Authors: Colum McCann
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
Her breath wheens fast and uneven. Her lungs, scalded. I must get now to the lake. A quarter kilometer perhaps. To the water edge.
Zoli rolls her shoulders from her overcoat, and drops it on the ground. I will not fill my pockets with water, no.
Four searchlights tilt and sweep across her. She drops to the soft earth, face in the dirt. The lights stencil the marshland. In the distance the hounds are being held back from the deer and the laughing voices of the soldiers carry through the night. The deer with its belly split open, surely, the guts steaming on the ground.
Zoli ventures forward again, the bracing cold pulling at her skin, her heart, her lungs tight.
The merest luck, she thinks, has preserved me.
HE BOTTLES WERE EMPTY
, the ashtrays full. They had cheerfully slapped his back, sung for him, even fed him the last of their haluski. They had gazed at pictures of his child and posed for their own, by the fire, standing tall and fixed. They had laughed at the sound of their own voices on the tape recorder. He even played it for them in slow mode. They had accepted all his money, except for fifty krowns in a hidden pocket. They'd played him like a harp, he thought, but he was not fazed; he even felt for a while that he had a bit of the Gypsy in himself, that he'd been inducted into their ways, a character in one of their elaborate anecdotes. They led him this way and that about Zoli, and the more krown notes he laid on the table, the more their stories loosened—
she was born right here, lam her cousin, she wasn't a singer, she was seen last month in Presov, her caravan was sold to a museum in Brno, she played the guitar, she taught in university, she was killed in the war by the Hlinkas
—and he felt like a man who'd been expertly and lengthily duped.
He promised Boshor that he'd come back when he discovered anything more about her, maybe the next week, or the one after, but he knew he'd never return. The young girl, Andela, picked up the china cups from the table and smiled at him as she backed away—she wore his wristwatch high on her arm. He had even, towards the end, watched the cigarette foil being used to languidly clean a gap in Boshor's teeth.
He tapped his pockets. Everything was intact. Car keys, tape recorder, wallet. Boshor shook his hand and grasped his arm in affection, pulled him close. They almost touched cheeks.
Outside, the shadows lay gray on the settlement. The kids cheered when he pushed open the shack door. Robo was sitting on a cinder block, carving a piece of wood out of which had come the figure of a woman. The whittled chips lay in white patterns at his feet. Robo skimmed off the last bark edge and handed him the statue, leaned in and said: “Don't forget, mister, fifty krowns.” He smiled and put the statue in his pocket: “Just get me to the car.” The other kids pulled at his jacket sleeve. He leaned down and mussed their hair. He felt happily torn by the desolation; he'd survived it, he was safe, secure, out in one piece. The bands of sweat at his waist and armpits had dried. He had even begun to fret that his car was pointed in the wrong direction, that he would have to reverse it all the way up the dirt road, or execute a three-point turn with all these little kids around.
“This way,” said Robo, “follow me.”
He moved through the muck and made signposts in his mind to come back to later, random thoughts, notes to scribble down in a journal: The children's clothes are strangely clean. No running water, no taps, no pylons. Electricity is pirated. A girl with eight piercings in her ears. Two huge rubber rings used as jewelry. Not many young men in their twenties or thirties—possibly in prison. Man in bright pink jacket. Chess pieces strung as a windchime. Old woman using broken television as a seat. Immaculate white cloths flapping on the washing line.
He was passing by the last of the shanties when Robo let go of his arm and moved back into the shadows. He felt immediately that he had been dropped.
A bare-chested man. Small. Barefoot. A bottle scar on one cheek, almost a perfect circle. A tattooed teardrop on the other, beneath his eye. He held the engine of a motor scooter in one hand and his chest was slathered in fingerlines of grease. The journalist turned quickly to look for escape, but the tattooed man took his elbow and pulled him towards a shack. “Come here, come here.” A curious high tinge to the voice. The tattooed man deepened the grip around the journalist's forearm, and then, as if from nowhere, a young woman in a yellow dress appeared at his other elbow. She bowed, a small wren of a thing, her hands folded as if in prayer.
