On a warm November morning in Manaus, the local colonel asked me over the telephone if I’d like to get some drinks with him down at the Officers’ Club, and maybe lunch. I had met the colonel only once before and disliked him on sight, but I said yes, because by warm I really mean scorching, and the Officers’ Club is the coolest place in town. They also have the best Scotch in Brazil, as far as I’m concerned, but in weather like we were having, you care more about keeping cool than you do about anything else.
So I’d like to say that I accepted with reservations, but that wouldn’t be as honest as I’d like to think I am. I may have had an inkling that the colonel wanted something from me, or that he’d expect something in return for such a favor. On the other hand, as I said, I didn’t know him at all well, and I may be giving myself more credit for perception than perhaps I deserve. At any rate, I must admit that he timed his invitation like the expert that he was. I was lying on the crisp white sheets of my bed, fully dressed, when the telephone rang. It was about nine or half-past nine in the morning, but I was already soaked in sweat. The sound of the ring distracted me from an internal debate over whether it was worse to suffer the heat or to try to muster enough energy to raise my arm and fan myself with the dispatch I was holding, so you can tell that I was in a bad way. The colonel probably knew it, too—he’d seen enough newcomers in his time to be able to judge to a nicety when my breaking point would be.
I dragged myself to a sitting position and picked up the receiver.
“Yes?” I said.
The colonel sounded as crisp as I felt withered. “Hello, this is Colonel Wilkins speaking. Have I reached Mr. James?”
“Yes,” I repeated.
“Ah, good. Listen, I’d like to invite you down to the Officers’ Club for a couple of drinks if you aren’t too busy today. Around noon, maybe, and we could have a bit of lunch while we’re there.”
The sound of his invitation washed over me as a prophetic wave of cool air. “I’d be delighted,” was the only possible reply.
“Excellent, excellent,” said the colonel. “And I’m not inconveniencing you?”
“Not at all, I’m quite free today. Shall I meet you at the club at noon?”
“Oh, no, there’s no need for that. You live on Rio Street, don’t you? Just come down to the station and we can walk over together.”
I thanked him, and he hung up the telephone with a cheerful farewell. I put the receiver down, too, but my arms felt like they were made of lead. I had another two hours to get through before I could go and meet the colonel, and the heat was truly unbearable. I poured myself a glass of water from the pitcher by my bed and forced myself to drink it down. Dehydration would do nothing but make the dull ache in my head even worse, so I poured and swallowed another glass of the warm, un-refreshing water before I let myself lie down on the bed again.
After a few more minutes, I coaxed myself up and sat down at my desk in the next room. Usually once I get settled I can work steadily until I get hungry, but that morning I couldn’t bring myself to concentrate, and I felt like I’d never be hungry again. I’d only been to the Officers’ Club once, months before when I first arrived in Brazil. But I’d heard it spoken of since then as a place of cool refuge in the hot summer months. Its thick clay walls had been praised to me so often that I had come to firmly believe in their virtues. Those two hours when I waited for my opportunity to visit this mecca, for my chance to experience an atmosphere that was cooler by even a few degrees, felt like some of the longest of my life.
Perhaps I had been too much alone in the months leading up to that day, too immersed in my research. By the time the watch I had placed next to my book read eleven-thirty, I had worked myself into a state of almost delirium. I pushed back my chair and went back into the bedroom to retrieve my hat and jacket, but it took me half a block to regain control of myself and slow down to a reasonable pace. I told myself that I didn’t want to be too early—the colonel was a busy man, after all—but I needn’t have bothered. I would have given a lot at that moment to be already inside the deliciously cool haven of the Manaus Officers’ Club.
I presented myself at the colonel’s office at about a quarter to twelve and told his secretary that I was expected. She looked at me over the top of her steel-rimmed glasses and smiled kindly, which took me somewhat by surprise, but I smiled in return and took the seat that I was offered. The colonel came out of his office, jacket over his arm, just a few minutes later.
“Ah, you’re here. Excellent. Jane, Mr. James and I are going to lunch at the Club. You can take your lunch hour when I get back.”
“Yes, Colonel. Enjoy your lunch,” she said, and the colonel and I walked out of the office and made our way to the street.
“It can be a bit confusing to find the place at first,” said the colonel as we set out. “All these streets start to look the same after a while.”
He laughed, and I laughed, too. It wasn’t until I was with the colonel that I began to wonder what his possible motivation for inviting me had been, but I was still too hot to care.
