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She was about to flush the toilet. “Mother?” She looked back. There was a head popping out of the toilet, calling for her. “Mother?” The woman looked at it for a moment. Then, she flushed the toilet. The head disappeared in a rush of water. She left the bathroom. A few days later, she met the head again in the bathroom. “Mother!” The woman reached to flush the toilet again. The head sputtered, “N-no, just a minute – ”
The woman stayed her hand and looked down at the head in the toilet. It was probably more accurate to refer to it as “a thing that vaguely looked like a head” than an actual head. It was about two-thirds the size of an adult’s head and resembled a lump of carelessly slapped-together yellow and grey clay, with a few scattered clumps of wet hair. No ears, no eyebrows. Two slits for eyes so narrow that she couldn’t tell if its eyes were open or closed. The crushed mound of flesh that was meant to be its nose. The mouth was also a lipless slit. This slit was awkwardly opening and closing as it talked to her, its strained speech mixed with the gurgling of a person drowning, making it difficult to understand.
I arrived in Copenhagen sweaty and halfway out of myself after an extremely fictional flight. Frankly, I would use that word for any air travel, but on this trip I had, shortly after takeoff, fallen into a light feverish daze in which I relived a series of flights I had taken earlier in my life. First, there was the trip home from Nepal with my ex-wife, then- girlfriend, our first trip together, when we, maybe out of boredom, curled up in our seats and took turns miming various sexual scenarios that the other person had to guess and sketch on a piece of paper, which we cut into pieces and reassembled into new situations to mime again, so that the game could continue for eternities. In my daze was also my departure from Copenhagen six years later, after she became pregnant around the same time that she had been cheating on me with a colleague, and I was so panicked and grieved by my jealousy—which seemed just as impossible to live with if the baby was mine as if it wasn’t—that I packed my things, went to the airport and said Málaga to the man behind the counter, for some reason I said Málaga. Additionally, I relived a flight home from a work trip a few years later, during which I was unable to work, to say a word to anyone, because I was completely paralyzed by what I had seen from my window during takeoff: Past the gates, overlooking the runway, there was an observation deck where kids of all ages stood with their parents watching the planes take off. At one corner, a woman stood with her back to the railing—long, dark hair in the frozen sun—looking at a man running toward her, across the deck, and as we flew past he fell to the ground as if shot by a gun.
And I see myself standing there looking at the two lines that cross in the middle, one brown and one purple, and I see that I’ve painted the lines slowly, with a lot of thick oil paint, and the paint has run, and where the brown and purple lines cross the colours have blended beautifully and I think that I can’t look at this picture anymore, it’s been sitting on the easel for a long time now, a couple of weeks maybe, so now I have to either paint over it in white or else put it up in the attic, in the crates where I keep the pictures I don’t want to sell, but I’ve already thought that thought day after day, I think and then I take hold of the stretcher and let go of it again and I realise that I, who have spent my whole life painting, oil paint on canvas, yes, ever since I was a boy, I don’t want to paint anymore, ever, all the pleasure I used to take in painting is gone, I think and for a couple of weeks now I haven’t painted anything, and I haven’t once taken my sketchpad out of the brown leather shoulderbag hanging above the stack of paintings I’ve set aside, over there between the hall door and the bedroom door, and I think that I want to get rid of this painting and get rid of the easel, the tubes of oil paint, yes, everything, yes, I want to get rid of everything on the table in the main room, everything that has to do with painting in this room that’s been both a living room and a painting studioq...
Rafael was fifteen years old when his mother died and out him out of her misery. Rain poured down on the mourners huddled under umbrellas in the small kibbutz cemetery. Tuvia, Rafael’s father, sobbed bitterly. He had cared for his wife devotedly for years and now looked lost and bereft. Rafael, wearing shorts, stood apart from the others and pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his eyes so that no one would know he wasn’t crying. He thought: now that she’s dead, she can see all the things I thought of her.
That was in the winter of 1962. A year later his father met Vera Novak, who had come to Israel from Yugoslavia, and they became a couple. Vera had arrived with her only daughter, Nina, a tall, fair-haired girl of seventeen whose long face, which was pale and very beautiful, showed almost no expression.
