Taking Liberties

Can love survive death? On its fading to the quiet and the still. Stubborn loneliness becomes its only possession; its will wounded, but not broken. A silent lake, surface dull, no rushing of wind or agitation of flocks, no echo or reflection. Yet it holds ground.

Taciturn by nature, Nazer Marić had gone silent after the deaths of his parents and sister. At least to those around him. He had never spoken to me much, and I felt he blamed me more than Richard or Louis for what had happened. Evil could just not pass through carelessly like that, wrecking utter devastation, destroying his life, without accountability. He used his biases to throw off a fraction of his bottomless rage at the horrible fate he couldn’t escape onto me—foreign, female, bent on corrupting Enesa. For my part, I had as much insight into his humanity as I had knowledge of the spiritual makeup of the fir trees outside, and no interest in acquiring any, stung as I was by his contempt, and made cautious by the possibility of provoking a latent violence.

This was many weeks before the operation into Novi Sad, where the horses were now stabled. Nazer would not, could not accompany us, obviously; a mere ghost without asylum outside his rubble prison, but he was essential in the planning. He hunched over maps of the area surrounding Novi Sad, speaking into a hand-held tape recorder. I later learned he was telling his story, then walking the talk—pacing the village streets, leaving fully recorded microcassettes to be found long after the tourists and dabblers had left town, and long after his death; some wedged in the crevices of balustrades arching over the village stream, others jammed between the cover and stitched binding of library books, a story within a story; not to be discovered by the sweeping forces of destruction, but by future forensic scavengers or through the serendipity of survivors.

Three others had joined our little band at this point: two German girls under cover as translators, who were, indeed, multilingual—and Olympic-level dressagers. The third person was an older man, a local, who was always about, it seemed; who talked mainly to Louis and who stared at me constantly until it was all I could do not to yell “What? What?” To myself, I called him “One-eyed Jack”—not because both of his eyes didn’t function simultaneously, but because I thought of him as a periscope, silently rising out of the floor boards, swiveling left and right, an entity always spying, identity concealed. Taking everything in and giving nothing out. He watched me watch Nazer. And I did study Nazer. I could see nothing of his sister in him. Nazer remained aloof, although he often spoke directly to the two equestrians, which surprised me because, based on my experience, I did not believe Nazer trusted women. “Jack” sensed my puzzlement, and jerking his head in the women’s direction and tapping his forehead, said simply, “Die Pferde,” gesturing toward the girls, “they speak to them,” indicating their possession of a cognizance and a skill level that negated to a sufficient extent, evidently, the anomaly of their gender.

Our cover was set up thusly: I was not told explicitly how the others would arrive, but Richard, Louis, and I would travel to nearby Vitez, where UN operations were based, and where a portion of the Cheshire Regiment of the British Army was deployed. Then we would return with a convoy back to Split, Croatia, where, serendipitously, the British maintained a headquarters and logistics base, and lastly, join a C-141 transport flight to London, location of the home office of Medicine Nonsectarian and our little offshoot operation as well. Our traveling with the troops was not officially approved, of course, but rather carried out without request, as there was a great love of horses among the command. A few days were to be spent in London, then we would fly back into Belgrade on a commercial flight with clean passports.

The grandfather of a doctor in Medicine Nonsectarian had recently died leaving a house situated not too far from Novi Sad, and Richard was returning as his grandson to close the estate. I was his fiancée, a position which allowed me to speak only English and a little German without suspicion. The others, when they arrived or appeared, assumed their role in a motley cast of characters: ne’er-do-well cousin (Louis), new-found acquaintances, and snow bunnies who had lingered past the season. Once settled, the word discreetly went out from the old Jovanović house that let it be known there were those in the grandson’s party who would not turn their nose up at the prospect of buying a few show horses on the black market—the rumor being the Lipik Lipizzaners were somewhere close by—one cousin acting as agent for some unnamed businessman. All of us kept a low profile, except Louis who made a show as a gambler, and in the service of veracity, once allowed himself to be rolled.

At first, I felt this was a different kind of danger than what we experienced in Travnik, much more Secret Agent Man, but this wore off after a few days, and it settled into the familiar bleak wariness. Of everything and everybody. ‘Who are you?’ was the question constantly asked before in Bosnia—former compatriot or newfound enemy? How do I know? Blue berets and white armored vehicles notwithstanding, in the absence of international political will, even humanitarian aid was suspect, and we were chimeras within a chimera. It made for uncertain footing. It was almost impossible not to end up at some point on the wrong side, in the wrong place; here everyone was a combatant, as Louis would say. After a while, it didn’t even matter, as the human chain kept splitting into smaller and smaller links until you trusted only yourself, and even then, your most secret thoughts were not invariably reliable. Smaller and smaller links that would no longer mesh together for any semblance of strength. Anyone with a grievance, anyone who believes righteousness is solely on his side, her side; anyone who lives in certainty is a danger, again according to Louis. Pick your team; have your team picked for you. I hated this arrogance and certitude; even as I had voluntarily placed myself in the middle of a stewing mass of it; it always ended up like this; it made everything a living hell.

* * *

So, sure enough, Louis was eventually taken around to where the horses were stabled. With this knowledge in hand, Richard and I took an evening spin a few days later and found ourselves near the identified farmstead. We parked our rental car on the side of the road and got out to look at the stars, as the affianced do. Or was it to calculate the distance from farmhouse to paddock, from paddock to stable, from stable to road? As twilight settled down over us, cloaking the landscape in deep blue and soft violet, a momentary sense of peace was offered, but any hope of Richard opening up and saying something off-message was snatched away by the sight of a dark shape bobbing on the road, headed our way. Slowly the mass defined itself as some guy slowly approaching, rifle slung casually over his back. It never was just some guy, though, was it? Although we could not name the exact nature of it, both of us could sense the menace. A guard? The police, some militia irregular? A common thug? Surely someone looking for payback for his grievances. Why didn’t anyone wear uniforms in this goddamn forsaken place?

