by Edward Hower
Five Points - A Journal of Art & Literature, Vol.15, No.1-2, 2013
I rub the back of my finger where the loss of my ring aches like a phantom limb. The ring was embossed with a gleaming silver quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala, and over the years I turned it round and round so many times that the bird was worn down to a ghost of itself. Now that it's gone, though, I long to feel the tiny beak and stroke the curl of its feathery tail.
Tonight, I'm staying in a hotel in southeast Asia, in the room where a maid or porter must have stolen my ring while I rushed downstairs late for an appointment.
Shaken, I remember the trip my parents and I made to Guatemala when I was eleven. After I developed a raw throat and broiling fever in the north, where the Mayan ruins were, they took me back to the capital city. From my hotel bed I heard my father shouting at the manager, Please—get my son a doctor! The manager, a chubby man in a tight suit, said he regretted my illness very much but the hotel physician, whose office was many blocks away, could not come because the army had ordered a curfew in the city. He added that the curtains over our balcony must please remain closed; its glass door looked out on a street close to the National Palace which had been targeted by rebel planes.
When he left, my father said, Does that little man think drapes can keep out stay bullets? Not that any're going to come buzzing our way! My mother begged him to phone the American Embassy to find me medical help. He dialed the number over and over, but each time the line crackled for a while and went dead.
She pressed her knuckles to her lips, staring at the closed curtains. As groggy as I was, I knew she was on the verge of tears not just because she was worried about my fever and the possibility of gunfire outside, but because she badly needed a drink. Earlier that afternoon, after green-uniformed soldiers had told the manager to lock the hotel's front door, I'd heard her plead with him to open the bar. The keys are right there! she insisted, pointing to a rack behind his desk. She winced as if jets of gritty wind were blowing against her eyelids.
The manager—SR. FERDINANDO, according to the brass plate on the counter–didn't reach for the keys. The barman is not able to come in, he said, and I must stay at my post–I am obliged to think of the safety of my guests! He kept mopping his face with a handkerchief. Madame, I can not even learn if my own family is safe!
My mother started to complain again, and I expected my father to yell at her to shut up, but he just gripped her elbow and guided her upstairs to our rooms. At home I'd sometimes told her to shut up, myself, when she tried to cajole me out of my sullenness. But after she put me to bed here, I was aware of her hand trembling as she stroked my forehead, and for the first time ever, I felt very sad for her.
Then the moment passed. I was aware mostly of hot coals blistering my throat. The rumbling of heavy vehicles in the street reminded me of faraway thunder, as if I were lying on an island in the eye of a storm. I did know something unusual was going on outside this overheated space I shared with my parents; whatever it was intensified their urgent voices and shadowy movements around me. My father's shouts into the phone–The boy's running a temperature of 104 degrees! Can you hear me?–were both alarming and reassuring. He was ordinarily a severe, distant man; I hadn't heard him sound so upset about me before.
I'd never known him or my mother very well. They lived in the main part of our sprawling country house while I occupied the wing off the kitchen with my nanny-cum-housekeeper, whom I called Miss G. From our two rooms there, the old servants' quarters, we often heard my parents shouting and slamming doors late into the night. Miss G complained that our “cells” were cramped and dreary, but to me they were safe, cozy caves.
One day, when I was eleven, I came home from school to find our doors locked. My parents had dismissed the woman who had loved and raised me. Afterwards, they let me phone her every Sunday, but we both cried so hard we could hardly speak to each other.
For over a year, as they tried to take over my upbringing, I did my best to make sure they'd fail at the job as disastrously as Miss G had warned me they would. My father took me to the country club; I refused to jump into the pool with him. My mother bought me books and toys; I flung them into the back of the closet. Now I had to eat meals in the dining room with my parents and sleep in a new bedroom upstairs from which I could hear them arguing about what on earth they'd do with me.
Once at the top of my class in school, I started getting F's–except on one paper about the ancient Mayan Empires. My father asked me if I'd like to visit Guatemala to see the actual Indians. I said No! and started tearing up the paper he'd barged into my room to read. He slapped my face so hard I bounced off the wall. I was too surprised to cry; the tingling in my cheek almost made me laugh with relief. My father helped me pick up the scraps of paper, both of us out of breath.
My mother worried about whether going to a place like Guatemala could be safe. My father assured her that, though its government was communist-leaning, President Eisenhower, who'd won the war in Europe, wasn't going to let any troublemakers bother U.S. citizens in some tiny Latin American country. And if we were careful about what we ate and drank, we'd stay perfectly healthy. My mother relented. When I refused to pack, she stuffed my new suitcase with clothes, including mismatched socks and long-outgrown shirts.
Having learned from Miss G to be sly around my parents, I kept up a silent defiance in northern Guatemala by sneaking away from our hotel to gulp down the strictly forbidden syrupy drinks that local people sold from roadside carts. Eventually, though, I grew fascinated by the old temples and the villages where Mayan Indians in brightly dyed cotton clothes came out to greet us. My father and I had something to talk about other than the problems I was causing at home. In one town's market, I admired a ring with a silver bird on it; my mother offered to buy it for me. I shook my head. But the old man who'd made it said the bird, a quetzal, was a powerful Mayan spirit; when he reached out to slip the ring on my finger, I raised my hand toward it.
Crack! Crack! I sat up in bed, rubbing my eyes. Crack! The noises reverberated from the street below the balcony. Are those guns? I croaked.
My father lowered the phone receiver and turned to me. No, no–store owners here slam big metal blinds down over their windows when they close for the day, he explained. That's all you hear.
But it's too early for them to close! my mother said.
The merchants are probably just worried about some…rumors or something. My father's eyes weren't shiny like the manager's, but they had a similar worried glint. Señor Ferdinando had almost no hair; my father's was thick and gray. I've never seen it uncombed before. He stared down at the phone receiver in his hand as if it were a useless dog's bone. It's outrageous! I can't get through to our own embassy!
More heavy blinds hit the sidewalks. I felt like whimpering with each crash but that would have hurt. Turning my ring round and round on my finger, I waited until the street outside was quiet again. The raw swelling in my throat made my breaths come out in scratchy moans.
My mother leaned over me, a thin-faced woman with frizzed grey hair, her forehead deeply lined. Can you open your mouth? She asked me, and I did. She dribbled some liquid down my throat from a tilted cup. It jiggled as her hand shook, splashing my lips. Later I learned that it contained water mixed with some crushed morphine tablets Señor Ferdinando had given her. All I knew then was that my pain was drifting away and my bed had turned to a soft raft floating on a sea whose warmth I could feel rising through me.
My parents and I had adjacent rooms containing two beds each; now my mother and father took turns watching me from the extra bed in my room. During her shift, my mother lay on her side, staring blankly at the closed curtains the way she sometimes did at home when she spent days in the chaise longue in her room refusing to come out. When my father took her place, he sat up against the bed's headboard with his stocking feet resting on the blanket. I'd never seen his feet in anything but black shoes or tennis sneakers. Changing shifts again, my mother and father spoke in phrases that hovered in the air like streaky little clouds.
told you we shouldn't have risked bringing him here, Ralph. Now look what
but things were going so well in the north. You said so yourself, he
I kept hoping and hoping. Oh, why do things always have to go so wrong
dammit, he was finally talking to us, Marion! He was smiling, eating and
A grinding sound cancelled out their words—the big fan on the bureau clunked to a halt. A whirling circle of wind had become the petals of a caged, steel daisy.
all we need! Can't you do something, Ralph, my God it's too hot to
My father sucked in his breath and strode out of the room. I waited to hear the door slam but it hung somewhere between wide open and closed.
The morphine freed my mind from being continually scorched by pain, and my thoughts seemed to come from somewhere outside my body instead of from inside my throat. Ever since we'd arrived in Guatemala, I reflected, my parents had fought less and less. In the north, I'd watched them walk around the hotel patio together, leaning down to touch the flowering bushes whose eager colors splashed over the walls. Here in the capital, they agreed that the park was a pretty place to walk in, that our hotel was charming.
I'd liked the hotel, too, before I got sick, especially its wood-paneled library full of big, dusty books in Spanish with drawings of armored conquistadores fighting feathered savages. Just at five o'clock my mother carried in her drink from the bar and, with the ice cubes clinking softly in my ear, looked at the pictures over my shoulder as I turned the pages. Then she sat in one of the overstuffed chairs facing me, smiling faintly. The piney scent of gin and the room's beige warmth lulled us into a peaceable silence.
Following my father, Señor Ferdinando came back to our room to see about the fan. Beads of sweat trickled down his plump cheeks like tears. I'd once read a book about a Spanish bull named Ferdinand who preferred smelling flowers to fighting, and now I pictured the manager as a hornless bull in a tight suit. But I liked him; he always smiled at me in the lobby, even after my mother had screamed at him.
Electricity is not functioning in the hotel at present, he said.
My father clenched his fists. But you must have an emergency generator!
I hoped not. Years before, one winter while Miss G was away on her vacation, a storm had knocked out the house's electricity and I'd slept wrapped in blankets in front of the living room fireplace beside my parents. For several days and nights, they didn't shout or slam doors. My mother cooked on a grate over the flickery logs while the wind howled outside the windows. My father whittled a piece of kindling into a long fork so I could turn bread into toast above the low flames. It was an adventure, like being marooned on the Swiss Family Robinson's island.
There is no generator, Señor Ferdinando said to my father.
It's too goddamn hot in here to keep those curtains shut.
My mother patted the air with her palms. We know this is difficult for everyone–
Right–let's just try to stay calm, my father said. This whole thing's going to blow over in a day or two and everybody'll forget it ever happened.
Isn't there a doctor… My mother spoke very slowly to Señor Ferdinando to make him understand. …close to the hotel?
The manager frowned. There is one certain doctor. But we do not like to call him.
