left St. Suzette, Quebec, to apprentice in Paris, he never considered coming back, but here he was, middle-aged and grey, a celebrated son, his residency so significant it was mentioned in tourist brochures. The city should have been honoured by his proposal, but the public art committee balked at the idea of a Greek metaphor being the muse for a work commemorating the city’s tercentennial celebration. Their minds were filled with explorers and Jesuits and military men—all the dirt of history, the provincialism that ignored the beautiful intractability of myth. He had had to explain, even browbeat the committee so that when he set to work the stakes were enormously high. But it had all paid off, and in secret he had welded an inscription to the underside of a panel—Γεννημένος της ιδιωτικής λαμπρότητας και αυξημένος σε έναν δημόσιο χώρο (born of private brilliance and raised in a public space).

The Shield of Achilles was installed under a bridge where commuters walked in competing streams every morning and evening. They walked through and around the art, immersed in Homeric imagery: weddings, murders, farming, dancing—every human endeavour known to antiquity as catalogued in Book XVIII of The Iliad. Martin’s explication of a three thousand-year-old poetic passage was the sort of critical success that cannot be diminished by its popularity. And it didn’t scare him that he had no more ideas, that he walked to the bridge daily in a sort of emotional torpor so that his only inspiration came from without, from his appreciation of his audience. Like a doddering man with a young child, if he never created another work, he could take comfort in his final inspiration to last until the end of his days.

“Go on,” he whispered to passing strangers below. “Interpret me.”

Only one thing distressed him: a panhandler who one day perched on the edge of the middle panel, cap in hand. Once would have been alright—a found poem in human form, or a comic moment intruding on a stage dressed for tragedy. Unfortunately, having decided the crowd offered a rich enough vein for him to prospect, the beggar kept returning. The man was neither young nor old, neither ugly nor pitiable. If anything, he stood out for being nondescript. But the beggar was a distraction, and Martin found his continued presence disturbing.

Martin brought home his disgust at the beggar to his wife, Betty. As always, Betty listened to her husband’s litany of sarcasms without moving. It was a trick she had learned early in their marriage. Had a kettle been boiling, the steam whistling at a high pitch, she would have ignored it. Martin was the centre of her understanding of herself, never mind the affairs that had been more muse to him than Greek poetry. His flaws as a husband didn’t make her love him less. They made her fear him. And so she listened, as always, to Martin’s description of the crowds and of how the beggar still sat there, an idle nuisance disturbing the natural flow of things.

When he was finished, she replied, “Well that’s different.”

It was what she always said, and the expression was offensive to Martin, who prided himself on being different.

*     *     *

He was there again the next day when Martin watched the crowd. The cap he held out was dirty, the hand that held it, equally so. The effect didn’t create distaste but apathy. Well-dressed women and men who’d only a moment earlier been looking around, perhaps judging themselves in relation to their fellow pedestrians, stared at their feet. They passed the panels without considering them, the beggar having reduced them to a point of philosophical and aesthetic vacuity.

“It’s more than a man can take,” Martin opened as he approached the man. “Every day you are here. Have you nowhere else to go?”

The beggar looked up. Martin was a heavyset man. He wore an expensive greatcoat calculated to make him look like he belonged to an earlier century.

“Who are you?” asked the beggar. “You are not the police.”

“Of course not. I am an artist.”

“An artist? What’s that?”

“I built the art you sit on.”

The beggar looked around. “This is art?” he asked.

In the voice of a lecturer exhausted by a back-row student’s stupidity, Martin answered, “It is a representation of the shield the goddess Thetis brings to her son Achilles in The Illiad. The forms you sit on are a besieging army. There, behind you, is a sortie lead by Ares and Athene. Strife, Panic, and Death stand beside them. Above you, bolted into the underside of the bridge are the constellations. Over there…”

“Constellations? Then who is that man?”

“Orion the Hunter.”

“I see. A man as stars. It’s very good.”

“What do you mean by that? Are you mocking me?”

“Not at all. Look at me. Where can I sit? This is very good at shielding me from the rain. Soon it will snow and your art will protect me. The music—is it a lute that plays constantly?—will soothe me.”

“That is not its purpose!”

The beggar only shrugged.

“Will you not leave?”

“No.”

“And why not?”

“Everywhere I go I am asked to leave. This time I have decided to stay. This is a very comfortable place. You have built something that is very useful to me.”

“It’s not meant to be useful.”

“Then why build it?”

“It is art. Art is meant to be appreciated.”

“I appreciate it.”

*     *     *

That night, Martin’s anger was a second man growing inside of him, mastering him. He raged until Betty feared he would go out like he did the nights when he’d been working on his designs and his muse left him. On those nights, his muse, when he found it, kept him late. Once he was gone for two days. Loving him, she had to acknowledge, was a tawdry business. She could not imagine any other life and she suspected that was why he kept her. She had no connection to his friends, who made no effort to conceal the fact that they tolerated her. She had no opinions on his art. He’d silenced them with his defenses, with his satire. She could offer nothing for his mind. True, she was one of those women who kept her beauty as she aged, but she assumed he was able to provide for his bodily desires elsewhere. And yet he always came back.

She wondered if there wasn’t some way she could keep him other than through her passivity.

“I feel imprisoned by idiots,” Martin spat. “First the grocer, now the beggar.”

Betty knew a cold shock of fear at the mention of the grocer.

The grocer had been kind to her. He always addressed her politely. And then, a mistake. In Martin’s hearing he had one day complimented her dress. A glass shattered in her mind. She grew dizzy and nearly fell. Martin, as she knew he would, offered to fight. He berated the grocer, who was married, in front of a full shop, accusing him of making advances on his wife. Even in this age, wasn’t marriage sacred? From that day on, Betty stayed clear, walking the three extra blocks to the next store for groceries. One day she met the grocer on the street and smiled politely, but he returned a resentful look. She wondered if he held her to blame, if he imagined that she had preyed on his good nature to arouse her husband’s passion.

What she didn’t know was that the grocer was insidious. He watched them. At times, after closing his shop, he stared into their windows, tried to catch a glimpse of treason through a gap in the curtains. He muttered under his breath and grew increasingly strange.

“I know what I’ll do,” said Martin. “I will give that beggar money to leave. Yes, that’s what I’ll do.”

“How much?”

“Oh, not too much. A man like that is used to getting by on very little.”

She noticed how, having made up his mind on a course of action, Martin’s mood eased. Action could placate. Maybe it could placate a bad heart.

It was a family inheritance. There was no cure for the fearful shudder, the quick coldness that sometimes left her breathless, other times too weak to walk. The best she could do was to reduce stress, which she had for years attempted to do by standing statue-still when she felt most threatened.

*     *     *

“Ah, here you are, my friend. How did I know I would find you here?”

“It is you who are mocking me.” The beggar was eating a take-out salad from a plastic bowl. He spoke through a mouthful of spinach.

“Do you remember our conversation?”

“Who could forget meeting a genius?”

“Genius? I would never call myself a genius.”

“Perhaps. But you would imply.”

“You are a man who knows how to frustrate. I am here to offer you a trade. I will give you…assistance…if you agree to beg somewhere else.”

“Why would you do that?”

“Because art does not exist without an audience. It doesn’t matter what I have made of this space. With you here, no one sees it.”

“I see it.”

“But you do not count.”

“I told you, you were mocking me. How can you expect me to agree that I do not count?”

“You know nothing of metaphor and can neither appreciate nor critique the strength of my sentiments. Have you read Homer?”

“I have no time.”

“No time? But all you do is sit.”

“Being poor is time-consuming. You have no idea.”

“Then I shall tell you what it is you are looking at, and you tell me whether that is what you see. When Achilles, the great Greek warrior, decides to return to battle against the Trojans his goddess mother asks Hephaestus, the god of the forge, to make him a suit of armour. The shield that Hephaestus creates is a work of art. In Homer’s poem, it shows moving scenes, marriages and wars, deceit and comfort. Everything is on the shield…”

“What is that twirling thing?”