“Don’t fight me,” Richard said, scaring me even more, if possible. He put a hand on each side of my shirt (my favorite shirt) and ripped off the top button. He took a flask out of his back pocket and poured a good bit of its contents down my throat, some of it spilling out of my mouth, running down over my exposed skin. He took several slugs himself, then crushed himself against me, pushing my back into the backseat door handle. It was as if I had been sucked up into the center of a tornado, and I tried to focus over Richard’s shoulder at the trees plastered against the night as he whispered in my ear, “Don’t look him in the eyes; don’t talk.” His mouth covered mine and he only released me as the unknown approached.

The man walked up to us, swung around his assault rifle, and grasping it in both hands, cocked it at Richard’s head. Somehow Richard appeared unfazed. He was cognizant enough to have grabbed his passport and wallet and now waved them in front of the man. “Hey, hey, American! American!” he chided our assailant, seemingly confident through a haze of liquor that this was a simple misunderstanding. The guard (or whoever) looked at his passport, threw it back to him, squatted down to pick up his wallet that had fallen to the ground, pulled out the wad of cash, and tossed it back empty.

“Wha . . . wha . . .”

Ignoring Richard’s protests, he pushed Richard away, then a look came over his face when he realized that was not all that was on free offer. “Your sister, yeah?” He pulled me toward him and my mind went blank with terror.

My constant fear back in Travnik, or wherever we travelled in central Bosnia, was that I would be caught in a shelling attack or felled from afar by some unseen, unknown agent. These thoughts were so present in my mind that I had accepted it as my fate and was merely operating stoically until that time; it was somewhat comforting in that it gave a sheen of imagined nobleness to my faffing about and provided some faux sense of progression amidst the chaos. To be presented with a violence so close in my face in the form of this man—a violence of such a corporal, sexual nature no less—was such an unconsidered way of going that it brought the liquor that had gone down my stomach so fast back up just as quickly, and I threw up on the ground, a good bit splashing onto the boots of my accoster, seemingly squelching his rank ardor. Deciding to cut his losses, he grabbed the slopped brandy flask, thought better of it, threw it through the open window of the car, ruining the backseat, then put Richard’s cash in the inner pocket of his jacket.

“You take your fuckin’ somewhere else from now on. I see you here again, you dead, and your sister be passed around like krofne.” Again pushing Richard in the back with the butt of his Zastava, he shoved us out of his way and left with his currency. Thank god for his fastidiousness; it seemed almost preposterous that he hadn’t killed us. What idiots we were.

When I came to after passing out in the stinking car on our drive back, it was two in the afternoon, and I had to sit in the living room back at the grandfather’s house amidst the packing crates and try to sip down coffee that tasted like weeds and thank Richard for mauling me, for taking liberties and saving my life, and I had to thank chance and serendipity for not being served up to satisfy unchecked perversion, and I never had a lower sense of self-worth that I could remember.

After washing up in the old bathroom, the water so hard and polluted, it left an iron stench that cut through every sensation; after squeezing out the last of the old antiseptic in its rolled-up tube to smear on the scratches that covered my neck and arms like lace; I went out to the back garden of shrubbery, the flowering white mounds silently emanating their scent under the lowering sky, and pushing my hands deep into their innards, through the many twigs and thorns, producing new self-inflicted wounds to mingle with the others, I grabbed hold of the branches, holding onto as if to a life-preserver, holding on for dear life, trying to steady myself, save myself, staring at the beauty of the blooms, straight into them, willing myself to feel nothing else but the sensation each individual petal projected until, finally, I could regain my bearings. And I stood there shaking until it became dark, just one lost soul and these branches of beauty in an atrocious world.

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The Water Is So Wide

Before we moved up north, my memories of summers past were mid-Atlantic: sugared candied orange and lime, and ice pop grape; softly rounded and coconut lotion-infused. We bought our roasted nuts in white paper bags; we stained our sneakers a winey burgundy from picking mulberries in the lane. Now once again up north, out on the porch this bright New England summer morning, it was all black kelpy stench and saline breezes. As happens when you’re unmoored from your foundation and set adrift, sensations are heightened and become everything. Jay was back from Europe and we were spending a long weekend at my mother’s summer rental on the Connecticut coastline. You could travel the extremes simply by opening the screen door and sticking your head back in the cool restfulness of the shadowed house, the smell of browned butter from the earlier pancakes, eaten with cherry jam and powdered sugar while half-naked from just getting out of bed, still permeating the premises. Outside, the sand and salt could scrub you raw.

“Do you want more coffee? We should start thinking about heading out in an hour or so.”

“Okay,” Jay said, staring out to sea.

I reflected on the unfamiliar maleness of him sitting there: the large foot up on the railing, flat and broad, so different from the curvy arch and polished seashell toes of mine; the bare chest, the loose boxers with their white folds and gaps. The pistons driving to succeed or crash. I was chagrined at having gotten used to the proximity of it after being so long unaccustomed only to lose it again. This was the furthest point we would go in our relationship. Now we would turn and go our separate ways.

