This is the full text of the book, in one file. The print version "Stephen's Passion" is available from Micah Publications, 255 Humphrey St., Marblehead, MA 01945, www.micahbooks.com Roberta's other fiction includes: Orestes in Progress, Justice My Brother, A View of Toledo, The Martyrdom of Stephen Werner, Autobiography of a Revolutionary: Essays on Animal and Human Rights, and Bodmin 1349.
Micah Publications also publishes Jewish vegetarian and animal rightsbooks, such as: The Jewish Vegetarian Year Cookbook, Vegetarian Judaism--A Guide for Everyone, and Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb. For a full list with descriptions, see www.micahbooks.com
About the Author
Roberta Kalechofsky is the author of seven works of fiction, a monograph on George Orwell, poetry and two collections of essays. She has been published in quarterlies, reviews and anthologies, and was the recipient of Literary Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Council on the Arts.
Several of her stories, and two novellas, La Hoya and Stephen's Passion, have been translated into Italian and published in Italy. La Hoya received excellent reviews in major publications, such as Corriere Della Sera., and was included in a college curriculum in Italy under the title, Veduta di Toledo.. Stephen's Passion has also been included in a college curriculum in courses in American Fiction in the University of Florence, under the title, La Passione Di Stephen. Her novel, Bodmin, 1349: An Epic Novel of Christians and Jews in the Plague Years, was included twice in a college curriculum in the United States.
She began Micah Publications in 1975 and has received publishing grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Council on the Arts, in addition to her literary fellowships. As a publisher, she created The Echad Series, which includes five anthologies of Jewish writing from around the world, and has published 40 different titles in poetry, fiction, scholarship, vegetarianism and animal rights. She is active in the animal rights and vegetarian movements and began the organization, Jews for Animal Rights, in 1985, and coordinates publishing projects with this organization.
She has also been a contributing editor to various magazines, such as Margins, and On The Issues, and taught at Brooklyn College for four years.
She was a participant in a round-table discussion, "Please Use Other Door: Literary Creativity and the Publishing Industry," with Cynthia Ozick, Hugh Nissenson, Gordon Lish, Elizabeth Sifton and Robert Boyers, which was published in RSA Journal, #3 (March, 1992).
She graduated from Brooklyn College and received a doctorate in English literature in 1970 from New York University.
A critical essay on her work can be found in the Dictionary of Literary Biographies, Volume 28: Jewish Fiction Writers. A list of her published work and/or extended resume is available upon request.
To Kal, who's always there.
Back cover text
Ten stories which deal with religious or revelatory experiences as they originate out of an historical or psychological background.
"Your mind is filled -- crowded -- with remarkable images, histories, data, visions, scenes, colors, scents! .... I have been dazzled by your story-telling." Cynthia Ozick
"Stories so convincing we share the anguish." Booklist
"...haunting, memorable works... Kalechofsky's gifts are highly recommended and should force their way to recognition." Isaac Mozeson
"Abraham and Isaac," Confrontation, Winter, 1970-71. The Enduring Legacy, ed by Douglas Brown (Scribners), 1976.
"Epiphany," Works, vol I, no.3, Spring, 1968.
"His Day Out," Western Humanities Review, vol. XXV, no.3, Summer, 1977;The Best American Short Stories of 1972 (Houghton Mifflin);The Writer's Digest Anthology.
"Strauss and Son," Confrontation,
Fall, 1973. "Epitaph for an Age," Works, vol. III, no.3/4, Winter, 1972-73.
"American Female Gothic,"(Original title: "Realities),"Ball State University
Forum, vol XV, no.1, Winter, 1974. "Sarai and Atahualpa," Rocky Mountain
Review, vol.31, no.4, Fall, 1977. "Reflections from a Park Bench," Ball
State University Forum, vol XVII, no.1, Winter, 1976.
Carol Berlanger Grafton, Treasury of Illuminated Borders, Dover
Carol Berlanger Grafton, Old Time Bird Vignettes in Full Color, Dover
Haggith's eyes hardened into slits. She saw nothing in the dark
street, but she knew who made that noise. She tossed her head and
continued walking. The sound followed her like a snake. "Ssssss."
Haggith knew she should keep her haughty attitude, but she was
irritated. "Go away," she hissed back. Her hand lashed out in the
direction of the voice. She could not see a thing,
but she felt the other woman near her. She turned cautiously in the dark. Like a cat putting out a paw, she stretched out her hand to feel for Ohalah. The air stirred. The voice moved behind her and breathed on her neck. Haggith pretended to stub her toe on a rock and began to whimper. She moved alongside the wall with a hobbling air of caution.
Actually, a native of Jerusalem, she knew her way through the streets with formidable precision. A sometime spy, messenger, whore, a picker-up of tag ends of information with a lust for intrigue, her toes stretched with brazen instinct into the darkness. With confident duplicity she went down an alley and up a narrow flight of stairs. Pigeons cooed in the dark and the air was filled with the odor of apes. Haggith's eyes searched for a hiding place. She could lead Ohalah around and around the city until Ohalah wept with exhaustion, but Haggith preferred combat. She found a place where the stairs turned and broadened out in the corner of the turn, and she crouched down in the dark space.
Within seconds she heard Ohalah's foot stroke a step, pause, deliberate, and stroke another step. Haggith was thrilled. She pressed her hand into her mouth to stifle a cry of triumph, and waited. Ohalah turned in the darkness with unsteadiness. She crouched and peered. Her breath was as audible to Haggith's ears as a pluck on the harp. If she leaped now she could push her down the stairs and cripple her. But if she failed to make contact, she would fall herself. There was sweat on Haggith's brow, but she was not afraid. She prayed that Ohalah would take one more step. She herself was as still as a sleeping snake. She exulted in her stealth.
Ohalah raised her foot over the step. The night was like a cobweb
on her eyes. In the dark, the stone streets were grimy and
loathsome to her bare feet. Reptiles scattered over her toes. She
strained to single out Haggith's breath from the sounds of the
pigeons and distant voices, the shrieks of the apes, the lowing of
the sheep on the hills. The night was always too quiet until one
tried to hear one particular sound, then it was filled with a
warble of dark nothing. Ohalah kept one foot raised over the next
step. She knew Haggith was close by. She could smell her hair. She
forced a smile and fancied that Haggith could see her smile, and
that it crippled her spirits. A sense of having been grievously
wronged made her incautious. She made a
mocking sound in her throat, clucking as if to a chicken. In a building close by a chimpanzee knocked himself against a wall and let out a frenzy of sounds. Ohalah placed her foot on the step in front of her. She felt the crunch of a beetle. Steeling herself, she hissed into the dark and took another step. "Tck, tck, tck." she clucked, defying prudence. She wanted justice. She could not bear Haggith's lowbred city arrogance. She quickly went up the next few steps.
Fingers closed around her ankles. Ohalah fell forward against the
steps. Haggith's eyes gleamed for a second before she took her
revenge. Then she pulled Ohalah down two steps. Ohalah's chin hit
the ground. A tooth fell out. Blood swam in her mouth. Haggith
grinned and waited. Then she pulled Ohalah down another step.
Ohalah screamed. The skin on her belly ripped
open. Haggith clucked with mock sympathy. Ohalah kicked to get her feet free. Haggith dug her nails into Ohalah's ankles and pulled her down the steps. The chimpanzee babbled a monologue, deep in his throat a cry of homesickness.
Bucking like an ass, Ohalah kicked at Haggith's chest and pushed her off. Then she came down the steps after her. "Dung, whore," she wept. Her belly burned. Haggith wasted no energy on words. She set her teeth into Ohalah's earlobe and hung on. Ohalah's screams split the air. The chimpanzee shrieked with gleeful recognition of pain. Soldiers ran. Doors opened cautiously. Eyes peered out.
"What is the trouble?"
"Those two again."
Haggith and Ohalah! Already a legend. All Jerusalem told their story, laughed or solemnized over it. The amoral placed bets on the outcome. Either way no good would come of it, one a northern girl and the other a Judean. Both whores, still any decision would be regarded as political, concession to the northern party or betrayal of the southern or, given the reverse decision, concession to the Judeans, betrayal of the northerners.
The soldiers could not loosen Haggith's teeth. Experience told her that victory was a matter of hanging on.
"Come, come," a soldier said, "be a nice lady and unpin this woman's ear." Haggith could not be flattered. Another soldier whacked her on the behind with a sword. Haggith could not be terrorized.
"Leave her to me," a third said, and he thrust his hand up her tunic between her legs. Haggith shrieked venomously.
The soldiers laughed. "There is only one way to loosen the hold of a whore."
The soldiers pinned Haggith's arms behind her back. Ohalah's head swam with pain. She did not have to be held down with force. "How many times have we told you two to leave your quarrels inside your house," the soldier said. "Now the king will settle the matter."
"Let him," Haggith said. She raised an arrogant shoulder. "Heaven is my witness that justice is on my side." Ohalah started to hiss. "Ssssss. Snake, snake, snake," she wept. Haggith laughed hysterically. "This idiot of a woman thinks my spirit unbends if she hisses like a snake. Tell her only blood counts." She tossed her head and walked off between the soldiers. Her body smirked with victory.
Ohalah could not manage a triumphal exit. Her body sagged between two soldiers, her back felt as if it were broken, her spine felt unhinged. She could not stand upright in front of these strangers. The space in her mouth where her tooth had been made her feel morbidly sorry for herself, as if her position had no dignity at all.
No one would have told Solomon until the morning, but he heard the fracas in the harem and knew what the trouble was. It was another pinch of salt on his soul that night. Thoughts of Tamar had distracted him all day, but at night he had gone to the bed of the Hittite, Shisha. It is not satisfactory to long for one woman and to go to another, even for a king. Solomon fidgeted. He accused Shisha of smelling like a goat and left. Shisha did not mind the insult. It came from a king.
Solomon went back to his rooms. He heard the soldiers making nasty jokes at Haggith as they dragged her along. It was a mystery why some women could give their bodies to everyone, and other women couldn't give their bodies even to a king.
Tamar had kept his brain simmering for a month. Born in the northern mountains beyond Chinnereth, she had an intelligent, bold look that struck him as even more sophisticated and pleasantly daring than a city bred expression. She had looked him in the face, eyeball to eyeball, before bowing, and he had the feeling that her bow was affected, a gesture toward survival. O.K., you're the king, it said. Solomon had a sharp instinct for political meanings and immediately suspected disaffection. What is going on up there? he thought. However, Tamar's expression, combined with slender legs, slender wrists, firm breasts, and‹his favorite word‹a comely back, made her irresistible. He decided that her expression was a form of flirting, and he could hardly wait to get to her room that night. All day his mind doodled with thoughts of her thighs while the most prodigious persons, Nathan and Bathsheba, messengers from Hiram of Tyre and the Pharaoh of Egypt passed back and forth, and he mused on life's irreconcilable claims and the fact that even a king may not harmonize them.
A few years back in Gibeon, given the choice of anything in the
world, he had asked God for wisdom. Being fifteen and having just
arrived to kingship, pubescent awe of the universe, including his
ability to communicate with God, filled his soul. Assuming one
could achieve such a communication, what a waste of an opportunity
to ask for anything less. Even God was impressed. "How wise of
you," He said, and decided that Solomon's request for wisdom was
no reason why he should lose out on the usual kingly rewards of
power, fame, and glory. Solomon must have felt like the pupil who
guesses the answer in his teacher's mind. His empire flourished
unprecedently. He sat on its throne and was intrigued by the look
on the girl's face, and went to her room that night with the
knowledge that he was Solomon, the navel of the body politic,
struggling against the realization
that she was sizing him up, and not just physically.
She sat on a lion's skin, her legs crossed, her elbows on her knees, her head cupped in her hands, her hair hanging disorderly, looking as if she had been waiting for such a long time that interest and curiosity and even fear had evaporated into monotony. Waiting is waiting! Dejected, Solomon thought with disgust. They're either dejected or hysterically flattered.
"Are you homesick?" he asked civilly. He was bored with the question. But if they were dejected, he always asked that.
She looked up for a moment, interested that he was concerned. But she checked the indulgence. She knew what she was there for. Her expression flattened out. Solomon had a gross impulse to ask her why she wasn't flattered. She shrugged her shoulders and said, "I'm ready." His inclinations were pinched like a nerve cut in half. "Rest," he said. He meant the word to sound magnanimous, a gift from a king, but his throat fogged up and he had to cough. Annoyed at the figure he cut, he let down the flap to her doorway and went back to his rooms.
Tamar's legs kicked his brain the whole next day. That and the
thought of how he looked as he retreated. Not to forget the
thought of Tamar on a lion's skin. Three hundred times he had her
stretched out. But when he came to her room at night she had the
same look on her face as the night before. Not a glimmer of
emotion in her dark eyes. She sat cross-legged, her thin
wrists dangling on her knees, looking as if they'd break if he grabbed them. Yet the expression on her face was not afraid. It was sassily empty.
He circled the room and tried to cope with the problem. He was
not used to having his emotions stunted. She started to speak, but
he cut her off. "I know," he said, "you're ready." Her invitation
was calculatingly pedestrian. She was deliberately deflationary.
The malice of the humble, he thought. Still, a king cannot afford
lack of confidence. He ordered a hundred lions'
skins to be hung in her rooms, and did not come back for a week.
The route from Joppa to Jerusalem was filled with caravans
carrying timber that had come down from Lebanon. Horses, crazy
with fear, stood rigid in boats that floated down the
Mediterranean from Kue. Monkeys and parrots that had never seen a
grain of sand sailed breezily up the Red Sea from Africa, from
jungle to desert, and joined the caravans headed for Jerusalem.
Asses trudged south carrying gold, ivory, and apes. Traders sat on the animals and watched the activity with wizened eyes. There was nothing so good for commerce as an ambitious king.
At the end of a week Solomon invited Tamar out to see the activity. It might light a fire to her imagination and break down that peasant habit of seeing only the practical requirements for every task. The autocratic instinct warred in him with romantic demands, the recognition of the soul in the flesh. To be able to take was a freedom, to be given was release from loneliness. He wanted to woo her.
Luckily, she didn't insist upon the peasant trait of stolidness.
Solomon knew that she had the intelligence to understand that what
she saw augured something extraordinary, a change in the
historical climate. She was impressed by what she saw:
Traders carrying baskets of fruit jostled each other in the
streets. Underfoot, mangoes gushed ripe. Camels dripped saliva and
trudged up alleys with bamboo cages strapped to their backs
carrying apes with morose eyes and monkeys with satiric grins. The
screeching birds that had just arrived from Africa attracted crowds everywhere, and any merchant who could get hold of one and train him to sit on his shoulder didn't waste the opportunity. The parrots sat on their human perches and eyed the frenzy. Children gasped at their colors and learned very soon that the birds imitated sounds. They ran after the traders shrieking epithets, the traders threw sticks at them and the little boys threw sticks at the monkeys to make them screech.
Solomon watched it through Tamar's eyes. She had never seen anything like it. Her reaction enflamed him. He knew that the assessment of what she saw was sinking into her soul. He hoped it would distract her from homesickness and parochial loyalties.
They walked along the northern section of the wall of Ophel toward the Sion Hill where the temple was, and came to the bridge between Sion and the upper city. "Look west," he said, "there will be another city there very soon. Already the people are pushing against the walls, the merchants beleaguer me daily to set up market areas there."
Tamar looked down at the pigeons nibbling after her toes. Solomon stamped his foot at them. "Pests," he said. She permitted the expression on her face to tell him that he was belittling her naivete. He fell in love with her. A peacock hopped on to the wall, spread its tail and screamed with color. Tamar backed away in awe. Solomon was delighted with her astonishment. Her eyes were a mirror of the world he was building. He beheld in them the iridescent wonder of his power.
The first day a trader had brought him a peacock and had set it
down in front of his throne he had fallen in love with the bird
for its careless, arrogant, mindless, dazzling strutting. He could
order a hundred and did. It delighted him to be cavalier with the
creations of God, to spend fortunes to have these crazy creatures
from Africa defecate in his streets, to domesticate power and
glory. I want to eat the universe like an apple, he thought, and
feel the juices run in my mouth. If I, a king, cannot, who can?
Glory was the madness of being in love with the world. He could walk in his palace courtyard and observe: I have brought the marvels of nations here.
He never said that. Being wise might allow you to communicate with God; it in no way allowed you to communicate with humans.
"That's the temple," he said, pointing north up the hill at a newly finished building.
She looked at it with interest and good manners, but not the way she looked at the peacock. "I've heard about it," she said.
Solomon felt the flatness creep into her voice. It pinched him
again, but he would not be put down. He had too much taste for the
glamour of history. Although, God knew, thoughts of future
judgment depressed him often enough. A king carries the future as
well as the past on his shoulders. "What will the future make of
me?" buzzed in his brain constantly. It would have cheered
him had he known that later generations would breathe a sigh
of relief when they discovered his chariot stables. "Exactly," he
might have said to them, "if you don't build monuments, you've got
nothing to show for it." That he knew instinctively, even though
he sometimes felt the future hiding in ambush for him. But then
too he sometimes felt a force blowing his kingdom across time and
space. As usual there was a bad wind and a good wind, and when the
good wind blew, every decision was right, and he knew he was going
to be great and replace fate with destiny. One could not be the
son of a legend and settle for less, or be born to that household
in that time, hanging on the brink of political consolidation, and
not have the itch to consolidate. The problem was what it would
always be, metaphorically and politically: whether the whole was
greater than its parts, whether the
future would bless him or curse him. Glory was the conviction that he would be blessed, that what he was (and therefore could indulge himself in being) was consonant with what the world required of him.
But the conviction came and went. Abiding certainty was never there. To be that certain his wisdom would have had to have been God's. Solomon had only autocracy, lay powers, personal needs, intellect, an appetite for luxury and revenge, Nathan, Benaiah, luck, good genes, and ambition. But it amounted to the feeling that anything less than greatness was too nerve-wracking to think about, dissolution of his personality and the cultural nexus.
The sky was cloudless to the horizon. The bronze columns, Jachin
and Boaz, flanked the main entrance to the temple and reflected
the sun. Around the base of the temple a thousand oxen and sheep
waited to be sacrificed. To the right of the temple, construction
on the new palace was under way. The sun beat on the stripped
backs of the laborers rolling logs up the hill.
Solomon made his way across them as if they were pebbles in the road. The overseers, whips tucked into their armpits, winked to each other as he went by with Tamar. Gossip for the night.
"What do they say abut the temple?" he asked Tamar, and
added, "up there," to humble her.
Unexpectedly, she answered him soberly, as if the matter had been on her mind for some time. "They say it costs too much."
The occupational disease of kings is to shout down self doubt and to be impatient with refusal. A wind bit his neck. He smacked his thigh with disgust. "They are barbarians," he said. "Glory has no price."
That sounded bombastic to her. She thought perhaps she wasn't used to the way kings speak. She looked up at him to see if he meant it seriously. He did. "Whose glory?" she asked, "yours or ours?"
In an instant, by the look in her eyes, his accomplishments shrank to an outburst of egomania, personal willfulness divorced from prophetic history. "That's the problem," he hissed, "isn't it? You don't approve of my policies."
She found his conjunction of ideas sordid and funny. Actually, she found Solomon attractive. Her hesitation, since he had given her the freedom to express it, was normal. But for Solomon, anything that could have political implications, did. The fate of kings is never to breathe pure air and to count each breath. Tamar laughed with flirtatious disgust, "Don't mistake my unwillingness for treason."
"It is treason," he said, feeling ridiculous and unmasculine as
he said it. He was in one of those willful moods that ran away
with itself, where every impediment was a mountain and he stubbed
his toes on rocks because he wanted to send them flying.
Nevertheless, he crushed his doubts and had a guard put a peacock
in her room that night. She was flattered, but she was
determined to hold out as long as he allowed her to for the thrill of her feminine strength, aside from the question of virtue.
He did not visit her again for three weeks, but he thought of nothing and no one else. Her slender wrists inspired his masculine instincts to protect her, but the look in her eyes put him off with the knowledge that she was making judgments. He might take her by force, but he knew that she knew the secret of resistance through the spirit. She would offer no conflict. Obeisance would be refusal. Her body would go limp. The problem was political. He had a disgust of seeing the thing through, of finding her "ready," complaisant, steadily negating.
At night he dreamed that he parted her thighs, over and over
again he parted her thighs. He mounted her and parted her thighs
and nothing came of it. He entered her and departed with the same
feeling: seeking. Then he dreamed that he was torn apart, that he
wandered through dark streets while at the same time he crouched
in corners and watched himself. He was here and
he was there. He was pursuing and he was pursued. He would wake in the morning ill with the sensation that he had been torn apart.
Sometimes during the day the memory of Tamar in his dream would bubble into his mind with an erotic explosion. At other times he felt inert as if he were confronted with an immovable force.
He knew what that force was: it was the future compounded of so many unknowables that one must disregard it or risk being flattened out by introspection. A king cannot afford nightmares. He went from concubine to concubine in search of a dreamless sleep, but it did not matter whom he slept with. He dreamed of Tamar even when he did not want her. In the daytime he thought voluptuously of Tamar even when he was convinced the problem was political.
He left Shisha and went back to his rooms, only to stand, as it were, on one foot when he got there, wondering what to do with himself. He walked out into the courtyard where the soldiers were dragging Ohalah and Haggith. "So," he said to them impatiently, suggesting that whatever the matter was they should have solved it by now.
"These are the two women who claim the same child," the captain said.
Solomon took the torch from his hands and waved the light over them.
"A neat trick," a soldier laughed.
"Why not?" another laughed too, "they claim the same husband."
Solomon did not join in the camaraderie. He brought the light in front of Ohalah's face and saw that she was a homely woman whose appearance had not been helped by the loss of a tooth and two swollen eyes. "You are a stranger in Jerusalem," he said. "What brings you here?"
Ohalah's tongue felt the empty slot where her tooth had been. She
tasted dry blood. A soldier prodded her in her back to answer. She
made a show of defiance, but immediately crumpled into weeping.
"My brother was brought here to work in the palace. I have no
family but him. I came to be near him." She picked up her head to
look intelligent, but could scarcely see
through her swollen eyes. A guard kept her arms crossed behind her back. She was humiliated, being held down like a child. "I came to see Jerusalem," she mumbled.
Solomon searched her battered face. Repulsion and sympathy fought in him. "And now that you've seen it?" he asked.
She had an itch on her nose but could not reach it. She shrugged her shoulder up to it as well as she could. "I want to take my baby and go home. Now that I have a family," she whispered.
Haggith shrieked, "The child is mine. There is no doubt about that."
Solomon moved the torch to her side. "There must be some doubt, since you both claim the same child."
Haggith put her hands on her hips like a woman about to give her
husband a drubbing. "My lord, it is very simple. This one
came to live with me a year ago. We were both brought to bed with
child the same night. During the third night her child died. She
fell asleep next to it and smothered it with her body. During the
night when this happened she rose up and put her dead
child in my arms and took my live child from me. In the morning she said see how well my child sucks and your child's head is drooping."
Haggith's face was dramatic, but her argument had loopholes. "Well, what do you say," Solomon said to the soldiers, curious to know how her defense affected them.
"My lord, the captain said, "they are both whores. Dismiss the matter."
Solomon held the torch higher to see better. Beyond the ring of
light everything was in darkness. The soldiers cared neither one
way or the other. They trusted whatever decision he would make.
Solomon was disappointed, but not surprised. It was clear that
their contempt for the women was decision enough for them. "It's
plain to see," one of them said, "the father had the
best of it."
"Where is the father?" Solomon asked.
"He is working in Elath," Haggith said.
"A seasonal laborer," the soldiers laughed.
"Dismiss the case," the captain said.
"Would that be justice then?" Solomon asked. "True, they are whores, but they are not yet murderers. If we dismiss the case, they will kill one another.
"Well, then, decide and be done with it. This is the third night Jerusalem has been awakened."
"True," Solomon said, "it is time to end the matter." He waved the soldiers away with Ohalah and Haggith, but he kept a torch for himself and motioned to the captain to walk with him. "Do you have an opinion?" he asked him. "I mean only as a kind of intellectual exercise on what seems to be an inexhaustible conundrum."
"Not I," the captain said, undisturbed, "and you?"
"And I?" Solomon said. "Yes, I have an opinion. That is why I am a king," he laughed. "My opinion is that only God and the thief can know for certain who the mother is. If the mother is Haggith and she was sleeping as she claims, how can she know at all what happened. If she was awake and knew what happened, why didn't she prevent it?"
The captain was duly impressed. "She is clearly a liar."
"Not clearly, only presumably. Haggith is a woman who will say anything to make her case look good and she is not very intelligent. She is bound to stumble into contradictions."
"But she has force," the captain said.
"Yes, force," Solomon said. "And the other one says nothing, which is wisdom." He parted from the captain and took the path back to the harem. The torch gave him a pool of light. It played over his feet as he watched his steps. Beyond the light the darkness was a wall, and from behind the wall came the bleating of the sheep, fitful cries heard in the dark space.
"Well?" he said, pushing the curtains apart to Tamar's room.
She was sitting cross-legged and upright, her head thrust forward as if she was listening to something. The peacock strutted around the room with an air of confusion, pecking in corners for a friendly scent among the lion skins.
"Why aren't you asleep?" he asked.
"Why aren't you asleep?" she said.
Mimicking, mocking, he registered it all right. "A king never sleeps," he said affably, "even when he seems to sleep, and especially then."
"You must be very tired," she said. "What was all that noise about?"
"Two whores fighting over a child."
"You mean Ohalah and Haggith."
"How do you know them?"
"There is nothing to do all day. We gossip."
"If you were kept busier at night you would not have time to gossip in the day.
"Then think how ignorant I should be."
He sat down in a chair. "I am tempted to send you back. Would you like that?"
Tamar glanced quickly up at him, and then down. She had meant to hold out, not to be thrown away. Solomon saw the glimmer of confusion. His heart leaped, but he subdued his feelings and kept a steady course, content for the moment to contemplate Tamar in confusion. She kept her eyes lowered and said, "I wasn't talking about me, but about the two women."
"I will send them both away," he said.
The answer was suspicious. Tamar was wary. Receive me, Solomon thought. "One is a countrywoman of yours," he said.
"How do you know that?"
"I saw her in the street. I know the village she comes from."
Like cat's whiskers, his sensibilities were alerted. How he would have liked to have shed his kingship and taken her with a quick thrust instead of with this lopsided seduction. But his compulsion to kingship was equal to, if not stronger than his need to copulate. He leaned forward and licked his lips with calculation. "And you sympathize with her?"
"She was an honest woman in her own home."
"Yes, and we are great corrupters here in Jerusalem. In her own home she was honest, homely, and miserable."
"Now she is dishonest, homely, and miserable."
"All of life is suffering. It is better to suffer in love than in loneliness."
Tamar was shocked. "You cannot approve of what she's done. The woman has become a whore."
"I disapprove strongly as a king, but as soon as I held the light
to her face I sympathized and said to myself, actually she is
Tamar did not cope with moral issues in this way. She was not sentimental about human frailty. "Your family always took such things lightly," she hissed. Of course, she immediately regretted her impudence, but Solomon was restrained because it was a political requirement to organize his command over confusion, whether of family or state. It was a king's duty to listen to gossip, particularly where the king's mother alienated the people. Concubines formed a not insubstantial network of spies and reporters, and side by side in any bed he lay down in, Edomite or Hittite, Hebrew or Perizzite, king and man lay together, ear and organ, one playing, the other listening.
"Yes," he said, "we do a great deal of whoring, we kings. It's one of the rewards of the office." He took Tamar by her wrist and easily lifted her up, registering her lissomeness. "Come here," he said, "sit on my lap." But his tone was ambiguous. The request, if amorous, was also edgy. Tamar decided to ignore what she could not fathom. She said matter-of-factly, "The matter of Ohalah and Haggith is not settled."
"Indeed, you settle it."
"Yes, you. Sit on my lap and settle it."
She searched his face for trickery. It was steadfastly blank. She took heart. "Send Ohalah home. She is out of place here."
"And the child?"
"It is only one word against the other, as matters stand."
"As usual," Solomon said.
"Only God knows who the mother is."
"True," Solomon said and put his hand on her head with affection. She felt precarious on his lap and sat gingerly. He stroked her hair in a fatherly fashion. "There is an ancient tale," he said, "I've heard men from the East tell it. One day two women came before the emperor and both declared that they were the mother of the same child. Said one that during the night after they had given birth, the other rose up and took her live child from her and put her child, born dead, next to her. 'A remarkable feat, ' the emperor said. He asked for a sword and threatened to cut the child in half. 'It is the only way to render justice,' the emperor said."
"Do you believe this?" Tamar asked.
"Such was the wisdom of the emperor, which is why we advise," he whispered low in her ear, "that we pursue love and not justice."
She blushed, but maintained her point. "It seems that only God and the thief can know who the true mother is."
"True," he repeated, "but it is honest men who must decide, and we must decide without God's help."
"In that case, we must give the child to the most deserving."
Solomon closed his eyes, tired lids over tired eyeballs. The peacock pecked its way over the lions' skins. Solomon smiled. "I shall not ask you whom you think is the most deserving." He pressed her toward him and whispered again in her ear, "What is there in this world more true, or what loyalty more fierce than the blood between mother and child?"
Tamar understood a political innuendo when she heard one, testing her for Bathseba's acceptability. She moved to get off his lap, but he held her and watched her through drowsing eyes. "Speak freely," he said. "You are the indigenous Hebrew. Tell your king what is on your mind."
She grimaced at the word, king. The expression on her face was not lost on him. He watched her through voluptuous, vigilant eyes, finally letting go of her wrist. "I am disappointed," he said, standing up. "I expected Tamar to be frank and courageous."
"To what end?"
"Because Tamar loves virtue. Tamar resists corruption. You cannot corrupt her even if you corrupt her. Spread her out on a lion's skin and she becomes mist in your hands. She prefers virtue to seduction by a king, but she prefers life to honesty." He rolled disappointed eyes at her.
Tamar thought out her answer and smiled precociously. "You have mistaken my virtues. I am not a lamb for your temple."
Solomon held the reins to his emotions. He even spoke with a humble voice. "It appears to be my fate to leave your room unsatisfied. I hope Tamar will not go crying in the night when other animals prowl outside her door."
The emotional life of kings is very unsteady. Sometimes they are given great latitude for emotional expression and can order decapitation for an unlucky messenger without a fidget of conscience, but they must never complain of lassitude or languor. They may be extravagant, luxurious, uxorious, and vengeful, lustful, boastful, wise, and cruel, but they may not be lethargic, indifferent, worn out, or shy, polite meek, pleasant, or placid. Kings dwell in the extremes of emotional states, bearing the burdens of race and history, time and dynasty, being three-fourths symbol and one-fourth man. Thus, Solomon's mood as he left Tamar's room, was one of outrage. Of the traits permitted to kings, he was extravagant, luxurious, uxorious, vengeful, lustful, wise, and cruel, and he felt all these towards her at the moment. He wanted to dress her in peacock feathers, make a crown of pigeons for her hair, and destroy her. He could not possess her and he could not let her go. Ambivalence is dangerous for kings. He decided to destroy her.
His mood the next morning was unkingly, nasty and unkempt. He
felt, in a very pedestrian way, as if he had slept in the bottom
of a pit. Like other mortals, all day he had the restless feeling
that he had forgotten something, that he had left part of himself
somewhere else or something unfinished. But unlike other mortals,
he had a cure for the sensation: he went down to the site of the
temple and the new palace he was building for himself. A worker
who was loafing put him in a state of fury. Feelings of
urgency rose in him, fears that he might not see the building completed or live to occupy it. The knowledge that it could all be erased with an earthquake gave him shudders. In short, he stood in front of his palace with the vanity of kings and said: "My handiwork." It dispelled a little the gloom of the amorphousness of life and the thought of how meaningless mere
personality was, even his, if crushed out of history.
After lunch he went to the throne room to judge the matter
between Ohalah and Haggith. Bathseba was there, and anyone else
who had an interest in the subject, like Tamar, whom he spotted
hiding behind a palm plant. Traders were in the room. One had
brought a rare curiosity from Africa, an albino monkey. It sat on
the trader's shoulder and stared around the room
with frightened, pink eyes. Solomon stopped to pat it. The monkey flicked out its tongue. "A rare animal," the trader said.
"And yet after all a monkey," Solomon said.
"True," the trader said,"but not another like it."
Solomon looked into the monkey's eyes. "Are you then so alone?" he asked.
Shisha sat on a stool, indolently fanning herself with a palm
leaf. Parrots shrieked. Solomon clapped his hands for order. The
traders retired, bowing deferentially to higher matters. Ohalah
and Haggith were brought in. Ohalah's face was more bloated than
the day before. Her upper lip was swollen and twisted to a side,
one of her eyes was closed, its lashes matted
with mucous. Solomon called her by name, but she had to be prodded by a soldier to respond. Haggith's eyes snapped at her. "She is pretending to be sick to gain your sympathy. Do not be taken in by her act."
There was a flash of anger in Ohalah's eyes, but it subsided immediately. Solomon waved them both down. "Are you the mother?" he asked Haggith.
"Indeed," she said.
"Can that woman answer?" Solomon asked. A soldier prodded her again. She started to cry and wiped her swollen face with a dirty hand, feeling herself a stranger and the lack of sympathy in the audience.
"Do you persist in the same answer?" Solomon asked. There was an
incoherent murmur. She nodded her head. There was a humming about
her, which she tried to brazen out. Solomon caught Tamar's eyes
watching him. Judge if you can, it said. Now, how can I? he
responded silently. He lingered, waiting too for sympathy
and considered the matter, unaware that of his many
decisions this one would give him fame for three thousand years. That might have been either a jovial or a perplexing thought to him, depending upon how he wanted to strike the future. At the moment he dramatically called for the baby and a sword to be brought in. "Blood calls to blood," he said. "We will do what is just. Since you both claim the child, we will divide it in half
and give half to each of you."
He grabbed the infant by an ankle with his oriental intelligence and swung it in the air. It rolled open two distressed eyes and began to cry. Haggith howled and almost ran at Solomon. "Do not disturb the child," she shrieked.
Solomon lowered the sword. "Are you then the mother?" he asked. For answer, she tore the baby out of his hands.
The spectators looked at Ohalah with contempt. "Dung," they said, "send her back. Let her breed maggots and flies in the hills where she comes from."
Ohalah was led from the room as she was brought in, swinging like a dead branch between two soldiers, her swollen eyes matted with mucous.
