The event is in thirty minutes. You don’t really know what it is. The leader of your Erasmus group said something in Spanish about a trip to a traditional Moroccan venue. But did he say the place is a restaurant or a themed bar? Your Spanish isn’t great, but it’s good enough to make out the dude’s suave accent, which is so much more intelligible than the Andalusian tongue in Seville, where you’re studying abroad this semester. What happened was earlier on the bus a French girl was chatting with you when the announcement was made. As you guys giggled and touched, you were wondering if she could indeed be into an Asian boy like you. If your appeal was in part indebted to K-pop. If you might have a shot with her tonight. And she’s French. The first French girl you’ve flirted with.
You’re in your hotel room. Your two roommates are nowhere in sight. One of the guys is your best friend here. He’s from Munich. Not a very tall man. You can embrace him from behind and have your chin rest effortlessly on his cap. He always wears a hat for some reason. His hair is not bad. Short and black just like your Chinese hair. He’s easily the nicest dude you’ve met in Erasmus, the group that organized this trip across the Mediterranean for a couple dozen international college students studying abroad in Seville. What makes you appreciate him, though, is that he always fantasizes about getting girls galaxies out of both your leagues. He’s probably in the gym right now, getting that final flex. The other roommate is Swiss. He’s from some French-speaking region whose name you’ve forgotten. He’s also short, and you guys have only talked like twice. You don’t know much about him apart from the fact that he’s boning the hot Peruana who sat behind you on the bus.
There’s a fly the size of a thumb on the skin-colored wallpaper next to your bed. It makes an annoying buzz even when it’s resting. You wonder how many more big bugs are lurking in your hotel room. But still, it’s a nice change of scenery to be here. It feels refreshing to leave Europe after being in Spain for three months. So far, your group has visited the beaches of Tangier, where you played frisbee with the program leader. You two bonded over the backhand toss, which you both agreed was the only proper way to throw a disc. Forehand throws are for noobs. In Asilah, you showed off your music skills on a street piano near a narrow boulevard of markets. One Italian guy, a third-year music major, joined in for a duet of Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina”. Then came the trip to Chefchaouen, where you snapped pictures of your peers exploring the historical blue stairwells and alleys. In the process, you swapped contact information with several photography enthusiasts from Mexico. Now, it’s day three of your trip, and you guys have just arrived at the city center of Tétouan. You’ve caught everyone’s attention by introducing yourself as an American even though you’re like the most Chinese-looking dude ever. And you just flirted with that French girl on the bus. The last thing you want is to have some big-ass bug in your hotel room to ruin your momentum.
With your friends out of the room, you want to lie back and chill on your bed, which is really just a pull-out couch. Your German friend and the Swiss roommate took the only two legitimate beds while you were trying to pick up a few words of Darija from the sweet hotel receptionist in the front lobby. You didn’t mind though. The couch is near the window and close to the bathroom. It feels tempting now to take out your phone, put on some porn, and wank. Or maybe listen to Jay Chou’s new single and imagine yourself as him, selling out stadiums. Surely at that level, you wouldn’t need to care whether a particular French girl is into you. But at the event, which you think might be at some snooker parlor or sheesha hide-out (after all, the Erasmus leader sounded like he was joking when he said “traditional”), you want to make sure your English comes out properly—as American and normal-sounding as possible. You stare at the flavored tea bags by the microwave. They look enticing in their maroon and shiny packaging, and you want to give them a try. Don’t. At least not now. Tea does something funny to your mouth. You’re not sure how to describe it. It’s like there’s something in it that inhibits saliva and forms a thin layer of tannins over your tongue so your English doesn’t come out right, making your accent all the more obvious. Also, resist the urge to brush your teeth. Toothpaste is like tea. Bad for the tongue. The cheap hotel toothbrush hurts your gums anyway. Don’t find your German friend in the gym. Working out leads to dehydration, which can in turn lead to a dry mouth. Plus, last-minute training won’t get you anywhere. You should’ve gone to the gym ages ago, lazy ass. You reach for the pack of Doublemint in your pocket. There are still twenty-seven minutes till the event. It’s too early to start chewing. Really, you should’ve gotten the hard candies. They keep your mouth watery longer and don’t require you to keep the little wrappers in your pocket like some loser. Whenever you chew gum at a party, you always end up finding a bunch of shiny and sticky clumps in your pockets two weeks later while doing laundry. For now, sip on your ice water and maybe eat a Pop-Tart to get your jaw moving.
As you stare out the window into the busy Tétouan streets, you wonder if drinks will be available at the event. Regardless, you don’t plan on drinking a lot tonight. You wish for something sweet and tame like watermelon juice or pineapple slush. You want to stay sober and get to know the French girl a bit more. Talk to her like you’re in full control. Countless nights out in Seville with your American friends come to mind: at the bars over there, you always go hard for liquor, ordering before anyone else. A rum and coke usually. Sometimes a tinto de verano if you’ve had a long day. The goal is to down the drink as fast as possible without seeming suspicious or like an alcoholic and then blurt out some British English for laughs. You suck at the British accent, really. A Spaniard could probably do it better than you. But that’s beside the point. The point is to hide your real accent altogether. Your American accent sounds weird in a loud venue like a bar. When you raise your voice, you sound like a FOB, an international Chinese student. You never want to sound like that. It’s not that you don’t like international Chinese students or anything. But you’ll always remember the time you first immigrated to the US and a kid in your third-grade social studies class asked you about ration stamps and fake milk powder. This was before either of you knew anything about the world. By the time you went abroad to Spain, you’d already lived in America for twelve years. That’s the only home you know.
Outside the window a group of Asian tourists pass by the street beneath your hotel. They’re carrying bags of souvenirs in their hands, walking in a hurry as they hail a taxi. Due to all the noise on the street, they raise their voices. But the taxi driver seems to be having a hard time understanding them. He shakes his head, drives on. You think back to your professor’s office in the US. A quiet place like that and your bedroom is where your accent sounds nice. There on a good day it’s better than the accent of some Asian Americans born in America, even. It’s soothing and posh, like the voice of a narrator from an audio book. It made you more confident when talking with your professor about his summer trip in Rome. Not that you really cared, of course—you just wanted to pave the way for a letter of rec. It also made you more attractive when talking philosophy to the Asian girl you finally brought home after twenty boba dates. That’s the kind of place you wish the event will take place at tonight. Your professor’s office. Your bedroom. A bar without the music. A place where nobody talks except for you and the French girl.
The Asian tourists try to hail another taxi. They’re now on the street across from your hotel. This time also to no avail. You let out a sigh. You’ve been talking to the French girl in Spanish. Bad Spanish that is, purposely enunciating the er and o endings of words the American way like a sassy bitch. But she’ll want to practice her English with you at the event. After all, you’d told her you’re from California. She’ll want to test you out. To see if you’re a true American. Born and raised.
The door opens with a thud. Your German and Swiss friends come running in with two bottles of Coca-Cola. Listo dude? they say. They grab you by the arms and lead you out the door, into the hallway painted in red, humming “Con Calma.” You check the time on your phone. Still fifteen minutes to go. You pop a slice of Doublemint in your mouth anyway and start chewing.
It turns out the event is a visit to an old Moroccan apothecary. You three and your Erasmus group sit on rows of long benches facing the front of the room, where racks of herbs and cream jars stand by a podium. The Swiss guy is sitting next to you. From the peaceful grin on his face, you know he’s done it. You scan the room to find the Peruana with her friends in the second row. She’s changed into a black sweater and sweatpants. Man, can’t these two just keep their hands to themselves for one damn minute? Then the French girl turns to wink at you from the first row. She’s still in the knotted crop tee and denim shorts from earlier on the bus. You wink back with a nervous smile. Staring at her curvy back, you realize how sleek her auburn hair is. If you guys were together, you could caress it all day.
The shop owner walks up to the podium. The guy looks both Moroccan and Latino and is slightly taller than you. He introduces himself and shares an anecdote about the Seville Erasmus group from last year. You can’t help but stare at the black mole by the corner of his mouth. It’s almost as big as the fly in your room.
His voice sounds strained, like he’s forcing himself to be enthusiastic, as he says, Ahora, dónde están mis italianos? A wave of hands pop up in the back row. Out, he says, pointing a finger at the door. The room bursts into laughter. You turn back to see your Italian friends cracking up, too. You don’t get what’s funny but know that if the same joke were made about los chinos, the room would be dead silent, dry as a winter morning. The French girl turns around and shoots you a glance. You fake a smile. She smiles back.
Affirmed by his audience, the owner starts to speak with more energy, calling out every nationality in your group. Y mis franceses? Oui, your French girl and her friends clap in unison. Bonjour, says the owner, bowing his head like a gentleman. Tenemos alguien de Peru? he goes on. The Peruana raises her hand high up in the air, proudly representing like a Congress woman. Ah, siempre temenos una Peruana, siempre, the owner shakes his head in mock disapproval. People start cracking up. The French girl looks back at you again. She’s mouthing something. Bonjour. Or maybe Bordeaux. But why the hell would she mouth Bordeaux to you? You smile and whisper, Bonjour, under your breath. Alguien de los Estados Unidos? he continues. You raise your hand along with the three other Americans. There’s the Mexican American girl whose last name is Garcia. According to your German and Swiss roommates, she looks more Latina than half the Latinas from Latin America on this trip, though she claims to be only a quarter Mexican. You’d spoken to her once in a restaurant in Chefchaouen. There’s the African American guy. He’s twenty-eight and tall as a superhero. He’s really too old for Erasmus. You wonder if he’s on this trip just to bone, too. And then of course there’s the white guy from the Midwest. He’s half an inch shorter than you but in general not bad looking. The owner scans you guys for a good second and points a finger at you. Pero tú no, he says. The crowd goes wild. The loudest wave of laughter yet. You feel your face grow hot. You wonder if you look as red as when you get Asian glow. Where are you from originally? he asks you. It’s his first full sentence in English, and you hate to admit his accent is decent. Mis padres y yo somos de Beijing, you whisper like a mute. Now that everyone’s attention is on you, you’re too afraid to respond in English. All you really need to say is you were originally from Beijing but grew up in the States. It’s a simple statement, and you could’ve spoken it perfectly with or without your accent. But your confidence has already disintegrated.
Vale. Now let me introduce you guys to the Moroccan mint tea, he says with a huge smile. He pulls out a bag of leaves from the shelf. It’s obvious the dude has achieved his intention of warming up the crowd. Now he can go on advertising his products. You love Moroccan mint tea. You’ve had it for breakfast the past two days. You would love to hear the history behind it and grab some for your host mom in Seville and your real mom in California. But your mind is not here anymore. You keep on telling yourself it’s all right. Imagine if you were actually born in the States, how much more would that innocent joke have hurt? Plus, everyone is paying attention to the dude now. They’ve probably already forgotten about your embarrassment. But the French girl. She’s not turning around anymore. No more winks or smiles. All you can see is her back. Her gorgeous auburn hair.
Almost as an afterthought, you wonder how things would’ve turned out if when the shop owner asked for the Americans, you didn’t raise your hand. The French girl probably wouldn’t’ve even noticed. And if he goes on to ask, Dónde están mis chinos? you could proudly raise your hand and say, Ya sabes donde estoy, soy el único. Maybe the crowd would cheer you on. And you’d be the originator of a joke instead of the butt of one.
There’re still two days left in the Moroccan trip. Tomorrow you guys will be heading to see the beach and golf resort near Martil. You don’t have to sit next to the French girl again. You can sit toward the front of the bus, next to the Erasmus leader. He’s a nice guy who won’t judge you for anything except the wrong way to throw a frisbee. You can still volunteer to be the group’s photographer and relish the beauty of the country that stunned you when you first arrived in Tangier.
The shop owner says something else that cracks up the room. This time you laugh too, even though you have no idea what he said. You think about the minutes you’d just spent in your hotel room preparing the perfect American accent only to speak Spanish. You can’t help but laugh again, for real now. It isn’t the first time you’ve been rejected, and it won’t be the last. Tonight, you’ll go to bed early to prepare for the long day tomorrow. You’ll want to wank, except your roommates will be in the room as well.
The orchard is beautiful. Meets the postcard standard of picturesque, as promised. Lines of foliage haloed by the rising sun, shades of green and brown and golden red, and for a second Maggie slips, imagines her and Brendon and a child that won’t exist. A little girl—no, a boy, a little arrogant boy, a mini-Brendon. She imagines Brendon lifting their phantom son to pick an apple, round cheeks dimpled by matching smiles, and thinks, yes, God, wow, the orchard is so beautiful. Too beautiful, really, because nothing hints at the section in the far back, the bodies curled deep in the dirt beneath.
Maggie turns from the orchard, looks at Brendon still in the passenger seat of their car, one of his long legs thrust out into the gravel of the parking lot, the other limp in the footwell. She reaches for his bowed head, runs her fingers through his thinnest patch of hair. “Jus’ a min’,” he says, panting through syllables. He leans forward, and Maggie doesn’t know if he’s leaning into her, if he wants her hand on his scalp, or if he’s just trying to get his head between his knees to gasp through nausea. But he doesn’t say either way, and Maggie can’t bring herself to ask.
It’s not a day for jokes, but once Brendon manages to stand, he can’t help himself. He grins, he chuckles, he pretends to gag when Maggie holds her palm out to a cow. While they wait for the owner of the orchard to meet them, Maggie circles strawberry scented hand sanitizer into her skin. Brendon says, “Can you imagine if I just dropped dead right here? That’s a discount, right? Just toss me in a wheelbarrow, save on gas.”
Her therapist suggested he makes people uncomfortable as an assertion of control, a way to cope, but when Maggie asked what it meant that he tries to make her uncomfortable, that he laughs about dying as if she should join in, that he’d make her drive two hours to visit his bio-grave, her therapist said, “What do you think he expects from you? Both now and then later, after he’s gone?” But Maggie still has both sets of grandparents, the tabby she rescued as a teenager: she’s never known death this intimately. The last year’s been nothing but stumbling, trying to keep her chin high even as Brendon started considering arrangements like a child marking up a Christmas catalogue.
To her therapist, she said, “I think he needs me to be there for him,” and last night, to Brendon, as she threw a book so hard at the living room floor its spine split, Maggie yelled, “Do you always have to ask for so much?”
Maggie remembers when cancer became tangible, when it took on shape and morphed into something that looked like her husband. When the doctor spoke and Brendon nodded, when Brendon took off his hat to put it back on, when Brendon pulled and pinched at the navy brim until his hand collapsed, knuckles tented over his eyes. As he cried, Maggie pressed her fingers to the back of his neck and felt neither of their bodies.
Her first thoughts had been practical: the warehouse was always desperate for workers and Brendon was their best. They’d take him back when this was all done, no problem. Of course, she’d had no idea what sick leave would look like, and that was something to consider in their budget, what with the new house that wasn’t new at all, with its faucets that constantly spat water and wiring that slurped electricity. The empty room just off their bedroom would stay barren despite their plans the year before, but that was alright, that was fine. There’d be time to regroup. They would change, the both of them, because treatment attacked more than just the illness, and chemo took hours, the clear and brown bags draining slowly above their heads as they flipped through fuzzy cable on a tube TV, but it wasn’t all terrible. Brendon said, “Lemonade out of some really shitty lemons, huh, babe? We have dates scheduled every other week now, no excuses. You bring the champagne flutes; I’ll swipe the ginger ale. Maybe I’ll feed you some pudding, yeah? All sexy like? Here comes the airplane, baby.” Maggie loved that, his warm stupidity, his optimism. He sat in the cushioned recliner with her next to him in the stiff-backed chair, and they laughed as chemicals roiled through his body, bickering in good spirits over what to watch. Brendon protested that Cheaters wasn’t a romantic choice, though Maggie disagreed, saying, “It puts our life into perspective! We’re here, together, Joey Greco nowhere in sight—isn’t that promising? Look at us, so good at being married.” Everything would be okay, she thought, because thirty-year-olds get cancer, sure, but they don’t die.
Now, seated in the back of a golf cart, the owner of the orchard jostling them over root and gravel, Maggie keeps her palms flat on the vinyl cushion under her thighs. She wonders if there’s a world where Brendon left her out in the waiting room for that very first doctor’s appointment, where he smiled at her with dried eyes, where he lied, where he said everything was fine and then valued her needs over his. Where he packed a bag in the middle of the night, kissed her forehead sweetly while she slept, then disappeared into a spill of moonlight and started a new, temporary life. It’s silly—if he’d done that, she would’ve tracked him by his credit cards, would’ve still ended up here, in this orchard, this would-be-graveyard—but the imagined gesture makes her feel the most loved she’s felt since… Well, she doesn’t know, because feeling loved isn’t as important as proving the depth of her own.
Today, she’s doing her best, though the sway of the golf cart curdles the breakfast in her belly. Last night’s fight lingers. She wants to nurse her anger, but that’s not allowed anymore, so she keeps it behind her teeth, swallows until her tongue tacks to the roof of her mouth.