Why had we come together yet again, this time, I wondered. How many women had he had by now, as his fame grew? How many groupies, how many models/actresses, by definition the seemingly inevitable choice to showcase achievement; beauties who floated like oil above the mere waters of ordinary womanhood. But my irritation was not with them, or Jay, only with me. The gap in question here was not quantitative. He had taken the wheel of the race car, driving with skill through reality; I was still playacting in my uncle’s barn. What must he think of me? The time for the van had passed. ‘Get going,’ I’d say to myself with conviction. But I never did. The strangeness I felt with him was a measure of the distance between us in strength of will. And the distance I had traveled away from the realm of my senses.

Did I have all the time left in the world? Were we still talking about forever? So many sailors—pirates, pilgrims—had left these local ports seeking profit or redemption, I thought as I squinted out at the water, the wind whipping my hair about my face. There were always ships at sea, some vessel to be spied on the horizon. My mother had had enough of me, and I of her. I felt unable to move in her presence. I was eager to set sail.

* * *

Back in New York, I found a box of old stuff my mother had set aside in anticipation of my eventual departure. It contained the usual assortment of memorabilia: concert ticket and baseball game stubs, a playbill from my high school production of Camelot with my role as “Second Lady-in-Waiting” duly noted. Another thing in there was an old datebook, and as I flipped through the pages, I stopped on September 18. “Aunt Jean” was inked diagonally across the page. Her birthday. Images of my aunt, reserved and meticulous, sent me into a reverie. Her practicality would cut through the sloppy thinking that shrouded and thickened my mind. A clue might be provided, perhaps a key. ‘That’s what I need,’ I said to myself, ‘more Aunt Jean and less Uncle Henry.’ I hunted around for pen and paper and sat down to write to her.

I wrote asking for advice, and we struck up a long-distance correspondence, as much as was possible with someone a world away, in more ways than one. A stealth campaign was mounted to bypass Mom and coordinate with Jean. There was work to do if I was serious, otherwise I was not to waste her time. Mom caught wind of the shift in loyalties, and chided me every time I went to the Post Office.

“You always go overboard on things. You’re more comfortable with these sad sacks than with people who are actually good at what they do. You string along Jay . . .”

“I don’t string along Jay.”

“Your cats, your shelter dogs, your ragtag—and my sister loves it. She loves it!” Mom threw up her hands at me. “She eggs you on.”

“No she doesn’t.”

“Like hell she doesn’t. You two are like the Bremen musicians! The second coming! All you need is the donkey.”

There were four Bremen musicians, Mom. Four damn musicians. I had to get out. At one time, my mother surely was capable of higher feelings; I’m not sure what caused her to lock them away. Disappointment is a rougher pill to swallow than most will acknowledge. They say we have a vestigial tail in our bodies; I could only hope she had vestigial grace in her soul.

Months passed, and just after I had given up and was beginning to take these jabs to heart, my endurance all but gone, an aerogramme arrived from Croatia from my aunt with the name of a small organization that was working there, ostensibly with the UN humanitarian relief mission, skirting its association with Medicine Nonsectarian. Its mission was to find and rescue the Lipizzaner horses that had been kidnapped from the Lipik stables. She could not meet me, but could make the necessary referrals, and could arrange to have someone pick me up at the Zagreb airport and take me to where I needed to go. She said to think long and hard about this; although there were numerous organizations and press on the ground, it was dangerous—she knew of at least one fatal shooting of an aid worker. Once there, returning was not an easy given, and this was not a solution to boredom or an alternative to shopping. She couldn’t stop herself from including that dig. Must be in the DNA. I refolded her letter and sat with head down in silence, slapping the flimsy paper again and again against my palm before whispering to no one in particular, “Full sail.”

Before My Skin Was Broken

The lost become ghosts

The dog was going to bite me. How many times did Richard say, ‘Make friends with the dog. Make friends.’ I was skeptical of the whole arrangement, and the fact that I was given a gun—a thing I was deathly afraid of—a gun with a silencer, no less, just proved my point. Every night for a week or so we were to sneak over to the paddock and stable where the Lipizzaners were kept and feed cooked chicken to the watchdog, gaining his trust, so on the night we took them he would not bark. If he did, I was to shoot him, while Richard and company got the horses and led them out, each rustler assigned to take two horses at a time—we weren’t sure exactly how many there were now—placing bandannas over the great beasts’ eyes, encouraging them forward with soft, loverlike murmurs, and steering them out to the waiting trailer. Two other men would load up a pickup truck with bedding and feed.

It all seemed preposterous to me. And then somewhere along the line a gun was introduced. A gun! We never started with the idea of a gun. We just started with an idea. And now here I was standing in the kitchen with a gun and a silencer in my hand. I affected a stance in front of the curtainless window when Richard handed it to me that night, the foreignness in my hand glimmering in the dark reflection, but the desired effect was not translatable and my sarcasm eluded Richard. Could we pull it off? Could I? My gaze locked on the mirror-like window: passing chimera shapes shifted and phased in and out. Enesa slowly appeared like an apparition there, ‘I am not brave,’ her wavering form warbled, the sound coming to me from a great distance away. ‘I am not brave . . .’ Her voice summoned me back in time; I stood once again in the middle of the smoldering Marić’s house as if at the gates of hell—the smell, the poison taste in the mouth—the flies—and I knew I could do what was necessary. I could. The lost become ghosts who egg you on. And the air was thick with ghosts and weeds, and my mind was full of rocks and my heart was filled with rubble. I would press the pistol against the hound’s head, if need be, and pull the trigger.