Tamar caught Solomon's eyes. The expression on her face said, "Trickery." He felt abused and, worse, put into a mean humor to be judged by an unprepossessing concubine who didn't have enough sense to desire him and merge her future with his. No one could have judged better, his expression responded to hers. It was a barren truth, and he assessed it as such.
She approached his throne in view of everyone, her body weaving
towards him like a stalk in the wind. She knelt supinely and said,
"Is this Solomon's famous wisdom?" Her nearness pierced him with
the odor of open fields and unanxious summers, with brown eyes and
brown arms moving smoothly, luxuriously secure. Her breathing
flesh held the acceptance he
His eyes narrowed to slits that said, "Just about, and you better
hang on to what there is." The traders moved back through the room
and crowded the throne. Solomon tried to keep track of Tamar in
the crowd, for all kinds of reasons, but she disappeared.
He knew he shouldn't sleep alone that night. He usually did avoid that, but he also knew he would not go to Tamar, and he had no desire to go to Shisha or to anyone else for specious satisfaction. Thus, he was caught by his nightmare that night, with nothing to distract him. In his dream he held the baby by its skull in one hand and a sword in the other. Two women flanked the entrance to the throne room. One was called Jachin, the other Boaz, one was called Establish, the other Power. Yes, yes, yes, Solomon said, but how? The women wept. They went weak in the knees. They pleaded with him for the child. Yes, yes, yes, but which one of you? he said. You, you must find the answer, they cried. He held up the sword. The baby shrieked. He struggled to save it, and fell back into darkness, clutching its head.
He rose from his bed and paced his room. The night was dark. The moon was out, but clouds sailed over it. He went down to the harem. He paused at Tamar's room, but did not go in. He went to the Hittite's room. "Are you awake?" he said.
"Always," she said.
He sat down on her bed. "Part your thighs, Shisha," he said, "and take me home." Shisha stretched out, but Solomon did not stay. Shisha was surprised, but not disappointed. To be that close to the nerve center of power was anyhow a sexy feeling.
Solomon moved out of her room like a cat. The wind was blowing.
He wrapped his robe around himself and took the path to the
temple. In the distance an ape bellowed and a drunken soldier
laughed. Otherwise Jerusalem was quiet this night. The moon sailed
out and lit up the city. Over the wall, up the hillside, the sheep
stood in the darkness with their sad patience. He mounted the
steps to the temple courtyard. The moon cleared of clouds and lit
up the pillars of Jachin and Boaz. He felt relief at the
sight of their bronze corporeality. She is wrong and I am right, he said to himself about Tamar. Time is dust. A kingdom without monuments can be blown away. But a terrible rushing wind blew through him. It froze him with a sense of failure. He could not penetrate the feeling that he had failed, but how?
God whispered in his ear: This house cannot contain me. It is vanity in my eyes.
He recognized the voice. It was as familiar to him as the buzz of anxiety inside his brain.
You have aged, God said. The last time we spoke together you were young. Come, God, you said to me, let me solve the problem of good and evil. How have you solved it? I have seen you in the night with your arms around Ashtoreth. I am the Lord, thy God, Solomon, that God which brought you out of the house of bondage. You have made bondsmen of my people, you have wasted my mission and squandered your inheritance. Now I shall rend the kingdom from you, and the people of Israel shall be a proverb and a byword among all people.
Solomon fell on his knees. His ambition and pride bled on the temple steps. Still, a stubborn feeling that he was right lingered on. He swept the ground with his hands as if he were making a clearing in the sand. Lord, he said, life is darkness. Only things reflect light. Spirit is ineffable, flesh rots. How can man enter into the spirit of destiny? What protection is there against time? What wall can be built to hold out emptiness? We bleed the people for empire and make meaning out of monuments and our monuments destroy us. Nothing mortal can be just. Ours is the darkness, Yours the glory.
Crafty Solomon. God considered his answer, but God was craftier. He said to Solomon: "I too judge and look for justice. If I did not, I would be less than man. But despair not, between me and thee the spirit of destiny flows back and forth.
The consolation was as hard as a rock. The future in all its devious invisibility attacked Solomon. A corrosive sense of failure that cut to the heart of his historical mission took hold of him: The terrible thought that his policies had been wrong. But how judge the conduits of history.
Even Hitler, years later, was attacked by a doubt that God had in
mind a destiny of survival for the Jews that didn't coincide with
his plans. And Solomon had no such deadly ambitions as Hitler.
Solomon had had in mind only empire-building which, on a clear and
lovely morning when the temple gleamed white and the sun blinked
off its columns, seemed right, but at other times,
as on a night filled with hatred and desire for Tamar, he knew to be political cruelty.
The moon was bitterly bright. It filled the courtyard with armfuls of light, but Solomon lay crushed on the temple steps, besieged with visions of God's judgment, the earthly failure, the failure of the grand gesture, the failure of magnificence, the failure of power, of personality, of willpower, of kingship, of empire, of intelligence, failure, failure, and failure.
He lay crushed beneath The Eternal, while his form cast its
shadow over history for three thousand years. Beyond the temple he
had built for God and the wall of the city was wilderness and
sheep crying in the night.
How dreadful is this suffering, Abraham thought. He said this to himself not for pity's sake, but to clarify the obstacles to his will power, for his suffering was a contender whose strength awed him. Isaac, it breathed in the dark, Isaac, my son.
The preparations for the journey were finished. The servants had collected the provisions and had put them near the door to the tent. Sheep had been milked after sundown, and the milk was stored in water bottles and buried in the cool sand. It was expected that the day would be hot. Reports had already come in that many of the outlying streams and wells were dry. They could not depend upon finding water until they reached higher ground. It behooved them to leave early and to travel fast.
Abraham woke with a start, thinking he heard a footfall outside the tent, animal or man disarraying the provisions. He rose from his mat and went to the doorway where he felt with his hands the tidily wrapped bundles. Everything was in place, but he was no longer tired. He opened the flap to the tent and looked out. There was a vein of light across the horizon, but except for that everything was dark. Dawn was only a suggestion.
In the distance beyond the tents he heard the muffled movement of the flock. They were restless to find grass, for everything was drying. A lamb bleat complainfully. Its voice barely had volume, sounding surpriseful, sustaining itself with mournful fragility on a note of terror. Its mother moved in closely. There was a scuffling of sounds, then the young cry rose again, harsh with fear. The lamb was hungry and the comfort of its mother was useless. Abraham heard her own offended cry.
He peered out toward the flock. Their fretfulness was contagious. He felt it himself, an irritable apprehension. The herd moved like a wave and its cries were carried off to his distant right. There was silence then and in the silence he heard his own cry, the creaking of an old and straining will power. When he turned back into his tent to get ready, his teeth were chattering.
The dew was still heavy as they mounted their asses. No one was in favor of the journey. The herdsmen grumbled that it would delay the flocks for seven days, and Sarah bristled because Abraham insisted that Isaac go too.
"God will protect," he mumbled stiffly. Sarah threw up her hands.
As they mounted their asses she looked at him with entreaty, annoyance, and worry. She stood in the tent way, the morning air blowing her grey hair in a frowzy circle, and eyed him with the settled irritation of a wife married half a century to a stubborn man. He would not look back at her. But as the asses started to move, he felt her eyes linger on him and on Isaac. In the final half second Abraham wavered on her behalf. He knew when he returned he would be parted from her forever.
Isaac followed promptly, as it behooved him, though he too felt that the journey was impractical in view of the season, but no judgment passed his lips. He was not of an age to take a critical stand against his father. Next year, he told himself. Already he was allowed to go on such a journey, and for the past year Abraham had been giving him instruction in the details of the camp, for he meant him to be prepared to take command when he died. Isaac was conscious of his position. He rode beside Abraham and chatted about things, about the servants, about a new tent, with an edge of equality in his voice.
Abraham rode in silence.
At first the asses left tracks in the bedewed sand, but soon the sun rose, the sand dried, and the tracks were covered up. The heat was far from its height, but already Abraham felt irritated by it. The glare hurt his eyes, and from time to time there were soft explosions of heatlight against his retina. Isaac heard the low gossip of the servants behind him. Occasionally he heard Eliezer whistle a tune and he joined him. A dune rose up and disappeared. The sand turned white and powdery. The sun climbed high over their right shoulders. For almost half a day Abraham rode without talking. By midday the monotony of the desert was crushing, and Isaac resented Abraham's silence.
When the sun passed overhead, Eliezer drew in his breath, Ishmael coughed, a low grumble. Isaac looked back at them and shrugged his shoulders, but Abraham seemed unaware. "Can we not stop now?" Isaac said. He wiped his forehead with his hand to emphasize his discomfort.
Abraham turned to him as if his presence surprised him. Isaac felt that he had been presumptuous. "I am tired," he said peevishly. Abraham saw that the sun had passed overhead. He was annoyed with himself for his distractedness and stopped his ass abruptly. Isaac turned and smiled to Eliezer and Ishmael. They smiled back with gratitude.
They sat down in the shadow of the asses and unwrapped the breadloaves, the figcakes, and the cheese. All drank milk that day, to consume it before it soured. When they had finished eating, Abraham motioned that they mount again. Isaac saw that Eliezer and Ishmael were irritated. He looked down at his toes. "The servants are tired," he said in a low voice. Abraham looked at Isaac in perplexity as if he heard a new note in his son's voice, but he nodded agreement that they nap.
Eliezer and Ishmael immediately lay down and covered their heads with their robes. Isaac stood uncertainly and played with the ear of his ass. Abraham watched him. The air was milky, filled with a fine dust that irritated his eyes. His eyes were watery and his gaze was unsteady, but he fixed it on Isaac.
"What concerns you for my servants?" he asked.
Isaac reddened. He shifted his feet and leaned in towards his ass's head. He felt that Abraham should understand that it behooved him to keep favor with the servants when one day he would have to rule them. He looked across the neck of the ass and said, "Ought not the son of Abraham show concern for his father's servants?"
Abraham felt the future brush him with a feeling of non-existence, a foretaste of ghostliness. He looked away too, at the sun, at the sand, at his knees crossed on the ground. "I am still here," he said.
Isaac pressed his lips. He avoided looking at his father and stroked the sloping nose of the ass. "Chi, chi," he murmured to the animal. He dug his hand into a pouch and brought out a bell, which he tinkled in front of the animal. "Chi," he shouted, trying to arouse him.
Abraham stretched himself out and covered his face with his robe. He felt discomfort with his son because he had violated his discipline. But underneath his robe his suffering leaped to his side and whispered, But thou art Isaac, doomed. Remorsefully Abraham wished he could undo the reprimand, undo himself as father to this child. Falling asleep he heard Isaac screaming at his ass like a mad chieftain. The sounds dunned his sleep like small shocks of life that would not let him shut off the world and rest.
When they took up their journey in the afternoon, the sun was low on their left. The air was swollen with heat, which struck the back of their throats and burned the lids of their eyes. On their right was a dune that stretched for a distance. They bent eastward until the dune was on their left, then in single file they rode along the margin of shadow that it cast. They did not reach the mountains that night, and settled on an oasis that they found by chance. They ate their evening meal in silence, for Abraham's manner made them feel strained. Isaac was disappointed that the trip was dull.
The sun crept down the palm trees and disappeared. With few words to each other, Eliezer and Ishmael lay down and went to sleep. Isaac stayed up. He waited for his father to talk to him, but Abraham only sat cross-legged and stared out to where the sun had incomprehensibly disappeared, swallowing one day with it. "Goodnight," Isaac coughed gently.
Abraham turned around, "Isaac?" he asked.
He went to him and Isaac hoped for words of reconciliation. But Abraham only bent down and pressed the boy's shoulders, indicating that he should lay down and sleep.
He lay himself down too, but he could not bear that Isaac was unhappy. He thought of his irritability during the day with panic. The situation was more than his emotions could deal with; they grew abnormal all by themselves. Two more days, he thought, grief-stricken, falling into sleep.
But, again, he woke with a start at an unfamiliar sound. Within seconds he registered its source. Isaac had risen and was stealing towards the edge of the oasis. Abraham watched him. Isaac crept between the palm trees, the moonlight slanted down his legs. The branches moved. The morning breeze blew, though it was still dark.
Abraham had not risen during moonlight for many years, and the thick yellowness startled him with forgotten sensuality. One by one his senses strained to catch it as he watched Isaac, bare legged, make his way to the edge of the oasis. His nostrils dilated with the cold night air. He had forgotten how the earth cools itself, enjoying its chilly body in sumptuous darkness. The breeze blew through his robe. It touched his neck and chest with sensation. The full tide of remembering broke upon him as if the breeze tore aside his aging skin and exposed the youth who had lived in Ur, wrapped in stars and wind. Isaac passed through the edge of the oasis. He walked on to the sand and looked up into the moon, momentously. The world hung in luxury like a jewel waiting for its inheritor. Isaac was immobile, lost in an ancient rapture. Abraham watched him. His body quivered with homesickness for his own youth, and wept for its loss.
"Isaac," he said to himself, and for a moment he thought his body had broken apart.
"Isaac," he groaned.
Eliezer stirred. "He is there," he called out, pointing to the edge of the oasis. Then dumbfoundedly he saw that Abraham saw him perfectly. He grumbled to himself that it was too early to rise, but being up he woke Ishmael.
They started out while it was dark. Abraham rode first, and Isaac straddled between his father and the servants. Sometimes he hung back to hear their gossip, sometimes he pushed away from them. Half a day they advanced towards the sun. The ground became firmer. The sand did not shift so freely, and the footfalls of the asses could be heard. The animals now left tracks in the sand. They were coming to the end of the desert.
By mid afternoon they passed out from the monotony of the sand into the mountains.
They climbed only for a short time before they camped inside a cave. Eliezer uncorked the wine bottles and passed them around. Abraham sat apart, against the trunk of a tree, and Isaac ate with the servants. Sulkily Isaac regarded Abraham's separateness.
"He was ever thus," Eliezer said, noting the boy's uneasiness.
"Nay. It is because I intervened for you yesterday," Isaac said.
Eliezer shrugged his shoulders as if to say that was an issue for which there was no remedy.
As soon as they had finished eating, Abraham gave the order to
continue. Eliezer and Ishmael started forth grudgingly. The asses
now had to be led, and the party wound its way in single file. The
trail was narrow, often hanging over steep canyons that swung
greyly beneath them. The rocks were whitened and chalky. A white
powder floated everywhere. They came to a dried
stream where the waterbed was ribbed with cracks and lizards. Eliezer looked at it with troubled eyes, with a shade of dismal and self-righteous confirmation. "Pass it over," Abraham said in a mechanical voice.
Eliezer pursed his lips, and they crossed the stream in silence. Isaac's heart fluttered.
"What ails thee?" Abraham asked him sharply, and Isaac was caught by his incisive perceptiveness.
"I am tired of journeying," he mumbled under his breath.
Abraham's eyes flickered. He was sorry he had spoken harshly. He said in a softer voice, "Eliezer and Ishmael are good servants. They are right that the drought is bad. We will lose many sheep by this delay."
Isaac was embarrassed. But he said, "Then why do you contend with them?"
"Because," Abraham said in a metallic voice, "they do not have my errand to do."
"Could it not have waited until after the removal?" Isaac asked boldly.
Abraham's eyes flickered again. The time is unpropitious he had said himself to God.
Now, God answered.
A month, Abraham had pleaded, stay me a month to move my flocks.
Isaac saw the shade of a surreptitious struggle pass over Abraham's face. He paused. Then prodded by the intelligence of the thing, he asked again, "Could it not have waited?"
"No," Abraham said with a ring of dismissal.
This night Abraham slept too, overcome with strain. His agony found a partial release in the thought that there was only one day left. They had gone too far now to return, and he felt that the next day might carry him on its own tide. He had only to endure. But the day did not pass that way. They woke facing a malignant sun. Before them stretched the plains, as level and as hot as the desert, where every blade of grass cracked beneath their feet. Abraham felt the skin on his face dry perceptibly. His hair and eyebrows grew stiff. They rode for hours, and there was not the slightest diminution of heat. It blistered the top of his head through his robe. The power of the sun seemed like a betrayal. All day as they rode his heart knocked violently. There was no thought he could bring to bear upon himself that would calm him.
When they came to a stretch of land that was covered with dwarfed
trees and dense bushes, he let them nap. He himself lay down on
his back. Isaac lay on his stomach close by him, his head on his
arms, his legs parted, bent at the knees. Abraham stared at the
sky until his eyes watered and burned, then with a groan he sat
up. The blue sky stretched illimitably. Underneath,
the ground was dense with life, and next to him the three slept soundly. Only he sat in a hollow of loneliness, his head thrust above the high grass, compacted of agonies that revolved slowly in him like a kaleidoscope, first showing one pattern of pain, then another. He looked at Isaac sleeping next to him and felt unbearable pain.
If Isaac could wake and comfort him! Somebody should, he thought
with a bitterness that brought tears to his eyes. He was startled
by his weakness. I am indeed old, he thought, and suddenly it
seemed to him that he was the victim, doomed to suffer before, to
suffer at the deed, and to suffer after. Doomed to weep and weep
and weep for Isaac, while Isaac slept and dreamed of tomorrow. Of
what? Of his coming leadership, of how he would govern servants
and lead the camp. I am still here, Abraham said aloud. He blinked
his eyes. But this is Isaac, he thought. What had happened to the
that surrounded him? This is Isaac, he said as if the statement could restore the mere boy undressed of complexity. This is Isaac, he gasped to himself, and with a push of all his energies he reclaimed the original idea. "Up! Up!" he shouted at the others.
They rose and looked at him with confusion. Eliezer blinked at the sky. Abraham thought he smiled ironically. He brushed the thought away, breathless at his weakness, and mounted his ass. "Up! Up!" he shouted and started down the trail across the plains before the others were even mounted.
They went through a forest. Abraham could hear Isaac whistling in
the distance behind him. He nudged his ass on as fast as the
animal could go, and came out of the forest much before the
others. The sun was setting, but its descent was blocked out by
the mountains in front of him. The top of the mountain in the east
was leveled to a rocky plateau from which two craggy
promontories plunged southward, and on top of this plateau, although it was lost to view in the fusion of sunset and night, was a huge outcropping of rock: dense, broad, level, mute, momentous, recipient of the sacrifices of centuries; ancient, absolute stone.
Abraham veered his course easterly, and by nightfall they were at the base of the mountain, in the shadow of the plateau. He saw it above him like a thing he had never seen, before, although he had been staring into it for three days.
Eliezer, Ishmael, and Isaac were in a comfortable mood now that
half the journey was over. They ate their evening meal with
relish. They drank wine, and Ishmael sang to them. Isaac hummed in
the background. Abraham listened to them desperately, for
distraction's sake. But soon they went to sleep, Isaac too, still
humming to himself, and Abraham was left with the mountain
hovering above them. All night he held Isaac's head in his arm and tried to sleep, but his eyes never closed. He heard Ishmael wake in the morning, then Eliezer and Isaac. They called to him to rise and eat, but he had no appetite. The day had dawned. They ate. He made his preparations.
When they were finished eating, he unloaded the wood from the ass and strapped it to Isaac's back. "Abide here with the asses," he said to Eliezer and Ishmael. "I and the lad will go yonder to worship." He raised his eyes surreptitiously to the plateau above him. Then he put his knife in the girdle of his robe, made a torch, and indicated to Isaac to follow him up the mountain.
But Isaac stopped him. "Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" he said, looking about him. "Here is the wood and the fire and the knife, but where is the lamb?"
Abraham's cheeks were pouchy and grey. His eyes were swollen. "God will provide the lamb for the offering," he said. His voice struck the air like frozen mist. Isaac was bewildered and hesitated. Then he followed his father.
The morning was bright. They took a trail that led between the two promontories, the only trail they could discover. Isaac climbed vigorously. The cool air struck the back of his throat. Abraham walked with his back bent; he kept well ahead of Isaac, and all Isaac could see of him was the smoky trail of his torch. Though Isaac climbed rapidly, he could not catch up with him, and Abraham did not stop to wait for him. Once Isaac turned, and far below saw Eliezer and Ishmael throwing a rock to each other. Then the trail bent, and they were lost to sight, and Isaac was alone in the mountains.
Finally they reached the plateau. Abraham motioned to Isaac to put down the wood. Then he planted his torch in the ground so that his hands would be free. He turned to Isaac, and Isaac waited. Abraham's eyes were puffy, embedded in rings of sunburn. Water floated on his lower rims, and he gazed at Isaac through a mist.
"Are you not well?" Isaac asked with alarm.
Abraham did not respond. He turned and walked to the edge of a thicket and stared into it.
"Are you never to forgive me?" Isaac said under his breath.
Abraham did not hear him. He stood at the edge of the thicket and
stared into it. Isaac guessed that he meant to wait for the
appearance of a lamb. Irritably he reckoned that if they depended
on chance they might wait all day. He sat down on a rock and
sulkily picked up some pebbles and played with them. The sun was
directly overhead. The flies buzzed in the silence.
Isaac sighed restlessly. The perspiration flowed on his forehead, and the flies buzzed around it. The silence was vast. It seemed to flow from the sun, it penetrated the earth, it swelled with the heat, it spread over the rock and the mountain, it saturated the air, and hung on Isaac's shoulders. He struck at the flies. He looked about him and felt the loneliness of the place. Immensity existed. It was all about him, and he was a contradictory element in it. His loneliness frightened him. He felt that his father should see his discomfort and was bewildered that he did not. He wanted to cry and felt dismally that he was too old for that. The silence crushed him until he felt inessential. He had wanted to come, and now he could not leave. The silence drew its net tighter and, voiceless, told him that he would never forget this day. Some childish pride in being alive passed out of his life
forever. He gave up waiting and dozed.
Then, suddenly, Abraham was before him. He heard his father's voice call him. "Isaac," Abraham called, like all the times he had come to wake him in the morning. But there was something terrible in the voice. There was something terrible in his name, and something terrible in his father saying it as if it was not he who was saying it but some dreadful suffering that said it for him; there was an illimitable sadness in the sound.
Isaac struggled sluggishly against the sound of his name, but a world of dread yawned before him in the dark. Fearing to be caught in a vision of life that was unendurable, he opened his eyes and was caught.
"Isaac," Abraham said, and his hand was upon his shoulder, the knife was at his throat.
Isaac sprang to his feet. "Where is the lamb?" he squeaked.
"Isaac," Abraham whispered hoarsely.
"Where is the lamb?" Isaac cried out.
"You are the lamb," Abraham screamed.
Isaac blinked his eyes. He took a step backwards and fell against the rock. Abraham saw his terror. "God wills it," he cried.
Isaac's mind dropped into emptiness. His brain shifted round with hysterical haste to make sense of this thing. The pattern of his offense rose, the pattern of himself as an offending being. "God?" he asked. He turned his head and looked at Abraham out of the side of his eyes, shamefaced and confused.
Abraham's heart fluttered. "Isaac," he screamed, as if he were clutching at his dying child. The sweat ran on his face. "I will pay for your death with my own."
But Isaac looked at him blankly, sidewise, uncomprehendingly. He looked at him with uncanny and desperate intelligence.
Abraham put down his arm and trembled. "Art thou Isaac?" he cried.
Isaac sobbed. His chin dropped on his chest. It was unbearable to answer him, unbearable to look at him, unbearable to accept reproach, unjust to be innocent. All he could do was cry. He heard the sound in his ears, full of animal terror.
An afternoon wind stirred the grass near the rock. It passed over him, and his heart stopped. It passed over him again with a terrible sweetness. Cries tore his chest. He opened his eyes, and the blueness of the air broke him with love and terror. "Yes, I am Isaac," he wept.
His voice tore at Abraham. He reeled under the impact of the
sound of its youth and innocence. "My God," he screamed, "do not
struggle with me," and before Isaac could move he threw him
against the rock and held him. With desperation he tore aside the
wrapping of throat and sought to plunge his hands on the
child that was covered beneath it. But Isaac screamed and
something eluded him. The wind rustled: "Do not lay thy hand upon the child." Mingled in Isaac's screams, louder than the commotion of their breaths, Abraham heard the rustle in the thicket behind him. He turned to look, and in that moment Isaac threw his father from him and ran into the woods. The ram, frightened by the intruder, ran out into the open. The wide
pale sky stretched with simplicity.
Abraham's legs crumpled willessly like dry leaves in a wind. He fell to his knees. Understanding upon understanding crashed upon his ears. The sky opened forever, beyond and beyond and beyond. Thou art the Lord, he cried, and fell prone upon the ground and wept.
The ram, close by, looked at him curiously. Isaac stayed hidden behind a clump of bushes and stared at his father. His breath was short, and the taste of terror was still in it. His face was red, his ears rang and burned.
When Abraham recovered himself and stood up, he looked about him, but Isaac did not move.
"Isaac," he called out, "help me prepare the ram."
Isaac hesitated. Abraham heard him breathing in the thicket.
"Isaac," he said softly, but with familiar authority, "help me prepare the ram."
Isaac looked behind him through the thicket, but it was dense and he could discover no trail on that side. The sun was dangerous. Already the grass in the clearing was parched. Behind him the bushes closed in darkness. Isaac hesitated, then cautiously crept out.
"Isaac," Abraham called to him again, "come see how the Lord has saved us." He called in such a voice that Isaac felt aged.
Abraham caught the ram with a quivering tenderness and held him in his arms. He brought the ram over for Isaac to look at it. Isaac looked into its small, agitated face and felt a terror for everything that existed. Abraham carried the ram to the rock and swiftly bent over him. Isaac turned his back, and when he heard the last wild squeak, his head fell forward.
When the sacrifice was over, they started down the mountain. The sun was low. Isaac walked behind his father, keeping a measured distance. Once he slipped, and Abraham turned to help him, but Isaac shied a step backward. Abraham looked at him with curiosity. But it was not then that he knew. The sun fell behind the highest peak, and the mountain stood out in blackness. Isaac waited until his father should be well ahead of him again. Abraham descended. Then not hearing Isaac's step, he paused and looked back. Isaac sat on his haunches and watched him. Abraham could not see his face in the twilight. He peered, but he could not make it out. Isaac faded into the dark of the mountain. Abraham turned and thought he saw his suffering stand up before him again. The dusk gathered together and whispered. Abraham's heart started to knock, as if he had it all to look forward to. He could not see the trail in front of him. He turned again.
"Isaac," he called.
There was no answer for a moment. Then out of the darkness he heard a tremulous, "Yea?"
But Abraham did not know what to say to that. Again he turned and went down, and again he heard Isaac's steps far behind him, and in that measured tread he heard the infinite perplexity of everything that ever was.
It was already dark when Eliezer and Ishmael spotted them on a steep, rocky descent. They had to climb backwards over the sharp rocks. In the misty distance, as they groped and bent and let themselves down on their hands and knees, they looked like two desperate figures, goats or peasants, suspicious of their footing.
Imposing in height and in manner and in lineage, famous for
wisdom, beauty, and chastity, Beruriah had become a legend. It was
known and well know that even her decisions had been set down in
the Talmud alongside those of the rabbis, and domestic gossip had
it that "if the truth were known, Rabbi Meir did not make a
decision without consulting her first." She was
seen as the heir to Deborah and Miriam and as a sister spirit to Akiva's wife. "Every day a bat kol, a voice of the daughter, goes forth from Mt. Sinai," the people liked to quote, and whether they mentioned Beruriah's name in connection with this saying or not, everyone knew they meant her.
Of course, Beruriah was plainly human, a wife and a mother with bad and happy memories. Two memories in particular filled her soul: the sight of her father's burnt body and the thoughts of her children as babies. Always she carried with her a ferocious appetite for their safety, for the sight of them, their hands, their legs, their wet bodies in the rain, carried an unappeasable appetite for their welfare and their presence, no matter where she was. Her passion for their survival seemed fed by her love and passion for the world, and her fears for the world fed her passion for her children.
She lived by co-extensions, not only with them but with everything else that lived. It seemed as if the ocean had infused her veins with salt and spray and dark formed fishes, so that her nerves and intuitions were over-stimulated. She could watch an ant, entranced by its intelligence and piqued by its failures, and her responsiveness was razor sharp, giving back to the world a continuous disappointment or lament. The truth was that study quieted her revolving world. It was the line drawn between order and disorder. It was, along with children, also a spiritual fecundity and a way of victory for a defeated people. Love of country with her was one with love of her own children and love of study, so that if she walked along the road and looked at the harassed landscape she could think, "As long as God gives children," and think it with the resoluteness of a modern woman. The thought for her was personal and social, political and pious, for only those who have experienced death can know how all encompassing is the idea of birth.
"Flowers," she would say if she saw her children standing on a hillside. "Pearls," she would think when they learned their letters. "The Lord bless thee and keep thee," and, in fact, after that there was nothing more that could be said or wrung from the world and its future for their safety. With Bar Kochba's defeat had come the quietus that follows shock.
"We are between the ages," Beruriah had said. "Time will start again when we are healed."
One day while Rabbi Meir was in the synagogue, the subject of his wife came up for conversation. Since it was difficult to say anything against her, the conversation was in praise of her, and Rabbi Meir was flattered. Beruriah alone, of all the women of her generation, knew Torah.
"Who taught her?" one asked.
"Everything taught her," Rabbi Meir said. "Her father taught her, and I taught her, and she taught herself, and she learned with the children, and she learned from the world." Of course, he also had to defend her intellectual freedom, not because anyone could say anything against it, but because it was unusual. And he would defend it in the way that it was natural for a rabbi to do, with a quotation from Torah. "The prophet has said it shall come to pass that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy."
"But," asked Yitzhaq, a brilliant young scholar, "do you think in woman love of learning is as strong as love of love?"
They disputed the issue in various dimensions: all living matter was infused with the erotic impulse, for how else explain the generations, but all living matter was not likewise infused with the intellectual impulse, for clearly ants did not write books or pronounce laws. Therefore, the erotic impulse, being general and original, was primitive. The intellectual impulse was individualized and could not depend upon communal or racial strengths. It had only its lonely self. It was concluded that the erotic impulse was everywhere stronger than the intellectual impulse, for it had the whole force of the world to draw upon, but as to whether it was stronger or weaker in woman than in man was difficult to say.
Rabbi ben Ezra said that the two impulses were unnaturally yoked in battle, for such a battle could only be an issue for man since it could not be said that the cosmos had an intellectual impulse and, said Rabbi ben Ezra, "The Most High, blessed be His Name, would not choose the frail breast of man as a battlefield for an unnatural struggle." Therefore, he concluded, there was something wrong in the presentation of the argument.
"But where else could the struggle take place?" the scholar Yitzhaq asked.
Rabbi Eliezer said that since woman was made of Adam's rib she
was inferior. He pointed out that it was Adam who had named the
animals, and not Eve. Intellect originated with man, and while
woman could achieve some learning, she was undisciplined and, he
said, "Learning without discipline is an unguarded jewel. It is
doubtful if woman born of a rib can be as
disciplined as man."
Rabbi Meir argued it this way: Born as she is, of the rib of man, she is of one spirit with him. Thus did the Lord, blessed be His Name forever, show us that woman, taken from the side of man, is of flesh and soul with him and is therefore of equal value with him."
"Yes, but Rabbi," said another," if the Lord, blessed be His Name, had meant to show that woman is equal with man in understanding, He should have created her from Adam's head, as the Greeks say that Athena was born from the head of Zeus."
Rabbi Meir smiled. "Have you not considered what Adam was made from? Who then, Adam or Eve, was made from better substance?"
Still they continued to dispute, for the question touched on many subjects and seemed to go to the limits of understanding: what was the nature of intelligence, did it inhibit the erotic impulse, what was the disposition of a gnat or an ant on this matter, was the proclivity felt in the same way in all living matter? What was the meaning of "generation" if one counted eight stones on a hillside on one afternoon, and then found fourteen stones on the hillside the next afternoon?
Rabbi ben Ezra said, "The Most High, blessed be His Name forever, has given us the means of survival. Let us honor Him by husbanding it wisely."
"Amen," said Rabbi Meir, "blessed be the marriage bed and a chaste woman."
"But," said Yitzhaq, "I will wager that a woman's learning will not protect her chastity."
There seemed a personal element in the statement, and Rabbi Meir laughed, "Does it protect yours?"
Yitzhaq slid his eyes away and said, "It is a fact that in man the flesh is never at rest but in a woman, a woman of great learning, can the mind prevail over the body?"
"But where," asked another, "would you find a woman equal to this task?"
The question was a blunder. The answer was fatal. The scholar who asked it bit his tongue. Rabbi Meir saw the danger, yet, like God before the adversary, could not but throw the mantle of his reputation over his beloved. The others fell back and said, "What kind of silliness is this?" And "It is time for dinner. We will continue this foolishness tomorrow."
But Rabbi Meir was caught in a delirium of conviction that he must accept the contest. "Go, go," he said, "go." And when Yitzhaq responded with a glittering eye, the rabbi felt himself privy to a sudden wisdom. "It is yourself you would prove," he said.
Yitzhaq could not answer. He could not explore. He could only wait.
Rabbi ben Ezra cried out in wrath, "I forbid it. Whoever heard in all of Israel for a rabbi to wager his wife."
When he heard this direct declaration of what he was about to do,
Rabbi Meir felt drained and lightheaded as if he had already taken
the road to tragedy, and dream-like followed one step after
another while Yitzhaq's eyes gleamed at him. Rabbi Meir tore
himself away from the dream of catastrophe and from the
beguilement of those eyes and said haughtily, "You have already
lost the wager. Now go and make a fool of yourself," and he left.
"Was it yes or no?" the scholars whispered.
"No," Rabbi ben Ezra thundered.
"It was yes, " Yitzhaq said.
He was a brilliant man. Everyone said of him that he would soon
be a distinguished rabbi, and in the manner of that day of
intellectual inheritance, Rabbi Meir regarded him as a spiritual
son. He was very learned, but still part boy with slim hips and
light brown eyes, possessed of a multitude of inclinations. His
hands and ankles were tender, his head was small, but when he
appeared in Beruriah's garden the next morning after Rabbi Meir
had left for the synagogue, Beruriah had the impression of
greater agedness about him than she remembered. His intensity was troubling and evoked in her sympathy and caution.
"The rabbi has left for the synagogue," she said.
"I did not come to see him," he said simply, and said nothing else.
She could not ask this man, familiar in her household, to go, but she sensed immediately that he ought not to stay. The air became ambiguous, suspenseful, her senses alert. She felt a pressure in her temples and the heaviness of air saturated with flowers and sunlight.
