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Mrs Pall-Meyer, short-waisted, stooped, breasts shrunk to teardrops, Mrs Pall-Meyer was a dirty old woman, no matter she was rich. What good had money done her? She was traveling alone. They were both, Arden Fawn and Mrs Pall-Meyer, traveling alone, but Mrs Pall-Meyer had been at the ranch for over a month and would ride on long after Arden went home: Monday, next week, the first of April, home to an airbrushed county Arden once thought harmless.
Arden yanked at her reins and brought Doc into line while the old woman, Mrs Pall-Meyer, held back her horse and put even more space between them. Mrs Pall-Meyer was as friendless as Arden; no one would miss them.
They rode to the dried-out creek bed that devolved to a trail of ashy sand, charred wood, and trash not pictured in the ranch brochure – a strip of fender, a Pringles can – the rubbly blight of modern life, no green in sight but dust. At least for a time the sound of the horses was peaceable, but the hard floor of the desert came on with a clap. A wizened spring, the sickly prickly pear and organ pipe cacti were so riddled with holes they might have been targets. Even the paloverde trees looked leached. They rode along a level path, fording dried-out riverbeds of chalky stones – pale landscape, white sun. She put on her sunglasses and the view, honeyed, was not so hard on the spirit, but her back still hurt; it felt as if she were tightening a belt of barbed wire around her waist – God almighty, it hurt, and the ride had hardly begun. Arden rode apart not so much by choice as that it happened. Terrain had nothing to do with it. Her horse was slow and she was heavy.
Mrs Pall-Meyer, even farther behind, was a stick and rode as she liked. Now she went at a gentle pace and comfortable distance, for which Arden was grateful. In this way, far enough apart from all of the others, Arden could play on in her pioneering dream of self-sufficiency, even though her favorite part of the ride was when she was off the horse and walking to the ranch. Her legs felt used and wide apart then, and her walk was more a straddle.
‘Kick him!’ Mrs Pall-Meyer cried. The old woman threatened to pass. They had fallen too far behind.
Arden’s horse started to lope then lapsed into a rough trot stopped by the earthy rump of the dentist’s enormous horse.
‘Oh, hoh, my,’ Arden moaned. Knocked against the saddle horn, her pubic bone stung and she pressed her hand between her legs: she felt her own heat and heard Mrs Pall-Meyer spit. Mrs Pall-Meyer had paused, as had all the riders, at the incline.
‘How long have you been riding?’ Mrs Pall-Meyer asked.
‘Oh,’ Arden, said, shifting in the saddle, ‘all my life, but not a lot.’
Mrs Pall-Meyer, the name suggesting a hyphenated importance, merely snorted and rode ahead.
The trail turned narrower, rougher, stonier although the redheaded wrangler – Red, for his hair – might have been asleep, so little did the ride’s danger impress him. How many times had he led folks up this route?
‘Over five thousand acres gives a guy a lot of different ways to go,’ he answered. ‘You’d be surprised.’
Mrs Pall-Meyer said, ‘If I had something to ride on.’ In this way, she simply went on talking to herself, making tough, irritated pickax sounds with words like crap, drink, think. For all the advantages she must have had, Mrs Pall-Meyer was a coarse woman. She had made herself known in the morning, talking at the young Asbach boy, Ben, ‘My friends are dead. My sister is demented. I’m the last of my line, but I bet you’ve got a lot of friends.’ Oh, the nuisance of them all was what the old woman meant to say in her supercilious voice.
Arden had looked on at how Mrs Pall-Meyer befuddled the boy and made him blush. Ben Asbach of the Asbachs – ‘There are eight of us here,’ said the matriarch merrily. A granddaughter – slight as straw – called Mrs Asbach Nana.
What names, if any, had others at the ranch assigned her? – Arden, Arden Fawn. Was she the fat lady, the dull lady, the shy lady – hair color as uncertain as her age? Arden had a pretty face, of this much she was certain, which made it all the sadder, the weight. She hoped for her horse’s sake she would soon reach the summit.
There, Red said they could get off their horses and stretch their legs. But Arden had no intention of stretching her legs. If she got off her horse, she would never get on again. Besides, she could see just as well from on top of her horse, and her back wouldn’t hurt if Doc held still. The riding itself, walking, walking especially and however precariously, was easiest on her back. No loping, please! They rode up the mountain, slowly and close, and her thoughts were the same and body-centered until they all stopped at the summit. The sturdy banker loudly huffed off his horse and landed hard; his wife tiptoed lightly – all grace. And Arden?
‘You sure?’ Red asked, ready to help. ‘I’m fine,’ she said. ‘No, I’ll stay on.’
So Red adjusted her saddle, pulled it more to his side, asked after Doc.
‘He’s a good boy,’ Arden said and wondered was Red a good boy or did he fuck sheep? Arden liked to appall herself with her own appalling thoughts. She liked a little fright in the middle of small exchanges – the selfmanufactured fright from thinking she was overheard. The dentist’s wife, who rode near and behind Red, asked him about the drought with an informed interest in its effects on the region’s wildlife.
Arden regarded the dentist’s wife, talking about water tables. Maybe in some states this was called flirting but the pity of it: a late-life romance as brief as a paper match, a piff of heat but no flame really, a glow quickly extinguished.
The dentist himself winked at Arden. ‘Not going to get off and stretch your legs?’ he asked.
‘Never. I couldn’t. How would I get on again?’ The dentist, smiling, said, ‘There’s lots of ways.’
The dentist was a small man darkly outlined by his specialty, a dentist for expensive and serious procedures to do with reconstruction – think of the bright pan with its sharp slender instruments – she did and was afraid of what this dentist would do inside her mouth. His jeans looked new and his shirt was very white, unwrinkled, snap-buttons, western. She watched him move to a higher point and a different perspective.
Oh, hell, strike the match of romance, who cares if it’s short? Why else had she come to the Double-D? Should she say the weather, the birdlife, the desert in bloom? No one had mentioned a drought. Scant birdlife this season, no color, but hovering just behind Arden was Mrs Pall-Meyer. Mrs Pall-Meyer, an imperious crone with a pointy face that jabbed, Mrs Pall-Meyer stood for something, but for what? Oh, the obvious, death or the future.
There, leaning against a rock and eating ranch granola was the little Asbach girl, rapt with her story’s unspooling. Her lips moved and she smiled to herself, frowned, pouted, then smiled again. Arden guessed she was ten or eleven, a cozy year, fifth grade, but what was her story about? What could she be saying?
Movement now. The others in the group were getting on their horses again. Only Mrs Pall-Meyer did not. She was protesting about her horse.
‘Want some help?’ Red asked.
‘What do you think?’ Mrs Pall-Meyer, with one foot in Red’s hands, said, ‘I hate having to ride a dull horse.’ She tipped a little trying to look at Red as she talked, unsteady, so that he lifted her until she swung her crooked body over the beast she dismissed as a plodder. She didn’t say thank you, just tocked in the saddle to make herself comfortable. It occurred to Arden that Mrs Pall-Meyer might be drunk.
Red took the lead and the party stayed together, the horses picked their way, butt-close, along a ledge. Steep, narrow, white, the ledge was dramatic and Arden held her breath. No one spoke; quiet but for the clocking noise of the horses, their gassy sighs and shivers. Stones popped and the trail noise sounded serious – just as in the cowboy movies: after the shoot-out comes the slow descent, hints of danger and exhaustion. The palomino stumbled and some of the ledge fell away.
‘We are going down, aren’t we?’ Arden asked, anxious.
Mrs Pall-Meyer snorted.
Okay, the question was stupid but the riding was more rocking from side to side than moving forward. Lean back had been the instruction for going downhill, and dutifully Arden did – had – even though the small of her back ached and she was afraid of her horse.
The old woman, suddenly seeming close, sneered, ‘He knows what he’s doing.’
‘I hope so.’
‘You’ve really no business on this ride.’
‘I don’t,’ Arden said. ‘I don’t know,’ she began but she didn’t want to turn around to address the old woman, riding last again. She was tearful enough as it was – her back ached – and to see Mrs Pall-Meyer’s disdain would surely make her cry. She said no more and the repetitive sound of striking hooves stupefied her and when she woke the trail had begun to level off to a more inviting path, soft, quiet, broad. She kicked Doc into a bumpy trot that didn’t last long though it put more space between her and Mrs Pall-Meyer, Mrs Pall-Meyer now far behind until Red shouted out: ‘ Mrs Pall-Meyer!’
Why did he?
But Mrs Pall-Meyer didn’t respond.
‘What can I . . .’ from Red, inconclusive, and so through fluff adrift they rode in a meditative quiet. The banker had spread his life around miles ago. And Red wasn’t much of a talker. Now the stables were in sight. There was the pasture where the ranch horses socialized; there, the barn, the tack room, the ring. The ranch, on a hill, Arden couldn’t see any part of, but the corral was miraculously close.
She barely heard Red say ‘Shit!’ before he jerked his horse around and rode full out to where Mrs PallMeyer was turned upside down. Her foot, twisted, was caught in the stirrup; most of her lay on the ground. Her horse stood still, unmoved by crisis. What sound was this that Mrs Pall-Meyer was making, but it was familiar.
A small truck, its trunk down, banged alongside the fence, stopped at the gate, and another wrangler from another direction came out to herd Arden’s group into the corral. The banker frisked home, and the dentist’s wife and the dentist followed. The Asbachs, grandmother and granddaughter, were already dismounting. ‘Don’t look,’ the grandmother was saying. Arden saw the fluid ten-year shape slide off her horse and canter on her own once her boots hit the ground. Turn away, little girl, turn away from the future, and she did.
The day when everything would begin was upon her. They’d decided to meet at noon at the Djurgård ferry. Anticipation made it difficult for Ester to swallow. In her apartment, which she’d lived in for five years yet still hadn’t furnished properly because she’d always been about to leave, hindered only by the fact that she didn’t have anywhere to go, she spent the morning putting fresh sheets on the bed and, on the kitchen table, an oilcloth from the Ten Swedish Designers group which she’d bought the day before on Götgatan. Further down the hill, she’d found three beautiful art deco lamps which were now on the windowsills. It was late November and forever dark. Ester counted on being able to light them for Olof in the afternoon.
At the stroke of twelve she was on the quay, waiting in the grey mist. It was one of those days when nothing seemed to be moving, all was still. Olof was fifteen minutes late. Ester was determined not to mention the delay, but saw that his movements were tinged with unease. Perhaps he was gripped by the thought of all that lay before him; this was a big step to take.
Upon arrival the first thing he said was that they didn’t have to go all the way to Blå Porten, they could go to a simpler lunch spot nearby in Old Town so it wouldn’t take as long. Faced with Ester’s silent but apparent dismay, he changed his mind and they bought their ferry tickets. They were practically alone on the crossing to Djurgården and during those few minutes Olof mentioned his wife several times. When he noticed it was getting Ester down and causing her to disengage, he stopped calling the wife by name, but it continued to weigh on her during the short walk from the ferry to the restaurant through drifts of maple leaves.
It was a Thursday and the wait at Blå Porten was unusually short. They ordered fried herring with mashed potatoes and lingonberries and sat at a table in the middle of the restaurant, where they couldn’t be overheard. Olof was holding his cutlery straight up, ready to tuck in, but not quite, not before he said what he had to say. He looked at her. Their food had a greasy shine. He seemed to be gearing up for something. And as he did, Ester had the time to think that the way he was holding his cutlery was childlike and charming. Then all thoughts of charm ceased. He was speaking with a confidence that stemmed from practised courage:
‘I think you’ve pulled a Pygmalion.’
Ester didn’t understand, but knew it was a dig. She went numb, silent, still and cold. This compelled Olof to clarify:
‘You’ve fallen in love with a character of your own creation.’
She was deeply disheartened by the suggestion that she was unable to keep track of herself and her feelings.
‘You wrote that play and liked what I did with the role. Most of all you liked the role. You fell in love with your own character.’
From inside her vacuum Ester noted that it took a not altogether attractive arrogance to suggest she liked what he’d done with the role. Although she’d often praised his performance that autumn, it didn’t mean that praise was based in fact and should be repeated as fact. There were reasons unrelated to fact for praise and criticism.
‘Why would I do something as strange as falling for a character I wrote? The role you played wasn’t even particularly sympathetic.’
‘You know “Pygmalion”?’ Olof asked.
‘I’ve read Shaw’s play, yes.’
‘I mean the Pygmalion myth. The Greek one. About the man who made a sculpture and fell in love with the sculpture.’
‘So you don’t think my feelings have anything to do with you?’
‘They have very little to do with me.’
Olof began eating with delight unbefitting the situation. He had fulfilled his task and was now in better spirits. His lateness and the frequent mentions of his wife during the crossing, as well as his discordant arrival, were thereby explained. The weight had been lifted from Olof’s shoulders and placed on Ester’s.
‘Is it good?’ he asked her.
‘No. I’ve lost my appetite.’
‘My, what a shame.’
Olof thought for a moment and said:
‘I’m thinking we should meet up now and again in the future and see what happens. Decisions don’t always have to be made right away.’
Not again, Ester thought, never again, I’m going to get right up and go.
She stayed put and finished her meal. Soon they were walking from Djurgården towards the city along Strandvägen, arm-in-arm on Olof’s initiative. In line with Grevgatan, Ester stopped and embraced him, and he reciprocated, while saying he shouldn’t be doing this. They were approaching Dramaten National Theatre, their bodies close, when Olof stated:
‘Leaving my wife isn’t on the cards.’
This was exactly what married people said when someone else had shaken their foundations, Ester thought. When people felt an intense desire, they might insist otherwise. The trick was knowing when they meant what they were saying and were saying it to be clear and honourable, and when they meant the opposite. The question demanded a far-reaching and risky act of interpretation, work to which Ester was always willing to subject herself.
If Ester had taken him at his word here, she would have been spared considerable time and effort, likewise she would have missed out on many wondrous moments. Ester had a girlfriend called Lotta who often asserted that one should ‘Take people at their word. It’s simpler and more practical. Don’t interpret. Assume they mean what they say.’ Lotta was cautious and clever, but Ester believed that hardly anything would come of a budding romance if you were cautious, clever, and took people at their word because it was then that language was used deceptively in order to avoid making difficult decisions and to evade love. People feared love, as she’d read in the works of the great bards, because it bears the germ of supreme delight and so too the germ of the gravest losses.