Why not? My father demanded.
For heaven's sake… My mother's voice trailed off as she stared at the manager's face.
I understood only a little of what he and my parents said next, but the tone of their voices alarmed me.
The doctor lives across the street from the hotel. Señor Ferdinando's voice was almost a whisper. That man…he came to this country from Germany years ago, after the war. It is known…that he worked in the extermination camps.
The rumbling sounds from the street grew louder. My mother pressed her knuckles against her lips. My father shook his head over and over.
Among the few things I knew about my parents were what they'd done in the wars. In the first one, my father's bi-plane had been shot down on the German border and he'd been dragged away from the wreck with a smashed leg. During the second war, he worked for the government in Washington, and my mother, wearing the uniform of the Red Cross Motor Corps, drove sick servicemen from troop ships to hospitals near our home in Connecticut. I still remembered a summer afternoon when she'd stopped to rest for a few minutes at our house; I'd climbed onto the running board of her brown station wagon to peer through the window. Two shirtless men were lying on cots in back; I could see their chest-bones almost poking through their skin, their eyes bulging out of deep hollows. I screamed until Miss G grabbed me away. She told me years later that the Germans had shut those two American soldiers up in camps just like Jews and then forced them dig huge tunnels, day and night, with hardly anything to eat. I had no idea what Jews were but the thought of working in dark tunnels gave me nightmares.
I don't know…what to do, my father said. I'd never heard his voice sound so shaky.
I don't, either. My mother wiped her eyes.
Is he a good doctor? My father asked Señor Ferdinando. I don't mean good, I mean…
Patients come to his office. This is all I know.
My mother sat down hard on the side of my bed. Maybe we'll have to a take a chance.
My father leaned over me. But listen to how much better his breathing is.
That's probably the morphine. My mother's fingers rested on my forehead. Are you awake? How do you feel?
I feel… I was still floating on the raft. All I knew for sure was that I was terrified of seeing a German. I feel… okay. Honest, I… My throbbing throat blocked my voice.
His forehead's burning, my mother said. We can't wait any longer–
A rattling sound crashed into the room—stopped–started again even louder. I heard rapid clatters–faster and faster—like an enormous swooping can of nails shaking furiously overhead. The walls vibrated, the air rippled. A copper lamp crashed to the floor, rolled over and over, slammed against a bureau.
I must have blacked out. When my eyes blinked open, my mother was wrapping gauze around Señor Ferdinando's wrist. A bullet had flown through the glass balcony door and the curtain, grazing his skin. On the bureau a small metal box was open: my mother's Red Cross first aid kit that my father had laughed at her for bringing. Now he had a dazed look on his face as he watched her bandage Señor Ferdinando. I'd never seen her do anything like this, and perhaps he hadn't either.
When she'd finished, the manager stepped back shakily. Pebbly pieces of glass sparkled at his feet, and a lot more lay like tiny ice chinks beneath the curtains. The heavy cloth had kept the glass from spraying all over us.
My father took Señor Ferdinando's arm. They stepped toward the door, speaking in low voices.
It's night. A hush has dropped over the room. My throat burns again. The room is very dark. Then candle flames flicker close to my bed. A piney gin scent blows softly over my face, my mother's breath. She's trying to smile, though her lips are tight at the corners. Beside her, my father's face glows in the wavery light. At the edge of the darkness the bald dome of Señor Ferdinando hovers like a planet.
Between my parents, a stranger's face comes into partial focus. He has veiny cheeks and white eyebrows that sometimes give little jumps as if they're alive. Below them I can't see the eyes but I feel the man's gaze. Around his neck hangs a stethoscope whose twin tentacles glitter.
Do not be frightened, my boy. His tone is jovial.
I see a shiny hypodermic needle approach out of the darkness. It pierces my skin and shoots some heavy fluid deep into my arm. I shudder as an ache begins to spread through my muscle. Then the feeling fades because the red-hot coals deep in my throat seem to be screaming.
My mother grips my wrist. It's all right, it's all right…
Shall we give two injections? The doctor snips his words off at the ends as if with scissors. I think so. The swelling of the throat must be reduced immediately.
Is it safe to give him so much? My mother's voice is a whisper in the darkness.
What's that drug you're giving him? My father asks.
This is quite a new medication. Penicillin. The doctor's eyebrows jump. It is being called a miracle drug. Without it, your son–
Yes, give it to him!
Another prick, this time in the other arm, and the ache spreading.
The doctor nods at me. You are a brave boy.
I croak, Go away…
His face rises.
Señor Ferdinando's dome disappears. His footsteps fade across the room.
As I begin to doze off, I hear the doctor talking.
serious strep throat. The symptoms very much resemble trench mouth
soldiers in the trenches…. My father's voice is faint. Some of them even died
oh yes. But nowadays such diseases are found only in these backward countries, with sanitation of Indians so poor, contamination of water
but we were always so careful
did the boy take the sweet drinks they sell on the streets
I push my face into the pillow. My thumb presses the outline of the bird on the ring. Behind my eyelids, the candles flicker for a moment until I sink into darkness.
Sunlight stung my eyes. Near the open balcony doors, a small dark woman in a blue uniform squatted to sweep glass flakes into a dustpan, a crunchy sound. On the bed beside me, my mother was sprawled in her grey suit, one bare foot hanging over the edge, jiggling fast.
It was night when I next looked around. My father sat up on the bed where my mother had been, his socks pushed into the blanket. The fan whirred again, the bedside lamp blazed. My parents whispered. I heard my mother crying. My father stood close to her with his hand on her shoulder. Palms pressed my forehead again and again. My mother lifted my arm, my father slid a thermometer into my armpit.
What does it say?
My father paced. The ice in my mother's glass clinked close to my ears as if she were trying to cool me off.
It was morning. I sat up, blinking. The pain had just about gone from my throat. I could swallow again! My father took my temperature and held the little rod up to the light. Ninety nine! Look at that!
My mother grabbed his arm. My God, it really was a miracle drug!
Can I get up? I asked her, my voice still scratchy but loud. I want to get up now!
That evening I was able to dress myself and walk down to the dining room with my parents. The floor was wobbly under my feet. I looked for Señor Ferdinando at his post behind his desk, but he'd disappeared.
At breakfast-time the next morning, he was still missing. I felt bad that I'd pictured him as a timid bull. At lunch, he wasn't behind his desk, either, and I was afraid I might not see him before we checked out. The idea of going home depressed me, and I wanted to hide in the library looking at picture books. My parents decided I could stay there while they packed, if I promised not to go anywhere else.
As I flipped pages, the air felt heavy. I grew terribly restless. The drawings, mostly of old battles, scared me now. Dizzy as I was, I tiptoed across the lobby and stepped out the hotel's door onto the sidewalk, taking big breaths of fresh air. The city seemed almost deserted. Buildings looked scorched in the sunlight's glare.
I found myself in the small park where I'd seen Indian men and women sitting with their children on the grass and selling things from carts. They were all gone. Traffic noises were faint. Two gray-uniformed soldiers with rifles passed me, their boots thunking on the path. I held my breath; they didn't notice me. I approached a fountain: a statue of a robed woman pouring a continuous stream of water from a white pitcher into a tiled pool. I reached out to feel it splatter into my palms.
Wandering away from the park, I walked across an expanse of asphalt in front of the National Palace, a huge building with columns embedded in the façade and high, dull windows. I didn't notice that all of them were broken until I felt glass crunching underfoot. Shards of it were everywhere, glittering sharp as smashed ice. I felt precarious, as if I were crossing a frozen surface that was about to crack open beneath me.
Looking up, I saw my parents hurrying in my direction, and glanced around for somewhere to hide. Then, suddenly, I started waving to them with both hands. They had trouble walking on the glass, too, my mother gripping my father's arm. But they kept coming. They tottered on either side of me, my father steering me back to the solid ground of the park. I felt my mother trembling, though not the same way as she had days before. It occurred to me that she was frightened, and I stood straighter so that she could steady herself against my shoulder as she walked. In the park, we sat on a wooden bench beside a path.
Why did you leave the hotel? my mother asked.
I just needed to leave that room, I said, meaning the library. I wanted to see what had happened outside.
It's all right, Marion, my father said. The boy was curious.
It would have been cleverer to say I was sorry, but I wasn't. Are you mad at me, I asked them.
They glanced at each other and at me. Then, amazingly, they shook their heads.
I wish I could say that after we returned home, we stopped fighting and became a close, happy family. We didn't, but we did try, and I recall a period of détente—an island in time—when we talked calmly at the dinner table nearly every night. Occasionally we spoke about our escape from the revolution in Guatemala; my father assured us that shoot-ups like that were always going on in little banana republics. We never mentioned the doctor who'd come to my room. Soon I went away to boarding school, and then to college and jobs overseas. I saw my parents seldom, avoiding political discussions whenever I visited. We stayed in touch over the years until they died.
After the loss of my ring, I suddenly need to look up information about Guatemala on my laptop. With a few clicks, I find documents that weren't released for many years after the revolt. They report that the aerial machine-gun strafing I heard that afternoon in the capital was the start of an American-orchestrated coup that deposed the country's last democratically elected government and installed a series of dictatorships that secretly carried out what became known as “the silent holocaust.” Over 40,000 people were caused to disappear. Had our hotel manager been among the first? Over three decades, regime after American-backed regime carried out the extermination of at least 200,000 Mayan Indians.
Is there any way for me to fit into this history the night when my parents saved my life by calling in a Nazi doctor who had been part of an even more widespread genocide?