The colonel must have noted my pale face and the sweat stains under my arms, but all he said was, “Awfully hot today, isn’t it, Mr. James? One of the hottest days we’ll have this year, I think.”
“I certainly hope so. I don’t think I can stand much more than this.”
“Ah, well, it’s only your first time being in Brazil during the hot season, isn’t it?”
“Yes, I got here five months ago.”
“That’s right, I remember. You came with the new doctor, I think. But don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.” I must have given him an incredulous look at that, because he laughed again. “No, really, trust me. I know you don’t believe me now, but everyone does. Of course, those who can’t leave Brazil swearing to never come back, but I think you have more backbone than that, Mr. James.”
“Thank you. I should certainly hope I do. I’ve wanted to come to Brazil my whole life, and it would be a shame to let a little sunshine and humidity drive me away.”
“That’s the spirit,” said the colonel, giving me a hearty clap on the shoulder. “I have doubts about your generation sometimes, but it’s chaps like you who always restore my faith.”
We were approaching the Officers’ Club now through the winding streets. The colonel stepped confidently through the maze, but his gaze was not as proprietary as one might expect from someone who had been here as long as he had. I remember wondering why, and how the colonel had ended up here in Manaus for so many years. I thought maybe I would ask him about it once we’d sat down for lunch.
“Ah, here we are,” said the colonel. It was a building that looked on the outside very much like those around it, built of wood and adobe. There was no sign. At the moment, just outside the door, almost on the doorstep, a beggar was lying. His ribs were painfully visible, and he seemed to have collapsed there. The only sign of movement was the quick, short pants that indicated he was alive.
“I’m starving,” said the colonel. He stepped over the beggar and went inside.
I stared at the person on the steps for a moment, just outside of the mecca I had been yearning for all morning. People had warned me when I first got to Manaus not to give anything to beggars. If you give something to one, the others will just take it from him, and then they’ll swarm all over you. This once, though, I reached into my pocked for a coin and dropped it into the sand next to him. For the irony, I thought, thinking of the colonel’s remark, he deserved it. Then I followed him inside.
It was dark and cool inside the Club. I stopped a few paces from the doorway to let my eyes adjust, but really all I could think of at that moment was the glorious drop in temperature. It was everything that I’d hoped for, and I felt a moment of profound gratitude to Colonel Wilkins for bringing me there. He probably knew that, too.
All of this took only a moment, of course, while my eyes began to take in the tan stucco walls covered in tapestries, photographs, and taxidermy heads. This was only the anteroom, and in a corner stood a desk with a servant in uniform standing behind it waiting to take my hat. I walked over and gave it to him before joining the colonel in the doorway.
“It’s awfully cool in here, isn’t it?” I said, most likely with a trace of the gratitude I had felt so strongly only a moment before.
He chuckled at my awed observation and said, “That’s the first thing men notice if they’re new to Brazil. Middle of the road, they notice the space is completely ant-free.” I looked around. I was used to seeing ants on the walls, floor, or tables of every house I entered, including my own. The colonel was right: in the dining room, which we had just entered, I couldn’t see a single ant. But the colonel was going on. “Now for old-timers like me, the first thing we notice when we come in here is the smell of really good cigars.” He breathed in deeply. “Do you smoke, Mr. James?”
“Now and then,” I told him, “but I haven’t since I’ve been in Brazil. Even though they grown tobacco so near, I don’t like the cigarettes that are available in the stores. They’re too acidic somehow.”
The colonel smiled broadly. “Well, there’s none of that in here. This is our one chunk of Britain in here, and we allow nothing but the best.”
I found myself nodding along to this pronouncement in reverential approval. I felt a rather adolescent urge to prove myself to the colonel so that I would be asked to come back. I didn’t say anything, but then, the colonel didn’t seem to require any response. “Shall we have some lunch?” he asked, beckoning to one of the white, uniformed waiters to indicate that we were ready to be seated.
The waiter led us to a table for two in the corner. I was seated facing the wall while the colonel faced outward. A few feet above his head was a leopard’s head with open jaws and forbidding look in its eye, but the colonel proceeded to order unperturbed. “Do you mind if I order for you? I know what’s good.”
“Oh, yes, certainly,” I agreed.
Without looking at a menu, the colonel told the waiter to bring us whatever the fisherman had brought in fresh that day, with rice. He asked for the house Merlot, to which I added a request for a glass of water. I suspected that it would be cold here.
