Authors: Lindsay Hawdon
Tags: #FICTION / Literary
New York â¢ London
Copyright Â© Lindsay Hawdon 2015
First published in the United States by Quercus in 2015
Cover design by Jessie Bright
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, institutions, places, and events are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual personsâliving or deadâevents, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For Dow and Orly
Si digo amor,
doy nombre a lo Ãºltimo que he sido
caminando entre el pÃ¡jaro y la tarde
If I say love I name
the last thing I have been
on my way from lark to twilight.
JosÃ© Heredia Maya
Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint from the following copyrighted works:
“The End of a Love Affair”
Words and music by Edward C. Redding.
Copyright Â© 1950 Universal Music Corp.
All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.
Reprinted by Permission of Hal Leonard Corporation.
here is a rhythm to his steps, slow, staggered, but nevertheless a rhythm, lest he fall and not rise. Small boy. Barely eight years old. The sheepskin coat that had been given to him in the first village he had run to, when he had all but forgotten kindness, hangs down to his kneesâsmall round caps that he knows can be smashed away from the bone. Knows because he has seen rifle butts held back from the shoulder and then swung against them, cracking the thin skin that hangs like dirty cloth.
Jakob pulls the sheepskin coat around him and smells the scent of the man who gave it to him.
“We live in a time when a coat is one of the most precious things on earth,” the man had said. “How did it come to this? I ate my own dog from hunger, and before that I traded all I had. But my coat I would never trade. You cannot stay, but you can take this. My dog would have liked you.”
Even at age eight Jakob knows that by now that man, shaven headed and too old for his years, will no longer need his coat.
Jakob coughs. His breath wheezes. His teeth are loose in his gums. His skin is gray. Jakobâa half-blood gypsy child of Roma and
Yenish. He does not recognize his own thumb or the very scent of himself.
“Run if you can,” he has been taught.
Te den, xa, te maren, de-nash
. A whispered plea. “Always, if you can,” and as young as he is, he still knows what this means, for not to run stirs a longing that is suffocating until sleep saves him. And even then he wakes.
So he runs. With shoes of sackcloth, still stained with another's blood, a stone clutched in one hand, a small wooden box in the other. He runs blindly, full of fear, empty of hope. For hope lies behind him in a green field with a twisted tree that stands gnarled and leafless and shaped like a Y.
Through narrow passes, across the bleakness of snowy slopes, his heart splitting. Through fragrant forests, spruce trees clinging to the top layers of soil. He sleeps during the day, warm under fallen pine needles, and runs at night, the trees collapsing into the darkness behind him.
He gnaws wild garlic, forages for nuts, pulps fennel in the palms of his hands. He knows the kind of berries that he can eat, but three times he has taken a chance and eaten something unknown to him: a mushroom in the grasses, long stalked, like the ones his mother used to dry and cook; a berry red, sour, and unripe, bitter in his mouth; and a leafâsucked because he is so thirsty.
When he closes his eyes he sees his mother's face.
Zyli wsrod roz
, she sings. They lived among the roses.
Nie znali burz
. And they did not know of any storms.
While he sleeps he dreams strange dreams. In them his sister finds a woolen hat, pulling it tight onto her head, and his brother a fur glove that he wears on his right hand, holding his palm over his mouth so his hot breath can warm his face. Neither will take them off, even when their mother, pale with cold, sits beside them, her teeth chattering, sounding out like a tinny drum. But when Jakob says that he is cold his sister draws the hat from her tiny head, his brother the glove from his tiny hand and, without a word, hands each to him on outstretched arms that demand he take them. He wakes weeping, blue lipped with cold and dread.
Dusk falls. He forgets what it is like to stare at the moon. He chews grass. His spit turns green. His head itches, lice infested and full of sores. He waits until it is dark before leaving the woods, creeping down the side slope of a grassy field and smelling the dew. Below him a lake glistens in the half-moon light, a still sheen, honey colored with a promise of tranquility. He turns away from it, no longer able to trust the land itself.
Te na khuchos perdal cho ushalin
. He hears his father's voice. “Jump your own shadow, my boy,” he whispers.