All this time later, I still recall the ache of the miracle drug spreading under my skin. Instinctually I reach for my ring finger to calm myself. Then I have an angry impulse to phone the front desk and report the quetzal ring missing from my room. But I don't, because I'm staying in a country in which any hotel employee accused of stealing from a United States citizen will be beaten senseless in a police dungeon, perhaps never to be seen again. Even in my silence—especially in my silence—I feel I am implicated in such scenes that occur in police facilities all over the world, everywhere that my country's influence is as powerful as it was on the evening when American-trained pilots opened fire on Guatemala's National Palace.
I think the best that I can do is clarify my own memories of the country, where the people are finally struggling to bring to light what happened in their cities and villages years ago.
Most of all, now, I want to picture the day when the three of us—my father and mother and I—are resting on a bench in the capital's park. Tree branches make a patch of shade for us. The air is hushed, warm. I smell wet grass around the fountain's overflowing pool. Up a path comes a clanking sound. Some men, followed by women and children in brightly-dyed cotton clothes, push wooden carts on which candies, cigarettes, and bottled drinks are arranged. I watch them go by, the carts' metal wheels bumping on the hard-packed dirt. Leaning back, I sit between my parents and listen to their quiet voices rise and fall as the water splashes in the fountain.
Children of the Maze
by Edward Hower
Five Points - A Journal of Art & Literature Vol.13 No.3, 2010
Walking up the driveway to Jaipur's prison complex, I recalled shadows of similar places falling over me, and nearly turned back. Then behind a window I saw a woman who must have been the social worker I'd contacted about my visit. A blurred figure, she seemed to be pressed against the heavy glass as she stared out at me. I stepped up to the main gate. A buzzer rasped, the gate's steel teeth slid sideways; when I'd stepped inside, it clanked shut behind me, making the floor shudder beneath my feet.
Mrs. Romila Sharma and I exchanged stiff namasté greetings, each pressing palms together. Her supervisor had ordered her to take me around, she said in a weary voice. In focus now, she looked alarmingly thin, and too young–30 at most—for the gray streaks in her hair. Her pale blue sari was gathered around her so tightly that her movements made only faint whispers.
“I'm very new to this posting but I will try to show you….” She narrowed her eyes at me. “Professor, what is it that you are looking for here?”
In my letter to her supervisor, a friend of one of my colleagues at the University of Rajasthan, I'd said I hoped to explore research possibilities for my Fulbright grant, and offered to teach English to make myself useful here. I'd written about my experience teaching in prisons, and the five years I'd spent counseling delinquents in reform schools a decade ago. Suddenly I missed those kids, and for a moment felt a rush of old worries that I might have caused some of them more harm than good by intervening in their lives. The taut, wary look on Mrs. Sharma's face reminded me of an expression I'd often seen in my mirror during my own years as a social worker.
“I'll be interested in anything you can show me,” I said, wishing I could have been clearer.
“Yes, all right.” Adjusting her sari at the shoulder, she walked ahead of me down a long, twisting corridor. Somewhere farther inside the prison more gates crashed shut; I felt metallic echoes gust against my face as they rushed through the tunnels. Some guards marched past me in khaki uniforms with képi-like billed caps; they reminded me of soldiers at the desert fortress in Beau Geste, the old film about a French Foreign Legion outpost.
We were in the men's detention area, most of which, as a woman, she couldn't take me to. A few prisoners, wearing gray drawstring pants and sleeveless gray shirts, kept their eyes to the ground as they passed us. Inside an empty barracks, double-decker beds were neatly made; the scoured floors gave off a dizzying tang of ammonia. The convicts were at work now. We walked outdoors and crossed a sandy courtyard to the factory. Like the other buildings, its high crenellated roof-line was topped by coils of razor-wire like elaborate man-traps. Through a window, I could make out men at benches assembling what looked like office desks. Along the wall, massive robotic machines clattered as if in a frenzy to bash their way out. The entrance was locked, and the racket swallowed the sound of Mrs. Sharma's small fist rapping on the door.
“They tell me I am to show you this building–then no one will let me in!” Scowling, she wiped beads of sweat from her face, smudging the dark mascara around her eyes.
“Never mind, I can see fine from here,” I said. The sun's glare was blinding; I shielded my eyes to squint inside. “The conditions look pretty good.” This was true; I wasn't just trying to cheer her up. An article I'd read about the notorious Tihar Jail in Delhi reported that over 12,000 men awaiting trial—“undertrials”–were kept in unspeakable squalor.
“I should take you to my work area, but I've never gone to it from here. There are so many corridors and courtyards!” Mrs. Sharma swayed in place. Then she led me back into another long, dim hallway. Our footsteps echoed out of sync. The deeper we went into the maze, the hotter and closer the air felt. A reek of disinfectant gradually gave way to a strong odor of smoke and spiced food that made my eyes sting. Mrs. Sharma paused at an open door. “The mess hall's kitchen,” she said.
Two prisoners, their bare chests glistening, stirred a cauldron of brownish stew. Other men wielded huge spatulas to scoop rotis–discs of bread–out of a wood-fire oven, an iron furnace that blasted red-tinted heat into the room. Through an inner doorway I saw about a hundred men in gray file into the mess hall. They gave off a low, collective murmur like the approach of rolling boulders in a subterranean cavern.
A kitchen worker in an apron approached me. His eyes bulged, his hollow cheeks looked sanded down to the bone. A burly guard in khaki tried to push him away. The prisoner didn't budge.
“Who are you?” He squinted at me, his jaw thrust out.
“I'm a teacher,” I said.
A gap-toothed smile cracked his face. “Years ago, a meditation teacher came! He made my mind so much at peace!” Suddenly he grabbed my wrist in both hands. I started, frightened. But his grip was light, and I recalled the way my American prison students had shaken my hand good-bye after each class, just wanting to touch someone from the outside world.
The guard gave the man a sharp prod with his truncheon. He let go of my wrist, but held me with his gaze a moment longer. “You want curry,” he said.
The guard tensed. Mrs. Sharma was at my side. “You don't have to eat!”
Hesitating, I wondered what I was being invited to put into my mouth. Then I said, “I'll try it.”
The man went to the stove and returned with a metal bowl. I used a folded roti as a spoon and took a bite. The food was unexpectedly tasty, better than I'd eaten in most American institutions. When I told the man this, he beamed proudly and strode away.
The guard, glowering at me, took the bowl. I'd made him look bad by accepting it from the prisoner. Pay-back time. “You liked this curry?” he asked me. “That convict, the cook—he was chef for big restaurant. Do you know why is he here?”
I had to lock my jaw to keep from smiling. “Okay, tell me.”
“Poisoning,” he said, and walked out of the kitchen.
The social worker stood beside me again. “What he told you,” she whispered. “I don't think it can be true.”
“I know. It's an old joke–what visitors get told in places like this. I didn't know it was international.” I saw her brows tense; she wasn't amused. “It's all right, Romila!” I said, then wondered if I should have used her first name.
I walked with her out to the corridor again. Her sandal heels clicked rapidly along. “If that man wasn't a chef,” I asked, “what was he?”
“He is Munji Bhil–the leader of a famous gang of dacoits.” Gradually she slowed her pace.
Dacoits, she said, were bandits who lived in desert ravines and ambushed camel caravans, leaving behind many dead. They also stopped trains by rolling tree trunks onto the tracks. When the locomotive crashed into them, derailing the train, the dacoits would leap aboard, guns drawn, to rob passengers—just like the Wild West in America. Munji Bhil had also been a smuggler. He trained his camels to out-race the mounted soldiers across the Rajasthan desert as he carried gems to Pakistan. He brought back raw opium as well as wagon-loads of cameras, video players, and other Western luxury items; because of India's trade restrictions on foreign goods, only smugglers could import them.
She paused by a door that led outside, glancing around as if lost. “Perhaps we can go this way….”
We walked out into another high-walled area. I looked down a long row of gray steel doors with thickly-screened windows. When I asked Mrs. Sharma what was behind them, her face went ashen.
“I am not supposed to take you here!” she whispered.
In this area were solitary confinement cells, mostly for “VIPs”—high-caste offenders and foreigners. Often upper class Brahmin men were kept in isolation for their own safety, she explained; one man here would surely be murdered if he were put among the other prisoners, who knew he'd once led a mob that had beaten to death some low-born “Untouchables” who'd “polluted” his well by daring to draw water from it.
“Hola! Hola!” I heard someone calling to me in a muffled voice from one of the cells. Behind the window in its door, I saw a bristly pale face. “Señor–come! Please–talk to me!”
“Don't!” She stepped between me and the man's door. I walked away beside her. The prisoner was a Spaniard, she explained, who'd been convicted of smuggling explosives to Pakistan where they were used against Indians in the disputed state of Kashmir. I recalled reading about women and children blown to pieces by road bombs there, and felt a surge of loathing for him. But why him–when the dacoit I'd met hadn't upset me? This place was disorienting me. The sandy ground muffled our footsteps.
“How long is he here for?” I asked Mrs. Sharma.
“I don't know.” She glanced ahead into yet another courtyard. “He–he may be executed.”
We walked on, entering an open area that appeared to be a century older than the rest of the prison; its stone walls were streaked brown as if rusted by time. In the center of the yard stood a platform made of heavy planks. A wide staircase led up to it. At one end a steel pole rose high into the air. A crossbeam jutted out from its top like the narrow beak of a monstrous black crane. The gallows.
I felt a chill rush down the back of my neck. “Is that where the Spaniard–where he might be going?” I asked, my voice hushed.
“Yes. I feel very bad to see that thing! It's against all I believe….”
“Me, too,” I said. But I couldn't stop staring up at the gibbet. From beneath, it looked huge, predatory. The plank steps sagged. How many men had climbed them, flanked by guards and a hangman, to confront a dangling noose? The courtyard was terribly still. The great bird waited. Never before had I felt so close to the instantaneous process of passing from life to death. I was appalled, yet felt an urge to walk up those steps, myself–to stand on the planks right beside the trap door, to stare up into the beak of death. I took a step toward the platform. Then I saw the social worker watching me–her eyes widening, her lips pressed together as if to restrain a cry—and quickly turned around.