“I'm sorry,” he said, “I have to go.”
He tried backing discreetly away, but the tattooed man was gentle, insistent. The ragged edge of a sackcloth doorway was drawn back. He bumped up against a rough wooden pole. The shack seemed to shake.
“Come on, Uncle, sit down.”
Shapes grew out of the darkness. Three children sat on the bed as if placed there for show.
“I really must go,” he said.
“You've nothing to worry about, Unc, I just want to show you something.”
The children made room on the pine-pole bed. It was strung with rope. On one end lay a folded white eiderdown and a cushion for a pillow. When he sat, the ropes sagged and the poles shifted. The tattooed man's hand lay heavy on his shoulder. The journalist looked around. No windows. No carpet.
No wall hangings. Only a row of empty shelves on the far wall.
He turned away and there, swinging from the ceiling, hung a huge zelfya scarf, a hand peeping out of it.
“Food,” said the tattooed man. “We need food for the baby.”
The tattooed man ran a finger along the lip of a little Russian-made fridge, and then swept a lighter around the emptiness. He said something in Romani to the woman. She squeezed up onto the bed. Her smile was wide, though two of her lower teeth were missing. She edged closer, ran her hand along the buttons at the front of her dress, put an arm around the journalist's shoulder. He pulled back and smiled again, thinly, nervously.
A rat tiptoed across the zinc roof.
The woman opened her top button and then, with a sudden flick of her fingers, reached inside her dress. “Food,” she said. He turned away but she squeezed his shoulder and when he turned back he saw that she had her breast out in her hand, the whole of it, milky at the nipple and striated with sores. Oh, Jesus, he thought, she's turning tricks on me. Right in front of her children. Jesus. Her breast, she's giving me her breast. She held it between her middle fingers and began to keen, incanting something in a low, desperate voice. She squeezed the nipple again. He stood up and his knees gave way. A hand pushed his chest. He thumped back onto the bed. Her breast was still out and she was pointing to the sores.
The tattooed man reached up to the hanging bundle and raised his voice: “We need food for the baby, the baby is so hungry.” And then, out of the bundle came a tiny bag of bones, wrapped in a Harley-Davidson T-shirt.
The child was placed in the journalist's arms. My own baby would cry, he thought. She is so light, so very light. No more than a loaf of bread. A packet of flour.
“She's beautiful,” he said, and he went to put the baby in the woman's lap, but she folded herself against it, curled up tight, put her chin to her chestbone. She moaned, closed the button of her dress, hugged herself, and her moans rose higher.
A fly settled on the child's top lip.
The journalist took one hand from the baby and patted his pockets. “I've nothing with me,” he said. “If I had anything I'd give it to you, I swear, I wish I had, I'll come back tomorrow, I'll bring food, I promise, I will.”
He swished the fly away from the baby's mouth and watched as the tattooed man slapped his fist into his palm, and he knew for certain now that they were prison tattoos, and he knew what the teardrop meant, and all seemed suddenly cold. A ball of emptiness swelled in his stomach, and he stuttered: “I'm a friend of Boshor's, you know.”
The tattooed man smiled sharply, then stood up in the center of the hard-packed floor. He reached for the baby, took it in his arms, kissed it on the forehead—a slow, careful kiss—and then dropped it in the zelfya. He stretched his arms wide and said, as if there were coins in his voice: “There's a cash machine up by the supermarket, friend.”
The hanging bundle swayed in the air, back and forth, a slowing timepiece. The tattooed man pulled the journalist up from the bed, put his arm around his shoulder, held him close. It was as if they'd competed in some vast athletic competition together, wrapped themselves in the flag, the anthem was ringing out, and thousands were cheering all around them.
“Come on, friend, follow me.”
The sackcloth was pulled back from the doorway and the hard light stung the journalist's eyes. He looked back at the woman, passively smoothing the eiderdown. A platoon of flies was now buzzing around the baby. The sackcloth curtsied across the open frame.