* * *

So, we started the first night just approaching the stables. The dog stood up on our approach; he was secured to a lean-to shed with an overhanging roof as his shelter; when he started growling, we threw the food on the ground and retreated. Turning round, we could see him at the limit of his chain eating the chicken. I decided on the spot to call him “Ernie.” Would his owners notice this extracurricular repast on his breath? We did this for several nights, each time getting closer, until I could stand next to Ernie while the others went in and out of the stables to accustom him as well as the stallions and mares to our presence, the dark house reassuringly far off in the distance. The night of the actual seizure, so painstakingly plotted, we took too long, and Ernie began to growl; I fed him almost everything I had. The horses were coming out two by two, but too slowly. Ernie grew increasingly restless. “C’mon, boy. Good boy. Good Ernie,” I whispered. A rivulet of sweat from under my arm trickled down my side, and Ernie sensed my fear. I plopped down the remaining cache of food, but the horses were skittish and we were not keeping to schedule; every extra minute of delay put us and them in greater jeopardy. “That’s a boy. Yes, such a good boy. Good boy!” The food was gone. Ernie began to bark.

“Shut him up,” Richard hissed at me over his shoulder as he steered past with two mares. “Stop him.”

Ernie barked louder and louder, unsettling the horses, growling, lunging at me, and I retreated beyond the range of his chain. In the end, despite my earlier bravura, I could not kill the agitated Ernie. Panicking, I turned back at him. He leapt up at me and I whacked him on the head as hard as I could with my pistol butt in a cruel and stupid attempt to render him unconscious and thus silent. Of course, this did not silence him; it only injured him and caused him to commence an unearthly howling and yodeling that would wake the dead. After a minute, lights came on in the farmhouse and you could hear doors slamming and the caretakers streamed out to see what the hell was going on. Most of the horses had already gone ahead, there were just four more: three held by one of the girls; the other, the prized stallion, Tulipan Sava, who was not cooperating, shaking his head, dancing in place then rearing up, finally biting at his handler.

Richard ran back and sent the other two on, ordering them to get going, to get the hell out, and grabbed Tulipan and the other’s leads and my gun, motioning me over to the pickup truck where Eben, who had drawn the straw as driver, sat waiting to take off. Richard told me to put the tailgate down and pull out the ramp; he tossed me the leads of the three other horses, and he took Tuli around and around in circles and finally got him up on the back of the truck, but there was no time left and he jumped in, pulling me in while he tried the control the agitated stallion. “Let’s go!” he yelled out at Eben, and the truck slowly started with me holding the reins of the three mares trotting uneasily along behind, a reverse Apollo with his chariot riding backwards into the night. A man appeared on out of the darkness and started to run toward the truck.

“Go, go, go!” I yelled, but the three mares would not cooperate, forming a bumping, dragging, pulling mass of glowing white in the blackness, and we could only go so fast for fear of one of them stumbling, plus Tulipan shifting around in the back. Our pursuer was advancing, yelling over his shoulder to two other men who veered off into the woods behind him. He stopped and launched the hatchet he had been holding at the truck in an attempt to blow out the back tire, but his weapon fell short and speared the ground, like a branch broken during a storm, rudely sticking out of the earth. He charged toward it and wrenched it out and resumed his pursuit of us and our cargo. I didn’t think he could catch us, but with the horses struggling this way and that, straining so hard against their leads that I was bent over at a ninety-degree angle—leaning halfway out of the truck, my arms fully extended—we were too slow, and he was gaining on us.

“Brace, brace, brace. Hold on. Don’t let go,” I could hear Richard yelling from somewhere.

The man was now along side the truck. He threw himself onto the wheel and was able to hold on. I looked into his face. ‘The face of the devil,’ I thought. Richard could not get at him because if he let go of the bridle, Tulipan would have jumped out of the truck. Holding on to the side with one hand, our assailant tried to chop at the reins of the three mares with his hatchet and cut them loose, but he missed, and his weapon hit the top of the tailgate with a horrible din of metal upon metal. Over and over he did this as I screamed, furiously shaking my head, blinded by my hair stuck in my eyes. Spewing hatred at me, he took a big, wretched, wild hack with his hatchet, eerily similar to what I had done with my pistol to Ernie. I ducked, dropping down on my haunches, trying to avoid his blow; the truck swerved severely, and his blade landed on Tulipan’s flank. He whinnied and reared up almost throwing Richard out of the lurching vehicle, Eben frantically twisting the steering wheel to the right then to the left, trying to throw the demon off, but he was stuck to the fender like a tick. He raised his arm and took another desperate swing with his axe; this time it landed squarely across my forearm, splitting the skin open down to the bone. I screamed bloody murder and let go of the leads, just as Richard shot him in the face and he slid off out of sight. The three mares peeled away from the retreating truck, one to the left; one to the right. The middle mare stood still for a moment; realizing her freedom, she shook her head, bobbing it up and down, pranced in a pirouette, turned and headed back in the direction of the stables. I lost them: they retreated away into the darkness, further and further outward with each peal of an internal tolling bell, like the white ghosts they had become, getting smaller and smaller. I lost them. I lost myself. All ghosts now. All ghosts. My eyes locked on the starless sky; I began to shiver violently.

It always bothered me that I had lost the other one of my two bras. So I wore the lace one continually, and it had turned grey instead of white, unable to be cleaned properly. The padding over the hook and eyes in the back had worn and frayed so that they constantly dug into my back, but I was loath to take it off. No surrender of my amour, I liked to think. Your skin has an integrity not normally breached, but when it is, not with a small bruise or with the rubbing of hooks and eyes, but a wholesale breach, with a terrifying wound, the terror itself is the paralyzing thing. A fear apart from the pain that feeds upon itself. You don’t know how it will end, but you know you’re going beyond where you’ve ever been before.