Olof and Ester crossed Raoul Wallenberg Square with its scattered sculpture group. Ester said she liked it and spoke of the controversy the choice of work had caused in the 1990s. They agreed on the life-affirming quality of a work that is able to offend through form alone, and that this often happened when the form, as here, was its content.
‘The artist must have thought Wallenberg had become a monument in himself,’ Ester said, ‘and so he didn’t want the monument for him to be monumental.’
Olof asked how she had the energy to have ideas about everything all the time. She could tell that the question wasn’t a question at all, but a poison dart, if shot with a smile. She didn’t like that he wanted to shoot such things at her and answered dryly that it came naturally to her and was how she earned her living, she had to have the energy. It wasn’t any more unusual than him making a living by becoming someone else and having to summon the energy for that time and time again, night after night.
‘Which is a rather strange occupation,’ he said.
‘Acting: such a strange profession. It’s not really for me. For long stretches in my life, I’ve done other things, had respectable jobs, and actually, I’ve always wanted to get away from it.’
He gripped her arm a little tighter so she would move even closer to him. She was of a mind to ask if he should really be taking her arm, for there was a risk she would begin to perceive a chasm between his words and his actions and would place her trust in actions. But because she wanted him to hold her arm, she held her tongue.
They walked along Arsenalsgatan towards Kungsträdgården Park. Plenty of people, most in suits and dresses, were on the move. When they’d made it over the crossing at Kungsträdgårdsgatan Olof said that conversing with Ester was remarkably fun and stimulating, it was like talking to a man. Ester searched his face for something that would dignify such cruel words. Olof’s world couldn’t possibly be so banal as to have been entirely lacking in interesting conversations with women. It attested to something deficient in his relations with his wife, which was good, but also to a deficiency in perspective.
‘Is this some sort of Aristotelian deduction?’
‘Everyone with whom you can have an exciting conversation is a man. I can have an exciting conversation with Ester Nilsson, therefore Ester Nilsson is a man.’
‘I’m afraid that’s how I’ve been conditioned, even though it sounds skewed when put so plainly.’
‘You need to do something about that. With me, you could have the whole package.’
This bold act of courtship seemed to delight him. It was two thirty. Olof had made sure to be otherwise engaged at three. The first thing he’d said when they’d met at quarter past twelve was:
‘I don’t have all day.’
Ester had thought they had all day as well as the rest of their lives now that they’d finally had the chance to see each other properly, and this is precisely what he sensed and wished to stave off, that much was clear. The boundary to intimacy is asserted by industry. Scheduling an appointment after a date was the best fortification against the person who always wanted more.
But when they’d reached Tegelbacken, he was more relaxed about this scheduled meeting. Rolling in from the town hall, the bus was under the viaduct when he took Ester’s hand and said:
‘Should I catch the next one instead?’
‘I don’t know. Should you?’
Ester just wanted to go home and get on with dying. Today’s conversation had to mean farewell. She had no interest in meeting up ‘now and again in the future’ and seeing ‘what happens’. The bus came and went. Olof stayed at the bus stop and ran his stubble across her cheek, his lips searched for her closed mouth.
‘Talking to you is so much fun.’
As their ‘talking’ had just been defined in opposition to erotic love, these words did not sit well with Ester. He gave her a peck on the lips and took the next bus to Södermalm. Walking home along Vasagatan, Kungsbron and Fleminggatan up towards Fridhemsplan, Ester felt weary. It wasn’t the scenic route. Though it would have been shorter from Tegelbacken, she didn’t take the picturesque walk along the Karlberg Canal or Hantverkargatan. She didn’t want to see anything beautiful today, not even beauty nestled in a sodden-grey November.
As she walked, she thought her problem was that she always pawned her life’s meaning for the man she’d chosen. As long as he existed, everything else was cast in shadow. It was never a question of a diffuse and tempered searchlight, no, she directed her slim, harsh light beam with appalling precision only to burn a hole in the object with the full destructive power of her longing.
Now the light had to be put out. Olof didn’t want the same thing she did. Deliberating by the bus and pressing his lips to hers in parting were nothing to cling to. She must not let herself begin the process of interpretation. This was only fleeting lust and a result of his fear of losing the attention of a lover. That which disappears can’t help but seem a little attractive once it has loosed its grip on you.
Olof had given her a clear answer. Ester accepted it.
‘The garden dies with the gardener’ was what Owen had said, but when, years later, he died, she faced the garden with a will to keep it alive – as who would not? But the twins urged her to sell. They thought it would be wise to move out of the house (for too long too large) and into Wax Hill with its assisted care conveniences and attached hospital: Wax Hill that short line to the furnace and the thoroughfare. She had carried Owen’s chalky bones in a bag. She had tossed him into every part of the garden. How could she sell the house when from every window in the house – and there were lots of windows – she could see some part of him, Owen, her well-named spirit with meaty gardener’s hands and other contradictions. He liked the slow and melancholy; he listened to Saint Matthew’s Passion long after Easter. But God? He didn’t believe. Young once, he saw himself alone when he was old with just a daughter. He left behind two, not of his own making but full of reverence for him, nonetheless. He was a schoolteacher and the luggage-colored oak leaves signaled his season, but it had come around so fast. He had had nuns for cousins – nuns! Sisters of Charity, how queer they seemed now; their menace, vanished. Mustachioed Agnes Gertrude and arthritic Mary Agnes, they had taught at the Mount for forty-odd years, wimpled and sudden, full of authority. She said, ‘I haven’t seen a nun in such a long, long time.’ The twins, on conference call, were hard to tell apart except when they laughed. She didn’t have a lot to say and lapsed into what the weather was doing.
Today snow, the second snowstorm of the new year – and Owen once in it. She could see him, lopsided, clowny, a scarf around his head. Blizzardy weather was wonderful to walk in.
‘Oh, Mother,’ from the twins when she cried. Overly dramatic. Yes, she knew she was being, but she missed him. The wide road he had offered her each morning, saying, ‘What’s on your agenda?’ Now that wide road had all the charm of a freeway.
‘Take a walk,’ the twins said, ‘if it’s snowing.’ Inward would be a nice word for what she was, self-absorbed would be more accurate.
‘I know the country is at war,’ she said; nevertheless, she missed him. ‘Besides, when I look at the larger world, I cry almost as much.’
But Owen, his voice, the sound of him in another room. Off-key hummer, cracking nuts over the paper, singing or whistling a patter song. A Gilbert and Sullivan tune twiddled for days: ‘The lady novelist . . . she surely won’t be missed.’ Whatever he thought to play or heard was his favorite G and S. ‘I’ve got a little list . . . she surely won’t be missed.’
Some nights now she plunged into working, but some mornings vodka was preferred. She had to admit it – to herself but not to the twins.
She told them, ‘I have started a sestina.’ She said she was inspired by Elizabeth Bishop’s sestina, and she was using two of the same words. ‘ “Time to plant tears,” was what moved me.’
‘Sestinas are difficult,’ the twins said. Her educated daughters, they knew, they had tried. ‘In high school, Mother. Remember Miss Byrd?’
‘Oh, Miss Byrd!’ And they had a rare good laugh, the three of them, she and the twins, remembering the ethereal teacher, giddy and overworked and walking into walls. The twins laughed about Miss Byrd getting lost in the mall on the Boston trip. The twins were laughing and she was laughing a little, too, when the sight of the old dog asleep alarmed her. And all of a sudden, in the whiplash moodiness of bygone youth, she was mad at Owen. Damn him. ‘There’s no pleasure to be had in discipline and restraint,’ she said to the twins; ‘that’s what a fucking sestina is all about,’ and so the pleasure of laughing was over.
‘Why, Mother?’ one voice.
The other said, ‘You’ve been drinking.’
She said, ‘I don’t have to defend myself.’ Besides, she explained the drinking was a problem only if she drove, ‘and I don’t.’ She stayed at the table or slept in the big chair and no one need worry. She might die there – no mess.
‘All I am saying is you can’t have much of an accident if you sit somewhere with a drink.’
‘You have to get up for the bottle.’ Only Clarissa would say that. Here was the difference between her girls: one was meaner than the other.
‘I bring the bottle to the table.’
‘Great, Mother. That’s just great. Now do you see why we don’t want to call?’
‘Then don’t. Leave me alone.’ And she hung up the phone and almost kicked at the dog, but she refrained. The dog was her friend. Owen’s dog, Pink. ‘Poor old Pink,’ she said, ‘you scared the shit out of me,’ and she leaned out to pat a shapeless pile of fuzz and spoke nonsense to it. Pink, adopted, a miniature mix of something abandoned and abused. Pink was hairless at the start. ‘Look at you now, you little dustcloth, baby Pink, old sweetie. I wouldn’t hurt you. You’re my pal.’
‘I’m on the move today,’ she said, but the dog lay unperturbed, sure she would come back.
A snowstorm, a thaw, a brilliant sun, snow, freezing temperatures, snow, then better, warmer, promising weather arrived, and she looked back at Pink and then to the rake and the garden where the wet, mahogany islands of leaves, submerged for months in snow, now floated. All the snow pelted away by a rain the night before and only a mist this morning, something more than fog. She liked to work in it. She thought of Owen’s hair – water-beaded and in the sun brightly netted. She raked and thought if only the twins could see. If they could live with the garden the way she did. Covered or uncovered, leafed or bare, the garden was restorative in any season. The persistent mist was turning into rain. March, late March. Somebody’s birthday – whose?
She abandoned Pink to the mud. She raked the beds; she swept the pavers. ‘Dirty girl!’ she said when the dog wobbled toward her. Why had she even taken the poor mutt out? The dog trembled and squeaked.
The six words in her sestina are: garden, widow, husband, dog, almanac, tears. ‘The envoy is an oncoming train.’ She said, ‘Restrain the wild element of mourning or what you get is sentimentality.’
The twins, she should listen to them, sell, move, secure what there was to secure for them. Poor girls, in the disarray of single life, the yap, yap, yap of the dryer at the laundromat beating up their tired clothes.
Few single men where they lived, and the best of them gay.
The rain was cold but she let herself get wet the way Owen did until she was soaked.
In the kitchen again she lit up the stove and watched the rain wash the garden into its outline. Green spikes stippled the beds she had raked, and the cropped crowns of established plants, the wheat-colored stalks of hydrangea, poked out polished in a design of circles mostly. If her daughters could only see.
How is it possible that in caring for the garden she could miss summer? How is it possible, but she did.
Up at four and again at five, and at five-thirty up for good. Pink was awake; she heard the dog tick against the bare floor, circling the bed. ‘Good morning,’ she said, and she went on talking to Pink as she carried the dog down the stairs and to the paper. ‘Because it’s too cold outside, isn’t it, Pinkie? I’m not going to do what I did yesterday. Too cold and wet this morning.’ She saw forty-five on the thermometer. The radio said it was colder. She got water, aspirin, more water. She put on deodorant, then went back to bed. For how long? Who cared? She was up again besides. She washed her hair and dried it in the heat of the open oven.
Once she had thought it would be hard to let go of life, but it will not be so hard.
She read; she wrote; she must have had lunch but she could not remember. The scenes that blew past came out in bands of color. The wispy complication of bare branches was added magic; the shadows were dark and sure. She put Owen in her poem, Owen or the shape of him, on the deck in his coat and pom-pom hat, a passenger on a steamer, a blanket over his legs, heavy sweater, scarf – the silly hat. The garden beyond him she turned into straw.
Why did she lie to the twins? Why, when they called, did she say, ‘I am not drinking. I am working’? Why didn’t she tell them, ‘I’m doing both’? The brief hello of summer and its long, long goodbye. Great piles of death she hauled to the woods to the deadpile and tossed. Farewell to the flowers of summer, plume poppy and vernonia. Turk’s-cap lilies, delicate as paper lanterns at the height of their glowing, goodbye.
‘Anytime you care to look,’ Owen said, whenever he caught her watching his quick strip at the back door. She liked to look at his secreted machinery from behind when he bent over or stood one-legged getting out of his shorts. There it was, the long, dark purse of him asway. The head of his cock was the color of putty. Its expression was aloof most of the time, a self-satisfied indifference. When he was seated in some other ablution, the head of his cock was rosy and large and also arousing. All she ever had to do was ask when what she liked to do was look.
‘It’s yours,’ he said, and with a flourish held out the bouquet of himself; ‘be my guest.’
Overnight, age seemed to happen to him, then a few years of ifs, poorer health, medication.
‘Don’t talk of moving just yet, please,’ she told the twins. ‘Not tonight.’ Why, except for loneliness, did she answer the phone? (Owen at the long table, saying to the ringing phone, ‘Go away, people. Leave us alone,’ and people pretty much did.) To get off the phone she used the excuse of Pink somewhere sick. The odd thing was when she did hang up, she found Pink in the closet, sick.
‘Poor baby,’ she said. ‘Old age,’ said the vet.
He gave Pink pills that worked to ward off motion sickness which sometimes happened to old pets, despite their stationary lives. ‘She will sleep a little bit more.’ ‘A good night’s sleep,’ she said. ‘Wouldn’t that be nice?’
They talked a little, she and the old vet, for he, too, was old. They talked about Owen, or she did, and he asked, ‘Have you looked for any groups?’ On the drive home in the rain, she cried and she couldn’t see to drive and had to pull over. ‘Fucking old vet!’ She put her face in her hands and cried. She petted Pink and cooed, saying, ‘We won’t go back there again, will we, Pinkie? No, no. But you feel better already, don’t you?’ The little dog was a dust ball; just petting Pink made her feel awful. ‘Do I have to outlive everybody?’
‘Yes, yes, yes, no,’ she said. ‘The lily of the valley is up.’ She said, ‘Yes, it was two years ago today.’
‘We wanted you to know, we’re thinking about you,’ the twins said, and the girls called again later just to see how she was. ‘How are you, Mommy?’ they asked in maternal voices.
‘The lily of the valley is up,’ she said.
May, his birthday month and hers, when she and Owen quietly celebrated with nothing more than mild surprise. He was given to saying, ‘I think I’m going to see another spring,’ And he did – just.
Of course, his heart, what else?
Now the oppressive immovable quality of objects wore her out.
Whatever was not in front of her she meant to remember. His shapely head, his small red ears, his hair.
‘You’ve been drinking. We can tell.’ ‘We knew you would.’
‘So why act so surprised?’ She hung up the phone and saw the fucking dog peeing on the floor in front of her. Little fucker!
They had not had enough time, she and Owen. ‘I’m no such thing,’ she said to the twins.
Another night, ‘I’m tired.’ Another, ‘I’m old is what it is.’