“It stands for abundance. The purple on the one side is a vineyard on a king’s estate, on the other side, the gold is his corn.”

“Oh, abundance. Let me see then if I can recognize metaphor, now that you’ve taught me.”

“I am not done…”

“Shhh, don’t give me any hints. There? No. There? No. No, I don’t see it.”

“See what?”

“Poverty.”

“There is no poverty. The shield is rich, not poor.”

“And I am poor, not rich. All that I see is shelter.”

“Do you not see art?”

“Can art be shelter?”

“No.”

“Then I do not see art.”

“That’s perfectly understandable. I understand that you are an idiot. Will you take my money?”

“What makes your money any different from the other money I am given?”

Martin pulled several bills from his pocket and showed them to the beggar.

“Oh.”

“However many you want. All of them, if you think it a fair trade—just to leave and not come back.”

“You are asking me to lie.”

“What?”

“You want me to make promises I will not keep. If you give me your money, I will spend it. Then I will still have to live, and I will come back. My promise to you will mean nothing to me. Listen. I am being honest. I am fighting against deceit, which is our common enemy. If you give me the money, I will return.”

“Even if you promise to stay away? It’s outrageous!”

“Is it? But why? I do not count. Why should you expect the things that do not count to have more integrity than the things that do count?”

“You are hopeless.”

“I agree.”

*     *     *

The storm seemed to this time reduce Martin to the level of an infant. Like an infant, he was indiscriminately cruel. He ridiculed Betty’s choice of outfits for the party in Martin’s honour they were to attend that evening. He was in the habit of dressing her. Their tastes never matched and she always felt awkward in overly-loud arrangements. Tonight, she had tried to predict his tastes and had dressed in what she imagined an appropriately extroverted fashion. Martin had rained on her all the ridicule she would have felt herself for the clothing, only magnified to the point of indicating character flaws.

“Wear black,” he told her at last. “Just wear black.”

At the party her dress seemed dangerously provocative. She came across as a middle-aged vamp and the men who’d gathered to celebrate Martin’s public achievements but knew little about his private life stared openly. It was Martin’s habit to distance himself from Betty at public events. She walked the margins of the room, occasionally narrowing the distance between them enough to hear bits of conversation.

“He’s determined to make a spectacle of himself,” she heard Martin say to a man in a gabardine suit.

The man replied, “Then you think he’s targeted you?”

“He says so himself. He’s like the woman who sprayed paint at the Mona Lisa. His only purpose is to destroy art.”

“But surely that can’t be right. That woman’s purpose was political. She was protesting for the rights of the handicapped. Maybe this man is political, too.”

“What politics could a hobo have?”

“The politics of the dispossessed.”

“Bah. He is a nuisance. You should see him. His life is miserable and so he intends to make my life miserable. It is his way of playing God.”

She could only hear a little at a time. All the conversations seemed to go that way, and she felt her heart pounding painfully when she listened to them. Towards the end of the night, when Martin found the sympathy of a young woman in a white ermine jacket, Betty heard a rush in her head like a powerful wind blowing from side to side. She gripped a chair for support, the tension pushing her to the point of collapse.

“How terrible! So much beauty! So much creativity suppressed by an ignorant illiterate man,” she heard the woman say.

To her surprise, Martin answered, “I don’t know that he’s illiterate. He seems to have a fine grasp of argument.”

Martin’s eyes met Betty’s then. He had a talent for reading images. She wondered what he saw.

“Excuse me,” he said, and he rushed to his wife’s side. “My love, are you okay?” He looked frightened.

“Yes, I’m okay. I’m tired. I’ll sit down.”

“No, you will go home.”

“Oh please don’t make me…”

“I will come with you.”

He was all consideration and she knew the storm had blown over and she realized that despite the fact the marriage would probably prove fatal, she loved him powerfully.

*     *     *

The beggar wasn’t there when Martin arrived the next morning. There was no sign of him ever having been there. Even so, Martin had an eerie sensation of being followed. He looked about several times, but could find no reason for his suspicion.

For the first time in what seemed like a very long while, Martin was able to observe the reaction of the crowd that passed his artwork. To his surprise, they did not stop. Had they not noticed it before? Of course they had—when it was new. It was four-months-old now and was no longer capable of holding their interest. Martin had never before been aware of himself being ignored. He had been hated and revered. That he’d known. This was puzzling.

Was this why he imagined himself being followed? Was his mind compensating to protect him, inventing the interest of strangers?

He had always been good at protecting his sanity. He didn’t consider himself a bad man, although he had done bad things. All the bad things were in the service of preserving his mental health and so he forgave himself for them. In rough seas, they could be jettisoned like steerage from a lifeboat.

Martin tried to comfort himself with the thought that he wasn’t done producing art. There would be more works that would stop the crowds and return the sun to his atrophying patch of identity. But the thought brought no respite from depression. He hadn’t had any ideas for a year, and he had gone to antiquity for his last.

In Martin’s mind, the lines from Homer’s poem were an expression of futility. That’s what had secretly drawn him to his concept. Everything that can be done, has been done, the cuckold god of the forge seemed to be saying. Why not kill yourself, Achilles? All life is repetition of past lives.

Martin never told anyone that his plan was to produce a monument to redundancy.  The art was vibrant, but it took a verb to express neutrality. Someone, he thought, might catch sight of his meaning. Somewhere in the crowd that passed daily en route to the stultifying business of middle-class sameness must be someone who would recognize the statement in the art. What that person would do with himself or herself next, he could not guess. What he himself had done with the absolute and classless knowledge of futility was to sink deeper inward.

He was looking to his audience for indications of a way out. And he no longer knew what his audience looked like.

He heard a noise, a different tread. The beggar at last. Martin understood a feeling of shame and dodged behind a concrete pillar, the better to observe without being seen. The beggar had a game leg that dragged in such a way as to cause his steps to be measured but to never add up. He moved with obvious pain. When he sat, it was with the slow deliberation of a king sitting on a concrete throne. He didn’t put out his hat at first, which surprised Martin. He’d assumed that the beggar was begging all the time. What other purpose could he have? Instead, he seemed to content himself with looking around. He fixated on the fourth panel, which portrayed a wedding and a murder. For a long while he did nothing. His reverie was disturbed at last by a man offering a coin. The beggar nodded, said, “God bless you,” mechanically and took off his cap. Then he went about his work.

In the time that passed while Martin watched the beggar consider his panel, his feelings underwent a sea change. He walked home feeling an unaccountable joy. As he walked beside the water, he observed fish in the canal, dark forms dodging into the depths, and decided that he liked them.

Late that night, he felt around in the darkness for a glass of water he knew he had placed somewhere near the bed. Betty, who anticipated his needs, held it out.

“Oh, thank you,” he said. “Are you still up?”

“I am the bearer of water.”

“The bearer of water,” he considered her joke. “You should be the one who sleeps and gets better. You are not well.”

“Not well? Do you worry about me?”

“I worry about you more than you can ever know. But that’s my fault. You will know how much I love you. I make this my promise. I have been very stupid. It has occurred to me now. Slowly, I’ll admit. But I think…I think I have seen something. You will think it impossible.”

“My love?”

“I will show you. Yes. We didn’t do all of this for nothing. We did all of this for us.”

She thought for a moment.

She said, “My love, I will show you, too.”

*     *     *

“Ah, back again,” said Martin a day later.

“As you see.”

“It got dark early tonight.”

The beggar followed his gaze up into the black. A loose string of grey-white, a V of birds, laboured to till it.

“It’s coming. Can you feel it?” asked Martin.

“Winter?”

“Yes.”

