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Authors: K.C. Frederick

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BOOK: The 14th Day
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“Yes,” he says, “that's me.” But the man startles him by using his real last name. Jory's stomach goes light, he looks into the tranquil square of green outside the building realizing that he's been trapped; instinctively he scans the area to see if there are any others. The man is an agent, after all, and Jory is going to have to invent answers that will at least buy him enough time to think of the next move. “Who are you?” he manages to ask.

The stranger gives a name that slips by Jory even as he's hearing it. Yes, yes, he thinks, I don't care about your name. Get to the point. When he does, though, Jory is even more startled than he would be if the man had flashed a badge. “Fotor asked me to drop by and see how you were,” the man says. It's then that Jory recognizes the accent: this stranger comes from the country where Jory lived before coming here, the place where he met Fotor.

“Fotor?” The name seems to have sprung from him without his willing it. He looks at the bland, forgettable man standing before him and tries to connect him with his fellow exile from the homeland.

“I'm doing some business with Fotor, shipping some things.” The man makes a dismissive gesture. Jory can only imagine what kinds of things he's talking about. “This isn't so far out of my way,” the stranger continues, “and Fotor asked me to drop by, see how you're doing.” He smiles again. “How are you doing, by the way?”

“I'm fine,” Jory assures him quickly. Only now does he allow himself to recognize his relief that the stranger is no official about to check his papers. “I'm fine,” he repeats. “But where's Fotor? I thought he'd be on his island by now.”

The man nods. “You're right, that's where he is.” Now Jory understands less than he did a moment ago. It takes a mental leap for him to accept that even from his island Fotor is running all kinds of operations. The man is impressive, no doubt about that. “Well, so I'll tell him you're OK,” the stranger says. “But he wanted you to drop him a line, let him know personally.”

“I certainly will,” Jory says. Oddly, though, his relief of a few moments ago has been transformed into something murkier: at least he'd know where he stood with a government agent; his relationship to his benefactor isn't so clear. In truth, though he's grateful to Fotor, he'd hoped the business between them was over now, Fotor on his island, Jory out of that other place, everybody happy, more or less. Even a thousand miles away Fotor makes Jory uneasy. “Yes,” he says, managing a laugh, “I'll send him a card. You can tell him to expect it.”

The man smiles blandly. “I have his address for you,” he says. “And one more thing: Fotor wanted me to give you a phone number. It's the quickest way of getting a message to him. In case of an emergency.” He hands Jory a piece of paper, explaining that the phone number written there will connect him to someone in the larger city about thirty miles away. On the other side is Fotor's address on the island.

“Thanks,” Jory says, turning the card over in his hand. “And be sure to tell Fotor I'm fine. I'll write him right away.”

Before he goes home after work he buys a postcard, a conventional view of the campus in the spring, and takes it to the post office where he gets the proper postage for delivery to Fotor's island. He wants to get this over with quickly. If he thinks about it, the matter will become too weighty. At the counter in the post office he swiftly writes, “Everything is fine here. Many thanks again. May we meet again in the homeland soon.” Before he has time to change his mind about anything or to think of further things to say he walks across the marble floor and drops the card into the mail slot. That's over, he thinks, convincing himself he feels better.

But the next day Jory is still haunted by that visit. Because it's a Saturday he doesn't even have the distraction of work, and the boredom of a life of exile weighs on him. Back home, the dullest of Saturday mornings could be relieved by the newspapers, where there were always political quarrels to follow, advice on cooking, the best route to the Lakes region for the holiday motorist, the arrivals of distinguished visitors—even the gossip was relevant and interesting in some way. Here, the columns of print are filled with names and numbers that mean nothing to Jory; there are photos of strangers smiling or looking grave, strangers shaking hands and strangers embracing; the obituaries record lives of people who lived and died in cities Jory will never see. It was that way in the other place too, except for an occasional surprise like the time when he came upon the name of the homeland among a dozen signatories of an international fisheries treaty. It had depressed him for days, that casual inclusion of his country among the others that seemed to legitimize the people in power, gave the impression that they were part of the order of things on land and sea. Since then he's been wary of the newspapers.