Owen had said that in the garden she would rediscover childhood, but those childhood experiences she remembered were mostly dreadful. She took her nose out of the flower, and her cousin, seeing her, laughed. ‘Your nose!’ The red was hard to get off as were grass stains on her knees and elbows. Childhood in the garden. The garden was not genteel. The garden was full of thugs, and Owen had shown her some. The Duchess of Albany was not a thug, but a racer on a brittle stem, a clematis with deep pink upside-down bells, deceptively frail and well-bred, small, timorous bells. The Duchess of Albany was a favorite of hers: how could she sell the house to someone who might kill the Duchess in the earthmoving business of house improvement?
‘The men came, yes,’ she said to her daughters. ‘But they have such big feet!’ she said. ‘They can’t help it, I know.’
‘Mommy!’ the twins said. ‘We’re only trying to help.’ So was she. Hadn’t she consented to the ugly tub?
That ugly tub with the roughed bottom and the grips.
Her children have not visited in years.
‘Oh, Mother,’ they say, ‘what are you talking about?’
She took her own safety precautions and moved her bedroom, such as it was, downstairs to the sunporch. On the sunporch in the sofa she was not afraid to fall asleep.
What made Pink nest in corners? ‘What do you think is the matter?’ she asked.
‘Pink’s old, Mommy.’
‘The dog’s ancient. Take her to the vet.’
‘Oh, God,’ she said. Going to the old vet frightened her as much as it did the dog. ‘Oh, God,’ she said. She felt so bogged down and muddled.
‘You’re drunk is what you are’: from the meanest? ‘Oh God,’ she said. ‘I don’t want to find a stiff dog under the desk. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t.’ She cried and the twins consoled her.
‘Mommy, why don’t you crawl into your cream puff and go to sleep for a while?’
‘You and the dog have a snooze.’
She said, ‘I think I will.’ She said, ‘Pink doesn’t realize I have mixed feelings about her.’
She had found him in an odd posture tipped against the shed. The hose was squiggled over half the garden, and elsewhere were two full buckets, a shovel, a rake.
How she had wished, for his sake, Owen had put away the tools and coiled the hose and achieved a perfect death although the twins yelled at her for saying such a thing. But the morning after he died, the terrible morning after, repeats so many times a day: she woke up, dressed, walked downstairs, made her gritty breakfast drink, and took her tea outside. Then she saw it, the grain bin, where he kept his garden clothes, and she fell to her knees and cried. Up to that moment, she had sipped at her tea and believed he was alive and already in the garden and muddy.
The permanence of his absence is a noise she hears when she listens to how quiet. How he did and he did and he did for her.
‘Can I be of any help?’ Always he asked this, ‘Do you want anything? Can I get you anything?’
She thought it was summer still if not spring but the day’s evidence said it was fall. Again!
‘When was the last time you were outside, Mommy?’ ‘I’m taking care of the garden.’ She told them her nose was in it, brushing against the staining anthers, freakishly marked, a bald animal, she, a stiff, kinked dog, not unlike the dog she owned. Pink. Pink, what was the matter with that dog? After she got off the phone, she caught her in the act and pulled her away, made her stop, put Pink out of doors – like that – then wiped up after her. She brought Pink inside and carried Pink to her bed in the kitchen and talked to her. But even as she apologized for the choke hold, a part of her wished Pink dead and another part feared her dying, and she took Pink upstairs and bathed her in the new tub. Her pink skin was so pink she looked scalded. She was thin; Pink shivered though she was gentle and the water was warm. She dried Pink with her own soft towel and when the dog was dried and happy and at ease, she swaddled and rocked Pink. She was so pitifully thin. She put the little dog in her cream puff and said, ‘I’m getting into mine.’
‘You couldn’t make it up’, people keep saying, watching news bulletins flash across screens. The political world seems to be turning into fiction, with unexpectedly dramatic and bewildering plots and subplots. By contrast, in this issue of Granta we try to disentangle theatre and politics, and remember that acts have consequences, and that those consequences, while not always predictable, are rarely surprising.
In ‘Days of Awe’, A.M. Homes considers questions of desire and authorial legitimacy with her trademark humour and insight ‒ her main protagonist has written a novel about the multi-generational effects of Holocaust trauma, and is attending a conference on genocide. The delicate question of who owns the story of the Shoah is woven into satire. Homes is so good on popular culture, ranging from conference questions to corporate sponsorship (sometimes getting happy should be simple reads the slogan on a chocolate bar wrapper advertising antidepressants). Gerda Hoff, an elderly Holocaust survivor, confronts the nameless novelist. ‘You want to know what I like?’ she says. ‘Chocolate ice cream. That’s something to live for. Your book, a shaynem dank dir im pupik. I lived it, I don’t have to read it.’
A shaynem dank dir im pupik: Yiddish for ‘many thanks to your belly button’, or: thanks for nothing.
Joshua Cohen’s surreal story ‘Mall Camp, Seasons 1 & 2’ shows a Syrian boy mapping his lost cultural logic onto the crumbling colour-coded edifice of his new world; a closed refugee camp located in an unfinished shopping mall in Greece. This too is a story about the aftermath of violence, but in this case the trauma is so recent that its discourse and even its language is as yet unformed.
In this issue we are publishing Malaysian-Chinese author Ho Sok Fong for the first time in English. Her short story is about teaching in the context of censorship and conservative Islamic forces. Staff at the school are let go for slight indiscretions or infringements of the rules and disappear quietly into other lives. The story has an eerie, almost dystopian, quality ‒ the acts are subtle; the consequences fundamental and inescapable.
We commissioned Russian author Sana Valiulina to write a memoir piece about her father, who was a Gulag prisoner. ‘Root and Branch’, written in dense and lyrical prose, translated by Polly Gannon, describes a tour of Perm, stopping to see sights including a derelict prison camp and museum. Valiulina’s father was captured by the Nazis in 1942, and transferred to a British POW camp after the war, from which he was deported to the Soviet Union. I have read many descriptions of the Gulag from the Soviet era, but this is a contemporary view, a landscape dotted with new churches and billboards of Christian messages, where the memory of the huge punitive machinery of the camps is discouraged or even repressed. What is left? Barbed wire and timber huts, gradually sinking into the Earth.
We also commissioned reporter Charles Glass and the eminent photographer Don McCullin to travel to Palmyra in Syria. In 2015 ISIS troops murdered Khaled Assa’ad, archaeologist and Palmyra’s head of antiquities, and ravaged the ruins. The question is the same: what is left now? Some of the ruins are still standing, but much has been destroyed. The most poignant description, perhaps, is of the silence in Tadmor, the town outside Palmyra. Before the war it had a population of some 70,000 people. Last autumn, barely a hundred people remained.
We have two reports from Britain in this issue. Jason Cowley, a former editor of Granta who now edits the New Statesman, returns to his home town of Harlow to investigate the death of Polish immigrant Arkadiusz Jozwik. On the night of 27 August 2016, a group of teenagers came across Jozwik and some friends who were eating pizza from a local takeaway. Insults were traded and Jozwik was punched, fell, and hit his head. He later died in hospital. It’s a simple and tragic story, but in the context of Brexit the narrative mutated until it was cited as evidence of English anti-European discrimination and hatred. Essex police were the first to suggest this: the death was a potential hate crime, they said. The Polish president wrote to religious leaders urging them to help prevent xenophobic attacks; the ambassador was taken on a tour of Harlow, and, astonishingly, Polish police officers were sent to patrol the area.
Our second report is from London. There are not many independent shops left on British high streets. Their disappearance is not a mystery – high business rates and rents, and competition from chains, have forced them out. The only shops exempt from punitive rates are charity shops, which is partly why they have become such a significant (and somewhat depressing) feature of our towns. Councils could create more subtle and dynamic policies that would make for more diversity on our high streets – as it is we are stuck with shops that are generic and dull, a race to the bottom in terms of town planning. David Flusfeder visits some of the most unique shops that remain in London, but his narrative is not just about the shops – it’s also about the people who own and run them. He notes their expertise; their ability to measure you up with a glance, see what you are made of. It’s a portrait of old London, fragments of which still persist, despite everything.
Finally, we are publishing a series of Edward Burtynsky’s extraordinary photographs of scarred landscapes. Various forms of development have spread like a disease on the skin of the Earth. ‘Burtynsky shows us suburbia pressed against wetlands, supertanker graveyards in Bangladesh and parking lots so big they challenge comprehension,’ Anthony Doerr writes in his introduction to the photoessay. ‘His best photographs are expressionistic, almost calligraphic, as though he’s displaying the hidden signatures our collective appetites have etched across the Earth. They are startling, frozen pictures, sometimes remote, sometimes intimate, sometimes both at the same time.’
‘Look at this, the pictures say. See this. This is happening. This is where you live.’
He is the War Correspondent, she is the Transgressive Novelist. They have been flown in for the summit on Genocide(S). She spots him at the airport baggage claim and nods in the direction of a student holding up a legal pad with his name written on it in heavy black marker – misspelled.
‘Want to share my ride?’ he asks.
Caught off guard, she shakes her head no.
She doesn’t want anyone picking her up, doesn’t want the obligation to entertain the young student/fan/retired teacher/part-time real-estate broker for the forty-five minutes it takes to get where they’re going.
Every time she says yes to these things – conferences, readings, guest lectures – it’s because she hasn’t learned to say no. And she has the misguided fantasy that time away from home will allow her to think, to get something done. She has brought work with her: the short story she can’t crack, the novel she’s supposed to finish, the friend’s book that needs a blurb, last Sunday’s newspaper . . .
‘Nice to see you,’ the man at the car-rental place says, even though they’ve never met. He gives her the keys to a car with New Hampshire plates, live free or die. She drives north toward the small college town where experts in torture politics, murder, along with neuroscientists, academics, survivors, and a few ‘special guests’ will convene in what’s become an ongoing attempt to make sense of it all, as though such a thing were possible.
The town has climbed out of a depression by branding itself, ‘America’s Hometown’. Flags fly from the lampposts. Signs announce the autumn harvest celebration, a film festival, and a chamber-music series at the Presbyterian church.
She parks behind the conference center and slips in through the employee entrance and down the long hall to a door marked this way to lobby.
On the wall is a full-length mirror with a handwritten message on the glass: check your smile and ask yourself, am i ready to serve?
The War Correspondent comes through the hotel’s front door at the same time as she slides in through the unmarked door by the registration desk.
‘Funny seeing you here,’ he says.
He stands at the reception desk. The thick curls that he long ago kept short are receding; in compensation they’re longer and more unruly.
He makes her uncomfortable, uncharacteristically shy.
She wonders how he looks so good. She glances down. Her linen blouse is heavily wrinkled, while his shirt is barely creased.
The receptionist hands him an important-looking envelope from FedEx.
She’s given a heavily taped brown box and a copy of the conference schedule.
‘What did you get?’ she asks as he’s opening the FedEx.
‘Galleys of a magazine piece,’ he says. ‘You?’
She shakes the box. ‘Cracker Jacks?’
She glances down at the schedule. ‘We’re back-to-back at the opening ceremonies.’
‘What time is the first event?’
‘Twelve thirty.’ She thinks of these things as marathons; pacing is everything. ‘You’ve got an hour.’
‘I was hoping to take a shower,’ he says.
‘Your room’s not quite ready,’ the receptionist tells him.
‘Did you fly in from a war zone?’ she asks.
‘Washington,’ he says. ‘There was a Press Club dinner last night, and I was in Geneva the day before, and before that the war.’
‘Quite a slide from there to here,’ she says.
‘Not really,’ he says. ‘No matter how nice the china, it’s still a rubber chicken.’
The receptionist clicks the keys until she locates a room that’s ready. ‘I found you a lovely room. You’ll be very happy.’ She hands him the key card. ‘You’re both on the executive floor.’
‘Dibs on the cheese cubes,’ he says.
She knew him long ago before either of them had become anyone. They were part of a group, fresh out of college, working in publishing, that met regularly at a bar. He was deeply serious, a permanently furrowed brow, and he was married – that was the funny thing, and they all talked about it behind his back. Who was married at twenty-three? No one ever saw the wife – that’s what they called her. Even now she doesn’t know the woman’s name.
An older man approaches the War Correspondent. ‘Very big fan,’ the man says, resting his hand on the Correspondent’s shoulder. ‘I have a story for you about a trip my wife and I went on.’ He pauses, clears his throat. ‘We were in Germany and decided to visit the camps. When we got to our hotel, I asked, “How do we get there?” They tell us take a train and then a bus, and when you arrive, there will be someone there to lead you. We go, it’s terrifying; all I can think of as the train goes clackety-clack is that these are the same rails that took my family away. We get to the camp, there’s a cafe and a bookstore selling postcards – we don’t know what to think. And when we get back to the hotel, the young German girl at the front desk looks at us with a big smile and says, “Did you enjoy your visit to Dachau?” Do we laugh or cry?’ The man pauses. ‘So what do you think?’
The War Correspondent nods. ‘It’s hard to know, isn’t it?’
‘We did both,’ the man says. ‘We laughed, we cried, and we’re never going back.’
The Correspondent catches her eye and smiles. There are delightful creases by his eyes that weren’t there years ago.
She’s annoyed. Why is his smile so quick, so perfect?
As she moves toward the elevator, a conference volunteer catches her arm. ‘Don’t forget your welcome bag.’ The volunteer hands her a canvas tote, laden with genocide swag.
She goes straight to her room, puts the do not disturb sign on the door, and locks it. What is his room like? Is it the same size, one window overlooking the parking lot? Or is it bigger? Is it a suite with an ocean view? They’re hundreds of miles from the sea. Is there a hierarchy to Genocide(S) housing?
‘Do you ever go off-duty?’ she hears her therapist’s voice asking.
She unpacks the welcome bag: a coffee mug from the local college, a notepad and pen from a famous card company – when you can’t find words, let us speak for you – and a huge bar of chocolate from a pharmaceutical company that makes a popular antidepressant. The wrapper reads sometimes getting happy should be simple.
She thinks of her therapist. She has the opposite of transference – she never wishes the therapist were her mother or her lover. She thinks of the therapist and is relieved not to be married or related to her. A decision as small as trying to decide where to go for dinner or what to eat would take hours of negotiation and processing. Eventually she would cave in and do whatever she had to to make it stop. She secretly thinks the therapist is a passive-aggressive bully and perhaps should have been a lawyer.
‘You wrote an exceptionally strong book illustrating the multi-generational effects of Holocaust trauma. You knew there would be questions.’ She hears the therapist’s voice loud and clear in her head.