“I smell snow,” the beggar replied, agreeably.

“What does it smell like? Death?”

“Snow is not a metaphor. It is a thing. Snow smells like snow. You know it or you don’t. How would I know what death smells like? Death is not a thing.”

“You live so close to it.”

“We all live close to it, and to life. What does life smell like?”

“Wedding cake. Is that what it smells like to you?”

“You mock me. Go away. You are bad for business.”

“A very rational answer. You don’t sound crazy. I don’t understand. Aren’t all street people crazy? Are you bi-polar? Schizophrenic?”

The beggar looked at him crossly and sighed. “None of those things. Although I have heard that same charge made against artists.”

“If you are not mad, why do you choose to do this?”

“To live? I did not choose the way I live, I only choose to live.”

“Why not work?”

“Listen, it is possible to fall so far from the rest of the world that you cannot get back. I fell. When I did, I destroyed my leg. Yes, I was crazy then. There is no coming back now. This is where I live. In this body. In these clothes. I will tell you no more. Consider me an abstraction, a figment of your conscience, if you have one. I do not like being spied on.”

“I, spy on you?”

“I saw you. Behind that pillar. And I have heard you other times this week. I was grateful to see that it was you, so I did not say anything. Do not embarrass the man you thought was a demon, that’s my dictum.”

“Dictum? Such language… Anyway, you are paranoid. I was being polite.”

“Why be polite?”

“An artist must be polite to his audience.”

“I am not your audience.”

“On the contrary. You are my only audience. You are the only person who is aware of my work. Whatever you see in it must therefore be right. If my art is shelter, then it is shelter. Who am I to disagree? It meant other things for me when I designed it, but your assessment of its utility is as good a reading as mine and, indeed, confirms my ideas. There is nothing new. Everything is the same as it was before it was what it is.”

“You’re not going to offer me money?”

“You don’t want it.”

“I didn’t say I didn’t want it. I said I didn’t want to lie. It’s not the same thing.”

“My offer tonight is to leave you alone.”

“Why?”

“Because I believe I have been a very bad man, and I never meant to be. Well, no one does. It is always a surprise when a man finds out bad things about himself. And I have found things out. I have been ungenerous where I should have been most kind.

“Do you know, I left St. Suzette when I was nothing? I was not even a genius, as you call me. A genius doesn’t exist until someone else says he is one, and no one said that about me. I worked in Europe where, over time, I got wise. I married a very beautiful woman. We had a nice house. Not luxurious, but nice. I saw no purpose in returning here. It was my wife’s idea. She wanted to see what egg I had hatched from. We booked a holiday, spent two weeks here and at the end of two weeks decided that this is where we would be at our best.

“For my wife it was a matter of pleasing me. I used to know that. I used to know that she was a woman capable of great sacrifice. She sacrificed leaving her family and her friends because she thought this was where I’d be happiest. And I was happy here. That surprised me, too.

“One morning at the beginning of our visit, I went for a walk by the canal. There was a particular spot I had passed by maybe a thousand times as a child and a youth. This time something struck me, a vista I had not noticed before. I understood the form of the buildings and the water in a way I had not understood them when I was young. I was struck by the extreme beauty. It wasn’t just one thing or the other. It wasn’t just architecture or countryside, but the connection between them. So many dead hands had built something that was aesthetically perfect. I have been to Rome. I have seen great buildings. There was nothing great in what I looked at. It was no Arch of Trajan—I mean, of course, the one in Benevento, not Ancona—but all of it together composed the greenest of greens. It was like a field in which humanity and nature had bloomed as one body. And I could not see it before. I had to approach this age before I had lived long enough to come in contact with the serene honesty of this vision, this beauty. It was then that I knew I belonged here.”

“Because you saw beauty?”

“No, because I, alone, saw beauty. No one else stopped. I walked there every day for two weeks. I was the only one who noticed. And I knew that I had a responsibility.”

“Because you saw beauty?”

“Because I saw great beauty. And how does one view great beauty? From my own experience I can tell you that it is not with feelings of joy but with a deep sense of inadequacy.”

“Sense? You make no sense.”

“But I do. And I was the keeper of that knowledge of inadequacy. I was the one who knew we were insufficient. That’s why I had to be here—to watch and to know. And now I have been troubled by another understanding, this time a vision of ugliness in myself. I have been a bad man. I see that. My wife’s mother died of a bad heart. It took a year during which I witnessed her family’s grief. I know what it means, this hunger that consumes, this anguish. I know what it means to die for someone you might better have lived for.

“My wife and I were out and I saw her collapse. She wouldn’t believe it herself, but I know how ill she is and I know my place is to care for her. I renounce my genius. I will go back to being a husband. What I love is not art. It is my wife. As an artist I am merely a beggar like you, begging for pennies of approval.”

“You are crazy. Everything you say is crazy. It is you who are bi-polar.”

*     *     *

Maybe the beggar was right.

Certainly, there were times when Martin’s life seemed under the direction of an unseen needle in a magnetic storm. That those times coincided with his creative periods was suggestive. There were nights when he would walk the city alone and on no clear course and come home late to work demonically. During one of his expeditions, the needle began to spin. No amount of alcohol would settle it. It spun for two days. Sleeping under a picnic table in the park, he became aware on the second night of another man sleeping in the bushes, a shoeless doppelganger. When he returned home, Betty took his coat and poured a bath. She asked no questions. He was humbled by the way she simply understood. He felt a debt of appreciation for her silent knowledge.

And now, on his walk home, he was teased again by inspiration. Some quality in the night seemed to speak to Martin, a form buried in the darkness that was restless to emerge. He saw a thin man, the beggar. He plucked him out of an enormous sky. He registered how the beggar clenched his fists when he staggered. More shapes crowded the fertile dark of his imagination: more beggars. He saw that his beggar was the ur-beggar by which the others would be understood. He saw judgement and quality; he imagined form, but it wanted an action to complete the analogy.

It struck him: a beggar and a genie’s lamp. Better: a beggar as a genie’s lamp. Yes, that was it. The lamp was the hard flesh imprisoning the spirit within. The heart craved but the body confined. He would find out the beggar’s name and he would name the statue after him. He arrived home chuckling.

For the second night in a row, Betty was out. He told himself, “Don’t be angry.”

He went through the kitchen in search of something to eat and discovered that she had not been home since supper. The dishes were untouched, and no food had been prepared for his evening snack. He imagined her leaving shortly after him, but where could she have gone? The possibilities were an endless affront.

“This will be your first test,” he told himself. “When she returns you will be kind. That will show her.”

All the same, he turned the lights off and waited in the dark.

*     *     *

He must have fallen asleep. He didn’t hear her return, didn’t hear the key in the lock. He wasn’t aware of her presence until she threw on the light and he awoke with a start to see her standing in front of him. She was shaking, a motion that seemed to have no epicentre but that owned her body. A deep, dark smear of blood crossed her cheek.

“What is it?” he cried.

“Oh, I have done something terrible,” she replied.

“What have you done?”

She lifted her hand to show him a butcher’s knife. It was red with blood as was the hand that held it. He saw blood on her coat. It was splashed across her chest. It ran down her arms, down her legs. He saw now that the blood on her cheek went further. It touched her forehead and nose. There was blood on her ears.

“I do not understand,” he said, blind to the image before him, unable to put it into coherence.

“I have killed him.”

There was blood on her boots and her boots bled on the floor.

“Killed whom?”

“The beggar.”

“The beggar? I don’t understand.”

“I thought I could hide the body. It was heavy and I had to be fast and he…he saw me. He will call the police. I am finished.”

“He? Who?”

“The grocer. He was there. I don’t know why he was there. He was laughing.”