He sat down on a bench, and his head was surrounded by sun, so
that she saw his features in new lineaments, the dark, unshaven
cheeks, the light eyes, the unsettling and yet intensely rigid
composure of his body. She stood under a fig tree, troubled by his
response and the emptiness of the house, and picked the fruits
carefully, studying each one for particular
So they continued this way for a while. Yitzhaq sat in silence while Beruriah picked the figs and waited and thought out her response to an imminent conversation.
The garden was spacious, covered with fig and olive trees and ripe flowers. The air was warm with their odors and sultry with the hum of bees. Beruriah watched Yitzhaq from the side of her eyes. He continued to sit, still and intense, watchful, thoughtful. His silence gave her time to take command of herself. Still she was startled, as if a pin had pricked her, when he suddenly leaned forward, a warm glimmer of saliva on his lip, and said softly, "Good health to thy navel and to the garden of thy body."
She wheeled around and said to him, "Whoever gazes at a woman intently it is as though he lay with her."
He chuckled in his throat and feigned surprise. He cocked his head like a bird about to pick up a seed, and said, "I come to deliver your husband's shawl," and drew it from a package he carried.
She felt her comment had been hasty but that it did not warrant an apology, and she gave none. She thanked him for the shawl and bid him good day, but he did not go. She decided on levity. "Who will pity a snake charmer bitten by a serpent?" she smiled.
He chuckled happily. The sun melted in his eyes and put warm drops on his forehead. He crossed one leg on top of the other and said, "They say you eat learning like a fruit, that you have taken the Torah like a lover."
She laughed snidely. "I have four children, and not by Torah. I have a husband."
He ignored the inference. "You are famous for your learning. They say you speak, and learning sits like drops of pomegranate juice upon your tongue. They say there are seven kinds of fruit for which the land is famous, and that you are the eighth. They say you are a jewel among our people."
She thought for a moment. The language of his seduction was strange. "Like a decoy partridge is the mind of a brilliant man."
Yitzhaq looked offended. He let his eyes droop around the garden. "Not so," he said, "wisdom in woman should be praised, and to a learned woman we sing such hymns of praise. Tell me which is stronger in woman, love of learning or love of love?"
Beruriah put her basket down and looked at him with scorn. "Do you know who I am?" she asked. "May your thigh rot."
His eyes wavered for a second. Then they caressed the trunk of a tree, the sky, the sun, and then her face. He sprang from his seat and was next to her in a step. "Beruriah, your face is a mirror. There is no book like the book of man." No sooner did he touch her than her flesh exploded with urgency. Juices ran down the caverns of her body. The milk rose to her breasts as in former days when she offered it deliriously to her children and pleaded with the world to take her entirely, mind and soul and womb which the Lord, blessed be His Name throughout eternity, had placed in woman for His creation. She moved away, but he held her, and the flood overwhelmed her. The garden burst with the odors of fecundity. She felt his heart pounding and searched his eyes for the look of love. Yitzhaq uncovered her thigh and laid his loin beside her.
Rabbi Meir was attacked with diseases after the event, and aged.
Yitzhaq disappeared from Sepphoris. There were endless rumors
about these events that followed one another in sequence. Beruriah
was found hanging from a tree outside her garden. All of Sepphoris
quarreled about where to bury her, but in the end she was laid to
rest in an unmarked grave, and Rabbi Eliezer
and Rabbi ben Ezra and the other scholars of the synagogue were changed, and became inscrutable and cautious and refused to say anything about Beruriah. No one would say why she had taken her life, and in the confusing mystery, in their fury and disappointment, the people began to say that it was her learning that had driven her to it, and what they once had prized in her
they now scorned. Little by little her wondrous reputation sank likewise into an unmarked grave.
Yitzhaq, the most promising scholar of them all, disappeared, and Rabbi Meir aged visibly each day so that by the end of the first year of mourning, he had become an old man. Sometimes, in his bitterness, he said to himself that Rabbi Hanina ben Teradjon's martyrdom had been repaid by a whore. At other times he sat in the garden at night and called out his wife's name to the stars. Though her grave was unmarked, he knew where it was , and as the first year of mourning drew to an end, he more and more made his way there at night, wrapped in his prayer shawl. Like the spider circling its nest, he would circle her grave with grief and amazement and call her name as if he expected her to emerge at the sound of his voice, as she used to come to the doorway of their house. Her death came to seem brutally moral to him, her self-destruction a form of self judgment beyond the reach of other mortals, a victory over Yitzhaq. Her suicide grew in his mind until it seemed an act of redemption, and he became intensely anxious because the rest of the world did not see it in the same way. His mind became a clutter of reactions. Under a Judean moon he told his thoughts to God, and in confusion over how unstable the mind is, at one and the same time asked for forgiveness for such thoughts and pronounced them unyielding.
One day someone brought him news of Yitzhaq, that he had been
seen in Tyre, fleshless, with the look of the living dead, of one
cut loose from his moorings, the shifty demeanor of one who had
wasted his talents. The centers of his eyes were dead. Rabbi Meir
wrapped himself in his prayer shawl and went out to the tree from
which his wife had hung herself and said to the
night, "There is neither victory nor defeat for man. There is only being."
Lena tried to think of St. Rupert in pain. Nothing came to mind,
and how could it, she thought, pulling the grey sweater tighter
about her body against the cold of the leather seats and the mud
soaked snow the wheels kicked up against her window. What should
he know of pain? Diseases, worms, purple growths might settle on
his body, and he would sing out glorias and pluck his own wart
between his fingers, an arthritic, dying, smelling wrist with the
earth mound already upon it, that could twist a doctor's hand. To
the very last minute he would die eating or toilet-making, Antonia
helping him, staggering under his weight, his pretense that he
needed help, he who could twist a doctor's hand. But he would not
die just then. He would wait
to flush the toilet and sing out glorias.
Heaven will punish, Lena thought, uncurling her fisted fingers. Had not the Father told her so? She had had his promise now for many years, on an afternoon when St. Rupert had come in from the fields, past sixty, past his manhood, she had thought, drunk on the wine of the grass and the air, fat off his own living, and the dinner smelled good steaming from the pots, the ironcast covers jiggling up and down. He had sat in the armchair he kept at the kitchen table and cut large lumps of bread with the knife he had brought from the old world. He crossed his legs in his brown trousers. Go up, he had said, the crumbs spilling between his teeth. She had raised the flame under the pots and had measured the strength of his fists that would beat her for denying him. No, she said, it will never be again. He put the bread down and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. Then he burst out laughing. "All right," he said, "I will never touch you again." Then he shrugged his shoulders and left.
That evening dinner steamed and hummed. The youngest, Angelo and
Maria, were bathed, powdered, and dressed for sleep. They smelled
good, and their smells mingled with his laughing, with the shaggy,
hairy debauchery he brought back from his naked women. Against
this, Antonia, a maid, sat in a corner crying and crossing
herself. Watch the children, Lena had said, and
went to the Father. There in familiar despair, crouching on the church floor, she permitted anger to bloom, to grow so that the Father could see not one night or one act but St. Rupert coming in through the doorway fat with his living, eating black corruption with his bread. The Father, in his clean black robes, knelt and made the sign of the cross over her twitching back. Vengeance is mine saith the Lord, he said. The words burst in Lena's ears with conviction, and she lived with Rupert for five years more until his very sickness drove the naked women of the town from him, and everywhere she gathered the looks of compassion from the faces around her like roses plucked from a bush.
He in hell, she thought, but nothing came to mind again. She
looked through the snow-starred window, at the white farm fields
crossed and stitched with ice and mud. The Burning Lake and the
Father's rack. Rupert would be shut out from heaven forever. No,
she closed her eyes, that must not be. She would plead for him.
Because he was her husband, a father, a son. Because we must all
beg for mercy for others. For yourself, he would say, plead Lena,
plead God be merciful and drop the scales from your eyes, plead,
plead for your life, plead in your fiftieth year, he would find
strength to raise himself and twist the chain on her neck, plead
in your stinking mass of breasts and belly that have grown fat
robbing me of pleasure, plead in your black hair, coarse and grey
robbing me of beauty, plead Lena that God be merciful and drop the
scales. She would put her hand across his mouth to stop his
tongue, and his eyes would say it. But against this she would
plead for him because he was her husband; she would cry, beg. She
would offer herself in his place and be mortified in eternal
damnation, not for her sins, but for his. She would undertake it.
Her fingers tightened and rolled into fists in her lap. He would
dismiss priests, doctors. He
would wait for her, dead already, except to wait, to see if she would offer. He would demand this last sacrifice from her, and she would give it. Her head rolled back on the pillow. The train was carried along through the dark woods, across the poor villages and half-aspiring towns. It left its tracks in the white fields where the children played, whose faces flashed past her
window with the same look of pain her own children had had. Look, they cried up at her. What is this? Lena is coming.
She opened her eyes. The village of Rosedown, home, St. Rupert
for a husband and Antonia for a maid, six children for a lifetime,
fifty thousand cups of coffee and eighty thousand glasses of
cognac at night for a marriage, linen, silver, crystal, and
carpeting, and five hundred head of cattle for his ambition, home
and he dying in the midst of his making and his eating, and she
for his wife. It all flew past the window and sent up a fresh
spray of mud out of the sparkling wheels. The train came to a halt
Antonia was there in the brown room, carrying her letter in her
gloved hands, following the instructions line by line, item by
item. A hired taxi, the luggage, tips, hot tea that was not in the
letter but is the tiny deviation by which a lifetime maid states
her claim as one of the family. Lena looked into her face to know
at once whether Rupert still lived. Antonia snapped open the lock
to her pocketbook and neatly folded the letter away. Come, Lena
ordered, and over the smoking cups of tea and the moist
jelly rolls, Lena raised her veil and looked again. Then she settled back, undid the ragged fur collar from her coat, and drank her tea leisurely.
He is sick, Antonia said, her head rolling loosely from side to
side on her neck. She spoke of his sickness minutely, medically,
of kidneys, liver, thrombosis, obscure terms, obscure organs. He
leaves no debts, of course not. She spoke of lawyers, accountants,
more cows he had bought, and the farm he had bought next door for
the more cows, and men she had never seen
from banks in New York. They had come, listened to him carefully, sitting with crossed legs in grave suits and serious ties, had drunk his wine, and he had drunk too, and they had spoken of him honorably. Lena drank her tea, adding more lemon. Then Antonia ventured, lowering her voice, he will not get well, I fear he will not get well. Lena looked up. No, he will not get
well, Antonia, she said. And then, because Antonia was looking at the white tablecloth as she spoke and had not yet drunk her tea, Lena looked at her more fully. Antonia raised her eyes, her lashes fluttered like dark wigs, and then lowered to the tablecloth again. He is very rich, she said.
Lena lowered her veil. Come, she said, the taximan waits. She
would not reproach Antonia who had almost always been good. But
such a thought! Brushing up against such a thought after thirty
years of such a marriage! That was to run from his madness
straight into the heart of it. No, Antonia was still, after so
many years, Antonia was still a maid. Lena smiled to herself
against the cold leather of the car, smiled to think of his
prosperity hung from her neck like the jewels he had tried to buy
who had passed the point of feeling in her hatred of his widow-driving, orphan-making, land-collecting thievery, his cutting huge lumps of bread with his knife like cutting wheat with a sickle. Ah, she sat up straight in her seat, that would be his vengeance. It was most probably that it would work thus, that he would leave her everything, his curse written out legally and deposited for safety in a lawyer's vault. He would seek to propagate himself in her heart, clinging like an incubus to live in her eyes as she
looked in store windows, shopped and bought. Desire would incarnate him, and he would come in through the door of his house in his heavy brown shoes glowing and singing from his deep throat.
But it would not be so. She smoothed out her tense fingers.
Choice was always with her and she might undo the chain from her
throat as she had undone the jewels. There was much good that
might be done with wealth, much good it would surprise it to do,
many reinstatements, reimbursements, old friends to be rewon who
had in anger and tradition mistaken husband and wife
as a union and foresworn the one with the other. Yes, she turned to Antonia as the car went up the gravel driveway through a light, unhurried snowfall, he is rich she said, alarming the good Antonia with her smile. The white wings of the wooden framehouse soared out like an eagle in the glare of the headlights. Lena clasped her fur collar around her neck and left the car. There was a light in the front hallway shining through the curtains, through the glass in the door, bending its light upon her like an
eye. It would be like Rupert, she thought, dying, struggling with death, to crawl from the bed to the window at the sound of the car on the driveway to watch for her. Knowing she was coming, having been prepared two weeks ago by Antonia, he was waiting to accept the rightful legacy of death that his beloved wife be with him in his last moments.
Antonia opened the door. The taximan helped with the luggage, took his money, tipped his cap, coats were shaken free of the snow and hung away, and Lena stood in the foyer, looking up the staircase that led to the upper rooms. Eat first, Antonia said, hesitantly taking the unaccustomed right of command. Come, Signora, I have some things prepared.
Antonia displayed her sandwiches: fish and cold chicken in the linoleum-tiled kitchen, but Lena barely touched the food; fish, chicken, and clean tile had nothing to do with her; yet Christ, in despair of his God, had asked for water. She wiped her lips and pushed away the barely-touched plate, the disappointment of Antonia and her occasion. Lena patted her hand. You are a good friend, she said, and went upstairs.
The hallway was dark. Her footsteps were dark falling on the soft
carpeting. She listened at the bedroom door and could hear the
breath she had lain beside as a bride when a flood of dark hair
had spilt out on the case. That breath had been full of grass and
sun, inundating her and had blown, fanning, full of wine and
cigarettes and harsh laughter, on the light of her contempt. Now,
here it was, through a thick door, dry, wracked with wheezing, yet
dripping away at the corners into a smile. She went in
quietly and sat by his bedside for many minutes, watching the air flow in and out of his nostrils as he slept.
He opened his eyes and looked at her. She bent her head and
prayed, fervently against the anticipation of his reproof. But he
allowed her. As the minutes of praying passed she became aware of
his allowance, of an acknowledged permission that curved
across the room like a new atmosphere, an arc of enigmatic
charity. Now, she thought, now, as it must be, death has
retrieved his evil and has flown through the window with it. Joy should be her portion. Now, after forty years, of nights of lonely birth-giving with such an ancient claim to a husband, after his breath and his bread, what? He has seen the light, death has opened his eyes, the dark angel with the scaly wings has fanned them open, and joy should be her portion. She looked down
at her hands, uncurled her fingers one by one and found them empty. Prayer came to an end, dwindling away like the tail of an animal. She examined the room, the poorly ironed curtains, the sick's bedpan, the drugs on the night table, his arm resting on the pillow and behind it the papers, the documents slipping from behind the pillow, kept always near him in his old world
defiance of modern banks which would not let a man keep his worth about himself where it belonged, lying there under his head and declaring in strict terms his future wishes, his dispensations, an estimate of his being. She felt his eyes upon her eyes and thought that now if she looked down and saw in those eyes an alien kindness, the sickly white softness that death
brings, she must leave the room before he takes the papers and shakes them in her face and tells her in his death-cracked voice that it was for her, it was always for her, because of her.
He moved, and his eyes caught a glint from the lamp on the night table. He patted the pillow behind his head and smiled, the blue-brown-flecked eyes glinting at her. She bowed her head again and prayed.
"The devil wears wings on his shoulders," he said. She crossed herself and lowered her head still further. "Yes, yes," he laughed, "and the angel grows horns upon her head."
"There is nothing to say," Lena said. "Let us not talk now, after so many years." She inclined her head towards him with a gesture of affection and tucked the blanket under his chin. "You are dying, St. Rupert. Do not take refuge in abuse."
"If you will sit here, you praying over me," he pushed the blanket from him, "what is left to me?"
"You knew I was coming," she said, looking down at her hands and laying the flat of one palm against the flat of the other.
"How could I stop you?" he sat up with a start.
"You must not exert yourself," she cried, her hands fluttering down upon him, the blankets, the upset pillows, to set everything to rights.
"Sanctos mios," he cried out, "what a stench of faith. You have come to keep me from dying."
"Your soul, yes," she said, and placed her fingers evenly together, palm to palm, tip to tip.
"My soul!" He pushed himself up further against the headboard. "I
will not let you," he said. "I will pray against you. I do not
want to be saved. I do not want your piety." He waved his hand
frantically and the ends of his fingers caught the night table. It
tipped slightly. He raised himself on his elbows and between his
spasms of coughing looked at her with his light brown
eyes. "I do not want to be saved," he said coughing heavily. "Come, death, come, death, quick, before Lena cheats me of it." She piled the blankets back around his body from where they had slipped. She opened the windows a trifle to bring in fresh air and drive out the odors of medicinal help and the yellow air of dying. She helped him back on to the pillow. He coughed
deeply, the sounds rolled through his body. Her lips were drawn as she waited for him to finish coughing. A fresh spasm, a flush of red brought on by his exertions, and his eyes swam with tears as he struggled to catch his breath.
"Do not speak," she warned him.
"I must." He sank back on the pillows and appeared more peaceful. "Now, above all else, I must, for I have had a revelation. Yes, Lena," he looked at her and smiled through his dried lips as she bent towards him with interest. "I have had a revelation. Religion, God, salvation," he sighed as she settled him against the pillows. "I believe in it all now, I believe in you, Lena," he laughed. "I have a deep faith in you."
She gave him an old, hard look and stooped under the bed to pick up the fallen bottles. She straightened out the night table, fixed the doily, the paper cup, arranged the bottles, and lowered the light shade. "But one good turn deserves another," he said.
"Do not talk, Rupert," she cautioned, bending over him, whispering low and beneficially.
He waved his hand at her. "One good turn deserves another, Lena. So you have come to save my soul," he laughed. She sat down in the chair next to the bed and bore with him. "I am mad and you right, Lena," he rasped. "I am evil and you are good, but still I will save your soul. I have ever had you in mind." He drew out the papers from behind the pillow.
"You are profane, Rupert," she said.
"That is true," he answered. "Nevertheless, I will still save
your soul. I will die soon. Maybe in an hour, maybe in a day," he
shrugged his shoulders. "Maybe now with you watching so carefully
to keep it from happening it will happen. It does not matter.
Death must come in spite of you. Yes, I will do you a service." He
slipped the papers back behind the pillow. "I know that even if I
die now, right as you stare at me and you are left alone, no one,
not Antonia to know, no doctors, no priests, only me and you and
me dead, you will not look at the papers. You will not look
because there," he pointed at the far wall, "there is a mirror
that will catch your actions, stooping over a dead body and
pushing it aside like a rag to pilfer a helpless corpse. It will
catch you when you put the papers together again and smile,
straighten your back and turn to go. And then walking the small
space between here and the door you must pass the mirror, maybe stop to look in and fix your hair. Then you will not see Lena with her arm raised fixing a grey curl, you will see a furry animal with the spit hanging loose from its mouth bending over a corpse, and you will know what I know. No," he smiled tranquilly, "all this you will not do because you must pass the
mirror, and I have gotten this small piece of wisdom for my pains of evil."
Lena sat quietly, her lips drawn to a hard, wrinkled nut.
Sometimes at the end of thirty years of hatred dying dismisses
hatred. Had it not always been so, that dying released the soul,
released the torment of having to live, of having daily to eat, to
wash clothes, to go to town for purchases, to make love and to
give birth, and to hate. Now, he was dying. She had come
against all his malignancy to comfort him, and at the end of his forty years of hatred it was all gathered together. Her chest rose and fell heavily with her breathing. She prayed silently under her breath. By stealth, she thought, she had had to pray, by stealth she had had to believe.
"Now," he was still talking, "now I will tell you how I will save your soul. When I am dead," he waved his hand, "lawyers will come and they will read a will, and then you will know. There will be no escape. I will build mansions for you, palaces of gold."
Her lips curled in derision despite her desire to bring him peace. "Your feet were always in clay, Rupert," she said. Her chest fluttered at his easy payment for her tortures. A harlot's wages defines her station, and this was Rupert's measurement, his bag of gold flung at her. "No more," she said, feeling the antagonism rise in her at his cheap perusal of her being.
"Yes, he laughed, "there will be couches of velvet where you can sink down as on a wave," and he waved his hand with a motion of voluptuous fluidity, "roads paved with pearls and you will walk over them and stoop," he raised himself up on his elbows, "and weep that you cannot pluck them from the pavement."
"No," she cried, her hands clasped together. "There is much that can be done with wealth. Evil, evil," she jumped from her chair. "Evil," she shouted again, "as always," and spit at him in her anger.
"So?" he leaned back again on his pillow, "I did not know you could."
She grabbed the corner of the quilt to wipe his face. "Peace, Rupert," she cried for the sake of God and your dying."
He pushed her arm away. "Let it be. I do not want you to wipe my face. Do you hear?" He raised his voice. "I do not want you to wipe my face." He sank down in the bed again. "Let it be," he said, "I wish to die with this mark here."
He lapsed into silence and there was no more speech. She sat all
night. The spit remained on his cheek and he set his open eyes
upon her as if to protect it. Soon death stared from them,
blinking rhythmically with the incorruptible life reflex. Almost
his breathing was gone and still his eyes blinked, the smallest,
incontrovertible movement of the still living. The snow stopped
falling and the skies, resisting the pressure of night,
turned a dull opaque grey. His eyes became heavy, sluggish, only a
rim of brown
pierced the lower lashes, sinking and rising, and sinking. Lena moved in her chair and looked at him. She caught at his hand. "Stay, Rupert," she cried. His eyes shut and he was dead. "No, no," and there was no more. She bent her head and prayed for his soul. The words escaped her tight lips in whispers of passionate pain. There was no wild cry. In the dark room the words were muted despair. She kept her head bent and did not look up until the inert sky rolled away like a heavy cloud and a lighter transparency covered the sky. Antonia cautiously gave two small knocks on the door.
Lena raised her head warily. Several seconds later she understood that it was a knock that she had heard. She covered Rupert's face and went to the door. Almost within grasp of the knob, her elbow was already partially unbent, she stopped.
"Antonia?" she called out.
"Yes, yes, it is me."
"A minute. A minute, please," and she looked about the room
trying to remember. A sense that something was amiss fluttered in
the familiarity of the bed, the night table, the linen chest that
she herself had bought. She looked back towards the bed. Yes,
surely, St. Rupert had never lain so bereft of life. Nevertheless,
she went back to the bed and uncovered his face. His eyes were
open. Deceit as always. There, with the hand of death upon his
throat when all that had been left of life was a thin arc of
brown-blue floating upon the lower lashes he had heard her call and had opened his eyes to catch for the last time her bowed head. Lena pulled shut the lids that were rolled toward heaven. Impatient Antonia, a little less cautiously, knocked again.
"A minute, please, Antonia." Lena wiped his cheek with the corner of the quilt and covered his face again. "I am coming," she called out and hurried across the room, only stopping at the mirror for a moment's composure.
"There is no more," she said to Antonia and put a restraining hand on her shoulder. They went down the stairs, Antonia following behind. "It is not difficult to think of Rupert dead," Lena said, "while he is still upstairs in his house, in his own bed. It is difficult to think of him buried, with the earth above him."
They went into the kitchen and drank strong coffee. It began to snow again. The dull grey light lay in the inert sky all day. "You must call the bank," Lena said after a while. "His lawyers. Those who must see to his business. He had all his papers about him under his head." Lena looked boldly into Antonia's questioning stare, forewarned by her appraisal of human nature. "I know nothing," she said, finishing her coffee. "You are not to touch anything. The lawyers will do everything."
"Oh, " Antonia laughed and nodded her head, "I will not even go near his bed, you may be sure of that."
But had he not said anything? Many hours must have passed while
he was still alive. Words must have been spoken. Antonia's
mild eyes gazed at Lena with such questions. Lena pushed her cup
and saucer back and stood up from the table. "He promised much,"
she assented to Antonia's curiosity. Then with the door to the
kitchen open, she added, "but he said nothing," and she
left the room.
How with grief, such as it could be here, decorum, a tradition of
etiquette older than the both of them which rigidly circumscribed
one's mental activity with respect to the dead, could such a
question shine in Antonia's eyes? Lena walked slowly to the front
parlor. Her feet were heavy and tired. The gleam in Antonia's eyes
danced before her, sprite-like, half
shy, peeping from the generous face of the servant girl, yet tenacious in its lusts. There was the lion always crouching in the middle of the graceful flora, her yellow eyes peering from beneath the fern leaves. In the midst of his debacle man creeps with hacked limbs and crippled swinging arms to the garbage can to seek out some usable, edible specks, some piece of banana
still clinging to the skin, a drop of fruit left about the core of an apple. The corporeal always dragged up its filthy smell, even along the edge of eternity.
Lena sat down in the rocking chair. Yet within her power, she thought and rocked slowly, Antonia would be left comfortably. There would be no begging for her in spite of the gleam in Antonia's eyes that found its way down the tunnel of her own mind. She settled her head against the back of the rocking chair, the carved, ivory inlaid back that swept up high behind her head like a crown or a peacock's tail: the jewel among his jewels. She dozed, her arms resting on the carved armrests. Then Antonia was suddenly standing in the doorway, under the old fashioned arch with its heavy moulding.
"I have spoken with the lawyers," she said.
"The lawyers?" Lena opened her eyes slowly. It was late afternoon. Oh, yes, she had been waiting.
"They will be here soon." Antonia came in and pulled up the pillows on the sofa. "I called also the priest," she said, knocking the pillows this way and that, "and the doctor."
Lena smiled. "What did the Father say?"
"He said he would come. It is time for dinner. I killed a fresh chicken yesterday, so plump and healthy it was a pity. Come, we must eat."
"I am not hungry," Lena said and began to rock herself.
"It is well to say you are not hungry," Antonia stood up, "But it is not well not to eat. Come."
Lena waved a dismissal.
It was still grey outside, snow still falling. Lena went to the window when she heard the first car arrive. Upstairs, Rupert should jump from his bed, go to the window too to acknowledge the source of the noise and return, sniffing the air with satisfaction. Did the last thoughts of men always run in a pattern of revenge. She was prepared for any fresh outburst that the papers might reveal. She had life and he did not, she had choice and could dispose of the burden he would place upon her. Yet against her will, against all human will as she knew it, she would pray for his soul that his last act would not catch him disgracing himself. The lawyers entered. They passed the parlor, her thoughts, her prayers, and went up the steps to his bedroom.
She could hear them walking about upstairs, raising Rupert up so
that they could take out the papers from under his head. They
removed their glasses from their breast pockets while she,
downstairs, could read his notes with them. Repentance, they would
say. His last act would send a spray of gold blanketing his past
corruptions. He would suffuse the skies with a dazzling light
behind which one could not see her marriage, the children driven
from their home, the townspeople shaking their heads when they
passed the farm. He would hang a sign in the skies for all to see,
a sign of gold with her name studded upon it in diamonds,
surrounded with a marble bas-relief of maids, carpets,
chandeliers, the quick receptivity of service people, deferential
smiles and best hotel rooms and men who swore upon the cross how
she belied her age, if she would tell it. The doctor passed her,
went upstairs and joined the lawyers.
"I am glad you do not grieve," he said, coming into the parlor quietly, "but I would not expect hypocrisy in you." He remembered her well.
"Yet he was my husband," she said and rose from the chair so suddenly that it rocked violently. "I fear for him. I fear for his soul."
"Sssshhh," he consoled, "we must not be hasty in our judgments. The mercy of God is infinite."
She looked at him. "In such damnation?"
He sat her down again and pulled in a chair for himself. "That you must lessen little by little with prayers and forgiveness."
"Little by little," she said scornfully. "I may not live long enough to do it little by little. I am prepared to do it all at once. I will pray for myself that I will be accepted in his place."
It was a moment, maybe two, before, gazing at her through rimless spectacles, he burrowed into her meaning. "Lena," he said, "you cannot bargain with eternal judgment. Such glory was permitted only once so that it could be such glory. You may not tamper with your soul."
She sat there, one hand holding his, the other his words. They
weighed equally to her, for all their viceroyship, of a sad
mortality. Yet before, between them, there had been a fuller
understanding. She had distinguished herself before him, from the
people who rhythmically confessed their crimes of venery and
hatred, of greed and bigotry, who sought consolation for a
lost parent or a straying child. He had married them, she and Rupert, holding their hands together, and he had prayed for forgiveness for that marriage. He had baptized their children, his hands quivering and spilling the water.
Antonia turned on the lights in the room and shook her head sadly from side to side. "She has not eaten all day," she said to the priest, "and now the lawyers are here. They wish to speak with you." She halted in the middle of the room and turned to address her formally.
"Yes, send them in," Lena said and disengarged her hands. Her soul was prepared. She would petition God directly now and show Him her soul, whatever storm Rupert might unleash.
"Mr. Mackinley, Mr. Whitehall, and Dr. Nevis," Antonia said carefully and self consciously. She turned on the tall torch lamp, but Lena waved it down. They found seats in the black carved arm chair, the hassock, the piano stool, between briefcases and pencils.
"Dr. Nevis has the death certificate. Do you wish to see it?" Mr. Mackinley asked. Lena shook her head no. She would take the doctor's word for it, she laughed.
Mr. Whitehall drew the brown hassock in a little closer. "You
will have to forgive what seems like undue haste in reading the
will." Lena deprecated. A day sooner or later made no difference.
She rocked gently. "But it was a stipulation in your husband's
will," the lawyer continued, "that it be read the day of his
decease." He pulled at the knot in his tie and brought the paper
close to his face so that his lips breathed upon the paper and the
words were muffled. "He gives as his reasons: In order that I may
have a burial befitting my stature and in order that my wife,
Lena, might lose no time in expiating herself." The sudden use of
the first person, so alive and so immediate, caused Lena to stop
rocking and to bend her head forward. Mr. Whitehall only looked
about the room, hinting the need for more light. None was offered
and he read on in the greying air, the paper close to his face.
"Your husband's estate including his house, his farm, his trucks,
and his stock total nearly eight hundred thousand dollars
to be divided in the following manner." Lena resumed rocking. "He leaves fifteen thousand each to each of the following, to the Children's Foundling Home at Twelve West Maple Street in Rosedown, to the Cancer Research Foundation, to the Eighth Street Salvation Army Depot, to the Wee Willie Winkle Workshop, to the Young Ladies Arts and Paints League, and to the Old Arrow Street Church for the repair of a new entrance and for a candle to be burned nightly for his humble memory."
Lena stopped rocking again. Her feet rested on the floor. Mr. Whitehall brought the paper closer to his face and read, "One hundred thousand dollars to Antonia Maria Alvarez to release her from bondage, and the rest to be equally divided among my children so that they may continue to love each other in harmony, except for an annuity of eighty dollars a week to be given to my wife for the remainder of her years so that she may live them in comfort and serenity without distress, and in addition I leave her my house and all my possessions in it."
They looked at her and waited, but the chair was still. Mr. Whitehall put his papers together, stood up, halted, looked around at the others. "If we can be of any service to you in the way of legal advice, do not hesitate to call on either my partner or myself." Then they rose, he pushed his hassock back into place and they left.
Antonia rose too and saw them to the door. She crossed the path
of Lena's sight. But Lena's eyes did not move. She sat weightless
in her chair, as if the high carved back with the antique
flourishes of gold and ivory inlaid were a painted scene behind
her, like those odd Renaissance Madonnas who have little to do
with the massive thrones they occupy and are always
just suspended above them, floating off their gold cushions. Antonia came back and turned on another lamp. It was dark outside and the car drove off.
"Lena" the priest bent towards her as one would to listen for the heartbeat in a prone body. She looked towards the door. If there were truth in the world Rupert was not dead but there, on the other side of the room, crouching against the wall and listening.
"Yes?" she turned to the priest.
He stood up from the chair and grabbed both her arms. "Lena," he said, almost with tears, "our prayers have been answered. Is this not a miracle?"
She pulled her arms free from his fingers. "Give me room," she cried, and pushed her chair back.
But he reached after her. "Not my prayers, but yours," he said.
"This is a miracle. You have put the devil to rout, Lena."
"Let be," she shouted and jumped from the chair. "I am tired," she said.
She looked towards the door again. "Do not carry on so," she said in a softer voice. "I am tired."
Of course," he answered, wiping his glasses. "I am sorry. But," he smiled to Antonia and to her, "the funeral will be very different from what we thought. There will be many thankful hearts. Just yesterday in town," he hesitated, "in the drugstore I heard Mr. Branch saying how no one would be surprised if he left all his money to a brothel." He looked down at his shoes. "Shame on such thoughts," he said, experiencing with the fresh evidence of repentance. "Who can know the heart?" He looked up at Lena. "You will be an example. I will make you one, though everyone knows it does not need me."
She put her hands in her pockets and waited with stubborn patience.
He picked up his coat from the sofa and came back to her. "Sleep well tonight, Lena. Sleep well. You have saved a soul from certain damnation."
After he left, she sat down again in the rocking chair. "Lower the lights, Antonia,"
Antonia put out the lamps in the far corners and came back to her. "Come to bed," she pleaded.
Lena rolled her eyes towards the ceiling. "No," she said, "I will stay here."
"I will not sleep either," Antonia said.
"Oh, leave me alone. Do as you please. You are your own mistress now." She looked at her slyly. "Only leave me."
She watched Antonia leave, still bent like a servant. Then the
room was empty. Lena looked down at her limp fingers and traced
the impression of her open hand against her lap. She thought to
pray and her mind wandered vaguely over various points to start.
But she could only wait, sit and count off the empty plans she had
had, the glory that had slipped from her fingers. Her
hands were empty. She could see each finger clearly and trace the lines of age and the wrinkles where they had curled so often in prayer. There was nothing to pray for now. Everything had been accomplished. Rupert was dead and her hands lay empty in her lap.
That was all that was left to her now from him who had worked and
plotted in his sleep, in his sworn hatred of her had thrown a
heavy leg across her hips, waking her with its impact. She had
opened her eyes each time in the dark, startled, frightened out of
peace and had lain there with his weight on her. That weight would
be no more. She looked towards the empty doorway and slowly
brought her eyes back, trailing them along the carpet. Her hands
were empty, there was no more weight in them, and she was free.
