When wildlife conservationists released a dozen axolotls into the waterways in an abandoned town not far from Guadalajara, they were surprised to see the pink salamanders swim within the water for less than a minute. The endangered creatures jumped out of the pool on their own.
Eleven of them moved to the side and chose to die rather than learn to live again in this human-created habitat. Their smiling mouths stayed that way as they flopped along the dirt. Meanwhile, the last survivor came out of the water. It regarded its dying friends and marched down the road. The conservationists could not explain what was happening, but this last axolotl popped into a stranger’s home and, though they later tried to find it, they could not. The attempt to save the species was deemed a disaster.
Some years ago, on a flight from Tokyo to Guadalajara, I gave in to the cardinal sin of air travel—I spoke to a stranger. In the middle of the flight, when all those around me were asleep, I saw a slow set of tears fall from a Japanese woman’s eyes and disappear into her jeans. Hours to go, the short aisle between us was an insufficient chasm. I could not ignore the scene. So, I asked her what was wrong, and she confessed in carefully selected English that she was on her way to bury her son.
“But I’m not blaming Mexico,” she pleaded, as if I thought she was the type to blame a whole nation for a single incident. “He loved the country and the cities. Never had a bad thing to say.”
“What did he do there?” I asked.
“He learned to cook. He studied the cooks in the kitchen and the cooks in the home. Always, he said, Mexico produced the greatest food. He wanted to know why; so, he moved there the moment he became an adult. Would have been three years in a couple of days.”
“I think I would agree with his assessment. It’s a wonderful food culture.” The way I said it, with a remove and a distance, must have exposed my relationship to the country as also removed and distant. She had a wrong initial impression.
“Oh, I’m sorry. It’s terrible. I assumed because of your being on this plane and your…your look…you were from there.”
“I have family and friends I visit in Mexico. But no, I’m not from there.”
“It’s terrible of me,” she said. “I could have asked. I’ll…I’ll do that now. What takes you to Mexico? Those friends and family?”
“A cousin of mine passed away. One minute Alfonso was talking, then someone noticed him stutter. His heart was giving out. Then, it did.”
“Seems the airline put the grievers together.”
I looked around. We were the only ones awake. She might have been right.
“Weird, isn’t it?” she wondered, aloud. “To be on a flight to claim a dead body? I have never been to Mexico, and the moment I go it’s because I am on my way to see to my son’s death.”
Strange way of putting it, I thought, but she was right about it being weird.
Alfonso was a favorite cousin, an adult while I was a teenager and a teenager while I was still a child. Separated by less than four years, our minor gap in age nonetheless left him wiser and more experienced. When he was around, I ran to him for the sort of advice one is ashamed to steal from parents. He was dead at thirty-two and it seemed I’d lost a lifeline. Navigating a future without his guidance left me feeling adrift.
“We don’t need to speak about our dead,” she said. “One should remember them while one is happy to remind oneself they’re gone, or when one is sad to remind oneself of what one had.”
If that was true, then which emotion was she experiencing? What attitude toward her son possessed her that she preferred to think or speak less about him?
“Did you enjoy Tokyo?” she asked.
“It was a disaster of a trip, I’m afraid. I never saw it.”
Disaster was an adequate term. After a fourteen-hour direct flight, I’d landed in the airport, found the exit, and noticed on my phone’s home screen a long list of missed calls and texts. I sighed as I listened to each voicemail, and as I read each text. All of them were variations of the same sad news. I went to the bathroom, found an empty stall, and started to cry. I let that pass and then found a flight out.
Nine months of planning and fighting for this trip fell apart. It was a fight to get the time off from my data entry job, the courage to do it, and the money for two weeks abroad saved. While the first requirement wasn’t initially approved, a set of company layoffs I couldn’t escape made it all possible.
I booked the trip for no purpose other than a want to get off this continent. I suppose what I wanted more than anything was to go somewhere I could be lost, where I did not speak the language, and where I did not possess an overshadowing familial history dictating each sight or town. My journey was to see how I would adapt to a different culture—and if I could. When I called Alfonso to tell him about the trip, he described his favorite film Ikiru and said I should search out locations from the film. I didn’t bother to argue most of the film was shot on soundstages. I replied that my knowledge of Japan came from horror films and books by Ryū Murakami and Yoko Ogawa. None of those, I prayed, were accurate precursors to my trip.
Alfonso had not traveled much within Mexico, or outside of it. But there was one story about Japan he could share. He once heard reports of travelers who visited. The first Mexicans to the country reported arriving on the land, journeying from one place to another, town to town, until suddenly, they were unable to continue along a path. Blocked by a wall which could not be seen. Some claimed the wall was the product of spirit. Some said the travelers brought this fate over, and others said it was a uniquely Japanese magic. They learned there was one solution. Secrets could bring the walls down. The travelers had to give some truth about themselves up, else their journey was over, and they had to return home.
“Did they give up a secret?” I asked Alfonso.
About to tell me, Alfonso stopped to laugh, and suggested a different ending: “Would you?”
I did not explain my relationship with Alfonso to her. No, she wanted to get away from grief. We moved on to different topics with ease—like a spell had fallen upon us. So few people in life make conversation easy and pull from your soul the language and books and narratives you want to share. I almost lamented losing her to the nation once we landed. Even now, for comfort, I can close my eyes and imagine her listening as I confess my troubles and dreams. On that plane, in hushed voices so as not to wake anyone, we ceased being strangers.
As we landed, there was one final ritual to perform, one I nearly forgot.
“It’s Song Wei,” she said.
“My name. All this time and we never asked each other for our names.”
Of course, something as wonderful as a song, as music, defined her name.
“Mine is Carlo.”
The lights rushed on. Passengers quivered from the sudden transformation of noise and energy, the attendants raced down the aisles, they reminded us of the rules, and we prepared for landing. An orchestral track played over the speakers. Slow, it nonetheless had a familiar quality. Bernard Herrmann? They had to be joking. The score belonged to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Its eerie sound continued after we hit the tarmac and as we exited the plane.
Taking care of Alfonso’s relatives, hearing them talk, and listening to plans for the funeral throughout the day took a lot out of me. That first day, I fell asleep early and easily when I returned to the hotel. By my third day back in Guadalajara, I had adjusted to the time difference and managed to stay awake long enough to enjoy a drink at the hotel bar. I sat across from the bartender, whose long and curly hair bounced as she prepared drinks. After finishing my cocktail and paying my tab, I crossed the lobby to the elevator, and suddenly there was Song, her arm wrapped around a man’s. Dressed in light linen, he looked local enough, while Song Wei wore a blue floral summer dress. We locked eyes, and she waved without an interruption. She hoped to see me later. At least that’s how I interpreted it.
“Excuse me.” I returned to the bartender. “There’s a Japanese woman by the name of Song Wei staying here. If she asks or if she sits at the bar, could you hand this to her?” The bartender nodded, her curly hair falling into her eyes.
I left a note with my name and a suggestion that Song have the concierge call my room. Including the room number felt too intimate, implicating myself as interested in only one thing.
Upstairs, in bed, I mentally reviewed the look the man on Song’s arm had given me. In between these thoughts, I wondered if the bartender would know Song from all the guests in the hotel and if the note would ever be delivered. To my surprise, an answer came at four in the morning. The hotel’s telephone rang. I put the receiver clunkily against my ear.
“Carlo?” Song asked.
“It’s me,” I said through a mistimed yawn. “I saw you earlier and thought if you’d ever like to talk—”
“—Yes,” she interrupted. “I’m in the hotel bar now.”
“Yes, it’s not open, but I have a story to tell you.”
I must have yawned—an instinct from the hour—because she began to sound a bit more urgent.
“Please, Carlo, I do think I can trust you on this matter.”
Two in the morning, seven in the evening, or three in the afternoon. I would have come to her no matter the hour.
Down the elevator, through the lobby, and toward the bar, I passed the bartender who was mopping the floor. She smiled, but I missed her eyes because her hair fell over them again. I turned the corner.
Without people, the bar was anything but a marvel. Brown chairs surrounded three empty glass tables. Earlier, these were occupied by working businessmen and their laptops. The bar itself was a wooden platform with a golden top and a long mirror behind the bottles. Seven barstools fit along it. All but two were flipped up, and Song Wei was sitting on one. Her dress had a quarter-open back. Long, black hair obscured much of her bare skin. If others could see us, it wasn’t hard to fathom Their impressions: questions or snickers about the older woman and a man half her age gathering so late in a closed hotel bar.