She moved on. I stammered encouraging things about the place to try to dispel her uneasiness, and my own.
“We're doing our best,” she said, “at least for the convicts.”
“Who else is here?” I asked.
She looked down. “We also have undertrials. They have a different status.”
“I thought they were all kept at Tihar, in Delhi.”
She shook her head. “Undertrials are a high percentage of this jail's population.”
At the end of the yard the walls narrowed into an area of deep shadow. Slowing, we walked close to an old brick building with one long, barred, glassless window. The stench hit me first—piss and shit and rancid sweat. Through the already roasting air rushed a wave of body heat—from the men behind those bars.
“The undertrials,” Romila whispered.
They'd spotted us. Suddenly they began shouting, wailing, calling out to us in Hindi. I halted, my heart racing. The long, kennel-like cell was so dark that at first I couldn't make out complete faces, only grimy foreheads. And a long a row of knuckles—men's fists gripping each metal shaft. For an instant, I saw deeper into the low-ceilinged room; it squirmed with near-naked bodies squashed together, surging toward the light. Anguished shrieks ricocheted off the walls, piercing me in the crossfire. The social worker was frozen in place, one hand pressed against her cheek.
“Romila–come on!” I shouted to her over the racket, and gripped her arm. We ran together, my legs rubbery. I yanked open a door and we rushed through, slamming it behind us. Gradually, the screams outside faded.
On a bench in the corridor, she leaned forward, wiping her face with a handkerchief. I sat back, trying to catch my breath. I recalled what I'd read about Delhi's prison where “undertrials” lived in horrific conditions, thirty men to a room designed for ten. They slept in shifts on filthy floors. Gangs roved the cell blocks, demanding food and drugs, raping boys. Latrines overflowed, insects swarmed over the walls. Prisoners' throats were slit in the night. Those men waited to appear in court for many months, sometimes for two or three years, or even longer. Conditions must have been as bad, here.
“Are you all right?” I asked finally.
She raised her head. She'd rubbed the skin around her eyes nearly raw. “Still dizzy, a little—“
“I–I know where I am now! My work area is not far.” She blinked hard. “But you may have seen enough…?”
I stared down the deep corridor. “Let's go on.”
She opened a door at the far end of the hall, and we were outdoors again. From the other side of a high wall came twittery sounds, as if from a hidden aviary. I cocked my head to listen.
“Those are the children,” Romila said.
“What are kids doing in a place like this?”
“They belong to the female inmates. A small prison within a prison is here–for ladies. They can keep their children until they're about six years old.”
She called to a guard in a khaki sari who unlocked a steel door for us. I waited inside as Romila started across a big open courtyard. Several woman rushed forward to grab her hands. She squeezed their fumbling fingers, smoothed the saris back from their cheeks, spoke in soft Hindi to them. Her face glowed. The voices of the women splashed around her. Spotting me, though, they backed off quickly. Romila turned and beckoned for me to join her. Fifty-one prisoners, she said, lived in this area, some with their children. Now I saw little girls in brightly colored dresses, boys wearing neat shirts and shorts–all shrieking and laughing as they raced around in the hot sunshine. Many were playing with plastic toys on the loose ground; the yard was a giant sandbox for them. With cups of water, they'd created a small complex of mud fortress-like buildings whose rooftops were crenellated like those of the prison walls that loomed above them.
At the far end of the area was a loom about twenty feet long that resembled an enormous harp lying gracefully on its side. Women in hooded white saris were working the strings, pushing and pulling at wooden rods. More women in white glided along a dormitory verandah and hovered about in ghostly groups. As soon as I started walking toward them, they rushed away, pulling down the ends of their saris over their faces as they ran.
“They must hide their faces from men who aren't their relatives.” She said. “Many Rajashtani ladies still practice purdah. Even in prison, the custom remains.”
“Those white saris—are they the prison uniforms?”
“Oh, no,” she said. “Hindu widows wear white.”
“You mean…all these women are widows?”
“Yes.” Her voice dropped. “They killed their husbands.”
“All of them?” I stared at her. Hearing my voice rise, the children suddenly went silent. An echo of their cries rang against the far wall.
“Often their husbands abuse them,” Romila said. “The beatings go on year after year, from the time they are married at twelve or thirteen. And they can't escape anywhere. So one night, after the man has been drinking and passes out, a woman might pick up a heavy stone—“ She raised her hands in the air. “–and smash it down on his head.” She sighed. “Then if the men in her husband's family don't kill her, she is dragged off to the local constabulary.”
Several women peeked warily at me around the side of a building. I glanced down, pushing the toe of one shoe into the sand. On a road outside Jaipur, I told Romila, I'd watched from a car as man pounded a shrieking woman with a heavy tree branch as she lay collapsed in the dust. I'd wanted to jump out and help her, but the driver grabbed my arm to keep me from risking my life and his: it wasn't safe, he said, to intervene in a dispute between a man and his woman. I hadn't told anyone about this incident until now. “I still wonder if I should have listened to him,” I said.
“I'm afraid the driver was right,” Romila said. “And there was nothing you could have done.”
I was silent for a moment. Then I asked, “How long are the women's sentences?”
“Fifteen years, minimum, for murder,” she said. “But some of them stay longer. Often their families refuse to take them back in their villages, so they've no place to go.”
“And the children haven't either?”
“Not usually,” she said. “You must have been seeing how many street urchins there are in Jaipur. We don't want to add to their numbers.”
She waved at the kids. Racing forward noisily, they crowded in close and gripped the folds of her sari in their tiny fingers and nuzzled their foreheads against her like baby goats wanting their necks stroked. She smiled; her whole body loosened, as if a steel rod had slipped out of her spine.
With the kids tagging behind, she took me along a verandah to the “vocational learning area” where huge manual typewriters squatted on desks like prehistoric armadillos. Two more looms were strung with white thread. The ladies made their own saris, as well as bed-sheets that were sold to a hospital so they could use the money to buy small things for themselves and their children, Romila said. She taught literacy, typing, and weaving, and arranged for teachers to give classes to the children. “In their villages, they could never get the schooling we give them.” She pointed to a television set. The ladies and their children could view educational programs, and also see the Monday night Bollywood movie along with millions of other Indians.
My old social worker life was coming back to me here. One day at a reformatory, I told Romila, I'd supervised a kid named Minesha, a 17-year old former prostitute from Harlem, while she was visited by her 3-year old daughter. Minesha's aunt came into the reception room with the wide-eyed little girl, whom she'd dressed as if for church: pink pinafore with white stockings and shiny patent leather shoes. I'd loved watching Minesha play with her daughter; she hugged the child and braided her hair, murmuring to her in a soft, musical voice I'd never heard her use before. It was hard for me to pry mother and daughter apart at the end of the visit; they clung to each other with tears streaming down their cheeks. After the heavy front door had clunked shut behind the little girl, her wails from the parking lot made my eyes damp, too. Now, recalling the bird-like cries of the kids at the Jaipur prison, I wondered how it was that India, supposedly a less developed country than mine, had found a way to keep children with their incarcerated mothers for years.
“Being separated from her child—was that part of the girl's punishment?” Romila asked me.
“Oh, no,” I said. But then I frowned. “Maybe it was, though, in a way. For years, I thought I understood how things worked in that place. But then I realized I didn't.”
We were sitting at some school desks while children nearby stacked wooden blocks. Romila squinted hard at the far wall. “Today, I had confusion like this, too,” she said. “About this prison.”
“When we saw the undertrials?”
“Yes!” She pressed her knuckles against her lips.
Pok! A little boy in a red sweater threw a block against my desk. He grinned at me when I picked it up. A few other kids, more curious than shy, ventured closer to me. I took a big picture book from a desk and sat down cross-legged on the sand with it on my lap.
“Won't you spoil your clothes?” Romila asked.
“It doesn't matter.” I turned a page. Gathering her sari loosely, Romila squatted beside me.
The boy's huge eyes were level with mine as he watched my face. I pointed to a drawing of a cat, then mimed the Hindi name of the animal, which fortunately I knew, and smiled expectantly at him. In a sing-song voice, he said the word for “cat…” then for “dog,” “cow,” and “donkey,” as I pointed to different animals. I applauded each time he spoke. Kids clapped, too. Now Romila was joining in the applause. Finally she spoke, smiling and patting the air with her palms. The noisy recitation ended in a shower of laughter. She and I got to our feet. The kids leaned against Romila and stared at me.
“Every child in India has seen those animals,” Romila said, “except Rahul.” She rested her hand on the boy's shoulder. “He was born in here, so he knows animals only from picture books.” This didn't seem to bother him; he kept gazing at the book and chattering away in Hindi. I turned pages, and we looked at more exotica: squirrels and fish, trees and flowers. Other kids crowded around, and I smelled the sweet scent of laundry soap their clothes gave off.
Suddenly, growing agitated, they all turned toward a woman dashing across the sand. Her sari swept out behind her like a long, white cape. An “unbalanced” prisoner, Romila explained; she had to work out her mental stress by running. “We should leave now.” Romila glanced around. From the opposite end of the courtyard I saw dark eyes glowing at me through gauzy white veils. An agitated whispering swelled like the sound of leaves at the approach of a storm. “The ladies are frightened,” Romila said. “There are some here who haven't been this close to a man in many years.”
In an empty office near the gate area, Romila talked to her supervisor on the phone. Then she told me that she was sorry, but it had been decided that the prison couldn't offer me any research or teaching opportunities. A man couldn't be admitted regularly to the women's section; the male convicts had no need to learn English, and no “outsider” could be permitted near the undertrials. The decision made sense to me; I could see now that I'd been admitted only as a courtesy to the university. For a moment I was disappointed. Then the feeling passed.
