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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The Apartment on 6th Avenue

The shadows thrown by the setting sun passed across the building, consuming the warmth of its ocher bricks. Pigeons flew in from overhead, roosting in the soffits of the structure, evidence of their occupation splattered on the pavement below. Traffic lights shimmered red and green like baubles on holiday trees. Sok approached the building and entered the lobby, taking the old elevator up to apartment #817. She carried a tub of bai cha and a plastic bag containing laundry detergent and aspirin.

They met at Hun Kru’s apartment on Tuesdays and Sundays in the evening at suppertime, each bringing a little something for the teacher’s meals. Sometimes only three students showed up, sometimes as many as seven. The dance master also saw girls during the day if she could arrange it, but that was difficult. There were always enthusiasts at first, homesick for their homeland, free from parental disapproval, free of the need for permission. A good number peeled away, though, discouraged by the required discipline, frustrated by the rigidity of expression.

Sok greeted everyone and turned over her contribution to Hun Kru’s living wages, donation for the knowledge passed on. The group stretched before they began, the teacher bending back a hand, pulling back a shoulder, straightening the spine. Then they danced.

When she danced, Sok thought of Nuon. The rest of her day, her mind was occupied with practical matters or taken up with romantic notions or ambitious thoughts for herself. But dancing always brought her back to Nuon. Best friends, almost sisters, separated that day in April years ago, never to see each other again. Sometimes as she danced, sometimes when she satisfied Hun Kru with a particular gesture, the correct bend of the elbow, Sok would think, ‘For you, Nuon.’

There were many such thoughts circulating in that room, hovering in the ether over the dancers. ‘We are assembled here to try to retrieve what is lost. This is a remembrance ceremony; a retrieval system; a fight for existence far removed from home. We are not home, and the gulf between there and here endures, even though a package has just arrived from Phnom Penh with costumes—some of the first sent abroad. Wearing the newly sewn cloth, sliding the copper patrum and beaded kong ngor bangles over our wrists, up here in this sky apartment, widens the rift, like a shoe separated from its sole, a tree from its roots. The space grows like a cavity in a tooth. We dance and each movement is a transmittal sent from a foreign land I occupy back to myself. I am neither one or the other; I am not either/or.’

* * *

As Sok’s teacher got ready for bed that night, she thought particularly of one of her dancers, the one who danced with an aura. Her presence did not distract from her precision of movement; her presence arose from within the precision. When Hun Kru lay down, and the movie reel of never completely past horror started flickering against her closed eyelids, she slowly, steadily stanched it; remembering a section of a ballet from beginning to end; finding safety, solace in the repertoire; slowly, elegantly stretching and bending her hands in the dark as she did at night back in the labor camp, when the Party believed her ruse of being a witless peasant, with no comprehension of who she really was.

Finally, after more than two years, Hun Kru had her nine dancers, and a troupe was formed—a diaspora troupe, not a home-grown one, but still, a link between heaven and earth.

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 still 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 so-called watchdog, gaining his trust, so on the night we took them he would not bark. If he did, I was to stop him. Richard and company would get the horses and lead them out, each rustler assigned to take two horses at a time—we weren’t sure exactly how many there were now—placing bandanas over the great beasts’ eyes, encouraging them forward with soft, loverlike murmurs, and steering them out to the waiting trailers. Two other men would load up a pickup truck with bedding and feed, and leave last, after sweeping away the evidence of our trespass, both human and equine.

And then somewhere along the line a gun was introduced. Although the preferred currency hereabouts, it all seemed preposterous to me. 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 an Emma Peel-like 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: Port Authority attacker, Frieda, Howie. Welcome to the NFL. Slowly Enesa appeared, the final 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 to her village; 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—and I knew I could do what was necessary. I could. The lost become ghosts who egg you on unseen. 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. He barked even louder, suddenly a master defender, brooking no surrender. 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 not-so-far-away 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, 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 pressed the leads of the three other horses into my palm and grabbed the gun, an awkward exchange, then 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 pulled me up onto the flatbed while he tried the control the agitated stallion. Eben started the engine. His partner ran past us, wire broom in hand. Throwing it on the ground, he jumped into the cab and slammed the door. “Let’s go!” Richard 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 out of this 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 running with at the truck in an attempt to blow out the back tire, but his weapon fell short and speared the ground, rudely sticking out of the earth like a broken branch after a storm. 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 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. 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 the devil’s eye, and the blood and the pain and someone yelling at me and the stamping hooves and 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 words caused an unwanted rise of emotions in Richard, but just a little bit. Her compassion, he 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, though, 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 instead 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 pick 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 most of 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 gave up 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?”