I had fallen backwards into the hay bales; there was a rusty, metallic smell from the blood—mine and Tulipan Sava’s—mixing together with the chaff to form some kind of apocalyptic mortar. The truck rattled off into the night, picking up speed, and the white ghost creatures I had unwittingly released floated up to become clouds in the troubled sky. I thought I would be trampled by Tulipan’s hooves as he whinnied and stumbled about with each jerking, swerving change in direction, and it became a jumble of hooves and blood and neighing and clouds and the bumping of the truck over the uneven road that caused Tuli to tread against me even more, and those white figures peeling off into the night—those ghost horses flying up into the night—and the clouds and a bullet through a devil’s eye, and the blood and the pain and someone yelling at me and the stamping hooves and then it all went black.

Auditoriums of the Adopted Bourgeoisie

royal ballet

The dancers were done and stood on stage as the house lights were brought up after curtain call and the petals were swept away with large brooms. Some of the troupe went down into the audience to mingle. A few people came up on the stage to talk, gesturing at the golden headdresses, wanting to touch them, but afraid of overstepping proprieties. Sok wandered upstage, avoiding conversation; she could not disrobe from her public persona and greet them in any heartfelt way. She was safe up here on high behind her smile; no need to come down to earth.

Down below, before the stage, earthbound and stuck in the mud, Lily looked on as the aura of the Apsara dancers, the closing event of the school’s cultural festival, slowly dissolved back into the banality of the badly lit high school auditorium. Her mother pushed at her to go up on stage and talk to the dancers, but Lily was rooted as firmly as Sok, and could only look on from a distance, the two of them not able to make a connection, to bridge the gap between heaven and earth.

“So many of them were killed,” Lily’s mom said to her. “They can never take away the dances you have danced, your knowledge; the only thing they can do is kill you, and even then that won’t stop the music.” The daughter grimaced and did not really reply to her mother, she was so . . . there was no need to trample over the emotion shimmering between her and the stage tonight, to try to break into that world, to force herself in where she didn’t belong; it made her angry like it always did, but her mother’s words burned into her mind and were not forgotten. Her mother was not one of them, as Lily was by blood, yet she felt the need to lecture her, but . . . mom herself was an artist, a good musician; she understood dance, and Lily’s life, adopted as an infant, was as American homegrown as the next.

The cloak of unselfconsciousness Lily threw over herself when she watched these dancers, when she waded into the world of music and was freely at home, and particularly whenever she wrote her poems, was now torn off, and an awareness of her own self and her surroundings engulfed her, suffocating her. Her mother could do that, rip her protection off, just like that, like she did just now. Without its sheltering embrace, Lily was stricken with doubt, afraid her work conveyed little of what she felt; in fact, she carried around a poem by a Russian person, Marina Tsvetaeva—Ms. MT, she called her in her mind—torn out of an old copy of Vogue, and read it whenever she felt particularly enabled.

She would read MT’s words:

Foretasting when I’ll fold
Time like a rough draft…
A flash of the eye, the last,
And the world’s not a moment old…

Then she would read her own:

What would you have done, if they had not broken you so young
The weight of obligation curves my spine.
I am not one or the other
My story is not a case of either/or…

‘A flash of an eye, a flick of the wrist. A flash of an eye, a flick of the wrist,’ Lily now repeated over and over as the evening’s disintegration spooled out without resistance. She had prodded herself with this nonsense mantra into a transcendent state; so much so that she seemed to be bouncing back and forth between the stage and where she stood until she was blurred out and was neither at one point or the other, but somewhere in between and everywhere, that she had somehow managed to overcome, just for this infinitesimal second, the weight of race, and distance, and time, and had become universal.
.
* * *

Sok had danced for Nuon tonight, for some reason she was stubbornly in her head. As though they had just been together yesterday, though she had been told Nuon Sitha probably died that very first day the soldiers marched into Phnom Penh, the last day of the world as they knew it. She hoped so. Sok became aware of the fervent gaze latched upon her as she moved about under the lights, and looked down at the Cambodian girl with the American mom; well the kid was American too, most likely, like Sok herself someday–maybe. Not Nuon, however . . . no. Royal. Eternally so. Khmer spirit, kindred soul. One sister in heaven; one here on earth, standing there in front of the stage, staring as if in a trance. ‘Dance,’ was what she would tell them. ‘Dance, run in your dreams of me. I dream of you. Turn your eyes toward heaven, toward better men; steer your ship into better times. Every movement, every gesture slows our evanesce.’

Reverence

“In the end, there are only a few things, really: love and hate, empathy and indifference.”

I said this to Richard, looking up from my letter from Dad—posted six weeks ago—the letter that contained the news of Uncle Henry’s death. The train rattled along rhythmically swaying us left, right, left, right, left right; bearing us along to our destination. We were sitting side by side on our way from Tuzla to Budapest. Richard stared straight ahead, watching the moving landscape out the window opposite him. After a long silence, I continued on with my monologue on faith. I expected him to listen, which he did. I expected no response.

“Once you accept that, a lot falls away. Just as if you were on a crowded train,” I gestured around me. “You’re jammed together, being jostled, and then the next to last stop everyone gets off and the light shines through and you get a seat and it feels so good to sit down and the sun is setting and a breeze is wafting through the open doors, and you think, ‘I could ride this train forever.'” Her compassion, Richard thought, her warmth, were given generously, not from any state of dependency, any policy of economy. These qualities of hers did not hang around his neck, weighing him down. She gave freely, but he understood she would pack up and move on at any time, the sun breaking through on a grey day and then retreating behind the clouds again—giving without reserve, removing without remorse.