Amber light from dusty overhead bulbs filtered the whole bar into filmic twilight. It had the effect of rendering her body as the one piece holding all of reality together. She leaned forward, and in the mirror, I could see her hands resting on the bar, one over one another, her eyes darting forward.
A few seconds passed before I said hello. She turned, and though she had invited me down, and though she should have noticed me in the mirror, she acted a bit startled. The following smile seemed an afterthought.
Her hands did not come apart, and as I came closer to take the seat beside her, I realized it was because her palms held the thin ends of a transparent plastic bag together. Water in the bag came up to half the length of her arm, and in it was a pink axolotl. The salamander looked away from both of us.
“I’m glad to have found you, Carlo,” she said. “I don’t know if I can trust anyone else. It’s not like I have friends or family here.”
I could have snapped back: What about the man? Two of you looked cozy enough.
I stayed quiet.
“I went to visit my son’s living quarters when we landed. Talked to his landlord. Talked to nearby neighbors. Talked to them all in a terrible Spanish that should have me arrested. He was such a quiet and professional man that they didn’t have much to say about his life, personality, or hobbies. All his friends were local cooks at nearby restaurants, and that is where he spent most of his time. I thanked the neighbors and was let inside. A spartan, my son did not seem to give dust a fighting chance. Not that it was hard, the way he lived. Books about food and notebooks filled with recipes were the only real sign a person lived there.”
The axolotl in the bag started moving. Small arms pushed against the bag’s bottom. With a large and wide yawn, it reminded me of the hour.
“I pored through the notes and the writing. My son possessed a variety of talents. Penmanship was not one. Recipes and ideas for dishes require an academic to translate his handwriting. I’m not one. All I have brought back are the legible notes.”
She pointed her nose down. The encouragement led me to notice a small dark purse on her lap. Not wanting to release her grip, she used her nose again to direct me to open it.
“Please, look at the first recipes,” she said.
I opened the purse. Doing so felt intimate. It was filled with banal clutter—makeup, tissues, and tampons—and I had to dig to pull out the papers. Two condoms almost fell out of the bag as I did so. Those did surprise me, and I wondered if she intentionally brought them to Mexico despite the trip’s despondent purpose, or if she always carried those around. I remembered the man on her arm from earlier and shivered to burst the bubbles forming in my loose imagination.
At last, I found the index cards and loose sheets. Most of the recipes described or listed the ingredients of common cuisines. Mole. Aguachile. Cochinita pibil. None of these were so unusual as to require physical study. As local and delicious as they were, these were familiar dishes—a mere Google search away for anyone interested in the nation’s culture. But then I stumbled on the second to last recipe. The poor script would render any interpretation uncertain, and it was difficult to make out what the writer described. All I could decipher was one word: axolotl.
The axolotl in the bag seemed to read my mind. When I looked up, both the amphibian and Song were staring at me.
“I have to ask you a favor,” Song started. A real sense of urgency stole her voice, as if my decision could save or defeat her life. “I found this axolotl in my son’s room. Please watch over it. You saw the card listing it as an ingredient. I must know what my son wanted to make, what he wanted to use it for. It’s the last way to understand him. And, already, there are others who want to know too.”
Song released her hands, and unless I wanted the water and Axolotl to splash to the floor, I had to reach out. With my right hand, I did just that, and caught the top of the bag as the water threatened to spill. My palm became wet. The axolotl swam back to the bottom.
“Thank you,” Song said. She placed both her hands over my left one, looked me in the eye, and said it again. “Thank you.”
Retreating to the room with the bag in hand invited stares from the few night-shift workers. Kind smiles and professional grins from earlier disappeared into accusatory scowls. What could I be doing with such an endangered animal?
Online, I researched how to care for the axolotl. I filled the bath a quarter high and placed the creature inside. I stood there and wondered what I’d gotten myself into. Song promised she would see me tomorrow night, when she had dug around her son’s house a bit more, and when she could confess more about her findings. But what did I know? Even now, I had not learned her son’s name, who that man was, or why she felt the need to turn the axolotl over to me. Not that I was in the practice of asking questions at the right opportunity. Wouldn’t most men have pushed back against a stranger—even one like Song—thrusting a responsibility on them? Wouldn’t most have wondered why a chef from Japan felt the need to cook the poor, endangered amphibian?
Back in the U.S., the axolotl is largely banned. The level of damage they pose to environments outside their own is catastrophic. I did not know if these warnings or legal boundaries applied to Japan. If so, was it the danger or exotic quality of the axolotl that drew in Song and her son?
There were other matters to attend to. In the morning, Alfonso’s mom wanted me to speak with a florist, and a caterer, and a priest to settle the ins and outs of payment. The outsider, she thought, might best negotiate the price. Terrible logic. All she wanted was me to pay. Alfonso, you bastard, if you weren’t my favorite cousin—
The hotel telephone rang. I wondered if Song forgot to mention something, or if she would maybe want to come here. But it wasn’t her. I picked up and sat at the far edge of the bed.
“You’re wrong if you think her son wanted to eat him.”
A woman’s voice? Strong and stern, it wasn’t familiar. The caller continued:
“Her son liked to cook and loved to study recipes, but he wouldn’t eat the axolotl, not after getting to know the little guy. He had common sense.”
From where I sat, I could peek into the bathroom. Over the tub’s edge was the axolotl’s tiny head and pink hand-like claws helping it to hang on. It appeared to eavesdrop.
The caller continued. “Did you know axolotls were named after a god capable of breathing fire and lightning and regenerating its body? Believe it or not, an axolotl can still do two of those things.”
“I believe you.”
“You don’t sound so impressed.”
“I’m more curious how you know so much. How you know I have the axolotl? How you know about Song’s son?”
I rummaged through my luggage on the beside floor. The Death of Ivan Ilyich lay on top of my clothes. The book was the basis for Ikiru. Earlier, I planned to tell Alfonso I read it while in Japan.
“Do you know how important axolotls are in Mexico? You don’t carry one off without half the country speaking about it. People talk. People gossip. And some people? They’ll fight to save the axolotl. Or they’ll fight to kill it. Song’s son attracted all kinds of attention with what he wanted to do. That card in his collection? It is only partly a recipe.”
“What was he doing, then?”
“Attempting to recreate their habitat.”
“Did it work?”
“Not at all. But at least he tried. His home resembled something between an aquarium and a mad scientist’s lab. They have one native habitat left back in Mexico City. Hey, you heading to Mexico City any time soon?”
“Wasn’t planning on it.”
“Well, if you do, drop him off in Lake Xochimilco.”
“If you’re so interested in returning him to the lake, why trust me—a foreigner?”
“Because it’s your choice. She entrusted the axolotl to you. The lake is on its way out, you know. Too much pollution over the years. Because the axolotl can clean it up, and because there are so few things in life like the axolotl that can erase a history of human error.”
“To be honest, it’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s that I can’t quite see how one axolotl is so important. All Song wants is—”
“—Song. Song. Song. Get your sex-deprived mind out of the gutter and listen to me. Unless you want Lake Xochimilco to dry up and die, you can’t give the axolotl to anyone. It’s your choice whether you get him back to the lake. Until you decide his fate, don’t leave him alone at all. And don’t let Song eat him.”
The caller promised she would call each evening to ensure both the axolotl and I were safe. Part of me liked having a discussion to look forward to—even if I didn’t understand it all. Since Alfonso died, I hadn’t talked in-depth with someone.
Well, except for Song.
Because of this lack of practice, I forgave myself for having lost the habit of learning names. The caller came and went without one. I had almost done the same with Song on the plane until she offered it to me in an equal exchange.
But names are important. They are spells unto themselves. Take Lake Xochimilco. In the language of the Aztecs, the name refers to a flower field. (And no, I didn’t just know that. I had to look it up.) My point is that the name—Xochimilco—endures to tell us what was once there. Even if the land no longer looks like that, even if time and evil corrupt the earth and prevent flowers from growing, Xochimilco reminds us of what once was there.
That wasn’t all I found. Unable to fall asleep, I scanned stories about the place.