At their last chemo session, after they spent two long hours waiting for the magnesium to drip, after they shared a tuna sandwich and giggled at the knitted hats passed out by a survivor with an abundance of glitter-speckled yarn, Brendon pronounced, “I’m doing this for you.” And Maggie felt loved, she did, because the newest formula bubbled in red welts on his face and ate at his stomach, left him miserable for the teeny stretch between doses, but still, he smiled as he sat in the vinyl recliner next to her. He said, “I’m doing this for you,” but as they walked out, he dropped her hand to lean over the cluttered counter of the nurses’ station. He rang the bronze bell that meant a patient had finished their last treatment. Maggie tugged him away, saying, “Stop, B,” because people tethered to IVs cheered, because some of the nurses who didn’t know Brendon or his medical records punched the air and yelled, “Congratulations!”
In the car, Maggie cried. Ignored him until he vomited out the window and then apologized until he did, too. But his apology didn’t change his decision: Brendon was done. Though the doctors had already warned that best case was judged in slivers of time, she hadn’t thought stopping chemo was really an option. The bell signaled an end she didn’t understand, one she hadn’t agreed to.
The orchard has barely opened, and it’s mostly silent, just the sparse chirp of birds and the familiar grinding of tractors. Brendon says, “It’s real peaceful here, quieter than home. And not as much dung in the air, so, y’know, there’s a point in its favor.” Maggie looks down at her bare nails, curls her ring finger to pick at her thumb. She knows cornfields—cried in them when hide and seek stopped being fun, screamed as a monster chased her with a toothless chainsaw, unbuttoned her shirt in one, as Brendon, a nervous boy with a pack-a-day habit even at sixteen, laughed before he choked. But she doesn’t see much in this place, this orchard that’s left Brendon so obviously impressed. He’s gone wide-eyed, and Maggie wants to say something like, You can’t be serious, or, I’ll be buried next to you, someday, so my opinion matters, too, but after last night, after his selfishness, she knows her words aren’t worth much at all.
In the golf cart, Brendon sits with one arm wrapped around his stomach, the other braced on the metal bar that runs behind the front seats. Under them, the cart’s engine whines, deep and constant. When the owner tentatively asks how Brendon’s feeling, Brendon says, “Ah, not too bad. There’s a, uh, constant baseline now of just general shittiness. Nothing to be done.” He coughs as they double back around the wooden gift shop, past strings of apple garland that hang limp off the mint awning. The orchard owner glances over his shoulder, says, “Remind me to give you folks a voucher for a pie.” Maggie looks at Brendon and Brendon looks at the horizon. He says, “Oh, wow, that’s so kind, thanks.” She wets her palms with the hand sanitizer from her purse. The sweet smell of strawberry hangs in the air for a handful of breaths, just long enough to close her eyes and pretends she’s home.
Brendon kisses the drop of her jaw, the weak spot under her ear. He likes to kiss her there, said once that it reminded him of a dog’s belly, soft and warm and covered in down. Maggie stared at him until he said, “What?” She hit his shoulder. She said, “You’re so lucky I talk to you,” and then laughed while he backtracked, as he sputtered over the virtues of dogs, their beauty and sweetness and loyalty. Today, when Brendon kisses the drop of her jaw, she ignores him. The orchard owner stops the golf cart to let a riding lawnmower pass. Maggie says, “Oh, the grass is so green here, wow,” and then, inexplicably, “I like grass.” Though she wasn’t trying to be funny, Brendon roars. The shift of muscle funnels the hollows around his eyes to down under his cheekbones, thins his chapped lips. Giggling, he taps her shoulder, waits. She says nothing.
They’ve seen most of the orchard, the gift shop and the pens of goats and cows and chickens and the blank fields of dirt that will eventually be dotted with pumpkins and the pockmarked earth where campers can toast marshmallows and the thigh-high hay maze. It’s an odd sort of pussyfooting—Maggie knows, and obviously the owner of the orchard knows, that they’re not here to see the actual orchard—but for the past fifteen minutes, the golf cart has been gliding up and down wide lanes bordered by apple trees. Still, Brendon taps at her shoulder, grins, says, “You’re the apple of my eye,” and waits for her to scoff, eyebrows raised so high his gaunt face stretches mask-like. Maggie scoffs. She rolls her eyes, smiles, laughs. Brendon says, “This place is almost as pretty as you.” She kisses his big head, and he folds their fingers together, squeezes once as if to confirm his presence. He says, “I’ve still got it,” and then, “I’ve still got you, huh?” Maggie’s response falls, easy and gentle: “Obviously.”
Memory Fields is as far away from the parking lot as the orchard goes, sectioned off by a tall black gate, long past the wooden gift shop and disappointing pumpkin patch, opposite the barn with the lazy horses and feral cats, parallel to the neat and endless rows of carefully spaced apple trees. When they finally get there, Brendon checks his watch, taps Maggie’s purse, and she thumbs open Thursday’s morning half of his pill organizer, watches as he swallows dry, as he winces. “We don’t let anybody but family and employees in here,” the orchard owner says. He stops the golf cart at the edge of a gravel cul-de-sac, right in front of the first row of fruit-less trees. “You’d have a lifetime pass to the orchard, Mrs. Miller, and you’d just let the folks at the front know when you visit. Somebody’ll always be there to take you back.”
Brendon leans into her. He puts his left hand on her right thigh, makes her bear his weight. She wipes the sweat off his forehead with her fingers as the orchard owner says, “We use biodegradable material for the pods, durable but still good for the soil. The bodies, the people, you know, they break down in a contained way, in the pod, so the sapling gets the nutrients. It’s really something, let me tell you. It’s beautiful.” And it is beautiful, Maggie can’t deny that: a hundred or so trees, mismatched in height, some no longer than her legs, some so tall her eyes sting with sun, all sturdy, all wrapped with a delicate silver chain from which a palm-sized plaque hangs. Underneath, she imagines, the tangle of root and corpse is umbilical.
“I don’t think I can get up,” Brendon says. “Maggie, would you go look? Let me know if it’s as good as the pictures, huh? For me, baby. Please.”
There’s a graveyard ten miles from their house. The internet has told her how she can arrive by car, by public transit, by foot. Before they got in the golf cart, the owner of the orchard pulled her aside, said, “It’s a pricey thing, I can’t lie, but I’ll give you some paperwork that discusses monthly plans,” and Maggie appreciated that he said this to her, not Brendon, because Brendon plans without planning, deals in arrangements without the permanence of documentation. No will, no signatures, nothing but, Oh, wouldn’t this be nice. She wouldn’t want the orchard owner to trust her husband’s words—they’ll mean little once he’s gone.
Maggie holds Brendon’s hand still on her leg. She will do this, will leave him behind in the golf cart to kneel in front of a tree that’s sprouted strong from death, will stay silent, keep her shoulders high and her mouth softly curled, solemn but fond. She’ll think of nothing deeper than the spongy press of grass beneath her knees, how the earth steals her heat and in return seeps cold wet through her jeans. She won’t look back at Brendon because it’ll ruin this indulgence, the easiest thing he’s asked for yet.
Maggie curls an arm around Brendon’s waist to open the passenger door. He stands in front of her, hands on her shoulders, breath metallic under her nose. Panting, he says, “Like we’re dancin’.” She says, “I don’t dance with geeks,” and shuffles him back until his ass hits car. His hands slide from her shoulders, to her ribcage, to her hips as he descends. She asks, “Can you do your seatbelt?” He sighs, shakes his head, throws his arm across his chest to try. Eventually, he gets angry, gives up. In that way, he’s become reliable. Like last night as she tried to read but mostly stared at the ugly paneling in the living room, wondering which color they’d paint the walls if they could afford it, if they had the strength, when Brendon looked up from his laptop to say, “Let’s have a kid. I’m serious. We can do it now, or you can freeze my sperm.” And Maggie said, “No. Jesus Christ, no,” so violently that her thumb twitched and she lost her page.
She would wipe vomit off his face and hold him while he cried and she herself wouldn’t cry when they learned the cancer had its eye on his brain and she’d be with him every second at the hospice and she’d kiss his lips when they purpled and she’d polish his tombstone weekly for six months at the cemetery close to their house and she wouldn’t marry again—either because she loved him so much or because once was enough and nothing was worth such risk—but this, a child, a living monument to his life, to her grief, was not something she would do. “Maggie, listen,” he said, and she threw her book, yelled, “Do you always have to ask for so much?”
Brendon lets her buckle him in without complaint. Two years ago, he would’ve made some stupid grab at her chest, would’ve nuzzled her neck, would’ve complained about his natural right to drive. Now, he closes his eyes, melts into the seat, head curled on his shoulder, hands twisted in the too-wide stretch of space between his skinny thighs. “Thanks, baby,” he says. The words are so tender that she can almost forget him saying, “Fine, whatever. Why would we have a fucking kid anyway? I’ll be dead, and you don’t have a caring bone in your goddamn body,” and then, even worse, “What makes you think any of this is about you, Maggie?” She kisses his head again, holds his cheek, says, “Of course, B.”
Brendon says, “Ready whenever you are,” and Maggie shuts his door. She presses her fingers to the roof of the car, metal sun-hot, blistering, and doesn’t let herself look back at the orchard and the spaces they could’ve fit.
Four years had passed since I returned to this building, the old city, and the old job. At work digitizing the poster of another Czech New Wave film—this one depicting algae sprouting from a woman’s head, dark eyes sparkling with silver pin lights that reminded me of plankton—my heart started racing so fast I handed over my shift and went home. I sensed another panic attack. What did it was the smell of jasmine that wafted through that image—impossible but as real as a bite.
The jasmine had been trailing me. At first it was like a furtive glance across the room. The scent of a blooming vine would slither into the apartment with a passing breeze from an open window or suddenly shut door. It even made its way in the stillest of air that had been chewed on for days, keeping out the gelid winter. I checked my clothes, my linen, perfume bottles, but that couldn’t be it. I didn’t wear perfume, the bottles were decorative, my grandmother’s mementos. In the summer and fall I’d dismissed the scent as a whiff of viburnum or linden. Jasmine just wasn’t something you would find in Prague. I knew that smell; I knew it well.
“Maybe you should go to the hospital,” my co-worker Marketa suggested one day, her eyes scanning me as she held up my coat.
“It’ll pass,” I said.
I measured my steps to the Staroměstská metro station, the snow sludgy and clinging to my hems, wishing I hadn’t worn high-heeled boots. I gripped the rubbery escalator handrail on that interminable descent from which I could hear the train’s distant hum in the earth’s bowels. That whistling, the pounding of wheels, turned into a chugging roar as vertigo washed over me.
Inside my studio, Grandma was listening to a Hana Hegerová record, sitting on the couch and knitting another bright-colored scarf, presumably for me. “You’re early,” she said, watching as I unzipped my boots and put on the slippers by the door.
“Yes,” I said. I was used to finding her in my apartment, especially since she lived upstairs and my studio was officially hers. Her plump, stockinged legs and muumuu-adorned presence were as ubiquitous as the heavy walnut furniture. “I need to lie down,” I said.
Her eyes searched mine as she put the yarn in her canvas bag, slung it over her shoulder, leaned forward and rose with great effort. Lying down on the couch that doubled as a bed, I could feel her warmth on the woolen cushions as I closed my eyes.
“Rest,” she said. “Come over later. I made goulash.”
“I’ll call you if I’m coming over.”
“No need to. Just come in. You need to eat,” she said. I could hear shuffling around the room, the clinking and rinsing of glass in the sink, the creak of the cabinet door as she opened and closed it. How did I end up here again? I saw myself at 5,17, then 29, 50, 72, my entire life spent between this studio and the larger one upstairs, which was my parents’ until they moved to their country cottage and I returned from Brazil.
“You’re lucky they took you back,” Grandma said often enough about my job at the National Film Archives, since I had returned with nothing aside from a suitcase and a few wrinkles. For her, my relationship with Samuel and all those years abroad, they didn’t really count. And for a while I, too, was almost convinced everything had been a long holiday, a mindscape in which life intensifies, attuned to another frequency.
In my early twenties, when I got into film school, I took up Romance languages in my spare time, learning some Italian and then Spanish, but it was Portuguese that intrigued me enough to go to Portugal and then, finally, to Brazil. I’d always been drawn by unknown places and people presented to me through photographs, films, and documentaries. At home, I felt part of the furniture.
After dozing for a couple hours, I put on my jacket and went upstairs. We ate Grandma’s goulash with the television on mute.
“Backgammon?” she asked after dinner.
“Not tonight,” I said, sniffing something. There it was again, the faint smell of jasmine. “Do you smell it?”
She turned on the TV and looked at me impassively. “You’re right. Too many caraway seeds.”
“Not that. The goulash is fine.” With legs propped on the coffee table, her swollen shins caught my attention. “How about a massage?” I asked.
Her eyes lit up, youthful with expectation. Sitting across from her, I picked up her leg and rubbed the pressure points on her feet. Closing her eyes, she basked in pleasure like her big red tabby. In moments like these, I could see the young woman she had been.
“You’re a jewel,” she said, her voice lilting. “Pavel’s a bachelor, you know. Still single, like you.” Worse than unattractive, Pavel had a bland handsome face, a smug grin, and a ready string of infantile jokes that appealed to my grandma.
Re-shifting my weight, I reminded her again: “I have been married.”
“Oh. A beach ceremony in the middle of nowhere doesn’t count,” she said. “Besides, no one knows about it.”
“I know about it,” I said, laying down the peeling, reddened foot.
Snapping her eyes open, she huffed. “That’s it? You’re a tease,” she said.
I got up to wash my hands. By the time I left the bathroom, she was already talking to her friend Helča on the phone. The two compared notes on talent shows—this one called Dazzling Incarnations—while watching. “That’s what passes for talent nowadays,” Grandma usually said, only this time the talent in question happened to pass her test. “She’s the spitting image of Edith Piaf,” she declared. Pressing the cellphone to her chest the way she would’ve done with an old receiver, she looked up at me. “Rest, Evička. Good night.”
As I lay in bed, I watched the snow against the windowpane. The wisps conjured memories. At this time of year, summer in the southern hemisphere would still be in full swing, the sea calm enough to swim at all hours, with tourists alternately reveling and devouring the village like insatiable hounds. Samuel’s three bakeries around town would be so bustling he’d employ additional people, making regular trips to Rio to restock any gourmet merchandise. Jaunty açaí stands would’ve sprouted for the season, and a mixture of techno, international and Brazilian pop, jazz, bossa nova, favela funk would all compete for attention, heard from stand to stand and house to house. Soon, those tourists would be gone, leaving the village, then the town, flushed out with the remains of a summer-long party.
During the summer, I’d see Samuel at short intervals during the day, spending my mornings alone while he slept off the late nights at Belezapura, his recently opened music venue and side project. At the time I was teaching English online to Japanese students, so I’d rise early with the golden wash that entered the bedroom through the windows, glance over at Samuel’s sleeping face, cross the room and open the house’s colonial windows one by one. The window at the end of the hall I saved for last. It opened into a mesh of lush passion fruit vines that laced the sunlight—an interplay of copper, lime green, and butterfly shadows. As the vines grew into an arbor outside, they drew stars on the floor and the chair by the window. If the wind blew just so, the scent of jasmine circled the three front pillars—straight and modernist, white-washed but blending with the sand and earth that trailed the house like a passing sigh.
Images dissolved as I fell asleep. When I woke up the next day, I realized I’d forgotten to set the alarm. I took a quick shower, made instant coffee, poured some milk in it, and layered on my scarf, hat, coat. I trudged to the subway station, grateful for the splash of sun breaking through the clouds. I sidestepped the first slush pile on the pavement but stepped into the second, my boots sinking right in. The frigid wetness seeped in—an icy gel of discomfort.
In the subway, I caught my reflection in the dirty glass. I looked sallow and puzzled. How could I return to something that no longer made sense?
I arrived at work barely on time, went to my desk, and examined the pile of posters. I removed my socks and boots discreetly, leaving them on the edge of the radiator. The socks would dry soon enough, I figured. Marketa shot me a sideways glance when she spotted them, but so what? We had plenty of space between desks, and my socks didn’t smell. This is the type of thing Samuel would’ve done without a second thought. Not that he was clueless. He simply lacked inhibition. At first it was shocking, then it freed up a space in me. The opinions of others were something one could live without. After shaking them off, they seemed like an extra appendage.
“Are you feeling better?” Marketa asked during lunch in the cafeteria. By then my socks had dried stiffly and crackled as I wiggled my toes.
“Better than what?”
She took my answer for sarcasm and smirked.
“It’s supposed to be nice this weekend. We’re going up to Honza’s cottage on Saturday. What are you doing?” she asked. A speck of plaster fell from the ceiling, landing on the wooden table. “Filthy!” she said. She looked around for someone to clean it up.
