Emily’s Bell

It was a year or so ago that I, Kenneth Kilmer, bought the small farm from the estate of Henry Stoughton. There was a ramshackle shed on the property, overtaken and brought down by bramble, the boards in the drywall rotting up from the ground, producing gaps large enough for rodents to enter. Abandoned acorn caps covered a work table with a vise clamped to its front edge, along with mouse droppings, and the remnants of cracked hickory shells from the ghosts of children who worked that vise long ago. Despair emanated from the very wood of its walls, as indelible as the faint smell of alcohol that permeated the place. Death was close here, too, and time ticked loudly onward with one’s own heartbeat, raising panic in the souls of those who lingered too long inside, which was why none of the locals had bought the property. On his last day, Henry Stoughton rose from his deathbed, they said, and being a farmer, a man who lived in the free air, struggled to escape his confines and will himself outside to draw his last breath in the open. But he did not collapse upon the ground, eyes focused permanently toward the sky, the story went, he staggered to the shed and passed there with his demons, discovered later by one of his nephews.

And there must have been some two-bit fair ground or carnival park in the back fields. There was the ruin of a train engine, not a toy thing exactly, but the damnedest thing—as big as a small horse—rusted into its tracks. These tracks, which I only discovered by stumbling over them, serpentined throughout the far pasture; the ties now sunk under the soil, the rails almost level with the ground, and most of it obscured by clumps of weeds from which white cabbage moths emerged, fluttering and bubbling above their tufted grass cauldrons. Impossible to mow, and it would be hell trying to remove it. Not to mention the cost. That’s why I agreed to let Stoughton’s niece board her horse here. She contacted me not long after I bought the place. I had no wish for such an arrangement with some animal rescuer, but she seemed a quiet enough gal, no ranter. The fee would pay for removing the last of her uncle from these fields. My fields now, my land. I was itchy for it all to be done, but pulling out its last clutches hurt some part of my mind. Whatever happened here remained palpable. What was this history that refused to let go of its grasp on the place? People said it was spooked. My mind looped back constantly in curiosity to its provenance. Had there been a happy man here, once? I closed my eyes and opened them, imagining I was Henry Stoughton waking up—young, death not yet knocking, the train still running, at the very start, at the beginning.

But it was beyond the end of the start, and at a new beginning. The date was set for the girl to bring her horse, and I stepped out to the front stoop that day when I heard her van turn into the driveway.

But it was a car that pulled in. I was waiting for a trailer and a horse, and the lone car confused me. A young woman got out and silently approached me.

“Where’s the horse?”

She froze for a second, her eyes strangely looking off to the side.” Then without moving her head, she turned her gaze on me and whispered, “Excuse me?”

“The horse. Where’s the horse?”

“I’m Emily _______,” she said, swallowing her last name so I had no idea what it was. “My father used to bring me here so I could ride Mr. Stoughton’s train when I was little. I don’t know anything about a horse, sorry. I knew the place had sold and was hoping to . . .. I drove here today, just to drive past.” I could see the memories, the shadows of fast-moving clouds, glide across her face. “Happy times,” she said in a normal voice.

“Yeah. I was expecting someone else, that’s all. Have a look ‘round if you want, if you don’t mind ruining your shoes.” The two of us walked out into the back fields and stopped at the fence surrounding the back pasture. “So, what was all this?”

“It wasn’t anything official or anything like that. Mr. Stoughton took kids around the field on his train. Any kid that showed up. And he had horses. But it was more than that. It’s hard to explain. When you were riding the train, you were free of your demons.” I didn’t know what to say to this, so I said nothing. She leaned on the railings and stared across the field at the engine, a jarring black-brown blotch amidst the yellow-green grass. So still and bleak it was hard to believe it was always inanimate, so steadily did it now emanate its mortality. I think Emily-whatever was sorry she’d come back. A blot on those memory clouds.

“Seems so small now; not like I remember. They shouldn’t have let it go like this.”

