Authors: Colum McCann
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
“The baby is so hungry.”
“No,” he said, “there'sno more.”
He was seven steps from the machine when he heard the receipt cough out from the wall. He froze, then turned and jogged back to get it, crumpled it in his fist.
“Five hundred please, five hundred, she's so hungry.”
The journalist patted his wallet again to make sure nothing had been lifted.
“Please, Uncle, please.”
He pulled the handle of the car door, his hands slippery with sweat. The keys shook as he shoved them into the ignition. The engine caught. He locked all four locks simultaneously.
The tattooed man pressed his face up against the window. His mouth was moist and red.
“Thank you,” he mouthed, his breath fogging the glass.
The car lurched forward and a wave of cool air enveloped him. “Fuck,” the journalist said. He swung out onto the road. “Fuck.” The light was fading. In the rearview mirror he saw the tattooed man striding off in the direction of the supermarket, swaggering as the electronic doors opened. The man entered the market with a small skip of his feet and his head disappeared amongst the shoppers.
The car clipped the curb and the moist face print dissolved from the window.
As he drove along the winding road towards the highway, looking back down on the settlement, the journalist felt what he thought was a sadness, or an ache, or a desire, and these thoughts heartened him, warmed him with their misery, and he pretended that a part of himself wanted to slide down the bank, wade through the filthy river, give them all that he owned, and walk home, penniless, decent, healed, return their ancient dignity by leaving, by the riverbank, his own.
He drove on, then reversed once more, got out, and stood on the hill overlooking the settlement. The satellite dishes looked like so many white mushrooms: he used to go wandering in Spissy Podhraide for those.
The last of the light winked on the metal roofs. Some children rolled a bicycle wheel through the mud, stepping in and out of their own lengthenings, shadows of shadows.
He narrated a brief line into his tape recorder and played it back to himself: it was empty and stupid and he erased it.
A brief spit of low cloud went across the sun. He lifted his collar against the breeze and he looked down again, towards the camp. The man with the tattoos was returning across the bridge. He was carrying a flimsy plastic bag, bell-shaped, heavy, and he was looking down into it. He swayed across the rickety planks, one leg slower than the other, concentrating hard, mouth to the bag, breathing in and out, in and out, breathing. In the other hand he held a half-gallon can by a thin wire handle.
The tattooed man tottered a moment on the bridge and then he was gone, into the warren of shacks, out of sight.
The breeze blew cold across the hillside. “Paint thinner,” said the journalist to himself and then he repeated the line into his tape recorder.
He stepped towards his car, slid into the seat, threw the recorder down beside him. With an empty inner thud, he realized that he didn't know the tattooed man's name, that he'd never asked for it, had not been given it, did not require it, the transaction had been nameless, the man, the woman, the children, the baby. He rubbed his hands on the steering wheel and looked down at the recorder. It lay, running, the tiny spools turning in the silence.
“No name,” he said, and he clicked the tape recorder off, stamped the clutch, and shoved the gearstick hard into first.
He turned on his headlights in the dusk, and drove away from the settlement, insects smashing against the windscreen.
Compeggio, Northern Italy
T STRUCK ME EARLY THIS MORNING
, while lighting the first of the kerosene lamps, how strange it is to be so much at peace and yet still nothing certain.
The lamplight filled the room. I opened up the rolltop drawer of the old desk, shook the fountain pen awake. The ink splotched the paper. I went to the window and looked out. Enrico used to tell me that it takes a great deal of strength to get the snow out of the mind—not so much the path out from the mill down to the road, or the blanket the length of the valley, or the mounds backed up against the road, or the whiteness of the village, or the patches of sheer ice high in the Dolomites—it is the snow in the mind that takes the most getting used to. I failed to put any words on paper, so I pulled on a pair of his old shoes and walked down into the village. There was nothing about, not a footprint except his own—which were my own—and I sat on the steps of the old pastry shop and wondered about what you asked, about how a road could ever have brought me to such a place.
Before the village began to stir, I walked back up the winding road to the millhouse, in the still-dark. I put wood on the stove and turned on the other two kerosene lamps. The room was warm and amber. All I could hear was your father's voice in everything, even his shoes had left a wet mark on the floor.