In Brazil, the so-called invisible people who did the cleaning had been all too visible, tasked with keeping everything orderly according to the tastes of their employers. Samuel liked to teach people, offering coffee, snacks and doing the work along with them until they knew just how he liked it done. For the younger ones, he’d put on a rock album, instilling a sense of freedom—and energized labor. “Post-colonial propaganda,” I’d said to him.
In the beginning I found it discomfiting to employ cleaners at home—and they were all women—not just in terms of subservience but also for the intrusiveness, the inherent lack of privacy in exposing your dirty laundry to a stranger. “Treat them with respect and it’s fine,” Samuel liked to say. The women didn’t talk to me, and Samuel said I needed to learn how to be a boss. “I don’t like being a boss or being bossed around,” I’d say. He’d smile, amused. We had a string of faxineiras until we finally met Selma—a shy middle-aged countrywoman who brought herbs from her garden. She responded more to my hands-off approach than Samuel’s marionetting.
There I was again, lost in thought, so that Marketa repeated, “Do you want to come? Honza’s bringing a friend from Brno. He’s funny, I hear.”
Since my return, people had been trying to set me up. From the little I had told Marketa about Samuel, she assumed that “funny” was my one criterion. I was tired of saying no, so I agreed to go out for a drink on Friday.
I met the three of them at Kavarna Lucerna. Marketa waved to me, and joined the trio sitting by a window overlooking the upside-down ass of Saint Wesceslas’s dead horse. “I know, I know. There was nowhere else to sit. I hate David Černý,” said my would-be suitor by way of introduction. He was wearing a tight-fitting pinstriped suit and a manic grin.
“David Černý’s brilliant,” I said, taking a seat.
“And what is so interesting about creeping babies, pissing fountains, suicidal businessmen hanging off a pole, and this”—he pointed to the sculpture across the glass—“travesty of our national hero?” Honza and Marketa exchanged glances.
“It’s not a businessman. The man hanging off the pole is Freud and he’s suspended, hanging on,” I said. “Ambivalently but still. As for the babies—”
Petr stared at me like I was speaking about barnacle formation in gibberish, so that Marketa interrupted. “We’ve been indoctrinated with surrealism, Petr,” she conceded for his benefit.
“Subversive poser. Enough horse shit,” he said. Honza laughed. I must have furrowed my brow, because Petr turned to me. “Let’s get you a drink. You could use one.
I ordered a bavorák, then another, fizzling out their presence. Now and then, I stared out the window at the horse’s dangling tail. At some point Petr got up to answer a call, and Marketa turned to me. “He’s just nervous. Petr takes care of his mother. You live with your grandmother. You two have something in common once you get past his taste in art,” she said. I thought of correcting her, as I lived below my grandmother, but what was the point? Her comparison soured my mood. I excused myself, went to the counter, and paid for my drinks. As I was leaving, Petr grabbed my forearm.
“You can’t go,” he said.
That weekend was surprisingly warm with the soft pastels of early spring. Along the river line even the willows showed signs of life, people were out, their faces tilted to the sun like flowers. Before I knew it, I was traipsing alone in the castle district of Hradčany. The Belvedere palace slid into view with its verdigris roof, the spruce’s branches framing the Renaissance building. Ever since I’d returned, I gravitated towards the building which was envisioned as a summer palace for the wife of Ferdinand I, who died before its completion. It’s a suspended playground meant to embrace the sun, the garden, and the city. The lightness of the arcade and many windows reminded me of Samuel’s modernist house in Brazil.
Samuel had taken me to see it shortly after we met. I was so struck by its scope and imagination, that he’d build something like it—at once classic and avant-garde—that I said nothing. It was constructed in incongruous sections, an open plan for the main part and another for the bedrooms, hallway, and foyer. The kitchen stood apart from the house altogether, in the back, with its own garden. Unlike the other houses on the street, it had a simple wooden gate, its plants grasping for the sea through the sand and earth. Someone who would build a house like that must have an original mind. And of all the qualities in someone, originality was what I sought, tired as I was of templates of being.
“So, you want to live here?” Samuel had asked.
“What do you mean? We’ve only just met.” He didn’t take his eyes off me, his gaze unwavering, almost like a child’s in frankness. I had looked at the burnt cement floor of the living room, which was painted a deep indigo, all sky and wonder, and I could not think of a good reason to say no. Samuel had first introduced himself to me at Belezapura, his music venue in town. I was there with an Argentinean acquaintance, a woman who worked at the local art-house movie theater. “Do you usually prefer the A or B side of an album?” he’d asked. An experimental version of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ classic “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5” was playing at the time, which sounded vaguely familiar.
“The D side when there’s one. What’s this, a sampling?”
He crossed his arms and shook his head so slowly it seemed mechanical. “Egberto Gismonti, baby,” he said. I couldn’t help but laugh. He was equally attractive and strange—tall, his skin a mahogany shade from the sun, a large aquiline nose, and an asymmetrical face, one eye much larger than the other. Altogether he had a calm assurance, the way he stood apart while taking everything in. It wasn’t so much that he owned the place but rather he owned his space.
A few days later, we went on a date that lasted a week. He’d said to bring a toothbrush, and I figured I would spend the night at his place. Instead, we got on the road.
Like a racecar driver, he changed lanes and passed cars, going too fast and then halting to a stop. At one point I’d closed my eyes. “Slow down,” I pleaded. He did, but I could sense the effort involved.
Soon we entered a mountainous region flecked with cottages and enveloped by blue mist, the bucolic landscape reminiscent of Slovakia, with its bungalows and enmeshing forests. Our cottage had a porch and was pushed back into a hill, where pine and eucalyptus surrounded us. A creek coursed through the property, the air crisp with a mineral scent.
Samuel had brought a bottle of whiskey, and we drank it slowly, sitting on the porch before retreating inside, where we made love for the rest of the week—on every conceivable surface as well as in the creek—and just when we thought we were exhausted, a feral glance would rouse us. We were trying each other out. There was a gleefulness to it all, a game of making up for lost time—of a future where we might not be together. If we were never to meet again, this time would have to suffice.
We swam naked in the nearby lakes and ate breakfast and lunch in the property’s common area. Everything was prepared by a beautiful, stout second-generation Polish woman with a gentle smile and a mischievous glint in her eyes. She was obviously familiar with Samuel’s preferences—he’d brought an ex there before, he said—and served us graciously, stopping to chat and feed the birds. When she learned I was Czech, she nodded slowly, as if calibrating a response. Finally, she said, “This is the land of forgetfulness.” She said she grew up without television, newspapers, internet, and news of the world, and did not learn Portuguese until she was sent to school at seven. Her parents, she said, had eventually forgotten where they were whereas she had forgotten much of what they told her about Poland. Her Polish now consisted of a few scattered words, recipes, and habits. I counted the number of wildflowers on the vase on the table, and surely enough, they were odd numbered, a superstition common to Slavs. It also struck me that the place her family had settled was a simulacrum of a village in Eastern Europe, as nebulous as that was.
At some point, Samuel chipped in, “There are many Ukrainians here as well. Jana, why don’t you get together?” Jana shook her head, chuckling. “Because then a Russian would come out,” she said. Apparently it was a joke in these parts, a joke Samuel was in on.
When we were ready to eat, I marveled at the colorful array of dishes spread on the linen cloth. “She killed a chicken for us today,” Samuel said.
“A sacrifice,” I responded.
We ate it reverentially, in keeping with the fantastical feel of our mountain alcove. During that entire time, we were the only guests around.
At night, we had access to the kitchen. In between swimming, sleeping, and exploring, we warmed up the pans in the industrial kitchen, our appetites as robust as the sex. In the morning, I would rise just as the first blue-grey light began to show and go onto the porch to be alone for a while. I wrote on napkins, just so I wouldn’t forget as Jana said. I feel cleansed. A tightly-shut room has cracked open, I wrote.
Next, I was looking through fronds at the apricot sky by the sea. In less than a month, I brought my few belongings to Samuel’s beach house. And he, day after day, would bring in new furnishings—a new rug, chaise, a dresser, wardrobe, a vanity—found in antique shops, on the side of the road, or from the many people he knew or ran across, all bargained in his favor. I wasn’t used to such extravagant gestures and distrusted them. I seemed to have no choice in the matter, as items would be summoned by a passing glance of approval. For a while I was almost reluctant to notice something that would soon be mine, as though by magic. “I grew up under communism, you know,” I told Samuel at one point. “We were taught to shun excess and impulses.”
He would give me one of his sardonic looks and slap his thighs. “You’ve come to the wrong place then. A wild colony. No place for amateur anthropologists.” These comments annoyed me enough to make me question my certainties.
We had a ceremony on the beach at sunset to mark our wedding. We played Dorival Caymmi. He got people from the village to build a pergola, and they stood at a distance looking on as the vow, which consisted of silently looking at each other for a while, exhausted itself and the justice—a friend of Samuel’s—said, “So be it!” We were supposed to formally register a civil wedding at the town hall, but never got around to it. I found that informality liberating. Used to a Kafkaesque bureaucracy where everything had to be notarized, stamped, and apostilled by countless hands, I relished its undoing. A piece of paper would’ve broken the spell.
Still, many people referred to me as Samuel’s wife, rarely by my name.
As I think of that beginning now, I recall the contours of a seashell—enigmatic but merely the surface of the roaring inside, its bony scent unfurling the connective tissue among people. Soon, Samuel’s female friends began to visit us at home. I had met them before at the music venue, in passing. They were the daughters of the elite—well-educated, fashionable, and used to all forms of privilege, even if some were conscious of social causes. They greeted me with polite interest at first but were skeptical of our relationship. I supposed I would’ve been, too, in their place. All of a sudden I was just there, an interloper as far as they were concerned. My reserve and Samuel’s expansiveness didn’t seem to fit. “So different from Bel,” I heard them say about the ex, whose traces could be found in the garden. Apparently, she was the one who chose that particular strain of Madagascar jasmine around the front pillars. These friends brought gifts—candied orange peels, jazz albums, a Persian rug once, like an offering to a prince. It became evident that many of these friends had once been lovers or wanted to be one, and the ongoing question was, why me?
Samuel and I tended to question each other’s questions from other angles.
“Freedom can be agonizing. Have you read any of the Existentialists?” I asked Samuel once.
He didn’t respond, pulling out books by George Gurdjeiff and Adries Shah from the shelves. His friends would come over at all hours; they showed up unexpectedly and sprawled. There were a couple of constant fixtures—Laura, for instance. She had a piercing gaze, both steady and provocative. She seemed to glide through space, effortlessly at ease. No sooner would she arrive, and she had a ready quip to match Samuel’s. Laura refused to speak Portuguese to me, saying it was easier to converse in English.
“You should teach Czech,” she said.
“There’s not much of a demand for that.”
Exchanging a glance with Samuel, she smirked. “Czech could be the new Esperanto.” She suggested I teach those who had an interest in learning something impractical just for kicks. Laura owned a boutique in town and when she appeared at the village, expected to stay the night. Sitting back on the chaise, she’d smoke a joint, alternatively choose and have records chosen for her benefit and bask in Samuel’s way of getting you to air out your thoughts. For a while jealousy had given way to a certain voyeurism. I didn’t want to interrupt something I wanted to watch unfold.
Once, after my one visit back to Prague during those six years in Brazil, I’d brought Samuel a book about the city with a pop-up map. He’d noticed the picture of the Belvedere and remarked on its arcades and verdigris roof. I tried to convince him to come here to Prague with me, but it was no use. “Wherever you go, you take yourself,” he said. “The trip is internal.”
He was fond of mystics, adventurers, and phrases like that, and when I rolled my eyes, he’d smile and tell me to get out of the cage I’d built around myself.
“I’m here, aren’t I? Isn’t this proof enough that I am open?”
“The cage may be open but you’re still inside.”
“I don’t want Laura to come around anymore.”
“Because I’ll bite her if she does.”
“I don’t recommend it. I don’t see why you can’t be friends.”
“That’s just a façade. You should know better. Lay out the candied oranges she brings.”
We began to argue about Laura constantly. “You’ve changed,” he said. “When did you become someone who looks at an orange and only sees the orange.”
A few days later Samuel went to São Paulo. I stayed in the village and got invited to the film festival in town, a yearly event run by a French producer who had retired there. The festival had become one of those chic little spots in the circuit that could only remain hidden for so long. I noticed Laura inside the hall of the festival. Neither of us greeted the other, acknowledging each other sideways while she talked to a group of men, and I spoke to my acquaintance who helped organize the festival.
After an Argentinian film—Wild Tales, it was called—the last screening of the day, people slowly petered out and the ones who stayed were invited to the mansion of one of the producers. Laura was there. I don’t remember much of the party aside from a flurry of people on a deck, strobe lights, and glasses of champagne and whisky. Eventually we gravitated towards each other and exchanged a few banal words.
“Where’s Samuel?” she asked.
“Not here,” I said.
We went to one of the back rooms and she mentioned Samuel again, made fun of his sideburns. Tanned and hazel-eyed, she was wearing a white pantsuit with a deep decolletage. I noticed a reddish spill on the fabric, near her shoulder blade. “Well, so you’re human, after all,” I said.
She huffed. “This oily pest spilled it on me while trying to impress me with his credentials.”
“You look like a swan in that pantsuit.”
“And you look like an owl. So serious all the time.”
I stared back at her. A light switched on in me. I now felt a strange lucidity, when something previously out of focus sharpens. I seduced her by merely looking at her long enough, seizing the power of watching her react. She was beautiful, more so as drops of sweat pooled on her upper lip. I leaned over and licked the salty sweat from her cupid’s bow. She stared back at me. Grinned.
I felt like Samuel. But I was nothing like Samuel, and she must have sensed that intermingled with sudden desire was a wish to stamp her out. At that moment sex was a substitute for a fight, a latent desire to take control, to change the plot and become the protagonist and the director. It didn’t take long for Laura’s expression to darken, as if she had just remembered who I was. Already dressed, she left without offering me a ride.
The public vans that had brought me to the party were no longer running. I had to walk all the way to the village. I don’t know how long it took exactly—it felt like hours, my sobering up every step of the way—but I was at home by seven in the morning, feeling strangely bereft at that house by myself after such an unusual turn of events. Nausea settled in. It reminded me of the time my grandmother had forgotten a roast in the oven and I ate it greedily. Then, as the staleness of the meat sunk in, I’d slumped into a corner of the room while my body raged, my tongue stale and leaden.
By the time Samuel returned, I had decided not to mention anything, assuming neither would she. It would be our pact, some kind of a ladies’ agreement. I didn’t think she would show up at the house again, not for some time anyway, but I was wrong. Not only did Laura meet him in town, but she also began to come by at least once a week, often unannounced and sometimes accompanied by Samuel himself, her laughter heard from the front gate. I couldn’t believe her nerve, the taunting. Then it occurred to me that she didn’t have anything to lose. I did.
At some point I told him about Laura and I. He just listened as he rolled a straw cigarette. “Well, you beat me to it,” he finally said, pausing before adding with a lopsided smile, “you’re telling me this to compensate for something else.”
“Who do you think you are? A guru?”
I was considering leaving him, and it bothered me that he sensed it.
“Only to myself,” he said.
Not long after that, I traveled to Rio alone. He didn’t question it or ask why, but something in his silence told me he was hurt. It was supposed to be a short trip, and it was cut even shorter. When I got the call, I was sitting in a bookstore café drinking hot milk, something Grandma often made for me. Laura, of all people, called to tell me Samuel had run into another driver on his way home at night. She said it was an instant death. In fiction, this was a deux ex machina, but real life is free to pull all sorts of tricks, drawing the curtain in the middle of a fight or a kiss.
So shocked I couldn’t bring myself to think, I must’ve made enough robotic requests to get from A to B. Everything from the moment I left Rio back to the village, the bus to town and then a van, blurred through numbness jagged with pain. Like a terrible toothache lodged not in my mouth but in my chest.
It was overcast when I arrived in the house, still damp from rain. When I opened the gate and trod the yard, my footprints matting the sand, I stopped to look at the vines of jasmine on the front pillars. Their buds were shut tightly like eyelids. I took it personally, as I couldn’t remember a time when they had been closed up like that. A new car was parked in the driveway, a stretch of land without shrubs or plants. Usually, it was where Samuel’s old Variant would be, its absence now conspicuous. I walked inside the house and saw the mirror on the foyer’s wall. It was covered with a sheet. The house seemed austere yet defiled, the floor streaked with dirt tracks from shoe soles.
Samuel’s two brothers were there. I had met them once before in the central bakery, and briefly at the house. They were urbanites with little taste for rustic beach houses or villages for that matter, preferring to stay in a hotel in town. They had been polite enough, though they clearly regarded me as just another girlfriend. As I watched one of them empty one of Samuel’s drawers, I tensed up. “Leave it,” I protested.
The older one turned around with a shrewd glance. “What do you want?” he asked. I wanted to assert some right in the matter, to sift through its contents—the letters, the photographs of Israel, the Kinder egg toys, the sunglasses, which I knew well enough—everything suddenly valuable to me. I balked at his gaze, however, like I was applying for another permission to be, to stay or to go.