Her eyes trailed along the carpet, in their freedom searching out
the point of origin in the intricate design. There was no
beginning. Everything there was involved and convoluted. Their
radiant colors were an affront to her, like the sun to a prisoner
released from a dark cell. The gold and florid orange, the twining
green and the leaping red of a Persian design
burned upwards from the floor. He used to walk across the carpet with his muddy boots, and laugh. She had to press her lips together when she thought of all that wealth laid out for his dirty feet, but he would walk across it swinging his leather jacket and laugh, "This is asceticism, to own and to destroy. Eight years I worked for this. Fifteen hours a day and look." Look at what? she shrugged her shoulders. "At this, " he pointed, "you think I revere it? You think I make my children tiptoe about the border because I sweated for it." That sweat she saw standing on his forehead when he worked in the fields. The sun made his hair dry and stringy. It burned his face and left white wrinkles in his forehead and neck. She saw his arms rise again and again as he brought down a hammer, and again, and the bones in his back moved sharply through his thin shirt.
The sun hurt her eyes. She got up and walked about the room. Why
had he left her the house? Why had he left her his possessions and
rooms to roam through? All the rest was clear. His will was his
last laugh, his challenge to her. He meant her to stand on the
shore and watch the waters of his empire roll back into an
anonymous ocean roaring with the glory of his name.
He meant to tempt her with the evils of remorse and regret, with the evil of desire, to leave her running along the sands like a lonely seagull pecking at a gem here and there stranded in a gully. She would not stoop for a pittance. She would rival him yet. She would have to see the lawyers about selling the house. Did he think she would be content to go poking about in its corners, sniffing out his old corruptions. No, undoubtedly the house was worth much, and there was much good she could buy with it.
She got up and walked about the room, breathlessly. She looked at the lamps, the portraits, the chairs. She traced the outline of the sturdy frame of the sofa, its velvet down-stuffed pillows where he used to lounge with luxurious comfort. There with long legs and his strong back was the impress of his soul. There in the corner was his piano with a crystal jug of wine on top, the white rays springing from the polished angles, surprising her with their fiery brilliance as she came around the piano. She put a finger on top of one of the keys and silently pressed it down against the irreverence of the music he used to play that still clung in the air. It came up with a soft pinging sound. She withdrew her finger quickly, surprised by the music it still had in it. She would have to sell the house. Undoubtedly it was worth much.
She looked out the window across the dark acres of land he called
his with his hard pride. It had stopped snowing, but it had snowed
long enough to cover the car tracks and the gravel driveway, the
roads and the paths that led to the barn. The land around lay
unbroken in a silver glow. But they would wish to sanctify his
things, she remembered. They would wish to make a shrine out of
his house, out of his sudden conversion. Now, truly, she would
have to smile as he used to do, at a good joke. Did they not see
that he was still Rupert? Yes, they would place her on a couch
too, cover it with gold cloth, place pillows beneath her head and
sanctify her as his savior. Rupert would not be able to rest. He
would come back to mock her. He
would have to come back. Yes. She saw her reflection in the dark window, her heavy face, her grey hair, the woolen, grey sweater, her smile! She caught her breath, feeling as if her soul were slipping from her in that smile, as if the moon had suddenly turned and shown its other side.
"Lena," she said out loud. She clasped her hands together and
bent her head over them and cried, "What is it, what is it, my
God?" But her soul had no distinct answer as it once used to have.
She had cried out thus as a young girl when marriage and life had
overwhelmed her. "Help me," she had cried out, and an outline, an
arrangement in conduct and identity had leaped up for
comfort. Wandering in hell, surrounded by evil, she had kept
herself intact, all her energies concentrated by his
opposition. There was an observable devil and she knew herself as
a separate entity from him, planning her moves accordingly. Now
the devil was gone. Her hands were empty. She was free from the
devil and she wandered in circles. What is it, she cried. The
buried chambers of her soul moaned with the empty wind. She felt
them knock against her sides. Her legs were weak and they
trembled, her blunt fingers were cold in the chilly room. She drew
her sweater about her for warmth. She was almost sixty. Her soul
was slipping from her and she was almost sixty. Had she not lived
with herself a lifetime, long enough to know this slight twist in
her nature. The world became airy and weightless as she regarded
it. The trees and the dark earth floated, her body lost its
physical sense. Perceptions new and strange, without pattern or
tradition, floated in the dark window. Her breath came short as
she sensed that they were the spectacle of herself. There was dire
disorganization in them, yet she recognized the shapes they took
as her own. No, she said, and put her forehead against the window
to blot out her reflection so that she could not
Far across the field, where bare apple trees hung in the cold,
the deeper shadows, dark and purple, moved back and forth,
pulsating with a catlike silence. Did the earth betray her too,
casting magical spells of passion and desire in the dark? She
could hear the shadows breathing as they darted out to catch a bit
of silver, and then flew back to the darkness coveting the beam.
The top branches of the apple trees strained toward the passionate
gold of the moon, all of nature lay in a naked curve under the
darkly studded skies. Everything on the earth and in heaven ached
for signification, for adornment. The skies crowned the earth for
its endeavors with the magnificent stars. She could see him spring
alive from such elements, shake the snowflakes from his beard and
come, as in his youth, to claim her as his bride. She felt his
breath close to her in the room, almost enough breath to cloud her
reflection in the window, that she was almost sixty, that her hair
was thin and grey, that her fat would deny him. But
with the gold cloth and the pillows and the wine? She brought her head away from the window and looked at herself again.
She was alone, her breathing was difficult. She turned from the window and made her way back to the rocking chair. She sank into it so heavily it creaked sharply in the still house. She put her forehead on her clasped hands. There was nothing to pray for now. Above her Rupert lay in the hard fact of death. She sat still, her old feet in their brown shoes, crossed on the floor, and her head on her hands. She made no sound as she listened with awe to the creaking in her soul as it inclined and turned from the hard grasp she had had on it. Like a solemn ritual it revolved slowly, uncovering layer by layer the god that ruled the world. The dawn was coming up. In the growing silver she heard her own breathing. She listened attentively to it. Her chest rose as she strained her ears to hear the incarnation of Rupert's evil.
Afterwards, Dr. Benson would come to his room and ask him how his
day had gone. Lionel only knew that, thank God! it had gone. He
felt ludicrous that what he had managed to live through was
ordinary stuff. He knew that people lived through it every day.
They took trains, visited relatives, went to museums, caught
buses, pushed up umbrellas in the rain. He watched them,
envious at their nonchalance.
Craigmore was outside of New York, past Nyack, on the Hudson. When Lionel had first seen the old Craigmore Mansion, imitation medieval castle, modern convert into an asylum, sunning itself in a dip between two hills on the Hudson River, he felt his esthetic bone bruise.
"What corn," he said to himself. It took him eight or nine months to get up enough nerve to tell Dr. Benson that the Institute, this miracle of rehabilitation was 30 percent corn, 30 percent mechanical gaiety, 20 percent inefficiency, waste, boredom, languor, 10 percent sadistic attendants who watched you through slitty eyes to see how funny you could get, 5 percent indifferent attendants, and 5 percent Dr. Benson who held the whole thing together with inexhaustible patience.
Dr. Benson brushed his nose with his index finger, a gesture he made so frequently that Lionel imagined he had softened the cartilage at the end of his nose. "Eighteen-ninety was a pretty corny period in a lot of ways," he said. "Men who made money then went as European as they could get. You wouldn't believe that this place was something of a bunny club in its day."
Lionel sensed that Dr. Benson was offering a masculine turn to the therapy and he felt calm enough by then to rise to it. "What happened to it?" he said lightheadedly.
"Jasper Craigmore -- he made his money on some silly invention that had to do with amplifying sound‹got tired of bunnies and went in for hunting lions. He got lost on an expedition to Africa and was never heard from. His wife, who was Roman Catholic, had the house converted into a museum for medieval art. Concentrated on the thirteenth century. No one knows why. Basement still full of jars of kneebones and fingers, bits and scraps of wood and veils. Was frugal. Lived by herself in a cottage up the hill."
"The sculpture school," Lionel said. He tried not to snicker, but he hated dabbling in the arts for the sake of therapy, esthetic snob that he was.
"She died at the age of eighty-three. Always wore black. Left one
son, Helman. He never liked the house. Was a Baptist like his
father and went through the halls smashing the jars and tearing up
the mummies as soon as his mother was buried. Helman's wife
aspired to the jet set and they're out there somewhere now, two
daughters, two poodles, and a Siamese cat. Helman's
uncle, Jasper's brother, had become psychotic in his middle years." Lionel felt his heart jump. He hated such definitive terms. He knew he was sick and it terrified him to think that anyone might define his sickness like that. "Helman had always loved his uncle. Only friend he had ever had. Came to his wedding when his father didn't. Soon as his mother was buried, he cleared
out the medieval stuff and devoted the house to the Craigmore Institute for the Mentally Ill. That's us."
Lionel looked down at his thumbnails and scratched them. His stomach fluttered. "That's us."
"More or less," Dr. Benson said.
Lionel's eyes shot up. "You mean I'm less than more?" he asked hopefully.
"What about this Sunday?"
Lionel's mouth dried. "I'll go if you want me to," he said. He felt silly to flatly decline an offer to go out.
"Why don't you want to, yourself?"
"Because the whole thing's a bore." Lionel wasn't sure whether he
was lying. He knew he was bored because he was paralyzed. Living
in a mental strait jacket wasn't the liveliest way to stay alive.
The fountain of youth is love of life, he had said to himself. One
loves life when one finds it interesting. One finds life
interesting when one is not frightened of it. He was paralyzed
because he was terrified. A ride on a train was a stupefying
collision course between those thoughts which he must not think
because they put him in a state of panic and those other thoughts
which made him nauseated. He veered and careened from station to
station between nausea and panic until he got to Queens, where his
mother eyed him with distraught and guilty love for every sign of
improvement and hushed his father all afternoon in fear that he
might say a wrong word, threw a ball to his
younger brother, listened to his sister's records if she was home, and gnawed his soul all afternoon in worry over the trip back.
Once his brother, sixteen, has asked him what was wrong with him. "You look all right to me," he said.
"I get this thing on trains," Lionel said.
Lionel felt Franklin eyeing him. He drew in his breath. They were lying on Franklin's bed, looking at his stamp collection. Lionel did not know whether to tell him or not, or how much to say. Now, after two years, he had a sense of security in talking to Dr. Benson about it, but talking to Franklin about it was like plunging off a cliff. He shrugged his shoulders. "This thing."
Franklin turned the gum in his mouth. "What thing?"
Lionel's mouth dried. "All sorts of things. First, when I get on the platform. People standing so close to the edge. It gives me the creeps. One push and it's all over." He shuffled some loose stamps into an envelope. His hands were wet. "I bet you don't think such things."
Franklin rocked on his heels. "All the time. I don't stand near the edge."
Lionel looked up at him. He was intrigued by Franklin's insouciance. It was a revelation. "How come such thoughts don't bother you?"
Franklin shrugged his shoulders. "Don't know. I think them and then I don't stand near the edge. Is that why you went up to Craigmore?"
It was plain Franklin didn't think that much of a reason to be in a nationally renowned Institute for the Mentally Ill, draining the family of its money. Lionel felt confused, even piqued. "There are plenty of other thoughts. When I see the doors close I want to scream."
"You did scream, remember?" Franklin said. "When we were in that elevator. You mean you still feel that way?" Clearly, Franklin thought the family money was being wasted.
"I don't scream any more," Lionel said.
"Yeah, but you still want to. Why don't you scream now and get it over with. I mean do it in advance to see how it feels. A train's only a train, no different from anything else."
"Exactly," Lionel said. He got off the bed feeling undermined and foolish discussing his problems with Franklin. "It's not just trains. It's buses, elevators, escalators, airplanes, tunnels, bridges, tiny rooms, and wide open spaces. It's too many things, too many things."
"Don't be upset," Franklin said, fearful he had stepped over a mysteriously "healthy" boundary. "I'm just trying to understand. You seemed to be having a ball at college."
Lionel picked up a hairbrush. He put it down and turned to Franklin. "No," he said in a tense voice. "I was not having a ball in college. I was locking myself in my room every night after supper. I hated the food, I hated the classes, I hated being away from home, and then I hated the idea of graduating. Sorry about that, Franklin."
"And you couldn't even take the train home," Franklin said with sudden insight.
"No, there was nothing to do. So I broke up." Lionel felt
extraordinary relief saying it like that. It had seemed bitterly
dramatic to have his mother and father come to Ohio to take him
home, three months before graduation, the first child in their
family to go to college, second generation Italian immigrants. His
mother sat weeping in the dean's office. "Why my son? Why my son?
He was such a good boy." The dean tried to tell her, without
resorting to semantics, that this was not a matter of good and
evil. But his mother, whose psyche had been nourished on other ideas of justice, was sure that mental illness amounted to an indignity that was a cruel punishment which was confounded by her son's innocence.
She sat in Dr. Benson's office, having found by instinct "the best doctor in the whole country," and cried, "Why my son?"
Dr. Benson rubbed the cartilage at the end of his nose, "Why not your son?" he said.
"Did you mean that?" Lionel had asked him after his mother had gone.
"Of course. Who's immune, and what's immunity?"
Dr. Benson was part of Lionel's problem. He liked him so much he
never wanted to be away from him. He had not wanted to leave home,
he had not wanted to graduate, he never wanted to go
somewhere else, and now he didn't want to leave
Craigmore. It was a big mistake to send him out once a week. It was almost as bad for him as when Dr. Benson took a holiday, for Lionel worried fearfully for him.
"You're not flying?" he asked anxiously.
"Sure am. It's the only intelligent way to go."
Lionel would pin a note on the wall in his room giving him complete information about Dr. Benson's movements, what plane he was taking, time of arrival, hotel he was staying at, approximate traveling time from airport to hotel. His estimate of this part of the trip could never be better than approximate, which put Lionel into deep depression. As soon as he knew Dr. Benson's plane had arrived safely‹he always checked‹he had a panic attack because there was no way to contact Dr. Benson in the complicated mess of trains, subways, taxis, and traffic. Lionel could not tolerate a situation in which Dr. Benson would not be available to give immediate response to his panic. He rarely asked for this response, but he liked to know it would be there. That's why he hated trains more than bridges or small rooms. Because if he began to have his eerie thoughts on a train he knew there was no way he could call Dr. Benson from the depths of the subway. He was locked in with his own mind and there was no getting away from it, he and a few hundred other people. He had only to think for himself‹as he always did -- as soon as the doors closed, that now he was in for it, there was no way out. Counting helped minimally. It was three hundred and forty seconds of agony from the 14th Street station to 42nd Street on the express. He told himself that only a worthless person couldn't put up with three hundred and forty seconds of agony, but he knew that it would have been better had he taken the local, for he watched the local stops sail past, helpless that he could not step out on one of them.
It did not give him a feeling of achievement that he had been
making these disastrous rides every week for several months. As
soon as he was back at Craigmore he felt relief that it was over
and foreboding that he would have to do it again next week. After
all, the fact that you have walked through a ring of hell doesn't
mean that you can face the same ring of hell next week with cheer.
Hell, Lionel discovered, was an absolute and always felt like
hell. That's what gave it its terrific quality. You couldn't
extract courage or hope from it. Lionel never had the satisfaction of saying to himself. "By God, I did it and I can do it again." He said to himself, "Thank God, that's over and I'd give anything never to have to do it again." When he had gotten back to his room and gone through these thoughts, he often ended with the worst thought of all: Dr. Benson didn't know what he was doing; Dr. Benson was a poor doctor and he, Lionel, was never going to get well. The pain of that thought was intolerable. Lionel would lie down on his bed, flaming with agony and all night float in a miasma of pain.
Once Dr. Benson asked him, as they were walking down the corridor together, "I'd be interested in knowing what you think of me, Lionel." He opened the door to his office and invited him in. Lionel felt unchecked admiration and affection for Dr. Benson. Those were his daytime thoughts. He knew he wasn't going to make it without Dr. Benson, and he told him so.
"No doubts?" Dr. Benson asked.
Dr. Benson gazed at his mail and without looking at Lionel said, "You can't be sure."
Lionel felt pursued and vexed. Dr. Benson was being tricky. "How sure can anything be?" he said smartly.
"Exactly," Dr. Benson leaned back in his swivel chair and put his
hands behind his head. "You have to learn to live in the margin of
gamble." He threw that out in a more comradely fashion than the
doctor-to-patient relationship augured, and then changed his tone.
He brought his chair forward, placed his hands on his desk.
"That's where you have to go, Lionel.
How did things go yesterday?"
Lionel felt immediately depressed. "Same as usual."
"Same train, same stations, same restaurant, same streets?"
"Yes, yes, yes, yes."
"How was your mother?"
"Same as usual."
"He wasn't home. He went to a baseball game."
"Why didn't you go with him? You told me you like baseball."
The thought of the crowds at the stadium made Lionel shudder. "I'm not particularly interested in baseball."
Dr. Benson put his hands behind his head again. "You used to be, and you play a good game here."
"How so?" Dr. Benson said.
"All right," Lionel snapped. "I like baseball. I hate crowds."
Dr. Benson came forward again and put his hands on the desk.
Lionel knew he was waiting for him to continue. All of a sudden
the son of a bitch had slid into the good old classical session.
Say it, Lionel, Dr. Benson's eyes said. Say what's on your mind.
Your frame is too small to stand all that howling inside. Let it
out. I'll never say it, Lionel laughed behind his closed lips.
I'll never say it because if I do you'll know for sure I'm nuts.
Dr. Benson stared at Lionel as if for two people to look at each
in silent and fierce antagonism for fifteen minutes was ordinary behavior.
"Because you never know for sure," Lionel finally cried out. "God, you never know for sure when one of them's got a gun or a knife and will get you in the back. There are hundreds, thousands pushing all around you and you never know which one of them's a freak. And one of them's bound to be a freak. That's the law of averages. And it only takes one freak to kill a dozen people."
"That's true," Dr. Benson said. "Crowds increase the chance of danger. Always did, and human nature can get freaky at times. Always was. But what's that got to do with Lionel Enzino?"
Lionel felt crushed by the admission. "How the hell can I escape?"
"Why not? Some do."
"But it's all a matter of luck," Lionel said bitterly.
"What bothers you about that?"
Lionel felt nauseated. "It's not good enough," he whispered. His hands were wet. Suddenly, he had a vision of Franklin rocking on his heels, telling his friends, "Man, you shoulda seen that car go out of control. Smashed into the supermarket. People scattered like mad. Just an old lady and her grandkid got it. I'm tellin' you, what luck." Lionel drew in his breath. He would be crying if he were alone, but he never cried in front of Dr. Benson. That much he kept for himself.
"Besides," Dr. Benson said. "Lionel," he called, because Lionel's mind was still listening to Franklin.
"What?" Lionel said, detached.
"Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't," Dr. Benson said. "Don't overestimate luck. Don't underestimate it either." He laughed.
"What can you do about a guy sitting behind you who pushes a knife into your ribs?" Lionel asked hotly.
"Not much." Dr. Benson smiled. "How many people have been killed at ball games lately?"
Lionel's eyes narrowed. "You want me to go to a ball game next week, right? A trial run at being normal."
Dr. Benson rubbed his nose. "Sure, Lionel, if you'd like to."
Bull! Lionel said to himself. If I'd like to! Why don't you ask me if I would like to jump into a vat of boiling oil. "Dr. Benson ," he said, "I don't even want to go home next week."
"Then don't. Take the day out and do something else. It's spring. Take a walk down a country road."
"Dr. Benson," Lionel said.
"Come in around Wednesday," Dr. Benson said. He got up and put his arm on Lionel's shoulder. "We'll talk about it then."
"Dr. Benson," Lionel said, finding himself at the door.
"And try not to make out too many lists and itineraries about how you're going to spend the day. You have a good memory, Lionel. You'll remember from this Sunday to next Sunday how to spend the day," and Lionel found himself outside the office, facing his next day out, another Sunday, another train ride, another mealy tuna fish sandwich in Katz' Kozy Korner. Maybe he would go to a ball game and show Dr. Benson. No, he wouldn't. He didn't care to show Dr. Benson anything. Maybe he wouldn't go home. This once he might try the Whitney Museum, which wasn't too big or too small He'd take the train to the 57th Street station, walk one block east and two blocks down. But the Whitney wasn't on 54th. Are you sure? he said to himself. Better check it out thoroughly before next week. Maybe he would be lucky and die before next week.
But he wasn't. Worse, Sunday dawned clear as a bell, not a cloud in the sky, birds singing, April beauty. Wearily, he put on his clothes. He changed his tie four times, brushed his hair forward to look modern, then brushed it back to feel safer. Took a close shave and then was sorry he had done that. Dead giveaway, looking so spic and span, careful like the guy on the dance floor counting his steps. But I am , Lionel said grimly. He took a deep breath and went out for his day.
I am counting, he said breathlessly. Three blocks to the bus
stop. Street deserted, feel conspicuous like an invader. Eight
minutes on the bus. Just him and the bus driver. Sunday loneliness
setting in. A six-minute wait on the station platform. He stood
with his hands in his pockets, well away away from the edge. He
could smell his pomade, listerine, Mann deodorant, and Savage
aftershave lotion. The small Tudor houses, still-life peace
surrounded the station. All was quiet, with Sunday shades pulled
down. Never was fond of Sunday, he thought. It always shut him
out. Surprised that Dr. Benson didn't steer him in the direction
of Thursday or Saturday. Two girls came on the station platform,
chic to their eyeteeth. Lionel felt his insecurities pop like
blisters. He smelled pomade and listerine all about him. His face
reddened, his hands got sweaty. Dr. Benson, he said to
himself, you're making a big mistake.
The train pulled in, he got on, clutching his soul. The girls eyed this seat, then that one, and finally drifted into the next car. Lionel felt better and settled down to count something, anything, birds, trees, telephone poles. He thought of his mother counting beads. Don't see much of that anymore. Certainly not in the streets the way she used to do it. Always there by her side whenever she needed them. Comfort in mechanical repetition. It might not be too bad to be a machine, Lionel thought, but even as he thought that to himself, cleverly, panic fell upon him. The thought scared him out of his wits. He felt sweat in his scalp. What the hell am I scared of, he said, trying to get hold of himself. Does anyone know? Or care how scared I am? He looked around at the train. Sunday never brought many passengers, mainly dissidents, old beggars. Families travel by car on Sunday. There was only one group at the other end with a guy in the middle playing a guitar. They were dressed tough, motorcycle club, leather jackets, studded belts, spurs. Lionel felt shaken to his toes. When the train pulled into the 125th Street station, he bolted out the door to the strains of "Ya Gotta Tell It Like It Is To Your Mammy That Is 'Cause Your Mammy Is All You Got, Son."
Actually, he thought, fleeing to catch his next train, it probably is safer in a crowd. He had never seen it that way. The thought was cheering, like the sunniest of revelations. He thought of putting a coin in the phone slot, calling Franklin and telling him to meet him at Shea Stadium. But he didn't.
By the time he got to 57th Street, it was almost twelve, as he knew it would be, and he decided to stop for lunch. He might, he thought, he might make up his mind about Shea Stadium after his sandwich. Study the situation. Consider all possibilities. What a strike for freedom if he went. Dr. Benson would never believe him.
Katz' Kozy Korner was closed due to a death in the family, and Lionel went flat. He stared at the closed door with disbelief and terror. Not possible, he thought. Oh God, yes! Never mind lunch, he said to himself quickly. That was just an excuse to act normal. Get back on the train and get on home.
I cannot go back on the train quickly, he said to himself. I have not gotten on a train quickly in three years.
Call Franklin and tell him to come get you.
Franklin will think I'm mad.
That's all right. At least he'll know the family's not wasting its money.
I will not call Franklin, who is sixteen to rescue his brother, who is twenty-four, and help him find another restaurant to eat in.
I thought you didn't care about dignity.
True. Mine' gone, but there's still Franklin's.
Bet he'd enjoy it more than a ball game.
Don't be cynical, Lionel said to himself, he'd never forget it. Pick up your leaden feet and find another restaurant.
Where? If I wander from this block I might get lost.
That's what I don' t know.
Try it. Get going. Lionel stuck his hands in his pockets, wheeled
on his heels, sucked in his cheeks and started up the street. His
eyes burned. The harder he practiced nonchalance the more
unrelaxed he felt. He wanted to scream. That would relax him. He
walked three blocks, leaden-footed, his stomach swollen with all
sorts of juices. There was another restaurant, another Kozy
Korner. Same kind of lunch counter, island in the center, booths
along the sides, telephones in the back, magazine rack near the
register. He felt a dry-mouthed gratitude for familiarity and haunched himself on to a stool.
"What'llya have?" the counterman said.
"Same as usual," Lionel said. Then he sat up erect. "Sorry about that," he mumbled. "Tunafish sandwich and coffee."
"Toast‹wait a minute. Change that to egg salad on white."
Lionel ran his tongue over his gums and around his teeth, trying to relieve the dryness in his mouth. He took a stupendously big breath and let it out to the count of twenty. Well, Dr. Benson, he said to himself, guess what?
There were half a dozen other people in the restaurant, a fact
that made Lionel neither happy nor unhappy. He knew this for sure
because he had measured all the possibilities involved in there
being exactly six people in the restaurant. That was enough for
them to protect each other if something should happen, but not
enough to cause a riot. Of course, he was not too fond of the
looks of all of them. The old woman across the counter from him
looked like Damon Runyon's best. Broadway Annie, nosegays and
tipsy. The two businessmen down the end were about right,
straight on the center of life and solid. But, on the other hand,
you never knew the facts about anyone. They could belong to the
Mafia or be a new style in pimps. And that
man sitting there in a booth by himself. Lionel distrusted men who sat by themselves, especially when they looked seedy and kept their hands under their jackets, right about where a gun holster would be, if one were going to wear a gun holster.
Quit it, he said to himself, don't get fishy now.
His sandwich came and he tried to enjoy it. A couple walked in, two children, sour looks, and sat down in a booth. "Try not to order the whole store," the father said.
"You don't want them to go hungry," the mother said.
"Try it. For a new experience," the father said.
The seedy-looking man lit a cigarette and let it dangle from his
lips. "Knew he would," Lionel said to himself. The man got a bowl
of soup and when it came he flipped his cigarette on the floor and
ground it with the heel of his shoe until the tobacco was
shredded. Lionel felt as if he had E.S.P. The man put his hand
under his jacket with a fingering motion and Lionel felt
the sweat break out on his neck.
I will not think those thoughts, he said to himself. But God almighty, doesn't he look the type. And what would I do if he were? Imagine if I said to the waiter, say, that guy looks suspicious. I have a mild form of E.S.P. and the guy looks brinky. Who do you think they'd arrest? Lionel tried to keep his eyes down, but every time the man's hand went under his jacket his eyes flipped. He's a killer, he thought. He felt nauseated. No, he's not, he said to himself, he's just a plain ordinary person and I am being treated for mental illness because I think such thoughts and have such worries. Dr. Benson, please help me to live in peace with my fellowman. I mean in an everyday way so I can take a walk by myself. Help me to enjoy a tunafish sandwich or egg salad and a Sunday out.
The food arrived for the family in the booth. Cutlets and mashed potatoes for the father. Mother looked at it with anger. "Thought you said you weren't hungry."
"That was before."
The waiter put down an assortment of hamburgers and bowls of French fries. Father said, "Thought you said last Sunday you'd never eat another hamburger."
"That was last Sunday."
The waiter said, "What'llya have to drink?"
"Two Cokes and two coffees."
"Make mine orange," the girl said.
"Me, too," the boy said.
"I'll take tea," the mother said.
The seedy-looking man finished his soup and pushed his bowl away. He sat limp on his chair, his chin hanging over the bowl as if he expected his head to drop into it. Lionel's eyes flipped up and down. The man stared out the plate-glass window in front of him. He swallowed. His Adam's apple floated in the skin of his neck. He put his hand under his jacket again and fiddled with the something there that was getting on Lionel's nerves. Lionel felt his skin crawl. Eat fast, he thought, and leave. But he couldn't think of where he had planned to go. He wondered if he should call Franklin. His eyes drifted to the telephones and he measured the distance from them to the seedy-looking man. The man¹s eyes narrowed to slits of pain. His chin moved in his thin skin as if he were mumbling to himself. He looked like something Lionel had always dreaded, something between fantasy and reality. "Look out," he screamed and slid off his stool so fast it twirled after him for thirty seconds. There was a blaze of gunshot over their heads. Broadway Annie slumped forward like a broken flower. The two businessmen fell to the floor, groaning. The little girl and boy screamed. Their mother flung herself across the table, covering them with her body and shrieking to God.
Lionel pressed himself against the wall of the counter. The
gunshots continued overhead for another eight seconds like a
staccato of truth. There were three seconds of silence, then a
final shot and the seedy man's head burst into blood. Lionel
peered over the edge of the counter, his eyes bulging. Dr. Benson,
he said to himself, you're never going to believe this.
I mean but, boy, you're going to think I'm nuts. He raised himself up slowly. His heart tore apart with terrific turmoil, but his soul floated out free like an intrepid butterfly.
Ludwig Strauss went to the window to see what could be holding it back. A windy darkness hesitated in the air, crawling murkily over the flat land and around the guard tower. All the barracks were still, for each man knew enough to hold onto the night as long as he could. No one rose voluntarily.
Beyond the barbed wire the world was the same. The land was flat and grassless, and the air groped between night and day. Still, they were usually roused by this time, Ludwig saw in the barracks opposite his the eyes of prisoners pressed silently against the window. They peered for a moment, and disappeared. He nodded grimly to himself, for he did not like the silence. After the long night, it was good to hear a voice, even the harsh barks of the guards mechanically practicing the rudiments of power on a wet morning; it was even good sometimes, God forgive him, to hear a man shriek.
He came back to the table where he was working and put his glasses on. The boy in the bed next to his stared at him. Night after night he stared at him like all children stare, with that impossible belief that the adult can help them. It unnerved him. When his son, Gunther, had been a child and had been put to bed he used to stare like that too, as if the darkness were a prison. And years later, in the hallway of their house, there was a child always crouching under the steps, staring through the gloom.
Gunther would say to him, "Come, Karl, I'll take you upstairs."
"Their needs are endless," he said once to his father.
"He has parents," Ludwig said shortly.
"We none of us do," Gunther said, "we only have wants."
The boy moaned and Ludwig looked at him. The dawn was still dim
and he could see only the boy's eyes, white and enlarged, sick
with hopefulness. He could have been any boy, Karl or his son,
caught in the dark with his fears. A child is a child, Ludwig
thought, and turned away with annoyance to re-read his memoirs.
The writing was an occupation born of the lethargy of
imprisonment. He had published many notes on the relationship of oxygen to the brain, the progress of respiration in the newborn infant. That was the bent of his writing. But now he wrote memoirs: exercises in combating decay. He would destroy them when his own destruction came. His daughters would be critical. We loved you, Papa, they would weep over his grave. You should not have destroyed your records. Everything you wrote had importance for the world.
His son, Gunther. He would grieve, for he was a good man. He might kneel on the ground and whisper into his grave: Were you alone when you died? And Ludwig would whisper back: You know very well I was alone.
Ludwig roused himself from the thought. He should not be quarrelsome. As a good father he should not give painful details to his son. He would reply: I was consoled. But Gunther would say: Consoled? How?
Thus it would end. No, it was better to converse truthfully with Gunther, for a lie always led to a question.
The boy in the bed near him moaned. He was wrapped in his wormy blanket. Only his twelve-year-old face stuck out, only his eyes were features. Ludwig looked up from the table. He saw that it was fear that made the boy moan, and what could he do for that? "Hush," he hissed.
He looked down at the page he had been writing: I am going away, my son told me that morning. He was twenty-two years old. Tall and blonde, but a strange fellow in many ways. For a long time I had feared he would take religion up as his business, he had just such oddities of the soul.
One evening he came into my room and said to me: Do I embarrass you, Papa? He was twelve at the time. What makes you think so? I asked him. He thought for a moment and then he said, Because I see that you are easily embarrassed. I had it in mind to thrash him for his outspokenness, but I did not. Discipline rarely had effect on him.
I had found myself put out by him many times. When he was young he was graceless. He would squint when he was spoken to. He got excellent grades in school, but in the end there was nothing to show for them for he never led his class or won a medal.
How do you see such a thing? I asked him. It is easy, he said. When I called Dr. Heinrich Dr. Heiner, you set your teeth in such a manner that I was uncomfortable all day.
You never get a man's name straight, I retorted. You call doctor professor and professor doctor. Though this is no crime, men are made uneasy by such blunders.
Is it thus that grownups live, Papa? he asked.
My son, I said, growing impatient with his talk, have you come to such an age that you pass judgment on adults?
Yes, I have, he said quite soberly.
I am going away, he told me that morning. It was a very blue and clear day. The wind raised his hair, and his cheeks burned with the cold.
Ludwig shaded his wet eyes with his hands. It is well, Gunther, he said to himself, that you were not captured, for when men of vision lose their dreams they are driven into idiocy. The world comes apart like an ill made toy and, like a child, they sit playing with its broken part. It is well that you went away.
I looked up and saw the wind blowing through his hair. He had become tall and handsome. He bent and adjusted the skis to his feet. The wind lifted some snow across his back and over the roof of our lodge.
Tell me again where you are going and what you will do, I said to him.
He stood up and looked at me with great patience, so that I felt foolish.
Dear Papa, he said, I have told you. I am going to be a beggar. It is an old and honorable profession, and there is no risk of failure, he laughed.
Why do you do this thing, Gunther, I said. Why do you do this thing, I said uselessly, for we had already discussed the matter often and he had already said, Because I wish to allow mankind to practise charity. I wish to see the charity in their faces so that I can love them better.
This is an appalling thing that you do, I said, quarreling with him even then, at the last moment.
Yes, it is, he said, leaning on his ski pole. I shall have nothing but the good instincts of people to depend on and they will be responsible for my life. Dear Papa, he said. He kissed me tightly. Then he whispered in my ear, Wish me well, and with a push of his pole he was speeding down the hill.
Gunther, come back, I shouted. Gunther, I called after him and ran in my slippers down the hill. I ran until my breathing was too painful and Gunther had disappeared. For miles around there was nothing but snow. Gunther, I shouted. Then, on a bright and blue day, I found myself standing in the wind and crying.
Ludwig kept his hands over his eyes. Gunther, come back, he said. And the wind flew against his face. He looked up from his writing. The door to the room was open, the dawn crawled about in the opening. The other prisoners lay quietly on their beds. A few stared at the ceiling. Noiselessly, Ludwig stood up. He heard whispering outside. Silently, sixteen pairs of eyes looked at the door and every sleeper woke, silently and sleeping still with all his might.