But that emissary of Fotor's has left him restless and uneasy today, and a half-hour's inattentive leafing through an outdated magazine is all he can manage before deciding he has to leave his apartment. The weather is fine and it's pleasant walking along the wide, shady street that divides the town from the university. All around him is noise and movement, clothing is displayed in shop windows, people sit before coffee at outdoor tables, cheerful shouts sound in the street. And yet he has to work at keeping back his memories.

“Give it up,” Fotor used to say in the cold country. “It's over: we're living in the time after.” “After the Thirteen Days?” Jory would ask. “After everything,” the other man would answer. Then he'd wink. “Join me on the island. Even an emperor needs someone to play cards with.”

On the town's main commercial street Jory stops before a store window. People pass behind him, on their way to their separate destinies. He's under an awning, suddenly aware of the shade. Before him are photographs of houses for sale. He reads the prices beneath them as if he were a prospective buyer. The reflected shapes of people move across the glass as his eyes scan the text beneath the shiny pictures: “near schools,” “old-fashioned elegance,” “a charmer.” Behind him he senses tangible bodies traversing space, their shadows trailing like capes across the angles and curves of solid objects. Quietly, he pronounces the name of the university town, listening to the sequence of syllables. This will be the last place, he resolves. The thought fortifies him. Yes, the final place of exile. He remembers the card he sent to Fotor. “May we meet again in the homeland soon,” he'd written. It could happen that way.

Moments later he turns a corner and comes upon a noisy crowd. In front of a bookstore a small band of students is gathered in a cluster, carrying signs protesting the recently-ended war in which the host country won a swift and overwhelmingly popular victory. There's a table nearby with leaflets. “Sign the petition,” a person behind the table calls above the noise of the street, “sign the petition.” Confronting the demonstrators is another group, almost entirely male, who appear to be taunting them. Occasionally one of the onlookers lunges at the protesters and the signs bob like trees in a windstorm. Jory is suddenly alert, awakened from a dream. Bad feeling is in the air, a fight could break out at any time—he wants no part of this quarrel, which has nothing to do with him.

“What do you think?” Someone is suddenly beside him. “What's your opinion?” Jory looks up to see a young woman holding a microphone. “Are you going to sign the petition?” she asks. He shakes his head. “No, no,” he answers. It's only when he sees the woman flinch that he realizes he's raised his arm. Checking himself, he wheels sharply, pushing past people like a fleeing thief. Even after he's broken free of the demonstration he keeps walking swiftly, almost running, and he doesn't stop until he's several blocks away. There, finally, he leans against a building, his breath coming in heavy bursts. The woman drew back as if she thought he was going to hit her when all he was doing was trying to defend himself from her microphone. He can't believe it really happened. Across the street a fat boy with an ice-cream cone watches him lazily. I'm not political, he protests, as if challenged by the boy. And once again he wonders, will it ever end?

In the country where he stayed before he came here Jory tried to give his life a certain order. From his room high in the corner of a complicated old house he could see a piece of the deep river that flowed into the sea. Even in the late fall, dark hulks of freighters slid by, weighed down by cargo, on their way to the ocean. Above them, chilly skies foretold the ice that would trap those vessels that lingered too long inland. His life there was simple: he worked at a job very much like the one he has here, he ate meals by himself in a neighborhood restaurant with yellow chairs and tables, after which he'd walk to the tobacco shop and buy a pack of cigarettes from the man with one arm. Sooner or later he'd be headed toward the river, invariably passing the convent, a grim fortress of dark red brick behind an iron fence that reminded him of an orphanage back home, a dreaded memory. Eventually he'd be at the water's edge. There he'd watch the river's strong, steady flow, always in the direction of the homeland, though even here it was hundreds of miles from the sea and thousands more from the place where the ocean's waves broke on the shores of the port city in which his aunts lived. Alongside pilings and piers, he'd smell the water, feet its coolness on his cheeks, and he'd look at the long boats moving by, bearing the flags of many nations. The low shapes wouuld slide past him and he'd read the names on their sterns.

Though the number of days of his separation from there kept mounting, Jory tried to think of this new displacement as an opportunity. He carefully observed the customs of the well-behaved citizens of the cold country whose darker qualities only showed themselves in their passionate love of certain violent sports. He had his mementos there, as he does here, but in the early part of his stay he took an active interest in the life around him, he made notes on the distinctive characteristics of the people, he welcomed the chance to encounter their humor and to try to identify its particular flavor, he tried to persuade himself he was abroad to learn, and learning could give him satisfaction. He always imagined a return, imagined people in the homeland to whom he told these stories of his life among strangers.