The waiter went away to get our wine, and the colonel and I stared at one another until I involuntarily glanced away at the leopard over his head. I felt irrationally that I had lost at something once I looked away, so I took a gulp from the glass of wine that I promptly received and plunged into conversation.
“How are things shaping up for the expedition to Peru, Colonel?” I asked.
“What? Oh,” said the colonel. “You academic fellows need to realize that the base won’t authorize any expeditions until we feel it’s safe in the projected destination.”
“Oh, yes, of course,” I agreed again, a little surprised at his abruptness.
“Peru is alright at the moment, but the areas you’d have to pass through to get there—and come back, I might add—are bordering on unrest. If things were to suddenly go wrong, I don’t want to have to send my troops out at the risk of their lives to rescue some academics who are digging up pots.”
“Certainly not. A very undesirable arrangement,” I agreed hastily, and lapsed into silence. The colonel drank his wine.
After he had motioned to our waiter to refill our glasses, the colonel said, “But I understand you’re not really in the archaeological line, are you, Mr. James?”
I glanced again at the leopard leaping down on the colonel’s head and replied, “No, not very much. My interest is more in ancient writings and languages.”
“Yes, very interesting. How many ancient languages do you estimate existed in this area?”
“Do you mean just in the region surrounding Manaus, or in the province as a whole?”
“Just around Manaus. An area of, say, fifty miles in every direction.”
“It’s difficult to say—of course any number of languages may have existed that were never written down, but I believe that there were about nine languages spoken in this vicinity in the ancient world.”
“And do you speak all of them?”
“I don’t really speak any of them, but I can read eight out of the nine.” I felt that I was boasting a little, but the colonel had asked me, after all.
“Why can’t you read the last one?”
“Well, because we’ve never found a sample of it.”
“Then how do you know it exists?”
“Existed, really. We know because some of the texts we do have make reference to a people who arrived here centuries ago from the north, speaking a strange tongue that none of the local inhabitants could understand.”
The colonel leaned forward. “What was this new group like?”
Just then the fish arrived, and the colonel sat back and took another drink of wine.
I thanked the waiter and cut a piece of the mango he had brought me before I went on. “Well, they were fabulously wealthy, from what the records say.” I took a bite of the fish with mango, which was delicious, and went on, because the colonel looked interested. “They came down the river in great canoes made of a strange kind of tree with their women and children with them. There were rumors that they were fleeing from a terrible catastrophe in their homeland far to the north.”
“What kind of catastrophe?”
“No one knew. The nomads didn’t talk about it. But there were rumors that they’d saved all of their wealth and carried it all the way to this area in their canoes.” The colonel was not eating the fish, but I took another bite.
“What happened to the nomads?”
“They were attacked by one of the tribes that already lived here and driven away. There was fierce competition for land that wasn’t water-logged, and the locals weren’t about to tolerate another rival.”
“Did that tribe take their treasure, then?”
“The records are confused at that point. It seems that they didn’t find anything valuable on the nomads, but the records still insist that they were wealthy. I believe there’s some kind of local legend that they’d hidden it in a cave out in the jungle before they even entered the city.”
The colonel nodded, and then he asked me a very strange question. “Do you think that you could read the nomad’s writing?”
“I have no idea,” I said. “It could have been related to the local languages, or it could have been something completely different. They were supposed to have come from very far away. At any rate, it’s a moot point, because there is no extant record of their writing, or even that they wrote at all.”
“I think they did,” said the colonel. He spoke in a tone intended to convey absolute conviction, and I looked up from my meal, startled. The colonel was grinning at me.
I took a sip of wine and he kept staring at me, daring me to ask. So I did. “If you don’t mind my asking, colonel, what makes you so certain?”
The colonel looked around and then leaned toward me. “Because,” he said in a low voice, “I have something they wrote.”
This surprised me, yet my first reaction was decidedly towards skepticism. I was quite certain, at first, that the colonel had been duped. “Can I see it?”
“I was, in fact, hoping that you would look at it, Mr. James,” he continued quietly. “I very much hope that you can find the means to interpret it, as well.”
“I’d love to,” I said. “I’ll have to authenticate it first, of course. At the university—“
“Oh, no,” the colonel interrupted. “No, Mr. James, I must ask you to keep this matter strictly confidential, in fact to speak of it to no one but myself.”