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.”

I looked down to snap another bean.  When I turned back again both were gone. Evan sat alone there now, playing, eyes closed, the sweep of lashes above the curve of his cheek beautifully expressive, the gorgeous Les Paul chords echoing through the room as if brought in by the wind and 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. The laws of physics. 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 left to go, 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, vanishing into those red slants of light. I raised both hands and placed my palms over my eyes, felt the water from the beans 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 under the brace to scratch my healing 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 and Enesa, I was troubled by phantoms, flies my especial tormentors. I felt them settle on me as I tried to sleep; I sensed their movement on the periphery of my vision. When her Uncle Dekek brought out a bottle of plum brandy to offer his hospitality, an abandoned wing floated round and round on the surface of the pale ginger-colored liquid. No one else seemed to notice. I said nothing as the living drank their toast to the dead, but I could taste it.

After our adventures in Novi Sad, after the boxcar journey, the hatchet blows and the death of Tulipan Sava; after the fiascos and Louis’ heroics, Richard and I visited Dekek Marić’s home in Tuzla as we made our way out of his country for good. We stopped to pay our respects, not the smartest move, but I think the family appreciated it. The slightest of gestures, the smallest, just a speck. 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, pulling aimlessly on the brace that still encircled my right forearm; spring was pushing 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 we were prevailed upon to stay for dinner and spend the night; it was too dangerous to move around after dark. In the overheated living room, Uncle Dekek insisted as well 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, the notes taking wing and swarming after me. Finally, we were released from his tribute and allowed to retire.

I couldn’t remember putting my head down on the pillow, but woke up in middle of the night to drifts of Chopin ebbing in and out of my consciousness. I sat up and with difficulty pulled the heavy quilt off me. Three o’clock in the morning and the man was still at it? 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. 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 not as before, playing beautifully, his back to me, a dark-suited figure hunched 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 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 into the room again—it was empty now, 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 early morning distance. A tear left the corner of my eye and ran down my cheek to fall into my ear, tickling it. I blotted my face on the lace of the pillow, looking toward my bedroom door. Heavy footsteps sounded on the stairs, then knocking on the door. Time to get up. Time to go . . . somehow. To Budapest. Then home.

Heaven Song

heaven song (2)

We’d had no contact with Nazer for over two weeks. Still under cover of UNHCR, we were heading back to an area near Travnik, so we decided to visit the Marićs once more to try to garner information from them. This would most likely be our last visit. We should have started the haggling process to get them out a long time ago, I kept thinking, but we had no chits on our side. I had arranged to have Dorenberg’s new album and a CD player sent to me from the States and was amazed that neither were lost or stolen in transit. Now I could give them to Enesa in person; she just had a bunch of cassettes and listened to the radio when possible. This would be pure gold to her (along with the AA batteries). Just before leaving, we were told the village had come under shelling, and we were stalled for a day and a half.

When supposedly safe, Louis, Richard, and I drove in a Land Rover with UN insignia through the frozen countryside and across the river to the edge of the village, Louis doing his strange driving dance that he had mastered (or so he liked to think), zigzagging around any imperfection in the road. But Nazer and Enesa’s village was no longer there. The village had disappeared, like Brigadoon. But instead of a dreamscape expanse of moors and mist, it was all smoke and rubble and an overwhelming sense of things gone horribly wrong. Lou slowed down the car as we passed a body on the side of the road. “Shouldn’t we stop?” I said, pulling distractedly on the ballistic vest under my jacket, well after we had gone by.

“And do what?” Lou asked. I had never seen a dead body before and inanities looped through my mind—how a dead person was very different from a living person; how the ignominy of being dumped along the road seemed the worst thing to me, as if there was a more seemly way of being butchered; many other thoughts beyond the pale. When we drove up to the Marić’s house, these thoughts ceased. Getting out of the sanctuary of the Land Rover, I could not speak to Louis or Richard, or explain to myself what had happened here. I could only hear and smell and be aware of things small and near: the buzzing of flies even in this frigid air, our breath swirling out into a red-brown fog of fear, the scuttling and scurrying of vermin more imagined than seen, and the cold and the stench and the smoke of fires left burning unattended.

Louis and Richard went into the house ahead of me. They headed to the back where there used to be a small shed attached to the kitchen. The back of the Marić’s house was charred and crumbled, still smoldering, while the front remained intact. Every room was ransacked. I found Enesa’s mother lying facedown on the living room floor. I felt it my duty to cover her with something, but I was too afraid to look around or focus on anything too closely. I stood in the middle of their house determinedly not seeing anything, wanting to be anywhere but here. Anywhere on earth but here. I made a move toward the kitchen when Richard appeared in front of me. He put his hands on my arms and stopped me from going further.