In the raw camp air, the tattooed man laughed. Robo appeared from the corner and began walking at the head of their shadows. “Don't forget, mister,” Robo whispered. Everything seemed tightened down. A pressure on his ribcage. A pulse at his temple. The tattooed man stayed close by his shoulder, careful to bring him across the bridge, all exaggerated safety.
“Don't put your foot here, friend, that's a bad one.”
For a moment he thought he still had the child in his hands, he tried to cradle it, but his foot caught on a swinging plank, and the tattooed man grabbed him by the lapel, hauled him back, and touched the soft swell of his waist: “You're safe with me, friend.”
He cast his eyes up towards the distant village: a church-tower peeping up above the trees and the clock ringing for a quarter to five in the afternoon.
They walked towards the car, the kids swarming around them. Robo shuffled behind. It was silent, their pact. He ferreted in a hidden pocket for the money and backhanded it to Robo, fifty krowns. Robo yelped and broke away through the crowd and disappeared into the trees. The tattooed man stopped to watch Robo go.
“Robo,” he said, closing his eyes as if weighing something extraordinarily heavy on his lashes.
The journalist fumbled in his pocket for his keys. The man stood behind his shoulder, breathing against his neck. The
doors unlocked with a click and then the tattooed man vaulted across the front hood, landed in the passenger seat with a soft plink as his skin hit the plastic.
“Nice car, friend,” said the tattooed man as he clapped his hands together.
“It's a rental,” said the journalist, and he was amazed as he drove away, reversing through the crowd of kids, that the tattooed man leaned his head on his shoulder, like some lover.
At the bend in the road, near the fridge, he turned the car around, beeped, waved out the window to the children. His stomach heaved. He shoved the car into gear. The kids waved as the car wheels caught, cheered as mud flew in the air. The hedges shot by. They passed the women still washing sheets in the river. The tattooed man popped out the ashtray and began picking through the smoked butts.
“I won't gyp you,” he said as he smoothed out the crushed end of a cigarette, and the journalist felt as if he had been chest-kicked by the word, as if it meant nothing at all, like fly or shit or sunrise.
The road widened and curled up the hill. The tires gripped hard on the tarmac. His knuckles turned white on the wheel. He had no idea what he could do to get rid of the tattooed man, but then—in sight of the town—it struck him. That's it, he thought. It was simple, honest, elegant. He would go to the supermarket and buy baby formula, yes, baby formula, and milk, and cereal, and tiny jars of food, and some clean bottles, some ointment, some rubber nipples, a box of diapers, a tub of baby-wipes, even a doll if they had one, yes, a doll, that would be good, that would be right. Maybe he would throw in a few extra krowns. He would emerge from the supermarket laden down and at ease.
He leaned back and steered the wheel with one hand, but when he rounded the corner towards a low row of shops, the tattooed man turned to him as if he had divined his intention and said: “Y'know, they don't allow any of us into the market, friend.” His skin plinked away from the plastic of the seat. “We are forbidden, there's none of us allowed.”
The wheel bumped against the curb.
The tattooed man was out of the car before it had even stopped. He vaulted the hood again and opened the door before the key was out of the ignition. “Cash machine,” he said, pointing. “Over there.”
The journalist cast about for a policeman, or a bank official, anyone. A few teenagers sat brooding on a low brick wall. Under their swinging legs, the faded graffiti read: “Gyps go home.” The tattooed man tightened his grip and they crossed to the machine.
“Stand back,” the journalist said, and was surprised to see the man shuffle backwards.
Some of the teenagers laughed and one wolf-whistled.
“Stand back or there's no money. Do you hear me?”
The teenagers laughed again.
He shielded the numbers from view as he punched them into the keyboard. The high beeps of the machine sounded out. Behind him the tattooed man was moving foot to foot, biting his lip. The cogs rattled and the levers whirled. Two hundred knowns came out in twenty-krown notes. He ripped them from the rollers, turned, walked four steps, and thrust the money into the tattooed man's hand.