“Why do people always have to put qualifications, limitations on love: I loved her; she was like my child. Why does it matter? ‘You’re too old, Uncle Henry. It’s too late,'” I continued, fanning myself with the letter, flapping it up and down on my lap. “Wrong time, wrong whatever. You yourself are wrong.” I quoted something I had read: ‘Release your desires, let them go, and never speak of them as they pile one upon another, rising up to a great thunderhead in your heart.’

The statue that was Richard spoke, “You’re trying to keep the mojo; when it’s over, it’s gone. You kept lightning bugs in jars when you were a kid, didn’t you? Once they die, they get tossed, right? You don’t keep them. You wanna keep them. Some dried up crap stuck on a piece of grass. But you refuse to throw it out. When it’s over, it’s gone. You’re still waiting.”

‘I really hate him,’ I thought, not for the first time, but I was too exhausted, too spellbound by the motion of the train for any keen emotion. I turned my head away from him. Neither one of us was willing to speak about Louis. I knew Richard was thinking of him.

“Yeah, well, that’s very neat and tidy. Enesa’s passion—so brilliant—where did that come from? Where has it gone? It just can’t disappear, can it? Uncle Henry’s love drove that damn train. A force so strong—it has to go somewhere, right? The laws of physics. Don’t you find that to be true? Don’t you believe that’s true in your own mind?”

I fell into a reverie, thinking about how the one death was so different from the other: one bloody and fueled by hatred, the stealing of a young life; the other a slow attenuation into nothingness in the awful silence of unrequited love. I twisted my head further to the side and up, staring at the clouds as we continued on. I closed my eyes and after a time opened them again, the clouds had stopped their sprint across the sky and were still. I was still. I cast my eyes down and saw I was no longer on the train, but was standing in front of a kitchen sink in a house high on the top of a mountain, on the top of the world, looking out the kitchen window. Down in the sink was a colander full of green beans. I picked one up and snapped off both ends, the sound of it loud in the silence, and put it on top of the pile of the ones already there. I picked up another and snapped it, then another. The pile grew larger, one by one. The clouds remained still and held the wisdom I wanted tight within their domain.

I continued the snapping, thinking one’s departure from this world would not be so bad up here in this beautiful, eerie isolation with the clouds turning golden in the western sky, the wind picking up, singing its own song. I turned from the window. Jay and Enesa were there with me, sitting round the kitchen table, Enesa’s elbows on its wooden surface, chin resting in her palms, listening to Jay fingerpick his guitar. She never turned around. Jay looked at me from under his lashes, not moving his head.

“I know, now, you were behind the donations,” I told him. We had been able to transport a few stallions back to their home stable, although to what future was uncertain; we never got the mares. They, along with the rest, remained lost. One stallion, Tulipan Caprice, was headed to the states, a token of gratitude, too precious to be bought, only meant to be given and received. Again, possible because of Jay.

“You think when I made it I lost everything else?”

“No, no . . . not you.” A surge of emotion tightened my throat, and I turned my face away, gazing out the window. “I’ve always loved you in my own way, you know,” I continued. “Loved that you didn’t turn . . . that you didn’t see just a girl or a pirate, but a sailor out on the open sea. That you gave me a gift from the kingdom you built with your own heart and mind.” I paused, looking back at him. “The kingdom of Yellowbird.” I smiled at my joke. “You think I don’t understand your generosity?”

Jay continued to look at me. “We’ll be on the late show, darling,” he said softly. “Play a little music, have a few laughs.” He winked. “They’ll say we were brilliant.”

When I turned back again both were gone. Evan sat alone there now, playing, eyes closed but still beautifully expressive, the sweep of lashes above the curve of his cheek, the gorgeous Les Paul chords echoing through the room as if brought in by the wind and the sky. I thought it would break me. He too had given from his self-built kingdom, unbeknownst to him and relentlessly one-sided, but vital just the same. Eventually, he disappeared as well, though the music continued on.

Outside the brilliant light softened, turning the darkened house redder as my pile grew higher. The table behind me continued to be visited by indistinct images tumbling in and out of my vision, a communal board peopled by those I loved or wanted to love, and I felt the force of a passion like Uncle Henry’s running through my veins. I thought of the girls from the mustard-colored building—a world I wanted to know, but didn’t know. Another green bean and the air changed. I lifted my head to the breeze, like an animal that knows a storm is coming when the sun is still shining; like the great stallion Tulipan Sava did when he last raised his head as he lay in that boxcar.

One bean left, but I believed there was no beginning or end. The wind died down; the music stopped. A thrill of dread ran through me, but I would not allow myself to turn around; I knew all was gone in the silence and the stillness, gone in those red slants of light. I raised both hands and placed my palms over my eyes, felt the water from the vegetables trickle down my forearms, tickling me.

Richard was nudging me in my side. “Stop scratching. What are you doing? Stop making a scene.” Startled awake, I gave up trying to poke my finger through the bandages to scratch my wounded arm, and Richard went back to staring out the window. Eventually I put my head on his shoulder, and after a minute he leaned his head on mine. The train rattled on toward the border.

Nocturne

nocturne (2)

Since leaving Travnik, I was troubled, not surprisingly, by phantoms. Flies were my especial tormentors: I felt them settle on me as I tried to sleep; I saw them—whirs on the periphery, an abandoned wing on my sleeve. When Uncle Dekek brought out a bottle of plum brandy to offer his hospitality, one floated round and round on the surface of the pale ginger-colored liquid. I said nothing as the living drank their toast to the dead, but I could taste it.