It was clear that he was serious, and of course I was interested. The waiter came and took away our plates—mine, at least, was empty—and then the colonel sealed the deal. “If you would, Mr. James, could you just look it over? We can come back here in a week’s time and you can tell me what you think.”
Not quite aware that I was doing so, I took the bait. I was faced with the prospect of emerging into the terrible heat again, and an offer of a return to this cool haven was too much for me to resist.
“I’d be happy to, colonel.”
“And you won’t show it to anyone?”
“Not to a soul, Colonel, if you think it best.”
“Very well, then. I give you my word.”
“Good,” said the colonel. He reached into his breast pocket, pulled out an envelope with two fingers, and slid it across the table to me. I reached for it, but for a moment he didn’t let it go. He looked into my eyes and repeated, “Your word.”
“Yes,” I said, and took the envelope. It was a plain army-issue one, revealing nothing of what might be inside. I put it in my pocket and buttoned the flap.
The colonel was still looking at me intensely, which was making me uncomfortable. “It’s safe with me,” I felt compelled to add, though I felt foolish as soon as I said it. But the colonel just said, “Good,” nodded curtly, and got up.
“Until next week, Mr. James.”
“Good day, colonel.”
Reluctantly, I rose and threw my napkin down on the table. By the time I had done so, the colonel was gone, and I made my way back to the foyer, retrieved my hat, and stepped back out into the heat. It was perhaps a little cooler now than it had been when I entered the club, but it felt even hotter. The beggar was gone. The streets were mostly bare as I trudged slowly back to my apartment. Once there, I took off my coat and lay down on the leather couch, where I fell asleep. Much to my relief, it was palpably cooler when I awoke, thought I was nevertheless covered in sweat. For the first time that day, I felt as if I could think again, so I poured myself a glass of water and went to my desk.
The work that I was doing at the time involved deciphering what was written on some badly damaged wooden tablets—tedious work, but I delighted in it. It was the sort of thing that I had come to Brazil to do. But of course today as soon as I looked at my papers, I remembered Colonel Wilkins’s paper, so I retrieved my coat from the sofa and took it out of the pocket.
It was certainly not Guarani. In fact, at first glance it bore a closer resemblance to the Mayan alphabet than to any native language I was familiar with. Of course, the colonel thought it was the writing of the lost tribe, and it was vaguely possible that a group of Mayans might have made it as far south as Brazil. The paper was clearly a copy that had been made by being placed against an inscription on stone or wood and rubbed with a pencil, so I set out to make another version of it that would be easier to study. I still thought it most likely that the colonel was being duped by whatever person had shown him the inscription, but at least the trickster had made sufficient effort to carve it instead of claiming to have found an ancient piece of bamboo leaf preserved by being submerged underwater or some such ridiculous story. That was what I told myself at any event, but I think that it must be admitted that I was still operating under a strong sense of gratitude to the colonel, and I was already looking forward to going back to the Officers’ Club the following week. I wanted to have something to tell him at our next meeting, even if it was only a confirmation that his inscription had been forged.
Once I had made a fair copy of the letters, I cleared my desk of all other papers and set to work in earnest. Before I knew it, I was squinting at the lines and I was forced to light the lamp to combat the growing dusk.
I was utterly absorbed, and I had long since forgotten any idea that the text was forged. I was convinced both that the writing was ancient and that it was like nothing I had ever seen before—that is to say, it was sufficiently like other languages to convince me of its authenticity, but I, the foremost specialist on languages at Manaus University, had never seen this language before. I yearned to call the dean and tell him what I had found, but I was reminded of the promise I had made to Colonel Wilkins, so I refrained.
I didn’t sleep that night. I couldn’t tear myself away from the tremendous puzzle before me. I dined on bread and cheese at about nine, but it seemed I made a breakthrough each time I thought of leaving off for the night and going to bed. The sun rose at six in the morning, and by seven it was getting hot again, and I was finished. I had what I thought was a tolerable English translation of what the colonel had given me. I immediately phoned him up.
The call was answered by a sleepy-sounding sergeant, who informed me that the colonel would be in no earlier than eight, or perhaps nine, and refused to give me the number for his home. He grudgingly agreed to inform the colonel that I had called, but spoke disparagingly of the likelihood that he would return my call. With that I was forced to be content, so I had a glass of water and lay down on my bed, where I remained with my mind whirling until the phone’s buzz woke me from a profound sleep an hour later.
Disoriented, I groped for the receiver and picked it up. “Colonel Wilkins?” I asked.