I suppose a piece of paper would’ve helped then. Their mother, they said, was “too upset to come.” She had demanded Samuel be buried in São Paulo. After taking care of business matters, settling debts, closing the shops and Belezapura, the brothers left as silently and efficiently as they came, showing no interest in the house. I stayed put. The reckless driving then made sense as vestigial rebellion from his earlier years perhaps. I remembered one of his jokes, “My family, we’re commies. Everything is everyone’s and no one’s.” Like me, he sought some autonomy by coming here, by making a house so odd by regular standards. Unlike his lapidated brothers, he chipped away at veneers.
“Take care,” the brothers said on their way out. They looked like a blanched version of Samuel, lit within by artificial lights.
At some point Laura showed up. “The door was open,” she said. “Careful with that.”
“Here we are,” I said. “Come in.”
She sat next to me. We both stared at the mirrors—all of them covered with sheets. I cannot say we became friends, but a certain truce was reached, her very presence a form of consolation. After all, we had loved the same person. At some point we even held each other’s hands, like sisters and witnesses to one of life’s unanswerables.
She came around every day for a month, bringing quiches, bread, and soups.
When I finally left for Prague, she questioned the decision. “Why?” she asked. “It’s your house.”
“Yours, too,” I said.
“No. It’s not.”
The roaring of the sea turned a higher pitch, crashing and then fizzing with the foam. “This isn’t real life,” I said.
Real life. What a clipped bird it was turning out to be, wings trapped in caged reminiscences. And the jasmine trailing me was turning putrid. I left the Belvedere just as the air chilled and the sky turned violet. Now I often forgot where I was, lost in a time that seemed more real than my surroundings. Since my return, I had been living in this gelatinous reality, this maze of thoughts that all return to Samuel in that house. On the tram back to my studio, I heard Laura say, “You have to wait it out. Otherwise this sensation will follow you.”
We’d walked out of the house together, dragging my bulging suitcase across the yard, and she drove me to the airport. I took nothing of the house but its key.
Arriving at my studio, Grandma wasn’t there. Suddenly, I wanted to see her, to tell what I was about to do. I found her in front of the Dazzling Incarnations show upstairs, busy with my scarf. “I’m leaving,” I announced.
She didn’t even look up, knitting. “You already left.”
The river Ganga seethes with ashes. We shove our elbows into each other’s sides, muscle our way in to look. The bodies of our grandmothers and grandfathers burn on the cremation ghats. We watch them become less like bodies and more like a collection of burning fabric and bone marrow and veins turning into ash.
We collect the ashes into the kalash, and then we say a quick prayer and leave the kalash with the purohit. We wonder if the ashes carry the sickness inside them, or if the sickness has separated from their bodies, and in that moment, we imagine the sickness itself as a body, vulnerable and tender. After a few days, the purohit hurls the ashes in.
The ashes dissolve into the river, mixing, impossible to separate again. This makes it harder for us. We cannot point to a congealed lump of ashes and say, Here is Patti who cooked the best idlis in the world and here is Ushana who made all those beautiful paintings and here is Smruti who is a very fast runner and beat all of us in the one hundred meter dash and here is Pooja who hated us, maybe, and here is our uncle Jaya who, when we told him we were going to be famous singers one day, laughed so hard his fingernails fell off. We still keep the fingernails in tiny urns on our desks.
All these people and no way to tell them apart. We know their names, but the river doesn’t.
When we are sick, we come to the river Ganga begging it to heal us. The heat pares us down, reduces us to thirst and burning. Some of us bring wounded limbs or injuries, inherited through our bloodline or self-induced by our stupidity. Others bring the sickness, arms spangled with mosquito bites.
The smell of scorched hair hovers over Varanasi. The clang of bells. Merchants hawking remedies too expensive for us to buy. Orange embers from the ghats land in our hair and remind us how close we are to burning.
Our proximity to dead bodies makes us nervous. But despite this, the Ganga is a healing river, and there is nothing we need more than to be healed. We anoint our foreheads with ceremonial white ash and bathe in the river. The ashes seep from our hairlines and pool in our collarbones.
Nalini breaks off from us and runs to the river bend. She stoops to cup a section of the river in her hands and her great grandfather passes through her fingers.
There are so many memories we steal from Varanasi. The sweet dahi vada we gnaw between our teeth. People asking for money so their families can cremate them when they are dead. A woman crying as the sunlight strikes her face, sculpting her into something raw. Ashes fall into the river and the water reaches up to touch them.
In the years following the sickness, we learn who the river has chosen to save and who it has forsaken. Swati dies. None of us knew her very well, but we knew she mostly liked to eat food that was colored white. So, we burn white food along with her.
We are scared to scatter her ashes into the river. What if the ashes are still Swati? What if she is still lodged in them, unable to get out?
Kavya tells the rest of us we are wasting time, so we throw Swati into the river anyway. Her ashes mingle with everyone who came before us and everyone who will come after us. Swati’s white food mixing with Pooja’s maybe-hatred mixing with Patti’s love mixing with Smruti’s mile time mixing with Jaya’s laughter.
Nalini looks for animals in the Ganges. The softshell turtle, the river dolphin, the otter. But they will not come near the crush of visitors. We don’t tell Nalini this, so we can watch her try and fail to find them.
She mistakes a passing boat for the back of a dolphin and jumps into the river. We laugh at all of her pouring forward. Nalini struggles and screams, thrashing in the water.
There is a moment where no one knows what to do. Do we jump in and risk ourselves? The boat’s propeller could pull us under, add us to the tally of ghosts in this river. Or do we let her go?
Then Kavya jumps in, swimming towards Nalini, and it would look bad if we didn’t jump in, too. So we all swim to her and pull Nalini to the shore. The boat misses us by a few feet.
Exhilarated by the rush of almost dying, we make promises we can’t keep. We tell each other: we’ll do anything for you, we’ll die for you, we’ll bail you out of jail, we’ll donate our kidneys if you ever need one, just tell us what you need.
We know we’re being stupid, but it’s okay to be stupid. We think we have time.
But we grow up, finish school, get married. For some of us, our husbands die, and we break our bangles, don the white clothes of widows, and migrate to settlements.
For others, we are frustrated because either our husbands won’t die, or our future children won’t be born, and nothing seems to change.
We move away from Varanasi. The population of river dolphins dries up. Gharials are endangered. We read about bombings and shootings and stabbings in the paper, and pour tea for ourselves to drink in the afternoon.
It is only sometimes when the sunlight glints scarlet against the waves or our bodies flush with desire or we touch the fuzzy heads of our children that we think: we are lucky to be alive. Lucky to not be particles in the river right now. Who would ever want to leave?
Nalini is run over by a rickshaw two blocks away from where we live. When she calls out for help, only the rickshaw driver hears her, and he doesn’t stop. She bleeds to death in the street. Her kidneys are ruined.
Nalini’s family does not have enough money to do a full funeral ceremony, but they do everything else right: pray over the body, cremate her, scatter her remains at the sangam where the three rivers meet. Sacrifice a husked coconut, milk, some rice, a garland of flowers.
After her death, the body that used to be Nalini exists amongst the softshell turtles and river otters and endangered gharials.
In some years our bodies will be ashes, and our children will celebrate our lives. They will feast on banana leaves and set our pictures on our verandas and eventually they will cremate us and throw us into the river.
We hope they will cry for us, at least a little. We want our families to grieve for the hundreds of generations that will forget us after we are gone. We hope their tears mix with our ashes, all of it ending up in the river.
When diseases and motorcycle accidents and electrocution finally shove us out of our bodies, we roam the earth for forty days. We can’t believe it is over. We want to haunt the people who killed us or the people who loved us, to terrify them equally, to make them realize we are still here.
But our families scatter our ashes in the river so we cannot return to what is left of us. Some of us grow vengeful. Our families aren’t grieving enough. Others want to save our children from a forest fire or to console our husbands or simply to die again, but with more sophistication.
When the hunt for our ashes exhausts us, we recall the feeling of the cool river against our face, on that day we almost drowned with Nalini. We return to the river. Pollution has darkened the waters. We sift through the water, but we can’t find any trace of our old bodies. Everything that we were is gone, dissolved, so we sink to the riverbed and surrender to a glacial quiet.
We are born two weeks early, seven weeks late, in rickshaws, during stormy nights, in the sunlight, in a horse stable, on the terrace of an apartment building.
Our parents take us to the river Ganga to name us. Around us, the night eddies and aches with the sound of language we cannot yet untangle. We drink in everything with our newborn eyes and immediately forget all of it. The ice-cold water rushes towards our faces. Our eyes sting with the salty water. We scream and thrash to get away from it. But we cannot escape.
We want the water to leave our eyes, but our parents lift us and dunk us again in the river. We make underwater sounds but they come out as bubbles, so we watch our voices lift up and up until they break against the river’s surface.
K.K. Fox lives in Nashville, Tennessee. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Iron Horse, NELLE, Joyland, Kenyon Review Online, and others. She is a fiction editor for Los Angeles Review.
Hananah Zaheer’s writing has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, SmokeLong, Southwest Review, AGNI, Michigan Quarterly Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. A flash chapbook, Lovebirds, is forthcoming from Bull City Press. She is fiction editor for Los Angeles Review and is currently working on a novel. You can reach her at @hananahzaheer.
This summer, all the kids call themselves Zion. They come one by one and hang on the fence behind the backboard, then drift in until they’re standing under the basket, waiting for the rebound off my shot. Teams form by nods and dissolve at eleven or twenty-one, each of us breaking off into the veins of city streets and subway tunnels. The summer I emigrated, every kid on the courts wanted to be like Mike, and I was thrilled because that was my name, Mikhail. The last time my sister and I got chased home in Minsk, my parents decided: Israel or America, whichever we could reach first. Chubby, with harsh Russian dribbling down my chin, my second language became one of cuts and jumps, of lay-ups punctuated with a single English word. Dude! I cried, when my shot fell through the hoop, when I got fouled, when I slapped my sweaty hand against a tall teenager’s after a play. Dude, they always replied, their faces lit with sweat and admiration.
My sons are too young to join the pick-ups downtown, and I doubt they’ll want to anyway. My youngest is so loving he won’t throw the basketball at me. He hugs it and runs across the blacktop of the playground near Central Park. “Here, Daddy,” he says, and places it gently in my hands. My older one likes grass fields to fall on. He prefers to stick a foot between his opponent’s legs, then tumble to the ground before standing to defend his innocence. “I was going for the ball,” he shouts and throws his hands in the air. “Come on, he was going for the ball,” I yell at the soccer ref from the sidelines, though I know he wasn’t.
In our bright breakfast nook, a huge calendar hangs on the wall, the days divided into neat colored sections, the boys’ hours nestled safely inside the weeks that will carry them to adulthood. It resembles my own electronic one, blocked with meetings and calls, each hour traded for more money than my family had when we landed at JFK. On warm afternoons, I close my office door, shut down all three monitors and lie in the middle of the Isfahan rug. I recall a deep boredom, my sweating body splayed face-up before an English-squawking television, the laugh tracks breaking like waves while my parents were out searching for work. I remember the echo of the ball in the parking lot six stories below, and how I slammed it against the brown bricks of our apartment building, shooting into an invisible hoop again and again, beating away some unnamed thing while a wild hope climbed in me.
The summer I became a bird —the very week, in fact— the meatpacking warehouse across the street turned into a dance club.
At first, it was called “The Killing Room” and then, tall walls repainted to a sky blue, “Cielo.” I’d heard someone say that it had no ceiling, only skylights, and the idea of such a large space unprotected from night, gaping, open to sky whims and acts of weather, scared me.
Weeks later, when they hired a crow for a bouncer, I took it as a sign I’d never be a woman again. Maybe had never really been one. He was dark, of course. Black hair, black sunglasses, black t-shirt, pants and boots. Sometimes he wore a black jacket that glittered against the club’s light walls. He had a serious stance, a dignified attitude, and when I saw how seldom he smiled at the sparrow girls who strove to catch his eye, a part of me wondered if I even wanted to be turned back into a woman.
Before him, those first few weeks as a bird, I’d thought obsessively of skin, of limbs, possibly lost forever. I perched for hours at a time on the fire escape of the little West 12th Street flat that still belonged to the woman I’d been, unable to remember what I’d done to become this nervous little beast whose feathers shook in still air.
Now I thought only about keeping my tarsus straight while wrapping the hind toes of my feet firmly around the railing as the beats from the club raged on, for the first time, wanting to fly.
But I couldn’t. A sudden bird with a woman’s inherited fear of flying, I was still an outsider among the winged, watching other birds come and go, longing to be seen by the pigeons and blue jays, the rock doves and swallows, yet unable to connect. Some things had not changed.
As a woman, I’d been a normal girl working in an anomaly: a literary magazine with a wealthy owner and plenty of money. Our offices were on Broome Street back when Soho was considered a gritty place with real soul and I’d walk to work regardless of season, only stopping for coffee, convinced I was Mary Tyler Moore living a career girl’s dream, tossing my cap into the sky of a real city: tall, dark, mysterious, full of possibility.
I’d read and write and type my summaries, carefully writing the page and line numbers of passages I wanted the head fiction editor to notice on the margins of my reviews. I skipped lunch, left work at nine, walked back to the little West 12th Street apartment, as large as the four stories-high fire escape I now live in, to play out the lonely routine of undressing down to my panties, opening a bottle of wine and sitting by the window naked, reading and drinking until I fell asleep.
Once in a while, a boy would come over. Usually, he turned out to be a man who couldn’t stay the night and, in the morning, I’d do it all again.
All through winter and into spring, I’d known parts of me were disappearing, hollows being created inside a body needing less food with every passing day. Then summer arrived with skies the color of brushed steel (a sign I should have seen) and my skin turned sallow and dry and developed an ink-tinged translucence. I told myself it was just summer desiccating everything. But it wasn’t just that. The nightly wine glass became a craving for (stronger!) amber-colored puddles and I became that woman always longing to wet her beak in other people’s spirits. I was exhausted from surviving, afraid of getting out of bed, and lost so much weight; my arms like tired wings, drooped alongside my too-small body until my disease, surely already visible to everyone else, revealed itself to me.
When I didn’t make it in to the office at all, I was fired over the phone. I felt relief. Slight breezes had been tipping me over for months. Curt nods had sent me to hide in the women’s bathroom, crying uncontrollably, unable to care who heard me.
This was good, I thought. Things would change now. Maybe, during the day, I could peck morosely at translation work an editor-lover from my human days still scattered my way. At night, under a purple-gray ashtray of a sky, I could perch on metal and listen to the hip hop that spilled into the air each time the big blue metal club door swung open.
And when the door was closed, I could watch the crow hold court on the sidewalk, deciding who could enter and who would stay outside longer or forever, which I did, watching him for hours on end, day after day, reading him like a story, filling in the gaps with what was missing, and believing everything I added was the truth.
How much in common we had; how lonely we both were; how confused we’d been upon arriving in New York, the soot and smog making us feel small. He needed me, this bird that I’d become. I could save him. He was mine; had even taken to making signals and noises in my direction whenever the line thinned and there were more people coming out than going into the club. It was a sign and it isn’t wrong to believe in signs if you find yourself a bird without a soul in New York and signs are all you have.
Soon after, on a windy night, I heard the rustle of feathers, crisp and loud. A couple of sparrows were cat-walking past the line of geese, ducks, and the occasional early hen toward the club’s entrance.
“Hey, Aldo baby. This is my friend Annika,” one of them cooed, her wings lined in gold and tinsel, their leading edges sequined. She had a bright red, bow-shaped beak that I could see clearly from my post. Annika, wore tight pink Lycra pants and high heels and walked like a pelican.
Aldo. I savored his name, chirping with excitement at the discovery, relaxing my grip around the chipped metal fire escape railing. Aldo. A bird, lost like me, my find to love.
Then the wind shook cold, blowing me off my perch hard onto the windowsill. I searched for my crow. There he was. Smiling. Taking a good long look at the birds, as if he could decide their worth with his eyes. They were smiling too, coming closer to him, and I chirped louder, this time to catch his attention.
The wind blew and blew and I stayed where I’d landed, unable to get back up onto the railing, my dusty brown eyes fixed on Aldo. I wanted him to forget them, to be unaffected by their beauty, to know they were nothing. Or maybe I just wanted him to hear me, to help, to show me I had not been alone those happy nights thinking I’d been found. The wind kept blowing. I let myself lay against the concrete of the window ledge and closed my eyes.
When I was a woman, I wanted my men-crows to read poetry and have the ambition to become something, chefs, paramedics, street poets. Now all I wanted was for this bouncer to climb my rail along with the sun, his sharp black eyes up close and trained on my face. I pictured the muscles of his barrel chest under the black feathers that peeked out from the neck of his black t-shirt, strong and weighty and vibrating, and longed to be someone lying still beneath him. “What happened to you?” I hoped he’d ask, looking at me as intently as he’d looked at those birds on the sidewalk while I waited.