Lake Xochimilco is the last of a beautiful water network that survives a history prior to Spanish contact. Colorful boats float along the water and gardens grow along these vessels to sustain a forgotten and beautiful agriculture. Once a common sight, the number of boats has dwindled, and the tradition has declined with the lake. I watched a video on YouTube of a farmer who explained the lake was a living and breathing being, dying by coughing its last breaths. The water turned black and wondrous gardens burned up. What was left was all that was left…
The morning came, and with it came the lightheaded hangover of inadequate sleep. But there was no time. I had to visit the florist to prepare the bouquets for Alfonso’s funeral. Unable to shower because the axolotl occupied the bathtub, I simply changed and dressed. I was halfway out the door when the stranger’s warning from last night struck my brain: don’t leave him alone. All I had was the plastic bag from yesterday and, as I transferred him over, I felt the need to apologize.
“I’ll find something more comfortable for you later,” I said.
I walked through the town’s empty streets to a soundtrack of water slapping. Shuk. Shuk. Shuk. Holding onto the axolotl this way, I imagined that the bag would simply slip from my hands. Every few yards, I looked down, saw his smile, and felt relief he was alright in there.
After meeting the pastor and the caterer, I had one last task: ordering bouquets from the florist. Above the blue shop, a bright yellow aluminum sign was half faded, and the business name Flores looked to have been replaced green letter by green letter multiple times until each letter was oddly sized and shaped. On the window was written in white a common slogan: digalo con flores. Say it with flowers.
The inside was anything but falling apart. Black and white tiles looked new, and an art deco chandelier was touched by the sun, sending short shimmers of gold in the few open spaces between orange marigolds and pink dahlias. If Alfonso had a favorite flower, I had no clue. Who knows something like that about their cousin? Marigolds felt too stereotypically Mexican, and I didn’t want to choose a pink flower for a funeral. The florist ignored the axolotl, heard my concerns, and brought out several more plant types and said names I could not catch. The last one she brought out was purple, and she said the name in English: “Mexican petunias.” I agreed to it immediately and was happy to see that she could supply enough for the service. Not many people are interested, she said, and that surprised me given their beauty. Of course, once I paid, she told me the truth. Many in Mexico consider them a weed.
I decided to take a roundabout way back to the hotel, through dusty streets and over incomplete sidewalks. As I passed a bank a block away from the florist’s, I saw a familiar face leaving its entrance. He wore the same linen shirt as the man who held Song’s arm.
The man did a double take upon noticing me and seeing what was in my hand. He squinted to believe what he saw was real. That was all. I kept waiting for his attack, for a word, for him to rush and attempt to steal the creature. It never happened. I watched him move down the street, turn, and disappear.
Inside the bag, the axolotl’s pink face grew worried, as if it sensed what was coming, as if warning me. I was too loose, too carefree, too eager to see Song’s lover turn away. Suddenly, I felt my feet stumble—I had been pushed hard from behind. The bag never had a chance of being saved or held tight. Out of my hands it went, and by the time I regained stable footing, a puddle had melted into the ground. The axolotl flopped around.
“No!” I shouted.
Behind me, two men in wrinkled t-shirts ran forward. One knocked into me and started stomping hard. The other aimed a punch at my face. All I could do was fall to avoid being hit, and the attacker flew forward. The stomping man did not have much luck in crushing the axolotl. He resembled a rhythmless dancer. I stood and charged headfirst. Not much strength was needed—and a good thing because I don’t have it—to launch him back. He staggered into his partner, and the two collapsed to the ground. Their falling reminded me of goofy vaudeville akin to the Three Stooges. But this scene didn’t exist for me to laugh at. While the partners helped each other up, I grabbed the axolotl—a bit too roughly—and started running.
How long could an axolotl live without water? The number was not something I had looked up, or something I wanted to discover. Luckily, I was not far from my hotel and, like a madman, I raced to the fire stairs for the third floor. In the frenzy and worry about reviving my friend, I did not notice that I never used a key to get inside.
The door to my room was already open.
Alone, I drew the axolotl a fresh bath, dropped him in, and relaxed when he dashed from one end to the next. I cleaned a large red lunch container that could replace the plastic bag and better hide him. Surviving the attack evoked my mystery caller’s warning: some people will fight to kill it. I wondered if Song had already cracked this mystery when she forced the axolotl into my hands. When the phone rang, it was the mysterious caller, keeping her promise.
“Are you disappointed it’s not Song?” she asked.
“Only because when I see the axolotl, I think about her, and her son, and this man I saw on her arm. I saw him again.”
“She’s finding all those who knew her son.”
“To get to know him?”
“To know herself. She’s a biting and corrupting force. Part of that is because she’s lost her son, the other part is because when she had him, she took it for granted. She didn’t know how much she polluted the world with her sour thoughts.”
“Isn’t that just grieving? You judge so harshly when the same can be said about me. I lost my cousin, Alfonso, and when he was around…well, I didn’t always realize how important he was to my life. Are my opinions polluting the world?”
“Oh, yes,” said the voice. “And it’s terrible for the environment. Think ill of life and eventually you make life around you sick. You begin to lose sight of what’s important. You begin to forget who you are. You begin to lose your name and the names of others.”
“I keep forgetting to ask for names.”
“Would you like mine?”
I paused. “I don’t deserve your name now because I think…I think I’m sick, if I follow your definition of illness. I think about my cousin who passed. I don’t know what life will be like after the funeral tomorrow. That puts an ending on things, and I’m not like Song. There’s no mystery to unravel. He simply died while I knew him—knew him better than anyone.”
I worried the caller had hung up because the line was too quiet. All I heard was the wave of bath water from the axolotl swimming around. Then, at last, the caller’s breath.
“You’ll remember,” she started, “that there is a tomorrow. Each time you close your eyes, you will get closer to it. Until then, your thoughts are harmful. Remember that.” With that the line was disconnected.
A peace existed in the idea of a tomorrow without the sting of grief. But I also remembered how quick of an intimacy grief inspired on the plane, when Song and I overshared thoughts this caller might classify as pollution. Believing in the caller became much harder when there was a power to sustaining grief, and a time for it.
I didn’t want to leave the axolotl alone to head to the bar or take him away from his happy place. I regarded his smile as a reason to keep my promise to protect him. I ordered a mezcal sour to the room. Before long, there came a knock, and the barwoman handed me the cocktail. I watched the woman leave. There was a couple at the end of the hall. They were embracing, holding one another close, and when they kissed it was as the last step in a procedure. Now they could stumble inside the room. The woman, while I wasn’t sure, looked like Song.
Song was immune to normal, waking hours. She came to my room exactly twenty-four hours after our meeting in the bar. She marched straight in and looked toward the bathroom.
“The axolotl is alright?” she asked. She watched it swim back and forth. “Workers in the hotel told me you had quite the scare.”
“Two men attacked me and tried to take him.”
“Word gets out when it comes to these strange things. A woman at the bar told me she saw you run inside without the bag and I…I guess I worried.”
“You couldn’t be too worried,” I snapped. “To come at this hour. To not even ask about my state.”
“I only heard the story a few minutes ago. I was preoccupied until then.”
“Bet you were,” I let slip, succumbing to a jealousy I had no right to claim.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Song cried. “I am searching for something my son uncovered, something to bring me closer to him in this foreign place.”
“Maybe…” I sighed. “Maybe I just didn’t know that watching the axolotl was going to invite some people to attack me—and it.”
“My son wrote in his notes that the axolotl cleans the world. It eats the very things that poison humanity. For some, it’s easier to see the world suffer.”
“And yet, you still want to eat it? I heard your son wanted to save it. He tried to build it a habitat. He tried to—”
“—My son wanted to eat it…and…I am close to understanding my son. Another day. I promise Carlo…I promise it’ll be worth your while.”
Song did not stay over. We did not collapse into the bed as I imagined she’d done. She simply hugged me close, and in that embrace I felt strange. Intermixed with a lust for her I recalled the longing to speak with Alfonso, to share criticisms about life, and simply laugh.
I brought the axolotl to the funeral. What else could I do? Dressed in a black suit, I must have seemed a strange sight with the red container like a toy in my grip. However, the guests, perhaps simply polite, never said a word as they passed me, apologized for the loss, and regarded Alfonso’s body at the far end of the church. The exception was Alfonso’s mother, who asked to look inside the container. She smiled when she saw the axolotl’s smile, and confessed a truth:
“The axolotl is named after a god. In some stories, this god guided people to Mictlān—the underworld.”
I didn’t ask her what happened there because we were summoned forward. Alfonso’s funeral began.
My hotel room was trashed. Did I expect anything different? Sheets thrown to the ground, the bed torn apart, my suitcases searched and clothes everywhere. Books open, laptop gone, even the lint from my jacket inspected. I was thankful they had left my passport—stealing was not their goal. I should have hurried out, except I knew the axolotl needed to breathe again. I had brought new water to the tub and did not want to risk removing him too soon. I shoved the dresser near the door for security and waited out the rest of the day.