For a moment, Martin imagined with horror the art of what he had created: the dead beggar’s corpse, Betty’s realizations as she stooped to roll him into the canal while looking at the cruel face of victory belonging to the grocer. All of it was frozen in his mind in a vision too large to contain. His mind had always protected him from itself, always repelled logic whenever necessary, and he viewed the scene he had authored from a safe perspective, as a metaphor, and when he did he started to laugh. He laughed and laughed and laughed. He laughed for a very long time while, outside his house, cars pulled up to the curb.

 —André Narbonne

 

André Narbonne sailed for ten years as a marine engineer on bulk carriers, fishery patrol and hydrographic vessels, and tankers before attending university and completing a PhD in English at the University of Western Ontario. His writing won the Atlantic Writing Contest, the David Adams Richards Prize, and the FreeFall Prose Contest and was anthologized in Best Canadian Stories. He is the father of Ottawa writer Aeriana Narbonne. See a chapter of Narbonne’s novel Carte Blanche here.

 

Apr 072014
 

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Lost love, unrequited love, love all too achingly brief (and yet ever so slightly comical) is the subject of this excerpt from Álvaro Pombo‘s novel Where The Women (translated from Spanish and introduced by Brendan Riley). Here we get the story of poor Aunt Nines, packed off to a convent (the Sisters of Adoration in Letona) after she refuses to eat for lost love. Not just lost love, her only love, the deliciously named Indalecio, whose life is cut short by a swimming accident. “Oh, how Indalecio went running along the beach! He charmed everybody that summer.” Meet also the divine Aunt Lucia who lives in a tower and tells everyone what to think. A gorgeous, sprawling novel inscribed in this short sample.

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Álvaro Pombo is one of Spain’s major writers. Poet, novelist, and political activist, Pombo has won multiple awards awards, including the 1983 Herralde Novel Prize, for El héroe de las mansardas de Mansard (The Hero of the Big House; trans. Margaret Jull Costa) and the 1996 Spanish National Novel Prize for Donde las mujeres (Where the Women), from which the excerpt below is translated.

Pombo was born in Santander, in the northern Spanish autonomous province of Cantabria on the Bay of Biscay, in 1939. He holds degrees in philosophy from the Universidad Complutense in Madrid, and from Birkbeck College in London. He has published some six volumes of poetry and twenty novels and collections of short stories. He is a fascinating and gifted author whose novels offer finely drawn characters, compelling narratives, and keen psychological insights, all presented in richly woven tapestries of lyrical color and the finely tuned Castillian Spanish of his native Cantabria. Despite his enormous reputation in Spain, few of Pombo’s works have yet been translated into English.

Where the Women, Pombo’s eighth novel, is a book with many virtues. Primarily set in northern Spain along the Cantabrian Sea, (with one of the final chapters in Madrid), Where the Women offers a vivid portrait of an aloof, upper-class family in the decades following the Spanish Civil War.  In addition to the captivating, unnamed narrator who is the family’s oldest daughter, Pombo creates a slate of memorable characters: the mother who might be a good woman; the angular, venomous Aunt Lucia; her dutiful German aristocratic lover Tom Bilfinger; the stolid, matronly governess Fraulein Hannah; and the vain, petulant younger siblings Violeta and Fernandito. Gabriel, the narrator’s architect father whom she never meets until the novels end, when she is 31, appears in a ruthless, devastating cameo, in which he seems to embody the sterility and silence of Franco’s Spain.

Donde las mujeres is an unqualified pleasure, told in the voice of the young woman, intimate, authoritative, self-aware, and engaging. She invites the reader’s sympathy as she struggles to become a thoughtful person amid a family whose self-conception demands that it, especially the women, not think too much.  As the narrator’s mother tells her, she should speak less and draw more; drawing things makes them clear, but words misrepresent them. Even when she coquettishly flirts with the hearts of her young suitors, what remains most interesting is her honest self-appraisal; she knows what she is doing and why. Pombo deftly inspires our desire for her to succeed, either in her studies or love affairs, but then deliberately subverts any hopeful fruition; this emphasizes the narrator’s ultimate isolation: her home life is fancy but sterile and unfulfilling; her studies are mere dilettantism; she is being prepared for no real future, and her family offers nothing in the way of practical, worldly or spiritual wisdom except the eventual vague notion that she should someday find a husband.  Instead, thanks to the cruel revelation of Aunt Lucia, she inherits the paradox of unknown identity; like her deceased Aunt Nines, whom she regrets not properly mourning, she is the product of a loveless affair which her mother has always concealed. Thus, she is not the daughter she has been brought up to believe in, and her upper class status, as she comes to suspect, is a sham.

So, what initially seems like a familiar coming of age story turns out to be a sombre and beautifully executed philosophical meditation.  As the narrator goes to Madrid to confront her father –Gabriel– there is some expectation of mutual recognition or self-discovery, but Pombo pursues the path of alienation to the end. Gabriel is even colder, more vain and self-centered than the rest of the narrator’s family; he cavalierly refuses to acknowledge her. Their brief, chilly meeting in the capital powerfully refocuses the novel on Spain as a whole. Although set during the harshest years of the Franco regime, the political struggles and suffering endured by millions are hardly mentioned. Lately, even after the long dictatorship and the somewhat tarnished decades of a new, apparently open democracy, Spain still struggles with its past; its postmodern identity is built firmly upon a denial that reaches back to its civil war, and the new present cannot endure if the past is known.  

At the end the narrator cannot return home. She wakes up from her atheistic, bourgeois slumber to find out that there is nothing special or reassuring about her life; she is 31 years old, without family love, friends, money or prospects.

Where the Women is an eloquent and reflective novel, virtuously transparent and believable, an intriguing balance of sentimental exploration and psychological insight. Álvaro Pombo’s lyrical prose achieves a finely shaded composition of intimate reveries, disdainful bourgeois chatter, modern cynicism, and tightly reined irony which allows the narrator’s clear, thoughtful, and often humorous voice to carry us from beginning to end with impressive sustain, fluidity, and conviction. Where the Women is a masterful, beautifully written book which awaits and deserves an equally captivating English translation. 

—Brendan Riley

 

.

But you can’t take Nines seriously! She’s suffering from something, no one’s disputing it, not me, not anybody. But it’s not an illness.”

“She was really in love; that’s like an illness!” my mother commented from the other end of the dining room table where the whole family was having tea.

“So what? What does being in love have to do with not eating? Nines is just completely apathetic, that’s what. Tell me, how many people, as far as you know, have stopped eating because of love? Nobody!” Aunt Lucia assured us, answering her own question.

Violeta and I looked at each other, horrified and delighted by the stormy turn that Aunt Lucia’s statements had started to take. Sitting bolt upright in her chair away from the seat back, she opened wide her large blue eyes, bright with the slight opposition she seemed to be offering my mother.

“Your egg, Lucia! Eat your egg. Later, when it’s cold, it’ll feel like a lump in your stomach.”

But at that moment Aunt Lucia was not interested in the temperature of her food.  She simply gave the egg a sharp tap with her small elegant ivory spoon.  Nobody could have prevented Aunt Lucia from saying what she wanted to say about Aunt Nines.

“What’s happening is that Nines has compromised her health by not controlling herself, and she won’t control herself, not even if you kill her. There’s no decent doctor, no nurse, no nun, nobody who can bend a will like hers. She has decided that she’s going to starve herself to death, and that’s the end of it. She already weighs less than 100 pounds, just like Gandhi!”

Violeta and I looked at each other again. The storm was getting worse by the moment.  My mother responded to her in a calm, quiet voice, a voice calculated to irritate Aunt Lucia—she was the oldest of the sisters, followed by my mother and then Aunt Nines:

“It’s quite unfair and quite absurd what you’re saying. You know how everything happened. I’m not just talking about her misfortune. I’m talking about everything. Poor Nines. Her life, how it was and how it is now. It’s not that she wants to starve to death. She doesn’t want to die. What she doesn’t want is to go on living, which is something very different.”