‘It’s a novel. I made it up.’
‘You created the characters, but the emotional truths are very real. There are different kinds of knowing.’
‘You spent years inhabiting the experience on every level – remember when you starved yourself ? When you drank tainted water? When you didn’t bathe for thirty days?’
‘Yes, but I was not in the Holocaust. I am an impostor – the critics made that quite clear.’
The therapist clucks and shakes her head.
The Novelist wonders, aren’t therapists trained not to cluck?
‘Critics aren’t the same as readers, and your readers felt you gave language and illumination to a very difficult aspect of their experience. And you won an international award.’ The therapist pauses. ‘I find it interesting that you have to do this.’
‘Because I’m better at it than anyone?’ She glances up, smiling.
The therapist has the sad face on.
‘At least I’m honest,’ she says.
Still the sad face.
‘Really?’ she asks.
‘Really,’ the therapist says.
She said yes to the Genocide(S) conference after having made a pact with herself to say no to everything, a move toward getting back to work on a new book. She’d spent the better part of a year on a book tour, traveling the world giving readings, doing interviews, answering questions that felt like interrogations. It was as if the journalists thought that by asking often enough and in enough languages, eventually something would fall out, some admission, some other story – but in fact there was nothing more. She’d put it all in the book.
In the hotel-room mirror, she takes a look at herself. ‘Check your smile and ask yourself, Am I ready to serve?’
She blushes. She was thinking about him – the War Correspondent.
Her phone rings.
‘Are you there yet?’ Lisa asks. ‘I wanted to make sure you arrived safely.’
‘I’m fine,’ she says.
‘Did you get the box?’
‘I think so,’ she says.
‘Did you open it?’
‘Well, go ahead.’
She doesn’t open the box, just the note on top: Sorry we fought. Here’s making it up to you . . .
‘But we didn’t fight,’ she says.
‘I know, but we usually do, and I had to order it ten days in advance,’ Lisa says.
‘You could have tried a little harder,’ she says.
‘What do you mean?’ Lisa says. ‘I planned the whole thing weeks ago.’
‘I mean you could have at least picked the fight if you knew you’d already sent a make-up gift,’ she says.
‘I don’t get you,’ Lisa says. ‘I really don’t.’
‘I’m joking. You’re taking it way too literally.’
‘Now you’re criticizing me?’
‘Never mind,’ she says. ‘Thank you. You know I love chocolate.’
‘Indeed I do,’ Lisa says, not realizing that the Novelist hasn’t even opened the box.
She knows Lisa well enough to know exactly what’s in the box. Instead she opens the chocolate bar sponsored by the antidepressant manufacturer and takes a big bite. The thick sound of chocolate being chewed fills air.
‘That’s more like it,’ Lisa says.
‘I have to go,’ she says. ‘I’m just getting to the check-in desk.’ She looks at herself in the mirror; can Lisa tell when she’s lying?
‘What is going on with you?’ Lisa says. ‘I can’t read you.’
‘Ignore me,’ she says. ‘I’m lost in thought.’
‘I’ll find you later,’ Lisa says, hanging up.
The welcome lunch is served: cold salads like the sisterhood lunch after a bar mitzvah, a trio of scoops, egg salad, tuna salad, potato salad, a roll and butter, coffee or tea.
She is seated at the head table among the academics with university appointments in the fields of trauma and tragedy. The War Correspondent is two seats down.
The man she wants to meet, Otto Hauser, the ephemerologist, is missing. His seat is empty. His plate is marked vegan.
‘Has anyone seen Otto Hauser?’ she asks repeatedly. She has been obsessed with Otto Hauser for years, having read the only two interviews he’s ever given and seen a glimpse of him in a documentary. She heard later that he asked to have himself taken out of the picture.
Finally someone tells her that Otto has been delayed; there was a fire in his warehouse near Munich.
The conference leader, himself the victim of a violent attack that left him with only half a tongue, calls the room to order. It is difficult to understand what he’s saying. She finds herself looking for clues from the deaf interpreter on the far side of the stage.
‘This year’s program, From Genocide(S) to Generosity: Toward a New Understanding, brings together diverse communities, including but not limited to Cambodia, East Timor, Rwanda, the Sudan, the former Yugoslavia, the Holocaust of World War II, the history of colonial genocides, and the early response to the Aids epidemic. And this weekend we ask the important question: Why? Why do Genocide(S) continue to happen?’
He goes on to thank their sponsors, an airline, two global search engines, an insurance firm, the already mentioned antidepressant manufacturer, and a family-owned ice-cream company.
Before turning the microphone over to a fellow board member, he says, ‘The cash bar in the Broadway Suite will be open until midnight and serving complimentary fresh juices donated by Be My Squeeze, and this year we have a spiritual recharge room for meditation or prayer with the bonus of a free chair massage brought to us by Watch Your Back.’
Following the conference leader’s welcome, the chair of the local English department does the honors, introducing her. The chair’s words are passionate and strange, a simultaneous celebration and denigration of her, both personally and professionally. All in the same breath, the chair mentions the author’s being known for her lusciously thick dark hair, that she won France’s Nyssen Prize for International Literature, and what a shock it was to her that the book had sold so many copies.
The War Correspondent leans across and whispers loudly over heads, ‘I think she wants to fuck you.’
‘I feel like she just did,’ she whispers back before standing and taking the microphone briefly. ‘Thank you, Professor,’ she says, intentionally calling the woman ‘Professor’ rather than ‘Chair’. ‘You clearly know more about me than I know about myself.’
There is laughter in the house.
The War Correspondent is introduced by the college’s football coach. ‘When Dirt and Blood Mix is Eric Bitterberg’s very personal story of being on the front lines with his best friend from high school, a US Army sergeant.’
‘Is it Biter-berg or Bitter-berg?’ she whispers loudly in his direction.
‘Depends on my mood,’ he says.
The afternoon session immediately follows lunch. While others go off to sessions such as Australia’s Stolen Generations and The Killing Fields Revisited, she heads toward the Americas Suite for her first panel, Where I’m Calling From: Modern Germany and Related His/Her Stories.
Her fellow panelists include a young German scholar who, despite being fluent in English insists on speaking in German, and Gerda Hoff, an elderly local woman who survived the camps and more recently cancer and has now written a memoir, called Living to Live.
‘You look different than the photo on your book,’ the moderator says as she sits down – it’s not a compliment.
And then, without a beat, the moderator begins: ‘Germany and family history – where was your family during the Holocaust?’
The German panelist says that his grandparents were in the food business and struggled.
‘They were butchers,’ the moderator says; it’s not a question but a statement.
‘Yes,’ the German confirms, and declines to say more.
The survivor says her father was a teacher and her mother was a woman known for her beautiful voice. She and her siblings watched as her parents were shot in the back and fell into large open graves. She is the only one still alive; her sisters died in the camps, and two years ago her brother jumped in front of a train.
The Novelist would like to buy a vowel. She’d like to pass, to simply evaporate, or at least have someone explain that clearly there was an error in putting these panels together, because she doesn’t belong here.
She draws a breath and allows for the weight of the air to settle before she explains: Her family wasn’t from Germany but rather Latvia. They arrived in America before the war, and were dairy farmers in New England.
It’s like she’s on a quiz show with points awarded for the most authentic answer. She’s plainly the loser.
She scans the audience. There are no young people. It reminds her of the classical concerts her parents used to take her to; no matter how old she got, she was always the youngest one.
The moderator carries on. At some point, while her mind is elsewhere, the conversation turns back to her, with the question, ‘Is there such a thing as Holocaust fiction? Are there experiences where the facts of history are already so challenged that we dare not fictionalize them?’
She takes a moment, then leans forward in her chair, drawing the microphone close, unnecessary considering the size of the room. This is the question asked around the world, the moment they’ve all been waiting for.
‘Yes,’ she says definitively, and then pauses. ‘Yes, there is such a thing as Holocaust fiction. It’s not something I invented. There are many novels that are set during or relate to the Holocaust, including books by Elie Wiesel, Thomas Keneally, Bernhard Schlink, and so on. With regard to the question “Are some subjects so historically sensitive that we shouldn’t touch them in fiction?” I’d say the purpose of fiction is to illustrate and illuminate. We see ourselves more clearly through the stories we tell.’
‘But what is your relation to the Holocaust?’ the moderator drills down.
‘I am a Jew, my grandfather’s brothers died in the camps.’
‘What does it mean to you to be a transgressive woman who writes books that are intentionally shocking?’
‘ “Transgressive” is a word you use to describe me; it’s what you label me to make me other than you. The very history we are here to discuss reminds us of the danger of labels and separating people into categories.’
Throughout the audience there are murmurs of approval. Despite the fact that these panels are supposed to be conversations, they are actually competitions, judged by the audience. ‘As for the question regarding an intention to shock, I have written nothing that didn’t first appear in the morning paper,’ she says, aware that she’s got a week-old paper in her bag right now. ‘What is truly shocking is how little we do to prevent these things from happening again and –’
‘Fiction is a luxury our families didn’t have,’ Gerda Hoff cuts her off. ‘We didn’t pack our summer reading and go off to the camps, happy, happy. This isn’t even your story. What right do you have to be telling it? It is insulting. I am one little old lady, but I am here representing six million Jews who cannot speak for themselves.’
The audience applauds. Score for Gerda Hoff!
She’s tempted to quote her mother’s frequent comment – ‘Well, you’re entitled to your opinion’ – but she doesn’t. Instead she says, ‘And that is exactly why I wrote my book: to describe the impact of those six million lives on the subsequent generations. I wrote this book so that those of us who weren’t there, those of us who were not yet born, would better understand the experience of those who were present. And,’ she says, ‘and prevent it from happening again. Never Again.’
‘So it’s all a big lie?’ the old woman says.
‘You show no love for Germany,’ the German scholar says, clearly feeling left out of the debate.
‘My novel is not about Germany. It is the story of four generations of a family struggling to claim their history and their identity.’
The panel ends, and even though the members of the audience don’t hold up scorecards, she can tell that Gerda came in first, she was second, and the German a distant third.
Never again, she tells herself. Never say yes when you mean to say no.
After the panel she sits at a small table signing books and answering questions.
‘Are you a gay?’ an old woman whispers, in the same voice her mother would ask, Are they Jewish? ‘I think you’re a gay? My son, I think he’s also a gay. He doesn’t tell me, but a mother knows.’
When the line is gone, she buys a copy of her own book and gives it to Gerda Hoff as Gerda is leaving.
‘I don’t want it,’ Gerda says.
‘It’s a gift. I think you might find it interesting.’
‘I’m eighty-three years old. I watched my parents shot in the back. I buried my own children, and now I’m dying of cancer. I didn’t live this long to be polite about a piece of dreck that you think I might “like”.’
‘I’m sorry,’ she says.
Gerda leans toward her, ‘You want to know what I like? Chocolate ice cream. That’s something to live for. Your book, a shaynem dank dir im pupik. I lived it, I don’t have to read it,’ she says, and then toddles off down the hall.
She finds the War Correspondent by the elevator – waiting.
‘How’d it go?’ he asks.
‘Eviscerated,’ she says.
‘I wouldn’t take it so personally.’ They step in, and he hits the button for the fourth floor.
‘They may be senior citizens, but they’re pugilists,’ she says. ‘They’re not just taking Zumba, they’re also boxing, and they know where to punch. What about you?’
She looks at him; the top two buttons of his shirt are open, dark hair spinning out from between the buttons. She has the urge to pluck a hair from his chest like it was a magical whisker.
‘Apart from the heckler who called me a pussy, it was okay.’
The elevator opens on the executive floor. ‘So I’ll see you at the cocktails?’ she says, stepping out.
‘Not for me. I’m on deadline.’ He pauses. ‘I don’t think I’ve seen you in years except at the book awards. Congratulations, by the way. Your book is the kind of thing I could never do,’ he says as he starts down the hall.
‘In what way?’ she calls after him.
‘Fiction,’ he says, turning back toward her. ‘I could never make it up. I have no imagination.’
She smiles. ‘I’m not quite sure what you mean, but for now I’ll take that as a compliment.’
She nods. ‘In my head I keep calling you the War Correspondent. Years ago I used to call you Erike, but somehow that no longer fits.’
‘You called me Erike because that’s what my mother used to call me.’
‘You were married. We were all impressed; it seemed very grown-up. We talked about you behind your back.’
‘That’s funny,’ he says.
‘I was miserable.’
‘Oh,’ she says.
‘I thought I was so smart, had it all figured out.’ He shrugs.
‘And why did we hang out there, at the Cedar Bar?’ she asks. ‘Who did we think we were? Painters?’
‘Up and coming,’ he says. ‘We thought we were going someplace.’
‘And here we are.’
There’s an awkward beat. ‘So what are you going to do now? I remember that you used to ride your bike everywhere. You never went on the subway.’
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘I used to ride my bike everywhere – until I blew out my knee.’
‘Do you remember that I got you to go on the subway?’
‘I do,’ she says, smiling. ‘It was January.’
‘The seventeenth of January, 1991, the night the bombing started in Baghdad.’
She nods, surprised he remembers.
‘I made you take the subway all the way uptown.’
‘It was a big night,’ she says.
‘Yep,’ he says, and then seems lost in thought. There’s a silence, longer than feels comfortable. ‘All right, then,’ he says, and abruptly heads down the hall, leaving her to wonder – did something happen?
She goes to her room and sits to meditate. Her meditation is punctuated by thinking about him. She keeps bringing herself back to her body, to the breathing and counting, until she falls deeply asleep. She has horrible dreams and wakes up forty minutes later, sweaty and confused as if roused from general anesthesia. She has no idea where she is and is trying to process whether anything in the dream was real.
The antidote – calling her mother.
‘What are you doing?’ her mother asks, her tone an instant reality check.
‘I just took a nap. It was awful, nightmares,’ she says. ‘I’m away at the conference.’
‘What is this one about?’
‘Genocide(S). I accepted the invitation thinking of you.’
Last year father attacked me as a ‘wet radish’. This caused me to give up writing diary entries. I resolved to write fiction instead. My lack of success caused me to want to choke Norman Tebbit and stab my father. Almost every word I have written since August last year is arbitrary. In May cancer was discovered in mother’s stomach. I feel I have let her down. She has told some of her friends that I write.
I shall be acclaimed as a great writer for ‘The Minister’. I no longer read a newspaper and listen to less radio news.