Don’t go in.” Richard said. “Find Enesa.”

Richard pushed me toward Enesa’s bedroom. Halfway down the hall I stopped and could go no further. The sunset light streaming from her window through her open door into the murky hallway frightened me as I had never been frightened before, even more than when I was grabbed by the man across the street from the Port Authority. Then everything was permeated with a sense of super-reality; here this light was otherworldly. Then I had known exactly what that man wanted; I didn’t know what I would find beyond this door.  I stood still, swallowing the saliva flooding into my mouth, throat tightening, struggling to move for several minutes. I could hear Louis and Richard roaming around the burning ruble, could hear Louis’s exclamations of disgust. I stood there in the hallway with the strange yellow light shining out through the doorway, knowing that once I entered that room, something would be taken from within me. I have no memory of walking in.

Enesa’s body was hunched over her desk, but her head was twisted, her eyes locked open looking sideways and up; by her strange position, I knew she was gone. I couldn’t believe it. My poor, poor Enesa. My darling Enesa. I started shaking and whimpering. I went over to her. Her hair was matted and bloody, her clothes torn and bloody as well; she had been beaten. Her diary with a piece of paper stuck in it was under her one hand. I pulled the paper out and unfolded it. ‘Dear Mr. Dorenberg . . .’ Enesa, Enesa, Enesa. This letter would have been sent to me to give to Evan, I was sure. She never did believe I didn’t have some sort of relationship with him, no matter what I said. I crumpled up the note and stuck it in my pocket. I stood staring out the shattered window. More revulsion flooded through me as I bent down and looked under her skirt. The nausea came without resistance this time.

I straightened up and rubbed my hand over my face. I fumbled around for my bag and took out Evan’s CD and the disc player. My hands were shaking so badly I struggled to get the disc out of its jewel case and almost broke it. I could barely snap the disc in the player. I plugged in the earphones, the little foam covers had already fallen off somewhere. I sat down on her bed and turned the player on; the disc spun round and round. I turned it off. I stood up and went over to Enesa, gently moved her hair away from her ears, ran my hand down over her eyes, and put the earphones on her head. I put the CD on her chest as well as I could, close to her heart, and slid the tiny latch, my fingertips now stained a dark crimson, to the highest volume and turned the player on. The disc spun round and round. I stood there and became aware of the leave-taking. Leaving the wretchedness, the barbarism and stupidity, leaving the work of men who knew nothing of what it meant to be a man, what it meant to be human. Even though I could just hear hissing coming from the earphones, I could feel her departure, suffusing into the sunset glow, leaving on those soft notes and sweet voice. I became mesmerized by the revolving disc catching the light, throwing prisms toward the setting sun, and I stared into that light, gripping onto her.

Richard came into the room. The horror of what he had seen here and the guilt he felt for our part in drawing the attention, the visitation of evil upon the house of Marić was making this cautious, taciturn man wild. He turned his fear and anger outward at me, afraid of his own emotion, snatching the earphones off Enesa’s head and flinging them aside, trying to pry my one hand off Enesa’s arm and my other one off the disc player, ordering me out, “Let’s go. Go! Go!” I struggled with him, refusing to let go, and he smacked me hard across the face. The physical shock made me release my hold, and he pulled/pushed me out of the room, down the hallway, out of the house and into the backseat of the waiting vehicle. He got in next to me in the back and slammed the door. Louis drove off.

As I realized we were leaving Enesa there, exposed, alone like that, I lost it in the car, sobbing, grabbing at my face. The disc player fell on the floor and Richard, in his fury, stomped on it, smashing it again and again with his foot as if he wanted to wipe out anything beautiful, to wipe out anything that had any meaning. I screamed, “You son of a bitch!” and wrenched myself around in the ill-fitting vest, trying to lunge at him.

Barely able to contain his own emotions, my outburst just made him more abusive, and he caught and grabbed me by my elbow, pulling me toward him, continuing in his bullying, yelling in my face. “You didn’t sign up for this? You didn’t sign up for this? This ain’t no fuckin’ . . .‘

“Richard! Richard! Knock it off. Knock it off.” Lou shouted at Richard without turning his head around or taking his eyes off the road. He took a hard left. “Knock if off!” Again he turned the wheels hard to the left, sliding the two of us to the side of the backseat in a heap of rage and despair, and the Rover rumbled off into the distance, skirting Travnik, away from Enesa and Nazer’s village, heading east away from the setting sun, never to return.