A long silence floated over the unbleached linen tablecloth and my grandmother’s elegant china. Violeta and I shrugged our shoulders and stared fixedly at our plates. Neither the argument nor the fuss were new. It didn’t matter; that wasn’t necessary for them to be incredibly fascinating. The word “justice” shifted Aunt Lucia’s attention to regions of great profundity and nervousness. The supposed injustice committed against Aunt Nines was absorbed and nullified by the larger idea of justice which Aunt Lucia was busy expounding in that moment. The corresponding balance of the scales of justice ended up getting completely twisted around, along with the saucer and spoon and cup of tea which danced wildly in Aunt Lucia’s left hand. Despite being frequently on the verge of falling, they never did, something which we would have all preferred: for us all to come crashing down. And to rest in peace, smashed to pieces alongside the china and justice, across the tablecloth puddled with tea, without the least bit of style. But her style never faltered; it was as if Aunt Lucia had a magnet set right in each of the five fingertips of her left hand, with their proportional counterparts of steel or metal in the spoon, the plate, and the cup. It allowed for a wonderful imbalance at the heart of Aunt Lucia’s most elegant equilibrium, and in her voice and her manners.

It was November. Aunt Nines no longer lived at home. On medical advice, Aunt Lucia had taken her to live with the Sisters of Adoration in Letona. In a separate wing of the convent they had rooms, each one with its own mirror and washstand where, during Lent, the ladies from Letona went for three-day retreats and spiritual exercises. Throughout the year the nuns rented out rooms for the elderly who could no longer take care of themselves, or people like Aunt Nines who were suffering from nerves, who had to be watched discretely, keeping an eye on them without offending them because they were still not completely crazy.

It was noticeable that, now that Aunt Nines was gone, we talked about her incessantly. We had never done that while she lived with us. According to my mother, the decision to move Aunt Nines to live with the Sisters of Adoration was not, in any way, an easy one to take. My mother and Aunt Lucia had to meet with Doctor Mazarín and his assistant to carefully weigh the pros and cons that the move would mean for her. Aunt Nines herself had no part in the discussions nor, it seemed, the decision itself. She simply said: “Whatever you decide will be fine by me.”  In Aunt Lucia’s opinion it was a completely apathetic comment, although it was enough to make it understood that she was leaving the house on her own, without anybody pushing her. She was moving in with the Sisters of Adoration of her own free will. No one deliberately meant to isolate her. Once at the convent, little by little, Aunt Nines stopped eating or being interested in life at all.

In November, they talked about Aunt Nines’s stubbornness, one afternoon after another, all through tea and afterwards. Aunt Lucia carried all the weight of the conversation, at times giving the impression that she was speaking not only with us but also, at the same time, to an enormous crowd of people gathered in a grand theatre, one which required clear, precise explanations pronounced in a voice a few octaves higher than what is customary in homes at tea time. Throughout December and January she classified Doctor Mazarín and his assistant as both eminent authorities and imbeciles, sometimes in the same breath. By the middle of March, Doctor Mazarin came to be, in Aunt Lucia’s eyes, a perfect incompetent, incapable of distinguishing between bodies and souls. And yet, for all that, at the end of that year, he was the one responsible for preventing Aunt Nines from slowly killing herself as a result of her depression. It was depression and perhaps her desire to be united, there beyond, in death, with Indalecio, the only boyfriend that she ever had, and whom she had lost. Aunt Lucia always stressed—and my mother always discretely assented to this—that Aunt Nines wasn’t crazy but was really just as sane as any of us. And the proof was to be found in the fact that when they found her lifeless one morning, her two eyes were open and eloquent, tenaciously fixed on the bare ceiling of her private room with its own washbasin, with an air of peace and confidence in what awaited her in the next life.

In this life, on the other hand, Aunt Nines had nothing special to look forward to. And for this reason it was such a great surprise when, without expecting it, the chance to be happy came upon her. Her life had passed slowly until Idalecio appeared. They fell in love; they were going to get married; it all happened in the blink of an eye. And very suddenly it ended.

Violeta and I talked about it all in our bedroom until late at night without figuring it out, but we didn’t share the same attitude. I felt that with Aunt Nines installed in the convent of the Sisters of Adoration that there must be a solution and there, at that stage of the tragedy, was where we would find it. For Violeta, talking about Aunt Nines seemed to be simply making pointless conversation for the sake of talking. On the other hand, perhaps for being two years older, I talked to try to modify the sad situation. But it was sad exactly because it could not be changed, and that was why we talked about it so much that winter: more than deepening it, our talking about the sadness ennobled and embellished the situation. The fact that it was all so sad also made it exciting, not just in general, but in every detail, too.  Specifically, it was very sad that Aunt Nines was not really even my mother’s and Aunt Lucia’s sister; nor was she, like them, the daughter of my grandmother and grandfather. She was nothing more than a stepsister, the daughter of my grandfather and the person whose flat he used on his trips to Madrid. Violeta and I learned this fact as a result of Indalecio’s accident. It had been ignored until then because since long before my memories began to take hold, we had always called her Aunt Nines and she always lived at home.

In the parlor there is a photo of the three of them, seated on the front porch with grandmother, who has her head turned to highlight her Greek profile. Aunt Nines stands out a little from her two sisters; she is somewhat taller—it’s an old photo—with her hair combed in a different style, dressed more severely, in a different fashion. It’s as if she were the oldest one, but she was really the youngest of the three.

Oh, how Indalecio went running along the beach! He charmed everybody that summer.  That included the two of us, who went running as soon as we saw him from a distance coming down to the beach each morning, with the excuse of asking him what time it was, just to hear him say: “Are you going home already?”  It was exciting to answer, almost like a chorus: “Not yet because it’s still early, we usually leave at three.”  And Indalecio would take us by the hand, one on each side, hanging on, just our feet brushing along the sand. It was something that served as an excuse for him to come over to our awning and take Aunt Nines for a walk, down along the beach, to the cliff where the sand ends by the big rocks. They would walk back very slowly, the two of them staring at the ground, taking their steps one at a time. It was thrilling to see them walk away and not be able to see them, then see them again, dallying right before our very eyes, until it was well after three o’clock.

Indalecio was a good fellow, he was invincible: only the sea could beat him. The sea always betrays; there is no such thing as an easy sea. Indalecio drowned for not taking that into account, for letting himself be infected by the thoughts the sea brings to light, which seem not thoughts of the sea but of man. The more green and swollen, the more loquacious it seems, the more mute and deadly it becomes once you are within it. Indalecio knew the sea very well but it did him no good. He owned a white yacht with a bright red jib. From the balcony our house, no matter how far out he was racing, you could pick him out from all the rest at a glance: tacking wide to take best advantage of the wind; the sky, the race, the blue light of the open sea and the summer, the adventure. But Indalecio was younger than the sea; that’s why he drowned. In spite of his considerable charm and his unpretentious seriousness. In spite of his long arms and large hands, and his wrists, thick and strong from rowing. In spite of his black spherical watch, rustproof and water resistant, that drowned with him but which, unlike Indalecio, didn’t resurface. Under its fogged glass the hands count the hours at the bottom, water resistant still. By chance, Aunt Nines wasn’t home when the accident happened. My mother informed her over the phone. It’s almost impossible to deliver such news well. My mother delivered it to her curtly, dryly. For Aunt Nines it must have been more terrible than the most terrible thing, as we saw afterwards in her careless self-abandon and her lack of desire for living. It stuck to the roof of her mouth, like a limpet, until it killed her.

 .