After the events of the Lipizzaners being found, after the boxcar journey, the hatchet blows and the death of the stallion, Tulipan Sava; after Louis’ heroics, Richard and I stopped at Dekek Marić’s home in Zenica. We were on our way to Tuzla as we made our way out of the country. We stopped to pay our respects, which, I think, the family appreciated. Dekek Marić loved his brother, adored his niece, and at one point during our conversation, he buried his head in his hands and wept. I turned my head and looked out the window, spring was pushing itself upward, coming back, no matter the judgments passed on the human race. I was suffused with an unspecified guilt, and did not have it in me to comfort him.

The sun set, and after dinner, in the too hot living room, Uncle Dekek insisted on playing the piano for us; it was all too much to suffer through. He wanted us to hear Enesa and her father’s favorite pieces. He wanted to give us something of them. The roaring fire, unnecessary in this mild weather, the aftereffects of the suspect Rakia, fatigue, dehydration, combined with the torturing of Chopin, produced at once a lethargy of body and a nervousness of mind, the anxiety escalating with each pump of the piano pedal until I thought I would succumb, give in to the panic, and run out of the room screaming. Finally, we were released from his tribute and allowed to retire.

I couldn’t remember putting my head down on my pillow, but woke up in middle of the night to the strains of Chopin ebbing in and out of my consciousness. I sat up and pulled the heavy quilt off me. Three o’clock in the morning and the man was still banging away? How could such a thing be possible? I got out of bed and opened the door to investigate. I found myself not in the hallway I had stumbled through on my way to bed a few hours ago, but in the smoky, rubbled passageway outside Enesa’s old bedroom, yellow light streaming through her open door and the strains of nocturnes ruffling the air. I stood there as I had done what seemed a thousand years ago, but this time there was no hesitation; I wasn’t frightened. Grasping the door jamb with both hands, I closed my eyes, leaned in, then opened them.

There was Uncle Dekek, playing in the corner, but playing smoothly, playing not as before, playing beautifully, his back to me, hunched and dark over the keys like a crow. Enesa still at her desk. Her dirt farmer stood next to her slumped body. He lifted her out of her chair and took her in his arms. She was roused by his touch and he placed her lightly on her feet; she walked around behind him, running her hand over his shoulders. She faced him, and pressed her hand against his cheek. They danced together, swaying rhythmically back and forth, Enesa never breaking her gaze into her lover’s eyes, her arms round his sunburned neck. Dancing unconstrained, sweet and free. She left his embrace and glided out to the hallway and turned to look at me. I reached out a hand for her, but she shook her head and smiled at me, turned and ran into the darkness. The dead are never truly gone until they return, one last time, to tell us that it is all right, to force acceptance. I turned back to look in the room again—it was empty, the setting sun, glaring through the window brighter and brighter and brighter, as it did the day of her death, until I opened my eyes, the brightness giving way to the whiteness of the ceiling above my head. All was silent except the twittering of birds in the bright morning distance. A tear left the corner of my eye and ran down my cheek to fall into my ear, tickling it. I rubbed my head up and down on the lace of the pillow, turning my face toward my bedroom door. Heavy footsteps sounded on the stairs, then knocking on the door. Time to get up. Time to go. To Tuzla, then to Budapest . . . somehow. Then home.

Welcome to the NFL

“You gotta come to Philadelphia, man, you gotta come,” Howie said to me. I think he said it to me. At least he said it in my general direction.

“What’s in Philadelphia?”

“Absolutely nothing . . . nada . . . the Liberty Bowl’s there, ain’t it?”

“Liberty Bowl?” Jay was incredulous. “It’s the Liberty Bell, you fuckin’ moron. The Liberty Bell.”

Yeah, yeah, it’s cracked, right?”

“You’re cracked, man.”

“Damn straight.”

Sometimes lunacy pays off. Freida and I were backstage at the Beacon Theater. It had been arranged for the two of us to receive an award for our rescue efforts prior to the televised portion of the Rock for Animals benefit show, and thus be bestowed with laminated passes that allowed us to mill about and gawk at the mostly New York-based bands that were performing. My mother had a hand in securing these, a peace-offering of sorts, because she had been hard on me lately. We weren’t the only ones to be so honored, and this access—crumbs for the beggars—apparently was the chosen way to pay off debts, settle scores, and give out chits. But it was fine because Evan Dorenberg was headlining and I was a fan. I would swallow my pride to see him. Being backstage was unsatisfying, however, and I acutely felt my lack of occupation. Every outsider there wanted to be a rung higher, a shade cooler, except Dorenberg, who didn’t appear to want any part of this world, but was given it fully nonetheless. He did not hang around back stage, and I only saw him emerge from his green room, deeply drawing on his final cigarette, on way to stage, inwardly focused in that world of his.

But Jay and the rest of Yellowbird were there, so we hung around with them instead. We were more successful here. If you were young and female, no explanation was necessary for your presence, the more the merrier; you were considered part of the rider, you might say. I mentioned to Jay that I’d seen him before, and explained that I was my mother’s daughter. Recognition registered in his eyes; he smiled, looked me over up and down. “Nice clean up,” he said. He said that to me. I was only able to respond with some vague, jerky gesture, hugging my certificate of appreciation tighter.

While I did not end up traveling with Yellowbird to Philly (although Freida took up the invitation), I did start going to more and more of the band’s gigs when I could get to them, hanging out backstage and afterward with their bassist, Howie. Howie—Bobby Howard—was an exceptional bass player, a better musician than man. The open door to the rock scene he provided because he was not exclusive in any sense, and the fact that he was deeply unhappy, was a combination many women could not resist. He was wrecked a lot of the time, but when he smiled, which he did rarely, it was an artless thing, and, even though deep down you knew better, you felt as though you could be the one who healed this creature with the broken wing.