Kafka is guilty of circumlocution. Should I send the story to Encounter? Fear I have said everything in this one work.
The purpose of deconstruction is to make every thought collapse into its opposite. Proust’s maid misheard ‘York’ as ‘New York’. Mrs Edwards played the piano while I picked blackcurrants.
In ‘The Minister’ I explore my opposition to capital punishment and my desire to hang Norman Tebbit. I would not be sorry if he was assassinated. A man pointed a gun at me in a dream.
Mother is becoming weaker. She can only climb the stairs twice a day. There is a commode downstairs in the garage. She helps me prepare the dinner but is no longer able to strain the potatoes. I dropped my slice of ice-cream roll on the garage floor near the commode. I ate it quickly.
If the government wants to take responsibility for the improvement in productivity it must also take responsibility for the rise in unemployment which has caused it. A critic said TV has replaced works of art with programmes about artists. Oil companies employ scientists to prove that the lead in petrol does not damage the intelligence of children. Recently a famous actor was acquitted of putting his hands inside the costumes of young girls. He was cheered by his fans as he came out of court.
Shouted at my father over dinner. We argued about baked beans. David my brother was visited by his friend Stephen, who will start work in October. Father said to mother ‘They have all got jobs bar our two. The difference is that they look.’ I put the incorrect pillowcases on mother’s pillows. I took mum coffee in bed. She said it was all very well David telling her to take vitamin tablets, but she was getting weaker all the time. Mother thought she should go into hospital so she would stop being a burden on the rest of the family. I was about to tell her to remember to visualise the destruction of the cancer cells when she said meditation did not work. It had not reduced the pain in her back. She said ‘go away there’s a good boy’. I told her it was no use resuming the meditation unless she believed in it. David said carrot juice was just what mother needed. It would replace the vitamins drained from her body by chemotherapy. During the night mother received new strength and got up for breakfast. This was the first time for a week.
Father asked me to name the companies I had applied to for jobs. Cancer spread into mother’s leg. Mrs Thatcher has cancelled engagements because of damage to her retina. Perhaps it will make her resign.
Worried we are not drinking all the milk which is being delivered.
I have been trying to emulate Chekhov’s ‘Peasants’. Last night David and I watched a programme about mind over cancer. Those with the cancer personality type do not express their feelings. Father and David felt this fitted ‘mummy’. I did not agree. No links have yet been discovered between personality type and the immune system. I recall being hit with a stick by mother when I was a child.
I worry about what food I will have to buy at Asda and whether any bread needs to be taken out of the freezer. I cannot sit on the toilet when the door to mum’s bedroom is open. Last night I dreamed of a Mercedes hearse at Cemetery Junction. The car went towards Twyford and the home of Grannie and Granddad Sharp.
Last night I dreamed about a woman with two heads who fondled herself. I am disturbed by mother’s placid acceptance of death. She spoke of the bungalow in Devon father hopes to buy after she has passed on. She stated that I did not have to go with him. David’s protein powder and herbs are not working a miracle. The household chores are endless. Mary has visited mother today. Mary told me there was a lot of fibre in baked beans on toast. She had just started a high fibre diet and expected to be thin by the next time I saw her.
I defecate at night while the taps are running in the bathroom. I have condensed 3 notebooks into 10 pages. The story is shapeless. Doreen visited mother. She had changed her hairstyle. I mistook her for Caroline and thought she had come to take my brother to the wedding of his ex-girlfriend. Doreen told me her son, Tony, got an upper second. All I got was a third. I resolved to be more honest in my writing than Proust.
Yesterday was the most painful day of my mother’s life. She told her sister, Heather, she wanted to go into a hospice. She feels there are certain things only a woman can do for her. I told Heather my mother’s belief in the afterlife had caused her to give up the struggle. Mum is dopey. I got angry with father for saying how weak she had become. This morning I helped her sit up. She said ‘I did not realise you were so strong.’ The doctor was asked if mother could be admitted to the hospice. He said she had less than a month to live and prescribed a bottle of pink fluid. I have failed in my ambition to become a writer while my mother is alive. Perhaps I will get a part-time job as a teacher at Woodley Hill House when the academic year begins. I think mum used to read my diary. She is too feeble to reach my room now. Last night I feared after I had gone to bed father would put his head in the oven. David did not arrive home from the wedding. I feared he had been killed in a car accident. If I die there will be no one at the funeral.
Mother took less red capsules than she had been told to. The capsules are intended to avert depression. We now have to decide when she takes her tablets. I went into her room while mother was asleep and said ‘I love you’ twice. She opened her eyes and said ‘I thought there was someone there.’ I held her hand as she said she loved me. I informed her that ‘we’ were shouldering her out of this life. Mum said that when her body was in the graveyard it would only be a shell and she would be with God. She claimed to have seen greenery in Heaven. I cried when she said that I was the one she felt sorry for. Mother wanted an assurance from me I would help father settle down in the bungalow. I clutched her hand and said ‘there is a place for you in the bungalow’. Dr Monger gives her a month. I told her not to be in a hurry to reach Heaven and that God might spare her. I almost cried while watching Bryan Ferry sing ‘Jealous Guy’. I applied the line ‘I didn’t mean to hurt you’ to myself and mum. As I lay in bed I asked God to kill me in her place. Dreamed I was in an underground train. Father, David and I decided not to send mum to a Sue Ryder home. I washed out her commode with Dettol. Helped mum put on a pair of cotton pants so she would be ‘decent’ for Dr Morris. The doctor thought she had a week to live. He seemed to advocate euthanasia and his only concern was that mother feel no pain. Sister Green gave her a blanket bath. The sister will come twice a day from now on. Mother finds her gentle. A cancer nurse thought Dr Morris had been pessimistic and mum would last longer than a week. Mother tried to read a prayer and said she would come with dad and me to the bungalow. I almost told her not to leave me any money as this might jeopardise my entitlement to Supplementary Benefit. I said to mother ‘Do not go gentle into that good night / Old age should burn and rave at close of day / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’ I have always disliked that Dylan Thomas poem.
Mother finds it difficult to concentrate. She feels that every day is Sunday. She asked for chicken pie and malt loaf, but changed her mind and had soup. Father and I have also lost the ability to concentrate. Dad spends all his time in the garden. After he wakes Mother up he asks ‘is it alright if I do some watering’. Mum looked at her jewellery. A brooch reminded her of the journey to the US with David and me in 1968. Mum saw Grannie and Granddad Sharp in Heaven. I let go of mother’s arm when David came into the bedroom. I do not want Dr Morris to see mum again. I looked at the occult books of Lobsang Rampa to see if visualisation would kill the cancer in my mother’s body. Mother put her weak arms around my neck and said someday someone would appreciate me. I went to Asda and bought her two soft pillows. I don’t trust father to give mother the right number of morphine tablets. I don’t want to leave them alone tomorrow when David and I have to sign on. Tonight there is a programme about a miracle recovery by a cancer patient. A woman who had a month to live refused radiotherapy until her child was born.
Had my lunch sitting beside mother. She put her hands on her abdomen and frowned with pain. After I helped her onto her side she said ‘tame’. I thought she meant the pain had been tamed. On Tuesday she kept her eyes half open to watch the documentary on cancer. Mum said ‘I don’t have to die’. I held her hand. When I kissed her goodnight she mistook my pyjamas for my leather jacket. She did not want any breakfast. She told David and me how smart we looked as we went out. I bought David four cans of cider, the man who served me said the wife of the shop owner had just died. Mother has a walking stick on her bed. When I walked past the Royal Berks Hospital I said ‘you bastards’. The doctor mum saw was very good at finding recurrent breast cancer but not so good at finding out if breast cancer had spread to other parts of the body. While I was writing this diary entry David told me mother wished to speak to me. She kissed me several times and said God would always be with me. I wiped away the tears and informed her we would meet again. I examined mother’s life line on her palm. It seemed to indicate she would recover.
To quote Sister Green mother is ‘comatose’. When she wakes mum has a liquid painkiller. She cannot swallow morphine tablets. When she was told Elsie had come to see her mother said ‘Oh no’. While she was sitting on the commode I fed her apricot puree. It was baby food. I washed out the commode with Dettol and hot water. In a neighbour’s house someone was singing ‘Happy Birthday’. There was loud party music. This morning I placed my hand over my mother’s abdomen and imagined it sucking the cancer out of her. David held her hand and told her she would get better. Sister Green put a substance like cotton wool into mum’s pants. I doubt whether my mother will ever speak to me again. The postman returned ‘Things Present’ from Granta. It was my last chance of getting published while mother was alive. I recalled worrying about her death when I was a child, but I told her it was my own end I was fearful about. She said ‘You will live for donkey’s years yet.’
David and I thought mum’s cancer was in remission because the swelling in her stomach had gone. I told father I did not approve of him giving liquid morphine to mother. We put Crossroads on in the hope the signature tune of her favourite programme would rouse her. At about 10.00 p.m. I become tired and lay on my bed. I woke to hear my brother say ‘dad’. I had no wish to see my mother’s shell. As I lay in bed I heard the undertakers come. I heard a zip. I saw images of mum and fell asleep until my alarm at 6.00 a.m. I read Proust’s account of the death of Marcel’s grandmother. I put on a black T-shirt. Father phoned mother’s parents. They had both outlived her. Michael Jackson cannot perform the funeral service as he is away on holiday. The stand in said ‘there was a time when you could not get a minister for love nor money in August.’ We are awaiting the death certificate.
Father’s vocabulary has become cruder since mum died. He called Dr Morris a ‘sod’. He intends to complain about the delay in the diagnosis of mother’s cancer of the oesophagus. As I watched Civilisation I recalled mother watching the previous episode. She had said the Sistine Chapel was magnificent. John White remembered the Armistice was announced by a hooter. Listened to the morning service on Radio 4. I expected David to join in as the minister said ‘Forgive us our trespasses’. Margaret Howard spoke of how she was called a ‘wally’ for scrapping her car. I am avoiding writing about mother in my fiction. I regret hardly eating anything she baked during the last 2 years of her life.
Father spoke to his brother Les on the phone ‘some of these doctors will have something to answer for when they get to Heaven.’ He told me he had ‘hurt’ ‘mummy’ by refusing to go to church with her. Had mum’s Dundee cake with my meal. Mother was keeping a diary. Auntie Vera returned from Australia. She said she regretted going home five weeks ago and cried.
Uncle Ivan said it was all wrong that mum had done grannie’s housework for so many years. An actor playing Flaubert on TV did not age with the writer. A special mattress arrived today for mum. It was from the hospital. Estimated I was 33% responsible for mother’s death. Last summer I noticed she had a cough and could not drink tea. John White spoke of the ‘rabble’ who led the NUM.
Celia said to me ‘isn’t your dad getting absent minded’. This morning I resumed my ice-cream walks. Went into M&S because it was mother’s favourite shop and bought a quiche. I had the last slice of mum’s Dundee cake.
A woman from the church explained to us we should stand during the funeral service when instructed to by the minister. She offered father a ‘fresh start’ with Christianity. The woman asked if I had found a job yet. Father’s cousin Bob will not be coming to the funeral because he is on holiday.
The funeral service was held in the United Reformed Church at 2.30 p.m. Granddad said grannie was ‘worse than ever’. The minister said Thomas expressed ‘our doubts’. He did not say ‘ashes to ashes’ at the grave. My brother threw some sweet peas onto the coffin. A train passed in the cutting beside the graveyard. This told Auntie Celia that ‘life’ had to ‘go on’. I didn’t know half of the relatives who came back to the house. A dark-haired woman called Josephine urged me not to marry just yet. An old man told me I was Granddad West all over again. Great Uncle Ernie recalled knowing my mother when she came up to his knees. The guests went down the garden to look at the sweet peas. Uncle Ivan spoke of his refusal to contribute to a charity because some of the employees were paid. The church collected more than £50 for Sue Ryder, Ivan gave £10. Father smoked menthol cigarettes.
The minister visited us and spoke of the small congregation at his town centre church. Granddad said it had really come home to him mum was dead when he saw the coffin lowered into the grave. He added that he would soon be in the same position as father when grannie died. Argued with father about the amount of milk delivered on Fridays. As I sat in my room trying to write I thought about mother and had the doubts of Thomas as I saw an image of a coffin floating in water. I read a book on astral projection until my eyes ached. Some people who leave their bodies see a silver cord, others do not.
I am struggling against Gide’s assertion there are too many people for an afterlife to be possible. I found a beetle while peeling the potatoes. I fear I will never see mum again.
Father told of how mother gave bread and cheese to an unemployed tramp in the 1920s. Narayan has just given up attempting to read War and Peace. He omits all that is superfluous from his own fiction to avoid readers skipping sections or reading rapidly. Watched a programme about rapists who have been cured by group therapy. Dreamed that mother was standing in the light. I wondered if Proust recreated his past because he did not believe in immortality. I roasted potatoes for the first time in my life. Imagined asking for an assurance that if I donated blood it would not go to a private patient. Whenever I close my eyes I see mum or water.
Henry Moore seemed to liken himself to Michelangelo, whom he claimed worked harder than a coalminer. Bernard Levin suggested Moore loved his mother. Father noted I had resumed eating ice-cream. He called the insurance man ‘Mr Cripps’. His name is ‘Crisp’. Regret that my mother did not live to see me succeed at anything.
Mum believed it was God’s will she should die. The 15th anniversary of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia was celebrated on TV. Beryl Bainbridge said it would be impertinent of her to write about what other people felt. Dreamed mother was dying on the living room floor. Felt anger at the GP who diagnosed mother’s cancer as a hiatus hernia. Have just written a story ‘Not Dust’. Father called up to my room ‘are you coming down Steve’.
Uncle Les and Auntie Kath voted for Mrs Thatcher. Les said he had to see the vicar. He meant he needed to urinate. David Irving said one of his books had been misinterpreted as anti-Semitic. He thanked God for his disabled daughter. This morning I saw my brother looking at a book on deathbed visions. Did not speak to Sister Green outside the surgery.
The old loft insulation was removed for £25. The chancellor Mr Lawson once acted in Saint Joan. There were no close-ups in Man and Superman. The production did not seem to have been adapted for television. I read that the loss of a loved one can cause cancer. Listened to Alan Bennett reading Winnie-the-Pooh.
Have not watched Top of the Pops since mum’s death. Father has wasted £200 on loft insulation despite claiming he cannot afford to smoke. Dreamed I walked to the grave of mother with Sally Newton. Father said he would never see his wife again. He has reverted to atheism. I fear that after death we have subjective immortality without other people.