Back into the woods where the trees lean darkly above him, hiding his silhouette on the ground. Wood moss softens his tread in places, but when his steps can be heard, the wind often blows, drowning out the noise of brittle leaves breaking, so that even then the sound of him disappears and he is as close to invisible as the world dares to make him.
he had been christened Glorious because that was what everyone hoped she would be, but from the very beginning they had called her Lor. Spoken softly, a low note that seemed unfinished and barely audible, but that was appropriate, for it turned out she wasn't the sort of person to light up a room.
She stumbled now in the shadows, not wanting to be seen, pulling her children with her, two boys: Jakob, age seven, Malutkiâthe Little One, who was barely three, and her girl, Eliza, age five. Sewn into their clothes to the left of their chest, each of them wore a black triangle with the letter Z embroidered into the cloth. Sleep deprived, their ebullience buried, hands clutching hands and gripping them tightly. None of them wanted to be separated from the other. Touch was a necessity for her as much as for them now.
Their feet sounded over the ancient cobbles polished over the years by the many shoes that had scuffed across them. They gleamed like tiny mirrors underfoot. Either side of them the houses rose upward from the narrow street, hiding the sky. They slanted with age and neglect, the paint peeling, the brickwork fissured and cracked with salted air. Lor stepped over the warm vents, scents of
baked bread coiling around them, her children's mouths filling with saliva and longing.
“Just a little farther,” she assured them. “Just a little.” They did not argue as they used to. The fight had all but gone from them.
By the time they reached the bar, their faces and hands were numb with the chilled autumnal air, their coats damp with night mist. She kissed their palms, squeezing them to her lips, like a good luck charm on the dice before it is thrown. The bar was called De Clomp, meaning the Shoe. It sat as such upon the street, unkempt and sunken slightly, worn, like toe-stretched leather. Music seeped from it, out into the night like a sweet smell.
She pulled open the door with a jerk. The sound of a trumpet, the blare of it, blasted from the room, vibrating off the buckled walls. A beast of a man was playing, a mass of curling hair and cheeks pink with exertion. The instrument looked fragile in his hands, and it seemed impossible that such a noise could explode from it with the melody of a lullaby.
Lor pulled her children into the clammy warmth of De Clomp. Felt the heat of it on their faces, on their hands. The oak bar was full of the flicker-light of candle flames. People appeared through a fog of smoke, pallid and lavender colored. A few looked over at them, their eyes lingering on the children with mild inquisitiveness and smiles of nostalgia. Lor pulled them across the room, through the miasma of sweat and heat and the noise of clinking glasses scraping against teeth as shots were knocked back, showing a flash of a swollen mouth that she imagined looked monstrous to her children's eyes.
Alfredo was behind the bar, as rotund and flushed with endless nights of drink as he ever had been, despite all that was passing. He stood pouring out fast shots with well-practiced speed, one hand holding a bottle, the other drumming his fingers on the worn wood in time to the music as simultaneously he joked with a young man across the bar. She stepped toward him and he turned his head.
“Alfredo,” she said. Then hesitantly, “Do you remember me?”
His eyes glanced down at the three children who clung to her hands and legs, taking them all in; the badges on their chests, the disheveled look of their clothes, the lost look in their eyes. His face crumpled.
“Lor,” he said finally. “Such a long time.”
She nodded. The children were almost asleep where they stood. Jakob had picked up Malutki, had heaved him up onto his back, the boy's small hands locked tightly around his older brother's neck. Jakob swayed and fought to keep his eyes open.
“We need a room,” Lor said. “The one above the bar. The one that looks over the street?”
“Yes, you are welcome to it.”
She searched Alfredo's face for a flicker of expectancy, but he was startled that she was there.
“You want to eat first? Or I take you now?” he asked, nodding toward the children.
“Now. But perhaps some bread and milk to take with us?”
He fetched what she had asked for. Then they followed him out into the street, relieved to leave the noise behind them, and around to the dull-green door at the side, which was still battered and in need of a new coat of paint. Eliza was in Lor's arms now, lolling between sleep and wakefulness. Jakob still carried Malutki. He is so good, she thought. So good, and then she told him so, but the praise he once sought so fervently no longer lit him up as it used to. He had not uttered a single word of protest all the long day. Now he just looked up at her with his wide gray eyes.
