Taking Liberties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

“Wha . . . wha . . .”

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

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

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

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

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

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Before My Skin Was Broken

The lost become ghosts

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Auditoriums of the Adopted Bourgeoisie

royal ballet

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

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

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

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

She would read MT’s words:

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

Then she would read her own:

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

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

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

Reverence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Field Where the Train Runs

Leo and Tod

My uncle ran a small farm. He boarded two chestnut draft horses in his barn and grew field corn. Just a few fields with a tin-shingled work shack languishing in the summer in the drone of locusts and a deep purple rambling of pokeberry. Uncle Henry sat in there most of the time he wasn’t working, and when we visited as kids, it smelled of all I knew of old men: of spit tobacco, sweet hay, manure, and a strange, lingering smell that I would later recognize as alcohol. There was a vise fastened to the work table in there, and my brothers and I would collect hickory nuts and crack them in it; it was the only way you could eat them. The horses, big Belgians, were called Leo and Tod, and I always thought these were very small names for such large, gentle, snorting beasts.

Uncle Henry . . . bachelor uncle, older, so different from my father, yet so familiar, the Stoughton heritage, blood running through our veins. I thought of him then as an old man although he was only in his late forties, lean and strong. The farm and man fascinated me as a young girl like a foreign land: the dirt, the unadulterated maleness, the smells, the beauty; over the years its spell held, close to my mind and heart. We’d stand on the back of the flat-bed, throwing corn into the silo bins to dry, husk bits in our hair and eyes, unaware of what these fields would become.

Uncle Henry shut himself off from love and the world in that shed of his. But both came to him anyhow about the time I turned nine, first in the form of a shabby carnival operation that set itself up every Saturday evening in July at the fair grounds at the other end of town. Let loose there amid the out-of-towners, amid the adult smoky haze of cigarettes and the smell of frying fat, we’d eat cotton candy first so as to form a sticky film over ourselves that attracted all possible grime, then would toss pennies or wooden hoops in the hope of winning a balloon or a case of orange soda. Once I nicked a pink bubble gum cigar off the candy stand and spent the night waiting for the police to take me in.

The company—Freeson & Company, I think it was—outfitted two rides. Clearly the more popular of the two was a contraption that went round in circles, its boxy, banged-up cars lifting some six feet off the ground then gliding back down, up and down as they traveled the circumference. Certainly, it was doubtful it would pass inspection or was ever put through one. It screeched and shouted danger and thus was a magnet for the younger crowd, as was its dark-eyed, dark-haired operator, jerking the gear shifts with a charming, bored nonchalance, making the thing shudder into life. The other ride was a small train than ran on a track in the rear of the carnival grounds. We turned up our noses at its staidness.

Freeson & Company signed a contract with Uncle Henry to store their extra equipment in his barn during the summer when they ran their northern circuit in our part of the state. He had adequate space and was centrally located. Come Labor Day, they’d pack up and head south. Extra train track sat stacked next to the salt lick blocks. The abandoned blue and red ride car with a foot-and-a-half long crack running down the middle of its floor became a bigger attraction for us to visit than Leo and Tod. We’d sit in the cab and pretend we were race car drivers. Freeson & Company was not long for this world, however, and one early June, when our summer expectations were just rising, a truck appeared and unloaded the train engine; Freeson & Company had gone bankrupt, the equipment sold off on the cheap. Everything except the train engine. A “buyer” was coming by to claim the engine and reimburse him for his trouble my uncle was told. But he had no wish to be saddled with this arrangement and told the two men to put it back on the truck and take the rest of the junk with them. The driver, clearly the one in charge, said, “No can do; not touchin’ it,” and the men got back in their truck and drove off. So the engine, as big as a small pony, was pushed over on its side onto an old door, and Leo and Tod dragged it into the barn to be put with the rest of the seedy reminders of careless fun. Better off gone but still there, like a tattoo. It had sat there for two years (no one ever came to claim it) when the Nelsons moved to town.