“I'm afraid your time has been wasted—“
“No, the opposite,” I said. “I'm very grateful to you.”
Romila smiled faintly. Then she leaned toward me. “I did not tell my supervisor that we saw those men, the undertrials,” she said.
I nodded. “I won't say anything.”
“Thank you. I knew that they were in the prison, of course. But I never really saw them before today.” Sighing, she sat down beside the desk. “You know, Edward, I have been blind to many things. Sometimes I wonder if I ought to be working in a place like this.”
I pulled over a chair and sat beside her. “I used to wonder that, too, in America.”
“Surely, where you worked, there were no people like the men we just saw.”
“There must have been. I think there are people like that everywhere,” I said. “Maybe we all have to stay blind some of the time, Romila. If I hadn't, I couldn't have been any use to anyone.”
“And here, I couldn't help the ladies if I were always thinking about what happens on the other side of their walls.” She tapped her fingers quickly on the desk. “Normally, I just rush as fast as I can from the front gate to their section. And then, when I walk through the door in their wall, I feel so—I don't know—“
“That's right!” She blinked hard. “It is remarkable, because… they tell me that they feel safe when I come.”
“I used to hear that, too.” I met her gaze. “I think when the women and the kids see you, they know they're not forgotten. They're still part of the world. That's what you do for them.”
She nodded slowly. The room was quiet; even the echoes of crashing inner doors had stopped. “And that's what they do for me, too,” she said in a hushed voice.
I smiled. “I remember that feeling.”
We walked down the dim corridor together toward the front gate. It slid sideways for me. We stepped out onto the driveway's light. She pressed her palms together and said, “Namasté.”
“Namasté.” I made the same gesture, and stood there for a moment enjoying the stillness with her.
Miriamu and The King
by Edward Hower
From Atlantic Monthly
Reprinted in Transition (Ghana) and
Voices in the Water: New and Collected Stories
On Independence night, the African Star Uhuru Bar was packed with celebrators.
"Every man in the village was in my bed tonight," Adija said. Adija and Salome were barmaids at the African Star. "Every man but the one I want."
"The whites are staying in their houses this night," Salome said.
"He'll come. You'll sec." Adija lay on her side next to Salome. "He's not fearing me. I'm only half-African, anyway."
Adija’s back was pale, pale brown in the glow of the lantern. Her bones stood out beneath her skin. Tiny ridges rippled up her spine. Salome's eyes hurt to look at them. She pulled the blanket up over Adija. "Are you very sore?" she asked.
Adija was rubbing oil into her crotch. She pretended not to hear. "You see that picture of the king?" she asked, pointing at the wall.
Salome looked. Adija's crazy collection. If you stick people to the wall with pins, Adija had explained, they can't move about or shout at you or behave badly. They just have to keep smiling. You can think they're trying to please you with their smiles. Salome searched for the picture of the king. Elvis Presley leered at her. Satchmo flashed his teeth. A fridge gaped, a television stared. Queen Elizabeth smiled at a procession of schoolchildren waving their Union Jacks. The country's cabinet ministers stood beside their new houses and motorcars. They were smiling.
There was the newspaper photograph of Adija's white man. He was standing on an airport runway with the other missionary teachers from America. Beside the photograph was a color picture of the king. He was sitting on his throne beneath a crown that looked too heavy for his delicate, brown face. "I found it," Salome said.
"Beneath it is the picture of Rita Tushingham. The one in the school uniform."
"It's not a school uniform. It's a servant's uniform."
"It's a school uniform," Adija said. "You want to hear the story, or don't you?"
"One of your stories," Salome laughed. "Yes, go ahead. It'll distract me."
"Miriamu was a poor schoolgirl," Adija began. She raised her hands as she spoke, in the manner of the Arab fishermen who lived in her home village on the coast, and told the following story.
The other schoolgirls mocked her, because she was poor. The men in her town called her a slut, because her father was an Arab trader. Her mother beat her, because she failed her examinations at school. But Miriamu was always happy.
One day all, the schoolgirls went to the palace of the king to shout their praises and wave their flags at him. The king had a beautiful big palace. It had four rondavels at the corners, with roofs of woven palm leaves, and high white walls between the rondavels. It was finer than the finest mosque in the city. The king stood on the wall and looked down at the schoolgirls. He was very bored with these parades of schoolchildren. He was not feeling happy that day, because he had not been out of the palace in it long time. But when he saw Miriamu he smiled. He said: "Here is the most beautiful girl in my kingdom. She is the one I am going to marry."
He sent his ministers to discover who the beautiful girl was.
"Her name is Miriamu," said the Minister for Commerce.
"But she is too ignorant. She is thin and her skin is a strange, pale color," said the Minister for Home Affairs.
"She is not good enough to marry a king. You must marry a girl of a royal caste," said the Minister for Information, Tourism, and Wildlife.
"I am the king," said the king.
"If you marry her," said all the ministers together, "we will plot a coup to overthrow you."
"Really, I think she is good enough," said the king.
The ministers all whispered together. "If you wish to marry her, we will have to test her." said the Minister for Education. "We will have to see if she is worthy to live among us at the palace."
"All right." said the king. "But mind you don't harm her."
"No, no. We won't," said the ministers.
They sent a messenger to fetch Miriamu. "You see that mountain," said the Minister for Education. "There is a cross at the top of it. You just have to bring it to us. The king wants it badly, but he can't leave the palace. When you bring it back, then you can marry him.
"All right," said Miriamu.
But Miriamu was very unhappy. The mountain was very high, higher even than Kilimanjaro, and its top was covered with snow. She walked along the beach, kicking the coconuts at her feet. She looked up at the mountain and wept. She knew that the ministers wanted to kill her with their test. They didn't want the king to have any women, because they thought he would neglect his duties if he had any. But Miriamu did not want to disappoint the king, so she started up the mountain.
The first night she thought site would freeze to death she had on only her school uniform. Already there was much snow on the ground. But then she saw a hut. It had white walls like the palace and a tile roof like her school.
The door of the hut opened. There stood a fierce-looking man. His eyes were flashing on and off, like the signboards of the city. They flashed blue and brown, blue and brown. His hair flashed too, as if there were lightning in it. It flashed yellow and black and red, and sometimes it vanished altogether and the man's skull flashed out at her in different colors. The man had a great bulge in the front of his trousers. It looked like a sack full of snakes. The bulge moved in and out as his eyes flashed. He was a witch, and Miriamu was fearing him very much.
"Karibu, Miriamu. Come in out of the snow," said the witch, smiling.
Miriamu was trembling, but she stepped inside. The witch gave her some beer. As she drank, he boasted of all the things he owned and all the things he knew. Miriamu decided to flatter him. What else could she do?
"Your Bata shoes are very smart," she said.
"And that suit you're wearing—you must have ordered it all the way from England. I'm sure you are very clever from watching that handsome television. What a beautiful fridge you have¬–look how it shines!"
The witch was very pleased with her flattery. He continued boasting about all the places he had visited and all the things he knew. Miriamu listened carefully, for she thought he might tell her the secret of how to get to the top of the mountain.
But soon he passed out from drinking too much beer. Miriamu was disappointed. She decided to continue her journey. But when she tried the door, she found that it was locked. All the doors and windows were locked. She could not get out. The house was dark and dirty. She watched the television for a while, and listened carefully to all the programs. But when the national anthem was played and the station shut down for the night, Miriamu had still not learned any useful secrets.
She was hungry. So she went to the fridge and opened it. Then she jumped back. For a jinni flew out of the fridge. It was tall and looked like a jellyfish, trailing a cloak of icicles.
"I am the Jinni of the Fridge," said the jinni. "Ask me a wish, and I shall grant it."
Mariamu was frightened. She began to weep. She told the jinni her sad story.
The jinni took pity on her, and said: "All right, here is what you must do. When my master wakes, you must give him more beer. Then you must open up his trousers. There you will find a sack of many-colored snakes. You will be fearing them very much, but they will not harm you. Take this tablet, and the snakes will not harm you."
And the jinni gave Mariamu an aspirin.
"Take hold of the snakes and push them into all the holes of your body until the snakes are tired and go to sleep. Then my master will be sleepy, as well. Tell him he is very wise. But say that there is one thing you are sure he doesn't know. And that is: how to drive a Land Rover.
"He will say: ‘Yes, I know even that!' But you must keep doubting him, until he tells you all the things necessary for driving a Land Rover. Give him more beer, then, he will go to sleep.
"Now, on his watch chain you will find a silver key and a golden key. The silver key is for unlocking the door of his hut, and the golden key is for starting the Land Rover. The Land Rover is in the yard. You can drive it to the top of the mountain and down again. Here is some petrol for you."
And the jinni waved his hand. The beer in the fridge turned into tins of petrol.
"Good luck," said the jinni. "Now please close the fridge, before I melt like ice cream."
Mariamu did all that she was bidden. After the witch had gone to sleep again, she unlocked the door with the silver key and started up the Land Rover with the golden key. Then she drove the Land Rover to the top of the mountain. The road was very winding, but Miriamu didn't get stuck in any ditch, because she knew all the things necessary for driving a Land Rover.
The cross was high on the highest peak of the mountain. She drove backwards up to the peak. When the back of the Land Rover hit the rock where the cross stood, the cross fell into the back of the Land Rover. The cross was of gold, and heavier than the heaviest stone. But the Land Rover was very strong. It carried Miriamu and the cross all the way to the bottom of the mountain.
The ministers were surprised to see Miriamu driving along the beach toward the palace. They thought she had died on the mountain. Also, they had never seen a woman driving a Land Rover before. The king was pleased with the cross. He put it in his garden among the palm trees and flowering bushes. The king had many motorcars – Ford Zephyrs and Wolseleys and even a Mercedes. But he didn't have any Land Rover. So he was overjoyed when Miriamu gave it to him.