“What do you want with Colonel Wilkins?” the voice returned in a suspicious tone. “When did you last see him?”
“I saw him yesterday,” I told the voice. “We lunched together, and the colonel asked me to let him know about a matter that we discussed at that time. May I speak to him?”
“I think you’d better come in,” the voice informed me.
“To the base,” it said sternly.
Still bewildered, I could only respond, “I’ll be right over.” The voice hung up.
I was still dressed in my clothes from the day before, so I only paused to pick up my coat from where it lay abandoned on the floor next to my desk. I put the colonel’s paper and my translation in my pocket, buttoned it as before, and left the house. Once again I found myself hurrying as quickly as I could down Rio Street towards the base. I felt weak and a little shaky, the signs of sleeplessness and dehydration, but in less than fifteen minutes I had reached the door of the base. A soldier waved me inside, and I went up again to the colonel’s office.
There were three men in the outer office, along with Jane, who was crying. They looked at me strangely when I came in, and one of them said, “Mr. James?” It was the voice from the telephone.
“Yes, I’m James,” I said. “Where is Colonel Wilkins?”
“The colonel is dead,” the voice told me. “He was robbed and murdered on his way home from the base last night. Was your lunch yesterday the latest you saw him?”
I had to sit down, though I had not been invited to do so. The other men remained standing. “Are you quite sure?” I asked him, staring very hard at the floor.
“Yes, Mr. James, quite sure,” he said drily, and I looked up, embarrassed. “When was the last time you saw him?” he repeated.
“Yes, it was at lunch,” I said. “We were finished at about one, and the colonel left before me.”
“What did the two of you talk about at lunch?”
“Nothing much,” I said. “The Colonel was interested in the work I’ve been doing with Guarani. He asked me a lot of questions about it.” My hand closed convulsively on the papers in my pocket.
“Do you know where he was going?”
“I don’t know. I thought he was coming back here.” I remembered the day before, which now seemed like a very long time ago. “Yes, he told Jane that she could have her lunch when he got back.”
“Jane?” The man who was the voice turned to her for confirmation, and she nodded through her tears.
“Yes, he got in a little after one, sir, and he stayed until six like he always does,” she sighed.
“And that’s the last time you saw him?”
“Yes, sir. And he said he’d been in early this morning, and that I was to have his coffee ready promptly at eight.”
“Very well,” said the man, and turned to me. “His widow may want to speak with you. Aside from his secretary, you were the last person to see him alive.”
I nodded dumbly, and he told me I could go. They would ring me up if I was wanted to speak to Mrs. Wilkins. I got up and walked slowly out of the room. Just as I was crossing the threshold, the voice stopped me again. “Oh, Mr. James?”
I turned. “Yes?”
“What was the matter that you wanted to speak to the colonel about?”
“It’s nothing,” I said. “The colonel wanted to know if I still had a book on languages that I recommended to him, and I rang him up to tell him I’d found it. It doesn’t matter now.”
The man nodded and turned away.
I slowly went home. I went to my desk and picked up all of the papers I had been working with all night and put them in my pocket with the colonel’s envelope and my translation. The telephone rang in the bedroom, but I ignored it and went out of the house again. This time I went the other way down Rio Street, down towards the river, and I walked along the bank until I was quite alone. Then I took out all the papers, tore them one by one into bits, and threw them into the river.
But I can still picture clearly in my mind the paper I scrawled my translation on, and I can still remember what it said.
“This stone marks the tomb of the children of the clan of Acat who died of hunger in the great rains. Any uncharitable man who touches it shall be cursed with our hatred and shall die at the hands of wrongdoers.”
As I walked home, I thought of the beggar outside of the Club and of the eager look in the colonel’s eye when he handed me the paper and made me promise to mention it to no one but him. I think I solved the mystery of why the colonel had been here in the backwater of Manaus for so long, and of what he had wanted from me when he so kindly asked me to lunch with him at the Officers’ Club. The colonel was hoping to find the treasure of the lost tribe, the tribe of Acat, and I believe that when he died, he was very close to it, indeed.
But I don’t think that he would have been very pleased if he had found out what it was.
I have never told anyone about what the colonel asked me to do that day, and I have made no attempt to find the stone with the inscription on it. I have no desire to know if I would be found worthy to touch it and live.
When she thinks of him, she thinks of hurtling down a hill, faster than she thought she would ever have been able to go. The stark winter landscape is reduced to its essence, the white flash of snow and the waving lines of the black pine trees resembling some incomprehensible piece of modern art. The wind blows in her face and her ears are so cold she thinks they are going to fall off, but she is happy.