The female stranger’s call came in that short hour before evening.
“Everything is heading toward ruin,” I said. “Someone searched through my room!”
“Your thoughts!” she cried.
“All this for a single, damn axolotl?”
“Didn’t you hear me? They’re important to the country and its history. Some people will—”
“—Yeah, yeah. Some people will fight to kill it. They’re not so innocent. They’re banned back home in the states because of the environmental danger they pose. I’ve had enough of your warnings. I’m tired of strangers attacking me for carrying him around. I’m tired of not having help. I’m tired of a stranger calling me.”
“Control your thoughts.”
“What is that doing? Nothing I think will kill the lake or the axolotl or even me. What’s there will be there tomorrow, and if it’s not, it won’t be my doing.”
“I can’t speak to you if you’re like this. You’re twisting my words.”
I sighed. It calmed me. Alone, I didn’t want to lose this companion too.
“You remind me of Song.”
“Remind you? Earlier you mentioned her son, and you talk about her like…like you know her well.”
“Do you still trust me?”
“I just want less mystery. Everything in Mexico so far is mystery after mystery.”
“That’s life for you. Take Song as a warning. She’s disappeared into her thoughts and that made her disappear into others. She needs another’s touch to remember reality.”
“She told me the best time to remember someone is when you’re happy or sad.”
“She’s wrong. The best time is when you need to.”
“All I know is I saw her again in the arms of another guy.”
“There’s nothing wrong with love. There’s something wrong when it’s used to distract from the pollution you’re creating.”
I closed my eyes. Lake Xochimilco came to mind, and I pictured colorful flowers decorating boats slowly skimming along the surface. As the scene played out, the ship broke down, the flowers lost their color, and the lake its water. Left was waste and sewage and dirt. Flopping in this disaster were several other axolotls. If I opened my eyes, then the sad state of the lake would have convinced me of the caller’s wisdom. But I didn’t.
The scene continued to unfold. Alone beside the lake, I pictured myself leaning over its edge. The waste and sewage vanished. Water started rising. The floating gardens returned. And soon, the water’s deep hue reflected my face.
Song’s son wanted to recreate the axolotl’s habitat, the caller had said. Achieving the goal would have given them another chance for survival. It didn’t work but he tried, and that was the beauty of it. Song may have been wrong for simplifying her son’s ambition, wrong for ignoring how he aspired to heal a piece of the world, but the caller was just as wrong for pushing me to focus foremost on the disasters we humans create. Some may want to kill the axolotl, but some—the caller said—would fight to save it.
To hell with both of them—I decided—I was going to save it.
The caller said nothing else. She hung there, her breath audible until it wasn’t, until she hung up.
Song came again at four in the morning. A large grin stretched across her face, and she held up an index card filled with neat Japanese script—her own hand. In this state of enthusiasm, the room’s mess never crossed her mind.
“I spoke with another of my son’s friends. Through them, I was able to comb out what my son wanted to make with the axolotl.”
Her voice grew increasingly excited. Her plan was becoming complete.
“I also spoke with the hotel. They agreed to let me use the kitchen. Come down in thirty minutes with the axolotl. Everything must be fresh.” She squealed like a child and hugged and kissed me on the neck. Days ago, I would have been relieved to see Song take the axolotl, to have felt myself thrown into the game of chance where my desires might be met with reality. Instead, I watched her leave and was even sadder.
I waited in the room, watching the thirty minutes shrink on my phone’s clock. I don’t know why I waited as long as I did. Did I expect the stranger to call me? She never did. I picked up the hotel phone to request a car from the concierge, as fast as possible.
I never heard from Song. I wondered what thoughts crossed her mind as I betrayed her wish. Perhaps failing at the recipe, being unable to cook the axolotl, made her feel closer to her son. I never heard from the other strange woman, though I glanced often at my cellphone, half-expecting to read unknown caller on the screen. I would smile because I knew otherwise, because I knew I would lift it up and hear her again. That vision never transpired.
I drove to Mexico City and chartered a bus to take me to Lake Xochimilco. When I stepped off the bus, the air was cool, refreshed by an earlier rain. Sad-looking trees swayed away from us. The sight resembled what I saw in the video: beautiful but vanishing.
A man I recognized stood at the edge of a short pier. It was too late to retreat. I tightened my grip on the axolotl’s container. Dressed in a white linen shirt, sleeves folded high onto his arms, he regarded me with equal familiarity.
“I recognize you,” he said. “From?”
“From a hotel outside Guadalajara. You were on the arm of a woman I met. I saw you again near a bank.”
Instinctively, my arm came halfway across my body, reliving the suddenness and survival of the earlier attack against me. He waited for my anxious energy to slow before continuing.
“That’s some memory. You saw me on the arm of Song?”
“Well, I do remember your eyes—jealous and mean. You loved her?”
“I didn’t know her. Actually, I just met her days before.”
“She was a strange woman. It would be easy to say yes. Even, as you say, without knowing her.”
“And you hardly knew her?”
“She was the mother to a friend of mine. He was a curious fellow. Came from Japan and swore he would learn all the recipes of Mexico and perfect them and study them and bring them back to Japan. He was a hell of a cook. But he stumbled on an ancient recipe from the old world. Axolotl. None of his friends wanted him to cook one. He believed it worth trying. Where would he even get an axolotl, we wondered? Well, turns out at his front door. He found one that had escaped from a failed sanctuary.”
“I kept hearing he didn’t want to cook him, that he had other plans.”
“You’ve got it. That’s what happened. My friend changes his mind. He swears he won’t cook or eat him. He swears he’s looking into a way to save him. There’s just one place for him, though. Here, at Lake Xochimilco. Axolotls don’t have a natural habitat beyond it.”
The lake spread before us. A yellow boat floated along, and a worker on board put the tips of his fingers to the surface. Tiny ripples dragged along. My new acquaintance continued the story:
“I told her what I knew, but Song did not believe her son came to this conclusion. She liked to think he was simply a cook, not someone caught up in the world’s struggles. Completing the recipe might just…I don’t know…I don’t know what she expected. I have to confess; I watched the axolotl after his death. Yet she found me, and she took me to bed, and convinced me to surrender him to her.”
“She woke one morning, and I remember her crying about her son. I never felt worse for sleeping with my friend’s mother than that moment. She cried and cried. The water fell to the floor. But here’s the thing, I tried to hug her, to help her, and couldn’t. The room around me looked like this lake a hundred years from now. Tainted. Gone. Everything became dust. She ran out with the axolotl. When I saw her again the following day, she was almost a different woman. She looked at me the way one might upon the world ending. Do you think she could move past the heartbreak of her son dying?”
I paused. “I think she’ll have to,” I said. “A stranger recently told me enough disaster, enough pollution in the mind, can destroy one from the inside. I’m learning the same is true for me and my loss.”
I would be heading back to the U.S. soon. No job and no story about Japan and no cousin to call when I needed.
I opened the red container, lifted the axolotl carefully, and released him into the lake. Not a moment passed before he disappeared beneath the dark water. I stood watching, and after some time, the man shook my hand and left.
Boats passed. The moon came out of hiding. Under its glow, the lake and its floating gardens already looked that much greener. I stayed watching. Not because I thought the axolotl would return, but because I realized I had never felt so alone.
Augustus Gwynn: Gus Gwynn, drop-dead handsome, running on hot. When he was forty, wrecked and ruined, he was irresistible.
The problem, he said, is I’m in my head all the time.
Women loved that. And he always looked like he’d just killed somebody. They loved that too.
So, his mother. When he was forty, they started talking. She laughed a lot. Her teeth were jewels in her head.
You get older, she said, your style changes. I didn’t exactly go in the direction of truth and beauty. Your father was unfaithful, and I went to one of them and cut off her finger.
They were peeling potatoes for soup.
Ha ha, she said. Is this enough?
It’s enough, he said.
There’s something of the Italian ice-seller in you. That black hair. It’s my side of the family. Gus?
When you were young, we lived in the woods. We were starving. Remember?
It was when your sister was a girl. Your father set a trap to catch an animal, but he caught a person instead. And we ate him and burned his clothes. You don’t remember?
I told you I don’t.
The potato soup was ready, boiling on the stove. She poured it into bowls.
Going out, he said and plunged out into the alley.