Two men threw themselves in through the doorway. "The war has ended," one shouted. "The guards have fled. We are free."
Everyone jumped from his bed.
"What is it you say?"
"Tell us, tell us."
"It is true," he said, "true. The Americans are three hours away. There is not a guard left on the grounds. We have been rousing everyone, but no one will listen to us."
"I don't wonder," Ludwig said. "We are supposed to run out of our barracks and be shot like dogs trying to escape."
"Have you all gone mad?" the first man said. "I tell you it is true."
They crept back to their beds.
"Go away." Ludwig said, "or we shall tear you to pieces."
The boy slid his head under his blanket and began to moan. "Hush," Ludwig hissed at him again, but he did not stop. Ludwig sat down on his bed. "Come now," he said, peeling the blanket from his head. "There is nothing we can do for each other. Surely you see this."
"I am cold," the boy whined accusingly.
Stiffly Ludwig wrapped him back into his blanket. He felt the child's body tremble in his hands. How grotesque is comfort, he thought.
Several months later Ludwig came back to his house on Keinertstrasse. The war was over, and he could think of nothing else to do. Everyone went home eventually.
So he too went to his old house midway down Keinertstrasse. The apartment was empty. He was surprised, but he could not say that he had expected anything else. His daughters were married before the war and his son had left a long time ago. His wife had been dead for fifteen years.
He kept his coat and scarf on and held his hat in his hands. Sit down, Ludwig, he said to himself, this is your home, whether you like it or not. Take off your coat.
His old wine colored sofa was half blown away. Yet it was still in its right place before the front bay windows. His desk was still in the alcove. He set his hat on it. It left an impression on the fallen plaster. He squeezed his eyes shut. I want to go away, he said. I want to go somewhere else. I want to go home. Where are my daughters? Their children? Where is Gunther? Has everyone died? I will not stay here, he said.
Take off your coat, Ludwig. There is nowhere else to go.
He laid his coat and scarf on the sofa. He sat down at his desk. And now? he thought. What? He heard footsteps overhead. Yes, what? He folded his arms on his desk and listened. He heard the scrape of furniture. Someone else has returned, he thought with dull comfort. He sat and listened to the noises for a long time until he dozed. Then he heard his name.
"Ludwig Strauss," somebody called him. A young boy was standing in the doorway. "You are Ludwig Strauss?" he said. "I am Karl Holtzmann. Don't you remember me?"
"Karl Holtzmann," Ludwig whispered. "You were a little boy"
"Yes," Karl said and smiled frankly. "I was a little boy, but you are the same age," he laughed.
"So it is with old men," Ludwig smiled. "We remain as we were. Come here, closer. Was it you I heard overhead?"
"Yes," Karl said. "My father and me." He came into the room and looked about. "Not very tidy, but our apartment is worse. We have no sink or toilet and I am afraid we are using yours."
"Of course, of course," Ludwig said. "As you can see, my old apartment has not done too badly. It is identifiable," he laughed. "Your mother," he asked, "is she with you?"
Karl put his hands behind his back. "My mother is dead," he said. "But she died of pneumonia."
"Why do you say but?"
"It is nice to know that that's how it was."
"Yes," Ludwig said. "And you and your father. How did you find each other?"
"We were interned together."
Ludwig took off his glasses and blew on them. "In this world that is a stroke of fortune."
Karl regarded him for a moment. "Were you lonely?" he asked.
"I?" Ludwig looked at him. "I was not lonely at all. It only
occurs to me how difficult it must be not to know what has
happened to one's family. But my family were all well disposed of.
My daughter, Karen, has been living in England since before the
war. She married an Englishman, half English. And my daughter,
Elisabeta, was married to a high official," he shrugged his
"And then there is still Gunther," Karl said.
"Yes, there is still Gunther." Ludwig placed his glasses carefully on the desk. "But Gunther is well. One has the feeling that God or something or other will protect him. One has that feeling about Gunther."
"But you would like to know it for certain," Karl said.
"For certain!" Ludwig cried with exasperation. "How should I know it for certain? If I should see him standing where you are then I should know it for certain."
Karl was disappointed. "But perhaps the next best thing will do. We have been hoping for your return. I have a letter here for you from Gunther." Ludwig looked at him with astonishment and distrust. "Here it is." Karl said, and handed him the letter.
Ludwig looked at the handwriting. "It is true," he whispered.
Karl said, "My father also said to ask you to dinner tonight if you were come home." He walked to the door. Then he looked back. "I carried the letter for two years," he said. "Please, may I sometime know what it says?"
But Ludwig was already oblivious to him. He put on his glasses to read the letter. My dear Papa, Gunther wrote. I cannot go into detail of how I met with the Holtzmanns, but I am sure that if they live they will deliver my letter to you. I write only to tell you that I am well. I have succeeded in my profession, and I bring you my greetings from the other side of the world. Take care of yourself and pray hard that we meet again. Gunther.
But the letter was two years old, Ludwig thought angrily. He read it again, carefully. My greetings from the other side of the world, it said. Could Gunther have escaped altogether? But then how could he have met with the Holtzmanns who had been interned all that time?
I shall go mad trying to understand, he said out loud. He heard footsteps overhead and tried to calm himself. He reminded himself that life was returning to normal: he had an invitation to dinner.
Ludwig and the Holtzmanns saw much of each other in the next few weeks. They helped to straighten out each other's homes, but Ludwig could not recover his old attitude, the psychic posture he had kept to the world before the war. In those years he had had his patterns of trust and distrust. He had lived with a certain emotional rhythm for seventy years. He was changed, but he could not say how. He felt as if he had not valued humankind before prison and that now merely to look and observe, to hear and to see made his nerves raw. He could not understand the people he saw go by. They seemed, as before, so much of human nature, but they did not elicit his old feelings. He felt simpleminded, lost.
He decided to go up to Hochberg. It was this, he believed, this small, lonely cabin on a low hill that he needed to help him pass back into his old life. He asked the Holtzmanns to come with him, for he knew that Eric Holtzmann was sick and he thought the air would do him good.
He had not been to Hochberg since Gunther had left. He had a presentiment as they drove into the country that the ski tracks and his footsteps as he had run after his son would still be there in the snow, for no one ever came to Hochberg. Its flowers bloomed entirely to themselves and its snow lay unbroken for miles around.
Thus it was that they found it. The mountain sun was pale. The snow lay unbroken and without trace of incident, except for the patch of grass here and there that brought evidence of spring.
"I am afraid that we are too late for skiing," Ludwig said irrelevantly and laughed at his remark.
Eric Holtzmann got out of the car and breathed in deeply. "This must be a magnificent place in the winter," he said.
Ludwig felt proud as if he had designed the land. "Yes, it is," he said. "We used to spend many weekends here. But you will see," he said, gathering the bags, "that the spring and the summer are quite good too. In spite of those hills that appear so huge, spring is very dainty here. She comes with small flowers that grow hardly half an inch above the ground. And all summer the snow melts leisurely and you can hear the water dropping somewhere, delicately and in the distance."
Eric smiled. "It is good to still be a romantic."
Ludwig was annoyed. "I am hardly a romantic," he said and picked up the bags.
Karl and he shared a room, and Eric had the other bedroom so that he would not be disturbed.
The pillow felt cold about Ludwig's head when he lay down that night. Winter had only just gone. Ludwig could hear the wind hiss and the fire crackle in Eric's room. I should not have answered him so harshly, he thought regretfully. Still, it has always been difficult to display any sentiment without being ridiculed for it. He pushed his head in among the pillows and tried to sleep. Life is the same everywhere, he thought tiredly, and dozed.
Suddenly he woke. He heard Eric coughing in the dark. Karl woke too. Ludwig looked up at the ceiling and said nothing. He knew why Karl did not sleep. So this is how it will be, Ludwig thought with a sinking feeling.
Still the spring and the summer passed reasonably well. Karl grew
in the country. His blonde hair swung in his eyes with self
assurance. Sometimes the color in his eyes was full of green
flecks when the sun shone in them, and sometimes they were a dull
brown when he looked confused. But always they were soft eyes.
They looked upon pain gently, as Gunther's had. That is
what Ludwig noticed about him. He found himself drawn to Karl. His gentleness supported and yet eased a feeling of guilt that dogged Ludwig these days. He would not call it guilt, except that perhaps all unanswerable anxiety was guilt, a feeling that he had not done with life what he should have. He kept circling his years, trying to discover what he should have done. He remembered looking at Gunther as a baby asleep in his carriage under the living room window. The sun was brilliant on his blankets. Ludwig had felt a piercing gratitude for how the sun warmed Gunther's carriage, as if it spread its special protection over his child. Why had Gunther gone away! Ludwig woke every morning and looked at the snow, expecting to see his
returning tracks. A mental aberration. Senility, he said to himself. But the compulsion hardened.
"What are you looking for?" Karl said over his shoulder, one day. Ludwig turned sharply from the window, but Karl's expression stopped his annoyance. He felt, instead, enormous anxieties float from his chest at the thought that Karl had some affection for him.
But it was not always easy for Ludwig to bear with Karl. He had boisterous moments. He often whistled a shrill, ill tuned whistle that tore Ludwig's ears. His humor grated on his nerves. He pestered Ludwig for hours with dull riddles.
But when Karl got a job in the village and was gone all day, Ludwig missed him. If Karl was late he found himself watching the horizon for him. Determinedly he tried to write: We had two daughters, and now, finally a son. We called him Gunther. Gunther. He took out the letter and read it again. I bring you my greetings from the other side of the world. From where? The other side of life? The words twisted. Pray hard that we meet again. Where? In what world? Ludwig felt a sudden alarm. He had been dreaming that hope was here. Pray hard! No, he refused. He needed more than hope. The wind blew against the window. Fall was already here. The snow clouds were massing themselves in the sky. He left the cabin and walked rapidly down the slope that led to the forest. What did he intend to do: beat his breast, cry out against God? He did not know. The ground was hard and cold. He sensed the coming chill with panic. He ran towards the forest as if its darkness could cover him with warmth. He ran into the darkness as if he could run forever, so blinded with terror and loss that he did not see Karl coming home.
"Where are you going without your coat?" Karl asked with surprise.
Ludwig was too tired to continue running. He sat down on a log and tried to catch his breath. "Gunther is dead," he said. He did not cry. He tried to catch his breath and looked out over the hills with his light blue eyes. Gunther is dead, he said to himself, and everything was at zero. "I know it now for sure," he said out loud.
Karl took off his coat and put it on Ludwig's shoulders. "Come back to the house," he said. "You cannot know anything like that."
"Yes, but I know it," Ludwig whispered. He looked at Karl. In the unclear light of the forest's edge his brown eyes were darker than usual and, to Ludwig's astonishment, concerned. So Gunther had looked at him the morning that they had parted, with such concern. He drew Karl's coat about his shoulders and his trembling stopped.
"Look how old I am," he laughed. "I was carried away by a presentiment." He looked about him. "How odd the day seems. Grey, very grey."
"It is getting towards night," Karl said, and helped Ludwig to his feet. Ludwig leaned on his arm as they walked home.
"Thank you," he said when they got to the cabin, "you are a very good boy." It was a patronizing comment, but Karl accepted it goodnaturedly, and helped Ludwig into the house and built a fire.
Soon Eric came in. He looked weaker than usual. He tried to control his coughing, but in place of it a long and violent wheeze shook his body. His efforts to control himself made Ludwig nervous.
Karl's face, as always, was expressionless when his father coughed. He acted as if he heard nothing, but Ludwig saw that each time that Eric coughed Karl's back stiffened. That at night Karl lay awake and his eyes were great and white. Ludwig knew what those eyes looked like, but he had nothing to say to him. Pity has no words. Compassion is a touch of fingers, a laying on of healing hands. If you cannot heal, what then? What clumsy device could he call upon to comfort the boy? You will get over it‹we never do. You are young yet‹that is nothing to the point. It was for the best -- so we must say. Take my head and hold it, hold it tightly against your body, against your soul. Yes, Ludwig thought wearily, so I would wish for myself, to lie forever in some immense sea of comfort.
Winter came on and the nights became more difficult. Eric went to bed earlier each evening. Karl helped undress him, he gave him warm milk and built a fire for him. Ludwig longed for Karl to have courage and noted every failure of his nerves. He longed for him to survive his trial. He was the child Gunther had carried in his arms when he had found him crouching behind the steps in the hallway. Ludwig wished he could spare Karl his pain. But what could one do for another? He watched Karl day by day grow grim and stiff. He was surprised that he missed his boyish nonsense. So Gunther had grown too, in his father's house, to a grim manhood. A tortuous feeling afflicted Ludwig, a despair for what was to happen to Karl that was as deep as any pain he had known, as deep as when Gunther had sped down the mountain, as deep as the dreadful acknowledgment of affection for his son that came too late.
He tried to imagine how it would be if he knew that Gunther were
dead. But he could no longer bear to think about that. He made up
his mind that he must adjust to the idea that he might never know,
might never meet his son again or find his grave anywhere on this
earth. He made a bargain with his soul that he owed it the solace
of believing that Gunther was alive. I will
not have it otherwise, he cried to himself. I will have the world as I want it. For once. Now, before I die, for I am going to die very soon.
One night that promise of Gunther's life seemed suddenly to exist miraculously, without effort on his part, like the ocean exists whether one has seen it or not. He felt Gunther's presence as surely as life itself and his heart was bursting with his unused love. He stood in a great field of light and there was white light all about him, flying in the night, light and light falling through the air like stars beating him all over so that he had to cover his eyes.
He woke up. A spasm of coughing shook the house. He sat up and listened. He saw that the snow had begun to fall. For miles and miles that he could see through the window it fell everywhere. There was another cough. It shook the cabin. Ludwig looked towards Karl, but his bed was empty. Quickly he put on his slippers and bathrobe and went into the kitchen, but it was empty. "Karl," he called softly, but no one answered. My God, he thought with alarm. He ran to Eric's room and then thought better of it. He listened at the door. Eric was sleeping again. Ludwig called him softly. He went into the kitchen and called again. My God, he thought. He put on his heavy coat and his boots and went out. When he was a little distance from the house he began to shout for him. "Karl, Karl, don't be a foolish boy. Come back, do you hear. Come back, Karl."
He ran down the hill. The snow hit him in his face and struck against his eyes. He tried to find some footprints, but the snow fell too fast. Here and there he thought he detected an outline and bent to look at it, but the snow covered it up as fast as he could see. The child had disappeared. "Where are you?" he called out. "For God's sake, Karl. Don't do this thing." He followed what he could make of tracks up the second hill. Ludwig felt his breath would not hold out, but soon he reached the top and could see about him for a distance. Everywhere the sky was lit. Finally he saw tracks that led to the forest. "Karl," he shouted and started down the hill in the vast pearl light.
So it was, at the edge of the forest, beside the first tree, that Ludwig found him. He was asleep on his back, with his face staring at the sky. The snow fell in great drifts upon him so that he was already partially covered.
Fear constricted Ludwig's heart. The feeling was so passionately possessive he could not take it in at once. He knelt beside Karl and wiped his face. "Karl," he called, "Karl, for the sake of my own life, answer me." The boy opened his eyes.
"Is it you?" he said. "I had a dream that I would be found, and I wondered who it would be." His eyes were closed and dreaming, his hair hung over his forehead, stiff with snow.
"My God," Ludwig wept. He sat down beside him and put Karl's head on his lap so that he could warm his face in his coat. "Are you all right?" he asked.
"Oh, yes," Karl said. "I have not slept for weeks, but I slept tonight."
"Are you frozen anywhere?" Ludwig asked.
"No, not even cold. As you can see," he smiled, "I have on my great coat."
"Do you know that this is a very foolish thing that you have done?"
Karl sat up and blinked his eyes. "What can you know?" he said angrily. Suddenly he bent his head into Ludwig's lap again and began to cry. "I will not be able to bear it."
Ludwig drew his head to his shoulder. He folded him in his arms and rocked him. "Forgive me," he said, "I was angry with you. I was frightened."
Everywhere the snow danced about his face so that he could not see anything straight. He took Karl's hands and put them under his coat, against his body. Slowly, gratefully, he felt the cold go out of them. "Yes," he said, "I was frightened." The snow fell persistently, beating him with feathers that drained him of breath. He looked into Karl's face and felt an excruciating pain for his youth, for all the years he had still to live without family or friends or mercy. He placed his hands on Karl's shoulders and grasped him to his chest, with pain and love.
"Come, come," he said, trembling. "Let me help you, let me take you back." He got Karl to his feet and wrapped the coat about him.
Ludwig put Karl to bed. He chafed his feet and his hands and wrapped the blanket tightly about him. "Sleep, sleep," he said in a voice of stern tenderness. But he himself did not sleep. He stood at the window and watched the snow fall. Tears welled unendingly in his eyes.
Eric died a month later. Ludwig and Karl took the body back to the city to bury it. It was a bitter, rainy day. Ludwig stood with Karl under one umbrella and watched the earth turn dark about the graves and run loosely under the stones. He knew it bothered Karl that only they two had come to the funeral. Karl would have liked to have seen his father honored. But they stood alone on the north end of the city. For miles around there was nothing but grey stones and the rain that blew over them.
"It is because so many have not yet returned." Ludwig tried to console him. He kept his arm about his shoulder, and at night they returned to his apartment. But they were ghosts in a city that itself was looking for life, and they returned to Hochberg as soon as possible. They set up housekeeping and lived alone through the winter.
The following spring they moved back to town. Ludwig persuaded
Karl to go to school, but they went to Hochberg every weekend.
They skied, they fished, they tramped through the woods. Ludwig
felt a frightening happiness, but he knew this was not a normal
existence for Karl who needed the presence of women and boys his
age. Guilt and a feeling of imminent disaster made him feel
savagely possessive. Karl had a distant aunt who had found out his
whereabouts and wanted to adopt him. Ludwig had moved to adopt
Karl himself, and the case went to court. The authorities cast a
jaundiced eye on Ludwig's
agedness, on their relationship. Karl's aunt sneered at him in court, "Your son?" Ludwig rose, involuntarily from his seat. A clever protest came to his lips, but he couldn't utter it. He was pursued by a sense of complexity that was too much for him, love that should not be called love, but what else was it? He said only, "Yes." When his neighbors passed him on the street he
felt the sinister force of their suspicion. He thought they laughed when he went by, "Your son?" Yes, yes, yes, he said.
"It's all the work of Auntie Til," Karl cried bitterly.
Ludwig turned away. He could not bear what he could not define.
Only a few summer months were left to them, and then Karl was turned over to his aunt for adoption. Ludwig was arrested, and on a wet day in the fall he found himself listening to the rain beating on the roof of the courthouse. The judge looked afflicted as he stated the issue.
At first, Ludwig was deeply embarrassed by Engler's reaction. To be tried by the son of a colleague was not easy, though Ludwig surmised that there was a tribute in Engler's confusion. But he wearied of the embarrassment, of Engler's attempts to be merciful. He wanted none of these. The rain beat on the metal roof. It ran down the arched windows that paraded on each side of the room. Out in the country it turned the earth loose and malleable under the gravestones. They had found refuge where they could.
Ludwig had discovered that he could still ski well enough, and
Karl flew down the hill like a celestial body. Sometimes, as
Ludwig saw him disappear down a slope, his breath stopped. It
seemed to him that his mind stopped and that he was standing
somewhere where there was only a faint outline to reality, there
was only himself waiting desperately for a human figure to
appear. Then he would catch sight of Karl on the top of a mountain, waving his ski pole to him, and in that intensified light where the sun hits a peak of snow and a human figure passes through it, life regained virtue.
"Ludwig Strauss," Engler said, "I must sentence you for the crime of sodomy. Do you understand," he leaned forward with the mission of the court, "that you have committed an unseemly act?"
Mercifully, Engler did not wait for an answer, for Ludwig could not give him one. He did not wish to defend himself. He had driven his son away. He felt incontestably evil, he always had. He bent his head away from such thoughts and listened to other sounds.
My mother is dead, Karl said, but she died of pneumonia. Well, Ludwig said, that is good. He could see the boy as he stood with his hands behind his back and only his nostrils dilated with the agony. God or something or other will protect Gunther, Ludwig said. One has that feeling about him. But you would like to know for certain, Karl said. Yes, for certain.
The rain was solemn, soothing, grey, funereal. His memories did not make him sad, though he sensed their conclusive nature. After all, how much longer? he thought.
But when they put him in a cell by himself he found that he was not prepared to accept that. Somehow he had thought of a much larger cell, one with inmates in it.
"This is especially for you," the guard explained.
"It's a gift," the guard said, "from Judge Engler. He said that a man like you would be miserable with the others." He flung the package of Ludwig's writings onto the table and left.
Nine o'clock came and the lights were dimmed. All over the floor there was sudden darkness. Whatever sounds there had been died like the lights. A mysterious hand silenced everything.
Does it start again? Ludwig thought. Am I never to have done with this? This is terrible, he said almost out loud. This is worse than I expected. I shall never be able to live through it. I am not young anymore, he pleaded with the darkness. When I was young I could take this very well, but I am too old now. I am too old, and I can't take this.
But the darkness pressed upon him. Complaints are irrelevant. The
darkness and the silence crawled inside his head. He lay down on
his cot, determined to keep calm as best he could. He settled upon
the stars, and counted them from left to right, and then up and
down. He chose favorites and set them aside. He made decisions on
their magnitude, light, luster, and distance from the earth. They
stared back at him like a thousand eyes in the dark room, each
fixed, each determined to hold its place, each a million miles
away from its neighbor. He knew that in every cell a man lay on
his back with his face towards the dark sky, his eyes white in his
head, listening for the faraway step of a guard and waiting for
the dawn to come. Silently they would all pass through the night,
one by one, their extreme hopes beyond communication, listening
only for the step of the jailer and
the turn of the key that would release them.
In durance, some might think of murder to see if the blood could
run, others would fancy with a terrible and pertinent reality so
that they could smell the flesh, that they walked down a dark
street, crossed the angular shadow of a woman and melted into it;
others that they stood in broad daylight on a street corner and
met the eyes that were eternally seeking theirs, whether they were
in the head of a child, a boy, or an aged man, and perhaps in
their agony seize the form and ravish upon it their thousand
years of loneliness. Always the quest ended in crime or obscenity, for the tensions of the night exploded the world at its center, and no man could tell why it was so, except that the night was so dark.
This is unendurable, Ludwig thought. He got off the bed and stood up. This is worse, worse than I expected. What shall I do? Shall I cry, shall I pray, shall I talk to myself for human comfort?
Suddenly there was a hushed guffaw and he heard someone whisper, "Sssshhh." Ludwig stood still and listened. He heard whispering on the south wall. He went to the wall and examined it. With utmost care, he managed to move the bed away so that it did not make a sound. Then he bent down on his knees and examined the wall to the floor. There, a little lower than where the head of his bed was, air was escaping through a crack. "Hello," he whispered through it. The whispering on the other side stopped.
"I am a friend," Ludwig said in a low voice. "Here, next door. Can you hear me?" There was no answer. Again he said, "Can you hear me? Please, tell me just that. I am alone." Then he heard so close to his ear it sounded as if it were inside his head, "What is your name?"
"Ludwig Strauss," he breathed out deeply. "And yours?"
"That is good," Ludwig said. "That is very good," and he went back to his bed. Within a few minutes he heard the whispering again. Every so often he heard the hushed guffaw. The sounds dazzled him. He felt irrationally filled with a contentment that amazed him.
The whispering continued for a long time and the intimate drone filled his cell. Ludwig fell asleep for a short while with the sound in his ears. When he woke he was staring at the sky. It was still dark outside, but he sensed that dawn was imminent. The air was clear although there was no breath in his body. Mechanically he noted that his pulse was very low. Hardly enough for living, he thought. He looked at the stars again, now with great leisureliness and noticed how there were patterns of triangles, great risings as if they were all rushing upwards and then steep, sheer, and swift descents. Then up they shot again, like a mountain peak and down they rushed and swiftly, without effort, on the sleek polish of his skis, an innocent boy went down into a great valley and up he came on the other side of the sky. He stood poised for a moment in the darkness, adjusted the straps of his ski poles, and with a push, flew into the stars.
I shall not lose him this time, Ludwig thought, and fell asleep forever.
What are our weapons? Only our willpower.
My grandfather and my father were political revolutionaries of a
mild sort. More important, they were men of conscience, trained to
the motto that all that it took for evil to triumph was for good
men to do nothing. "Good men," my father used to say, "must be
like camp followers. They must follow the army into battle and
pitch their tents on the battlefield. Good men," he
used to say, "must be like the dog Argus with a hundred eyes, never sleeping. Good men must be like Janus, looking into heaven and hell at the same time. It is not enough to have principles, to catch a glimpse of Utopia. Even as you are peeking, someone is lowering the curtain. Good men must renounce their very lives, even as did the disciples of Jesus, for the
battle against evil will not be won with lesser measures."
In 1891, when our district government brought in the army to put
down a strike by our miners, my grandfather was one of those who
sat in the entrance to the mine for six days without food. He was
the first, but soon another man joined him and another. My father
who was a small boy at the time, told me how he could remember his
father, who was a doctor, a
professional man always in impeccable clothes, his beard trimmed to a point, his monocle set in his eye like the moon in the sky, was covered with dust and soot. Someone spat on him. He did not move a muscle. His monocle was broken. There was a cut on his eyebrow. One of the army men poked him in the ribs with his bayonet. Half the town cheered. The other half crept by at
night and whispered gratitude. "Stand up and be counted," my grandfather said. The next day the lawyer joined him. "Well, Sturmann," he said to my grandfather, "you did not show up for your chess game, so I had no choice." He crossed his long legs under him and sat down. Within a few minutes, I assure you, his white shirt was not white. My father told me how he watched
from behind a bush and wept. At night he crawled to my grandfather and wept again. "Fear nothing," my grandfather said, "it is only people."
When my grandfather died and my father buried him, I was already a grown boy. My father looked like a man who had been given the heaviest inheritance a man could have. I doubt whether the father of the Hebrew race felt so heavy a responsibility for the future.
I did not fight in the First World War. I was eligible for the army, but my father "spirited" me out of Germany. He put me on a small boat going towards France and I made my way into Switzerland, where I stayed for the duration of the war. "We shall yet rescue the world," my father said to me the night I left. He gripped my shoulders. The night was as dark as tar and we could only feel and hear each other. I felt, in that darkness, my father's passion for pacifism, and I have never borne arms. Indeed, I gave up eating meat more than ten years ago, despising death and all acts connected with death.
You see from what stock I come. We are determined that good will be consummate and that evil, because it is a disease and self-destroying, cannot be. We are determined not to be lax, not to be seduced by fatalism or primitive remains of Manicheanism. This compulsion has driven our family since the time of Our Lord Jesus Himself. And we are determined to take our final rest in His belief that good is omnipotent and evil is powerless before its finest statement.
When the boxcars first appeared in our town late on an August evening in 1942, we were confused as to what they meant. They were sealed. They stopped only for minutes. They came from the west and went east. But when they came by again in October, we were already alert with rumors. Some of our townspeople had been to the eastern border, had been at the depot when the train pulled in. "People," they said, "people are on the trains."
My wife, I must admit, laughed at first. "Circus people," she said. "A new act."
Schunken, a man of indifferent disposition who didn't care one way or the other, shrugged his shoulders. As far as he was concerned he was merely reporting what he saw. He didn't care what my wife thought, but his companion wiped his nose on his sleeve, twirled his cap, and clearly felt the hand of God in his ribs. "A new act," he said, "yes, but these weren't circus people as far as I could see. When they opened the doors half of them fell out dead."
My friend, Kernfeffer, was at my house that evening. He moved to the edge of his chair. "You don't mean really dead?" he said.
"You can call it what you want," Schunken said, "but they never moved again. They were shoveled onto a truck and taken away."
There is a hill on my farm from which I can see perhaps a mile of
track, so when the train came through in October I saw it coming
before anyone else did. I was harvesting and working hard.
Nevertheless, I felt something hit my forehead as if someone had
thrown a pebble into my brain. I looked up and saw the train on
the horizon. How many trains pass through Oberpassen? Perhaps six
a day, four passenger and two freight. There was no reason for
this train to capture my attention. But it did. I watched it
wriggle on the horizon like a dancing worm, something for a
child's cartoon, something unreal that had been animated. It was
so undistinguished. I watched it come closer as one should watch a
tornado come in from an open field, uncertain what it is until its
reality is impassable. Not till the train passed did it dawn on
me. Every car was sealed. There was no writing anywhere, no
information, no freight description, no weight, no destination
markings. Not a sign of freight or passenger, its message sealed
like a tomb. I jumped into my truck and drove to the station as
fast as I could. It was not fast enough. "Stop it," I shouted as
it pulled away. "There are live men and women sealed into that
train. Stop it, stop it." I got into my truck and
drove to the home of our priest. He was already at dinner, reading his mail.
There were tears in his eyes. "Have you heard," he asked, "our monastery in Northern India was washed away by the floods. Three hundred people perished in the town. We have lost Father Holgen and Sister Margaret." He crossed himself, but his lips were trembling with sorrow.
"That is a disaster," I said, "but I was not referring to that." I told him how I had seen another train of boxcars go by such as had gone by in August, and how Schunken had said he had been at the depot when it had arrived because he had a delivery over the border and saw how the cars had contained live men and women.
"Schunken, Schunken!" our priest said. "What does Schunken know? Who can believe such an idiot. When Schunken was a little boy he once said he had seen a cat burned alive come back again."
"But the whole countryside is filled with these rumors," I said. "By now, others have seen. Not only Schunken."
"What others?" he shouted. He was clearly upset over the news
from India. Father Holgen had been a friend of his and he had
known Sister Margaret from infancy, had directed her feet to
India. "Have you seen? Has your wife seen? Have I seen? Who has
seen? Rumors! I remember when I was a little boy someone said the
world was coming to an end. Everyone ran to the
top of the mountain. Two people died of heart failure. The next day, everyone came down from the mountain." He covered his eyes with his hands so that I would not see him weeping. "Go away, Sturmann," he said, "unless you have some evidence besides Schunken's word. Imagine if I brought the matter to the council and said, Schunken says. We are surrounded by mountains with only the train route out. Better pray that the mines keep working and the mountains don't fall on your head."
My wife noticed my preoccupation and I told her what was bothering me. "If it is true--," I said.
"If it is true," she said.
"But we must act on one supposition or the other. If they are carrying legitimate freight why shouldn't the cars be labeled?"
She smiled in that way that meant she was patronizing a stupidity of mine. "If there were really something sinister, something so evil, evil people could surely practice the simple deception of falsifying freight labels. Nothing could draw more attention than the fact that the cars are not labeled, so it must be innocent. Only innocent people would act so stupidly."
There was something reasonable in that, but on the other hand it was unreasonable for anyone not to label the cars. And the innocent and the not innocent would profit from labeling. In my mind's eye I saw the train drawing across the countryside, nondescript and very usual-looking, yet ghostly. Surely I thought, if it were anything really evil, I would know it. If we are not capable of distinguishing good from evil, how can we claim to know God whom we identify as good, how can our priests, our clergy claim to fight evil if they do not know what it is, how can the Pope be God's vicar if he cannot fight evil.
I had heard terrible stories from my father and my grandfather of massacres during the Middle Ages, burning of so-called witches, and in our own time, slavery and lynching of black men. I always believed I would know the evil thing when I saw it, because you could hear the cry of the tortured, you could smell the death in a starving child, you could feel the weight of slave chains, you could see the body swinging in the tree. The sun is not more visible to the eye of man than that which is evil. I made up my mind that the solution was to halt the trains the next time they came through and investigate.
The next day I had two appointments. The first was to take my wife to the doctor. She had missed a month and was not feeling well. The second was to bring a request to our court for an injunction to stop the train the next time it came through town. I had to sit through three hours of deliberation about the mine union, about the nightmarish condition in our mental institution (a twelve-year-old girl had been raped by one of the guards), about the ever growing ominous problem of unemployment in our southern district. Klinger, who presided over the council, asked me on what grounds I wished to halt the trains. I repeated the story, the rumors, Schunken's eyewitness account, his companion's evidence. I exploded. "It's for the purpose of getting evidence," I shouted, "that I wish to stop the trains."
He said the matter would be considered, and they would let me know in seven days. When I left, a few of my friends pressed me to come to a meeting that evening concerning the unemployment problem. "You know very well," they said, industry is moving north for the cheap labor. We must have a statewide wage system, we must have a permanent industry residence law. It should not be easier for a man to pick up his business and ruin the working lives of thousands than for a man to divorce his wife. A man should be able to count on his livelihood like he counts on his family." I could not agree more. I had seen what unemployment could do to people. In some cases, men left their families to search for work and were never heard of again.
I passed the mine on my way to the meeting that night. In the
dark the opening to the shaft looked like the hole into hell. I
could imagine if I tripped and fell, I would fall forever though I
knew very well that twenty feet down was a landing. I remember my
father's story of my grandfather sitting in the entrance. Only his
body said no to the darkness. I had to do something about the
trains, whether the court approved or not. We were twenty-seven
thousand people in town, I thought. If we all stood by the
station and let out a mighty roar, who would put down our voices. Stop, we would shout. Twenty-seven thousand voices. God, would you hear us? I felt my father's hand on my shoulder as on the night I left Germany. "We will yet rescue the world," he whispered in the dark.
Our meeting was disrupted by two youths who were sending around a petition to stop the war in East Africa. The chairman called for order. "We can only solve one problem at a time," he said. "We are trying to solve the problem of unemployment in our own backyard."
One of the young men jumped on a chair and shouted, "Provincial
pacifists. All you care about is how to feed yourselves while your
bullets are killing babies, your army is destroying villages, your
bombs have torn up a country. Over twenty thousand children wander
homeless. More children have been orphaned by you in this war than
you have people in this town.
three times the number of civilians have been killed than you have people in this town, over ten times your numbers have been killed as soldiers on both sides, and all you're concerned with is a job. Unemployment is not famine, unemployment is not cholera, unemployment is not bullets. We can manage unemployment."
"He's right," I shouted from my feet. "What is the use of our petty concerns for our own welfare. All over the world people are dying of starvation. Here we quibble over how much social security a man needs to keep his house."
The chairman banged for order. "Charity begins at home," someone muttered. "I cannot see how it helps one starving man or woman on the other side of the world," the chairman said, "whatever it is we do here."
Of course, he was right, and once the mood of bitterness passed in me, I said so out loud. "I merely wanted to let him be heard," I said. "Of course, we should solve our own problems, but we must keep our perspective."