"The story's not over," Adija said, sitting up in bed. "Where are you going?"
"I'm cold." Salome went to the charcoal brazier where she had warmed her maize-meal supper. She blew on the coals, but got only a faceful of ashes for her trouble; the coals had gone out. The lantern, too, was dimming, and there was no more kerosene. Outside in the street, a woman shrieked. It was the kind of sound a woman makes when a man is teasing her too roughly; at first loud laughter, then a panicky cry. A dog barked. Someone slammed a door. Cursing, Salome took down the army greatcoat she wore when it rained. She spread it over her on the bed. When she offered to share it with Adija, Adija shook her head.
"You're the one who's usually shivering," Salome said.
"As long as I'm awake, the room's warm enough with the lantern lit." Adija took two cigarettes from her pack, lit them, and handed one to Salome. "You want me to go on with the story?"
"Sure. It's better than freezing in silence."
Adija puffed on her cigarette a few times and then continued:
The king was very pleased with Miriamu and her gifts. "You see, the girl is clever," he said to his ministers. "She is worthy to be my bride. Summon all the chiefs in my kingdom for my wedding!"
"Just a minute," said the Minister for Defense. "Bado kidogo, if you please."
The king waited.
The ministers all whispered together. Then the Minister for Education said to the king: "All right, she has brought gifts for you. But what of us? If she doesn't bring gifts for us, we will plot a coup to overthrow you."
"My army is strong," said the king. "I'll take my chances. Let the drummers drum from all the hilltops for my wedding!"
"No, no!" pleaded Miriamu to the king. "They will kill you if we are married now. Let me first get some gifts for them."
"All right," said the king, "But hurry up. I have not had any women for many years, and I am lonely."
Miriamu asked the ministers: "Do you want some lovely Bata shoes and English suits and televisions and fridges? I know where I can get some for you."
The ministers all whispered together again. Then the all shook their heads. "What we want are some pearls from the ocean. Just go to the ocean and fetch some for us," said the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
"But I can't swim," cried Miriamu.
"You don't have to swim," said the Minister for Transportation. "Just go down to the Nyara Beach Hotel and hire a boat to take you to the reef. On the reef you will find a hole."
"It isn't a very deep hole," said the Minister for Finance, chuckling.
"You can reach in and gather up the pearls," said the Minister for Education. Really, that Minister for Education was the wickedest of the lot. "We will be waiting for you on the verandah."
So Miriamu drove down to the Nyara Beach Hotel in her Land Rover and hired an outrigger canoe. The boatman poled her out to the reef. The ministers waved to her from the verandah. They were laughing as they waved.
Miriamu was weeping with fear, for the water was crashing against the reef. But finally she found the hole. It was a deep, dark hole, not a shallow one as the minister had told her. She was cursing those ministers very much. She knelt down and reached her hand into the hole, though, for she could see the pearls shining up at her out of the water.
As soon as her hand touched the water, something grabbed her. She was pulled down, down into the hole. Seaweeds slid across her face. She thought surely she would drown. But then she got pulled into a cave. There was air in the cave. The air smelled foul and it was dim, but Miriamu could breathe it. She looked around, to see what had pulled her down into the water.
It was an octopus that had pulled her down into the water. It must be a witch thought Miriamu, because it is as strange-looking, in its way, as the man on the mountain. It was black as the underbelly of a cooking pot. Its eyes were full of flames, like the flames that leap out of the end of a rifle. Its arms were very long and strong. At the end of each arm was a weapon. The octopus had knives and spears and pangas and rifles and pistols and Sten guns and even bombs. It waved the weapons all at once at Miriamu and its eyes glowed red.
Miriamu was fearing this witch very much. But now she was more clever than before. She told it: "Look how powerful your weapons are! I think that pistol can shoot very straight. That Sten gun, I think it must make a fearsome noise. Can you slice off a man's head with that panga? I think so!"
Miriamu was gasping for breath as she spoke, for the octopus was wrapping its arms around her tight. She thought that she would be crushed in the arms of the octopus. But it was pleased that Miriamu was admiring its weapons. It gave Miriamu a small knife to look at.
Now Miriamu remembered what she had learned on the mountain. When the octopus let go of the knife, Miriamu pushed the end of its arm into her vagina. She put another arm into her anus, and another into her mouth and soon weapons were falling all over the floor or the cave. Miriamu was feeling very happy, for the octopus was holding her gently now.
When the last of its arms went limp, the octopus opened its mouth. Inside its mouth was a basket full of shining pearls. Miriamu reached in and took out the basket. She looked down into the basket to admire the pearls. When she looked up, the octopus was gone. In its place was a beautiful woman.
The woman was lying asleep on the floor of the cave. Miriamu rushed to her and woke her. The woman sat up, rubbing her eyes. She was very happy to greet Miriamu.
"Salaama." said the beautiful woman. "Why have you come to this reef?"
Miriamu told her the story of the king and the ministers and the pearls.
"Listen," said the woman. "Those ministers are just going to trick you. I know them. They are the ones who bewitched me into the shape of an octopus many years ago. I will return with you. We will bring my weapons and kill them."
"All right" said Miriamu. "But what if the boatman refuses to carry us?"
"Don't worry. I will give him some pearls," said the woman.
So Miriamu and the woman went back to shore with a boat full of weapons. The ministers were still sitting on the verandah. They were drinking brandy and laughing. But when they saw the boat, they stopped laughing.
As soon as the boat touched the beach, the woman attacked the verandah. The ministers tried to run away, but they were too fat to run fast. The woman threw a bomb and half the ministers were blown up. They lay bleeding all over the verandah.
Then the woman shot all the rest of the ministers with the Sten gun. They were lying on the floor of the verandah. Their organs were splattered on the walls. They were moaning and cursing and clutching their fat bellies. They all bled to death.
The manager of the Nyara Beach Hotel was very unhappy. "What am I going to do with all these dead bodies on my verandah?" he asked.
"Here, take some pearls," said the woman. And the manager was quiet.
Miriamu and the woman drove to the palace in the Land Rover. The people came out into the streets to see them. They were cheering and waving their flags at them. They were happy that the wicked ministers had been killed. Even the palm trees were happy on that day. They were waving their leaves over Miriamu and the woman as the Land Rover drove through the streets of the city.
The king was overjoyed to see Miriamu. He embraced her.
"This is my friend," said Miriamu, and she showed the woman to the king. "She killed all the ministers."
"My ministers are dead?" shouted the king. "Eii! This is the best news in many years!" And he greeted the woman in a very friendly way.
"Well, I will be going back to my cave now," said the woman.
"No, no! You must stay!" said the king. "You can come to my wedding. Afterwards you can live in the palace with us. I will make you brigadier of my army."
"All right," said the woman.
The king summoned all the chiefs in the kingdom. He ordered his drummers to drum from all the hilltops for his wedding. He caused the palace to be decorated with flowers of many colors. The sun shone bright on the day of the wedding. As the king and Miriamu walked together into the chapel, the palm trees lifted their leaves toward Heaven.
After the wedding ceremony, the king and his bride had a big party. All the kin 's friends were there. Queen Elizabeth was there. Elvis Presley was there, and Shashi Kapoor and Pearl Bailey and Miriam Makeba and Pélé and Satchmo and Cliff Richard and the Shadows, and all the famous film stars. Miriamu and the king and the woman sat at the biggest table. They were not drinking beer; they were drinking palm wine and Bee Hive Brandy and Gilbey's Gin. They were not eating maize-meal porridge, they were eating roasted goat and sheep and prawn curry and coconuts and pawpaw and fish cooked in palm wine. They got very drunk and fat.
Miriamu and the king and the woman stood on the wall of the palace. The people cheered and waved their flags at them. Even the schoolgirls who used to mock Miriamu were cheering. Even the men who used to abuse Miriamu were cheering. Even Miriamu's mother, who used to beat her, was cheering. But now they were cheering only because they were fearing Miriamu.
"Shall I tell the army to chase them away?" the woman asked Miriamu.
"All right." said Miriamu. "Tell the army to chase them into the ocean."
The army chased them into the ocean and they drowned.
Then Miriamu and the king and the woman ate and drank some more. Even the king got drunk. Even Miriamu got fat. Everyone was very happy on that day.
"And that." Adija said, "is the story of Miriamu and the king."
"And the woman." Salome said.
Adija rolled over on her back. Her breasts were flat on her chest, her nipples cold and hard in the chill air. "Was the story good?"
Salome laughed. "I think so. Are you sure you made it up?"
"Of course! You've never heard it before, have you?"
"Yes and no." Salome said. "I have and I haven't."
"Look!" Adija pointed up at the ceiling. A tiny lizard was running upside down along the corrugated tin. It scurried back and forth, then disappeared under the edge of the roof. "It was gray in that shadow." Adija said. "This afternoon it was orange."
"I don't like lizards. My people say they crawl into your head while you're sleeping and cat your brain."
"I don't believe in witchcraft," Adija said. "I like them."
"You would." Salome shivered. "You're a witch yourself, you know. You've crawled into my brain and now I'm stick with you."
Adija giggled. She pressed her cheek against Salome's broad shoulder and closed her eyes.
Salome let the lantern burn down. As the globe became sooty, the light shrank down the walls, flickering. Still, it seemed to provide some warmth in the room. Light and shadow flickered on Adija's pictures, making the faces indistinguishable, just a wall of glossy squares. Adija pushed closer to Salome beneath the blanket to absorb more of her warmth. Her mouth opened, and soon she was snoring softly.
A car engine roared down the street. Some men shouted and banged on the door of the bar, wanting one last drink. Salome heard them cursing. Tires squealed, the engine roared again. Headlight beams shot through the window, flashed along the walls, then vanished. The smell of dust billowed through the room. Salome reached underneath the bed. Her hand found the handle of her panga, and she gripped it tight.