“Well, a gal is coming today, any minute, to board her horse here. It was her uncle’s train. The rent for that pasture will pay to have it junked and the tracks removed—it’s a hazard now. It’s time. One of those Lipizzaner horses like in the movie; they stand on their hind legs and stuff. Anyway, all the way from Yugoslavia.” I paused; I didn’t know the full story. “They were starving them there.”

“Yugoslavia doesn’t exist anymore.”

“Bosnia, whatever.”

* * *

And, indeed, at this moment, a horse van carrying Tulipan Caprice, one of the stallions recovered from the raid on the Lipik stables in Croatia, was being driven by Henry Stoughton’s niece through the pines up VT100-N on their way to the Kilmer farm. Miraculously, she had found a music station on the radio up here in the mountains, but it was beginning to fade. “This is Enesa’s favorite song,” she said over her shoulder to Caprice, whose head was visible through a window behind the driver’s seat. He made no comment. “I know you love this song, Enesa,” she continued, addressing the empty air. ‘Even though you seldom actually listen to it, because it makes you feel too much. You always put it on mute.” Neither did Enesa answer her, because Enesa Marić was dead. Murdered in her home in Bosnia Herzegovina. Burst in upon and attacked in her bedroom while she was spinning her dreams for her golden future. This was the hard truth, but Caprice’s driver that day could not accept it, and so it did not stop her from carrying ongoing conversations with the absent girl. That was what was left for her: communicating with her ghosts, both living and dead, and she took comfort in the lucidity of it. Her friend Richard, she knew, would sneer at her, but she would sneer right back. ‘You reduce everything to physics and philosophy,’ she would tell him. ‘You’re all calibration and cant.’

* * *

“Well, thank you, thanks very much for your time.” Emily turned to head back to her car, then stopped. “Could I take a little something back with me?” she asked.

“Like what?”

“I don’t know, maybe a piece of the field?” I looked at her. “Okay, well, maybe part of the train? The bell? I didn’t speak as a child, but I rang that bell. I sure as hell rang that bell.”

I trotted back to the house and came out with a screwdriver and a hammer. As I thought, the screws were rusted solid and would not turn, but using the screwdriver as a chisel, I was able to knock the bell off its mount. I handed it to her, and she held it up aside her head and shook it, but the clapper was gone. “Why didn’t you speak?”

She lowered her hand and rested the bell against her chest. “Thanks, Mr. Kilmer.”

As we were walking back past the shed, the van I had been waiting for turned and lurched into the driveway. It rumbled in place until the engine was shut off. Stoughton’s niece jumped down from the cab, and came forward to shake my hand. She was skinny and tired-looking, and her right forearm was enclosed in some kind of brace with an abundance of Velcro. She went to the back of the trailer and proceeded to open a number of locks, making loud clicking and slamming noises, lowering the ramp, and emerged leading the massive Lipizzaner. The horse looked huge, the girl small beside him. Snorting and shaking its head, she led him around to the two of us.

“Here he is: he’s called Tulipan Caprice, after one of the studs of the Lipik line.”

“Tupelo Caprice—fancy—like a race horse, eh? Not Smokey or Sport or something.”

“Tulipan, not Tupelo,” she corrected me. “We usually just call him Momo.” This was said without a trace of either irritation or patience. I don’t know what happened to her there in Bosnia, but obviously, she carried it with her, and she gave the impression of living now merely to put one foot in front of the other.

I opened the gate for her and we went into the pasture where Emily and I had been standing. I introduced Emily merely as ‘Emily,’ what else could I do? The two women after a moment seemed to recognize something in the other.

“You’re not the little girl whose father used to bring you to ride the train, are you?”

“Yes, that was me. The one who never spoke. Mr. Kilmer has been kind enough to let me have a last look. I heard your uncle had passed, and I just wanted to see the place one more time.” She paused. “It has haunted me.”