When I left the meeting one of the youths approached me outside
the hall and asked if I would come to a protest rally they were
holding a week from that night. I signed the petition and said
that I would be glad to go. I asked them if they knew anything
about the boxcars. "What boxcars?" they said. They had heard
nothing. I explained the situation, the incidents to
them. They were very interested and asked me to get more information for them. At last I had struck fire in someone, and I went to their rally with curiosity as to who else would be there.
It was held on a farm outside the town limits, not even near a
main highway. Clearly it was not a popular cause, which whet my
appetite all the more. Still when I got there, I was surprised at
the large numbers of people who had found their way out there.
There was a platform to a side with flags and loudspeakers. A man
of about thirty was making an impassioned speech
against the war. In the center of the rally, a group of about forty boys and girls were doing a slow snake dance, weaving in and out silently. It was clearly symbolic of the dance of death, and their expressions, their silence, the lack of music or rhythm of any kind, the sheer repetition of the silent weaving had effect. People stepped aside to let them through. Knots of people dissolved before their advance. There were many who had come out of curiosity, as at any rally. There were even those who had come for the purpose of disrupting or propagandizing their cause, but no one disrupted or ridiculed these silent weavers in their dance of death. After they passed by, ranks closed again. I recognized Sister Mary Theresa carrying a collection box to raise money for the flood victims of Rasinpur and to rebuild the monastery. She carried a sign on her back which was meant to read: Help Your Brother Christians. But someone had crossed out the word Christians. I could imagine who did this because those involved with this protest rally were known to have hostile feelings about religion. Some of these called themselves the New Fraternity of Free Men, and I could readily think that Father Muhler had sent Sister Mary Theresa to this very rally for
the purpose of reminding Christians of their Christian duty. She looked beset like a dour countess at a carnival, not sure whether to draw attention to herself or not. There was a Leninist faction seated at the back, cross legged on the ground, their hair shaved in the shape of the star of China. They carried only one placard: Life is Revolution.
I spotted my friend, Kernfeffer. "What are you doing here?"
"Same as you. How is your wife?"
"Not well. We thought she was pregnant, but it seems not to be. The doctors are now in disagreement."
"So, make her pregnant and put the doctors in agreement. Any word on the boxcars?"
"I'll know tomorrow. The court will give me a decision." I pulled him aside. "You know very well," I whispered, "what the decision will probably be. Everyone in the country has been talking, but the courts are deaf."
"Still it's nothing but rumors."
"But the rumors must be investigated. If there is any truth to them, my God, do you realize the malignancy."
"If, if, if. Last year they evacuated the town. They said the dam
was going to break. We stayed away for three days." He shrugged
his shoulders. "But when there was an explosion in the mine and
twenty miners were killed, there were no rumors to precede it. I
tell you what I think. When true evil comes it does not advertise
itself. People talk up the thing that is not so
"But you would agree that we must investigate."
He dropped ash from his cigar. "All right, so I agree."
"If the court does not give me a permit, what shall we do?"
He looked up at the sun. "Let us cross that bridge when we come to it."
We left the rally together. I signed a petition to permit our medical staff to give aid to the enemy. When I arrived home, I did not like at all how my wife looked. Her eyes were sunken. "Come, come, come," I said, "you are thinking the worst possible things. I know what you are thinking." My ears went cold as I spoke. "A doctor once told me more people die of the fear of the disease than of the disease itself. You mustn't let your mind run away like this."
I had intended to go to a meeting of the miners' union, but I crossed the idea out. It was absolutely essential to divert my wife. I insisted we go out for dinner and to a picture show. I met Hausner the next day who scolded me for not going to the meeting. "You think because you are not a miner and your family have not been miners this is no affair of yours. Here the mine is the economy of the district. What happens to the mines is everyone's business."
Of course, he was right and I told him so. I explained that my wife was sick. "You should take her to a clinic," he said. "These doctors here know nothing." I had suggested this to her, but she had burst into tears and had said, "I will die here where I was born. I will not go to a clinic where they experiment on you. If I am to suffer, I will suffer and die, but I will stay where I am."
My scalp prickled when she spoke this way. I became breathless and could not talk to her. I could not stand to feel that there was something seriously wrong with her. I told her she was being unreasonable. There were other diseases in the world, most of them not drastic. She could be suffering anything from an ulcer to an obscure virus, which only a clinic had the means of diagnosing properly. But she would not be budged. Fear had given her a pernicious obstinacy, a longing only for the familiar that could not be satiated. She would stand by the window and stare at a tree for hours. She walked and walked through the streets and alleys she had known as a child. Once she had found a mouse, put him in a cage, and sat all afternoon watching him. "How is it he has never seen me before and he fears me? Is fear more natural than love?"
I told Hausner I would do my best to make the next meeting and went to the court to hear about the decision to stop the trains. I had to sit for several hours hearing evidence about the guard, Blinghoffer, who had raped the demented child. They were both there. She giggled and hiccoughed, he twisted his hat in his hands and said he had meant no harm. The child's mother screamed that he was the demented one, not her daughter. It cost her half her husband's salary to keep her daughter in a private institution. The guard's mother said maybe the girl was not as demented as all that if she could get her son. The child's mother flung her fury and said a stone could get her son. The judge rapped for order. Damages were awarded to the child's mother and the guard was removed from his job. My own petition was heard out in four minutes. The said train should be halted and searched in the town of Oberpassen. Schunken was called to give evidence. His companion had moved to another district. Schunken repeated what he had said in the past and the case was dismissed.
Kernfeffer called me that evening. "Well?" he said.
"Dismissed," I said. "Meet me tomorrow for lunch."
"You have a private plan?" Kernfeffer asked.
I leaned across the lunch table towards him when we met. "You have a friend who works in the station house in Berlin."
"Kernfeffer, get him to give us a timetable on every train movement through here. Somewhere the boxcars must be on record. They must be on someone's report."
"What will you do when you get it?"
"If I know in advance when one is due, we will get every
responsible organization in town, the Youth Movement, the Pacifist
Organization, theMovement of Moral Men, the Brotherhood of Unity,
collectively, to come down to the station, if need be
spread our bodies across the tracks and demand that the doors be opened. We will stop those trains."
Kernfeffer is a laconic man who likes to affect a lack of sentimentality, but I knew he was with me. I had only to wait until he made connection and brought me information. In the meantime, I had much work to do. I spoke, argued, and wrote to every organization in our district that I knew I could count on. Within a week we had flyers out: Unseal The Boxcars. Tombs On Wheels. The Dying Pass Silently Through Our Town. My wife stood at the window one night and nodded her head. "There it is now." I looked out and there in the January snow was a black ribbon moving over the countryside. It could have been a train from a child's story. If it had tooted a bell it would have changed the countryside. But it came silently.
"How did you know?" I asked. "You cannot see whether there is writing on the cars or not in the dark."
She sighed and put on a shawl. "I had a premonition."
"Maybe you're wrong."
"I don't think so."
"Where are you going?"
"Down to the station. I wish to see if my instincts are right." She swallowed something inarticulate and went out. I followed after her. We came down to the station as the train was pulling in. It stopped for only minutes.
"Here," I said to the stationmaster, and took his lantern and swung it over the cars. There were no marks of identification. Every car was steel, closed, strapped with bands, sometimes corrugated. There were numbers on the sides that could have meant anything: A-26804-FG, and so on. "What do you know of them?" I said to the stationmaster.
"Same as you," he said. "Only what I hear, and the less heard the better."
"Where's the conductor, the engineer?"
He pointed a thumb. "In there, having some coffee." I went to find them, but apparently they had already finished, for the train was starting up again. My wife and I stood on the platform and watched it slide away, as if it were no more than a train full of vacation-going travelers whom we had come to see off. It puffed, it chugged, it let out steam, it gathered speed exactly like any other train.
"What do you think?" I said to her as we walked home.
"I think it is the worst possible thing."
I took her arm. "We are right to fight it, aren't we?"
She was trembling. "Gustav," she said, "this is my last year of life." I bit the insides of my cheeks.
I told Kernfeffer in the morning that we had seen the train last night. We both agreed that this had become a matter of the utmost urgency, but it wasn¹t until April that he could bring me his friend's information. A farmer's time is in the hands of nature. I was strapped to the earth for weeks, but I did contact the several youths I knew who were most active in town, alerted all sympathizers to be ready. Again, Kernfeffer, the student Blumhauf, even two Maoists, brought out flyers. My admiration for these latter goes beyond words. They were working for the Committee to Rescue Asiatic Refugees and for local reform here on the school board and town council. Yet when I approached them, they did not hesitate to join me. "My God," Blumhauf said, "have we known all this since last August and still no action. Thousands of those people have passed through here by now."
"Not a single person should have passed," I said.
"Why have you been so tardy?" one of the Leninists said. The insinuation was too unjust. Words, bitterness, my dying wife choked in me. I had to walk out.
Kernfeffer ran after me. "Don't let them put a good man down," he said.
"I don't intend to," I said.
"It's their work that makes them so cranky."
I was recovering because my sense of fair play came back to me. "Still and all, they do fight, which is more than can be said for half the world, which lives in ignorance of what the other half is suffering. There," I said. We stopped by a newsstand and read the ghastly headlines that a typhoon had wiped out fifty thousand people in East Pakistan, cholera, dysentery, and starvation were expected. Refugees were fleeing everywhere.
Kernfeffer touched me on the elbow. "You should try not to read the papers if your wife is not feeling well."
His words unnerved me. I jerked my elbow away from his fingers. "My wife is perfectly well," I said, "and I shall have the largest rally this town has ever seen to halt the trains."
I went home and studied the timetable. Numbers and hours jumped in my head: Ju, My, Ju, Au, Sep, 1:05, 2:03, 4:07, FX, 2T, 8:03, Ja, Ju, Ap. My wife lay in bed, a blanket over her wasted body. God forgive me. I banged the table. The sheets, the numbers, the dates, the figures went dancing off the table. "Why wouldn't you go to a clinic," I said bitterly.
"Because there is nothing to be done," she said. "Come, sit by me
and talk to me."
"I have work to do," I said crudely. I bent down and picked up the sheets and put them back in order.
"The trains?" she said.
"Yes, the trains. We are planning to have a rally, a protest they will hear in Berlin. Let me assure you, we will stop the trains."
"When? When? When? You sound like Kernfeffer. That's what I am trying to figure out right now."
"Do it quickly."
"It cannot be done until we can all march together. What is the
good if the Movement for Moral Men will not march with the
Fraternity of Free Men because the Movement for Moral Men seeks to
revitalize Christianity and the Fraternity of Free Men wishes to
see an end to all religion. Moreover, how can I tell which of
these silly little markings, A2 or BQ. refers to the
particular train we mean?"
"Tell them," she said, "when the train comes through you will ring the church bell as a signal, and every man, every woman, and child who loves life and would not begrudge another to live is to leave whatever he is doing and run to the station."
The simplicity of the idea was astonishing. "Excellent," I said, like Archimedes shouting Eureka. I shuffled the papers together. "No more leaping numbers, AR and FT. But how will we know in advance? We must have a lookout."
"I will watch," she said. She dragged herself up on her elbows. "Put me in that big chair there, and place me by the window. I will watch."
"But my dear, my dear, from this distance all the trains look alike."
She smiled. "Gustav," she said. She put a finger to her lips to warn me not to cry out. "I have watched death for over a year. I will not mistake it. Put the telephone by my side. When I know, I shall call the church and tell them to ring the bell, three slow tolls and a pause, and three slow tolls and a pause, and so on."
I informed the various organizations of this plan. It took me
about a week to get around to the major committees. Some insisted
on debating the matter. Objections were raised that only an
organized pre-trained group accustomed to protest should be
involved. The ordinary citizen might cause a riot or panic if he
met with confrontation. The group representing Revitalized
Government through Participation said they would withdraw if the
whole town were not involved. Their argument was that the issue of
good and evil was everybody's business, that political salvation
could only come through total communal effort. A branch of the
N.A.C., National Action Against Corruption, located in our town,
rebutted. To them the position of the Revitalized Government
through Participation was exactly that kind of murky sentiment
that damns effective action, but the R.G.P. won the argument and
flyers were put out all over town, letters were sent to every
adult citizen. No person was left uninformed that when he heard
the signal from the church he was to congregate at the railroad
station and demand that the
train be searched, and if the rumors be proven true, God help us, that the train be disbanded.
The Leninists said that it would be a blazing success if half the
town showed up and if the half of the half that showed up
protested. I asked Kernfeffer what he thought. He warned me not to
be too optimistic. We walked home one night past the mine, and I
could see my grandfather's figure sitting in the opening of the
shaft, a lean man in a white shirt and a goatee beard blocking the
passage to the dark hole by force of will. "Protest," my father
said. "It is the energy of democracy." I had forgotten
what heroism felt like. It had been too many years since my father had smuggled me out of Germany and I had floated down the river in the dark, making no sound of my passage. Sometimes there is only an edge between good and evil, a gesture, the gauntlet flung at the right time. If no one draws a boundary, why may not evil usurp all that there is to life. I know if I must, I would sit down on the track and have to take the risk of that action.
We waited for the train. Summer came. We had to renew letters, flyers, press releases. We could not let the citizenry backslide. They had to be goaded to the point and kept there. No one knew when the train would come. No doubt its schedule was part of the macabre schedule of our present state. My wife sat at the window. Every day she looked thinner. She sat by the window and knit or tried to read a book. I left her in the morning with food and tea on a tray and went out to my farm. In my mind's eye I saw the train wriggling on the horizon, floating along the track noiselessly, like a harmless toy put in motion in an atmosphere of erroneous silence, with no one to warn the town. The thought would grip me terribly at times, I would leave my work and go home, but anything that changed my routine alarmed my wife, for she gathered confidence from my assuming confidence. So I tried never to appear anxious.
Then one day, in an ordinary manner, the bells rang. I looked up and there in the distance was a black train tooting down the tracks. I got to the town in minutes, but everyone was already in the streets, dashing and running in every direction. "To the station, to the station," I yelled. The bell tolled incessantly, but everyone was dashing to cars and trucks and going in the wrong direction. Children who could hardly walk were being dragged through the streets unmercifully, old people were being bundled into cars with rough hands. I had the sickening sensation that there had been some dreadful realignment in the universe as if I had just seen a puppet come to life or waves roll backwards. I tried to stop someone, but people shook me away. "to the station," I hissed at them.
Kernfeffer caught me by the shoulder and swung me around. "The dam has broken," he said.
My knees crumpled. I whined. I bleated like a lamb. "No, no, no. To the station I tell you."
"You only have time to save yourself," he said. My eyes were swimming with tears. People dashed past me as if I were an obstacle. And the bell kept tolling. The steeple was flattened against a perfectly blue sky. I dropped Kernfeffer's arms and ran towards my house. "Come back," he shouted after me, "it's too late even for that."
"Leone," I screamed, "my wife, my darling, my poor darling." But
her intuition had ground its way into my soul, and I knew what I
would find before I opened the door. She sat in the chair near the
window, her forehead pressed against the
glass, a doll, a puppet, a thing that had just had life, peering at the train that sped through our village.
"My land," Evelina laughed, "don't throw yourself out the window for him." But her voice was instructive rather than humorful. It had none of the quavering "silliness" as papa said of Mae's voice. When Evelina spoke, even at her young age, people were inclined to respect her.
The doorbell rang. Evelina went out to the back porch. "Mae's man is here again," she said to her father. She waved her hands at the flies that beset her. Her father dozed in a porch chair and grunted sleepily. Evelina sat down next to him and rested her feet on the port rail.
"Why in hell's name don' he marry her and have done with?" her father said.
"I don' know," Evelina said.
"Well," Mr. Kennedy raised his cane, "we'll see if we can't hurry things. He comes most every day, and I'll be damned if he don't marry her."
Evelina sat up abruptly and put a restraining hand on her father. "If he don't ask voluntarily, pressure won't fix things up."
"We'll see about that," Mr. Kennedy said, trying for his cane again. "Help me up, Evelina."
"Now you just sit back and relax," she said firmly.
"I'll be darned. It's time wasted. She could be off gettin' some other guy."
"You got a pretty daughter, Papa. You oughtn't to object to her being admired."
"I do object. I want to see her married, not admired. I want to see her married before I leave this place."
"Don't now papa me. You know it's true. You ain't got no mama and there ain't nothin' but the two of you. I tell you I wanna see that girl married before I go. She's no good without a man. You feel that in her, from the time she was twelve, gigglin' herself into hiccoughs when old Doc Jedders examined her. I feel I wouldn't rest easily if Mae was left free."
Evelina swung her legs off the rail and stood up. "If Mae knew how you just talked she'd be in tears to think it."
Mr. Kennedy leaned back wearily. "Now, don' take on Evelina, I
ain't got a suspicion in my head." He shifted uncomfortably in his
chair. Evelina lectured him in the tone of a wounded superior, and
the pink bow fluttering on the side of her head got on his nerves.
He could not understand her partiality for frills. "If anything,"
he had remarked to Ned Johnson one evening, "she outfrills Mae
sometimes." A breeze raised the bow. It fluttered in the air like
pink wings and made everything Evelina said sound
"What do you think you are sayin', " she said, "when you say Mae has got to get married. Besides," she lowered her voice, "she is pretty, an' one fellow or another will catch her up. Pretty girls don' go astray in this world."
Mr. Kennedy leaned back in his chair, wearily and too old, he thought, to keep up the thread of this argument for long. He never could fight Evelina's logic.
Evelina bent over the porch rail, upset by this wrangling fit which had seized her father of late. She kept her eyes on the ground and watched the earthworms wriggle nakedly around the geranium pots. A trail of giggles came from the inside of the house, drifting in the grey air. A breeze caught her bow again and shook it. "There, you see," she turned to her father. Mr. Kennedy opened his heavy eyes begrudgingly, annoyed with trifles. Evelina clicked her tongue with irritation at his sudden insouciance. "There, you see," she said again, "all your worries for nothing. He has probably asked her this very minute or what is she gigglin' about so silly."
But to Evelina's amazement, Mr. Kennedy no longer cared. He looked up at her, squinting his eyes her more clearly against the growing darkness. "Evelina," he said gruffly, "take off that silly bow. It don' become you."
The Kennedy sisters continued to live in the same house. In the morning when Roger Dee came with his fruit wagon, he tapped on their window and took their order. Evelina unwound the casement window and smiled at him. "Got some oranges this morning? An' bananas."
"The best for you," Roger said chivalrously. He enjoyed the old fashioned manners Evelina's presence enouraged.
"Thank you so much," Evelina smiled and wound the window closed.
Roger could see her for a few seconds more as she took two oranges
out of the bag and swiftly cut them into quarters. In the evening
when he was on the other side of town where he lived, the Cranes
went for their walk up Shadow Avenue, Sarie Dodkins came by on her
way to the church social, and Jerry
Olman walked his great dane. Mr. Osgood passed too, and Mrs. Bresby and Mrs. Johnson on their way to the sewing circle. Mr. Osgood, who was outspoken about the town's responsibility to the sisters, tipped his straw hat and rapped on the sill with his cane. "How are you ladies tonight? Warm enough for you?"
"So good of you, Mr. Osgood, to bring us a hello," Evelina said.
"Think nothing of it. Was just going by. And how are you tonight?" he asked Mae.
But Mae did not look up from her knitting. Her needles glinted and whisked through her fingers truculently. "Well, Mr. Osgood," she said, "thank you for asking."
Evelina's eyes lingered on her sister. Mae had not been herself for several days. Evelina felt piqued at the mystery of Mae's recent oddities. "Mae is a bit off tonight," she said to Mr. Osgood. "She is extra busy these days. The Cranes are expectin' their third an' she is hopin' to beat the stork." They both laughed at this.
"Will I be seein' you at the church rally Saturday night?" Mr. Osgood asked.
"Of course," Evelina said. "You know, Mr. Osgood, we wouldn't miss Reverend Edwards."
"Hasn't he improved himself in these years," Mr. Osgood said.
Mae's eyes flickered. "He annoys me," she said. "I can't quite get comfortable in his presence." She moved her shoulders as if she felt the discomfort around her neck.
Mr. Osgood shifted on his feet uncomfortably. "Shall I pick you ladies up anyway?" he laughed.
"That'll be real nice," Evelina said.
"Say eightish," Mr. Osgood said, and tipped his hat again.
"Well, Mae," Evelina said when he was gone, "it's about time to go to sleep." She tucked the sweater she had been working on between sheets of tissue.
"You go ahead," Mae said.
"My now," Evelina said. She placed a hand on the back of her rocker. "You've been keeping late hours these nights."
Mae shrugged her shoulders. "I haven't felt like sleeping much of late. You go on up. I'll be along presently."
"You ain't ailin'?" Evelina asked anxiously.
"I have been feelin' a mite off of late," Mae said.
Evelina gave the rocker an impatient tap. "Well, whyn't you speak up? I would have given you somethin'."
Mae bent her head in the direction of Evelina's voice. Of late, she thought she heard other things in it besides the words. She wondered whether she were being baited by ghosts of her own mind. "That's kind of you, Evelina," she said. "No need to fret. It will pass."
Evelina gave her chair another rock. "I guess I'll have to keep
you company after all," she said, and sat down again.
"Please do not put yourself out," Mae said. "Go on up to bed. I do feel," she said slowly, "just a bit like sittin' alone tonight."
"That's all right," Evelina said, "that's all right. It does get lonely out here alone."
The trolley car jingled in the distance and its sound waned as it went around the corner. Down the street young Jerry Olman gave a whistle for his dog. The screens on the windows were covered with moths. Their cream colored wings beat against the wires. The green iridescent houseflies buzzed against the screens, and tiny bugs caught their legs in the hair-like bars.
"Hmmm," Evelina said, "darn sight lucky I mended them holes last year. It wouldn't be half so comfortable to sit here if I hadn't mended them holes."
Mae paused and listened again. As a girl she had thought that youth would kill her, now she thought that old age would leave her demented.
Another trolley went by and carried its sound out into the night.
"I don't mind sittin' here alone," Mae said. It seemed to her that the necessity to repeat this point had strange implications. She said the words with the slightest bit of breathless emphasis.
Evelina stopped rocking. "Well that's good," she said. "It's best to get used to loneliness early."
Mae bent her head under the words as she looked at the knitting. Her heart went cold at the thought. She alone for ten or fifteen years with her own mind and her own weaknesses? Papa always said, Mae, get yourself a good boy. You ain't meant to live alone. Hear! Thank God she hadn't. Thank God for that.
Her eyes closed. The knitting flew mechanically from her hands. The trolley car chugged in the dark, and at its old spot it gave its faint screech before it turned the corner. If you hung out the window, you could see the blue sparks fall starwise from under its wheels exactly when it gave its night darkened screech, and you could see a young man jump lightly from the platform and come sauntering, flaunting youth and good looks down the night. A careless boy, with hands on his buttocks and long lean legs in white duck trousers. I'll bet he thinks he's somethin', Mae had said with derision, and then gardens had closed over her and she had smothered beneath lilacs.
Evelina stood up and rubbed the aches from her back and shoulders. "I declare," she said loud enough to startle Mae. "I just don't understand why you don't go on up to bed. Here you are sleeping over your knitting."
Mae picked up her needles and sluggishly started to move them again. "I don't know," she said in a tired voice. "I just don't feel like goin' up. Down here it's not as if the night' s over, an' I don't really fall asleep, just sit and think."
Evelina clicked her tongue. "You are gettin' real old maidish ways about you. Here you are dozin' over your knitting an' the whole town will be back from the church social soon an' will see you sittin' like that."
"I don't care," Mae said with childish obstinacy. Then she added in a lower voice, "An old maid's got a right to some things." She looked at the dainty butterfly pattern in her knitting and buried her face in the wool.
Evelina knelt down in front of her chair. "I hate to see you cry, Mae," she said. "Now, here, go on upstairs. I hear Mr. Osgood comin' down the street already."
Mae took out her handkerchief and wiped her eyes in it, but she couldn't get up.
"Hush, now, here's the whole town comin'," Evelina said.
"Good evenin', Evelina Kennedy," Dolly Crane said in a voice that was still adolscent. "Saw your lights still on."
"Yes," Evelina said, "it's a warm night for sleepin'."
"Will we be seeing you Saturday night?" Mrs. Crane asked.
"Oh, indeed," Mr. Osgood winked to them. "If I have to drag them by force," he laughed.
"No need for that," Evelina smiled, "we'll come along quietly."
"See you then," Dolly Crane said.
"Goodnight," Mr. Osgood called and followed after the Cranes. "Mae ain't held up as good as Evelina," he said to them as soon as they were out of earshot.
"No, indeed," Dolly Crane said. "Evelina was always the stronger."
Mr. Osgood shook his head. "It'll be a sad day for Mae if Evelina should happen to die first."
"Well now, " Mrs. Crane said and tightened her grip on her husband's arm, "no need to rush ahead on such topics." The Cranes went up Shadow Avenue, and Mr. Osgood went down Paseo Street. Suddenly there was a light from the upstairs of the Kennedy house, but the porch blocked it and it was lost on the street below.
Evelina, in the upstairs bedroom, rolled down the quilt on Mae's bed and propped up the pillows. She helped Mae into bed and took off her shoes. "Here," she said, handing Mae her nightgown, "I'll leave you to your privacy so you can undress. I'm gonna fix you some aspirins and tea. It's probably nothing more than a summer cold." She came back in a few minutes and set the tea and aspirins on the night table. Mae's stockings hung over her shoes where she had dropped them. "I guess I'll wash them out for you," Evelina said, and picked up the stockings.
"That's kind of you," Mae mumbled. She looked at the wrinkle on
Evelina's face that ran across the bridge of her nose and
remembered how she had always felt what an unsightly wrinkle it
was for someone to develop, but how familiar, it was there now for
ten or fifteen years. She looked about at the familiar room, the
familiar rose carpeting Evelina had bought with deft
bargaining, the mended screens, mended all over the house, the room tidied and not left sick with her clothes collapsing limply on the floor. "It's been a great help to have had you," she said, as if she were summing up the value of her life.
Evelina laughed. "If we're gonna talk like that I might as well say that too. I mean," she hesitated as she tried to put the thought into a straight pattern, "that you've been a help to me. I will admit that it would have been lonely without you."
"For you?" Mae smiled at Evelina's attempts at consolation. She sipped the tea. It was good and warm like Evelina's kind offering. "But you would have managed," she affirmed. She set the cup back on the night table. "Yes," she said, "if it hadn't been for me you might have managed."
"Now, that's not true," Evelina said with scrupulous honesty, such an old trait it was like a discipline that once mastered worked along by itself.
"Yes, I know," Mae said, "I never was asked, I never refused, so I'll call it even, if you choose." She smiled wryly. "But asking only comes if someone thinks he'll get an answer. Oh, Evelina," she wept, "if it hadn't been for me, if I hadn't been in your way, if I hadn't implored you to keep me company those nasty, lonely nights after Papa died, if Papa hadn't made you feel responsible for me. If I hadn't cried on those nasty, lonely nights, if I could have somehow managed to make a go of myself alone. And you were kind, you bought me stockings and books and put the house in order.Yes, you would have gotten on, but I might have died along the way, though God knows if that would have been a calamity to anyone."
"Oh, hush, Mae," Evelina said. She came back to the foot of the bed. "I swear I don't know what's gotten into you these days. Yes, I bought you stockings because you were overpaying on silk ones, and you always kept books out so long from the lending library you doubled the cost of them."
"That's true," Mae said. "I was like that. My goodness," she laughed indulgently, "when I think of how careless I was about such things." She was glad for the impudence of the young girl, but she could not hold on to her mood of self approval and felt suddenly depressed. "How did you always take it so cheerfully, Evelina?" she asked.
"Cheerfully?" Evelina stared at her.
"Yes," Mae said. "You know you always were cheerful about it." She sat up. "How did you always accept it?" she asked.
"I don't know what you mean," Evelina said. "I never felt as if I were accepting anything. I just went along."
"Yes," Mae said, more to herself than to Evelina, "that's how I felt it in you, that you had worn your groove so deep it carried you along, and I tried to do it myself like that, but," she looked again at Evelina, this time like an animal measuring a leap it might take, "didn't you ever get caught just once?"
"Caught at what?" Evelina asked sharply. She came round to put out the bedlamp.
Mae tried to catch hold of her arm. "Caught at thinkin' about it," she cried, "at thinkin' about it, about everything."
"For God's said," Evelina said, unable to keep down the anger she felt at all this mystery.
Mae looked at Evelina about to put out the light. The wrinkle across her nose had deepened with bewilderment. Mae saw herself reflected in Evelina's eyes as a silly old woman crying in her bed.
"What a silly old woman I have become," she said.
"I don't know why you want to think like that," Evelina cried with exasperation. Mae's expression alarmed her. Her cheeks were pale like pieces of sunset gone wintry and cold. She felt her forehead. "You are feverish," she said anxiously. "I want you to stay in bed until Dr. Sans comes." But Mae did not answer. She lay curled under her blankets like a bundle of old child. "Do you hear," Evelina said sharply. "I'll bring breakfast up in the morning. Goodnight," she said and turned off the light, but Mae did not answer her. Evelina wanted to plead with her not to be really sick, not to have caught anything dangerous, to come back and be what she had always been. "I said goodnight," she repeated tensely.
"Goodnight," Mae, roused, whispered back. Evelina went to the adjoining bathroom and washed out Mae's things. In the dark Mae heard the running water. She heard Evelina's heavy footstep, the cluck in her throat at finding some stray piece of disorganization, the clean slice of orange in the mornings, the mended screens, the firm stride that was just beside hers. She tried to imagine what her life would have been like without Evelina's firm presence, but it was unimaginable. Oh, God, she moaned, and prayed that she would be the one to die first. The alternative to that was too terrifying.
Roger Dee came by in the morning and rapped on the window. "I hear Mae's not well," he said to Evelina, "the Besbys seen Dr. Sans go up this morning."
"Oh, she's had a fitful night," Evelina said, "but I 'spect it will be all right. There's no fever anymore."
"Think you'll be missin' the church social tomorrow night?" Roger asked anxiously.
"No, indeed," Evelina smiled. "We never miss any of Reverend Edwards' functions."
Evelina took the order and carried breakfast to Mae's room. "Now, see here, the whole town's been askin' after you. I 'spect they'll miss it if you don't go tomorrow night."
"Oh, I'm feelin' much better," Mae said. But despite these words, Evelina fretted about her behavior. Mae was listless all morning. Her grey hair hung loose and she didn't comb it until after lunch. Evelina fussed so that Mae had to tell her to relax. "Now, who's being a child, Evelina? I swear I've never seen you like this."
"The sick have got to be attended to," Evelina replied, and brushed Mae's criticisms aside. Mae slept better that night, and by the next day seemed all but well. She put on fresh clothes in the evening. Evelina felt it would do her more good than not to go to the church social. She herself was anxious to go. They both came down promptly when they heard Mr. Osgood ring. The night was a good one for walking, the summer air was soft. Mae seemed to drift on the incoming night, but she caught her breath as they stopped at the corner of Shadow and Arcady to let the trolley cross their path. It made its antique screech and turned down the street. Halfway to the church Evelina became aware that their pace had to slow down considerably or Mae dragged behind. Her eyes were feverish again. "We must go back," Evelina said tensely.
"Nonsense," Mae said. "It's as far to go on as to go back. Now, then, give me your arm, Mr. Osgood."
They made their way slowly to the church and, having come late, found seats in the back row. Everyone turned around as they came in. "It's my fault," Mae whispered, filled with self consciousness. "My fault," she apologized, "we're so late, we're disturbin' everyone"
"Now that you're here, just seat yourself down and rest," Evelina said.
"Well," Mrs. Johnson leaned across to them, "we were awfully afraid you weren't comin'."
"Oh, I got them here all right," Mr. Osgood winked.
Dolly Crane turned around in her straw hat and looked at Evelina from the corner of a protecting brim. Evelina sensed something in the air, but Mae appeared oblivious. The walk had tired her more than either of them had thought it would. Her head was tilted back and her eyes were shut. Evelina was disturbed. Panic began to weave its way through her legs. Mae seemed to have drifted away in private sensations that had finally overcome her body. Evelina clicked her tongue with annoyance, but when she nudged Mae this time it was with a gentle pressure.
"Now, Mae," she whispered, "look up. Here's everyone lookin' at us for some reason and I 'spect it's because you've taken to dreamin' in church."
Mae opened her eyes, but they drooped back again. "My, Evelina," she said, "that walk did tire me."
The Reverend Edwards tapped on the pulpit stand for order. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "we all know why we're here on this Saturday night." His words brought prompt order.
Evelina nudged Mae more deliberately.
"That's all right," Mae whispered. "I hear every word he's sayin'. I just cannot open my eyes. I feel as if someone is pressin' them closed, but I do hear every word."
"Ladies and gentlemen," Reverend Edwards said, "I'm not goin' to
preach a sermon to you this night. This is not Sunday morning." He
smiled and the congregation laughed back. "But that's not the
reason," he said. "The reason I'm not goin' to preach a sermon is
because I have nothing to say, and I have nothing to say because
certain lives are sermons in themselves, and before those lives
even God's ministers remain silent and leave it to the Almighty
alone to comment." He leaned across the pulpit stand and peered
into the hall. "Tonight we have two such lives here. Two women,"
he paused for a delicate second, "who have had to put up with the
unnatural course of events." There was a murmur in the hall. The
congregants looked around
uneasily at one another at this direct brush with facts. "No, sir," Reverend Edwards put up a restraining hand, "let us look at their lives directly, let us not turn from reality, or where shall we find our yardstick. The Church prides itself on truth, and truth is reality, and reality is the fact of how a life was lived. And that the life was lived in honor and love is the greatest reality. I say outright the flower remained unpicked, but," he pointed at the congregation with a chastising finger for their murmurs,
"because it remained unpicked, it has never drooped and wilted in some room and it has bloomed all the straighter. God gave them both unbounded love for each other, gentleness of manner, firmness of character, and through love and comfort of each other He has saved them and made the flower grow the straighter."
"That is the truth," Mae whispered. She put her hand over her mouth and cried, "That is the truth." Her eyes were still closed and she had the expression of the blind answering into their own darkness. "I grew straight, Evelina, because you have saved me." Her voice rose as she was carried away by her feelings. Evelina lowered her head and for the first time in her life blushed darkly.
"Mae," she said, "if you don't keep quiet I'm going to take you right out."