Things in life have no real beginning, though our stories about them always do. Seventy-three winters have passed now across my brow. I have often settled by your bed and whispered to you of distant days, have told you of the young girl staring backwards, of your great-grandfather, and what happened to us in the Shivering Hills, of how we crossed and recrossed our land, of how I sang and what happened to me and those songs. I could never have known what would become of the pencil in my fingers. For a good while, in that previous life, I was celebrated. They seemed like the best of years, but they did not last—maybe they were not meant to—and then came the time when I was banished. In my new life, I could not bear the thought of my old poems. Even a flash of them across my mind brought a coldness to my spine. I had already made a little grave for them, the day of my judgment back in Bratislava, when I walked out from beneath the towerblocks and away. I promised myself that I would never write again, nor would I try to remember the old poems. There were times, of course, when their rhythm flitted across my mind, but for the most part I closed them off, pushed them away, left them behind. If they returned to me at all, they returned as song.
In all those years I never dared put a pen to paper, and yet I must admit that once or twice, after I met your father, I found myself stirred. I sat waiting for him to come across the mountain, or to walk up the mill road, or to appear at the window, and I thought that perhaps, in the silence, I should crack open the cap on the fountain pen, remove a page from his blank journal, and put down my simple thoughts. Yet it scared me. It reminded me of too much and I could not do it. It seems strange
now after all these years, and to you, chonorroeja, it might seem ridiculous, but I feared that if I tried to give written meaning to my life that I would once again lose what I had gained. There were these mountains, these silences, your father and you—these were not things I was willing to part with. Your father bought me books but he never asked me to write. The only person he told about my poems was Paoli, and he said that Paoli would not have known a poem unless you had him drink it. Both are gone now, Paoli and your dear father, and you are elsewhere, far away, and I have grown old and stooped and even happily gray, but in the face of your questions it strikes me now that I have no reason to fight it anymore, so I sit down at this rough-hewn table and attempt once again to put pen to paper.
When a bird breaks the line of the window it surprises me almost as much as a word.
I am sorry now that I burned your father's belongings, and I know I should have kept them for you, but in grief we do such foolish things. He told me once that he wanted his body brought to the summit where he could look down on both countries, Italy, Austria, so he could contemplate the memory of a life spent dragging cigarettes, tractor parts, coffee, medicines, from one side to the other. He said he was content for his body to be left up there for the hawks and the eagles and whatever else wandered his way—he almost relished the idea of becoming part of the buzzards, he called them the most Tyrolean of birds. In the end I could not do that, dearest heart, the thought of leaving him there was far too much, so I took all of his possessions, except one pair of shoes made from his old suitcase, and burned them not far from the millhouse. I lay down in the place
of the burning, an old form of mourning. What I loved most of all were the shirts he wore, most especially the woolen ones, do you recall them? They were patched and repatched and patched again. He had learned, when he first moved to the mountains, to darn the elbows with needles, using single strands of birch twigs sharpened to a point. He joked that he was glad that I was going to burn his shirts, but it would not take long. I came back days afterwards and searched in the scorched earth for the buttons and the metal beltloop from his jacket, but the fire had burned everything down.
There is an old Romani song that says we share little pieces of our hearts with people and the further we go along, the less we have for ourselves until there is not enough left to go around and that's called traveling, and it's also called death, and since it happens to us all there's nothing more ordinary than that.
In Bratislava I burned my poems. I walked down the swaying staircase into the bright light of day carrying another man's possessions—his boots, his shirts, his radio, his watch. I could see nothing for my future. I was twenty-nine years old. I was cast off. So much of my life had been taken from me and yet I did not want to die.
I went out to the towerblocks for one last look. Eight shadows fell from the eight blocks, thick and dark across the ground where the children played. The caravans tilted sideways where the wheels had been ripped off. I turned away and began my terrible walk, all the way south through the small villages of Slovakia. They were the worst days of all, and often in the
mornings, when I woke up in the forests, I was surprised—not so much at the notion that I had slept, but that I was alive at all.
I struck out west and crossed the border into Hungary where the only relief that came to me was the idea that I would not, now, be followed by Swann. He could not cross the border. That part of my life was behind me and I moved on to forget it. Snow came, thick in the wind. I bundled into my blankets. Villagers stared at me as I passed. I am sure I looked wretched, all skin and bone and rags. Some were kind and brought me bread, others asked where the caravans were. I selected a point in the snow's distance—a tree, a cliff, a pylon—and walked towards it. At a deserted farm, I filled my pockets with bonemeal from a feeding trough and later boiled it and ate it without thinking. The paste clove to the top of my mouth. I was eating the food of animals. I slept one night in a large cave, the roof tonsilled, the folds in the stone like curtains. Soldiers had carved words in the rock, names and dates, and I wondered how could wars extend so far? In the corner I found an old tin of meat, cracked it open with a rock, ate with my fingers. The truth is that I no longer, then, considered myself a Romani woman at all. They called me Gypsy, yet I was not even that. Nor did I think of myself as one who had read books or sung stories or written poems—if anything I thought of myself as only a primitive.