A small smile of understanding passed between them that emboldened a need for confession. “I’m so sorry about your uncle. He was always kind to me; though he seemed kind of sad.” Emily switched her bell to her other hand and made an up and down motion with her fingertips over her chest, “Like the tears ran down inside him. I never said anything then, but I used to imagine him crying, but the tears would run down inside him, so no one knew about them. Like my words.”

“My uncle was unlucky in love. He was in love with a girl, a quicksilver woman weighted down by her child. She lost her son, and then my uncle lost her. Well . . . haven’t we all loved and lost? I have. People here and gone, and now this train soon to be history.” She narrowed her eyes as she stared across the fence at the train and her horse nodded his head up and down and pranced in place lifting one hoof, then the other. “I’ve seen so many things. Why these destructive forces we can’t seem to conquer haven’t wiped us out by now is a mystery to me. The power of them sweeping across the centuries unabated surely should have done us in by now. How can we still be here and not have turned into some gigantic wasteland? Everything beautiful gone extinct. Extinct like the rhinos.”

“The rhinos aren’t extinct.”

“No, no they’re not. Not yet anyway,” she had to admit. “My uncle had a great love, one of the great loves, I like to think, like a force of nature, an undying truth. That’s what won’t let go here.” She kicked up dirt with her boot, unconsciously mimicking the pawing of her horse. “It’s a battle.”

“Yeah, sure it is.” She paused, thinking back. “But one with survivors,” Emily said, again holding her souvenir up next to her head and ringing the soundless bell. “Like me.” Standing back from them a little with folded arms, I smiled at her and dipped my head in a fleeting nod of acknowledgement. “And him,” Emily continued, gesturing at the giant horse now struggling against the hold on his reins and jerking Stoughton’s niece forward and back. Those clouds of emotion reappeared, rushing across her face this time, and she let him loose; he lunged into the open field as I stepped up to stand between the two girls. And through a quality of white light found only in the mountains of New England, and—they tell me—Italy, Tulipan Caprice cantered in the free air as the three of us watched him, each strike of his hoof sounding out the pasture’s soil.

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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 floorboards, 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.

Cat Rescuers & Seamstresses

sixth avenue (3)

The first time I saw Jay, I was wearing sweatpants and smelled of burnt chestnuts and urine. The smell of New York. I was sitting in the reception area of my mother’s office, just delivered from the police precinct station where I had been brought in for questioning on an attempted mugging—not my mugging of someone, of course, but of someone trying to grab me. Freida, my partner in lunacy, and I had been out and about in the early morning hours, wandering through the garment district and up across the street from the Port Authority, have-a-heart traps banging against our legs, looking for strays among the debris, the abandoned reclining armchairs that served as people’s beds; avoiding the chiffoniers and city gypsies, keeping an eye out for the mentally troubled and criminally inclined. We thought both our industriousness and the lazy habits of this population would protect us from harm, but we were the victims of our own prejudices.

Our plan was simple and free of any practicality: saved from wanton cruelty or the research labs, the captured felines would be carted off to our veterinary student friends who would neuter and vaccinate them, then take them to the shelter to find homes. Their “forever homes.” This phrase, though admirable, meant nothing to me. Forever stretched off into the distance for me. How long is forever when you’re young? How wide is the ocean when you’ve never been abroad? I was eager to move time and set sail. My mother could not stand this humane sideline of mine; she said it was a nasty streak of self-righteousness that ran through the family reaching its pinnacle with her sister, Jean. Mom was ready to push off my boat and wave from the shore.

Mom and Dad divorced while I was in college. Mom moved to New York and Dad stayed in the sticks. She always hated the country, and I was brought to wonder sometimes why they got married in the first place. After graduating, I moved in with Mom to make my way in the big city. Mom went into PR and ended up a management consultant in the entertainment and sports industry. She was right at home among the high achievers and go-getters. They possessed something Dad and I lacked.