"How many of you have said," Reverend Edwards went on, "may my daughter have the gentleness of soul of Mae Kennedy? May she have the rectitude of a clean heart like Evelina Kennedy?"
"That is true," Mae broke out. Her head fell back further, and she cried out to the roof of the church, "Evelina Kennedy has saved her sister. That is the truth, Lord."
Mr. Osgood wiped his brow with a handkerchief. Dolly Crane turned around to look. Mrs. Besby looked worried and Sarie Dodkins thought it curious that Mae's confirmation of Reverend Edwards' text sent it all awry.
"I think a fit has seized her," someone shouted.
Evelina's head swam with shame. She could not see anything directly, but her habitual direct manner got her through the necessary steps. She stood bolt upright from her chair and said, "I am heartily ashamed, but Mae here has not been well this past week. Here, Mr. Osgood can tell you she was not herself on Thursday night, and now a fever has taken her."
Reverend Edwards raised his hands for silence. "Is that you, Mae Kennedy?" he called out.
"Oh, God," she cried, "it is me." Her head hung over the back of her chair as if it had been broken from her body.
Reverend Edwards came down from the platform to Mae's seat. "What is ailin' you, my child?" he asked.
But Mae's eyes remained closed. She did not answer and the congregants remained hushed with confusion. They craned their necks to see what was happening and waited for a signal that would make them understand.
"Let me take her home," Evelina pleaded. Her tongue felt thick, and she could scarcely talk, she could scarcely hear her voice as her head felt cushioned in mists.
"Hush, Evelina," Reverend Edwards said. "Your sister hasn't done anything out of order. Mae Kennedy," he called to her, "the whole town here's come together to give you a commemoration. We are a small people, a town of no account, but we believe we have had love and rectitude here. We believe we have had the living reality of love and we want to honor it." He put his hand on Mae's forehead to convey a sense of control and benediction. Mae moved in her chair. She moaned and put her hand over Reverend Edwards'. "Oh, yes," she whispered harshly, "I have had love." Her chest rose with the effort to speak. "Oh, yes, I have been loved and saved. You speak words of truth, Reverend," she cried. "It is as you say, Evelina Kennedy has saved her sister." Her effort to speak overshot necessity and she cried out shrilly, "Thanks be to God for saving me."
Then she was silent. Confusion held the congregation. The words, in essence the words they had come to hear, rang in the hall with a self debasing sneer. Evelina's feet were so cold she could hardly feel them as she bent over Mae. Out of a thousand private rememberings of enigma, Reverend Edwards bent over Mae and said, "Are we mistaken?"
Mae opened her eyes and looked at him. "Mistaken?" She kept her hand over his and moved it across her forehead. "No," she whispered, "you must not believe that. I have told you the truth. I swear it by my life. I am sick. I want to go home."
Reverend Edwards waved his hand at the congregation as if to rush them into motion. "Don't stand here staring wildly," he shouted at them. "What have you heard? Confession. Yes. The force and spontaneity of truth."
"Amen," Dolly Crane shouted with relief. "Amen," Mrs. Johnson cried. "Amen," Roger Dee called out. "Amen," he shouted, "Amen, Reverend Edwards."
"Amen," they all shouted. They broke towards the back of the church and shouted congratulations. "Amen, Amen," they called. Only Evelina stood still. She turned away from their voices, bent over the body of her sister.
Reverend Edwards came into the house without knocking, as he had
become accustomed to doing. It was six o'clock and many of the
townspeople hurried up Shadow Avenue to their homes. The flying
snow and the wind hurried them past the parlor windows, unfamiliar
and insignificant to the young girls who walked briskly in their
tight skirts and slim boots. Dolly Crane crept
slowly up the street, leaning heavily on her cane, keeping close to the bare hedges for support.
Reverend Edwards laid his hat and coat on the back of an armchair. "Well, winter has come again," he said lightly, trying to present it as a cheerful fact. His own face was beginning to show the tracks of so many cheerfully assumed winters. Mae still found that he made her uncomfortable, but she disregarded her feelings. Reverend Edwards pulled up a chair next to her and sat down. "And how have the winters been with you?" he asked kindly.
Mae put down her knitting and shrugged her shoulders. "They have
come and they have gone, but they have always been cold." She
smiled, trying to turn the complaint into a piece of humor. She
imagined that for his sake she had to assume his cheerful tone and
the same approach to her life as he did. Ever since Evelina had
died and she had become a ward of the church with
Reverend Edwards to look after her, she felt this collusion between them, but she could never tell him how, after he had left and had taken the atmosphere with him, and she wandered through the rooms, straightening out Evelina's drawers, washing and mending her things which were disintegrating, how foolish she felt. She found it hard to control the note of acidity that she felt obliged to renounce in herself and to struggle against. She needed the Reverend's presence more and more, to cheer her up, she imagined. In the last years she had become tensely reconciled to him and to whatever faults she had once thought he had.
She was free to call on him at any time. That's how it had been from the beginning when Evelina had died. She had not been there at the time. She had been too filled with her own struggle for life to pay attention, and when the call had come in the night, dimly rousing her so that she thought she dreamed herself crying, she had looked up to see the leaves whirling past her window. The elm tree was suddenly bare, the wind sharp, and she had pulled the quilt over her head. That could not have been Evelina calling to her in the night. Evelina never cried, and Mae fumbled for her sleeping pills on the night table. The summer had gone and she must wake up in the morning and find out what had happened to it.
The morning had awakened her with unfamiliar sounds. There were too many footsteps on the stairs, too many voices near her door. Through the long months of August, September, and October there had been only one step in the hall, on the stair, in her mind. It had come often, promptly, firmly, patiently, steadily there, answering the least of her murmurs, and now the house, filled with so many new noises, was silent.
They had to tell her, of course. The cessation had been too sudden. Even the dark fumblings of her mind had discovered this disappearance. The Reverend Edwards and Dr. Sans sat by her bedside.
"Evelina has had a sudden heart attack," Reverend Edwards said.
"Evelina? Where is she?" Mae asked. The look that passed between them told her. Evelina had died. She said it to herself all day long and all through the night, and more than being strange and awesome, it was comical. Evelina dead? Without a protest? Without prior arrangement? It was out of character, too much out of character, too all of a sudden. Evelina dead? Yes, quietly and neatly as if death, like a brisk housekeeper, had come upon this leftover thing, this old hat lying in the attic of an old house, and had whisked it away with a tidy broom. Swoosh! It was gone.
But of course Evelina had protested. The winter months crept by. The nurse wheeled Mae through the sun parlor and through the front rooms, offering her the sights of Shadow Avenue or Paseo Street as the slant of the sun dictated, and Mae heard in the creak of the wheels that were carrying her forward to life Evelina's cry at night. Evelina had cried out and she, Mae, had turned on her side and had gone back to sleep. But who would have thought it was Evelina. It sounded like a dream Mae had about herself.
"The winters are harder to take without Evelina," she said to Reverend Edwards by way of explanation.
"Of course," he said gently, "but in all these years surely the edge has worn away a bit."
"Oh," she sighed, pleased that she could make this honest assertion, "I'm not so lonely or so afraid anymore."
"Of course," he said, "of course. I have never seen it fail. Love gives us courage, Mae, and the courage remains after the love has gone. Love is the great redeemer."
She tried in this extremity of her old age to understand his words. She thought dimly, with a trace of her old childish bitterness, of what else she could have done with twenty years of solitude but plot to accept it. But she knew it would have been the effrontery of that old impertinent child to accost the Reverend with such a thought. She shook her head. "I'm just a foolish old woman," she said, "nothing more."
"You practice humility to extremes, Mae."
"Yes, perhaps you are right." She struggled to her feet with the help of his arm and a cane. "Yes," she said more definitively, "I have managed." She looked about at the tidy appearance of the room, at the knitting laid neatly between tissues, at the polished rockers. "I have managed," she said, seeing him to the door. She clung to his arm for support. He promised to come back the next afternoon. She said goodbye and begged him not to forget. That was a formality, for she knew he wouldn't. Which was good of him, very good.
She climbed the steps as best she could to Evelina's room. She
changed the sheets and cleaned the drawers and sorted out the
crumbling clothes from the still usable ones. It was small
repayment, too small. She sat down under a light to mend what
could still be saved. Her eyes were poor and her hands trembled,
but she stitched carefully and folded away each article, pleased
at how organized and thrifty her methods were. She looked at the camisole she was sewing and thought how foolish this reparation was. But what other repayment was there? It was getting very late, she would soon be tired and would fall asleep. The night would pass, and in the morning she could manage until the Reverend came. Yes, she could manage. She thought of how well, considering her age, she had managed since Evelina had died, and Evelina had not had the disadvantage of extreme age. She wondered what Evelina would say to all this competence. She had managed to stretch their possessions for another twenty years. What was it Evelina had said to her on Thursday night? She had felt rebuked by it. She tried to remember that Thursday night before she had gotten sick, but she could not remember it, or remember what she had said then, or what it was she had cried to Evelina when Papa had died, or for that matter what Evelina had said to her all these years. Something
cruel, no doubt. What was it the Reverend had said about them on Saturday night? For that matter, what had he said to her that afternoon. Something foolish, no doubt. She brought the sewing closer to her face and stitched on Evelina's slip, but her eyes were exceedingly old and she could not keep the thread straight.
Their apartment was on the fourth floor, two bedrooms, a kitchenette, a pink stucco terrace off the living room. It was a modern apartment in Lima. The terrace looked toward the Pacific Ocean, a bedroom window looked out on the Andes, Machu Picchu and Cuzco buried in its ribs, Indian villages and descendants of Incas scattered among the cliffs.
The visitors paid condolence calls. Leila's sons and their wives came, an old business partner, neighbors, old friends. They came chastely, did their best to ignore grief, and left. "A shame," a neighbor said, "to take such a trip all the way from Israel only to bury his mother." Respectful eyes examined the tragedy, not too far and not too close.
Benyamin sat in an armchair and picked at his thumbnails, a gesture that in no way conveyed his feelings but had to do in lieu of anything else. He avoided his cousins' eyes. The red in them was terrible. They looked at him with faces drained of heroic pretensions.
For forty years Sarai had planned this trip to visit "her last
remaining relatives from the old world." All their lives Leila and
Rifke had planned to go to Israel. For forty years letters went
back and forth. Then Benyamin's mother, the adventurous Sarai, as
she was fixed in her cousins' minds, took the initiative. Her
husband was dead. It was time to travel. Leila and Rifke, widowed
too, six and seven years respectively, were flung back and forth
between youth and old age. The past crashed into the present and
produced an acute attack of vanity. Sarai always inspired in them
a volatile mixture of mockery and awe, envy and love. She was "the
brains" of the family, a reference filled with dark allusions to
admirable but tricky ideas. They were the ones with "good sense,"
an honor not altogether so admirable. Forty-five years ago when
they had parted company in Kerch on the
Black Sea, Sarai had done the typical thing for Sarai. She went to Palestine without a friend, without an address, only with a membership card in a workman's organization. A year later a picture of her on a kibbutz arrived. She stood with another girl, the two surrounded by six men. The letter that came with the picture said that's how they live: she and the girl and the six men.
She looked the same to Rifke and Leila but, considering the situation, reasonably different: old-fashioned braids wound around her head, the unhandsome bosom, same as theirs, oppressing a narrow chest, the ungainly skirt to the ankle, the desperately ill-fitting blouse. But the eyes and the mouth! Bold! Wiped of all sobriety. Same as the men's in the picture.
Rifke shivered beneath their expressions while thoughts rose unbidden to her mind. "Some workmen's circle," she said, and Sarai became for them the paragon of modern adventure. She had, it seemed, stepped out of the pages of the Communist Manifesto onto the sands of Israel, pitchfork in hand.
When her letter came, Rifke and Leila went immediately to the
Turkish bath in the basement of their building. They would not be
found washed ashore on a‹to Sarai‹peculiar strip of beach.
Everything they owned, had collected for forty years, was suddenly
inadequate. Since their mutual widowhood, conveniently experienced
within a year of each other, they had
taken this apartment together. Death had come. A change was due. But it was the only change they had managed, and that with much gnashing of teeth. They loved their old neighborhood, the one Rifke's daughter, Merry, called a ghetto. They moved into a new, pink apartment building and opened stout windows on the green Pacific.
Sharing widowhood together, Rifke and Leila became girlish. They no longer worried about such staples of middle class life as a prepared meal. Merry lived on metrecal and Leila and Rifke, now also diet conscious, lived on grapefruits. The day they left for the airport in a taxi they looked back on their pink apartment building and were glad they had moved.
But they had trouble recognizing Sarai in the crowd. Reason told
them she had aged, the same as they had. Three sons had been born
to her, two had married, one had been killed in 1967. She had
grandchildren. Her youngest son, Benyamin, had girls on his mind
and elsewhere. Her husband had died. A terrible death. Attacked by
guerillas in his office. All this they knew,
since communication had never stopped but her hair, now short, to keep up with the times, was as white as snow, and the family bosom was covered with Yemenite jewelry. It was by her hands and her feet that they identified her. Fragile as a china doll's, they saw immediately the family resemblance was still great. They recognized each other instantaneously, because certain
aspects of family property like bosoms and hands and feet remain constant. Sarai's wet eyes folded them like two red flowers beneath her wet lashes. Their kisses were terrible. People naturally scattered or became rooted to the ground. Some watched, delighted that destiny was sometimes kind. Some were abashed by the drama common to airports and terminal stations, gusts of human attachments roaring down the years. Leila, Rifke, and Sarai rocked helplessly in each other¹s arms.
Then Benyamin appeared. Behind Sarai's right shoulder. "My son," Sarai said.
"Your youngest?" Rifke said.
"The baby," Sarai confirmed.
Benyamin shifted feet. He stood six feet two. Rifke's eyes drifted from his toes to his head. She tried to settle the question of how such a small woman as Sarai had had such a tall son. The six men in the photograph revolved through her head. Then she thought of Merry. Leila cautioned. They were third cousins. They would consult their rabbi.
Benyamin thought the name Merry was silly and ticklish. Leila and Rifke, he saw, were as he had expected them to be, faded, gossipy, nervous with pinched vitality, unsubtle.
"Wait. I'll introduce you to my daughter," Rifke said.
"Wait till you see my niece," Leila said.
Merry, luckily, was not bad looking. Where her mother was short, she was tall, the family bosom, comfort to three husbands, was molded to a modern perkiness. Her hair, still natural, was as black as in the days of Sheba. The doll-like hands and feet that looked uncomfortably fragile on Leila and Rifke as if they belonged to nervous birds, had been passed on to her, but in jeans as she frisked hither and thither in front of Benyamin's eyes they achieved a delicate triumph. A Latin patina had settled into her hips.
Benyamin and Merry toured Lima slowly while Sarai, Rifke, and Leila stayed home and consumed each other. His accent intrigued her, a modification of his mother's who did not say her name correctly. "Allegra in Spanish," Merry told them because that form she considered romantic and appropriate.
"Ah, yes," Benyamin said, "let me say it. Allegra." The vowels came out of his chest like dusky organ peels and struck a nerve in Merry that shook her national allegiance.
She gave him a private tour of the city, the Museums of
Anthropology and Archeology, the Museums of the Republic, the
Viceroyalty, and Military History. The church of San Francisco,
the Plaza de Armas, and Pizarro's statue where tours in Peru begin
and end. Benyamin asked a question about its construction, which
Merry could not answer. Instead, to manage the trick
of appearing to answer and to make a point, she said the statue had originally stood on the porch of the Cathedral, but objections were raised concerning the delicacy of an equestrian statue, warrior with sword in hand, on the porch of a religious building. "Hypocrisy," she sneered and flashed him a smile. Her moral energy was entertaining. He agreed cautiously, uncertain of her meaning against a foreign background. When it came to moral configurations, Benyamin was cautious, raised in an atmosphere where ideals and reality were intense and unyielding. He studied Merry as if she were a delicate puppet with thrilling black eyes. His gravity knocked the confidence out of her. As for Pizzaro, he sneered too: Equestrian statues are commissioned to convey triumph. The fate of the conquered had been sealed by their conversion, which cut off their return to their former culture.
It was a logical step from Pizarro's statue to Las Barriadas, Lima's famous slums built on a mountain of garbage, and from there to the begardened streets of San Isidro and Miraflores, Lima's famous suburbs. Merry gave Benyamin a capsule sociology of the city built upon its geography built upon its history, beginning with the left bank of the Rimac where Pizarro had laid out the city and in the Plaza de Armas where his adobe palace had stood, where now stands the Palacio de Gobierno and the Archbishop's Palace.
On the fourth day Sarai decided she would venture forth. Plans were made to see "Lima and Environs," "Lima and Suburbs," "The Nightlife of Lima," and for trips to Cajamarca, Cuzco and Machu Picchu, from Calla down the coast to Nazca, Arequipa, Lake Titicaca, and back to Lima, or what was known as the Grand Tours.
Leila and Rifke were alarmed. Further than the bus could take
them to a beach north or south of the city they had never been.
Inland they knew lay a desert, beyond that the Andes, beyond that
jungle, and beyond that Europe. Exploration of the country had
always seemed to them risky and speculative. They could think of
no greater happiness than to fold Sarai into a turkish
towel and keep her on the beach with them.
Three days together after forty-five years of separation and
feuds were resumed as if they had taken place yesterday. "Not one
bit has she changed," each said of the other, awed by the
persistence of psychological traits. But when Benyamin expressed
ridicule of their provincialism, Sarai shut him up. They were
still, she said the words that were her sublime trap, "her only
living relatives from the old world." Benyamin had no patience with this apology he had heard all his life. It seemed to him an undistinguished way for one to earn one's spiritual living, by the mechanics of plain persistence. Sarai clung to that one sentence and snapped her fingers at fancier metaphysics. So life had not made of them what they themselves had hoped life would make of them and were now glad it worked out as it had, and they defended the process. She threw her hands in the air. Benyamin was right. You couldn't do much for people when they came to that.
Still she won the argument. Leila and Rifke were harassed into movement and they circled Pizarro's statue, while Merry read to them the details of its removal from the porch of the Cathedral and sneered at the hypocrisy of it.
"Quite right," Leila said, "a horse does not belong in a church."
Merry was skeptical about travel with them, and her fears were
confirmed. She told Benyamin to ignore their comments. They gazed
at Pizarro's mummy on view in a glass coffin in the Cathedral, and
Rifke said, "A shame." They stood in front of San Pedro Church,
built by the Jesuits in the mid-seventeenth
century. "The richest church in South America," Merry read, "it has long been regarded as the most fashionable church in Lima," and Rifke said, "I should hope so."
They posed for pictures. Benyamin and Sarai. With satisfaction she came to the middle of his arm. He put it around her and looked proprietorial. She looked like the governing class, small but certain. Merry clicked the camera. A new group was formed. Leila, Rifke, and Sarai, arms around each other, Sarai in the center, clutching their waists, girlishness flooding her face, Leila staring obstinately, Rifke's eyes caught in the sunlight, with her mouth open in a burst of unexplained laughter, convincing later generations who found the photograph that the occasion had been a happy one. Sarai took the camera. Benyamin and Merry posed, self conscious, side by side like poles. Sarai objected. The sun was in shadow. Another pose. Another click. Benyamin and Merry self conscious, his hand on her shoulder.
Merry said, to normalize matters, "The building to your left is the Torre Tagle Palace."
Rifke said, "Doesn't she read beautifully?" Benyamin, attacked, tried to be gracious. Merry told her mother where to get off in Spanish and continued. "Built in 1735, it is one of the finest examples of colonial baroque and houses the Foreign Ministry. On its site stood the building which once housed the Inquisition from 1584 until 1820."
Leila looked up at the building from under her sunhat, her brown eyes elevated to humorous distances. "Imagine that," she said.
The wit of cultivated stupidity shook loose the past. It was too much for Sarai, fear transformed into nostalgia. Why hadn't they come to Israel with her instead of coming here where they clung to little neighborhoods and safe shops and days on the beach and were happy to settle for little and were ridiculed for settling for little. Why didn't they come now?
"Too late," Rifke said. She floated through the apartment to escape Sarai's arguments that echoed through the rooms for two days. She bumped against her husband's portrait and old dishes and a picture of Merry in graduation dress and told Sarai that she hadn't mellowed a bit; on the contrary, she had gotten worse and stepped out on to the terrace for a view of the beach that she clung to like a barnacle. Sarai snapped her mouth shut out of bitterness that she could not save them.
The next day they did the museums and the shops. Rifke's and Leila's feet swelled. They faded out in a park and rested on a bench, while Sarai went in and out of every store on the Jiron la Union and Merry talked to the shopkeepers for her in Spanish, and Benyamin admired her skills. She was third year at the university and planned to be an archeologist. He invited her to dig in Israel. He said he knew some excellent sites. She said she thought it would be all dug up by the time she got there.
"Never," he said, "it's only just beginning and there is no end to it."
"Here," she said, "they have to dig up the jungle before they can begin to dig up the cities."
He convinced her they had much in common. "In Israel," he said, "we dig up the desert."
His accent, not exactly like her mother's and not exactly not, changed her career.
Sarai floated back from a counter with a bib of Inca jewelry on her neck. Merry admired it, but said she thought what Sarai had worn the day she arrived was nicer. Sarai flashed a patriotic smile. In a helpless rush of generosity she said, "I give it to you when I leave." Merry, flabbergasted, said the usual thing, "Oh, I couldn't accept it." Sarai clasped her hand, "Yes, you can," she said, "Meriam."
The Pan American Highway goes from Lima to Trujillo along the
coast, which was the path of the Spanish conquest. At Trujillo you
take an inland road to get to Cajamarca. Their small rented car
sped along the coastal route. Benyamin drove. Merry sat alongside
him. In the back, amidst a litter of lunches, sat Sarai, Rifke,
and Leila. Because of the atmospheric conditions, the day being
clear, the air a hard azure, the inland country rose like a wall
on their right. The horizon was bitten off. Rock rose out
of desert. Corderilla rose out of rock. The brilliant landscape clutched its history like a blue jewel.
On the left, the view yielded to softer interpretations. Pelicans and cormorants said that not everything in nature was hard rock that swallowed history. The curve of a bird's flight was hopeful evidence alongside that desert, the driest on earth, where a mummy may remain intact for centuries, where dead Incas were exhumed from their graves and invited to reign at feasts, where death keeps an imperishable human outline.
In Peru everyone drives a hundred and fifty miles an hour. Hence, it took no time, it seemed to Rifke, to go from Lima to Trujillo. That is the city Pizarro had named in honor of his birthplace in Spain.
They climbed out of the car in a flurry of sunhats, sunglasses and swollen ankles. Then ensued a conversation about whether to stay in Trujillo for the day or to go on to Cajamarca.
"What's in Trujillo?" Leila said. She did not like the name. It reminded her of a dictator somewhere. In the interest of economy, they decided to go on to Cajamarca and save a day's lodging.
The car climbed mercilessly, ten thousand feet. Rifke felt it in her ankles. She looked out over the precipices, confirmed in her views about traveling. "Don't look," she said to Leila.
"Benyamin," Leila said, "he knows how to drive?"
Breathlessness attacked Sarai. "No," she said maliciously. To her surprise, Leila laughed. "Good," she said, "so we'll all die together. It's the only wish I have left."
Wind pressed into Sarai's cheeks. Into her ribs. She felt herself filling with a mysterious pressure. Rifke rattled sandwiches out of their wrappings. The noise attacked Sarai's ears like hornets. Her mood became cold, but no one noticed.
"Caxa-marca," Merry said, looking out the window through sunglasses, "means Frost-town."
"That is not Spanish," Benyamin said.
"Quechua," Merry said, "the language of the Incas, now an Indian dialect. You can still hear it in small villages."
"Merry is an honor student," Rifke said. Benyamin saluted her in the rear view mirror.
They caught sight of the town by the smoke that rose from the hot sulphur pools, once the baths of kings. By the time the car stopped climbing and came to a halt, Sarai had recovered. But she was pale. She brushed their questions aside. The climate, the altitude, the strange food. There were half a dozen reasons, when traveling, to account for indisposition.
They circled the square where Atahualpa had been killed. A guide was pleased to point to the very spot. Another family circled with them. The guide folded them up into a small group, strangers made intimate by size. He became one of them by insinuation, stepping in sandals across the courtyard with lugubrious solemnity. They entered the quarto de rescate, the ransom chamber where Atahualpa struck the fantastic bargain with Pizarro when he agreed to fill the room with gold in exchange for his life.
"Did he really fill the room that high?" a young English speaking boy asked.
The guide was delighted by his incredulousness. He made his living by it. He was the descendant of the incredible conquest. "Sí," he said enthusiastically, "sí, so high." He stood on tiptoes and reached as high as he could and pointed to a spot on the wall as if a notch in reality was there. The English speaking boy kept a pair of sober eyes on him, wavering between common sense and the fabulous nightmare. He had watched a great deal of science fiction on television and knew that the line between legend and reality was crafted by human beings. The guide grinned and kept a finger grooved to the spot on the wall. The English speaking boy regarded the spot skeptically. The skin on the guide's face loosened. His nose, his jowls, his lips lost their emotional motivation. He lost the power to convert his audience and fell back on entertaining them. "Señores, señoras, please to examine room. Caxamarca was private villa for Atahualpa like for Roman emperor. Here it is he hears of Pizarro's army coming across mountains from the coast."
He left the room. They followed and filed out into the courtyard.
He pointed eastward and sketched upon the air the route Pizarro
took. Below the Andes that Atahualpa felt would protect him from
his enemies, the valley was swept by benign mimosa and willows.
Benyamin scanned the view through his binoculars. The English
speaking boy was intrigued by the binoculars.
Benyamin let him use them. The boy put them on and became transformed. He scanned the countryside with a professional sweep, assessing the logistics of survival with hard boiled assurance. They would not, he told Benyamin as he gave him back the binoculars, have gotten as far as Cajamarca if he were king.
"How would you have stopped them?" Benyamin asked soberly.
The boy regarded him superciliously. "Stopped them? Are you fooling? They wouldn' t have gotten off the boats."
"Ah, but that's hindsight," Benyamin said. "Atahualpa didn't know they were dangerous until it was too late."
"Then he was stupid," the boy said.
They climbed in straggling fashion up to Atahualpa's rock throne from which one could see any approach from Cuzco, the montaña and the coast, from which the guide again, as if the moral could only be grasped through repetition, pointed out against the blue sky the route Pizarro took through the mountains with only one hundred and eight-three soldiers, a trip less likely than Hannibal's. The English speaking boy thought about it methodically. He said, "Of course, who would have thought that anyone could be dangerous with only a hundred and eighty-three soldiers."
The guide was grateful for the reflection. He smiled flatteringly. "Exactly," he said. The insight exonerated Atahualpa from the charge of capricious naiveté. The guide rested a leg on an outcrop of rock and bent, wrapped in his cape of traditional design, over a ledge. "Exactly," he said again. "Atahualpa had with him one hundred thousand soldiers. They filled the mountains." He swept his arm. Sarai wrapped a handkerchief around her neck. The thin air and the hot sun were weakening her. Odors of wild flowers drifted up from the valleys. She fought an impulse to go to sleep.
The English speaking boy's parents were embarrassed by their son, and proud of him. On behalf of their embarrassment they told him to stop asking so many questions. Sarai was diverted by their problem . The boy was too thin but very sturdy with legs like a gazelle, which the young have only once in their lives. "No, no," she said, as if their embarrassment threatened to put an end to something good.
"Not at all," Benyamin said, "I listen to him. He is very intelligent."
The parents gave acknowledging smiles. "Rob is," his mother conceded, "very advanced for his age."
Rob did not require further approval. He took over from the guide and pointed out for the benefit of everyone how Pizarro had crossed the Andes with one hundred and eighty-three soldiers. It took months to complete the journey. Famine, disease, a march in full armor under hot skies, with horses on trails meant for the llama's hoofs, pushing, pulling cannon and weaponry.
And Atahualpa observed it all, observed the starved, wriggly band of men with the strange animals and the intriguing thunder-fire, knew from his scouts the number of hairs in Pizarro's beard. Pizarro, conqueror of Peru, crossed the mountains with his victim's permission, crossed by the charity of a ruler who believed that he had divine protection.
There is a legend in the neighborhood that a graffito is written on the sky that hangs over Cajamarca:
Here lies Atahualpa,
Slain by strangers, not his own,
Who waded through slaughter to his throne
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind
And heaped the shrines of luxury and pride
With incense kindled at religion's flame.
Protect this sky from further insult,
This frightened flesh dishonored in conversion.
The English speaking boy picked up a pebble and rolled it down the countryside. They followed the pebble back down to the courtyard. Rifke descended in badly chosen shoes. They stopped at a small hotel and drank Inca kola. Sarai flushed her mouth with it and spit it out. The guide suggested pisco sour. Leila rejected anything whose name she could not pronounce. The day wore warmly. The drinks did not refresh. Rifke would have been happier if they left her behind to sit in a chair somewhere, but she was on her best behavior for Merry's sake. She put her sunglasses on her perspiring face and tried to concentrate on this remote fate.
They wandered, drinks in hand and thirsty, back to the courtyard. Skepticism attacked Rob again. "I still can't figure it out," he said. "Even when they were killing him his soldiers were out there and could have saved him"
The guide tried to appear sympathetic to Rob's problem. There was
a complexity to the matter which could not be articulated in terms
of numbers and power. The problem dissolved into the generalities
of culture. Perhaps it was the differences in language. The guide
said, "His soldiers put aside their arms." It was an inadequate
answer for Rob. He looked around the
square coolly and gave his verdict. "That was dumb."
Atahualpa's honor rested with the guide. He said, "Pizarro gave his word no harm would come to him."
"You mean he lied," Rob said. He licked the words up from around his lips.
"Don't be impolite," his mother said.
The guide, with historic malice, transferred his eyes from Rob to her. "Sí, Señora," he said, "Pizarro lied." The confession seemed to crush him. His chin sank on his chest. He twisted his hat in his hands. Atahualpa, king, royal incarnation of God, descendant of the sun, laid down his arms because he did not believe a mortal man would break his word to him. For those assigned to the destiny of others, trust proceeds from hubris. "Si," the guide said, "he lied." He stood with his hat in hand and begged forgiveness from a ghost, but whose?
Rob betrayed the limit of his sophistication. "Why did he do that?" he asked. The apologetic air left the guide. His eyes gleamed. He pressed home the barren point, grinning. "Because he wished to conquer."
Then with a snap of his fingers at fate, he swaggered his poncho about him and walked out into the middle of the courtyard. "Aquí," he said, "here. Right here." Once more the voice, the finger, the jolt of the jaw became emphatic, directive. "Atahualpa was strangled, garroted. Why?" He put his hands on his hips. His cape spread like wings. A hawk circled in the air. "Because," he hissed for Rob's sake, "he did believe he would return and rule his people again." He smiled. He let the idea rest for a moment. He turned around and around, his elbows bent, his cape hawk-spread. "That is why he accepted the conversion. Not," his eyes watched Rob and gleamed with obscure intelligences, "because as the book says he was afraid of the auto-da-fé. Sí. He was afraid for this. Because he knew if his flesh did burn he could not come back. Sí. He knew for the sake of his people he must lie to the priest." He smiled vindictively. He held out his hand in an invitation to all men of good will to understand what he was saying, to join him in the resurrection of a king. "Sí, Atahualpa knew if he put the wafer on his tongue they would not burn him and his people would know that he would return to rule them, but if they saw his flesh burn, a thing never yet done to an Inca king, they would lose faith in their religion. For the Incas believe the flesh is immortal." His hand withdrew quickly beneath his poncho where he made the Sign of the cross, and said, "As does every Christian."
Rob absorbed this slowly. The guide said again, "Sí," softly and smiled. He watched Rob with simulated good will. "This he did for his people," he repeated, "to give them the faith that he would come back."
Rob digested the message. It had adventurous implications, though
as a pattern in cultural survival it had no precedent and
established no successors. Rob studied the courtyard where the
action had occurred. The guide gave a pantomimic interpretation of
the events. In the center stood Atahualpa, the eyes of his
soldiers upon him. In front, Valverde, cross in
hand, waiting for Atahualpa's response. To the side of him, the stake which would be ignited if Atahualpa gave the wrong answer. The choice, as Valverde told him, was to die by the fire or to live forever by being garroted. Atahualpa stuck out his tongue and Valverde placed a delicate wafer upon it. For a few seconds it rested there, moistening, melting, while Atahualpa's
gaze moved out over the homeland peaks. A civilization sat on his tongue. The eyes of his soldiers caught at his face like fishhooks. Faith that he would deliver them. Slowly his tongue rolled back like a lizard's and swallowed their gaze. A cheer went up from the Spanish soldiers. Two minutes later, Atahualpa was dead, benignly garroted in an act of Christian charity.
The guide turned on his sandaled feet, bringing his performance to an end. He fluttered slowly on the stone courtyard in his cape of traditional designs. His movements were delicate, the meaning surreptitious and visional. He stopped turning. A hawk swooped upwards, wings spread against the sky.
Rob was torn by a conflict: whether to seem ill-mannered and press home a point or to be polite and confused. His red eyebrows wriggled with intellectual discomfort. "I don't understand," he said, hanging on to the challenge like a hooked fish. "By this time he knew Pizarro lied. Why did he believe him again?"
The guide put his hands on his knees, bent down towards Rob and pressed home the malignant point. "Por qué? He had no more no choice." He swept his hat off for his tip, and his lips were loosely gracious.
The ride home was hot and boring. They said goodbye to Rob and
his family and climbed back into the car. Rifke pushed off her
shoes and fell asleep. Sarai sat near a window and watched the dry
scenery. The hot wind from the desert swirled her hair and raced
down her throat. The landscape was spotted with cactus plants that
made her homesick. She thought of her
children and of their generation born in Israel who took the name of a cactus plant and became the landscape. Occasionally she saw people on the horizon, strung along the curve of the earth, walking, men and women with children. She poked Benyamin on the shoulder and directed his glance towards them as if they shared an intimate concern.
"Those are Indians," Merry said, "some say descended from the
Incas." She told them of their civil difficulties. Plate-like hats
sat on their heads. Their backs were bent beneath their babies
that swung in papooses from their shoulders, the timeless posture.