Steep cobblestoned streets, strings of white lights twined in the nighttime trees, some festival going on. Part of the city was for show: crenellated towers, alligator pits. He didn’t remember much about his sister before she’d become a boy. He’d known his father was a rogue. A total rogue, his mother used to say.
Why not? Why not a tattoo?
It hurt—needles, caustic ink. The artist got as far as M O T H and was leaning in to sting an E on him when memory struck like a mudslide. He leaped off the reclining chair and ran pell-mell into the street. Sprinted uphill to the house where his mother was washing the dishes. Panting in the doorway, he gripped his bloody arm.
I remember living somewhere it was always dark and there were hippies next door, he said.
That was it, his mother said. We ate a hippie.
He married one of the women who used to love him, and their house was like everybody else’s, with money hidden so well they’d never find it, and their heads bursting with passwords.
I was a man on fire, he liked to say.
Gus, people said. Gus, finish it. You only need two more letters. Turn Moth into Mother.
I can’t, he said. It hurts too much.
All the women, the back-and-forth of love, had caused some deterioration. Still the tigery tensile spirit was alive in him. All over town, women raged at their men because those men weren’t him.
Things reminded him of things.
I felt like, he said.
Like what? his wife said.
I just . . .
The story was set in his heart. If he made it into a movie, it wouldn’t need sound. He thought about that sometimes.
She wanted to be like Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8, beautiful and world-weary, but it seemed that Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was more her style: half in the bag and walking around the kitchen late at night eating a cold chicken leg with the refrigerator door hanging open. She, too, had gained weight for the role of a lifetime, and her husband, like Richard Burton, was bitter and past his prime. They continuously circled each other, competing for the upper hand.
It was a mistake, she’d always thought, to marry someone from the same department. They’d both been tenure-track when they met, but they’d gotten full professorships a year apart, and it had almost destroyed their marriage. Still, they’d powered through. Now they lived in a gorgeous red-brick townhouse with bay windows, an enviable record collection, and a pair of chocolate sable standard poodles called Faust and Tosca.
It was late fall, when the outstretched arms of the trees were bleak and naked and the wind was audible even indoors. Leslie had been languishing at home all night, nursing a cold, while Lionel spent the evening at the university, carting around a guest lecturer from Bucharest whom they’d managed to coax out of Romania. Leslie was furious. It had been her idea to invite him in the first place, and it had taken months to get Lionel on board. She was the one who’d made the phone calls, written the letters, gotten the funding. All so she could spend the evening holed up in bed with a box of tissues and a book she felt too sick to read.
The doorbell rang. The dogs careened from the bedroom as if they’d been shot out of a cannon. Lionel must have forgotten his keys again.
Leslie sighed, a long-suffering sigh. She left her wineglass on the bedside table and took her time getting up. Let him wait.
The dogs were at the door, quivering, barking like maniacs. Lionel had promised to train them, or at least to have them trained, but he never had. He was out on the front porch, champagne bottle in hand.
The Romanian scholar had been taken out for drinks and deposited safely back in his hotel room, but Lionel wasn’t ready to call it a night. He’d brought home a pair of graduate students he’d taken on a study trip to London the previous spring. He introduced them with his free hand: Lithe Something and Tall and Gorgeous Somethingelse. They were both in their twenties and wearing short, tight dresses that showed off their long legs and impressive cleavage, and when faced with their professor’s wife at home in her pajamas, they at least had the decency to look sheepish, even if Lionel didn’t.
Lionel sat the students down on the couch and disappeared into the kitchen, and Leslie put on a record to cover the silence. Before they knew it, he was back with champagne flutes and a box of water crackers. He pushed the magazines fanned across the coffee table out of the way and set everything down. Leslie was the one who always roasted the figs and arranged the cheese board, so she wasn’t surprised. Without her, Lionel was utterly helpless. She perched on the arm of a chair and shook her head, amused. He hadn’t even remembered a plate.
No matter. He removed the foil from the champagne bottle and tossed it aside. The dogs batted it across the floor. He eased off the wire cage and theatrically popped the cork, making the girls squeal. Champagne foamed out onto his hand and across a copy of Architectural Digest before he could reach the glasses. He’d had too much to drink already, Leslie could tell, but he was handing out flutes of champagne one second and going back to the kitchen for a bottle of Riesling the next. He was nothing if not an overachiever.
This time, at least, he brought back a corkscrew. “Are you the single mom?” Leslie asked one of the girls. “Or are you the one who’s pregnant now?”
She was only asking to be mean, but the taller girl said, “Janell is the one who’s pregnant. She couldn’t make it tonight. I’m the mom.” She looked pleased, as if Leslie’s questions meant that Lionel had singled her out. This somehow made it worse. The girl pulled a cell phone out of her bra and started scrolling through photos of her little boy, angling the phone so that Leslie and the other girl could see.
Leslie didn’t get up from the arm of the chair. Her cold medicine had finally kicked in, but she pulled a tissue out of her pajama pocket and dabbed her nose delicately. “I shouldn’t get too close,” she said.
“Don’t mind her,” Lionel said to the girls. “She’s not really sick. She just likes the attention.” He poured each girl a glass of wine and sat down on the couch in between them.
“That’s absurd,” Leslie said. She raised her hand and turned it over to reveal the ball of tissue in her palm. A magic trick. Evidence.
The single mom tucked the phone back against her breast and took a sip of wine.
Lionel leaned back against the couch. “Would you like to see my first editions?” he asked—his idea of a come-on—and Leslie narrowed her eyes. Neither girl took the bait.
“They don’t care about that,” Leslie said. “Look.” She whistled, and the dogs did a trick. Dutifully, the girls clapped. Faust and Tosca returned to their posts next to the couch, bookending Lionel and his devotees.
From the kitchen, the tea kettle whistled. Leslie rose hospitably and brought back glasses filled with ice cubes and tea bags and arranged them in a circle on the coffee table. When she tipped the kettle each time, the water was so hot that the ice cracked in the glass.
The record wound down, and Leslie didn’t replace it. She sipped her drink, relishing the silence.
One of the girls asked to use the restroom. She walked down the dark hallway and left Lionel sitting next to the tall girl with the little boy at home.
“Hello, Mother,” Leslie said from her perch on the arm of the chair. She leaned toward the couch, and Lionel and the tall girl shrank back a little. Leslie felt woozy from the combination of cold medicine and too much wine. She sank into the empty spot next to the tall girl, pushing them both over a little.
The tall girl, caught in between, blushed. From the other side of the couch, Lionel shifted, putting his hand on her knee.
He bent toward the girl, breathing what Leslie knew was his hot, boozy breath onto her, pretending that he was merely accentuating a point. He squeezed her leg emphatically.
Leslie leaned in as well, smiling, and put her hand on the girl’s other knee. “Isn’t he bright?” she asked. “I’ve always thought so.”
The girl leapt to her feet, pulling down the hem of her dress. She stammered as she made an excuse and fled. Hastily, on her way out the door, she whipped her coat from the hall closet. It took a moment for the empty hangers to stopped clicking against each other.
“Well, bless her heart,” Leslie said. She shrugged and drank more of her tea. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, and it wouldn’t be the last.
When the other girl emerged from the restroom, Leslie offered to drive her home. The buzz from the wine had worn off, and she was no longer enjoying herself. She left Lionel to entertain this one while she went into the bedroom and stripped off her pajamas. At the university, she was famous for her clothes: every day last semester, she had worn vintage party dresses and heels.
On her teaching evaluations, a student had written, “I can always hear her coming.”
She put on a coat of lipstick and brushed her hair.
They were already waiting at the front door when Leslie returned. The girl looked startled, unhappy, and she stood meekly as Lionel retrieved first his coat, then both of theirs.
Leslie took her time with the buttons and smoothed her hair over the collar. “Ready?” Lionel asked. He twirled a ring of keys around his finger.
They took their places in the car, with Lionel and Leslie in front and the girl buckled in the back seat as if she were their child. Lionel started out strong but then he grazed a mailbox and lost his momentum. He was the ice skater who falls in competition and can’t quite regain his confidence. He hit another mailbox, then a tree.
“Just a minute, now,” Lionel said, but the girl already had her door open. She was halfway out of the car when he threw it into reverse and tapped the gas. The girl fell onto the grass. Lionel braked. “Are you all right?” he asked, easy as you please, but the girl didn’t answer—she was limping and in heels, but still, she ran away as best she could, a wounded deer.
“Well, you’ve lost another student,” Leslie said. Lionel didn’t answer. He wasn’t interested in learning any lessons.