So that’s how I found myself seated in her reception area that day when she walked by with Jay Burton, frontman for the rising roots group, Yellowbird. Why he was awake and here at such an hour, why Mom had not gone instead to see him, following at heel like a bird dog, I later found out had something to do with morning radio. Mom saw me sitting there, but ignored me; Jay turned to look at me a second as I’m sure I stuck out sartorially, but instead of looking through me as expected, a puzzled expression flashed across his face, replaced with the slightest of amused stretching of his lips, then he was gone. This glance lasted all of ten seconds, but it was enough for me, even in my agitated state, to post two thoughts in his favor: one, he was not half bad-looking; and two, he had not yet lost his mind.

On Mom’s return, I was called in to tell my story: Freida and I were in the lot across the street from the Port Authority. I had gone around the corner of a nearby building and was lifting up old, wet, half-deteriorated boxes when a sense of dread flooded over me so strongly I straightened up, senses on full alert. I turned around to see a large man—much larger, so much larger than me—about six foot three, drunk or stoned or both, blocking my way. I often wondered what I would do in a situation like this. Well, I froze. I couldn’t move or scream. This is it, I thought.  Right here in this ally.

Seconds of inaction passed, then the spell broke, and I casually tried to go by him, saying calmly, ‘I’m just going to go out here,’ but he grabbed me and put me in a choke hold, ripped open the Velcro of my fanny pack and took my wallet. I was pressed hard against him, struggling, rubbing against his filthy, stinking body. Freida, seeing this, dropped her cages and took off in the opposite direction. He jammed his hand down my jeans, trying to pull them down, but I had both my hands clutched over my belt buckle, holding on for dear life. What would have happened if an off-duty detective on his morning run hadn’t seen this struggle and chased the man away, I could well imagine.

I went with the detective to the local station to report the crime. Detective Cunningham said there wasn’t much chance of anything being done, and if I ever decided on doing something so stupid again, he would run right past. He let me call my mother from the phone on his desk and gave me cab fare to my mom’s office even though it was just a few blocks away. All I wanted to do was go home, take the world’s hottest shower, and curl up in a blanket, but Mom was hysterical at first and needed to see her girl alive and in one piece. Her relief at my survival had turned to anger by the time I went into her office. As with Detective Cunningham, she felt the responsibility for this upheaval of everyone’s day rested solely with me. Why wouldn’t that man want to attack me? That’s what muggers do. No more rescue work for me. From now on I could work in her office, filing photos as they came off the wire, and satisfying any higher calling by volunteering at the shelter.

Weeks passed, the seasons turned, but I never did regain my sense of normalcy. I just tried to stay out of everyone’s way. Every day I’d get off the train at Penn Station and walk to my mom’s office, up out of the fur district, dodging the men with their rolling racks of furs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, past Macy’s, up Sixth Avenue ignoring the public altercations that always seemed to be taking place between some man in a suit and someone who probably didn’t own a suit. This was also the era of the flyer, every shop or restaurant employing some poor soul to thrust its advertising at passersby. I took it as a point of pride that no one could make me take one.

Just before I turned the corner to my office, I would pass a mustard-colored building; there were always young women going in or coming out. The women were Asian, but I could not place them more specifically. Sometimes one of them would emerge by herself, but mostly they traveled in groups, and on the rare occasion I could overhear their conversations, it was in a language I couldn’t identify. Maybe because I was lonely and unsettled, I was drawn to these women. I wanted to know who they were. I fell into stereotypical thinking, seeing them emerging onto the street like a flock of graceful birds; I romanticized them, thinking they carried a sadness in their faces, a sorrow in their posture, though I realized reality was likely much harsher and grittier. Over time and repeated crossing of paths, I was able to recognize a few of them as individuals, and they seemed to recognize me. Though we never smiled at each other or looked each other straight in the eye, eventually there came to be some understanding, some acknowledgement as we passed that, Yes, there you are; we’re both on schedule, then. I came to the conclusion that they worked either in a brothel or a sweatshop. Given these two hard choices, given my recent fleeting brush with unwanted intimacy, I hoped to God it was the latter.