He is right behind her, pretending that he is trying his hardest to catch her, but she knows that he is letting her win, that he is painting slow, looping curves across the canvas of snow, while her skis chatter and skid gracelessly as she makes sharp, quick turns, trying to beat him.
She never beat him though, because at the last minute he would always clap his skis together and bend his knees and fly past her, skidding to a stop with a celebratory spray of snow.
They first met on the ski hill, she tentative and unsteady, he zooming around so fast that she thought he was about to take flight. Which he did, on multiple occasions, turning each bump and dip on the slope into an opportunity to commune with the atmosphere. He always expected her to launch herself after him, but she never did.
His goal was to be the best in the world but he had to settle for third. She remembers the day, when he marched so proudly in the parade, skipping in a sea of red, white, and blue, laughing. It was commercial and false, a mere show of international cooperation, financed by avaricious sponsors on the hunt for a winning face for their cereal boxes, but she was caught up in it all. She watched him throw himself on skis off an icy cliff of snow, turning and flipping in the air. She held her breath when he landed, a white puff of snow punctuating his descent back to earth. She winced when his left ski skidded, and it was that little mistake that had lost him the gold. Still, she was prouder than anything to see him on that podium, smiling sheepishly as they hung a medal round his neck. He held his bouquet like a winner of a beauty pageant, which made her chuckle to herself as the sounds of the Belarusian (for some unfathomable reason Belarus had a superb ski jumping team) national anthem filled the stadium.
He was always happiest in the air. He had started skiing almost as soon as he could walk. Perhaps that was why, graceful as he was on a mountain, he was so clumsy on flat ground. He never learned to walk correctly: he slouched and swaggered, his knees sore and his feet rocking back and forth like a sailor on a ship even when his ski boots weren’t on. He spent so much time in the air that he forgot gravity, but gravity had never forgotten him.
So he drank, and he smoked, and he did other things that she is still trying to forget about. For an athlete he had little respect for his body, though through sheer willpower he kept in flying shape. Whenever she ran her hands over his bare back she was always surprised to find that he had earthly shoulder blades instead of wings.
Sometimes while flipping and twisting about in the air he imagined what would happen if he made a slight mistake, an understandable miscalculation, and landed on his neck. Twice he stopped imagining and tried it, but with pills and alcohol instead of a fall. Like a cat he always landed on his feet, and like a cat he seemed to have nine lives, and he remained alive for her to scold and berate and worry and cry over.
When the news comes she is not surprised. She has been waiting for him to kill himself for the past ten years.
She plays the message on the phone. She turns off the phone after the first four words: “I’ve got bad news—“ spoken by a vague female voice that is either his mother or his sister. She can’t tell them apart any more; all of his relatives coalesce in her mind to a faceless, haunting mass of people that resembles him but are in so many ways different from him.
Her nine-year old daughter Ava is shrieking for her, dragging her out of the past to exclaim over some new discovery. She sighs, and wipes the tears from her eyes. She has a vision, a prophecy: there Ava will be, sometime in the near future, crouched in an attic, the sun shining warmly on the rickety floorboards. She will find the beat-up shoebox filled with photographs of him. She will dig her child’s hands through them, pausing over the one that shows the three of them laughing in the snow. Her fingers will feel the cold metal at the bottom, a shiny bronze medallion hung on a frayed ribbon. She will hold it reverently in her hands, like a diver discovering treasure from a shipwreck. She will see his wide eyes reflected back at her. Time will hang still for a moment, and memory linger in the air, suspended and twisting like a fish on a line. Then she will hear a noise and start guiltily, putting the photographs back in the box, burying the bronze at the bottom. She will take one photograph and put it in her pocket.
But that is in the future, she knows. She knows there will be a day, not long now, when Ava will grow tall and fearless, and she will find the photograph lying carelessly on her daughter’s childish white dresser, and wonder what to say.
Before she had met him she had always thought that if something happened she would have gone straight to the clinic and have it taken care of, but he seemed such a breakable thing that she felt wrong killing a part of him. She did not know how he felt about it; she hadn’t given him much choice in the matter. She remembers the talk in the woods, the brown leaves crackling underfoot, a hint of snow in the air, her hand held protectively over her belly. She told him that she would raise it and that he didn’t owe her anything before he could get a word out. He nodded. To this day she does not know if he agreed with her only because that was what she wanted or if he sincerely didn’t care. When she is feeling sad and lonely she is sure it is the second case. When she is honest and remembers the look in his eyes as he reached out his arm and she instinctively recoiled she knows that he always wanted this child, perhaps even more than her, but he knew that she could not love him forever and that she had a right to whatever he could give her.