On the day the Berlin Wall came down, I was ten; television screens all over the world glowed with images of people cheering and chanting, swarms of men and women dancing and crying and raising victory signs in front of crumbling stones and debris and clouds of dust; in France, we attended this historic event via the evening news, with fadeouts to the somber face of the anchorman, whom we’d invited to sit down to dinner with us – at least those among us who were sitting down to dinner, who still followed that family ritual and for whom the eight o’clock news had replaced the saying of grace as a sort of prayer for the Republic. I could tell, by the way the pitch of the anchorman’s voice fell, that something serious was going on, yet despite his explanations, the geopolitical significance of all this chaos was entirely lost on me. I had no idea of the issues at stake. Still, I was transfixed by the footage, riveted to our television set, in which I discerned – past the glare of the screen, among the ruins, the debris, the rubble – traces of my mother: her mangled face, her scattered body parts, her ashes. Up to that point, I’d admired my mother blindly, rapturously. But now a shadow had fallen over her image.
One day toward the end of April, between classes, I unzipped my pencil case and found a folded triangle of paper between the pencils.
I unfolded it to see what was inside.
That’s all it said. Thin letters that looked like little fish-bones, written in mechanical pencil.
I quickly folded it up and slid it back into my pencil case. Taking a breath, I paused a second before looking around the room as casually as possible. The same group of classmates joking around and howling, the usual break between classes. I tried to calm myself down by repeatedly straightening my textbooks and notebooks, then I sharpened a pencil, taking my time. Before long, the bell rang for third period. Chair legs screeched across the floor. The teacher walked into the room and class began.
It was all fatboy’s fault, that’s what he would tell them. It was all because of Franco Andrade and his obsession with Señora Marián. Polo just did what he was told, followed orders. Fatboy was completely crazy about her, and Polo had seen first-hand how for weeks the kid had talked about nothing but screwing her, making her his, whatever it took; the same shit over and over like a broken record, his eyes vacant and bloodshot from the alcohol and his fingers sticky with cheesy powder, which the fat pig only ever licked clean once he’d scoffed the whole jumbo bag of crisps. I’ll fuck her like this, he’d drawl, having clambered to his feet at the edge of the dock; I’ll fuck her like this and then I’ll flip her on all fours and I’ll bang her like this, and he’d wipe the drool from his mouth with the back of his hand and grin from ear to ear with those toothpaste ad teeth of his, big, white and straight and also clenched in rage as his gelatinous body wobbled in a crude pantomime of coitus and Polo looked away and laughed feebly and made the most of fatboy being distracted to swipe the bottle, light another cigarette and blow the smoke hard up into the air to repel the ferocious mangrove mosquitos.
I took the elevator to the third floor of the hotel and went into the Emerald Hall. Had she said the guest list was four hundred people? It looked like a lot more than that. I sat down in my designated seat and looked around the table: my cohort of French majors, all of us ageing at different speeds.
How many of them were there? I guess this was the reward for Jaehee saying yes to every postgraduation bender and homecoming-day event. Moments like these made Jaehee’s social life seem to border on the grotesque. I was forced to acknowledge acquaintances I hadn’t talked to in five, even ten years.
“Congratulations! I hear you’re a writer now.” “You should get in touch more often.” “Hey, there was a rumour that you’d died, but here you are!” “Where can I find your stories? I tried searching for them on the Internet.” “Wow, writing must be tough on you. Look at how much weight you’ve gained.” “Do you still drink as much as you used to?”
“With the rain, the river rises and rises, bringing brown water to our front door: the dry, yellow dust on the car browning in the damp; the blue welcome mat creeping out through the narrow garage, then the rusty green gate, able to return home only if we recall it should be there, only if we recall it exists; and the mayflies hovering over the surface of the water. From this black window do we eyeball it all. Then, faintly, the terrified yowl of a cat from who knows where. Then the widow who lives at the intersection, in a blue rain jacket, wading through the water, following its flow. We know the sun is watching us watching everything, with its eye bigger than this blue eye, this orb on which we stand. But then, a tug at your T-shirt. A tiny hand and a summons to come down to breakfast. Someone is waiting for you below, they say, someone who has been searching for you for a long time. An okay, and I’ll be down soon...