Nothing about motherhood escaped Sarai's notice. She closed her
eyes and dreamed. She was the mother whose
children clung to her back like gourds, like clusters of grapes, like jewels. She had gone out into the desert and dug cactus for them. "Dein b'ruf," she had said, "your inheritance," and they ate it, needles and all. She opened her eyes. The men marched along the horizon, the women behind them, their babies molded into their backs, an exotic herd of human. Good luck, she called to them. Her white hair whistled around her face.
Sarai had a low temperature for two days, but on the third day she announced herself cured and made plans for their next Side trip. Leila and Rifke took turns expressing dismay. "What's in Cuzco," Leila said quarrelsomely. Merry, who had never succeeded in interesting them in anything about Peru except its food and its beaches, listened to their arguments with a vested interest punctuated by "narrow-minded," "petty," "provincial," "small-minded."
Rifke and Leila were unperturbed. Everything about Merry left them unperturbed, mainly because she always attacked them together, and they had each other for comfort under her common assault. She treated them as a social phenomenon, and this, in fact, was their defense.
But Leila and Rifke lost the argument. "What a shame," Sarai said, "to take such a trip and not see the country." Rifke complained that she hated thin air. She couldn't breathe properly except at sea level. Cuzco was ten thousand feet up. "Not so bad," Sarai said, "we'll walk slowly."
The small rented car climbed through the mountainous terrain.
Sarai sat between Leila and Rifke, cushioned. Leila and Rifke
looked out either side of the car, down the abysses, down the
salacious drops and wet cliff walls. Indian faces swept past their
car as it climbed the llama-laden peaks. The racial world shifted.
Eyes redolent of oriental migrations, faces flattened
by Mongolian and Andean winds possessed the rocky cliffs and upper air, grew in number towards Cuzco. The name means "navel." The antiquated race, like ancient Jews beneath Solomon's wall, like seeds in the ground, gathered within the ruins of the old capital to suck the stones and to wait.
But Cuzco is modern. Not exactly. It is baroque, Spanish, colonial, which is modern enough. The very stones have been converted. Take the House of the Chosen Women, which furnishes the foundation walls of the Convent of Santa Catalina, or the Temple of the Sun now the Monastery of Santo Domingo, or San Angelo in Rome, or the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
They climbed out of the car in disorder and checked into a hotel. Leila and Rifke thought the car trip deserved a nap. Sarai, Benyamin, and Merry were too anxious to see the city. Out of deference to Leila and Rifke they left them at the hotel for three days while they did the more strenuous touring without them, which meant the forts of Pisac, Sacsahuaman, and Ollantaytambo. Cuzco, as Inca capital, had been a fortified city. Within, palaces and temples, royalty and religion, art, Silver, and gold. Without, the forts, the soldiers' barricades, the raw rocks of defense.
On a ledge of the Ollantayambo fort they discovered Rob chewing
bubble gum. His parents popped up their heads a second later.
Delicious surprise, the continuity of things. They agreed to join
forces for the afternoon and decided that introductions were now
in order. The father was a doctor in Edinburgh. They were in Lima
for a convention. Rob was their only child. He
went everywhere with them.
"A bit spoiled, you know," Mrs. Ferguson said proudly. She expressed the hope that Rob wasn't going to pester them with questions.
Sarai did not like an apologetic parent. "Spoiled?" she said. Her harsh "s" brought a raised eyebrow to Mrs. Ferguson's face. "Such a brain we need in Israel," Sarai said.
Dr. and Mrs. Ferguson searched one another's face for a Sign of understanding about such a need. Up on the heights the breezes blew. Rob asked to borrow Benyamin's binoculars again. The terraced countryside swung like chartreuse ribbons through his view. Rob appreciated it. "Wow," he said.
Benyamin liked his enthusiasm. "They were expert farmers," Benyamin said, as if the compliment had a specific value.
Merry felt slighted. Reading the guidebook was her department, and this was her country. "How would you know?" she asked.
"By looking," Benyamin said, but he was flattered that he had annoyed her.
They took the bus back to Cuzco and agreed to meet for dinner.
Breathlessness, a headache plagued Sarai. She lay down as soon as she got back to her room.
"I warned you," Leila said. Rifke ssshhhed her. Was this the time to be right? Beneath her white hair, Sarai's face was the color of a plum. Her small hands and feet looked like inert wings on the bed. Leila pulled her fingers in distress.
Sarai ssshhed her. "I'm all right," she said. "Tomorrow we will go easy."
"Why must we go at all?" Leila asked. "Let's go home tomorrow."
Sarai was one of those people of whom it is said she never knew a
day's illness. She did not recognize death from the inside out,
only the other way. One was struck by lightning, by a car, by a
bullet. The force belonged either to nature or to history. Human
beings were inviolable until stopped by one or the other. She
looked at Leila's and Rifke's puffy faces, and wondered how they
had come from the same family, from the same town, from the same
street. Can anyone account for how anyone turns out? Rifke looked
as if worms were in her toes and in her mouth, and that something
mysterious was with Sarai that she did not feel the same worms in
her. So, even dying, they quarreled with each other. Sarai got off
the bed, brushed her hair and
said, with the intention of frightening Rifke and Leila, that she would continue to move until she fell in her tracks. Rifke and Leila, spiteful with alarm, decided that if Sarai wanted to die like that they would let her.
They met the Fergusons and went to dinner. Leila and Rifke ate little. A piece of fish, some corn. Sarai ate escabeche, rice, and chupe de camarones, a soup made of potatoes, milk, shrimp, hot chili peppers, and eggs. She asked Rob to Sit next to her. She complimented him again on his brains. Rob was happy to be appreciated for what he was.
"So what are you planning to be when you grow up?" she asked. Rob
said he expected to be a famous neurosurgeon. He was working now
on a plan to replace the nervous system with laser energy. Sarai
was properly impressed. It was her genius to ignore Rob's trap as
a child and go right to the heart of his reality. "When you grow
up you will come to Israel," she said, and
patted his thigh. Dr. Ferguson's spoon stopped midway on route to his mouth. "I'm sure it's a lovely country," he said.
Sarai showed him her better Side. She was generous. "You come too," she said.
Merry pronounced the conversation tactless. Not to Sarai, who shocked her a little, but to Benyamin whom she felt she had earned the right to criticize.
They found a slope of soft ground the next afternoon, beneath a peak, near a gorge, near the sound of running water, underneath the sky. Sarai relented in her pressure on Leila and Rifke and agreed to spend the next day in town with them. Alone with Merry, Benyamin put his jacket on the ground, sat down on it, and studied the terraced farms through his binoculars.
"Expert," he said.
Merry looked out over the terrain with naked eyes. She fed him information maliciously. "It was pure communism, the old Inca system."
He said, "And don't you want to bring it all back?"
Her politics shriveled, but she forbore. "Do you think it's wrong?"
"I think ideas don't matter."
"Super realist," she sneered.
Stars glistened in her black eyes. He put the binoculars on the
grass and asked her if her mother would take it amiss if he made
love to her. She was touched. She said, on behalf of her mother's
conscience, "In South America the women are very protected." He
thought about her answer for thirty seconds. A hawk circled in the
air over ancient moss and the
terraced gardens of an old world.
Afterwards she accused him of being uncivilized.
"Uncivilized?" he said. He lowered the binoculars from his face. "What do you call uncivilized?"
She told him. He had no appreciation for the art of the people. He spent his time staring through his binoculars instead of looking at the great works they had left behind.
"Art?" he asked. "You mean what you find in the markets and the museums?"
"What's wrong with that?" she wanted to know.
He told her. "Pizarro, I read in your book, he melted it down, their art for money. I see all over the world how the art of conquered people is appreciated."
They went down from the hill and became better acquainted. She wanted to linger in the markets. He scorned it. She swayed from one store to the next, fingering the ponchos and the carved masks. He examined and measured the masonry in the buildings. She admired the pottery. He explained to her the engineering that went into the construction of Inca Manco's palace. The explanation bored her. In retaliation, she spoke Spanish to him. He thought that was very ill mannered. She danced before him like black lightning and did a sarabanco all the way up the hotel steps, clicking castanets.
It was in Machu Picchu that Sarai died. They took the train on the fourth day, Sixty-eight miles further up from Cuzco, Rifke's and Leila's protests to no avail. That morning Sarai got out of bed and again pronounced herself cured of whatever had been ailing her. "I knew it was the food," she said.
"Well, considering what you've been eating," Leila said.
The Fergusons went too. Sarai kept Rob next to her on the train seat. She loved to see the world through children's eyes, and Rob loved to show it. They gave him the binoculars to hold for the trip, and that moody city, the final retreat of the harassed Incas, rose out of the Urubamba gorge, under Andean clouds.
As everyone knows, a special romance attends lost and recovered
cities. Their burial and resurrection from the jungle or the
desert contain a moral. An entire civilization sinks beneath the
ground. And then one day a sunny-faced explorer looking for
butterflies skins his knee on an angled rock that puzzles the
mind: is it natural or not? The dig begins. A year later a city
emerges from its drugged sleep beneath moss or sand and thrusts
its roots and embryonic stones, all phallic forms, to the sky and
that nothing that ever was of good or evil dies, but awaits recovery. Machu Picchu, life and death, womb and tomb, city of a hundred abandoned stairways that go and come from nowhere, rooms and passageways and temples, lies like a hatchery of stones between the twin peaks, Machu-male and Huayna-female, parental guardians whose stones are seeds.
It was Hiram Binkham of Harvard who discovered Machu Picchu in 1911. He took the advice of an innkeeper who told him to keep climbing. "There's something at the top." On that day, it is recorded the naturalist on the expedition went butterfly-hunting and the surgeon stayed behind in camp to do his laundry.
Everyone in the train stared out the window. Machu Picchu is a
gloomy place with a gloomy moral. It is cut into a steep rock with
one approach over a deadly river. To clear the sharp hills out of
Cuzco, the train makes four switchbacks on the three-hour journey.
The rails follow first the Huarcando River and then the Urubamba,
whose rush of red water is so violent
that nothing Sits on its surface for more than a second.
The train stopped at a station in the jungle. Tourists got off with cameras and binoculars, thermos bottles and lunches. Mrs. Ferguson said, "Well," as the tension bubbled out of her mouth. Leila and Rifke showed a capacity for resignation. Leila kept her sunhat on, Sarai kept a kerchief around her neck. They boarded a bus that took them across the suspension bridge that spans the Urubamba, and then the bus groaned, swayed, crawled, and hairpincurled its way up the last two thousand feet, and they were at Machu Picchu against the sky.
All who have ever seen Machu Picchu advise everyone to go see it, but except for those who have a technical interest in its construction, few return to see it again. There's not enough sentimentality here, of hope or charity, friendship, of even doubt and reassertion. All reference to the human has been scraped away. One must re-invest the stones with stories. It is said that Manco Inca was murdered in the area by a handful of Spanish refugees whom he had befriended. The extensive gravesite contains mainly female corpses. These are presumed to be the bodies of "The Chosen Women of the Inca," who elected death and escaped the Spaniards.
A special wind blows over places like these, the elegiac air of perished civilizations and perished efforts.
Sarai felt it as soon as she got off the bus. The air barely
moved. On the contrary, it was delicate and sweet, but it
oppressed her. A storm would have relieved her. It was the still
air that oppressed her. It absorbed the human sounds of camera
clicks and talk and paper wrappings as if such doings were as
irreverent as dancing on a grave. The air said: move reverently.
This is a cemetery. She looked up at the blue sky and closed an eye under the pulse of the sun. The color of the sky was too familiar, the air was too familiar. She had been in cemeteries before. She tucked her blouse into her skirt and smoothed her hair down. She had come apart after the train ride. They walked from a wall to a building to a stairway and commented on the
masonry, the construction, the multiple flights of steps, the wonder of the setting. Rob scanned the countryside through the binoculars. Merry read to them the details of Brigham's discovery. The tourists spoke in hushed voices. Even the sound of a camera click seemed awkward.
Sarai searched the landscape for anything that could relieve the
oppression she felt. It would not go away. It sat on her chest
like a bubble. She lingered behind the small groups of tourists,
posing curiosity. But she knew she had seen the place before. She
knew the terrain, she knew the geography: an eruption of stones
surrounded by space, a fort built at the end of the road, on the
edge of the desert, in the center of the jungle, at the end of all
things where all go down into earth together, the communal
suicide; the final ploy of a people; the final conflict: unyielding heroism against power that is never charitable; the final grave: a collection of bones in the desert, a formation of rocks in the jungle.
Masada and Machu Picchu: a spiritual geography connected them.
She spun between the two points and suspected she was getting them
confused. The blue air became bluer. It became circular as a fort,
as a womb. It wrapped her round as a winding sheet. She had
climbed Masada with her family in the dawn, as one must before the
heat comes up. It was a picnic for the
children, a pilgrimage in the dawn. Yitzhak aged nine, Reuven aged Six (may his soul rest in peace), Benyamin aged five, and Moishe (may his soul rest in peace), who insisted on the climb. He held all the symbols in his hand like a lightning rod. So they came as moderns, in sunhats and sneakers, to pay their respect to old stones. Benyamin complained. The pebbles cut his
feet. "Must we climb all the way to the top?" He was the youngest.
"Yes, you must." That was her husband's voice.
Oh, God! she cried.
The others had climbed the steps to see the Intihuatana, a projection of stone that stands up into the sky. Merry read to them from the guidebook. The purpose of the Intihuatana is not clear, though one has been found in many Inca forts. It has been suggested that they were used for calendrical calculations, that it was a shadow clock by which the Incas told time. It is assumed that it had a religious Significance and has been translated as the Hitching Post of the Sun. It might have been a fertility symbol. Its resemblance to the male organ cannot be dissimulated. Without benefit of guidebook, the Spaniards understood it had a religious Significance and broke off the stone wherever they found it. Only the Intihuatana at Machu Picchu escaped their detection and survived.
Sarai could see them from the distance. Leila and Rifke, protected in sunhats and sunglasses, Benyamin and Merry and that boy, Rob, and his parents. Merry read to them as from a prayer book, and Rob wrinkled his brow and poked his fingers everywhere. She could see them clearly, but they could not see her. She was wrapped in the blue air. No one missed her and she was glad. It was her only weak moment. The sky was too immense, too blue, too unchanging, too demanding. Its color sucked out her soul.
It was Rob who found her sitting on a step and thought she was resting. Her head was folded on her knees.
The tourists were disconcerted and sympathetic. Dr. Ferguson did what he could. A small crowd gathered. Leila and Rifke were turned to stone. Their feet would not move. They clomped about in shoes made of lead. Benyamin pushed through the crowd. "It is nothing," he said, "nothing," but he knew he was lying. He picked up her hands and rubbed them and rubbed them. He called to her, he spoke to her, he accused her of playing tricks. Dr. Ferguson counseled him as best he could. Rob drifted to the edge of the circle, conscience-stricken in his role of discoverer, too young to know that he was irrelevant. Merry put her arms around him and shielded his spirit.
The scenario for death is Simple. The soul leaves the body. It is no longer responsible for it. Others must now care for it. Benyamin carried her on to the bus where they made a bench out of the back seats. Only Leila and Rifke, Merry and he, and the Fergusons went back. They carried her down from that old world, newly recovered, and recrossed the bridge over the gorge, over the river, past the terraced terrain of old Inca lands that overlooked the valley of bones. The bus climbed an incline of willows and poplars, and the peaks of Machu and Huayana faded beneath the trees. And all the while she lay on the back bench in her woolen skirt and blue blouse, a blanket covering her, and slept like a tourist after a strenuous trip.
In Cuzco there was great confusion. The hotelkeeper sent for the
priest from Santo Domingo Church. The priest came running, but he
saw that the body was already rigid on the hotel lobby floor, and
there were no rites to be performed. Dr. Ferguson took it upon
himself to explain the Situation. She had died so unexpectedly.
Could they leave her overnight somewhere until the
family collected its wits and could travel back in the morning?
The priest was sympathetic. He offered the churchgrounds. Leila
objected. The hotelkeeper tried to persuade her that it was the
only practical solution. Self-consciousness afflicted Rifke.
Inarticulate protests gurgled in her throat. Leila tried to be
more articulate, but succeeded no better. She tried to explain her
position, her Sister's, Sarai's, and broke down into a babble of
Spanish and Yiddish. Merry intervened. She argued with her mother,
she explained to the hotelkeeper. He explained back. He did not
want a body lying on his lobby floor. No hotelkeeper does. A crowd
gathered. Tourists, an Indian family, the waiters.
Somebody sent for a policeman. The clerk was kept busy attending to clerkly matters and trying to be in on the action. Vespers rang. The priest apologized profusely. He must attend to the service. He said he would send some workmen with a casket. Perhaps the family would like to rest in his living room. His servant would take care of their needs and the body could rest in the nave. He gathered up his cassock and said he must go. The hotelkeeper blocked his path. In aspirant Spanish he told him it was his duty to care for the dead. The priest hunched his shoulders and rolled his eyeballs.
Dr. Ferguson turned to Benyamin and suggested they do as the
priest said. There were no more trains out of Cuzco that day, and
the drive home at night through the mountains was dangerous. He
undertook to explain their differing civilizations to each other.
He asked the priest if he could not keep the body in his living
room where the family could sit with it, but the priest became
alarmed. The hotelkeeper grew impatient. Dr. Ferguson turned to
Leila and Rifke. "Be reasonable," he said, but his words had the
opposite effect on Leila. Her knees became unhinged. She crumbled
to the floor. Grief poured from her eyes. She covered Sarai's
body, in protection or protest, with scalding words as if
yesterday's arguments still glowed in the dead
woman's brain whose death had carried them into such terrible familiar territory.
"I warned you, Sarai," she cried, "I warned you. We both warned you. But you always knew best. You were the one who always knew best."
The drama drew more crowd. The hotelkeeper tried to shoo them out of the doorway. Rifke's face turned red with embarrassment. The hotelkeeper's patience snapped and he picked on the pickable. He told the Indian family to go, and he made menacing motions at anyone who did not look as if he clearly belonged. He Singled Merry out as the only one who seemed to understand him and told her to please to remove her mother from the floor. Whether he meant Leila or Sarai was not clear, but it did not matter. Benyamin made up his mind to leave for Lima immediately.
He brought the car around to the front of the hotel. Leila and Rifke squeezed themselves into the front seat with him. Merry sat in the back with Sarai's body on the floor of the car. Dr. Ferguson was horrified. The hotelkeeper pressed his face into the car window and expressed apologies, explanations, consolations. It was best they go now. He shrugged his shoulders. He waved his hands. Today, tomorrow. The trip was the same. So what difference did it make? Dr. Ferguson still tried to persuade them to stay until the morning. His philosophy could not account for their unreasonableness. Mrs. Ferguson kept her arm around Rob's shoulders, who insisted on saying goodbye to them, though he stood rigid with a forlorn strangeness. He still wore the binoculars around his neck.
They drove slowly. It is an eleven thousand foot drop from Cuzco to sea level. They had time to deal with the practical problems. Leila and Rifke took command of themselves. Their distrust of Benyamin's driving disappeared. Indeed, exhausted, they surrendered all worries to him and were oblivious of everything else except of making the proper funeral arrangements as if they had rescued Sarai's body for this lonely purpose. In the morning they would call their rabbi. In the afternoon they would make arrangements with an airline. They counted off on their fingers whom they would call, whom they would inform, how they would arrange matters. Sarai's death became a family affair. It rested on a cushion of gossip, recollections of how they had said this to her, of her stubbornness, of how she had never changed. Now and then a rush of grief caught them, and they sank into the wisdom of catharsis. They ssshhed one another for Benyamin's sake and fell into Silence and fell back into talk. Rifke said they would fly back with Benyamin. He said it wasn't necessary. Leila looked out the window at the perilous road hanging over chasms. She said it was necessary. He tried to see Merry's face in the rear view mirror. Sarai lay on the floor at her feet, kin and stranger. Merry did not know how to mourn for such a relationship. It was inexplicable, and she was too young and optimistic to cry over that.
I came to live with my grandparents when I was eight years old. My parents had been killed in a boating accident two years before. For two years I divided my time among various aunts until my grandparents, at that time in their middle seventies, decided to take me in. I was glad to have a home, but disappointed that my sponsors were so aged. It could not occur to me at eight years old what it meant for two elderly people to raise an active, temperamental boy who was already high strung from disaster and the shiftiness of life. I was moody, accusative, inclined to feel that not enough was being done for me, pugnacious and spendthrifty. They were parsimonious, unimaginative, religious, with little humor, noncommital to the Christian world, and centered in their neighborhood and synagogue.
My parents had been American born. I can still sense the distaste
that lingered on everyone's part, on my grandparents' part for
what my parents had become, on my parents' part for what my
grandparents were. "Old fashioned," my parents said good
humoredly, but deep annoyance clung to the phrase. My grandparents
were never good humored about what my parents had
become. They were distinctly venomous. They were not bewildered immigrants, baffled by ideas of assimilation. My grandparents were deeply Jewish and hostile to departure. They suspected me, and I them, prepared to defend my dead parents. Nor could they voice censure against the dead, but in my heart I never ceased to accuse them of doing that, because they were what they were.
I come slowly to understand them.
But before that time, before my parents were dead, I can still
remember the conflict that centered not so much upon religion and
theories as upon its expressions and gestures. What my parents
could not forgive was the uncommunicativeness of my grandparents,
which expressed itself in evasion. To almost any question that
could be answered in this way, my grandparents
would say: "If I'll live until then." The repetition was unfailing and wearying, trusting to Providence, yet essentially untrusting.
My mother could not contend with such an elusive future. "Damn it, Arnold," she would say to my father, "I wish just once they could give an answer."
It was provoking. One never knew whether my grandparents were
assenting or not. To all questions, big and little: are you going
to Dora's wedding? Would you like to come to dinner next Sunday?
Shall we get a bungalow for you this year? Can you mind the baby
on Thursday? To all questions of the future, my grandfather's
beard would blow on his chest, he would turn his
fingers in a manner as if he were examining a wineglass, and say in a Singsong way, "If I'll live until Dora's wedding I'll go."
My grandmother was more dramatic. She had a hump on her back and
sat, whenever possible, in order to make her defect less
noticeable. Her face had once been beautiful and was now very old
with as much beauty as age could have, but she still retained the
vanity of believing herself beautiful and always sat so that one
noticed her face and not her deformity. She would
raise her hands in a Sabbath gesture, framing her white skin, her grey eyes lashed fraily with blonde lashes, and say with a mechanical plaintiveness, "If I'll live until Thursday I'll mind the baby."
No doubt there was more to this than a superstitious warding off of evil. Often it was a clear negation. It was their way of letting you know that your request was undiplomatic. Sometimes it was a practical play for time. Generally, it was a mechanical statement, no more than "how do you do," or "we hope to see you again," a mannered polite verbalization.
But my parents could not take it as such. The phrase outraged them. It was as archaic as a medieval memento mori, despairing and unpromising. It was pagan; it rested upon the bedrock of a chance universe in spite of any deistic organization. It cohabited with a force beyond Juno and Jupiter, a force that was neither good nor evil, which partook neither of God nor man, which was fate and which held one captive. It was too much of another world for my parents, who were made of a sturdy optimism, to accept or fathom.
Yet Dora's wedding took place; bungalows were rented; summers were spent idle beside lakes; and babies were minded when they had to be. Life often gave my grandparents the lie, though they never retreated in their refusal to believe that one day would follow another without disaster. Deaths came too, losses of fortune, disappointments. My parents would discuss these with surprised voices, turning an incident around and around until fate was arrested in a causal arrangement. My grandparents rarely commented upon fortune of any kind. They listened to all tales, and merely blinked their eyes.
Once when my grandmother's cousin, a friend from childhood, died, my grandmother did raise a shaky arm to her hair and tighten her comb into her bun. I still remember the gesture, for my grandmother's ugly arms, for her beautiful hair, for the quivering of her body, and the dull blinking of her eyes.
My grandmother's arms each had a scar running on the inside from the wrist to past the elbow. The scars were deep, wide, crossed with stitches, embedded in loose flesh. I never learned their origin. Her hair was white, grey, and blonde, and especially soft. She wore it in a bun in the back, in the front pushed high, loose and wispy. Her hands often trembled when she adjusted her comb in her hair.
At funerals they were uncharacteristically loquacious. They enjoyed the sense of the family at those times and made the most of it. Cousins and nephews came from everywhere, Chicago, California, Kansas and Nebraska. One was surprised at a half Sister who turned up in New Mexico. Word of a death traveled fast. Swiftly the courier spread the news, and the family assembled from everywhere with the mixed feeling of the impracticality of having come a thousand miles to attend a funeral, and the instinct that brought them home to take what was left of their mortal connections.
I was lost in the shuffle, invariably. Black-clothed men with beards shook hands over my head. "May we meet on a better occasion," they said to each other. My grandfather raised his arms in a promethean gesture. "Must we wait for a funeral to see each other?" Someone poked me in the back and pushed me forward. "Yussela," my grandmother said.
"Yussela," a blue-eyed lady whistled in awe at me. "You were a baby when I saw you last. Do you remember Aunt Minka from Chicago?"
I have no doubt that under the strain of seeing so many lost relations my grandparents staged some of their funeral behavior. Hospitality, interest, and gossip dominated the scene and didn't leave much room for grief. What sorrow my grandparents felt was undercut by their desire for news.
Once their grief had been wholehearted.
The true backbone of their respect for death was in the familiar, mechanical, tiresome, boring, ironic, despairing, grieving repetition that accompanied all our dinners and talks, weddings and deaths, buzzing in our ears like a gadfly, plaintive as a dirge.
Two years after my parents were killed, a particular incident happened to me when I was ten. The reason I remember it is because it has puzzled me all these years, and because I have come so slowly to understand it.
The episode is indigenously American Jewish, so familiar as to be almost trite. It is the personalities of my grandparents, the peculiar combination of their primitivistic stoicism and their faith, their accommodation to both fate and unyielding faith in God's goodness that keeps the episode alive for me with an unmodern logic. It is to the memory of their love expressed in this illogic that I turn in moods of cynicism.
My grandparents lived in a neighborhood which at the time
attracted the eastern European, Jew and Christian alike, so that
there was as high a population of Polish Catholic and Russian
Orthodox as there was of Jews. The boy who lived next door to us,
American born, was Polish Catholic. We became intense friends. He
was slim, wiry, blonde, and blue-eyed. I believe we
loved each other. There were no other children on the block, and we possessed each other and the neighborhood, its backyards, garages, empty lots, stores, trees, and porches. We were with each other endlessly. I still remember him keenly. John.
Nothing was ever said about the differences in our religions. His
mother treated my Jewishness with consideration. If I had lunch
with John she was careful about the dishes she used and the food
she served. Nothing was ever said in either family that could have
been used as a lever for distinction. I don't know when love
has been so free of the policy of things. What my
grandparents thought of John I cannot say. They treated him with the ethics of a next door neighbor, being neither friendly nor unfriendly. If I had never grown up I should not have thought about what they thought. I know now that whatever their opinion was there was a remarkable absence of the expression of disapproval, something I could not have known at ten years old
The first Christmas I spent in that neighborhood on the edge of
Brooklyn, still partially rural in those days, as cohesive as a
small village, with low houses, brown-red porches, swept stoops,
rabbits and pigeons in the backyards, tomato and lettuce gardens
on odd patches of land, gypsies living in empty stores, Polish and
Russian fluent in the streets, invaded me sensorially. Every other
house sparkled with a Christmas tree. I had seen Christmas trees
before, in parks and squares, but never in windows opposite mine.
The nearness of the thing awed me, for I knew it boded
distinction, and distinction at such close quarters was hard on my
nerves. The street was solemn with snow. Every door was closed and
there was not a
person to be seen. A tree stood in every other window, and in John's window, a massive brightness of angel hair and candles, tinkling bells and chimes, silver wreaths, balls of blue, gold and red, carved figurines, men, women, cows, dogs, and horses, in turquoise, yellow, and green.
I looked and looked and looked at them for sheer love of their bright glory. My eyes were assaulted and I stood at my window all night until my grandmother, with her hair unwound, hanging thin and white and blonde down her back, came into my room and pulled down the shade.
The next year John's mother asked me to come up to see their tree. I had the notion that this was a privilege and I came stiffly dressed and brushed. When I walked into their living room, John was sitting on his father's lap. His father was a big man with massive hands and John, with long legs sticking out of his short pants, looked beyond possible perturbation in his father's lap. He sucked a candy stick, his cheeks were red with excitement. His mother said something in Polish and they all laughed.
John slid off his father's lap. "Wanna see what I got?"
I nodded my head.
"Look," he screamed with excitement, and took out from a closet a red scooter.
I looked at it mutely. I looked all around, but I saw few details, only a blaze of lights and packages and colors. Suddenly my attention was stopped by a Christmas stocking hanging from the mantelpiece.
"What's that?" I asked.
"That?" John screamed. "Don't you know what that is?" He took it down and showed it to me. "It's a Christmas stocking. Have something." He offered me a candy from the bulging bag.
I shook my head and backed away with the feeling of being tempted into a traitorous act.
But I had already betrayed myself. I wanted the Christmas stocking. I wanted the Christmas tree; I wanted everything in the room.
When I returned my grandfather looked up at me unconcernedly from his newspaper. I could not then sense the deliberation of his movements. He sat Sideways to the kitchen table, with one leg swung over the other, and an old brown hat on his head. He wet his large, hairy thumb and turned a page in his newspaper.
"It is pretty," he said in an emotionless voice. He clasped his fingers together and cracked his knuckles. He looked at me over his glasses, studying me with an indecisive sympathy. Then his eyes roamed back to his paper and he said in a flat, final voice, which was cleansed of apology. "We do not celebrate Christmas. We celebrate Chanukah." I thought of the parsimonious, joyless gumdrops and raisins that were given me every night for eight nights and felt indescribably cheated. "You know that," he said, without looking at me.
I nodded my head. Silently I hung my cap on its peg and went into my room. No one came to console me. How could anyone? It was a desire beyond redemption.
As the days of Christmas went by my conscience found a devious
solution. I decided to fix my passion on the Christmas stocking.
It was not as extravagant as the tree. John said it appeared all
by itself, unlike the tree, which one had to buy and decorate. The
stocking only appeared, and no one was responsible for it. It was,
simply, a miracle, which is the best way
for good fortune to happen. I can't pretend that I really believed it. I did and I didn't. I hadn't enough experience at the time to know reality. I could still try wishing. I know that I still believed at that time that my parents could reappear, and many times I would fall asleep with the thought that they would be there in the morning.
As the days went by I became more and more frantic. I got up each morning and looked at the bedposts, the doorknob, the window sills, the bookcase, wherever I thought a stocking could hang. I wanted a miracle to happen. I wanted to be surprised. I wanted to believe that during the night, while I slept, some spirit had left a Sign for me. I wanted to believe in the reality of my desires and that they were innocent.
My grandmother noticed my behavior. I was cross and irritable all week. One morning after I had made my search I burst into tears. I sulked in my room that the world had passed me by. Everything, spirits and humans, all the kindly forces of the world that could perform a miracle, had deserted me.
"What are you looking for?" my grandmother finally asked.
My ears prickled with conscience. I knew enough to hesitate. "For a stocking," I said nonchalantly.
She narrowed her eyes with suspicion. "For a stocking? For five mornings? What kind of a stocking can that be?"
I did not answer. I Simply glared at her, bitter, unbelievably bitter.
She pulled her bathrobe together and began to make my bed. In the same tone as my grandfather's, unemotional, stern, parsimonious, she said with her head bent towards the bed, "We are Jews."
I said nothing, but to my mind arose all the vindictive clash with destiny. I didn't ask to be one, was the thought that wrung my heart and conscience, not knowing what to do about fate.
Christmas passed, and John was restored to me from his relatives and family friends.
But the next Christmas the ordeal was repeated. My grandparents tried to be more celebrative about Chanukah, but it had been a long time Since they had entertained a child, and holiday-making was not part of their temperament. Perhaps I would not have felt so deprived had it been, and perhaps they sensed this.
Five terrible mornings passed, wicked in their disappointment,
stinging me with the frailty of my wishes, the littleness of me to
get what I wanted. I was determined that Providence recognize me,
and Providence would not. I did not wilt into pity. It was more
than that. I was furious. I knocked at the door of the world and
it was Silent. I kicked it with my feet. I hated
everyone, and mostly my grandparents.
Such childhoods are common. Such disappointments, small we call
them as adults, are common. Yet each of us has a personal
tenderness and sense of distinction about his own disappointments.
They seem to be so much a part of our identity. I am now a million
years away from the child I was and laugh at him, but I
commiserate because I have grown out of hatred into love for
They ignored my behavior for a time, determined to wait it out.
My grandfather peered at me over his glasses, opened his mouth to
say something and invariably thought better of it. They did not
lecture me, they did not attempt to cheer me up. Certainly they
were entitled to resent the fact that I resented being Jewish. But
they did not explain. The problem was ancient
They avoided me that Christmas, and I them. In my heart I blamed them for the fact that I was Jewish, that the stocking did not appear, that my parents were dead, that I had nowhere else to live but with them.
Then, on the sixth morning I woke up and there was a stocking hanging from the bookcase. It was an old sock of mine and curiously recognizable, but I was stunned with good fortune.
"Grandma," I screamed.
She must have been at the door, for she came in promptly. Her eyes looked grey and void.
"There's a stocking hanging there," I screamed.
She looked rapidly sideways at it and grunted, very ungraciously at a miracle. "You see," she said stiffly, "God is good," and escaped out of the room as quickly as she could.
I took down the stocking and held it for a long time, living in an infinitely good universe.
My grandmother lived for another eight years, and my grandfather
for two years after her, long enough to see me through the
required education and to get me started in college. They were
both past eighty-five when they died, and so had lived to see many
things and to raise me to adulthood. But they were already old, my
age now, when they took me on, and I think of them
facing at that point in their lives the imponderability of time, arguing with fate, caressing it, cajoling it, teasing it, stringing it along with their tiresome complaint, until it had mattered enough for usefulness.
I think now, at dusk, about the sunlight tomorrow morning and if I'll live to see it. The children in the park are unbelievably noisy for an old man. It is dusk and they are being gathered home, some to love, some to hatred. The sun falls in the sky, cleaving the fate of the children. The park is wintry and grey, with something of the atmosphere that must pervade the undramatic apostasy of two old people, the mood perhaps with which my grandmother stood at my door in her flannel bathrobe and listened for my reaction. Something of both their attitudes, mechanical, repetitive, whining, sensing that all is in the hands of a miracle, comes to me as shocking in its wisdom.