Within a year of her daughter’s birth she fled south, leaving him alone on his mountain. He kept skiing long after he stopped winning. She waited with dread for the injury, for him to be crippled and lose his wings for good. She could imagine it so well in her mind: a shattered bone, a torn ligament, a ruptured organ, or even, god forbid, a broken back. He would be bedridden and miserable. The weight of the air at sea level alone would suffocate him. It would be so easy then for him to die.
He was lucky though, and all his limbs kept working. His daughter grew up and mercifully didn’t look too much like him. She never had to explain to her that her father, who magically appeared with presents on birthdays and around Christmas, was dead.
She steels herself, digging her fingernails into her palm. She will probably have to listen to the rest of the message, to think of something to say to Ava. At nine you know that parents don’t drop dead for no reason. She runs over possibilities in her head: gun, knife, rope, pills, poison. At least she knows he didn’t fall.
She presses play. “–bad news. Leigh’s dead.” The sound of muffled tears. “An accident. He was skiing by himself and there was an avalanche. Completely unexpected, a freak accident. The funeral—“ she doesn’t care about the funeral. Accident. She bursts into tears, out of both grief and relief. Accident. The mountain won after all. He would have tried to outrun it, she knew. He would have laughed at the game. He would not have been afraid when the rush of white crashed over his head. He had landed so many times on the mountain, his skis beating the ground with a clattering thud, that it was finally the mountain’s turn to land on him. The stagnant rocks were jealous of him, the snow, born from the air, only wishing for a little excitement, a chance to go careening down a slope, like him, in whatever direction it pleased.
She does not blame the mountain.
Her daughter appears at her side, worming her little brown head under her arm, knowing in the way of children that something is wrong. She strokes Ava’s hair, realizing that soon her daughter will grow up, go sliding at breakneck speed down the mountain to adulthood. She wishes that they can stay like this, no movement necessary. She wishes even more that he is still alive. She wishes he would be there to teach her how to fly.
Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words.
Hi, I’m Avril, and I’m a sapiosexual.
(Obligatory echo: Hi, Avril.)
I denied it for a long time. I was in the metaphorical closet, about as far back as I could get, pushed up against the metaphorical boxes of metaphorical keepsakes so old their metaphorical owners had forgotten about them entirely, or maybe remembered vaguely the fact of their existence but certainly not that they were in the closet—the metaphorical closet, that is—in the series of creased cardboard boxes against which I kept bumping in the semi-darkness. That’s how far in the closet I was. I mean, really far. I was going to great lengths to conceal what I was. Dating recruited athletes. Attending fraternity parties. Taking geology classes. Lightly lifting her bangs from her forehead in a kind of physical apology for having been embarrassed yet also for the substance of that which had embarrassed her and which embarrassed her still, both an apology for apologizing and an apology for that for which she apologized
I only left the metaphorical closet late at night, when the stacks were deserted and I could make secret visits to the aisle where they kept the D.H. Lawrence and there was a confidential silence and the warmth of my hands against the words and the delicate gasping of the pages fluttering between my trembling fingers. I lay with my cheek and ear against the breathing leather hearing in the book a heartbeat for which I was listening very hard, the way I heard the ocean in shells, maybe as a projection of my own desires. An imposition of want upon the book. Parting the pages angrily, bending the spine forward to push my insistent fingers into the volume’s opening against the creak of groaning binding.
But I don’t know that it was I touching the page, the words, so much as….so much as Verbal faltering in an implicit gesture of self-deprecation denoted less by her words and the precise and mappable area they designated as definition but rather by the greater lexicon of tone and subtle motion and small self-enclosing, a hunching of the shoulders around herself as if to protect her center the words touching me and feeling out my secrets and then drawing me out from within myself with each successive phrase, each of which had a new significance that languished before giving way to the next as smoke lingers around a candle before departing from its origin. And from each symbol, suddenly novel as hieroglyphics, I extracted a related phoneme that summoned some meaning residing deep in the word, somewhere beneath it or perhaps in the interstices between it and its predecessor or even between my parted lips—but in a space or a relation, never in a loneliness, always in warmth of ensemble. Secondary impressions and tertiary impressions sought out the secret places in indentation of neck or between my fingers and read the brail of my freckles, elbows, knee caps, breasts, flat expanses of stomach and thigh, archuate ass and bulbous shoulder. Because it found an opening and entered as no person ever had; because to talk is to demand entrance, and all speech is entry, and words are bridges, and I yielded (as I had to yield) to the long and quivering caress of that verbal seduction. Language being, of course, the only way to touch.