Another car engine approached, this one from the opposite direction. It sounded noisy enough to be a Land Rover, but Salome knew the car, the teacher's tinny old Morris. Footsteps crunched in the dirt outside the room; there was a soft knock on the door.
"What do you want?"
"It's Billy," the voice whispered. "Is Adija there?"
"Adija's sleeping. She is celebrating Independence tonight."
The footsteps crunched in place. "All right. I'll be back tomorrow."
I know you will, Salome thought. You'll all be back. But not tonight.
She pulled the blanket up tighter around Adija's shoulders. Then she lay very still. The shadows flickered down the wall, as if trying to lap up what little warmth was left in the room.
The Turquiose Balloon
by Edward Hower
From Voices in the Water: New and Collected Stories
Miss Gilly, my English nanny, kept her mail in a big square biscuit tin with the royal family's portrait on the lid. Her favorite family member was Princess Elizabeth, who she said reminded her of the British ambassador's child she'd taken care of years before in Paris. When she received letters from her friends she always read them to me. But one year just before the Christmas when I was nine, a letter arrived addressed to "Miss Alma Gilly" that she wouldn't read aloud. She tried to interest me in its stamps with palm trees on them.
"Who's the letter from?" I asked. "Who?"
Her cheeks flushed red. "It's from a man I once knew. He's coming to New York and he wants to see me—it's preposterous!"
A stack of similar envelopes lay on her bureau beside the open cookie tin. I counted twenty of them, each with a seal on the back which she said was from the British embassy in some South American country. I demanded an explanation.
Holding her lumpy old bathrobe together at her chest, she sat down on the bed. "Once upon a time," she said, "I met a foreign service gentleman in Paris. He wanted to be my friend. We went for walks in the parks." She squeezed her hands together in her lap. "He took me up for a balloon ride, and asked me to marry him."
I'd often been intrigued by a faded photograph she kept in her tin of an enormous hot-air balloon. I stared at the figures in the basket below the balloon. The woman, wearing a long old-fashioned dress, had Miss Gilly's bulging eyes and plump cheeks, but the curls that fringed her head were light instead of dark gray. I didn't recognize the giddy smile on her face at all. The man beside her stood stiffly in a white suit and jaunty straw boater. I made out a neat mustache. She took a long look at the photo before taking it from my hand.
"That was twenty years ago, and he writes to me every year. He says he still wants to marry me." She rolled her eyes. "He's invited me to have dinner with him at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York."
I sat down on the bed beside her. "Are you going to marry him?"
"Of course not—don't be silly!" She pursed her lips. "He must be an old man by now. Sixty-four years old. And I'm nearly fifty."
"Then why do you want to have dinner with him?"
Miss Gilly wiped her forehead. "I don't know."
I bounced on the bed, begging to hear about Paris, the balloon, her friend. She put the letters back into the tin and put it on the top shelf of her closet, out of my reach.
Since she wouldn't tell me anything more about the foreign service gentleman, I've had to make him up.
As he walks with her through the park beside the Seine, she smiles at the children sailing boats in the fountain pools. Can she ever appreciate a mature love, he wonders, and not just the dependent adoration of a child? For once, her employers' little girl is not chaperoning them. Yet he's the one who feels nervous. He has just been assigned a new posting, and today is his last chance to propose to her. He's beginning to think he'll never find the right words unless something extraordinary happens. If only he had time to write them to her.... He pauses to stare at a statue of a woman on a pedestal.
"Ridiculous," Alma says. "A person standing up there half-naked in public." She says she prefers statues like Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square that make you feel proud of your country.
"Quite," he says.
Feeling hot in his too-tight suit, he undoes as many of his waistcoat buttons as he dares and takes deep breaths of the river-scented air. A lone frog croaks somewhere. He gazes at a man and wife fishing from their houseboat, and feels about to explode with longing. The husband is robust, red-faced; the Englishman is aware of himself as pale and chinless, a lonely, middle-aged civil servant—
"Oh, a fête!" she says, as children run squealing past them. Ahead are gaily striped tents; hurdy-gurdy music and the scent of candied almonds float through the air. "And just look at that—"
He's seen it, too. An enormous turquoise-colored balloon sways gently in the breeze. It seems to be gazing up at the clouds as it strains against the net that tethers it. Suddenly he knows that this is his chance. He has never held her hand before, but now he grabs it and rushes toward the balloon.
"Wait!" she cries. "What if its ropes break?"
She's staring wide-eyed at this great circus-colored airship. She hasn't shaken off his hand; she's squeezing it, in fact! He thrusts a handful of franc notes at the man beside the basket and pulls Alma with him. The little wicker gate opens. They stumble through. A photographer with a big box camera steps up.
Alma grips his arm with both hands, smiling giddily at the camera. The flash powder explodes, obliterating the children, the tents, the park. Incandescence echoes in the air. By the time they have rubbed it from their eyes, the treetops are slowly sinking beneath them. They rise slowly. Watching her gaze down, her soft curls fluttering in the breeze, he forgets the churning of his stomach. Never has he felt so light before, so bold. The Eiffel Tower shimmers in the sunlight. Traffic sounds fade; all he hears is the faint harp song of the balloon's cords.
"The river's so blue—just like a silk ribbon," Alma says. "When I was small, I always fancied a ribbon like that for my hair."
He stares at her face, trying to untangle calm, persuasive sentences in his mind. Rooftops spread out below. His necktie, loose from his waistcoat, flaps like a kite-tail in the warm breeze. Alma is still holding onto his arm as if he is what is keeping her buoyant. Now! he thinks— But suddenly the basket jerks; he feels its floor drop beneath him. He staggers, the blood rushing from his face. The balloon sways, suspended in space as if its ropes have broken loose from the earth. "Alma—" he gasps, and lurches toward her. "Stay with me! Marry me!" Blindly he kisses her eyes, her cheeks. Never has he done anything like this before. "Please, please stay with me!" He presses against her, a moan flying out of his throat.
She shakes her head hard. "What are you doing?"
He drops to his knees. His hat tumbles off and rolls between her shoes. Half rising, he wraps his arms around her waist, buries his face against her breast.
She stops straining backwards. "There, there," she murmurs, and cradles his head. Gently she tucks his necktie into his waistcoat. "How could I ever leave the child?" she says. "I don't know, I can't think—" She touches the place on her cheek where he kissed her.
He hears the laughter of children in the park below. The rooftops come closer, the treetops expand, the ground tilts strangely. His heart is a frog kicking as it falls through space. He stumbles upright, groping for his hat. "I'm terribly sorry," he says. The dampness in his eyes blurs her face. "I've ruined it all."
Biting her lip, she takes one more look over the side of the basket. "Oh, no..."
"I'll write to you, Alma—"
They leave the park in silence. The tremor in his legs lasts all the way to her embassy residence. She stands beside its gate, waiting. "It was the loveliest sight I ever saw," she says.
He opens his mouth, but no sound comes out. He shakes her hand.
Then he watches her walk slowly away from him and disappear through the heavy door. For a moment, she stands at the window. Then she is gone, and the world is a sunless, empty place. He drifts off into the rest of his life, into the silence of years. Already he is beginning to fill it with the words of the first of his letters to her.
This was the plan: Miss Gilly was to take me to New York for a day's sightseeing and drop me off at my father's office, where a Christmas party would be in progress. My father would take me home on the train while she went to have dinner with the English man.
"I don't want to go to the office," I said, glaring at Miss Gilly in the elevator. I didn't like the idea of the place: my father's company manufactured ladies' lingerie, a source of embarrassment when this had somehow gotten out at school. And I didn't care at all for the way Miss Gilly inspected herself in the elevator's mirrored panel, either. She never worried about how she looked at home.
"Wild woman of Borneo!" she said, trying to push down her springy gray curls. "I can't walk into a grand hotel looking like this!"
"That's true," I said.
She turned sideways, pulling open her second-hand fur coat, which was speckled with snowflakes. "I just wish I wasn't so bloody fat!"
"Weren't you fat, before?"
She smoothed her suit jacket down over her bosom and straightened the silk scarf at her throat. "Oh, I was always plump. He never seemed to mind. I reckon he figured if I was a beauty, I wouldn't want anything to do with a timid old bachelor like him." She laughed. "But in point of fact, Jerry, he's made something of himself. He's the attaché to the British ambassador to Brazil now."
"So he can afford to give me a nice night out. I deserve to be treated like a lady once in a while."
"I know where Brazil is." It was a stop on a Pirate and Traveller board game we often played. If you landed on Brazil, you had to stay there for four rolls of the dice, which seemed forever to me. But not to Miss Gilly. She always said it seemed like a lovely place to rest. "It's where they have the vampire bats," I said, scowling.
Miss Gilly knelt beside me, her brow furrowing. "You're worried about being left with your father in that office, aren't you? I suppose I shouldn't just leave you there."
"He always has to stay at work late."
"We'll see, dear. I'm sure you'll like the Christmas party."
At the one at church last winter, I'd had to make papier maché sheep for a creche. "I'm too old for Christmas parties," I told her.
When the elevator door slid open, I was sure we were on the wrong floor. Before me stood a nearly naked woman. It wasn't a real woman, of course, just a very life-like mannequin wearing a Christmas bow over her belly button and a lacy white bra and panties manufactured by the company. She was holding out her hand out toward me. In her palm was a big glass marble, blue-green tinted, clear as a crystal ball. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of these gleaming marbles filled a pool around the pedestal she was standing on. I approached her slowly, transfixed.
"You come away from there this instant!" Miss Gilly grabbed my arm, her face flushed.
"S'all right," someone said. A bald man in a dark suit ambled up to us, sloshing a paper cup. "He can have a marble."