Mother’s inability to drink hot tea was a warning sign of her cancer. Ken Livingstone has compared Britain’s treatment of Ireland with the Holocaust. The football season begins today. Autumn is approaching. Leon Brittan said he did not like being followed by security staff when he bought a tube of toothpaste.
I mirror the views of the new right. They believe in the deportation of black Britons. I want to send white cricketers such as Allan Lamb back to South Africa. Before mother’s death Terry called father ‘Mr Sharp’ now it is ‘Ron’. Cliff Richard spoke with disapproval of people who do not want to work. A scientific explanation was given of Sampson’s strength.
Played cards for the first time since mother died. Eva phoned and said she was glad to hear I had a teaching job. Fanny Trollope recorded that Americans frequently spit.
Father said to me ‘I know you mean well’ but it was not the right time to defrost the freezer. Richard Ingrams told Anthony Clare he was opposed to lesbians adopting children. I woke this morning with a terror of death. The news reported a fire at Milford Haven. Dad recalled his wife was stationed there in WW2. I am the one who is reluctant to talk about mum.
The weatherman forecast the end of summer. It began 20 days after mother was diagnosed and is ending 20 days after her death. Fred Hoyle dismissed natural selection as a trivial tautology. He thought man was placed on Earth by space travellers. Terry’s sister, Jennifer, was advised by an optician to rest her eyes from proof reading for 10 minutes of every hour. My eyes need testing. I didn’t go in the opticians because the counter assistant was pretty.
I had a liberal arts degree, and it was spring, and my friend Dolores told me that elementary schools needed men. ‘We are woefully deficient in elementary schools,’ she said.
‘Of men?’ I was eating peanuts, I think. We were at McDougal’s Tavern. The smell of old carpet. Soft lighting. Bald shame.
‘Of positive male role models.’ Dolores had the most serious eyes. Everything she said was like an explanation. ‘And not just locally,’ she continued. ‘Even in the good places to be from. The entire American educational system.’ She gestured at America and gulped her Pabst. ‘It’s shameful.’
The week before, Dolores had gotten drunk on my balcony and screamed down at some dude-bros with sideways ball caps and sagging cargo shorts that all men should ‘Go home and jerk off to death!’ They shot her some gestures and staggered across my parking lot to wherever, and Dolores hollered out, ‘Jerk off to death!’ one last time as they faded into the distance. She was so amazing then.
‘You think you could get me a gig for next year?’
‘Positive,’ she told me. She touched my hair. ‘We just gotta get you cleaned up some.’
Here’s something bizarre: in the spring of 2008 I tucked in my shirt, cut my hair and got a job.
I don’t want to bore you with all the details of how I became a prekindergarten teacher, but what you have to know is: it wasn’t my first gig at Brogan Elementary. My first year, I did fifth grade. My second, third. I sort of failed my way down to it.
For all my faults – I’m disorganized, I’m spacey, my hands are too small for my body – I’ve got a few things really going for me:
1. I show up. Every day. And on time.
2. I don’t bitch, ever.
But I’m probably not a good teacher. I couldn’t explain negative numbers to the fifth-graders and I couldn’t explain nouns and verbs to the third-graders, but I can set out snacks and open finger paints better than nearly anybody alive. I can take my students to gather fallen leaves in autumn and help them do crayon rubbings. I can pour flour on the floor in December and have the kids pretend it’s snow. ‘I’m making an angel,’ they say looking up at me, doing horizontal jumping jacks on the tile, the air in the room chalky with the dust of it all.
So, yeah, the job’s a joy. A bunch of creatures with twinkling eyes doing cute things because I tell them to, but there’s a trade-off.
1. They are dirty as hell. But let’s come back to that.
2. You should see how the parents look at me on the first day of school.
Now, what Dolores said is true. Aside from the librarian1 and a PE aide2, I am the only man at Brogan Elementary. This is not an anomaly. Last I checked, the percentage of male elementary school teachers in south Texas, where I live, is something like 8 per cent, and most of that 8 per cent is comprised of coaches and Teach For America hipsters who pass through casually with their New Hampshire-soft dispositions saying shit like ‘legit’ and ‘sustainable’ until they decide their calling is elsewhere and they paddle off toward more impoverished communities in a homemade canoe. Save the world, motherfuckers.
But because there are so few men, parents are confused by me.
It doesn’t matter if they’re mothers or fathers, if they have daughters or sons: the first day is an awkward passing of the baton. The parents come in with their precious little darlings and then they have to leave them with an unfamiliar grown man.
Some things just seem wrong to us.
When I told Dolores about it, she said, ‘What do you expect?’
We were at McDougal’s again – they give you a discount with your instructor ID – and the crowd was thin and the music set to lull. There was an old man at the end of the bar, and every so often he cleared his throat.
‘Men are perverts,’ said Dolores. ‘Look how much porn is on the internet. It’s no wonder y’all are so shitty on dates.’
‘Maybe, but there’s women in those videos.’
I sipped my beer, set it down. I was on my fifth or sixth and my coaster had gone gummy, like wet papier mâché. ‘In the videos there’s women.’
‘Slaves,’ Dolores told me. ‘Caught in a system that has trained them to believe the only way they can contribute is by trading their bodies for profit, or, worse, legitimate sex slaves, trapped in brothel towns. Can you imagine? One day you’re just a girl who’s good at braiding hair and the next you’re shanghaied to some gray sex village in Eastern Europe.’
The old man cleared his throat at this, said, ‘I won’t watch the ones that aren’t in English.’ He rubbed his mouth. ‘They don’t talk much, but when they do, I like to understand ’em.’
Dolores was shocked. ‘Am I in the fucking twilight zone?’ she asked.
The older man looked over his shoulders, surveying the empty barroom.
‘I don’t know,’ I said to Dolores. ‘I get it, guys are perverts, but women are perverts too. We watch porn. But I’ve seen tons of videos of women being perverted in that porn. I think we’re all just gross.’
‘Because they have to,’ said Dolores.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘They seem to be enjoying themselves.’
‘Yep, yep, they do,’ said the old-timer.
Dolores ground her teeth. ‘Oh my God,’ she said. ‘They’re ACTING.’
I wiped some sweat off my beer. ‘Shit, then they deserve awards.’
The older man nodded.
‘And,’ I continued, ‘if they’re just acting, they need to like branch out.’ Cause they’re usually pretty good at acting like they enjoy the sex part, but they’re dog shit when it comes to pretending they’re someone’s mother-in-law. They should study other methods,’
‘Stanislavsky,’ said the old man.
‘I’m leaving,’ said Dolores. She reached for her purse. ‘If you two want to sit in here and gab exploitation, you’ll have to do it without me.’
‘Nah,’ I said. ‘We’ll stop.’
She had most of a vodka tonic left. She looked at it, at us. ‘I’m only staying to finish my drink.’
‘You know,’ I said, ‘my job might not be much different than being in porn.’
Dolores and the old-timer looked at me in unison.
‘I have to pretend to be having a good time. Telling them their drawings are good and stuff. I get bodily fluid all over me. Snot. Pee. Poo. Spit. It’s tons of them and just one of me.’
‘Gang bang,’ said the old man.
‘Y’all are disgusting,’ said Dolores.
‘What’s the worst thing they do?’ the old man said. ‘Like when they’re misbehaving?’
I thought about it. ‘Oh, y’know. Bite. Pull hair.’ I gazed off. ‘But really, that stuff doesn’t bother me. Worst thing is when the little boys pee on stuff.’
‘Pee on stuff?’
‘And not just in the bathroom either. They’ll go through phases. It’s rare, but it happens. They think it’s funny. They’ll pee on the toys. In the Kleenex box.’
‘It’s because little boys are gross,’ said Dolores. ‘And they never grow out of it.’ She smiled falsely.
The old-timer sipped his drink. Looked up at the grime-spotted glasses which were holstered upside down in a rack overhead. ‘What about the girls?’ he asked.
‘I mean they’ll wet their pants on occasion,’ I said, ‘but nothing intentional.’
‘No,’ he said, ‘what’s their equivalent? You said we’re all gross. What’s the grossest thing they’ll do?’
‘Oh,’ I said, and it took me a moment. ‘At nap they’ll dry-hump the stuffed animals.’
Dolores picked up her glass and drained it. She set it on the bar, looked at me. ‘I just can’t.’ She put a five-dollar bill near her coaster. ‘Cover whatever that doesn’t. I’m off to find healthier company.’ The old-timer and I watched her go.
I wasn’t kidding about the porn-star bit. Well, I was sort of kidding. My job isn’t really like being a porn star, or at least I don’t think of it like that. But my day consists of wrangling a horde of crazed kiddos through a routine that breaks down like this:
7.45–8.30: They start to arrive. For the first few weeks, this entails some version of me demonstrating to the parents that, indeed, I am not a pedophile, which is usually accomplished best by introducing them to my assistant Graciela who, in some subliminal manner, must intimate this to them. Then, we take their backpacks, put away their lunches and wash hands. About the fifth week of school, I no longer have to prove myself.
8.30 –9.30: By this time, except when the parents are really bad alcoholics, the tykes have arrived and we breakfast on foods wrapped in plastic or fruit that looks orphaned and begin our rudimentary writing lessons. Generally, this involves the alphabet. I’ve been teaching prekindergarten for years now. I know the alphabet like a motherfucker. I know songs – whole songs for every letter. I know the thing in English and Spanish and German and French. I know at least two ways to turn common household materials into animals that correspond to each letter, except for X3.
I can even sing it backwards, and sometimes I think about doing dumb shit in front of law officers while driving, just so I might have to use the skill to get out of a DUI.
Z, Y, X,
U, T, S,
R, Q, P,
O, N, M,
L, K, J, I,
H, G, F,
E, D, C,
9.30 –10.30: Story time doesn’t really last an hour, but writing lessons doesn’t really last an hour either. We merely have an hour allotted. Do you know how long it takes to get sixteen four- and five-year-olds to sit criss-cross applesauce on the magic carpet? Criss-cross what, you might ask? That’s right, Indian style is no more. Also, they’re allowed to use their left hands now. And, it takes about eight minutes. Just to get them to sit. Then five to get them to pipe down, because they have the same questions every day.
‘Is this carpet really magic?’
‘Metaphorically,’ I’ll say.
‘What’s today’s story about?’
‘A little boy who gets very sick and a stuffed bunny rabbit.’
‘I love stuffed bunny rabbits,’ one of the girls says.
‘Hopefully not too much.’
‘Is the story happy or sad?’
‘Only one way to find out.’
And I start reading.
10.30 –11.30: Gym! Someone else handles this part. I get to go to the teachers’ lounge. My first year of pre-K, Dolores had conference with me. We’d sit and gab about whatever, other teachers coming and going, making coffee or snagging their tuna sandwiches from the faculty refrigerator.
‘Who teaches boys about women?’ Dolores asked me once.
‘Um . . .’
‘Other men,’ she said. ‘Usually older ones who’ve never had healthy relationships.’
‘If you knew the answer . . .’
‘Don’t you find that troublesome?’
‘I might have learned about women from the internet.’
‘My students,’ Dolores told me, ‘the boy ones. If they like a girl, they treat her like shit.’
‘That’s how they treat the boys they like too. Think about how much they wrestle.’ I’d seen her fourth-grader boys leaping upon each other in the hall. Grasping each other in headlocks and half nelsons.
‘I went on a date last week with a guy who tried to order for me. He tried to order for me. Food.’
Some other teacher was pouring coffee. She might have been eighty years old. ‘Did he open your car door for you?’ she asked. ‘Regular doors don’t bother me, but when they open car doors, I just get nauseous.’
‘I can’t remember,’ said Dolores.
‘Why do you even go on dates?’ I asked. ‘You never have a good time.’
‘Because I want children.’
‘Oh, honey,’ said the eighty-year-old. ‘You won’t once you have them.’
‘I want children so I can help to change the world,’ Dolores said. ‘I want sons. I want to mold them. You can’t mold the students. I used to think you could. I think it’s because they spend too much time with their parents. They come back from the weekend completely regressed.’
11.30 –12.30: Lunch is odd because many of the students have dietary restrictions, and even though we give all the parents a list of things the kids aren’t allowed to bring for lunch, they take no notice. Tea Party parents are the worst. You tell them at the beginning of the year about nut allergies and they say, ‘Excuse me?’
‘Yeah,’ you tell them. ‘See, one of the students,’ you aren’t allowed to say which one, but by the third week, somehow, everybody knows, ‘is deathly allergic to nuts and we can’t have them in the room, or, y’know, they might die.’
Then they mumble stuff about tax dollars, and occasionally send peanut butter sandwiches.
12.30 –1.30: Music or Art! Again, this one’s not on me. On good days, I’ll sit in my classroom and stare at the linoleum. On bad days, I call parents and tell them what their child has done.
1.30 –2.30: Math is basically code for numbers and shapes. We learn to count. We learn how some things are bigger than other things. We learn about opposites.
‘The opposite of poo-poo is pee-pee,’ one of the little boys will holler, and the rest of the class will erupt into forced laughter like an infomercial audience.
‘Not exactly,’ I’ll say. ‘Opposites are like hot and cold. Big and small. Inside and outside.’
‘Teacher,’ they’ll say. ‘Then what’s the opposite of poo-poo?’
Sometimes, the kids will ask a question that makes your whole sense of reality unravel. Is there really an opposite of everything? Because there is no opposite of poo-poo.
2.30 –3.30: The kids are supposed to leave at 3.30 on the nose, and the last hour of my day is devoted to snack and relaxing, maybe some kind of craft. This is the time we use for fake snow. This is the time we make Mother’s Day cards and plant trees for Arbor Day.
This is the best part of my day, for a few reasons.
1. It’s the end.
2. The kids are happy that their parents show up.
3. They’re so sweet and warm when they’re leaving. Walking down the hall. Singing the alphabet backwards. Waving goodbye at me. Walking their waddles.
In my third year of teaching pre-K, Dolores started dating a geologist.
‘Like, really? A geologist?’ I said. ‘That’s an actual thing? A real profession?’
‘Of course it is. Why else would people study it?’ There was so much fuck-you in the tone of her voice.
‘You can study poetry,’ I said. ‘Poetry’s not a job.’
She closed her eyes. ‘You can be a professional poet.’
She looked away. Out a window. She seemed focused on her breathing. She whispered, ‘He’s a geologist.’
‘Fine,’ I said. ‘I’m happy for you.’
‘Good,’ she said. ‘I’m happy for me too.’