The wind blew against the windows of the car. Leaves swirled around them. Leslie unbuckled her seatbelt and got out to close the girl’s door again. When she returned to her seat, they backed away from the tree and drove home.
Lionel unlocked the front door. Inside, the dogs were on their cushions, and they raised their heads but didn’t get up. The lights were still blazing in the living room. Lionel surveyed the wreckage. “We should open another bottle of wine,” he said. “What do you think?”
It was late, and Leslie had grown weary of playing Elizabeth Taylor. She wasn’t in the mood, tonight, to lose her mind or drive off a cliff.
Coyly, she turned the pockets of her coat inside out to show him that they were empty: no tricks. She tucked them back in and then produced from the empty pockets two clean white tissues. She waved them in his direction like flags.
Lionel shook his head, bored. He parodied a mocking clap. But then, at last, he surrendered, too. He sighed and rolled his eyes and kissed her, and turned off the living room lights and took her to bed.
On the day after Hazel died – it was a Tuesday afternoon in early March – George stood at his woodworking bench, whittling a bowl. He pressed the piece of yew down, and used a bowl gouge to scoop a smooth sliver of the pinkish-white wood so that it curled upwards and away, falling to the bench. He did this repeatedly – he tried not to think of anything else, not Hazel, not the empty house – and then, tired of that singular motion, he reached for sandpaper and ran it over the burrs and birds-eyes until the wood was warm and smooth to the touch.
George looked through the window, out on to the loch, where the water was as flat and as grey as slate. On the loch’s far shore, lying low across the hills Beinn Bheàrnach, Beinn a’ Bhainne, and Beinn Taladh, was a bank of cloud that made the hills seem like stubs that ended only a few hundred feet up. These were the hills that George and Hazel had looked at every day of the 43 years that they had been married. Peat and granite and died-back bracken were George and Hazel’s winter-time palate; these were the hues that stayed with them through the darkest months of the year, until April when the first of the dog violets reared their purple nodding heads.
Hazel hadn’t been well, but despite the pains that tore at her bones, and then the operation just before Christmas, she had been out in her garden every day. A few weeks after the operation, even, she had pulled on her wellies, got her gardening gloves down from the hall shelf and wrapped her purple rain jacket about her. Concerned, George had watched her through the long window at the back of the house climb carefully up the steps, clutching at the wooden rail, and enter her labyrinthine vegetable garden. He had watched as she had become smaller and smaller, eventually disappearing behind the poly-tunnel, just a purple speck on the hillside, a trowel in her hand.
Now white wood shavings curled on George’s fleece jacket, and flecks of wood dust sprinkled his arms and shoulders. He didn’t bother to brush himself off. When the light grew dim, he switched on the overhead strips, which flickered and growled to life. He would stay out here until he saw his tools in double; only then would he go inside the empty house.
The next afternoon, the minister called in to visit. George watched him drive up the road in his faded Ford Cortina, and then they sat in the living room where the stove glowed with coals. George served him tea and some Ginger Nut biscuits which Hazel had bought at the Spar Shop just Saturday. The minister had mild Parkinson’s disease, and his hands shook, the tea cup rattling on the saucer. He spilled a little of the milky tea on the beige carpet, both of them pretending not to notice. George didn’t mind; he just wanted the minister to leave. He wasn’t ready to talk about Hazel.
The minister offered his condolences. “Thank you,” George said, and then looked at the spot on the carpet where the tea stained brown. He asked if Hazel had left any wishes for her funeral, any specific requests – cremation, burial, that kind of thing. “We hadn’t expected her to die,” George said, thinking how cruel to be taken, after everything they had been through, by a stroke. He got up to stand at the window.
From there he looked out onto the edge of Hazel’s vegetable garden, which staggered in wild, overgrown terraces up the hillside behind the house. Neither George nor Hazel knew exactly how many acres the garden covered, because as demand for Hazel’s produce across the island had increased, so the garden had stretched out into their land at the back of the house. From the outside, the garden looked nothing more than untamed gorse bushes and rowan trees, trees that Hazel had planted when they had first moved to the house because in local lore they were thought to ward off witches. But on entering, and following the muddy path up the hill, the garden stretched out into large areas planted with every kind of vegetable that could grow in the island’s short season.
Raised beds were planted with leeks, spinach, kale, squash and kohlrabi, beds that sat alongside fruit cages, potting sheds, and a poly-tunnel which in late spring brimmed with sweet peas and, in summer, with strawberries, runner beans, trailing tomatoes. Up higher were whole sections reserved for root vegetables – crops that in summer burst their green tops through the rich loamy earth, and in autumn delivered creamy white offerings of parsnip, potato, turnip, Jerusalem artichoke, roots that kept them going through the cold dark months of winter.
From up here, Hazel had often told George at the end of a long day of work, she could look out across the house, the fields that surrounded them, and beyond to the loch, the hills, and the islands beyond theirs. From here she could be reminded that they lived on an island, because it was so easy to forget, an island that they had chosen randomly off the map all those years ago, its very virtue being that it was disconnected from the rest of Britain. She said that she felt reassured, when she was looking out on the sea that kept them apart from the mainland, that this would stop the rest of the world from encroaching upon theirs.
George now stared out at the rowan trees that bordered the garden, clasping his hands behind his back, his fingers picking at an old woodworking cut on his thumb. Behind him, the minister fidgeted and shook. George wondered what he was going to do about the garden. Keeping it up had been Hazel’s job, not his.
“You’ve been standing there for five minutes,” the minister said kindly, and George turned to find him still sitting there.
“The garden,” George said, then trailed off. The settee springs creaked as the minister prepared to get up. “If it’s cremation you choose, it will have to be a mainland service,” the minister said. “Or there’s burial in the village, of course. It’s a lot to think about, and so soon. Perhaps you will call me when you’ve had time to consider?”
George nodded heavily, his mind darting to when he had seen Hazel in the hospital, just two days ago, after the doctors had said she was gone. He blinked the image away, and right then, through the window, he thought he saw a movement through the trees. He looked closer, squinting his eyes, straining to see through the silvery branches if what he thought he had seen was real. A pair of eyes looked back at him, white and wide, and then another pair, and then another. He saw a flash of tawny hide, a glimpse of cream, the sharp points of antlers. Deer, George started, and the Minister looked at him quizzically.
“Never mind,” George said, and then rushed the Minister to the door, hoping he hadn’t been rude.
“You’ll be in touch about things?” the minister said, “and of course, if there’s anything.”
When the minister had set off in his car, down the steep driveway towards the sea, George went upwards, towards the garden. There, he saw how the deer had got in: a fallen strut had left a gaping entrance to Hazel’s garden, and the fence had been trampled. The deer might come out on their own, but it was unlikely. He would need to fix the fence, and he would need help to get the deer out. He couldn’t do it alone.
Early the next morning, frost glinted on the tufts of shoreline grass, and herons stood still and long-legged at the water’s edge. George looked out from the window in the living room, and then picked up the phone to call his neighbour, Karl the farmer, and ask if he had time to come over.
The deer were still in the garden. George had watched them from the living room window as they destroyed an elderflower bush, the bush shaking in great waves as it succumbed to the violent nibbling of teeth. Now George felt a kind of weariness that two cups of coffee hadn’t shaken, a deep tiredness that had lain with him all throughout the sleepless, cold night and had risen with him at the blue hued dawn. It was a tiredness that loomed over him so that he felt if he didn’t keep working, it would crush him.
He was finishing up a slice of Hazel’s sourdough bread when Karl’s truck pulled up outside the house, his two sheepdogs, Ailsa and Aidan, turning circles in the truck bed.
“Hello, mate,” said Karl, eyeing him cautiously. He held out his hand, across the pile of condolence letters that littered the doorstep.
“Karl,” said George, shaking his hand, looking down at the letters. “I’m okay.”
“Whatever you need,” said Karl, and George nodded.
Karl was younger and taller than George, broad-backed, big-boned, carrying a head of bright blond hair. His face glowed red above the neck of the Guernsey sweater he always wore. George and Karl had been neighbors for going on 25 years, when Karl had taken over managing the farm on the Ashworth estate, and had moved to the cottage four miles along the road. The Ashworth estate stretched as far as George and Hazel’s house, and continued on the other side, so George had seen Karl come down on his quad bike, or in the truck if it was blowing a hoolie, twice a day, every day for the last two and a half decades.