Miss Gilly stepped back, her fur coat bristling. "Who do you think you are?"
"I think I am—" The man bowed at his waist. "Edgar Bernbaum, Assistant Vice President, Marketing. At your service, madame."
"Mr. Bird-bom, I'll thank you to show us to Mr. Langley's office. This boy is his son—"
"No kidding?" The man blinked at me. His beaky nose did make him look like a bird—a bald, bespectacled parrot in a gray suit. "Well, then, he gets all the marbles he wants. Help yourself, buddy."
Ignoring Miss Gilly, I took the marble from the woman's hand and dropped it into my overcoat pocket. The woman's glossy lips seemed to smile at me. I stared at the mannequin over my shoulder as Miss Gilly yanked me down a corridor after Mr. Bernbaum.
The office was a maze of passages whose frosted glass partitions were only as high as the top of my head. Through doorways I caught glimpses of cubicles where bowls of punch were laid out on desks. People were singing "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" in off-key voices.
"Straighten your tie!" Miss Gilly whispered at me as Mr. Bernbaum opened a door ahead of us and then backed away as if awed by something inside the room. I walked in; the door shut, the music vanished.
"Well, hello there, Jerrett." My father stood up from behind an enormous desk and reached across it.
"Hello," I said, leaning forward to shake his hand. I could feel his eyes inspecting my tie, blazer, and slacks. His office was the size of our dining room at home, with oil paintings on the wall and a huge window behind his desk. I gazed out at tall buildings that rose like blocks of black granite through swirling snowflakes.
"How do you like this place, young man?" My father's bushy brows formed sideways question marks.
"I don't know," I said, feeling sweaty.
Folding his hands on his desk, he asked me what sights I'd been seeing. I wanted to tell him about Mr. Bernbaum's offer, but he looked too important, in his dark suit and gray silk tie, to be interested in marbles. Miss Gilly said she wanted to go "do something with her hair." I gave her a panicky look, but she left anyway. An awkward silence followed. Someone knocked on the door.
A young woman rushed through the door on a gust of perfume. "Laura's on the line for you, sir," she said to my father.
"Jerrett—" My father stood up, pointing with his chin toward the door. At home he sometimes excused me from the room in the same way after picking up the telephone. I stepped into the hall, letting out my breath. The door clicked shut.
I looked for Miss Gilly up one corridor and down the other, my fists clenched at my sides, but she was nowhere to be seen. Gradually my panic faded. I decided to look for the woman with the marbles. In the first office I came to, somebody had hung out a lady's stretched nylon stocking with gaily wrapped presents in it. On a desk some bottles surrounded a bowl of purple punch; steam rose from a miniature iceberg floating in it. I ladled myself a big paper cup full. It tasted fizzy and left a glow in my stomach. When I walked away from the table, the floor tilted strangely beneath my feet.
I was lost. Walls of glass kept rising up before me. Fluorescent lights overhead made the air vibrate around my face. I reached into my pocket to feel the marble, as if it would orient me, but I'd left it in my overcoat in my father's office.
The maze of corridors led on and on. In one cubical some men and women were dancing. As I walked in, smiles froze and laughter stopped. At first I enjoyed producing silence wherever I looked, but soon I got exasperated, and ducked only into offices that seemed empty. I was helping myself to more punch in one when a man stepped up beside me.
"Ah, young Master Langley," he said, tipping an imaginary hat. His horn-rimmed glasses tilted on his nose. "Mr. Bird-balm, at your service. Have you found the nymph of the marbles yet?"
I nodded, grinning.
"She's a dream, isn't she? And all those marbles—like finding a pirate's chest full of jewels." He squatted down beside me, his lips bending into a smile. "D'you still call them clearies?"
I nodded. "That's right."
"And do kids still walk around holding them in front of their eyes?" He squinted through a circle he made with his thumb and index finger. "And everything looks like it's under water?"
"Yes," I said. "Do you know where she is?"
"Where indeed?" He sighed. "Through the enchanted forest. At the end of the rainbow."
I cocked my head. "What did you say?
"First right at the end of the hall, just past Accounting," he said, standing unsteadily. "Bon voyage!"
I got lost again; all I found were more corridors, more cubicles, but no pool of marbles with a woman standing in it. I stopped for a drink at each unattended punch bowl I came to until I began to feel very queasy. When I came upon a darkened office that seemed empty, I ducked inside, looking for a place to sit down.
I stopped, bubbles rising in my throat. Someone moved. A man and a woman were on a couch, the woman sitting on the man's lap. Her white bra glowed in her open blouse. The man's hand rose toward it. Suddenly she struggled to her feet. The man stood too, trying to embrace her.
I heard loud footsteps behind me. "Just what d'you think you're doing?" Miss Gilly's voice knocked the man off balance.
The woman fumbled with her blouse. I lurched forward without meaning to, but Miss Gilly grabbed me by the collar, my shirt tightening against my throat. A loud burp jumped out of my mouth, echoing in the cubical like a frog in a well. Then she let go and I had to grab the door frame to stay on my feet. The man and woman had vanished. My stomach was churning.
"Where on earth have you been?" Miss Gilly asked.
"Was looking for you," I mumbled.
"The goings-on in this place!" she muttered. As she tried to straighten my necktie, she must have caught a whiff of my breath, and began scrubbing my face with her handkerchief. I squirmed away.
"Stay still, you little heathen! You're going to upset everything!"
I escaped to the bathroom across the hall. The tiles shimmered light blue. The whole place was blurry, as if under water. I managed to wash my face and focus on the mirror. I was strangely glassy-eyed. In the corridor, Miss Gilly pushed a peppermint into my mouth. The sweet taste made something start to rise in my stomach like a big bubble through sludge. Open doorways flickered by in pale waves.
In his office, my father had his topcoat on. "Sorry I didn't have time to show you around, son" he said. "But I've got to leave now."
Miss Gilly stared at him. "Aren't you going to take him home?"
"I thought that was the plan, Mr. Langley." There was a strange catch in her voice. "I was going to go on to dinner with my friend."
My father touched his forehead. "I must have forgotten."
I only half-heard this—I was remembering the marble I'd left in my topcoat, and began moving blurrily around the desk toward it.
"I've got an appointment, so I'm going to have to take a later train home," he said. "But I could drop him off at the station."
"What, and have him ride that train all by himself?"
"He seems perfectly capable." My father glanced down at me.
Miss Gilly frowned. "I'm not so sure."
I needed badly to get hold of the marble. I yanked the coat toward me from the chair, but the chair yanked back. Then I was off balance and the marble was bouncing on the hardwood floor at my feet. I sank to my knees, the sudden movement making me seasick.
"Are you all right?" Miss Gilly asked.
My mouth formed the word "no," but suddenly a different sound burst out of my throat, along with a long gushing spasm of purple liquid. More followed, churning up out of my stomach. I pitched forward, sprawling face-first into a sticky warm puddle.
"Oh, Jerry, what have you done?" Miss Gilly's voice was higher than I'd ever heard before. She knelt beside me. Sitting up, I could see clearly again. I noticed for the first time that she had on make-up. Her cheeks were round and smooth; her curls lay in a soft fringe around her forehead.
"What the hell's going on here?" My father's shoes moved away from the puddle.
"I think he's got into the punch, Mr. Langley." Miss Gilly's lower lip began to quiver.
"Why weren't you looking after him?"
"I—I don't know what I could have been thinking of."
I leaned forward, my necktie dripping. "The marble," I croaked.
"Well, never mind." My father moved toward his desk. "I'll get him to the train somehow."
The office was terribly quiet. I didn't dare look at Miss Gilly.
Her hand fell slowly, and she began to stroke the hair from my forehead. "It's all right, dear," she said, "I'll stay with you."
I remember riding in silence on the train back to Connecticut. I sat hunched over, squeezing the marble I'd somehow managed to rescue from my father's office. A chilly wind blew through the car. My mouth tasted rancid and I knew I stank. I was sure Miss Gilly could smell me. Pressing one hand against her cheek, she stared past me out the window. Her curls were flat and damp on her forehead.
I picture the marble lying like a crystal ball in my hand. When I look at it from one side, I see Miss Gilly facing the window, her soggy fur coat gathered around her. From another angle, I see a rounded reflection of the city she is staring at. It glides past the train, building after building falling into the night without a sound.
Far across the city she sees a man in a white suit and a neat mustache sitting in a hotel dining room. A candle flickers on his table. Beside his linen napkin a small package waits. It is tied with a blue silk ribbon and wrapped in silvery paper that matches his hair. He imagines her unwrapping the package. Inside is a velvet-lined box that he will open for her. He can picture her face when she sees the ring—the face of a young woman gazing down from the sky at a city sparkling before her on a bright, sunny morning. He takes her hand in his, feeling the softness, the plumpness, the warmth. His breath stops as he slides the ring onto her finger.
He waits and waits for her. His gaze moves many times from the package to the door. The dining room is empty now. The candle has burned down to a wax stump. He tucks his necktie tighter into his waistcoat and takes a long look at his watch. Now he can no longer imagine slipping the ring onto her finger, or picture the way her face might look. He hears the box click shut. The silvery paper wraps itself slowly around it. The ribbon loops over and under the package. Its ends twist into a bow. The box falls from his hand into his jacket pocket. He stands and moves slowly toward the dining room door. He walks out into the last years of his life, through the vampire-infested jungles of Brazil, to the white granite embassy rising on a cliff above a sea where the ships of pirates and travellers float motionless, never docking.
"I'm sorry," I finally managed to say. I stared up at her.
She blinked. The train bumped along the elevated track. Snowflakes slanted down out of the darkness, dripped sideways across the window.
"It's probably all for the best," she said quietly.
I tried to give her the marble, but she wouldn't take it.