I myself fell into this trap, sitting with him on the hotel couch, both of us silent as he smoked and fingered the strings of an imaginary bass. Everyone called him Howie, except Freida, who called him Bobby. “Bobby!” she would say in that deep, husky voice of hers. “Bobby.” A single-word imperative. That “Bobby” was enough to raise apprehension in the hearts of the stoutest of men. Freida could not be said to be careful.

More and more I wandered through this world of strange strictures and borderlines. The band was working hard, the crew working harder; the only person not working hard was me. The truth was I should have stuck with walking my avenue, but I threw caution to the wind one weekend and flew with Howie and Yellowbird to Indianapolis, my desperation waxing. I didn’t want to end up like Dad, or like Uncle Henry, sitting day in and day out in that tin shack of his, staring at the cornfields, letting time have its way amid the rustling of the drying stalks.

* * *

That night in Indianapolis . . . I should not have been there. I’m not sure how it even happened: I had too much to drink; by the process of elimination we were the only two left. Later in bed, Howie struggled against me as if he were pulling on a rope to climb back out of the hole he had fallen into, and it was a nasty thing, being that rope. It was all over when he pulled me up by my shoulders to a sitting position so our faces were about an inch from each other’s and yelled, “Welcome to the NFL!” Then he let himself slide back down into the twisted sheets and fell asleep. I sat stunned for several moments, then went into the bathroom and got dressed. I tiptoed out of the darkened bedroom and opened the door to the glaringly bright hotel hallway. The harsh light sent waves of nostalgia sweeping over me as I ducked my head and stepped softly over the threshold into the sunshine childhood days of my uncle’s farm—the simplicity of running down the hill, or lying flat on the ground, a blade of grass in my teeth—and I felt as if I would never be that unencumbered again, and I longed to return and now more fully understood its lure.

I was the last of our party to get off the plane when it arrived back at LaGuardia the next day, the last to get to the van waiting to take us back into the city. When I got there, every seat was taken, the entire band jammed in, plus Eric, their manager; the drummer’s sister and two friends; and Freida, who must have met the van at the VIP gate, crushed in next to Howie, his arm around her shoulder. The vehicle was overcapacity and there was no room for me. “Can’t take any more,” the driver said. All eyes were on me.

“It’s okay.” I said. “I can take a cab.”

Jay said, “Just cram in,” but the others were silent.

“Really, it’s okay. I can take a cab.” Howie did not speak up for me. I stared at everyone seated inside as if in a daze. “I’ll take a cab,” I repeated, waiting for the spell to break, holding up everyone. “I’ll . . .”

“Take a cab,” Howie said, looking out the window, not at me.

“Stop being an ass,” Freida told me.

“Jesus Christ,” Jay said, hauling himself up out of his seat. He ducked out of the van, straightened up, grabbed my hand and pulled me down the sidewalk. Later,” he called over his shoulder. The driver pulled the van door shut and drove off. “Bunch of fuckers,” he muttered, not for the first time. We waited in the taxi line for a cab into the city, and though I suppose it should have been a coup of sorts to be standing there with Jay Burton of Yellowbird as a companion, I looked with envy at every traveler, no matter how weary, every terminal employee, all of them seemingly possessed of an agency and grace I at that moment lacked.

We headed to my mother’s office, where I was to be deposited, but first ducked into the little deli on the corner and picked up sandwiches and beer. At the checkout counter, I grabbed a tub of olives as well. Thankfully Mom was not in, and we brought everything to an empty lounge I knew no one ever used, closed the door, and collapsed on the couch, pushing the papers and books off the coffee table onto the floor, taking the food out of the paper bag, spreading it out like a picnic.

Jay could see I was shaken. “If you met him at a different time and place, you’d like him better.”

“He yelled at me,” I told him. Why I would confess something like this to his bandmate, I’m not sure; it broke all rules of propriety, as did my being with Jay now, if one was bent on being particular, but that boat had long sailed. Jay responded by telling me about Howie’s long-time girlfriend, Ivy, a woman almost ten years older. She ran away with another man, leaving a note taped to the dressing room mirror one night an hour before the show. The stunt stung him badly.

“Was he serious about her?”

“I don’t know; he liked her. He liked to get her drunk . . . she’d dance around to old music. He liked to watch her.”

“Because nothing was required of him?”

A pause and a sip. “Right. Just wanted to drink beer and have his . . .”

“Oh, crap. Crap.”

“What?”

“These olives have pits in them.” I said, holding up the container.

“So?” Jay asked, collapsing back against the couch. His hair was in a tangle, some of it caught inside the collar of his black shirt, some of it outside; his eyelashes dark against his pale skin.

“I don’t want a bowl of chewed-over pits; it’s gross.” Tears started in my eyes, my body began to tremble, as the self-imposed embargo on acknowledging the humiliation of last night finally broke, sending an overwhelming sadness flooding though me.

Jay leaned forward and touched my face. He brushed his thumb across my cheek, wiping away the tears. The sudden intimacy was deliverance from a world of letdowns and fiascoes. After the rough and tumble vulgarities of Indy, it felt sweet and warm and kind. And that was all I wanted.

Jay collapsed once again against the back of the sofa.  He was exhausted. He became solemn and turned his head to look at me. “I ain’t gonna yell at you,” he said softly, eyes half-shut. “I ain’t gonna yell . . .”

I rested my head on Jay’s chest; he laid his hand on my hair. We stayed in this position, silent, until one of the interns knocked on the door, sticking her head in and saying they needed the room.