I looked out the window as well, but I couldn’t see anything remarkable.
‘Did you tell Smashley?’
Smashley was a friend of ours who wouldn’t talk to me anymore because before I got my teaching job, I’d day-drink a lot, and I was always texting, asking her to send me pictures of her feet. And then she did and felt weird about it, or maybe I was weird toward her afterward.
‘Yes, I told Ashley,’ said Dolores.
‘What’d she say?’
‘What you’d expect her to say.’
Once, when I was walking with Smashley on a grimy beach on North Padre Island, a guy in Oakley sunglasses came up, said, ‘Where you going, sweetheart?’ She smiled at him and grabbed her tummy. ‘To take a mean shit.’
I thought about geologists. Tried to conceive of what they did. I thought about Smashley. How her brain functioned. ‘She asked if he drilled you good,’ I said.
Dolores had so much hate in her face then. ‘I’m surrounded by children.’
‘Am I right?’
‘At work, children. My friends, children.’
‘Did she say that?’
Dolores clenched her fists. ‘Of course she said that, you fucking creep.’
There was a kind of new rage in her words. ‘Wait, did she tell you about the feet thing?’
And Dolores said, ‘I’ve always known about the feet thing.’
At the end of that semester, we had a party for Dolores in the library. Vanilla ice cream. Chocolate cake. Dolores wasn’t going to be a teacher anymore.
‘I’m not quitting forever,’ she said. ‘I’m taking the summer to plan the wedding and then next year I’m going to apply for grad school. I haven’t completely decided what I’ll study, but I’m supremely intrigued by the matrix of oppression.’
None of us knew what the hell she was talking about. I don’t think I’d ever seen her more happy.
Sometimes at work I’ll have an existential crisis. Am I teaching the students to think, or am I only just giving them memories?
I love coloring with them because it helps me make sense of it all. I give them a box of crayons. I give them a sheet of white paper and on that white paper is some line drawing to be hued. Their job is to select colors and fill blank space. My job is to give them blank space to fill. You know, if they did a good enough job in the coloring, even if the lines disappeared entirely, through magic or erasure, the form would hold. You’d still recognize the composition. My favorite kids are the ones who suck at coloring. They take the crayons and go all over the place. With them, if you removed the lines, the page would be a disaster of pigments. I like to think the ones who are worst at coloring will remember me the longest.
I barely know Dolores anymore. I got drunk at her wedding and the bridesmaids wore open-toed sandals, but that’s not why.
When her son, Connor, was two years old I went to her house to pick her up and take her for drinks. Her husband was going to ‘babysit’. That’s what she told me. But how do you babysit your own kid?
Before we left, her husband, Ronny, said, ‘You know, I don’t just let any man take my lady out on a date.’ I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel about that.
Dolores and I went to McDougal’s for old times’ sake, and I asked her, ‘Y’all gonna have Connor come to Brogan in a few years?’ They lived in district, and Dolores was still writing her thesis and really I was just making small talk, waiting for my drink to come.
‘Ha,’ Dolores said. ‘Ha,’ she said again.
The bartender served us and we sat there and drank some and Dolores asked, ‘How long do you think you’ll stay doing that?’
‘Ronny thinks it’s funny you teach pre-K. He calls you pre-K. Like, when you text. He says, “Is that pre-K?” ’ She sipped her beer. ‘Do you ever worry about what other men think of your job? I feel like men judge other men by their jobs. How’d you even get into it?’
‘Teaching?’ I said, and it occurred to me I’d been saying my job as a question.
I studied her face. She really couldn’t remember. I looked away. Up at the dirty glasses, pretending to ponder. ‘I think I just wanted summers off.’
I lied. It was easier that way.
This past December I was at the grocery store buying Gold Medal Flour and some eight-year-old I’d had as a student years back came up and said, ‘Is that for snow?’
He pointed at the flour. I nodded and asked if he’d seen real snow yet.
‘When would I ever get to see real snow?’ he said, and then the next day, when it was snowing in my classroom, when the kids were lying in the mounds of it, making angels, tossing piles, I asked them all, ‘Who’s seen real snow?’ And none of them raised their hands.
‘Then this is real snow,’ I said to them, and I threw a handful of it in the air and it burst open, the handful of it, a fit of fine white powder in every direction, a colorless cloud. ‘This is snow,’ I said. ‘And if they say it’s not, they’re lying. And if they’re lying, you don’t need them. It’s snowing.’ I yelped a bit so they knew I meant business. I grabbed another handful from the bag. I threw it as high as I could. The children started hollering with joy. ‘That’s right,’ I hollered with them. ‘This is snow.’
Brother B gathered his locks, bound
them with a tie at the back of his head.
The ponytail made his head a horse’s
he proclaimed. He’d gone on a trip
and just gotten back. The place he’d
been he called Rum. . . Next we knew
said he came out of a Capuchin crypt,
Brother Bone of late, a bite of sound’s im-
position on the air. A bite of sound’s
losophic insistence, he said. A philo-
sophic bone recital, he said, bent on
giving one pause. A philharmonic non-
sonance, he said, gave him pause. . . The
tail, he repeated, made his head a horse’s
ass. Don’t say that, we begged, hit by
wisdom’s idiocy, the wisdom of the idiots
We’d begun to be won over, a demonic
or a divine cartoon we were in, so quick
it made our heads twist off. A two-headed
had us hoodoo’d, he said, a bite of sound
on the air Nub’s ancestry, Nub’s predecessor
address. . . Once again, he said, the call was
love our captors, love them though we did
and got nothing, offer up another cheek. He
was talking out of his head but we heard him,
head a horse’s ass but what he said stayed
with us, what he said sort of tell-my-horse.
Romulus choked Uncle Remus, he said, what
meant by which was worldly Rum, he went
on to explain, the lesson of ruin all over. By
that he meant to say, he went on to explain,
went on to ask, monument packed on monument
ing what. Quick blood and bone come to naught,
he went on to say, was what he meant, Rum’s
feted mortality eternal. . . Mrs Fret said had no busi-
ness there in the first place, picked her own bone,
losophic herself. Brother B paid her no mind. Be-
ing back made it feel like a dream, he said, a
dream he not so much dreamt as he was dreamt
the dream, he raised his voice insisting, dreamt
him. A glad sadness came over us hearing him,
sound spilled out of our book. What he said we
copacetic witnesses, arms and legs rickety
sticks with a leak of spirit, this or that bodily pre-
cinct, he said, owned by a Mr Hot Pot. . . An
old song was on the box, the box’s ubiquity all we
the box more book than box. So it came to be
Mrs Vex held her tongue, the music’s wounded
voice, infectious, invaded hers, his and her spit’s
benediction, tongue’s touch of tongue immaculate
All it was was that Rum still stood, ruin’s eternity,
all it was was that ruin stood still. . . Brother B was
back, it seemed he never left, he said, his wandering
the music’s way-
It was song number four times fifty-seven
but no one was counting. Brother B spoke of
there being more days in Rum than he could
more the more he remembered but more
than he could remember, a stone cabin perched
on a stilt where the wind blew thru, Mr Hot
calipers made in heaven. . . He dreamt he lay
on the floor looking up Mrs Vex’s dress, her
‘had no business there in the first place’ pure
seduction, all of it amid stone unthinkably old.
to say, what to say, we yelled out, an insurgent
sneeze kept at bay inside our noses, twin pinch-
es of next-level snuff up each of our nostrils, our
cetic witness in-
Rum, Brother B said, turned his head, his
head a horse’s ass after the fact. A horse’s
ass after his own heart, he said, mule as
as horse, he said. Rum fell away from
the tips of his toes, brick-brown expanse at
the foot of the hill his cabin sat hoisted
on. A bamboo stilt, he said, beginning to be
of breath, a board or a bamboo stilt stone’s
rescue, stone’s mortality rehearsed. . . It
was idiot wisdom. We wanted away from it.
wanted in, we wanted out, a conflicted choir,
copacetic witness’s relay. Brother B’s way of
saying Rome made it Antillean, a move he in-
vited us in with and we followed, heads ridden
as his. Rum was on the ground but of the air, he
said, bamboo bent by the storm that blew thru.
He took refuge in the Capuchin basement, he
We tilted our heads, high-pitched, a birdhead-
ed breed of horse. . . It was tell-my-horse talk
we took it. Brother B wasn’t really there. Rum
said it as well as Rome, he was right. Rome wasn’t
ly there. Rome undone the day he got there, he said,
Rum run come in a day. Ruin’s weaponized we,
he said, seed of empire, a dead horse left in his bed,
said, neigh not letting
Rum plied fact, feeling, the smell of whose
rooms an obtuse heaven. He stood ingesting
the bones’ memo, gratuitous memo. Bone
cognizes bone, he said. Ruin, he said, was
Rum’s middle name, trigger, tripwire, fin-
ger, its own whatever came after, all that
after. . . All the he-said, we’d have said, a
kind of tell-my-horse, horse’s-ass-headed as
he was, birdheaded as were we, a miracle
the fishes with nary a fish in sight. We’d’ve
said horse’s-ass-headed, we’d’ve said nary,
buoyed by the feel of each on our tongues,
cetic witness run
Brother B had us imagining a stone cot-
tage atop a bamboo stilt, the monks’ gra-
tuitous reminder everlasting ruin, everlast-
lasting Rum. . . Meanwhile back in Nub we
no longer athwart our skin, hot anger
blown down our necks no matter, hot anger
white hot, white anger, white complaint,
‘If you ask the stars to choose a place instead of the sky
They will say Palmyra.’
– Yaseen al-Farjani
The young man betrayed no emotion as he told the story: ‘They asked him to kneel. He refused. He said, “If you are going to kill me, it will be while I am standing. I will die like the date palms, upright.” Because he refused to kneel, they hit him behind the knees.’ The man’s legs collapsed, and he fell. A sword swept through his neck, severing his head.
The young man, Tarek Assa’ad, hesitated. This was not a distant memory, and the murdered man was no stranger. It was his father, Khaled Assa’ad. The 81-year-old archaeologist died on 18 August 2015 within sight of the house where he was born on 1 January 1934. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), then at the summit of its conquests, decapitated him with the same destructive fury that characterised its demolition of the Hellenic and Roman treasures that Khaled Assa’ad had dedicated his life to protecting. In the burning summer of 2015, the guardian and his city, called Palmyra for its stately palm trees, were dying together.
Tarek resumed his account, going back in time to his father’s childhood playing amid Palmyra’s classical temples, marketplace and sunlit theatre in the waning days of French rule over Syria. ‘He was so much in love with these artefacts,’ Tarek said. ‘When you wake up every day and see the Temple of Bel, you have to fall in love, don’t you?’ The temple dedicated to the Mesopotamian god Bel, or Baal, was Palmyra’s most distinctive structure. Its sacred enclosure, surrounded by porticos and columns, has fascinated scholars and travellers since its completion in ad 32. It intrigued no one more than the elder Assa’ad. He taught himself the Palmyrene dialect of Aramaic, the region’s lingua franca during the Roman era, in order to understand Palmyra’s elaborate inscriptions and the people who etched them in stone. After taking a degree in history from the University of Damascus, he stayed in the Syrian capital during its turbulent years of multiple military coups d’état to work for the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM). In 1963, DGAM sent him back to Palmyra to oversee excavations and curate the new museum that had opened beside the ruins.
The energetic director uncovered hidden tombs, located the marble fort of the Emperor Diocletian’s garrison, dug up hundreds of coins that had lain undiscovered for nearly two thousand years and found memorials to ancient Palmyra’s notable citizens. His discoveries and publications filled gaps in the elusive history of Palmyra’s rise from desert oasis a thousand years before Christ to thriving centre of world trade between Rome and India in the early Christian era. Thanks in part to his efforts, UNESCO declared Palmyra a World Heritage Site in 1980. It was no coincidence that Khaled Assa’ad named his first daughter for Palmyra’s fabled queen, Zenobia, who is forever associated with the city that she led to its greatest triumphs in the third century after Christ. He retired in 2003, when his oldest son among eleven children, Walid, succeeded him as antiquities director. Retirement did not prevent him from persevering with his digging, researching, writing and educating visitors about his beloved ruins.
In May 2015, more than four years into Syria’s civil war, everyone knew that ISIS militants were headed to Palmyra. They had just invaded Raqqa on the Euphrates River about 130 miles to the north and declared it capital of their new caliphate. With the Syrian Army preoccupied to the west in the more populous provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, nothing but desert and a few undefended villages stood between Raqqa and the ‘pearl of the desert’, Palmyra. Although strategically insignificant, it symbolised everything that the religious fanatics detested: Syria’s pre-Islamic history, beautiful artworks celebrating pagan gods and ancient funerary monuments. Palmyra as repository of Syria’s many cultures was to them anathema. Riding American armoured vehicles captured from the demoralised Iraqi Army, ISIS advanced south in mid-May. Its militants, led by suicide bombers in exploding trucks, opened the way through army checkpoints. Within a week, they had seized Palmyra.
By the time Dr Maamoun Abdul Karim, DGAM’s director-general from 2012 until last September, learned of ISIS’s intentions, it was too late to save Palmyra. The zealots had already demolished other historic sites, including Nineveh and Nimrud, in Syria and Iraq. Palmyra’s Doric columns and temples were too large to move, but Dr Abdul Karim ordered the transfer of as many valuables as a small fleet of trucks could carry from Palmyra to Damascus. ‘Three hours before the occupation by Da’esh,’ he said, using ISIS’s Arabic acronym, ‘the Syrian official police in Palmyra sent twenty policemen to support my colleagues to move the artefacts. We decided to do it in the middle of the night.’ While the battle for Palmyra raged between ISIS and a rearguard of Syrian troops, museum staff and twenty police commandos loaded 400 statues, along with hundreds of glass jars, ceramics and medals, onto hastily assembled trucks outside the Palmyra Museum. They worked throughout the night of 20 May. At dawn, the trucks moved out. ISIS rolled in ten minutes later.
Dr Abdul Karim told me the story in a cafe near Damascus University, where he taught archaeology before, during and after his retirement from DGAM last September. An archetypal Syrian gentleman of a bygone age, he smoked a water pipe and drank Turkish coffee. All that was missing was a red tarbush. Although aged fifty, he said, ‘After the last five years, I feel more than seventy. I’ve had no sleep for five years.’ The Syrian war saw him struggle to save antiquities all over Syria from jihadist vandals, who defaced what they called ‘idols’, and criminal looters, who sold their country’s heritage for huge profits overseas. His efforts earned him prizes from archaeological institutes in Italy, China, Algeria and elsewhere, but at home his university would not even grant him a sabbatical to rest from his hard labours.