A new wind cut through the block making spurs jangle, sequins chime, and me open my eyes as I shook and almost fell through the rusty red slats of the fire escape, and, still, I looked for Aldo. Aldo taking off his sunglasses and ushering the birds into the club as they cackled excitedly, the door shutting behind them.
When he assumed his post under the glare of the lampposts, forgetting to do so much as look up, search for me, I knew he was no crow, his skin, like mine, a translucent brownish gray with dull and matted feathers, nothing black or shiny about him. He would never feed anyone as a chef, nor save a person’s life by reading a poem on a sidewalk. It would not occur to him to come up a fire escape with the first sun. I was still alone, needing to find my own way back onto the railing, desperate as I suddenly was for a puddle of amber to drink from.
I had been afraid of the cold silent body I held to my belly but when we at last reached the engine and clambered up the frozen metal ladder and into the relative warmth of the interior, the child jerked awake and began to wail, a thin, gasping sound that bit directly into my heart. Alive. The babe was still alive.
How long I had been outside in the blizzard I did not know; it could not have been more than five or ten minutes and yet I was shivering with cold. The baby’s parents were entirely soaked through, the girl’s lips a faint, pale blue. The young man had found the heater and stood before its orange filaments, rubbing his hands. His eyes looked wild, hair matted to the shape of his skull, teeth clenched down in his jaw. Jeans and a thin denim jacket. At his feet rested a shapeless knapsack, soaked through and dripping.
“Blanket up there,” I said to the girl.
She reached for it and when she made no move to take the child from me I nodded down into the well of my coat. “She’s OK,” I said.
Still the girl said nothing. Probably no older than sixteen or seventeen, her clothes utterly insufficient for the weather: a thin sweater, threadbare skirt, canvas shoes still caked with ice and snow. When she looked up at me through her lank hair, her hollow eyes spoke only of exhaustion.
“You’ll need to take her,” I said “I gotta get this thing moving.”
Only then did she step forward, hesitantly, as if unsure of what I meant to do, but she took the child. That warmth moving away from me.
Then I was at the controls again and the engine took up its growl and began to slide forward. Relief that it had not frozen to the rails. “Coffee in that Thermos there,” I said over my shoulder. Later I said my name.
“Tommy,” came the response from behind me. “And here’s May.”
The plow was moving and I had cranked up the engine to regain its speed, the whole machine vibrating with barely restrained fury. “You might all’ve froze,” I said.
“I think we did,” Tommy said.
As if in response, the baby resumed its mewling cry. I did not turn. “Girl or boy?” Beyond the window glass: the onrush of snow.
May’s voice was small and thin. “Jilly,” she said.
“Little Jilly,” I said.
“No,” she said. “Just Jilly.”
A child with a child, I thought.
* * *
After my crack-up, they took me off freight and assigned me to the plow engine where there was almost no chance I would see a single living soul on my runs back and forth across the pass. In the first years on the mountain, I could still sometimes see the girl I had killed, her body turning to meet the engine as if greeting a friend. Martha Evans had been twelve years old on the bright spring afternoon that my locomotive had dismembered her and although I knew—and had been assured over and over—that her death was in no way my fault, the vision of her continued to haunt me. I had lifted the pieces of her from beside the tracks and under the freight cars and had set them next to the locomotive in some approximation of her living shape as if she were a doll that only needed stitched back together.
In the weeks and months that followed, I wanted only to be left alone. It did not seem too much to ask and indeed my coworkers and dispatcher were kind enough to give me that much and to keep me employed when I probably should have been let go, my dependence on alcohol being such that I could not much be trusted around heavy equipment. And yet the plow had provided a way back for me, the locomotive’s handling requiring all my skill as an engineer and its blade producing an effect that was tangible and immediate. The way before was obscured by hissing snow and the great spreader blade did its work so that my path was marked by clean silver lines of track that extended on into the darkness, ready for whatever train was next to come.
My solitude had felt like penance at first, the little girl’s unconcerned gaze staring back at me from around each bend in the rails, but that too faded with time until my loneliness came to feel more like meditation than anything else, the blurred snow outside the glass swirling and the train invisible under its flow such that I oft felt as if I had become wholly untethered from the world of men. I could read the hidden topographies of that trackless snowfield as if all of it were part of my body: turns and twists and wildly descending slides and hard uphill climbs.
And then you. And everything to come after.
* * *
The headset lay crackling on its little hook and I placed it upon my head again, its pads against the flesh of my ears.
“What’s that do?”
Tommy had come up next to me and stood now strangely close in the tight space at the head of the engine, his finger pointed to the headset.
“Keeps me in touch with dispatch,” I told him. “How’d you get out there anyway?”
“What’s that mean?”
“That’s kind of like my home office. Gotta check in now and then.”
He did not respond for a time. I did not know if he watched me or watched, as I did, the onrushing snow through the window. Then he said, “Got stuck on the road is all.”
“Isn’t the highway closed?”
“Weren’t on the highway.”
“On a side road?”
“You ask a lot of questions, mister,” he said simply.
“Just making conversation.”
Throttle back. The spreader vibrated and I brought it up and alongside. The forest seemed to roll out under us like a great wave and we upon it, barely in control.
“You’re dang lucky I saw you.”
“That was May. She was waving.”
“Lucky she did. I almost didn’t stop.”
At first I did not speak. Because of Martha Evans, is what I wanted to say. Instead I told him that I was not sure what I had seen. “Thought it was an owl,” I said.
“An owl?” He turned toward the back of the engine. “You hear that, May-May? He thought you were an owl. Hoot hoot!”
“Yep, hoot hoot,” I said. And then, loud enough that I hoped May could hear me: “Better get hold of something. We’re gonna get a little fast through here.”
“How fast?” Tommy said quietly.
“Fifty or sixty.”
“That doesn’t seem fast,” he said.
But then the hidden tracks pulled over the lip and the train tipped forward, the lights illuming a rushing flood of snow and forest, a whole topography of surprised motion. Tommy let out an audible gasp as we descended that wild loop.
“She all right?” I called to him. I did not take my eyes off the swirling window glass and when he did not answer I called to him again, the same words, the same question.
“Who?” he said at last.
“May,” I said.
“She’s fine,” he said but I do not think he so much as looked toward the back of the engine. The lever forward against the weight of my palm. Oh how I throttled into that deep dry powder like some great knife and how it flew, flew away into the darkness of the forest all around, the tracks clean and pure and silver in my wake and already the engine beginning, once more, to rise. The grace of that movement. The secret joy.
“Boy that’s something,” Tommy said. “How’d you get a job like this?”
“Kind of happened into it.”
“You already knew how to drive this thing?”
“They trained me,” I told him. “Didn’t know a thing when I started.”
“Lucky,” he said.
“Could be,” I admitted. “I just kind of stuck with it, you know.”
The train heaved against the uphill run. Edge the throttle forward. A bit more.
“You can run this all by yourself?” Tommy asked.
“There’s a rotary if it gets much worse than this,” I told him. “That one takes a whole crew. This one here’s pretty simple, really.”
“How’s that?” he said.
I gave him the basics then. To this day I do not know why; perhaps simply because he was there in the locomotive with me. It still felt a kind of miracle I had seen her waving hand and had stopped and had found them, shivering in the snow, a little family: man, woman, and child. I had taken the baby from her so quickly, an action totally without conscious thought, and had tucked it into my jacket in the blowing snow and had told them to follow. It had felt so cold against my chest, my belly. Martha Evans’ severed legs had been warm, almost hot. How her mother had screamed in the station office. I had sat there weeping in the cracked Naugahyde chair as the station manager tried to calm her but I wanted her to keep going, to break all the windows with her screams, to shake me to powder.
I placed Tommy’s hand on the tiller. On the throttle. On the brake. He asked what to look for and I showed him. The drift that might secret the great bulk of a tree within its frozen milky shape. The way to read the track. How to lean the whole engine into a curve so that the force of the plow continued into the heaving snow without cease. How to throttle back in a downhill run and when to throttle up for the momentum to ride the next rise.
It was then my dispatcher’s voice came through the headset. “Hang on,” I said to Tommy. “Dispatch this is Thirty-Two. I hear you, Donna.”
Her voice was a loud tinny squawk in my earpiece. She asked me how it was looking, the storm. “Looks like a blizzard,” I said.
“You hit eight-two yet?”
“Not quite. Just through Yaw’s,” I told her.
I glanced over at Tommy and found, to my surprise, that he was no longer staring out the windows of the train but was, instead, staring at me, his expression like a cold spear of ice running along my spine. What that gaze meant or might have meant I could not guess but for the first time I wondered who it was that I had welcomed into my engine. Donna was still speaking but her voice sounded far away now. Through it I could hear May’s voice, although it was not nearly so loud: “Tommy,” she whispered, “don’t do nothin’. He’s been nothin’ but kind. That’s all.”
There was a pause. Tommy’s face showed no emotion whatsoever, just that cold staring, as if the visage of an animal. Then May again, louder now: “Mister,” she called. “Just don’t say nothin’ about us. Please, mister. Just don’t.”
Donna, in my ear: “You still read?”
“Yeah, Donna,” I said. “Everything’s A-OK.”
A few more forced pleasantries and then I set the headset back on its hook. “What’s this about?” I said, trying to sound pleasant, trying to sound, that is, as if May’s words had not brought a tingle of fear to my gut.
“You just mind your own business.”
“You in some kind of trouble?”
“I said mind your own goddamn business.”
The baby had started to mewl again and now its voice spiraled up in a long howl of anguish.
“Goddammit, May,” Tommy yelled. “You make her stop!”
May had begun bouncing the babe against her, her face leaning down to shush it, a kind of wild heat in her movements.
“Goddammit, May,” Tommy said. “I’m warning you. You make her stop right goddamned now or I swear to God I’ll throw her right off this goddamned train.”
“OK,” I said now. “Let’s just take a breath.”
He swung at me so quickly that I had no time to react, the impact of his fist upon the side of my head swift and violent and without warning. I looked up from the floor into the space where he had been. Just before me hung the torn bare wires of the headset. My ears rung. Tommy and May were far away, across the open space of the car, Tommy shouting something and May cowering under the lash of his words.
I clambered to my feet again, peered out the window, lay my hands on the controls and then removed them again and turned to face Tommy and May at the back of the train. My heart clenched hard in my chest. A rivulet of panic.
“He doesn’t know anything,” May was whispering. “Please Tommy. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t.”
“He sure as shit knows something now, though. Don’t he?” He spun and looked at me.
I put my hands in the air. “Just minding my own business,” I said, although that seemed a hollow, cowardly claim after I had been struck and knocked down. When I turned back to the tracks, to the storm, my hands were shaking. So dark outside that the headlight beam was a cut hole in the shifting texture of the night. I tried to steel myself against what was to come but there was only my fear like a great avalanche cascading down through all parts of me at once.
After I had put Martha Evans’ body together I had crawled up into the engine and curled into the corner and fell asleep there. It was a strange response, I know. It might have been that I thought it all a dream and that I might trick myself into waking from it were I to will myself asleep. But I awoke to all manner of police and officials and it was no dream and never had been.
“Where’s this train go, mister?” Tommy had come up next to me again and put his face up near my still-ringing ear.
“Switch yard’s in Camperville,” I said. “I could get you there easy.” My voice sounded filled with stones. This was no dream either. I had learned that much at least.
“How far’s that?”
“After Camperville it goes on northeast.” Behind us the baby had taken up its crying again. I could hear May’s voice trying to quiet her, shushing, whispering, a muffling to the baby’s sound that might well have been her hand over that tiny mouth.
“How far?” Tommy asked me, his face twisting anew at the sound of the squalling babe.
“All the way across the country,” I said. My throat felt very dry.
“I don’t know what you’re asking me.”
But Tommy had turned and lurched away from me towards May, towards the baby. “Jesus Christ, May!” he shouted. “Give her here!” and then she was on the ground against the cold steel of the back wall and he was pulling the baby from her grip, her voice calling out to him, “No, no no, Tommy, no,” but he pulled and then the child was in his grasp, its screeching voice raised to a pitch that bent the insides of my hearing. He held the baby out before him as if it were a sack of flour and began to shake it, screaming all the while to shut its mouth, to be quiet, to goddamned be quiet.
I did not even know I was shouting until my voice closed down around that single syllable, “Stop! Stop! Stop!” and the baby was in my arms once more, the whole of that transference accomplished with such rapidity that I hardly understood myself what had happened, what I had done, Tommy standing utterly still for a long strained moment before reaching around behind him to the hollow of his sodden back and producing from that place the pistol he now held out before him in the air. May’s voice was a quietness from many miles away: “No, Tommy. Please. Please don’t.”
God knows what the tracks might bring. The curve and then the last descent as the iron moved down towards Camperville. All hidden in the blur. And where had I left the throttle? The snow hissed and ran. The engine rattled. How strange to worry about the state of the tracks when a man held a gun to my chest, but so ran my thoughts.
“Goddammit,” Tommy said. His voice shook, his eyes shining with tears. “Wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
“You’ll be all right,” I said, my voice quiet, almost a whisper.
The blanket had come partially unrolled and I tucked it around the baby as best I could. The child stopped crying in my arms. I do not know why.
“I didn’t mean to hurt nobody,” Tommy said.
The baby felt was warm and heavy. “You’re alive,” I said now, and I did not know if I was speaking to Tommy or to the babe.
“You don’t know,” Tommy said. He tapped the gun butt against his temple. “I got a temper,” he said. “I know it. And I wish I didn’t but sometimes May makes me so mad. And little Jilly there. I ain’t proud of it but sometimes she just goes on and on screaming like that. You heard her.”
I might have told him something now, that the baby’s bright, hard squalling was proof that she was going to survive and that everything was going to be all right in the end. But I could think of no words. There was an axe near the back of the engine. I could see it there, in its metal loops upon the wall. A tool box where I might grasp a wrench large enough to knock him unconscious. But I held a baby in my arms. Warm now and alive. Near the back of the train, May stood and wiped her eyes and watched us without comment. “You want her?” I said. I was speaking to May but it was Tommy who answered me.
“No,” he said simply. “I never did.”
“Tommy?” May said from behind him.
The pistol still hovered in the air between us. I could grab for it. Maybe I could. But the baby.
“Move on back,” Tommy said.
And I did, the baby warm and silent, the pistol following me along the sidewall of the engine. At some point he waved May away from me, away from the direction in which I was headed toward the rear of the engine, to the door that led out into the night.
“Open it,” Tommy said.
“Just open the goddamned door.”
May’s voice was quiet behind him. “Tommy, you can’t,” she said.
“Shut up, May.”
“The one at the bank was an accident. Anyone could see that. But this one ain’t.”
He whirled so quickly and with such force that it seemed as if she simply jerked backwards of her own accord, her head whipping back from the blow and her whole body crumpling to the floor.
“Don’t,” I mumbled. “Please. Look, I’m opening the door. Like you said.”
The cold was immediate, a sharpness that shot into the warm interior of the train.
“Now jump,” he said. “Do it, goddammit.”
I held the baby out towards him.
“No,” he said. “Jump.”
And then May seemed to understand what was happening. She did not rise. “No, Tommy. No!”
“Shut up! You can’t even keep her from crying.”
“But she’s mine!”
“I’m gonna count to three, mister,” Tommy said, “and you’d better jump before I get to the end or I swear to God I’ll blow a hole through you just like I done to the bank man.”
Behind him, May rose to her feet, her eyes wild. I thought she might rush for the baby, but she did not, her voice rising in a shriek that went on and on as Tommy counted out his numbers.
“Wait, please,” I whispered.
But already it was too late. When I jumped it was into black frozen air. I hit the snow hard and the impact blew my lungs empty. When I rolled to a stop and looked down into the gap in my coat, there you were, your eyes staring up at mine in the darkness.
“Tell me again,” you would ask me later, when you were seven and eight and ten. A kind of fairy tale spun between us. What I heard in my own voice was the story of someone unrecognizable to anyone but you.
What I know is that when I did not respond to the radio, Donna diverted my plow engine onto a spur and ran it into the gravel. It was found empty and the team that rescued me came on snowmobiles along the tracks. Tommy was shot dead in Nevada a few months later. I do not know what happened to May. I think if she were alive she would have come for you at some point but she never has and this is why I think she too is gone. I lost two toes from that long walk through the blizzard. I would have given more than that had I been asked.
But what I remember most of all, what I return to when my sleep is troubled and my mind filled with worry, is the black shape of the plow engine against the forest, the bright dots of snow streaming their shadows across the flat white blaze of the headlit night. There it is, my engine, my very own, moving away, moving away from me. From both of us. There as a shadowy glow. And then finally gone. What remains, for a time, is the sound, a kind of hum that fades into the wind and the trees and the hiss and shake of the blizzard. After that there is only darkness. So cold that it feels as if my breath might freeze a cloud of snow into the air. Quiet against my chest. And so still. The two of us afloat in the black of that night, following the one thing we can see: the twin silver lines of the rails. How clean they are. And, despite everything, how bright.