“I can take him if you like?” Alfredo offered. But Jakob shook his head, and so Alfredo turned and hurriedly unlocked the door.
“I did not see Elpie down at the bar,” Lor said, as they climbed the long battered stairwell, which was dark and narrow and smelled of the wood smoke that seeped up from the bar. “He is well?”
Alfredo shook his head. “He is a Jew. They took him,” he said simply.
They used the climb as an excuse not to speak after that.
They reached the first floor and stood outside the room, cramped tightly together on the landing while Alfredo fumbled breathlessly with the key, milk slopping. The latch clicked and he pushed open the door.
The room was in front of them. Empty.
He was not there. Lor breathed in deeply. Then she turned and hugged Alfredo, who squeezed her tightly, his warm soft belly against hers, before she pulled away.
“We'll be fine,” she managed. “We'll be fineÂ .Â .Â .” her voice breaking.
“You sleep. Tomorrow we can talk.”
“It's all right that we are here?” she asked as he turned to go.
“Always.” She watched his immense bulk descend the stairwell, listened to the boards creaking.
Then she held her breath, closed the door behind them, and rested her head against the wood. He was not there. Her heart was barely beating. She turned. The light from a streetlamp shone into the room. It was so sparse, she thought, the walls so bare. The furniture was the same. The brass bed was still there with its springs that sagged and sung, and the worn wooden wardrobe with the oval mirror that was oily and rainbow stained with age. The fireplace was still black with soot, and the basin had the same ring of brown scale scarring the white enamel from the many times the town's hard water had swilled down the plughole. But without their belongings none of it looked the same.
Malutki was still asleep. She took him from Jakob, cradled her face into the warmth of his neck and then placed him on the bed, where he lay motionless and exhausted. She kissed his closed eyes. She always wanted to kiss his eyes, at the corner, where his cheekbone met his temple. There was the blue of a shallow vein close to the skin on the bridge of his nose. It came and went, like a small stream in the map of his face that dried up when the flow was not strong enough. She took the pebble he clutched in his hand, a smooth but dull pebble of insignificance that he'd picked up somewhere along the way, stooping in the dirt to retrieve this jewel of ordinariness that must be held and treasured at all times. She placed it on the bedside table next to him.
Then she undressed Eliza, kissed her knees and the knot of each elbow, and laid her down beside her brother, where her breath lengthened and deepened toward slumber.
“Ma,” said Jakob.
“Yes, my love?” she asked, drawing the sun-bleached drapes across to dim the lamplight from the street.
“We need a shell, Ma. A big shell, to curl up inside,” he said. “Then we can lie there, hearing the sea, falling asleep to the sound of it.”
He was untying his small bag from his back, opening it and pulling out the jar that held the two baby snails clinging to the miniature forest of leaves and flower petals that he had found for them, fresh every day for the past week. He put them on the bedside table and then lay down with his thumb to his mouth, became the child he was again.
“Our story?” he mumbled. “Gillum and Valour?”
She lay down beside him, felt the familiar dip of the bedsprings, the angular ridges, like the ribcage of some Jurassic skeleton beneath her. She lay, facing the way she used to, with the view through the window, and stroked the smooth, warm skin on her son's back as she thought of what to tell him. It was a story she had begun weeks ago, when there had been need for it.
“So you are on Gillum and I on Valour, with Malutki behind me and Eliza behind you,” she began. “âHold tight to your horse's mane,' I say to you and you do so, gripping clumps of his coarse hair in your hands. Sometimes we ride sidesaddle to rest our legs, but you like to ride cowboy style best in this land that is not known by you or me, or anyone before us. In the vessel tied to the underside of your right saddle is the indigo we have found, a thin glass vase that looks as if we have captured the night inside it. And beside this, the malachite green, cut from the azurite we found in the copper caves, cut and welded and ionized with sweet wine. We keep them safe in a leather pouch that holds the five other vessels. Empty for now, but only for now. We are far beyond the Ushalin World. Far beyond that Shadow World, with its deserts of smoke and ash that eddy across the Great Plains.”