That winter was the wintriest of any winter.  No one could remember a worse one, neither in San Román nor in the other fishing towns on that part of the coast. We stopped attending school on the 4th of December in the afternoon, a Monday, because my mother said that it was better to be at home than anywhere else. That it was impossible to go to school was a marvelous impossibility.  Aunt Lucia was already installed in her tower, and that weather did not let up a bit.  At high tide, the waves released their pent-up energy against the wharf and the little bridge that connects to our part of the coast. It’s like an island. On the maps it looks like a peninsula—although on the maps it’s not called la Maraña—but it’s really an island. It has an isthmus at least two kilometers wide, a beach whose sand is swept by the waves and the northeast wind, secured by a partially hidden rocky place and the wild broom and weeds of the dunes. Having it look like a peninsula on the maps was unfortunate, although infinitely superior to living on the mainland like other girls. On the island, well, on La Maraña, we lived alone, just us, in two houses. Ours was the one closest to the bridge, a two-story chalet surrounded by a small garden and a privet hedge filled with holes that were, when we were small, secret doors for sneaking in and out. Facing ours was Aunt Lucia’s much bigger house with a semidetached tower and large grounds enclosed by a brick wall with an obelisk in the very center. From the bridge by our house you could only see one side of its slate roof.  On the other hand, the tower and the dormer windows of Aunt Lucia’s large house overlooked the highest part of the island. It faced the grey-white sky of winter like a dark lighthouse casting a gloomy shadow over the sea, useless and menacing, like a castle keep. Every year, at dawn on New Year’s Day, Aunt Lucia lit a fire in a large can of pitch atop the tower, which illuminated the whole wild flying sky with its sharp, capricious, incomprehensible flames. Aunt Lucia was an event all by herself. It was impossible for Violeta and I to listen to her and not end up arguing back in our bedroom about what she said and what she did. Her annual arrival, at the beginning of October, was a delightful holiday, blowing like a gale through the entire autumn and winter until the middle or end of April. “The spring won’t catch me here, not even dead!” Aunt Lucia used to say. It was true, because as soon as the air seemed to soften and the sun linger before setting, and we began to shed our sweaters, Aunt Lucia got ants in her pants and went off to Iceland, to Reykjavik, where Tom Bilfinger had built a chalet in the suburbs out of tar-covered logs and wood, the way they do in Iceland for the cold. Tom was essential for Aunt Lucia’s glamour: her High German suitor from a rich, noble Protestant family, whom Aunt Lucia never wanted to marry. Nor did he ever marry anyone else, perhaps in the hope that Aunt Lucia’s fierce iron will would soften as she grew older and they could at least have a civil wedding.

When we were little, it surprised us that Aunt Lucia didn’t live the whole year in her house with the tower, facing the sea, with its tall trees and gravel paths throughout the grounds, designed, as I believe, by Tom Bilfinger himself, in imitation of romantic English gardens.

“Why doesn’t Aunt Lucia stay all summer, since summer is so nice here?” Violeta and I asked my mother each time Aunt Lucia departed.

“Because Aunt Lucia is vain and doesn’t want her skin to get damaged a bit. In the North, it seems, with the humidity and the fog, her skin stays soft. Eternally young, as you can both see.”

“Well, if she’s vain then she’s stupid,” Violeta declared on one occasion. “Mother Maria Engracia said that everyone who is vain is stupid. Besides that, they always end up worse than bad. That’s her experience and she’s already grown up.”

“What does that nun know!” answered my mother. “If she specifically said that your aunt is stupid, then she’s mistaken. And if she said it about women in general, then I don’t know what to think about her anymore.”

“Well, it must be because of Aunt Lucia,” answered Violeta, “because when she said it she stared at me.”

“It’s always been that way,” exclaimed my mother,”because they all hate us in San Román, our family and us, the nuns and priests more than anybody. Because we don’t go to Mass. And your grandfather’s reputation as an atheist… We’re eagles, and always have been, and the nuns are chickens. That’s why they pray for everything, even to Saint Anthony when they lose their hairpins. Because, unlike us, they are incapable of taking care of themselves. They envy us because they’re nobodies. Meanwhile, just by being here, we shine like archangels, the way Lucifer shone. Don’t they teach you that in religion class?”

We both admitted that they did teach us that in religion, and in the chapel, about Lucifer, who lost God’s love because of his pride. The most beautiful archangel that existed. And just by looking at the two of them, at Aunt Lucia and my mother, it was more than well understood what Lucifer thought and what God thought as he cast him down to the inferno: that he shone too brightly, the way they shone and, by extension, the two of us and our little brother Fernandito, and the whole island of La Maraña, where we spent our childhood and youth.

 .

Aunt Nines’s misfortune meant much more to me than I was capable of expressing aloud at the age of fourteen.  “It’s a tragedy,” I told myself, without knowing how that word could be applied to two events, as distinct as Indalecio drowning—an accident—and, in little less than a year, Aunt Nines losing her desire to eat, to take care of herself, and to live. This was not an accident. Quite the opposite, really: it was the result of a decision, except that it was composed almost entirely of omissions and denials. It was a tragedy just the same, even if the incomprehensibility and inexpressibility didn’t come randomly but throughout a whole year instead, as the result of a decision.

They took her away in a taxi. A taxi from Letona and not San Román. I knew that they were taking her away that day, and I was watching from the window in the hallway. I saw the rattling taxi arrive, backfiring, and I saw how Doctor Mazarín, who came seated next to the driver, got out. I saw Aunt Nines leave the house, walking between my mother and Aunt Lucia as if they were escorting a prisoner between the two of them. I watched the scene from above, in the grayish light of the autumn dawn on La Maraña. It seemed like the end of a silent movie; Doctor Mazarín was the executioner and Aunt Lucia and my mother were two high ranking officers or two prosecuting attorneys who see it all very clearly and are just following orders. My feet were cold and I felt an intense curiosity. At the same time I had a very strong sensation of not feeling what I should, or perhaps an ambiguous feeling of guilt by simply observing that scene from the window instead of running down to kiss Aunt Nines goodbye. She left without saying goodbye to us. And we let her go without saying goodbye, just the same way that the cooks and maids and nannies almost always left the house at that hour. It seemed we stopped loving them as soon as they left. That’s why, perhaps, for my not having said goodbye to Aunt Nines, Violeta and I talked about her almost every afternoon. At first I missed her at tea time. Her empty place and chair reminded me of Aunt Nines before Indalecio: laborious, confusingly similar to Fräulein Hannah, Fernandito’s governess. Aunt Nines took us out for walks, she went out with Violeta and me on the stormiest days, with the hard rain slanting against our raincoats, and the ferocious wind that turned our umbrellas inside out. I saw her empty place and I remembered in vain—like those who remember a sum but forget the numbers they added up—the way that Aunt Nines spent whole Sunday afternoons with us playing Brisca or Parcheesi or the Game of the Goose.  Violeta and I learned those three games from Aunt Nines. As painful a memory as it was, the sadness did not make me sad—and for that reason it was confusing, incomprehensible, and strange.

At fourteen years old, the meanings of my experiences appeared and disappeared like instantaneous flashes; they were explosions that I was incapable of reconciling with the rest of my life. So, only a few days after Indalecio’s accident (Aunt Nines was still at home, shut up in her room. Manuela or one of us took up her meals which she hardly touched; she only seemed to want some puree, some rice or noodle soup, or a cup of broth from the stew), Violeta and I had just come home from school and the two of us were in our room, dressing to go downstairs to tea. It was going to be a special tea because we had visitors: three ladies who were, perhaps, the same age as Aunt Lucia or my mother, but at first glance seemed older; deliberate, corseted, matronly, and domineering. We’d seen them seated in the parlor with my mother. The oldest one was a blonde woman that Violeta said was the president of Catholic Action. The other two were less important, perhaps younger. We didn’t know who they were. Violeta was looking at herself in the mirror, smoothing the pleats in her dark blue skirt, her uniform for Sundays and holidays.  I was sitting on the bed shining our shoes. Violet said:

“Doesn’t it seem strange to you, it does to me, not to wear any mourning clothes today?  It’s a formal visit today, a courtesy call…”

“If you’re saying that because of Indalecio, that’s silly, because he wasn’t related to us.”