If the TV is on, it’s morning. I might have never noticed if I didn’t think it had spoken my name.
Good god good morning. It did not speak my name. No one did. I hear rustling in the bathroom and there is light coming from under the door. Warm yellow light that tints the edge of the carpet where it meets the tile floor.
The banner at the bottom of the TV catches my eye. The screen is impossible to read. The movement is simply out of control. It makes me feel sea-sick so I focus on the pictures.
“Honey, you’re going to need to go. The news is showing traffic. There’s so much construction.” I urge the robin from the nest, but he flutters behind the bathroom door, busily doing things that slow his departure.
My arm hangs off the bed. If I could reach something to throw I would. The wreckage on the TV is clear, and I feel like I can reach out and touch the cars, maybe detangle them, wind them up and send them on their way. A familiar van lies on its side.
“Honey. I think this van is Herman’s from down the street. It’s got to be. It even has the sticker on the back of the whole peace frog thing.”
My enabler comes out of the bathroom.
“You hear the kid crying, right?”
“I thought it was the TV.”
He shakes his head and walks out of the room. I didn’t hear the cries. I don’t know how he did. The bathroom door was shut and the fan was on. I can only imagine that it’s been crying since before he went into the bathroom. The little wails must be just the right pitch for me to not hear them. Like a dog whistle. I should give the child a whistle. I could probably hear that.
This face in the mirror is not mine. It has wrinkles and dark circles. I don’t have those things. The hair that hangs down and covers it is stringy and split. It’s thin. If it were any more runny and thin this body could just slink down the shower drain. I don’t think that would be so bad.
I choose one of the six orange bottles on the shelf and swallow a pill, re-inflate, regain my mass. My ghostly figure fills in and develops color and shape until I can see myself again. I do the basics, brush teeth, pull the hair out of my face with a scrunchy. I want to melt back into bed, but there are obligations. And expectations.
The door to the den is cracked and I push it with my slippered foot. It makes a sort of whinnying horse noise as it opens. The child is puddled on the floor watching movies on the IPad and I’m overcome with relief. I was afraid it would be watching TV. I drift into the kitchen. My husband looks up from the food that I didn’t prepare.
“Please put a shirt on.”
Quietly, I float into the bathroom and open bottle number two. This pill is a little larger, so I find the Diet Coke can from last evening on my nightstand and help the chalky domino tumble down my throat. I feel immediate peace, even though I know there is a half-hour delay before the effects kick in.
I emerge from the room a new person, and then turn back around to put on my bathrobe. Child is watching a movie. Good. Kitchen is vacant. Okay. Car is pulling out of the driveway. Everything is under control. I feel normal.
My list for the day sits on the kitchen counter. It is jotted on a notepad with a large orange cat looking uncomfortable and bloated. My husband’s made an interesting choice in using a green pen on the orange pad. The colors remind me of a jack-o’-lantern.
Has the child eaten? I’m not sure, but it doesn’t look hungry, and it isn’t acting hungry. The child is currently in suspended animation. I will have to ask it when the movie is over. I usually put the movie on a loop, hopefully my husband did too.
I’m ready for another Diet Coke. We made our Costco run yesterday, have tons of twenty-four packs. There is nothing else to buy for a week. We love to go for the samples and the colorful boxes in bulk. They never seem to bother the child, but the forklifts beep when they move around the store and sometimes I feel like they are dancing and spinning toward my demise. Like they lurk around corners waiting to beep at us and flash their yellow light as it twirls in circles.
The cabinet above the refrigerator is a reach but this is good for keeping the vodka away from the child. This is Yoga. The vodka handle is lighter. We will have to go to the store. My neck tingles with excitement. Fortunately, there is still enough for my morning Diet Coke. I crack open the can and pour out the first few sips into the sink, replacing them with the clear contents of the larger bottle. I swirl the mix and drop in my flexi-straw. It looks like a waterspout.
The child starts to wail. My husband clearly didn’t put the movie on loop. We will have to start our day.
Driving is not real. We are in the air, blowing down the highway like a lost leaf. Our flips and turns are punctuated with car horns. They are subtle; the insulation in the current model year is as comforting as a cave. We are spelunking. We climb into these crevices and then move them with pedals. I am an explorer, we are explorers. This expedition will take us places.
We stop at the coffee shop and I pull up an episode, hand the IPad back to the boy, and leave the car running with the air on. The barista is watching me. They have my coffee made for me by the time I get to the register and I slowly place an extra dollar in their tip jar. I wait a moment for their eye contact. In the car, the episode is still going. I want to give the boy some peace so I walk over to the outdoor tables and wait for conversation with the other moms. They look at me but don’t approach, so I get back in the car and watch them. They make big hand motions and have such wide eyes. They have such big shiny teeth.
Driving is so pleasurable. I alternate sips between my iced coffee and Diet Coke. Sometimes I feel like I make my best friends on the roads and highways. I wave at people when they let me over. I smile at them and see if they smile back. If they do, I try to stay with them for a while. Sometimes I see where they go.
Soon we are all stopped. I look around and see who I’m sitting with. The man to my left in the truck waves at me. Maybe I know him. I wave back with my mouth hanging open slightly and say “hey.” He is still waving, and I wave a little bit more vigorously, with more bend in my wrist. My fingers look like tentacles. I feel like a jelly fish. Now he is rolling down his window and I am excited. I run my hand through my hair and roll my window down. He is saying something and I hold my hand up to my ear to let him know he needs to talk louder. I wonder if he will notice my nice earring and well-proportioned ear.
“Your brake light is out!”
“Oh.” I nod. I smile a little. He smiles too. I have a new friend.
“This traffic stinks!” He has a dark mustache.
“Yeah. It does.”
Looking out on the gray hair of the highway with all of the little red dots like little lice, I have an uncontrollable urge to scratch and take a sip of Diet Coke.
“You should probably get that fixed!”
I wish he would stop being loud.
He’s now the accidental friend I’ve made while waiting to make a cooler friend. We sit for an uncomfortable amount of time with our windows down, inadvertently inhaling exhaust and looking over at one another occasionally with a smile.
Eventually I reach over and push the button to roll my window up while staring straight forward. He pretends to look at his phone, but I see him sneak a few glances here and there. I finish my iced coffee and placate my wailing child with a sip of Diet Coke and a feature length film.
After what seems like hours, we move.
We unload on the chipping pavement of the grocery store parking lot. Unloading is easy when you’ve forgotten to buckle the child up in the first place. I tell him he better not do that again.
The sky is gray with the sun peeking through in patches. The clouds look like jack o’ lanterns. God could be a Jack-o’-lantern, a giant Jack-o’-lantern with sunlight pouring out of his triangle eye sockets and laughing his big godly laugh all deep and baritone, looking like he wants to gobble up the whole city. He could have a few birds for sure, maybe geese. I don’t understand geese. It seems to me that they’re always headed north. Maybe they are confused, or maybe I’m turned around on which direction is north. We are spinning on a compass and I close my eyes for a moment to make it stop. These geese.
Every aisle holds potential. Proper shopping requires a visit to each aisle. We spend time visiting with the cereal. The monkeys and tigers, leprechauns and ghosts spread color and smiles in their reflections on the freshly polished floor. We walk on a rainbow and laugh. When the rainbow starts to fade and the tank with the lobsters looms it’s time for another dose. The tin box in my pocket holds fun shapes and sizes of pills, orbiting one another like planets. I dose up and the rainbow returns.
We slide like a bobsled through the freezer section, and end our run in a checkout line behind a mid-fifties bobbed haircut. She leaves her cart full of groceries in front of us and searches the store for an item she forgot. I learn of world events from the magazines at checkout. The faces of celebrities are Zen and I know that their yoga pants fit better than mine. They sit on mountains of honey that suck them in to the brine holding them in amber forever. They can be thawed when needed or wanted. Their teeth are what mine should be. The spiders in my hair climb down threads of stringy mess of their own creation.
“Ma’am, did you want to buy something?” The clerk is so smart. She has noticed something.
“Of course I do.”
“What did you want?” She is kind and soft, like a grown baby, cooing at me with her thinning lips, blowing kisses of comforting air with each puffed word.
My cart is empty, except for this child.
“I’ll have this balloon.” Am I speaking? I can’t tell. I’m waiting for the words to launch, I can see them as they slowly float to the clerk, whistling into her ear and stepping down the stairs into her skull. They register and her eyes light up with relief.
“It’s a really nice balloon.” She scans the dangling tag of the balloon.
I love her. I want to hold her and let her keep me warm in this cold grocery store. Her button says, “Beth.” I give her money.
“Thanks Beth.” I hold the “th” in my teeth and make a sound like I’m blowing up the balloon. Eventually the balloon even feels the breeze. It’s face says “I’m Sorry For Your Loss” and flutters giddily, showing its rear as it spins, “R.I.P.” I hand the string to the child, and push the buggy out the automatic doors.
In the parking lot, the child drops the balloon’s string, letting the heavy plastic tag tether it to the ground. It blows in the breeze and looks like it is walking. I get the child situated in the backseat. Then a voice surprises me.
“You dropped this.”
The thin man corners me between the open door and the car. The scent of fried chicken floats through the air. The words, “Stranger Danger” flash neon in my head and I paint him with pepper spray. With my door closed, the only noise I hear is the balloon as it rubs the child’s window. The balloon and the child squeak their desires. R.I.P. nuzzles the window, as does the child. They connect. There is no one parked in front of me and I pull away. The child scrapes its fingers on the window until the glow of the IPad paints its blank face again. Behind me, the balloon marks a pile of bones in the parking space.
For a moment, my heart beats, and I know that it is still there.
The lumber, I tell Patricia, will soon be a fence. I’ve hired a crew. We’re at the window. She’s pinching the mole on my neck. She asks, But Katrin, what about the cost? The fence will consume what remains of my settlement money, that sum secured by lawyers after I fled from the Fix. But for weeks I’ve told Patricia: There’s still plenty left. Our first night together, four months ago, she went from room to room of my new rental house, stroking the walls, asking, Would a coat of fresh paint kill anyone? She named an expensive acrylic-latex-plus-primer-in-one. Now she claims it’s indulgent to water the garden twice a day.
Tapping the glass, twilight outside, she frowns, says, I thought you liked those neighbor kids playing in your garden. We talked about this, Katrin, rash decisions, hidden plans…
So I tell her. Yes, I’ve enjoyed the kids’ company, two boys, two girls, shy at first, curious. Me waving them over, showing them the garden’s delights: honeybees, hummingbirds, daisies and jewel-boxes, squash, eggplants, toads. But last week, I tell her, I woke to wild shrieking. Late at night. Went to the bedroom window, figuring rabbit. In the Fix we heard similar sounds, but rats, the Man forcing his devotees to kill vermin with shovels.
From my window I surveyed the neighbors’ backyard: hedges, poplars, decrepit swing-set. And, spot-lit by moon, those four children. Linked arm-in-arm. Circling a fat, massive woman. Naked. Three-hundred pounds. One boy broke free, produced a stick, jabbed. The woman shrieked. Her head big as a pumpkin, sagging breasts, quivering stomach. The children took turns with the stick. Each time they jabbed, she shrieked. Upstairs, I gasped. Then, suddenly, they steered her inside, her backside rippling. A broad stain where she’d stood. I collapsed on the bed, remained there until morning. Then I forced myself up, outside, across the lawn. The stain was still there but alive: orange and black insects like boxelder bugs. But boxelder season wasn’t for months.
Patricia, at the window, looks horror-struck. Wants, probably, to say it was a trick of the moonlight. Or my past, the Fix, warping my imagination. I almost say, Don’t. Almost say, This is why I won’t tell you these things. Instead she asks, Maybe it was their mother? Their mother, I reply, is a tiny, wooden thing, flicks Marlboros into my yard, rants that Sikhs are really Arabs taking over the trucking industry—another reason for the fence.
I was once, I tell her, inside their house, the kitchen. A water-stained ceiling, mold-peppered baseboards, spongy linoleum. And a terrible smell: stale shellfish, rotting ocean meat. Those children looked dirty and spooked, hands behind backs, refusing eye contact. The older boy said, Our stepfather keeps barrels in the basement, water and plants, fish nibble the roots—their poop feeds the plants! I told them I’d never seen any stepdad. I covered my mouth, the stench unbearable—how did they live? Show me, I said, stepping towards the basement door. The children went wide-eyed. The younger girl whimpered, looked ready to scream…
Patricia cups her hand on my mouth. Says, Shhh. We kiss, tentatively, which means she’s worried what else I might say. We kiss again, which means it’s time for her to return to the city, for work. Next weekend? she asks. Then she says: Katrin, it was just hydroponics. That Fix stuff is over, long gone. You’re living real life. Another kiss. Stay, I hear myself say, drive back tomorrow, we’ll have gin on the patio, one last time before the fence goes up. I skim her thighs, tight against jeans. She sighs. Air fills my mouth. I don’t like it, she says, fencing yourself off… Then she says goodnight and leaves.
Soon I must tell her the settlement’s gone, spent on the fence, on five months’ rent and acrylic-latex-plus-primer-in-one. Spent on a bed and computer, on colorful clothes that would’ve been forbidden in the Fix. On replacing the house’s deadbolts, plus fees to the lawyer who helped escapees secure settlement money—a firearm, she told us, will bring peace of mind. No guns, I replied. Then pepper spray, she said, or a knife, at the very least a good white-noise machine. Twice, mulching, I’ve whirled around, pepper spray uncapped, to find a neighborhood dog sniffing the hedges.
Patricia cannot fathom: we escapees don’t want that awful cash, another reminder of the Man. Seized by the court from devotees’ savings he’d siphoned for years. Some escapees pooled their settlements to purchase an Airstream, move to Arizona, start a group-camp. This, to me, whiffed too much of the Fix. Instead, for weeks, I stayed at an interstate motel: men with orange teeth, Wonder Bread pizza, a scummy pool in which squirrels would drown. Then I rented this house, met Patricia online. I showed her the motel. My God, she gasped, why put yourself through that? Soon I nurtured a garden thrumming with peace, unlike the Man’s rat-infested “Jardin Infini.” My first night with Patricia, we opened the windows, huddled in bed, listened to wind. My windows, I whispered, my wind, my jardin. I started to sob. Thank you, I sobbed, over and over. Meaning: a miracle, Patricia fine with us laying there, fully clothed, almost touching. I can be patient, she told me. But what will you need? I replied, knowing that everyone, eventually, goes mad with need. (The Man once took away a woman’s child, craving her attention; the woman wailed away in Bunkhouse Four until someone told her to shut it.)
Patricia, that night, answered: Openness and, I suppose, honesty. Earlier, during dinner, I’d told her about the Fix. She stared, swallowed, asked, Was this, like, a choice? For a while, yes, I replied. Funny and fun, wild rules, people strange and beautiful as geckos. Then the Man purchased land outside town, moved us into coed pinewood hutches, and all the rules changed.
Home alone, Patricia gone, I go to the computer, open a browser, click on the link. My job—part-time teacher at the community arts center, six days a week—provides merciful excuse not to visit her in the city, amidst all those angry, leering people.
The broadcast now runs twenty-four-seven, even at night. A camera attached to a radio tower on a faraway coast: darkness, mist, wind booming off sea. During the day, milky sky, steel-blue water. Colorful houses line a thumb-shaped peninsula, a village called Tandquay. Within the year it will break from the mainland and become, claim geologists, a rapidly sinking island. The government has offered relocation funds in exchange for petroleum-rich indigenous land. The feed broadcasts the Tandquayans’ plight: sea-lashed peninsula, protestors with signs, lanterns at night. On the mainland a pack of counter-protestors, pickups glinting, hoist signs of their own—what could possibly be their position?
A nearby Ford factory has offered jobs to Tandquayans if the treaty is signed. Each morning two men climb onto a roof, unfurl a banner: SEND HELP! I donate one-third of each paycheck to help fund the webcast; Tandquayans should not be coerced into working at Ford. Once, during prime-time news—I nearly fell from my chair—a village elder stared into the camera and said, Even as an island, we’ll still fish and crab. His wife beside him added, We can cook cormorant thirteen different ways.
After work I log on, protestors huddled over portable stoves. At night, unable to sleep, I log on again, watch lantern-lights in fog. Patricia, if she’s over, flicks off the screen, says, You need professionally approved coping mechanisms. Not a mechanism, I’ll say. A peninsula, sinking. She dislikes when villagers wave at the camera and I wave back.
A webcast, understand, got us freed from the Fix. One of our requirements was the production of one-act plays the Man liked in lieu of television. His attendants roved the stage filming while we recited, women topless and body-painted, men in thin loincloths. The Man broadcasted the things online, some clandestine forum, for whom we never knew. Eventually something got reported—by who? to whom? Within months, those who wanted were rescued. Others stayed behind, loyal to the Man. His productions, we’ve heard, only grew grander.