From ‘Enkidu Comes Knocking On New Year’s Eve’
The trick is to lift up the right foot, just a few centimetres off the floor, move it forward through the air, just enough to get past the left foot, and when it gets as far as it can go, lower it. That’s all it is, Elena thinks. But she thinks this, and even though her brain orders the movement, her right foot doesn’t move. It does not lift up. It does not move forward through the air. It does not lower back down. It’s so simple. But it doesn’t do it. So Elena sits and waits. In her kitchen. She has to take the train into the city at ten o’clock; the one after that, the eleven o’clock, won’t do because she took the pill at nine, so she thinks, and she knows, that she has to take the ten o’clock train, right after the medication has managed to persuade her body to follow her brain’s orders. Soon. The eleven o’clock train won’t do because by then the medicine’s effect will have diminished and almost disappeared and she’ll be back to where she is now, but without any hope that the levodopa will take effect.
Levodopa is the name for the chemical that will begin circulating in her body once the pill has dissolved; she has known that name for a while now. Levodopa. The doctor said it and she wrote it down for herself on a piece of paper because she knew she wasn’t going to understand the doctor’s handwriting. She knows that the levodopa is moving through her body. All she can do now is wait.
The official came up, opened the door without pausing to ask permission, stepped inside and gestured for me to join him. I stood in front of eight unfamiliar people waiting for me, those eight who made up the commission devised by the new government to find an adequate solution, just the latest in the new government’s long list of mistaken adequate solutions, to the chaos that had resulted, suddenly, from implementing a policy of racial quotas for students in Brazil, that sleepwalking country, the giant ex-colony of the Portuguese crown in South America, branded across the world as a place of ethnic harmony, of oh so very successful miscegenation, a place where the practice of white men raping black and indigenous women had been allowed to run wild for centuries, and, as in almost all those lands christened the New World, had been assimilated, mitigated, forgotten, a place where, in the twentieth century, nobody ever dared, let alone seriously, to propose a law forbidding a black from getting together with a white, white with indigenous, indigenous with black, a country that’s number one in the rankings of the planet’s so-called racial democracies, an emblem of a kind of friendliness that is unique, indecipherable, and which people who don’t know any better tend to generalise as being a sign of the unrivalled warmth of Brazil.
A tale tells itself. It can be complete, but also incomplete, the way all tales are. This particular tale has a border and women who come and go as they please. Once you’ve got women and a border, a story can write itself. Even women on their own are enough. Women are stories in themselves, full of stirrings and whisperings that float on the wind, that bend with each blade of grass.
The setting sun gathers fragments of tales and fashions them into glowing lanterns that hang suspended from clouds. These too will join our story.
The story’s path unfurls, not knowing where it will stop, tacking to the right and left, twisting and turning, allowing anything and everything to join in the narration. It will merge from within a volcano, swelling silently as the past boils forth into the present, bringing steam, embers, and smoke.
There are two women in this story. Besides these women, there are others who came and went, those who kept coming and going, those who always stayed but weren’t as important, and those yet to be mentioned, who weren’t women at all. For now, let’s just say two women were important, and of these, one was growing smaller and the other bigger.
Once swallowed, the piece of paper lodges in her oesophagus near her heart. Saliva-soaked. The specially prepared black ink dissolves slowly now, the letters losing their shapes. Within the human body, the word splits in two: substance and essence. When the former goes, the latter, formlessly abiding, may be absorbed into the body’s tissues, since essences always seek carriers in matter – even if this is to be the cause of many misfortunes.
Yente wakes up. But she was just almost dead! She feels this distinctly now, like a pain, like the river’s current – a tremor, a clamour, a rush. With a delicate vibration, her heart resumes its weak but regular beating, capable. Warmth is restored to her bony, withered chest. Yente blinks and just barely lifts her eyelids again. She sees the agonised face of Elisha Shorr, who leans in over her. She tries to smile, but that much power over her face she can’t quite summon.