George stepped outside and pulled the door closed behind him. The cold air stung his nostrils. Hazel loved this kind of weather, the ground still hard but spring somewhere nearby. She loved the white stillness of frost and the long evenings when a stew simmered on the stove, when she and George would play Scrabble together, which Hazel usually won. Hazel had always been good with words, ever since school where she had won the spelling competition. That was when George had first noticed her; they had both been thirteen.
George led Karl around the side of the house to the garden.
“Part of the fence fell,” said George, pointing to the gap. “This was her department. I haven’t been round here since,” he paused, “the operation. Before Christmas.”
“I see,” said Karl. “Can you get a new section of fence up?”
“I can get some posts,” he said. “And some new wire fencing.”
“When do you think you’ll have it ready?”
“Tomorrow, maybe. By the weekend for sure. I’ll have to go to the town for supplies.”
“Okay,” said Karl.
“But the deer,” said George. “There must be five of them at least. They’ve been watching me.”
Karl nodded. Over the years, Karl had become a feature in George’s life, if not quite a friend then someone George could count on. Hazel had sold her produce every week at the market, sixteen miles away in town, so she knew nearly everyone. But George rarely went away from the house, unless to fit a door he had made or sell his turned wooden objects. He was fine without friends; he had Hazel, and he had his work.
But when Hazel had got sick at the start of the winter, Karl had begun dropping in every now and again after he’d fed the sheep, offering Hazel and George lifts to the ferry for hospital appointments in Glasgow, picking up medicine for them from the town. Karl’s wife, Mandy, might send along a cake or some bread, and recently Karl had shown up on his quad bike with a fallen branch of rowan wood from the estate. He had asked Mr Ashworth’s permission to take it to George to turn bowls with, and Mr Ashworth had said, given the circumstances, that this would be fine.
These were little things, but where they lived, they made all the difference. During Hazel’s sickness, George realized, he had come to rely on Karl and Mandy in a way that made him feel uncomfortable. He didn’t want to be a burden on anyone.
Karl and George stood now, looking into the garden, until they saw movement, a swaying of branches, the snap of twigs and the flash of red between the shades of greens and greys.
“I see them,” said Karl. “Little pests.”
“I don’t know how long they’ve been in there,” said George. “Hazel, she hasn’t been out here since, well – ” His shoulders hunched and his chest caved, as if he were folding in on himself.
“It’s okay, mate,” said Karl, reaching out a hand and placing it gingerly on George’s shoulder. George raised his forehead, pulled back his neck, sucked in a little air.
“Since Saturday. She was fine on Saturday. She was out here on Saturday.”
“Well, it sounds like they’ve had enough of a feed,” said Karl. “What say we get these rascals out of there? I’ll get Ailsa and Aidan from the truck and see what we can do. How does that sound?”
While George and Karl were out in the garden trying to get the deer out, the minister left a message on George’s answering machine.
“It’s Reverend Paul,” said the message, which George listened to later on that night. “From the church.” He asked if George might call him, or if he might come round again, to discuss the arrangements. George had listened to the beeps that followed the message and then had pressed the delete button.
George and Karl were unsuccessful with the deer. The sheepdogs did their best to round them up but every time one of the dogs cornered one, the deer leapt away into some further reach of the garden. Karl and George stayed with it until around lunch time, when Karl said he had to go and see about the cows.
“Of course,” George said. “You be getting along.” He tried to say it in a way that didn’t make Karl feel bad. Even so, Karl shifted awkwardly from one rubber-booted foot to the other and offered to come back another day if the deer still hadn’t left.
“If it’s no bother,” George replied, trying not to sound relieved.
“It’s nae bother to me at all, I want to help,” Karl said. “You’d do the same for me, right, mate?” George dipped his head, a heavy nod of agreement.
As darkness fell that Thursday afternoon, George went out to his workshop. He pressed the light switch on the wall, and the caged strips flickered to life. The bowl he was working on lay on the bench, its corners cut, its insides gouged, its surface rough with the scoops and turns of his tools.
George had been woodturning for as long as he had been married to Hazel, 43 happy years as a husband and a woodturner. You couldn’t rush either one if you wanted to do them right. George had learned about wood from his father, growing up in the New Forest, where his father had taken George on his wood-seeking trips around their house. By the time George had left school, at fifteen, he had learned to love wood with the same passion that his own father had.
George earned his money from making doors and gates for people, kitchen cabinets, those sorts of useful things. But what he rose for every day, was to turn discarded, forgotten pieces of wood into beautiful bowls, platters, vases, objects that would live in people’s houses for years, maybe even be passed on to the next generation. He wasn’t good with books, or words, or spelling, like Hazel had been, but he was good with his hands and he had the love of wood buried deep within him.
George looked out of the dark window at his own reflection staring back, and then at the row of tools clipped in hooks along the wall. There was the red handled chisel his uncle had bought him when he had turned his first bowl, the saw, 40 years old, a new blade bought on Amazon just one month ago. A bradawl, the rubber grip long since turned sticky but the blade still up to the job, which he had bought in an old man’s yard sale on their first holiday together in 1976. A jack plane that Hazel had bought him for his twenty-second birthday, the same year she briefly went to work at the Clydesdale before deciding an office life wasn’t for her and took to gardening full-time. A sliding bevel square, one of many tools left to him by Jack, who used to farm next door. The froe that George had bought himself, the gimlet he had found. The rasp, the spokeshave, the twybil; a brace, a broadaxe, a bucksaw.
George ran his hand over the blades and handles now, ending with the set of Sheffield steel bowl gouges his father had left him when he’d died. George had spent nearly his whole life with these tools, each one so precise, existing for one single purpose only. He looked once again up at the window out of which he could see nothing, only his own ghostly reflection. What would his purpose be, now that she was gone? What would he be?
Lying on one end of the bench was the piece of rowan that Karl had brought to him from the estate. It had been sitting there, gnarled and knobbled, waiting for him to do something with it, but with everything that had happened – the operation, the slow recovery, and then, this, Hazel’s death – George hadn’t got around to even splitting it open. He had no idea, and could not tell from looking at it, what was inside, what colours and patterns he would find when he eventually laid it out and cut it through with the saw.
But he had the urge to touch it now, to rub his fingers over the bark, and then he wanted to take the branch in his hands, and he did, feeling the weight of it pull on his arms. Then, it were as if his body were acting on its own, and the deer, Karl, the minister’s visits, even the fact that Hazel wasn’t inside cooking dinner, all of that became a kind of haze to which George was now numb. He took the branch over to the saw table and laid it down in front of the circular blade. He pulled on his safety glasses, stretched his fingers into some gloves, and flicked the switch on the side of the saw. The jagged mouth of the blade roared, a blast of sawdust-speckled air gushed upwards onto his face. The teeth began to pierce the rough skin of the wood and the noise drowned out the darkness that had permeated George’s mind. Just the rowan, the blade, and the devastating cut of metal on wood.
George shut off the saw and laid the two pieces of wood down on the workbench, blinking the dust from his eyes and taking in the colours before him. Cream and copper, tan and taupe, specks of auburn and swirls of russet, freckles of chestnut and honey and peach. He swept off the dust, and then licked the tip of one of his fingers and rubbed a little saliva into the wood. Along with the growth rings that he expected, the wood also contained patterns that snaked in one direction and then in the other, the lighter-colored sapwood on the outside spiralling inwards towards the deep treacle-tinged heartwood at its core.
George ran his hand over the wood once more, taking in the brightness of the colors, and then he watched as they began to fade, as the air in the workshop oxidized the wood. It was as if their lights were going out. The colors lost their brightness, the wood lost its shine. It would never be the same piece of wood again.
The week lumbered on, bringing with it an entourage of lady-callers, women who lived on the island, many of whom people George had never even met. He had made the mistake of letting one of them through the door, early on in the week, and then they had talked on Facebook, probably, or at the post-office, and before he knew it, they all wanted to come in.
They brought cakes, mostly, but also soups, stews, trays of flapjacks, an apple strudel, a multi-coloured chilli plant from the village shop, all of which lay abandoned on the shelf inside the porch where in April, Hazel would have been laying out trays planted with seeds, ready for outside sowing in June. When the women knocked at the house, he didn’t answer, and so they cupped their hands to the window and then pressed their faces into the aperture their hands created. Then they would decide he wasn’t there and back away, leaving their offerings inside the porch.
