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.

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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.

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 Landrover 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), driving straight down the middle, 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, picking distractedly at my ballistic vest, well after we had gone by.

“And do what?” Lou asked. “Get blown up?” 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, my mind stopped. Getting out of the sanctuary of the car, 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. I knew what that man wanted; I didn’t know what I’d find beyond this door. I didn’t know what this would take from me. 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, hear Louis’s exclamations of disgust. I stood there in the hallway with the strange yellow light shining out through the doorway, and I knew that once I entered that room, I would relinquish something fundamental. 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 the 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 broken window. More revulsion flooded through me and I bent down and looked under her skirt. The nausea came without resistance this time.

I straightened up and ran 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 cover things 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 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 her 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 bringing 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 pull/pushed me out of the room, down the hallway, out of the house and into the backseat of the waiting car. 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.

Last Days Before the End of the World

khmer dancer

The spirits were hard to conjure that April, the link between heaven and earth fractured. The dancers were assembled with their master teachers. The kben was wrapped around the waist, then twisted and pulled through the legs to form the practice leggings. Hands were stretched and arched, expressive with the face serene, but harmony with the gods was not obtained. An unease had settled in and hung tandem with the humidity; these were the last few days before the end of the world.

Fifteen years earlier, the terror now advancing on the city was launched out of deserted boxcars in the railway center of Phnom Penh: the first Party Congress of the Workers Party of Kampuchea held in that empty train in secret. The Khmer Rouge—Angka—would leave the capital and hide in the northeast hills and later battle Lon Nol’s forces in the border sanctuaries and throughout Cambodia before returning victorious but eerily noncelebratory on April 17, 1975 to rid Phnom Penh of every vestige of the Old World, every person and everything to become a victim of the black pajama psychology of ultimate revolution.

The sound of rumbling trucks, of honking horns and motorcycles steadily grew louder and louder that day, pushing through the walls and music until these outside forces could no longer be ignored. The Khmer Rouge had descended upon the city and soldiers were ordering everyone out onto the streets, barking through bullhorns at the confused populace to leave their homes and shops. The Americans were about to drop bombs on Phnom Penh. Staying would be dangerous. No need to take anything; everyone could return in a few days.

The rehearsal hall emptied. Music books and instruments were left behind to be destroyed; headdresses and masks were abandoned and lost. Costumes were snatched up, and hastily hidden in hems and secret pockets, or folded and placed against the small of the back under shirts and blouses to eventually fade, erode into mere fibers, ruined by sweat and dirt and fear and time. The ballets and their movements, never written down but transmitted from teacher to student, now survived as memories in the minds of the palace dancers and their masters as the royal company was flushed out onto the boulevard.

Two of the younger dancers panic and resist; they can’t leave without their families. They are frantic, but a soldier is pushing them along with the butt of his rifle, shoving it first into one dancer’s back, then the other’s. Their teacher runs over to try and calm them and plead their case, but other soldiers come and grab the girls by the arms. They are taken away and hoisted onto one of the trucks in the convoy that has rumbled into the capital. Their teacher is dragged to a nearby tennis court, made to kneel, then shot dead.

It will be a long time before the gods can be summoned again, before harmony between heaven and humanity is restored.

My Only Glory

the power of dreams

The train was made to work. Henry jammed himself on, ran the diesel engine, and the train chugged round and round the field. Daniel, leaning over in Maggie’s lap, sunk his teeth into the boxcar’s wooden edge and, looking down, watched the tracks as the train jounced along. The three laughed a lot. Soon other kids stopped by, begging for a ride. Someone from the next town drove over and brought his little girl who rode around with her silent mouth wide open. The barn and field became something of a local gathering place. Kids were devoted to Leo and Tod, particularly a “horse-phase” gang, who ignored the makeshift railroad, each girl taking her turn standing on a stool to elaborately braid one of the great horse’s mane. Happiness woven iridescent by the summer damselflies filled Henry’s days. On weekends Maggie would bring Daniel over with Claude—momentarily stunning Henry, as if he had forgotten that her husband existed—but he used the sound of the brass train bell ringing, the sight of the tanned, lithe limbs of his charges all akimbo as they piled in behind the engine as blinders, and it was too easy during these times to not face facts, too easy to ignore that one particular fact that any misstep would land him deep in the abyss of envy and despair. He believed in the power of his dreams.

But those dreams were his high water mark. He never did kiss Maggie, although he might have on one or two occasions had he risked it. Come September, a month he always hated with its hard blue skies, the humidity lifted and most of his riders vanished back inside their schools. Then the weather turned; it rained for days and Henry did not see Maggie or Daniel for over a week. When the sun re-emerged and the sky became a still blue bowl once again, the pair did not reappear. Henry walked over to the Nelsons’ house and stood on the opposite side of the street, waiting for he wasn’t sure what, but there was no movement within that he could perceive. He got his answer at the post office a few days later when he overheard the Miller sisters talking about the Nelsons, Irene Miller saying with a knowing air that the boy was in Saint Luke’s for ‘God knows what,’ as if to say, for those like Daniel, suffering was his lot and the way of the world, and she understood that.

My uncle walked every day past the Nelsons’ house hoping to somehow discern some kind of reason, to distill information from the thin air if need be, until one day the answer came in the form of a For Sale sign planted startlingly upright in the Nelson’s lawn, like a flag staking territory for fear and pain. Daniel had died over Thanksgiving, and the Nelsons were fleeing their memories.

Henry retreated to his shed and stayed there a good part of the winter even though it had no heat; he most assuredly drank heavily. My father went several times to talk to him, Dad’s face on returning dark and troubled; he never spoke of these visits to us. When Uncle Henry emerged from his shed, he came out a different person. I liked to imagine people as colors and shapes, and my uncle—wiry and strong—had always seemed to me like a green vine, all loops and curvy tendrils, but his sorrow changed that. When I saw him next the only image conjured was one of ruble: rusty iron, crumbling concrete; no  grace or movement left.

The kids still wanted to ride the train, and sometimes he’d accommodate them, sometimes there’d be no answer to the small knock on the shed door. The barn became verboten territory for children of the more suspicious and anxious parents in town, though most snuck in there with their friends anyway. Leo was put down due to old age and was replaced with a smaller, dapple grey mare, Marisa. Sometimes I’d look at my uncle as he watched the kids in the barn with Marisa and Tod, and the look in his eyes made me advert my gaze as if I was spying on something sacred, and there’d be a catch in my throat and a sharp pain in my chest. He remained in limbo until the summer I graduated high school. Then he heard she had married someone else and he stopped running the train.

Maggie, Maggie, Maggie … my love, my train, my only glory, he would think over and over and over. When he died from holding on for far too long, the train was left standing in the field in the rain, then the snow, then the sun, the grass growing between the rails, the dark metal of the engine powdered with dirt, and rust, and bird droppings until it all stood desecrated, all love long gone, emanating a despair so solid and so steady that people would walk by that field quickly, never stopping, and kids would dare one another to run over and touch the engine, then run away again, because it was “spooked.”