“What do you mean he wasn’t related to us?  He had to have been something, being Aunt Nines’s boyfriend. He was her sweetheart before he drowned.”

“They weren’t quite sweethearts yet, you know? And since Indalecio drowned, they’re not even sweethearts anymore.” I said it solemnly, and immediately felt a pang of confused guilt.  I felt cruel for talking that way to Violeta. It was very unpleasant to feel cruel: I looked at myself in the mirror, and the cruelty showed on my curved lips. After all, I hadn’t brought it up, it was Violeta who started talking about mourning. So I said: “You shouldn’t have said that, about mourning. You shouldn’t have even thought about it; it’s like we’re laughing at Aunt Nines.”

Violet had come closer while I was talking and she looked at me with surprise.

“But what are you talking about? Aunt Nines has nothing to do with it. I said that about mourning because I’d love to wear black in the afternoons—a smooth black suit and just a simple necklace of Austrian silver with strawberry-colored Russian enamel. Aunt Lucia always says that black complements people with complexions like ours, with those cheekbones of hers – white– as if they were always painted with some kind of lacquer.”

It was always about Aunt Lucia! Listening to Violeta talk about the black suit that she’d like to wear in the afternoons, I couldn’t fail to recognize it. I felt her same persuasive influence just as strongly in myself. Nevertheless, while going downstairs I thought about something that Aunt Lucia would not have thought: how false I had been to instinctively blame my displeasure at feeling cruel on Violeta: I wanted to be innocent by any means, to see myself blameless at any cost. I entered the parlor behind Violeta, not knowing how to consider what I had just thought about while talking with her, nor what I felt in that very moment. To watch her during the visit, just to see her making animated conversation with Aunt Lucia and my mother, who simply smiled, occasionally exchanging a few words with her, erased in me any feeling of regret and reduced it all to a solemn joy. It was the objective happiness which almost any visit, of the few we ever received, held for me when I was fourteen years old. It was fun to greet the three of them, one by one, and then take my place on a settee. Facing them all I put on a mature face, pretending that we were taking everything that was said quite seriously instead of simply observing them so that Violeta and I could laugh later on in our room, imitating them. Every fourth sentence, with rhythmic interjections, they said something like “Nines! Oh, the poor thing!” or “Indalecio, may he rest in peace.”  It seemed like they were trying to brighten up their three monotonous monologues a little. They really weren’t like us at all. They were brood hens; that’s why they made us laugh. It made sense, I thought suddenly, that my mother had withdrawn to live alone on La Maraña when we were little: she came here to escape from these hens and their clucking. “Better alone than in bad company,” I said to myself. And I felt a solemn shiver of hot grandeur, like a swallow of grappa in my throat, my esophagus, my soul. It was fascinating to be visited like that from time to time, the way queens, or queen mothers, or princesses are visited: by fat, swollen brood hens, all dressed up for the occasion. With delight I imagined them trying on their gloves, then hastily sewing up the unstitched fingertip, because they only saw us on special occasions, such as a funeral or a wedding or a Te Deum to celebrate the victory of the Nationalists. We were never really seen; they only glimpsed us occasionally, never very close up, only for a holiday or a parade, at a distance…  That gratifying daydream entertained me that afternoon like so many other times! I thought that it was all true. The proof came on the day of the funeral for the eternal rest of Indalecio. After the prayers for the deceased, my mother and Aunt Lucia—with the two of us following—approached Indalecio’s mother and family to offer our condolences. Everyone stood up all at once—there must have been twenty of them, because they filled the first two pews—and they approached us as if we were the ones suffering, as if the duty of presiding over the mourning belonged exclusively to the four of us, and not to them.

— Álvaro Pombo, from Donde las mujeres (Where the Women), translated by Brendan Riley

Brendan Riley

Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes.

 

Apr 062014
 

Nuala Ní Chonchúir author photo

Nuala Ní Chonchúir, like Doireann Ni Griofa who was featured in last month’s Uimhir a Cúig, is bilingual although she writes predominantly in English. A prolific writer of novels, short-story collections, flash fiction, and poetry, she utilizes a variety of constructs and perspectives often to explore the intimate issues of gender, sexuality and the corporeal.

In her story “Tinnycross,” Ní Chonchúir alludes to the prodigal son parable, but here the unexpected presence of a wife in the family home repositions the fraternal conflict. Her assertive influence shapes the emotional and material divides, internally and externally, yielding ultimately a resolution with hints of forgiveness if not exactly salvation.

The vocabulary rarely comforts. Not surprising since the returning son finds that “the familiarity of everything” is “both balm and thorn to him.” He is at odds not just with his brother but “with every blade of grass on every acre of the land.” To this end, Ní Chonchúir uses language like a plow, turning over the upper layer of the brothers’ hardened relationship to bring to the surface the roots of abandonment in the hopes of cultivating some form of reclamation. A cruelty borne out of rectitude, decency even.

—Gerard Beirne

 

By the time Oliver drove the avenue under the horse chestnuts, the bluebells were already thinning out. He had noticed puddles of cherry blossom along the pathways in the village. It struck some tender part of him that another year was hurtling towards summer, leaving him in a muddled January place, trying to catch up. The house lay squat and crabby ahead, and Oliver could feel his mood switch to match it; the undulating angst that always accompanied him at Tinnycross began to roll through him. He was a young man again, suckled and strangled by the place, and at odds with every blade of grass on every acre of the land.

He pulled up in front of the house and sat for a while to quell his building rage. Oliver knew that like all such rages his agitation was mixed with a kind of love. He often longed for Tinnycross – for home – for a version of it or the past, but it also repelled him. Wanting to be calm when he confronted Bunny, he sat in the car and waited and willed himself peaceful.

 After five minutes Oliver got out and went around the side of the house to the back door; the front door was never used. He stepped into the kitchen and was assailed by its brightness. And then by the sight of a woman standing at the table – his mother’s deal table – kneading dough with care in a cabled bowl. She was silver haired, neat as an egg, and she – for it could only have been she – had reawakened the kitchen. His mother’s furniture still stood: the table, the dresser, the chairs, but all of it looked fresh and the walls were painted. Things were immaculate again.

‘You must be…’ Oliver searched on his tongue for the right term. ‘You must be the cleaner,’ he said, eventually, settling on that word because he could come up with no other.

‘I’m Bunny’s wife.’ She threw a glance his way as if she had been expecting him.

‘His wife?’ Oliver said, and snorted. The woman stopped kneading and stared at him. ‘Is Bunny home?’ he asked.

‘He’s below in the field. Will I ring his mobile?’

‘No, I’ll go down to him.’

She wiped her fingers on her apron and came towards him with one hand out. ‘Fidelma,’ she said.

‘Oliver O’Donnell.’

She smiled. ‘I know who you are.’

Oliver left the kitchen and stood in the yard. The land fell to the river – Tinnycross was one huge field with no ditches or fences to mark it out. Hay bales sheathed in black plastic were dotted around like giant cuts of liquorice, and a stand of rape burned its yellow among the green and brown. His heart swelled into his throat and he drew a few deep breaths. The familiarity of everything was both balm and thorn to him. It was quiet in the yard but he could hear the far off burr of a tractor and the bird calls that were the same bird calls as forty years before. Oliver gazed down over the land. How could a field – one ordinary field – have such a pull on him?

He looked at his shoes, then at the muddy track that lead from the yard to the land. A wife? Well. That surely changed things. By what luck had Bunny, of all people, got himself a woman? Oliver shrugged and headed down the track, at first treading the verge to avoid the muck and save his shoes, then staying off the grass because it was littered with pearls of sheep shit like beads scattered from a rosary. The brother is a quarehawk right enough, he thought.