Dr Abdul Karim’s passion for the country’s past had its roots in his background, which, while not Arab, is pure Syrian in its fascinating variety. ‘My father was Armenian, Bidros Krikor Eskidjian,’ he said. ‘In 1915, he was eight years old. His mother and father were killed.’ That was at the height of Turkey’s genocide of Armenians during the First World War, when thousands of Armenian orphans were roaming the Syrian countryside unaccompanied. ‘He was saved by the Abdul Karim family. They are Kurdish.’ His father adopted his Kurdish benefactors’ name and religion, Sunni Islam. ‘My mother is Syriac,’ he added. Her Syriac Orthodox Christian community, like the Armenians, had suffered massacres by Turks in the early twentieth century and more recent assaults by ISIS, including kidnappings and a suicide bombing attempt to kill the Syriac patriarch in Syria on the 101st anniversary of the Ottomans’ campaign against them. He summed up without a trace of self-pity, ‘I am from three genocides: Armenian, Kurdish and Syriac.’
Like Assa’ad, Dr Abdul Karim studied at Damascus University, but he went to France for his archaeology PhD. The Syrian civil war was entering its second year in 2012 when he became director-general. Responsibility for all of Syria’s archaeological museums and locales, six of which were UNESCO World Heritage Sites, was placed in his hands. His greatest support came from private citizens in both rebel and government areas, who hid antiquities from looters and jihadis before delivering them to DGAM. This was a grass-roots movement of Syrians – Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Muslims, Druze, Ismailis, Alawis and Christians – to preserve their shared patrimony. ‘In Aleppo,’ he said, ‘24,000 objects were moved to Damascus in one night.’ When ISIS was massing in April 2014 to assault the riverside city of Deir ez-Zor, Dr Abdul Karim’s volunteers packed up 30,000 pieces and shipped them to Damascus. The basement of the National Museum of Damascus overflowed with Syria’s most valuable historical relics.
Meanwhile, the trade in stolen artefacts from Palmyra and elsewhere was flourishing. Stolen statues, manuscripts, jewellery and ceramics turned up in Europe via Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. It was not as bad, however, as Dr Abdul Karim had feared: ‘We found that more than 70 per cent of the traffic outside Syria is fake.’ Many items, when their provenance was revealed, went back to Syria with the help of Interpol and other police agencies. ‘It’s not just our culture,’ Dr Abdul Karim said. ‘It is a universal heritage.’
Shortly after conquering Palmyra, on 27 May, ISIS released an eighty-seven-second video message promising to preserve the Roman ruins. That did not prevent ISIS a month later from initiating the systematic destruction of the graceful colonnades that stretched into the desert for nearly a mile along the ancient Roman road. Militants smashed the famed Lion of al-Lāt, a beautiful stone statue of a lion god protecting a gazelle that Polish archaeologist Michał Gawlikowski discovered only in 1977. Subsequent reports from Palmyra were vague about what was happening. Then, in late August, satellite photographs confirmed that ISIS had razed the site’s most impressive structures, the Roman-era Temples of Baalshamin and Bel. UNSECO head Irina Bokova called ISIS’s vandalism a ‘war crime’ and an ‘intolerable crime against civilisation’. ISIS followed those outrages with the destruction of Palmyra’s distinctive funeral towers that had stood for centuries at the fringe of the old city. If the jihadists stayed much longer, archaeologists feared, nothing would remain.
History may not be, as Henry Ford called it, ‘bunk’, but it can be contentious and usually serves rival masters. Myth surrounds the ISIS occupation of Palmyra from 2015 to 2017 as much as it clouds the tale of Queen Zenobia seventeen centuries ago. Zenobia inherited the Palmyrene throne from her husband, Rome’s ally and vassal Odaenathus, when he was assassinated in ad 267. Zenobia, said by contemporaries to have been both beautiful and so chaste that she made love to her husband only in order to have children, claimed kinship with antiquity’s other great queen, Cleopatra. Historian Yasmine Zahra wrote, ‘Zenobia was a Roman to the Romans, a Pan-Hellene to the Greeks, but in fact she was a Hellenised Arab.’ Zenobia came to power when the trading centre of Palmyra enjoyed its greatest revenues and the Roman Empire was suffering what historians call ‘the crisis of the third century’ with rebellions east and west threatening its unity. Zenobia took advantage of Roman weakness by conquering all of Syria, Egypt and part of Anatolia. When the Emperor Aurelian consolidated Rome’s control of the west, he led his army against her in 272.
Some chroniclers wrote that Aurelian killed her in battle, while others, like sixth-century Byzantine historian Zosimus, claimed that the emperor carried her as war booty to Rome, gave her a house in Tivoli and let her mature from exotic beauty into respectable Roman matron. In our time, observers differ on what transpired in Palmyra when ISIS conquered the city in May 2015, withdrew under Syrian and Russian assault in March 2016, returned nine months later and fled for the final time in March 2017.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s defenders maintain that the United States sent ISIS into Syria, while his opponents blame him. In Palmyra, several civilians swore to me that they had seen American warplanes flying in support of ISIS. Others said the Syrian Army assisted ISIS’s conquest of Palmyra.
Last October, I went to Palmyra for the first time since 1987. Syria thirty years ago was an island of peace between Iraq, then in its fifth year of war with Iran, and Lebanon, whose civil war had another three years to run. Palmyra’s ruins stretched over acres of a tranquil, isolated plain. Its allure owed as much to its position as to the structures left by the ancient Palmyrenes. ‘The beauty of Palmyra is its silence,’ Dr Abdul Karim told me. In this, he shared the view of Sir Mark Sykes. Sykes, whose famous 1915 accord with French diplomat François Georges-Picot is not blameless in the Syrian tragedy, had written in his 1904 travelogue, Dar-ul-Islam, ‘The real attraction of Palmyra is its solitude; the great noisy money-proud city overturned, shaken and deserted, the sand-worn colonnades, the crumbling temples, the ruined tombs, unprepossessing in themselves, have been beautified by decay, and rendered pathetic by their forlornness and silence.’ Nothing had changed when I saw it more than eighty years after Sykes. Palmyra was an exquisite diadem at the eastern edge of what had been the Roman world, its grandeur enhanced rather than diminished by millennia of neglect.
Until the 1930s, semi-settled nomads had lived in mud hovels within the ruins. The French Mandate authorities moved them into Tadmor, the town that was expanding on the northern and eastern outskirts of Palmyra. The French had already built a prison there to hold (and torture) Syrians who fought for independence in the uprising of 1925. Syria’s post-independence governments kept the prison. It became the scene of the bloody murder of hundreds of political prisoners by the notorious Rifaat al-Assad in reprisal for the attempted assassination of his brother, President Hafez al-Assad, in 1980. I wrote about Tadmor in Tribes with Flags: A Journey Curtailed:
Few buildings in Tadmor seemed over two storeys high, but every roof had steel rods sticking out ready for a new floor to be added when a son married. The only building materials used in the last twenty-five years were those which cursed the whole Levant: grey breezeblocks and concrete of numbing uniformity. The old, simple houses of mud or stone were beautiful by comparison, but few remained.
Tadmor town then was as squalid as Palmyra’s ruins were majestic, but it was intact, and its people were hospitable. The ISIS occupations and the government’s battles to retake it have ravaged it.
When Don McCullin and I returned to Palmyra and Tadmor, we remembered them as they were before ISIS. Don ran to the Temple of Bel, which he had photographed for his 2010 book Southern Frontiers. Little was left of the monument he had painstakingly recorded. The empty horizon loomed over shattered stones. ‘Don’t photograph the Russians,’ a Ministry of Information official warned him as he climbed atop a massive hunk of limestone.
On this latest visit, I went into the town to find streets clogged with war detritus, water and sewage pipes crumbled and buildings collapsed with their innards exposed to the elements. Barely a hundred people out of an estimated pre-war population of 70,000 have returned. Among them were the al-Khateeb family, who had reopened their ‘supermarket’, a small room on the ground floor of the building where they lived. Twenty-six-year-old Ghaith al-Khateeb was running the shop for his father, Issa. The young man offered me coffee and talked about life in Tadmor while Russian soldiers loitered outside.
He shed light on one point of contention: whether the army had aided civilians to evacuate or abandoned them in its hasty retreat in May 2015. He said, ‘The army facilitated the flow of the civilians. Some stayed, about 300 people.’ He had fled with his father, mother, two brothers and two sisters to relatives in Homs. They came back after the Syrian Army expelled ISIS in March 2016 and reopened the shop.
The Russians celebrated victory in Palmyra with a concert in the ancient theatre. On 5 May, Valery Gergiev conducted the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra in performances of Prokofiev and Bach to an audience of Russian and Syrian military personnel. ‘We protest against barbarians who destroyed wonderful monuments of world culture,’ Gergiev declared. ‘We protest against the execution of people here on this great stage.’ Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared on a video screen to praise his troops for their ‘fight against terrorism without sparing their own lives’. The ceremony proved both premature and vainglorious. The following December, ISIS returned.
ISIS’s second conquest of Palmyra astonished everyone, and fed the belief in a Syrian government conspiracy to assist ISIS. Russian and American satellites should have spotted ISIS fighters speeding across the barren landscape and given US-backed rebels or the Syrian Army time to defend the city. Colonel Sami Ibrahim of Syria’s Military Media Department, sitting in a shaded bunker beside the T4 oil pumping station about forty miles west of Palmyra, said it did not happen that way. ‘The second time, they made use of some of the enclaves that were not liberated,’ he said. He showed me photographs of tunnels that the ISIS fighters dug into rock outside Palmyra, when they fled from the city in March 2016. The deep tunnels were covered in gravel as camouflage from aerial reconnaissance. ISIS did not come all the way across the desert from Raqqa, he insisted, but infiltrated from positions nearby. That December, the Syrian Army, with Russian air cover, was concentrating on the expulsion of rebels from eastern Aleppo. Aleppo became the decisive battle of the war, initiating the steady return of more and more territory to government control and undermining international support for the rebels.
On its return, ISIS resumed the destruction of ancient monuments and the execution of those it labelled kafirs, non-believers, until the army drove them out again in March 2017. The Khateeb family had again taken refuge in Homs and returned to Palmyra with the Syrian Army to reopen their shop. Khateeb led me from the modest grocery to a souvenir emporium below selling trinkets, small carpets, handmade mother-of-pearl boxes and plaster replicas of the Roman temples. ‘At first, we opened a supermarket,’ he explained. ‘We saw that souvenirs were in demand, so we concentrated on such items.’ The souvenir buyers were the Russian troops who patrolled Tadmor’s streets on foot, lodged in dispersed barracks, including one inside the Roman ruins, and appeared to act as a guarantee against a third ISIS invasion. One Russian soldier used his few words of Arabic to negotiate the price of postcards and mementos to send home. Another soldier examined several items under the glass counter without buying any, much to Khateeb’s amusement.
Khateeb pointed to a huge opening gouged in the wall. He explained, ‘They put holes in the walls and linked all the basements.’ His basement had been an ISIS field hospital. He had cleaned it up to install the shop. ‘Business is okay,’ he said. The only customers were Russian and Syrian soldiers. Most of the inhabitants of Tadmor were waiting for the restoration of electricity and running water before returning. Khateeb kept the lights on with a small generator that vibrated outside. ‘I’m happy and unhappy at the same time,’ he said. ‘All my friends have left. Will they return? Insha’allah.’
A few streets away, Mohammed Khalid Allawi was grilling meat on a wood fire in the street in front of a shabby restaurant that was little more than a concrete box with a few tables. Beside him, his wife, Daline, and Aunt Fouda were washing and chopping vegetables. ‘The army helped us get out,’ he said, ‘or we would have been executed.’ Although he was a practising Muslim and both women wore scarves over their hair, he said of ISIS, ‘They think of me as a kafir. They believe they are the custodians of religion. What kind of religion do they believe in?’ He said that Christians had lived among Muslims in Tadmor, until ISIS drove them out. No one knew whether they would return.
Turning meat on the fire, Allawi continued, ‘This is our home. This is my work. I hope all the residents will be back. Thank God, it’s safe all around. We fled twice.’ Did he think he would flee again? ‘No. It’s finished. It’s only a matter of one month or two and they will be driven out of all Syria.’ He directed me to a Christian church nearby. ISIS had burned it to a husk. The only signs of worship were the torn pages of charred hymnals.
Everyone in Tadmor had a story, none of them happy. A 51-year-old man slouched in a chair inside his tiny sandwich shop was staring at a vacant lot opposite. He invited me to sit and gave me Turkish coffee in a plastic cup. He introduced himself as Mohammed Saleh Ali Mahmoud. ‘I used to be a wealthy man in Tadmor,’ he said. ‘Take a look. See what I’m left with.’ It wasn’t much. A few shelves of biscuits and tinned milk, loaves of Arabic bread in plastic wrap, a desk. Before ISIS occupied Tadmor the first time, Mohammed ran a building firm and a lucrative business leasing heavy construction equipment. His main customer was the Syrian Army, whose engineers were involved in various building projects in the region. ‘When Da’esh came, I left after two days,’ he recalled. ‘My son Adnan stayed.’ Adnan was twenty-six and unmarried. He worked for his father. His father advised him to leave, but he stayed to protect the company assets. ISIS looted the family’s house and seized the heavy equipment. Mohammed said, ‘They said I’m a kafir and distributed my property to people they knew, to Da’esh people.’ Adnan hid in a friend’s house, while ISIS hunted down everyone it suspected had connections to the Syrian regime. ‘Someone told them he was hiding there,’ the father said. ‘One of our relatives, who had come to Homs, phoned me and told me about it.’
ISIS put scores of people on trial, including Adnan. Mohammed told me that they sentenced him to death and beheaded him. Later in our conversation he said they shot him. When ISIS retreated the second time, they took some of his machines with them and detonated the rest. ‘I lost everything,’ he said, ‘but I wish they had taken everything and left my son.’ Unable to find Adnan’s body, the family could not hold a funeral or bury him. ISIS had anyway despoiled graves of those whose bodies were found. ‘They even destroyed the tombs,’ Mohammed said, referring to the empty land in front of us, formerly a burial ground the size of a football field. Its elaborate tombstones were now pummelled to dust. ‘According to the Wahhabis,’ Mohammed said, referring to ISIS’s Saudi..
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