Eventually, someone brought George a bottle of Famous Grouse whisky, even though he hadn’t had a drink in God knows how many years. The bearer was new to the island – a blow-in, locals called these people – and had no idea that George had promised Hazel a long time ago that he would never touch another drop. George snaffled the whisky into the pocket of his woodworking jacket and took it out to the workshop. He didn’t bother with a glass.
There was an old leather armchair in his workshop, and he sank back into it, rested the bottle on his knee, and looked up at the rafters. He let out a sigh. Then George twisted the top off the bottle, put it to his lips, and glugged at the amber liquid, wincing and enjoying the pain as it slipped down his throat. The whisky burned the back of his tongue, and gouged tears of surprise from his eyes because he had not tasted whisky in so many years and now he remembered how disgusting and how delicious it was.
He thought of Hazel, and of her garden, and of her windowsill which should be covered in trays of seeds but instead was covered in trays of brownies and other things he would never eat. He tugged at the neck of that bottle and forced himself to swallow the whisky, and after a few minutes of drinking his arms felt light, as if they might lift of their own accord, and his head was woozy, and then he couldn’t remember why he was sitting in his workshop at all. With the confusion came a momentary, welcome relief.
But the feeling that had been plaguing him since Hazel had died, the weight that hung around his shoulders, that dogged him in the house and followed him when he went to bed and when he got up in the night to go to the toilet and when he finally rose to deal with the day, the immense and stupefying weight of her absence still clung to him, and even though he was drunk and he felt like throwing up everything that was inside him, still it was there. And the thought that it would never leave, that Hazel’s absence might for ever hang around his neck, was, even in his drunken discomfort, also a strange kind of relief, because at least that meant that he would always feel her close by.
When George woke up to a hand on his shoulder nudging him awake and Karl looming over him, he didn’t know where he was. But by the light coming through the windows, he could see that it was morning. His head was raging.
“You okay, George?” said Karl.
“Just give me a second,” said George, who felt sick and mortified by what Karl had seen. “I was just…”
“Yes,” said Karl, who ran his finger along a knotted branch of ash that lay drying on the racks, looking away so that George could gather himself, straighten his jacket and kick the bottle underneath the chair. “I came about the deer,” said Karl.
George had forgotten about not getting the deer out yesterday, and felt immense gratitude for Karl having come round. They went outside to Karl’s truck, where the sheep dogs snapped and twisted in the back.
“You okay, mate?” Karl said, eyeing him closely.
“I’m getting there,” said George, who had now been without Hazel for four whole days, the longest they had been apart for twenty or more years. “I’m not really sleeping,” he ventured. His head felt as if it were bursting.
“Is there anything we can do?” asked Karl “Mandy says do you want to come over for tea?”
“Aye, maybe one of these days,” said George, who would have loved to eat a meal at a table with someone else. He had been surviving off sourdough bread and cheese, which he nibbled at while standing up at the kitchen counter, too afraid to sit down alone. “Maybe later,” he said, worried that too much warmth would crack him. “I’ll let you know,” he said, knowing he probably wouldn’t.
The sheep dogs, Ailsa and Aidan, pressed their muzzles against the grill at the back of Karl’s truck.
“How about them deer?” said Karl, “are they still up there in your garden?”
“They’ve taken out the rowans,” said George.
“Oh dear,” said Karl, knowing Hazel had planted them. He twisted the handle on the tail gate and the dogs piled out of the truck, panting and dangling their long pink tongues around the rims of George’s boots. “Come,” Karl snapped at the dogs. To George he said, “let’s see what we can do, shall we?”
The deer took fright when the dogs appeared, and scattered to every corner of the garden. “You stay by the gate,” Karl shouted, following the dogs with his whistles and clicks up through the paths that wound from each part of the garden to the other. “They might come out,” he shouted, his voice fading as he went further away. Then Karl was gone, only his red jacket visible in flashes.
In actual fact, Hazel had told George when she had gone for her operation before Christmas that, should anything happen to her, she wished to be cremated. She wanted her ashes to be scattered in the garden, Hazel had said, underneath the rowan trees. George hadn’t wanted to talk about it but Hazel had insisted. “Just in case,” she had said, holding his hand in bed the night before she was due at the hospital. “I just want to know that we talked about it.”
George’s head was still thick with the whisky that he wished to God he hadn’t touched. The feeling of having broken his promise to Hazel was enough to make him realize that it was the last time he would ever drink again. He heard a shout from the top part of the garden, somewhere up near the brassicas, then he heard the dogs barking, and then a scuffle of hooves around the perimeter fence as two white-faced stags came trampling down the hill towards him.
“Look out!” shouted Karl, whose head was just visible above a clump of gorse bushes. George was momentarily fixated by the way the animals leapt towards him. One of the stags had just a small pair of antlers but the other was an eight-pointer, maybe a ten. Its haunches undulated as it ran. A fine drizzle had begun to fall on George’s face and it seemed as if the drops were falling on someone else’s skin entirely. The two stags were nearly upon him, undeterred by his presence.
“Let them through, George,” Karl shouted, “stand back.” The stags made directly for the opening in the fence. All George had to do was to let them pass. They streaked by in a flurry of fur and bone and hoof.
“Well done, mate,” said Karl, who had come down the hill towards him. “I’m afraid we’ve got trouble with that young fallow, though,” he said. “She’s tried to get through the deer fence, and I think her leg may be broken.” A fine layer of mist had settled on Karl’s face too, and the two of them, bedraggled and damp, look out at one another beneath rain-soaked hair.
Karl came back that afternoon after milking and shot the injured deer. It had been a young one, its leg mangled by trying to jump over the fence, its antlers small but perfectly formed. They laid the deer on plastic sheeting in the garage, split it open from end to end and removed the gralloch which Karl plopped into a bucket, the kidneys and intestines trying their best to slip through his fingers. He left the head on a tarpaulin, and took the feet for his sheep dogs to chew on. Together they hoisted the body up onto a hook in the roof beam, put there for such a purpose. George would skin it for its meat once it had bled dry.
Afterwards, they sat in the house and George lit the wood-burning stove, resisting the urge to ask Karl if he wanted to play Scrabble. George produced the apple strudel, and together they ate it and drank a pot of tea. “Have you decided what you’re going to do about the – ” Karl paused, “about Hazel. About the funeral?”
George sipped at his tea, and said, finally, “Yes.” He knew what had to be done, and tomorrow he would call the minister. “Hazel wanted to be cremated,” said George. “She wanted her ashes scattered underneath the rowans. They’ll grow back, won’t they?” he asked.
When they had gone up to free the deer from the fence, and found its leg broken and the deer weak having wrangled all night, they had found the garden in a state of destruction. The beech trees’ lower branches had been bitten to the core, the purple sprouting, kale and other winter greens were flattened and snapped, stems bleeding white, open to the sky. The potato patch was churned with cloven-hoofed prints, and the rowans were naked, stripped of their bark, the sapwood within shredded and torn as if an angry clawed animal had been trying to get its guts out.
George had run his hand along the trunk of one of the trees, once smooth and silvery, now rough against his palm, like strands of old rope. George didn’t know if the rowans would survive another year, but Karl had suggested he call James the farrier, who was good with trees, to see if he had any advice. When Karl finished his tea, George didn’t offer him any more. They said goodnight at the door, and George heard the truck bounce down the lane to the road, the dogs whining from their cage in the back.
In the garage, the deer hung from the hook. In the stark glow of the strip lights, the deer’s hide shone bright, tawny with patches of cream, specks of brown, hazy spots of auburn faintly visible. The head lay on the tarp still, and the deer’s eyes were closed now, its lids pressed shut against its face. But when Karl had taken a rifle and nuzzled it up against its struggling head, its eyes had been wide open, bright with fear and pain, the eyeballs engorged, straining through its own scull. George had hardly been able to bear it, though he knew that this was the kindest thing to do.
“Best to put it out of its misery,” Karl had said, and then he had pulled the trigger. The fawn was killed immediately, its body slumping against the fence where its leg had been caught, but for a few seconds, its muscles had twitched and its eyes had gone on blinking, the nervous system firing impulses even though its heart had stopped. George wasn’t religious, or even spiritual, but he thought, for a moment, that he might have been able to see something pass from its eyes, something fade, before the eyes stopped blinking and the muscles ceased to shiver.
George closed the door to the garage, turning his back on the deer. It would still be there in the morning, and a few days later when George would skin it and carve up the meat for the freezer, taking a parcel along to Karl and Mandy. George went back inside the house, past the trays of cakes, to the table where the phone lived. Holding the receiver, he dialed the minister’s number, and waited for him to pick up on the other end.