Ben, fellow instructor at the community arts center, inspects my cupboard, makes a sound. Tugs out pack after pack of King’s Hawaiian Rolls. Says, We’ve talked about this. I tell him Patricia says the same thing: We talked about this. This is what it means to invite strangers into one’s life—you’re always talking about things, making unforeseen promises.
Those rolls, I tell Ben, are my one fond recollection from the Fix. Delivered once a week to our bunkhouses by the Man’s attendants—saved our lives, I tell Ben. Twice I’ve mailed boxes to the Tandquay P.O. with handwritten notes: These rolls got me through unimaginable times. I know they’ll help you—STAY STRONG, you’ll get your way. Love, Katrin.
The first time a villager waves an orange bag of King’s on the webcast, my breath leaves my body. I collapse. Patricia comes running, presses washcloth to my chest. This guy, I manage to tell her, one of the Man’s attendants, not the Man, made me watch awful videotapes, just he and I, said we’d make one someday. Back in my bunk, King’s Rolls eased my fear. After killing doves in the Man’s Jardin, they were the one food I kept down. Patricia, startled, eyed me, squinting as though glimpsing some far-away light. I didn’t dare tell her I mailed those rolls being waved now on-screen.
Might I sneak, I ask Ben, King’s Hawaiians to that fat woman in the neighbors’ cellar? Ben, like most at the community arts center—struggling artists, damaged locals, weirdos unable to hold nine-to-fives—actually believes such things are possible, obese women kept nude in reeking basements. Perhaps some at the center have survived just such situations. He asks, Why not phone the police? Tried that before, I reply, multiple times, a shady motel—the response you get when you’re off the mark isn’t fun. Some folks, I tell him, don’t want to be freed.
Ben dreams of staging an avant-garde play about the Fix, using students from the arts center. (Are there rules, I’ve asked, about what they can and can’t do onstage?) We meet twice a month to brainstorm a script—it’s healthy, he says, talking about it. (Most people say: You chose to get sucked in.) The production, I told him, must be webcast. Ben, seeing my face, acquiesced—good practice for the students. Didn’t ask, Webcast it where? For whom?
How long, Patricia asks, can I go on doing just this, teaching freeform discursive writing at the community arts center, $500 every two weeks, before I need a second job? There’s work, she says, in the city—I should move into her place, that polished-concrete loft in a repurposed sweatshop with coffee bar and gym, potted cacti in lieu of garden.
During the first meeting each six-week session, a student always asks, What does it mean? “Discursive,” I reply, or “freeform”? They’ll think and answer, Both. Someone exits, mumbling they wanted poetry, detective novels, yoga. A local café, Rodney’s, donates thermoses of pretty-hot coffee. We start each meeting sipping, describing dreams. The younger students, I realize, co-opt recent TV episodes; the elderly describe nightmares, or dreams about dinner parties. The form of writing we’ll practice, I say, draws from meditation and the Beats, from free jazz and new-wave architecture and what I’ve read on psychosis. Always, I say, nonfiction. It will help us through tough times.
An elderly woman recently whispered, She’s all of what, twenty-three? What could she know about tough times? Her name, I’d learn, was Art, short for Artesia. Before I could stop myself, I blurted out: Bitch, don’t worry about that. The mood in the room just died. I began packing up, to go wait for the axe. But Art erupted with laughter, echoed by the class.
The following week, over Rodney’s coffee, I read them my own freeform discursive:
KIDNAP CITY AND ITS MANY MUSEUMS
First thing after we escaped from the Fix, L and I borrowed her uncle’s car for a trip. Lived off gas station eggrolls, King’s Hawaiians. We shuddered for freedom, for safety, for one another’s company. Day three, we reached Utah. A strange town called Blandon. Blandon felt like autumn even in June—slanting sunlight, vacant streets, blizzard of cottonwood spores. We wandered downtown, shouting hello. Suddenly L gasped: the foothills were alive with people linked arm-in-arm, scouring the brush. We knew what that meant. A girl, we’d learn, had been snatched from her home. Beloved by all. Called Lolli by her mom, Binx by her dad. Flyers everywhere: MISSING: BINX JACKSON or MISSING: LOLLI JACKSON, photo of a girl amidst gushing light. Fourth to go missing in just sixteen years. We stayed overnight, told strangers our story. This did the trick: we got Walkie-Talkies, joined the search. Slept in a joint doubling as museum, the Blandon Museum of Route 22 Motor Lodges. There we learned of the town’s improbable number of historical institutions. During breaks in searching for Binx/Lolli Jackson, we visited the Museum of Blandon Settlers, Museum of Blandon Crockery, the Havenweep Pueblo, the Blandon Brush Pig Institute, the Official B and B Museum. Lastly, most remarkably, the Subterranean Baseball Hall of Fame, a mile south of town where the plains turned ragged with red rock. Its director, wearing tuxedo, explained that during railroad-building times the local Chinese took to caverns to escape heat. They discovered that now-famous chamber: one-hundred yards long, one-hundred yards wide, fifty yards high. They strung oil lamps and played baseball, seven to a team, that sport they’d come to love. So many Chinese were being shipped into town, the director said. A league was formed, round-robin tournaments. Before long, of course, railroad bosses had the cave dynamited… I asked if Blandon still had a sizable Chinese population. A question, the director replied, for the Museum of Persecuted Peoples. We planned to visit the following day. But that night our Walkie-Talkies crackled to life: a body had been found in a shack high in the foothills.
I lowered the paper. Odd looks. What’s this Fix? someone asked. Tsk-tsk, I replied. Why’d you and L split? This from a man named Griggs, resoundingly shushed. But when Lars Melroy asked, Where’s L today? they leaned in, expectant. Up north, I replied, co-director of a nonprofit, works with women freed from situations like the Fix. Welcomes them home, fights for fair settlements, gets them to speak—that’s what’s most important, L always said.
Someone asked, If she’s up there, why’re you here? I felt myself clench. Then I started to talk, unable to stop: The Man had a term for people like L, glory whores, but L’s not afraid. She’s doing good work. After Blandon we drove town to town, looking for clues, strange clothing, buildings in fields. But I quickly burned out. Unlike L, I couldn’t take any more—
Art thrust up a hand, interrupted: Underground baseball, how is that possible? Her husband, Eugene, sitting beside her, said, It’s baseball, anything’s possible. That’s right, I replied. Thank you, Eugene. Anything’s possible—this is the beauty from which we must live and write. We must scour for connections. Nonfiction only. Smiling, Eugene patted Art’s head.
Later, everyone gone, Art snuck back into the room while I tidied the coffee cart. She tiptoed up, whispered: I dreamt about you. Startled, I fell against cart, steadied myself, turned. Art clutched in two hands a small furry purse, a weasel-like head where zipper should be. Pine marten, she said, Eugene shot it last month. Sunlight stroked her leathered face. She would, weeks later, read an essay aloud, titled “If My Face Wears My Life Then My Wrinkles Flaunt Death,” her voice quavering, tears wetting flesh.
You’ve been treated, she told me, in a very harmful way. For a long stretch of time. Seen things. Been kept. She continued like this, statements of truth, suppositions of grief, until I was shaking. I finally said, Stop. You can’t keep it in, she said, you must seek help. She pinched the pine marten’s mouth, unzipped, said, Look. I complied. Inside were several conical creatures, ivory-colored, grinning, squinty-eyed. I’d seen these before—Billikens, they’re called. Art’s wrinkles parted with smile. Do you know what these are? she asked, shaking the purse, Billikens clacking. Charms, I replied. Do you know what these are? she asked, louder. I shook my head, whispered, No. For each person, she said, I’ve met rent by the world—by men, always men—I keep one in my purse until the person is healed. Or, in some sad cases, dead. Then she said, Touch. I refused. Touch! she demanded. So, trembling, I poked a Billiken and gasped: some sort of jelly, not ivory or stone. Art laughed, said: Rendered fat and gelatin. Creatures eat our apricots, pounds and pounds of apricots. Eugene shoots them, guts them, we don’t waste their insides. A smell wafted up. Please, I said, close it. Tonight, she said, I’ll add one for you. It will never get better, Miss Katrin, until you open your heart, dump out that shit.
Billikens, I’d learn, lack sacred origins, created by a Missouri schoolteacher, creatures she witnessed in dreams, marketed via magazines—the god of things as they ought to be. To gift them is to help others with life’s petty problems. Soon enterprising Eskimos sold them to tourists, fake walrus tusks, improvised myths. But what Art had suggested hardly seemed petty. Patricia, when I told her, looked aghast. Asked, Isn’t it time to find a real job?
Tandquayans, I’ve read, keep spirits pleased by plucking teeth from the dead, lacquering them, gluing them to houses, so that those oldest homes on the splitting peninsula—visible on-screen if you squint—are popcorned with molars.
The fence-crew arrives, bludgeons posts into earth, hammers up planks. The neighbor children shriek Miss Katrin, Miss Katrin! The crew boss, meat-red from sun, comes over, says, Get those kids under control. Not mine, I reply. Get those shitheads out of here, he shouts, or build it yourself! I ferry them into their kitchen. Don’t kill us! one girl cries. The stench is worse: gassy, sweetly fecal. I touch the basement doorknob. The older boy rips open a drawer like he’s going for knife, only to slam it shut. Stepdad’s got a pig down there now, he says. The children, when I say there’s no damned pig, giggle. If it’s a lady down there, I tell them, good boys and girls would let her go. The boy, giggling, says, Stepdad says we’ll eat the pig for Labor Day, if it doesn’t eat us first.
On day two, they finish the fence. I’m reading an essay by a man who goes by Goad—I’m Goad, he introduced himself, typed only Goad atop his essay, titled “Why God Made Mosquitos and Why I’m Going to Stop Giving Plasma.” The crew boss knocks on my door, unfurls a list of charges. Fine, I say, waving it away. Patricia will ask, to the cent, the sum, spoiling the pleasure of a backyard boxed in, protected from strangers lurking and peering.
The boss takes me out back, his jeans dark with sweat. It’s hot, sunspots strobing, cicadas and lawnmowers, snot-hocking fence-crew. The children, in their yard, scream. I panic, unable to see—but alas, this was the point. The boss, as though calming a pony, clicks his tongue, rubs a fencepost. Knotted, sap-stained, unfinished pine. It’s ugly, I say. He shrugs, says, What you pay is what you get. You’re right, I reply, wanting them out of my yard. I shout to his crew: Bravo, boys. The neighbor kids scream.
Patricia and Ben come for a drink. The first time they’ve met. Patricia eyes Ben, the fence, me. Mouths, How much? I lead her inside, hand on her back, tell her I feel fully safe, the fence worth the price. I’m glad, she replies. Maybe, Katrin, you can finally relax. Then she perks up, says she’s heard of a job—an office job, one town over. Not precisely what you want, she says, but stable, steady hours, with people who won’t need to know about the Fix…
Ben comes in seeking gin. For each one we drink he downs two, face swollen and pink. Under a plummeting sun we pick beetles from pepper plants. Ben, slurring, says the fence is too tall—how will I see those kids séance with the fat woman? Patricia stiffens, says, You told him? Later, many drinks deep, Ben will say he’s found our lead actress for the play, a girl from his classes—a haunted look, he says. I leap up, shouting I have something to show them, desperate to distract Patricia. (A play about the Fix, she’ll say, is unthinkable, the whole town will swear you’ve lost it.) I return with a box, the Billiken I ordered online, bringalaskahome.com. You’re supposed to bury Saint Francis upside-down for luck with house and home. But I like this Billiken better, plant it right-side-up, ivory tip peeking from soil. Make a wish, I say. Patricia, eyeing Ben, whispers, I wish he’d go home. But Ben, oblivious, taps the Billiken’s tip, asks, This from that island, the village you send money to? My stomach drops. I look to Patricia.
The kids, one afternoon, will scream a game. Inane chatter, sudden shrieking. So loud I nearly fall from my patio chair. In the Fix, during Mandatory Reflection, the Man forced us to sit with eyes closed, total silence, his attendants sneaking up to jab our ribs, grab our hair. Screamers got no dinner, or latrine duty, rat-bashing hours. L once asked the point of the game. Not a game, she was told. A challenge, meant to train the cunt out of you. For her question, two hours in the Mosquito House.
The children babble and scream. I drop Lars Melroy’s essay, “I’ve Traveled the County Feeding the Blind,” and creep to the fence. It’s that game, I realize, “Duck, Duck, Goose.” Only they shout horse instead of goose—Duck, duck, horse!—before erupting in howls. Then silence. Gentle babbling. Suddenly: Duck, duck… HORSE!
For three days they’ll play, unbearable screaming, until I’m ready to have the fence torn down. But on the third afternoon, heading out, I find police cars in the street, flashers on, the neighbors’ door ajar. That pitch-black, reeking interior. Everything quiet. I stand in the street, unable to move, until a team of grim-faced men emerges.
Patricia, of course, will soon tire of spooning, need something more than openness and probably-honesty. (Why worry so much? she asks.) Tonight she slides closer. I inch away. She pursues once. I inch away. Okay, she whispers, I get it. Whispers I’d be able to actually sleep at her place—her form-fitting mattress, her loft’s refurbished-industrial white-noise hum. I’d feel at peace, won’t waste my paycheck on that island, won’t need community center productions.
Later she finds me in the kitchen, groggy-eyed, wild-haired, my mouth stuffed with rolls. Peninsula, I tell her, not island, not yet anyway. She sighs, takes away the King’s. Says, Katrin, withholding’s just as bad as lying. She is, naturally, right—were I to tell her how much I’ve mailed to Tandquay, the sum total, she’d slink out of the kitchen, return to bed, be gone in the morning. Her father’s name is Pat. Patricia, at home, goes by Pat too. Her family collie’s Paddy, her brother Patrick. Kind, gentle people. They welcomed me last Easter like I was some milk-starved mammal. I enjoyed calling out Pat? from deep inside their house, having them all come running at once, even the dog.
One morning, soon, I’ll encounter an article. The coincidence snatches my breath. A problem affecting the Navajo Nation, isolated salt flats, arroyos, basalt canyons. First in New Mexico, then Arizona, then just beyond a Four Corners truck-stop. Herds of wild horses found dead in old stock ponds, sunken in quicksand. Dozens of heads sticking out from the earth, lips peeled back, milky eyes wide, muzzles stiff with terror. Dozens more onshore, sand-caked, sun-withered. The worst instance, south of Moenkopi, is seventy-nine, a mountain of corpses. One, incredibly, lived, half-sucked into earth, bucking its forelegs, bludgeoning the dead. The three unlucky men who chanced upon this horror were forced to put it down—four bullets, said the article, side of the head. If only she were human, one man stated, we could ask why. A photo: this man beside stock pond, husks of dead horses, bulldozer at work, tears soaking his face. I will want to read the article to Patricia, but she’s decided, that weekend, to remain in the city. I’ll want, like that man, to ask why—why flock to those pits? why follow others down? Something they smelled? Sounds in the earth? As it stands, the article concluded, teams are scouring the desert in search of more ponds, stringing barbwire to save beasts from themselves.
“Asanka,” sneered Emma’s landlord, his bony frame planted in front of the staircase that led to her apartment. It was dawn and she had just returned from walking with her friend, Martin, to the bus stop. He had tutored her throughout the night, in preparation for the entrance exam that she would take in a week’s time, and she had felt obligated to see him off afterward. But now as she stared into her landlord’s rheumy eyes, she wished she had stayed indoors.
“Pardon?” she asked, hoping she had misheard him.
“If you are letting men come into your room by heart, by heart, without any care, they will use you by heart,” he clarified.
“Mr. Dadzie, Martin is an old friend,” she said as she squeezed past him to climb the tiled steps.
“The mouth of an old man might smell but it does not mean his teeth are rotten. You do not like what I am saying but it is the truth,” he called out loudly after her, so loudly that his second wife, Akos, looked up from the basin over which she was hunched, washing her baby’s diapers.
Emma sucked her teeth as she stepped into her living room, but her anger couldn’t keep her upright. A few minutes later she was sleeping so deeply that even the piercing calls of the passing porridge seller could not wake her.
She had rented the two-bedroom apartment in Accra from Mr. Dadzie, a retiree, a month before. She had had to move out of her parents’ house in Tema because she wanted to be near the supermarket, where she had just been promoted to floor supervisor. Instead of the two-hour bus ride, it now took her about thirty minutes to get to work. She hadn’t rented the place because she fell in love with it but because it had been newly renovated, was affordable, and was in a walled compound. She occupied one of two apartments on the top floor. A primary school teacher and her family lived in the second apartment. Below them was Mr. Dadzie’s house, which he shared with his two wives and three of his seven children.
She had found the place through Mensah, one of her coworkers who moonlighted as a real estate agent. At their first meeting, Mr. Dadzie looked pointedly at her unadorned ring finger and asked her if she was married. She told him that she wasn’t.