“But them Ushalin people are fast, Ma. They follow quick on our heels.”
“They ride fast, it is true. But we ride faster. They can move only on the horizontal or the vertical, they are all lines and edges, governed by rules they have laid down themselves without thought or reason. And they are often misguided, are easily misled, take one path when they should take another. They are like ponderous merchants, or hapless
architects that have only their designs to sell, mere promises of a plan. We are more solid, our venture etched, as in stone.”
“So our task is set, Ma?”
“Yes, our task is set. We are well on our way to fulfilling it. Even the woods we have left behind us now, and our horses are walking across the valley floor, which is covered with red rocks and bare trees that slant toward the west and the setting sun.”
“Is there no rain?” Jakob asked, his words slurring with sleep.
“There is no rain. There has been no rain for months. Everything is biscuit brown, and there is dust, so much dust.”
“I wish I were a camel,” he mumbled.
“Why a camel?”
“For the dust. So that my long lashes could trap it from my eyes.”
She smiled and loved him more. “In the middle of this valley floor there is a crevasse, no wider than the length of me, no deeper than the length of you. As the sun sets we climb down into it because we will be hidden there and can sleep safely. We set up our camp. We tie Valour and Gillum to a tree and unload our bags, keep safe our vessels, storing them in the cool shade where the light will not dull the pigments within. You collect the wood. You get the thin, dry twigs first, knowing they will burn easily, that they will lap up the flames as you sleep.”
She paused and listened. His breath had lengthened. She waited until his thumb fell from his mouth. “My boy,” she whispered.
She climbed from the bed, stood in the center of the room, regaining her balance. Outside, from the street, there was the sound of slurred voices and the staggered steps of drinkers heading home. She could still hear the music from the bar, the vibration of it through the age-old floorboards, and the hum of distant chatter.
She gathered up their coats, sat on the edge of the bed, and one by one unpicked the black triangle that was sewn onto each of their breast pockets. Then, slowly, she began to undress, moving across to the sink. She stroked the enamel, circled the edge of the bowl, looked up, and in the mirror above it she saw herself. She had not seen herself for days. She had never looked so colorless, her mouth never so
straight, so defined. Her hair was tangled and coiled with three days of rain: soaked and dried, and soaked and dried, and soaked and dried again. She was afraid to brush it and she had always brushed her hair, religiously, thirty strokes each night for “sheen and shine and follicle cure.” “Radiant,” her mother had said of her hair, “as sleek as an eel.” But not this night. This night her hair was dull with grime.
She had nothing with which to wash herself so soaked her cotton shirt with water so cold her fingers ached. She moved the damp cloth over her arms, down the ladder of salmon-pink scars that ran horizontally from the crook of her elbow to her wrists, healed now, sealed like secrets. Her skin tightened as though a needle were pulling a thread beneath the surface. Again she soaked the shirt and wrung it out. Her movements slow and concentrated, as an atonement. She dragged the cotton across her stomach and trembled in the night air. She washed her whole body in this way. Soaked her stale skin, a pool collecting on the wooden boards as she remembered the very first time that she had stood in the center of that room, alone with him, standing face-to-face, raw and self-conscious in the silence that surrounded them. She had stood shivering, her thin arms wrapped around herself, the damp of the past days buried in her bones. Dressed still in his clothes, old clothes that were too big for him, far bigger for her, rolled at the ankles, at the wrists. Worn at the seams, torn in places, and still damp from the two days where they had slept in the reeds, and the three nights where they had rowed the wooden skiff of faded green and red until it could be rowed no more, water leaking through the loose slats, up to their ankles, up to their calves, until in the end they had left it hidden in long grasses, dragging it from the bank to the thick fringes of a moist plowed field, moving on by foot then, following a silty path along the river to the largest town, where they had found De Clomp and this room.
She remembered how he had stood, watching as she shivered with a look of helplessness, before he had fetched the woolen rug that lay across the bed and pulled it around her.