There were those like Fotor, of course, who had other plans. Fotor made deals, he had contacts, he could get you things you needed if you weren't too inquisitive about where they came from. “Even in Hell,” he said, “people will want things and somebody's going to profit from that.” He was always planning, setting things up for his departure for the island where the sun always shone and where the local government was, in his words, appealingly corrupt. He had the face of a bison, but a wily bison, and Jory could never picture him back in the homeland. He seemed to have been born for exile. Yet their countless talks, their debates, filled an important part of Jory's life there.

When winter descended on that northern city like a guillotine blade, no more long shapes moved down the icebound river. The snow there was different from the snow that he remembered: it dropped from the skies with a melancholy relentlessness that could drive a person mad. In his chilly room Jory would blankly watch it fall, muffling all sounds. One night in desperation he went to the city's winter carnival. He'd been drinking by himself, he was already dizzy with vodka. He stumbled down white streets become strange in the light of torches until he came to an open area where fur-clad people were gathered around a gigantic bear carved out of ice. For a long time he watched in wonder; then somehow he was in the midst of those people who circled the bear like a group of savage worshipers. Turning from the creature, he saw the whole scene mirrored in a plate-glass window: the anonymous crowd was reflected there, muffled, hidden, their breaths condensing on the frigid air. He was there too, somewhere in that icy window, and he searched for a glimpse of his own reflection. Try as he might, though, he couldn't find himself in the crowd. Nausea came on him all at once: he was vomiting into the snow while people jumped away, shouting at him; later he was alone, holding on to the rough stone side of a building for support, watching his breath on the cold air, speaking in the language of the homeland, talking nonsense.

It was after that that he went berserk: the smashed window, bleeding arm, the bearded stranger who tried to restrain him, the blind push that flung the man backward, his head striking the side of the building, his eyes empty as he lay there in the snowy street. For a long lucid moment Jory saw the end of everything: the man would die, Jory would be imprisoned, he'd spend the rest of his life behind bars in this cold country. Time stopped on that wintry street as he stood there bleeding into the snow, his breath coming in clouds; and in that cold, clear space he felt an immense relief. But after an interval his sense of survival returned and he was running crookedly, holding his arm, past snowbanks toward Fotor's place, instinctively drawn toward the one person who could help him. Predictably enough, Fotor arranged for the doctor who fixed his arm, he orchestrated the hiding, the moving from one dingy apartment to the next, he secured the false papers and oversaw the border crossing.

Jory never saw anything in the news about the man he'd knocked down so he couldn't say for sure whether or not he was a killer, but he'd managed to get himself into enough trouble; a number of people had certainly seen his outburst. Worse still, he'd come to depend absolutely on Fotor. “You don't owe me anything,” he said with his depthless smile. “After all, we're countrymen, aren't we?” In truth, though, Jory doesn't know which country it is to which Fotor claims citizenship.

He comes home to his small apartment in the house where the strange cooking smells follow him even into his dreams. When he closes the door behind him another smell insinuates itself, the comforting musty essence of what he brought from far away: clothes, a few books, and old magazines. Debris. Still, the only way to keep that other country alive is to remember, to keep from forgetting, because to be forgotten is to cease to exist. That was what came to him in that awful moment last winter near the ice-bear, that he could be erased entirely; it was that that made him go wild. So here in these rooms, as in the other rooms he's lived in since he left the homeland, he memorizes the poetry, he studies the histories, he looks at the pictures and maps. In the middle of the night he summons up the words to songs, tries to recall the distinctive smell of certain cigarettes smoked in the capital. He remembers the old priest with tobacco-stained fingers who took him fishing on the bank of a river where a fateful battle had been fought centuries ago, the twin aunts who used to come twice a year from the port city and sing their songs while his mother played the piano. Thinking this, he can almost believe he's back in his native city, that only a few blocks from here the farmers in the market square of the capital shout from their stalls while above their heads the spires of the ancient churches seem to tilt earthward amid the beating wings of pigeons. Jory feels a pressure on his chest whenever these memories push at him this way; he wants to scream or to cry, he wants to say that it isn't the strangers who give you your place and name on this planet, it's you who do it by not surrendering that sense of connection.

BOOK: The 14th Day
11.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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