“Ah, what have you been doing?” he asked, his forehead scrunched up in bemusement and his mouth turned down in disapproval. They were seated under the crooked branches of the lone almond tree in the backyard and behind them, Auntie Yaa, his first wife, had been pounding palm fruits in a small mortar. Mr. Dadzie had not introduced her to Emma and she had not lifted her eyes from her task to look at them.
“I’m only twenty-five,” Emma had said, swallowing the sharpness that threatened to rush out of her mouth and spear the man. He was older than her father and thus, in her eyes, deserved her respect. Also, she had been searching for four months and this was the nicest place she had seen within her budget. She, therefore, couldn’t risk angering Mr. Dadzie, who had sighed heavily at her response, causing the long white hairs poking out of his nostrils to flutter like tiny flags.
“Where are you going to get the money to pay me? You know I’m asking for two years’ advance?”
“I’m a supervisor at Shop Well,” she said. She had not added that her parents would give her most of the money because she didn’t earn enough. Mr. Dadzie sighed again and glanced down at his smartphone. When he finally met her eyes, he looked pained, as if her lack of a husband was causing something inside him to hurt.
“I do not want you to be bringing different, different men into my house, today Peter, tomorrow Paul. In fact, it is because of this that I rented the other apartment to a married couple.”
“Okay,” she replied, impatient for him to stop talking and show her the lease agreement. Besides, she had dated her last boyfriend since secondary school; she had never been the type to have a parade of men marching through her life.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” he asked.
“Hmmmph,” he exhaled.
Exasperated by the man’s questions, Mensah had lifted his fake Ray Ban off his face, turned to Emma, and rolled his eyes. “She’s not troublesome,” he said to Mr. Dadzie, anxious for his finder’s fee. Emma moved in a week later.
A month after sitting for the exam, she found out that she had passed. She was ecstatic because it meant that she could enroll in the management program at the Catholic University. She liked working at Shop Well, but wanted more. To celebrate her success, she, Martin, and six other friends drove to a riverfront resort near Akosombo. They made the trip squeezed into Martin’s mother’s SUV because none of them owned a car and they didn’t want to be seen arriving at such a posh venue in taxis. They spent the day ordering dishes that cost more than their weekly food budgets and riding small boats on the Volta River. They enjoyed themselves so much that when returning home, the snaking traffic on the Tema Motorway didn’t even induce the usual groans.
In front of her apartment, Emma thanked them for celebrating with her and stepped over the tangle of legs to exit the car. A happy grin was plastered on her face as she neared the gate, but it disappeared when the ten-foot high metal sheet, lined with spikes, didn’t budge at her push. She tried a second time, but all she got was a sharp groan as the rusty hinges shifted slightly. She realized that the gate was locked from the inside.
“What’s the matter?” Martin called from the car.
“The gate is locked,” Emma said.
“Oh, how?” he asked, stepping out.
Emma shrugged. This had never happened before. But then, this was the first time that she had come home at ten. For the two months that she had lived there, her life had revolved around work and studying for the exam. She returned home at six on most days and spent her one weekend off in the month sleeping. Martin rapped his knuckles against the gate and they pressed their ears to the cold metal and listened for footsteps. After five attempts, no one had come to let her in. When Emma looked up, the light was on in one of the teacher’s bedrooms and a figure was moving behind the curtains. There was no way that the woman could not have heard her.
“Call the landlord,” Martin suggested.
Emma nodded. She hesitated but then fished her phone out of her purse and dialed Mr. Dadzie’s number. He answered on the first ring.
“Who is this?” he growled.
“Mr. Dadzie, please, it’s me, Emma. The gate is locked.”
“Please send one of the girls to open it.”
“Do you think my children are watchmen? Was there a security guard on duty when you left this morning?”
“Please, I need to enter.”
“You should have thought of that before you stayed out gallivanting,” he said, before the line went dead.
Emma’s face hardened. “This man paaaa,” she said to Martin, shaking her head, “locking me out of the house where I pay rent.”
“You can stay at my place, my mother won’t mind,” Martin offered.
Defeated, Emma followed him to the car. But just as her friends were readjusting their bodies to seat her, they heard the gate creak. Someone had opened it. Emma hurried back. She could hear her heartbeat. Her tongue twitched in her mouth and she bit it softly. She didn’t want a confrontation with Mr. Dadzie. When she entered the yard, it was Mr. Dadzie’s second wife, Akos, who stood with a cloth tied around her chest and a big silver padlock in one hand.
“Good evening,” Emma said to her.
Akos nodded. “The old man is seriously angry,” she whispered. Akos was a couple of years younger than Emma. They had chatted a few times while fetching water from the large plastic tank in the backyard and on the days that Emma returned from work and found the woman sitting on a stool under the gnarled almond tree, holding her baby daughter. Emma had yet to understand why such a young woman was married to Mr. Dadzie and why she had agreed to be his second wife, a practice that even village women had begun to scoff at.
Emma rolled her eyes at the news. “Let him be angry,” she said to Akos when they separated, she to her apartment and the young wife into the house she shared with her husband and his first wife.
There was a loud and persistent knock on Emma’s door the next morning. She bolted upright, momentarily confused. It was six. She hurriedly tied a cloth over her diaphanous nightgown and answered the door. It was Mr. Dadzie.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Emma,” he sighed, his nose hairs flying at full mast.
“Yes, Mr. Dadzie.”
“Why have you chosen to bath in my drinking water?”
“I said why…you are disrespecting my house!”
“What have I done?”
“What have you done? You do not know what you have done? What kind of home are you coming from?”
Emma didn’t answer, even though she wanted to scream at him. Her hope was that if she stayed silent, he would stop talking and leave.
“What kind of girl comes home at that time of the night? What kind of girl?” he shouted, causing her to take one step back into her apartment. “Even monkeys live by rules. I told you the rules of my house before you moved in but you have chosen to flout them. I have tried to advice you like a father because I know that nobody is born wise in this world, but you have refused to listen to me. If you want to live like a loose woman, it will not be in my house. I will not allow you to disrespect me and expose my wives and children to this wayward lifestyle,” he said, wagging a knobby finger in her face so that she had to draw her head back. By then, his wives and children had gathered in the yard below and Emma’s neighbors, the teacher and her family, were standing in their doorway and watching the scene like it was a Ghanaian movie.
“I’m not a small girl,” she said, without meaning to. The words, which originated in her chest, had simply shot out of her mouth.
“Is that what you are telling me?”
“All I’m saying is that I’ve paid my rent and I take good care of your property. The time that I come home is nobody’s concern.”
“Saaa? It is not my concern that my gate is left open deep into the night to welcome armed robbers?”
“I came home at ten, not deep into the night. I understand the need for security but at the same time, you can’t put me under curfew. I never agreed to live like this.”
“Then leave! Pack your troubles and leave today, today, but I will not give you back a cedi of the rent you have paid; I am keeping all two years. A child who refuses to listen will feel pain,” he said with finality. He then turned and stomped down the stairs, his veiny hands gripping the cast-iron rail for balance. Emma shut her door, but not before she glimpsed the accusing look on the teacher’s face.
Inside, she sat on the edge of her pleather sofa. The man’s words were still ringing in her ears and the sting of the disrespect and humiliation that he had just heaped on her was getting sharper. Her hands were trembling. She breathed heavily and shook her head from side to side as if to negate his words. She picked up the phone to call her mother but then decided against it; her mother would show up and attempt to beat Mr. Dadzie up. That would only worsen the situation.
The man was being unreasonable in a way that she hadn’t anticipated when she began house-hunting. Her biggest fear then had been that she would end up with one of those landlords or landladies who, after demanding the upfront payment of two or three years’ rent, would increase the rent after a few months and throw tenants out if they refused to pay up. She had never imagined that she would end up with one who tried to control her movements and her love life. She found Mr. Dadzie’s expectations foreign, and bordering on the insane. If he had been a younger man she would have matched his madness with her own. There was no way that she could continue living in his house. She called Mensah and he agreed to meet her in a bar at the end of her street.
Mensah was seated and nursing a bottle of Guinness when she arrived. He wore a shirt that had “New York Yankees” emblazoned on its front and cubic zirconia studs glittered in his ears. She began narrating what had happened before she sat down.
“Stupid old man!” Mensah said with a ferocity that surprised but pleased Emma, after he had heard the story.
“I want to leave today,” she said, banging her hand on the table. The Guinness bottle wobbled and threatened to topple. Mensah steadied it.
“I understand, but I have to find someone to take your place. He’s not going to give you back your money, and two years’ rent is not money that you can allow to burn like that.”
“How long will it take to find someone?”
“It depends, knowing what I know, I have to find a married couple or some old person to come and stay there or that cantankerous man will chase the person out again.”
“I want to move out now. Can’t the police help me get my money back?”
“Police?” he snorted, “but you know how our police people are. They will not take your case seriously and will rather back the old fool. He just has to tell them that you’re bringing men into the house. As soon as they hear that, they will begin to call you ashawo and if you’re not lucky, your story will be on the front page of one of those garbage newspapers: PROSTITUTE FIGHTS WITH LANDLORD. You know how those reporters always hang around the police station looking for news. If you’re not careful they will spoil your name for nothing. Just try to cool your heart, I’ll find someone.”
Mensah’s words were reassuring; although only twenty-two, he was already a shrewd and reliable businessman.
That week, Emma made sure that she was always home by six. She checked in with Mensah several times a day in his cubicle where he oversaw the supermarket’s security. By Wednesday he had found an interested couple but they could only come to see the place on Sunday. She pressured him to look for others, in case this couple decided not to rent the apartment.
Thursday after work, she ran into Akos at the water tank. She was balancing her fat baby on her hip while she waited for her bucket to fill up. The water was only trickling in. Emma greeted her and set down her jerrican.
“The old man is not happy with you O,” she told Emma.
“I don’t understand him, what does he want?” Emma snapped. She then smiled apologetically; her confrontation with Mr. Dadzie had left her with a lot of anger that she needed to expel.
“He says that you don’t respect. That you should at least have introduced your boyfriend to him so that he could know who was coming into his house.”
“Heh? Is he my father that I have to introduce my boyfriend to him? And I don’t even have a boyfriend so…Or does he expect me to bring all my friends for his approval?”
“Akos!” Neither of them had heard Mr. Dadzie creep up. His scrawny chest was uncovered and carpeted with white coils of hair. He was breathing rapidly, causing his bird-like ribcage to contract and expand accordingly. His presence startled Akos so much that she almost dropped her baby. She supported the child with a second arm.
“What have I told you about talking to this girl? What have I told you? It is because of bad friends that the crab is headless,” he yelled at Akos.
Akos held her baby closer but said nothing. The baby began to fret. The water in her bucket began to overflow but she made no move to close the tap.
“If you want to run wild like this one here,” he said, pointing at Emma, “I will not hesitate to send you back to your mother.”
Akos nodded, her eyes trained on the sand beneath her feet.“Let me catch you again, just let me catch you,” he continued. He wagged a finger in her face and then for some reason, in the baby’s too. He then bent over and angrily twisted the tap shut and motioned for her to pick up the bucket. She dipped low to lift the metal handle, causing her grip on her baby to loosen. Emma wanted to reach out for the child but Mr. Dadzie stood resolutely between them. Akos began to walk away, struggling to balance the baby in one hand and carry the bucket in the other. Mr. Dadzie was watching her with his arms folded across his skinny chest. By the time Akos disappeared into the backdoor of their apartment, her hand had slipped from around the baby’s waist to under her armpits. The baby’s feet were dangling.
“You!” Mr. Dadzie turned to Emma. She ignored him and set her jerrican beneath the tap. The water began to dribble in. She was determined not to engage him. She remembered something that her father always said when her mother was gearing up to confront someone who had offended her: “If a mad man snatches your cloth from around your waist, you don’t follow him with your buttocks exposed to retrieve it.” What would she gain by exchanging words with this man?
He glared at her, expecting an answer. When he realized that she wasn’t going to say anything, he sauntered off. Emma exhaled.
The next day the banging on her door began at five. She was already awake and ironing her work clothes. Her hand froze at the sound and she didn’t move again until she began to smell burned fabric. She hastily lifted the iron and placed it aside. Should she even open the door to this man?
“Emma! Emma! I beg you, open the door!” It was Akos’ voice.
Emma sprinted to the living room. Her hands were unsteady as she unlocked and removed the iron bar that secured the door. As soon as she cracked it open, Akos rushed in, almost knocking her off her feet.
“Wha?” she began, but then stopped. Akos was only wearing a t-shirt and panties. While Emma was observing her, Akos locked the door and put the iron bar back in place. A few seconds later, the banging recommenced. Emma was confused.
“What’s happening?” she asked.
Akos, leaning against the door and breathing hard, didn’t respond.
“Open this door! Open this door!” It was Mr Dadzie.
“Please, don’t open the door,” Akos said. She stretched out her arms to keep Emma away. “What’s happening?” Emma asked again. She made no move to open the door.
The answer came from outside. “Whores. Shameless women. Dirty women. A married woman sleeping with another man,” Mr. Dadzie screamed, “I will kill you today.”
“Akos?” said Emma.
Akos was still not talking. Emma heard a sharp thump and then splintering. Mr. Dadzie was breaking down the door. Akos was jolted from her position against the hard slab of wawa.
Emma panicked. “Mr. Dadzie, please, I beg you, stop,” she said.
“I should stop? Are you asking me to stop?” he huffed. “Today you will learn that there is a consequence for every action. Let the person who sent you to find a man for my wife come and rescue you.”
“I? Found a man for your wife? Akos, what’s he talking about?”
Akos was seated on the sofa, her head bowed.
“You thought I would not find out. I heard them on the phone this morning. That worthless Mensah. That earring-wearing nincompoop. That good-for-nothing thug,” Mr. Dadzie railed.
“Is it true?” Emma asked Akos. This time she squeezed the woman’s shoulders so that she was forced to look up. Akos only nodded. Her bare thighs were covered with goose pimples. Mr. Dadzie had resumed hacking at the door.
“I didn’t know anything about it, I swear to God,” Emma yelled.
She didn’t know if he’d heard her above the thwack, thwack, thwack, of what had to be a cutlass against the door.
She had to do something. She ran to her bedroom window. There was little movement outside. One car drove by. And then she heard the porridge seller.
“Hot ricewater, hot ricewater,” the woman sang.
“Ricewater seller,” Emma called out, when the woman came into view, “please call some people, my landlord is trying to kill me.”
“Heh? Why?” the woman asked. She was looking straight ahead because she couldn’t look up at Emma without dislodging the huge pot that was balanced on her head.
“Please, just go,” Emma said, impatiently.
“Okay,” the woman said before she began speed-walking down the street as fast as her load would allow her.
Emma then picked up her phone and called Martin. She had wanted to call the police but couldn’t remember the ten digit number. She should have saved it when it was announced on GTV. She told Martin what was happening and asked him to call the police; they might come if she was lucky. Akos had followed her into the bedroom and was now locking that door. Emma stared at her but said nothing. Instead, she picked a cloth out of her wardrobe and handed it to the scared woman, who accepted but did not immediately tie it around her waist.
“It’s all because of my mother; I married him because of my mother. He takes care of her and my siblings,” she said, fingering the yellow squares that were patterned on the fabric. “I’m the eldest,” she added.
Emma nodded in understanding. This wasn’t the first time that she had heard such a story. She noticed that the apartment had suddenly become quiet. Mr. Dadzie had stopped trying to break down the door.
“Akos, come outside, I will not do anything to you,” he called out sweetly, too sweetly.
Neither Akos nor Emma budged.
“Are you coming?” he tried again.
“Harlots. Asanka. Show me your friend and I will tell you your character,” he bellowed, abandoning his ploy. He started hitting the door again.
On the street below, there were feet pounding the pavement and then fists pounding the gate. The porridge seller had brought the members of a local football team, who had been jogging. They began throwing stones at the locked gate and hollering for Mr. Dadzie to open it. Some of the young men began to scale the fence. The police’s siren was soon added to the cacophony.
“We’re safe,” Emma said when she heard the commotion outside. She fell onto the bed in relief.
“For now,” Akos said.
Remember that time the ocean came in through my bedroom window? Remember that time I woke up choking on sea salt spray, my bed a boat on the sea that had replaced the stained gray carpet? Of course you don’t. You weren’t there any longer. But each night I heard you singing. Remember that tape you left—how quaint, I said when you slipped it in my player, like olden days!—the one I told my therapist I threw away? I didn’t. It was all I had of you left. You sang each night’s lullaby, sang me into a sleep so deep it bled into death. Whether you liked it or not. You probably did. You had a certain affinity for resurrection narratives. Remember that time I woke thick with sweat, salt dried on my skin like sand? Of course you don’t. You weren’t there any longer. How easily tapes break, their black film twisted like seaweed. There’s a reason no one uses them anymore.