Oliver looked up to find Bunny strolling towards him; he was a shambles as always in his torn fisherman’s jumper and folded down wellies. The wife’s ministrations had extended only to the house, it seemed. Bunny was swinging a stick like a dandy.

‘Olly,’ he said.

‘Bunny. How’s the form?’ They shook hands. ‘And it’s Oliver. Please.’

‘So I don’t get to be Bernard but you get to be Oliver. Big man Olly.’ Bunny slapped the ground with his stick.

‘Did you get my letter?’ Oliver said.

‘I got a letter from Folan and Company, if that’s the one you mean.’

‘We need to settle this, Bunny, for once and for all.’

Bunny whacked the tree beside him with his stick; it was the old hawthorn, bent sideways by the wind, its branches beseeching the tree beside it. That hawthorn was their mother’s favourite tree; she would stand under its dense crown to call daddy from the field.

‘Settle, Olly?’ Bunny said. ‘What’s to settle?’

‘Ah, don’t start.’ Oliver put his hands on his hips and stood in front of his brother.

‘You think you’re the prodigal coming back here. Well, you’ll get nothing out of me.’

‘Bernard.’ Bunny’s wife had come down from the house without either of them noticing. They both looked at her. ‘Why don’t we go inside and talk?’

‘It’s none of your business, Fidelma,’ Bunny said.

‘Oh, I think you’ll find that it is,’ she replied.

She walked behind them up the track towards the house, a shepherdess herding a pair of recalcitrant rams.

Oliver stood in his parents’ bedroom, watching dust waver in the air. Their marriage bed had become Bunny’s. The lousy shite hadn’t even bought his wife a new bed. Oliver recalled his father’s last days in that bed. Daddy had started to say their mother’s name again; it fluttered out of his mouth like a butterfly looking for somewhere to land. It sounded alien launching off his tongue: ‘Catherine. Catherine. Catherine.’ He hadn’t called her by name for years; hadn’t cajoled her, or pleaded, or thanked her with her given name. Their mother sat by the bed day after day, holding their father’s hand, soothing him, wiping his drink-haunted face.

‘It’s all right, Daddy,’ she said. ‘I’m here, I’m here. Your Catherine is here. I’m right beside you, Martin.’

Mammy was gone now too – Oliver had not witnessed her death – but he could feel her in the house still, a revenant gliding from room to room. He put his hands on the cold iron of the footboard and gripped hard; he rocked himself and pushed his chin to his chest.

‘Come through to the kitchen, Oliver.’ Fidelma stood in the doorway; her voice was gentle. ‘I’ve made tea. We’ll talk.’

He didn’t turn to look at her. ‘Both mammy and daddy died in that bed.’

‘I know that. Bernard told me.’

‘I’m not trying to be cruel,’ Oliver said, hanging his head. ‘I just remember. This place makes me remember.’

‘Memory is a true thing, but it can make fools of us too,’ Fidelma said.

‘This all ends with Bunny and me. No offence, but you won’t be producing an heir. Tinnycross will go to God-knows-who.’

‘Let’s talk it out and see what we can come up with between us.’

Oliver followed her into the kitchen; Bunny had their father’s seat at the side of the table near the range. If visitors ever deferred to daddy, wanting him to take the head of the table, their father always said, ‘Wherever O’Donnell sits is the head of the table.’

Oliver said this to his brother, hoping to make him smile, but Bunny ignored the remark.

‘We’ll give you a third of the market value,’ he said. ‘There’s the three of us in it now.’

‘Mammy died during the boom; I’m entitled to half of what it would have gone for then.’

‘Are you trying to put me out of my home?’ Bunny crashed his fist onto the table. ‘Are you trying to kill me?’

‘I only want what’s mine.’ Oliver rattled a teaspoon around his mug. ‘My business has gone under. The bank is talking about repossessing my apartment.’

‘Well, boo fucking hoo. If you can’t look after yourself, it’s no concern of ours.’

‘Tinnycross belongs to both of us, Bunny. Mammy always said it. There’s no way around that.’

‘You took your time looking for your share.’

‘I thought you’d give it to me and, then, well, you didn’t.’

‘And bankrupt myself? Are you fucking mad, Olly?’

Fidelma reached across and squeezed Bunny’s arm. ‘We have my money, love; the money from my house.’

‘You want to give the man who killed my mother your money?’

Oliver stood. ‘Ah, here, there’s no need for that.’

Bunny dropped his head and spoke his words to the table. ‘Mammy asked you to come to Tinnycross and you wouldn’t come. She asked you again and again.’

‘It wasn’t that simple, Bunny, and you know it. I was in Dubai for Christ’s sake.’

‘Your mother begged you to come and you turned your back on her. You turned your back on Tinnycross.’ Bunny pushed back his chair, stood and left the room.

‘Not to worry, now,’ Fidelma said, patting Oliver’s arm.

‘That was harsh. Bunny knows I was abroad, I couldn’t get on a plane every time she asked me to; she was always trying to get me to come. I helped mammy in other ways.’

‘I know you did,’ Fidelma said. ‘Bunny is very attached to this place; we both are. He lashed out there and he shouldn’t have.’

Oliver suffered a twist of jealousy – Bunny hadn’t just landed himself a woman, but a decent woman, one who was happy with what she was made of; a woman secure in herself and the world; someone who liked to give.

Fidelma invited Oliver to stay the night. He didn’t want to, but he didn’t want to leave everything undone either; he hesitated.

‘Sure stay. Do,’ she said.

‘I will so,’ Oliver said, and thanked her.

Fidelma made up his childhood bedroom. He could barely get himself across the threshold and into the bed, the room bulged with so many memories: days spent in sickness fevers, nights spent in girl-induced ones. At least it smelled different now – he couldn’t have stood it if the room held the small boy and young man stench of himself.

Oliver lay rigid in the narrow bed, watching the moon with her mouth agape, spilling light over Tinnycross. He could see the corner of the barn, lidded with corrugate and lit up by moon-glow. He felt the presence of his parents and was unsettled by the knowledge that through the wall his brother was in their bed with his wife. His decent, loving wife. Sleeping warmly beside her or, perhaps, complaining about him in a low voice.

In the morning Fidelma propped a neat envelope against the milk jug that sat on the table in front of Oliver. He was breakfasting on his own; Bunny was already out on the land. Oliver picked it up, knowing without opening the flap that the cheque would have her signature on it; hers alone.

‘Are you sure?’ he said.

‘I am. It’s best to leave himself to me; I can deal with him. I’ll sort it out.’

‘Thanks a million, Fidelma,’ Oliver said.

When he had finished eating he shook her hand.

‘Don’t be a stranger,’ Fidelma said, and she let him out the front door and waved him off as he drove away.

The plains around Tinnycross were green and dappled with sheep. Every other field held an inky lamb among its white brethren. This lamb was always a maverick, sitting or standing apart from the others, living its own quiet destiny. Oliver drove past and watched the lambs, willing the dark ones to gambol and play with the others, but they stayed where they were, resolutely alone.

He thought about Tinnycross as he drove further and further away from it, on towards the city. He could feel the backward pull to it, to its green and its yellow and its light. Oliver knew he might never see the place again. Is it possible, he wondered, to be in love with a field. And if it is possible, is it wise?

—Nuala Ní Chonchúir

 

Nuala Ní Chonchúir author photo

Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin in 1970; she lives in East Galway. Her fourth short story collection Mother America was published by New Island in 2012. A chapbook of flash Of Dublin and Other Fictions was published in the US in late 2013 by Tower Press and Nuala’s second novel The Closet of Savage Mementos appears April 2014 from New Island. Nuala’s third novel, Miss Emily, appears 2015 from Penguin USA and Penguin Canada. www.nualanichonchuir.com