I woke up with annotations intaglioed on my skin where I’d rubbed against the page.
Uncomfortable at suddenly realizing the depth of her immersion, like someone suddenly awakened from a sleep, touching abruptly the bridge of her nose, purposelessly, a motion with subtle shades of signification that her audience, shifting with their own restless movements and adjustments, notes and interprets
It grew difficult to conceal from my boyfriend, then the captain of the football team, a surly boy who mistook my love of Werther for a liking of Werther caramels of the same name but drastically different connotations, and he grew suspicious of the “sexuality as humanisms” imprinted on unlikely body parts, and then came the final, damning cry of “Goethe!” during climax, after which I entered into a stage of extreme but manifestly futile denial. My boyfriend, who was at this point no longer my boyfriend, but whom I’ve termed my boyfriend and is recognizable in this narrative now only by that moniker, spread a series of nasty rumors about me and my various alleged infidelities that had, in fact, been more varied than he supposed, spanning, as they had, several centuries and five or six important literary movements. Regardless, the former boyfriend succeeded in functionally exiling me to the library.
I faced a lot of stigma. My friends pretended no longer to know me. My family was disappointed, my mother scandalized. She always did want me to marry someone with perfect teeth and more than the average number of squares on the grid of visible abdominal muscle.
And maybe I should have been unhappy but the truth was Exhibiting now the very beginnings of a private smile that was the expression of only the very surface of a much deeper joy, like the tip of a flower whose network of roots is concealed below I wasn’t, I wasn’t unhappy at all, I was happier than I’d ever been, I was blissfully happy, I was a social pariah, I had as much time as I liked to satisfy my textual frustration, I was initiated into a world of ongoing discussion wherein I felt protected and safe and as if I existed in a space that spanned time and any external disruption, and the more alone I was the less lonely I was because I was alone naturally, rather than artificially drawn into myself, the books pulled me out, I could tell them the truth, but people crowded me and forced me further in, and….Her inwardly-directed smile was spreading to encompass everything, an expression that signified finality, and her audience marked its progress until, perceiving its true denotations, Anonymous Collective said:
(Obligatory echo: thank you, Avril).
Hi, my name is Josef, and I am a sapiosexual.
(Obligatory echo: Hi, Josef).
I was never in denial to myself. To my family, though….a wince so exaggerated as to almost resemble an involuntary grin at the sight of something so funny it provoked an uncontrollable outburst but unmistakably signifying, here, a renewed opening of a partially-healed wound that encountered additional injury daily I came from a bigoted background, and, growing up, it was hard for me. My father was a business executive in name only, and was in actuality an idler, a golfer, and an avid collector of Rolex watches. My mother can be described only as a Delta Gamma, as this is, to date, her only defining characteristic or vocation. A deepening of the wrinkles on his forehead in which his audience could discern almost the exact shape and outline of his memories, or at least their color and unpleasant taste, and here foreshadowed was something beyond the facts of narrative, something unreadable in the rigor mortis of unmoving events but detectable rather in his voice’s fluctuations: a glimpse of the cold, separate rooms of a house saturated with dim disapproval and low, conspiratory voices Needless to say, their reception was not pleasant. They sent me to therapy, where I was diagnosed as a sexistentialist and watched episodes of Baywatch for weeks without exhibiting any signs of arousal. I was shipped off to an inpatient program where….well, I’d rather not discuss the particulars.
What I wanted was to touch not just the surface or the skin. Not the image but the substance. Not to see, not even to touch, but to hold. So I could not display the expected fervor at the spectacle of a basketball game, or react appropriately to the kind of photograph I was told healthy boys my age enjoyed. Eyebrows arched in angular criticism; inspection of nails in what was once anger now crystallized into tacit disapproval The implication being that I was not healthy.
I read voraciously, of course waving his hand as if to brush away any assumption to the contrary, a motion of invalidation and erasure, and a movement whose connotative sphere overlapped slightly with the area of his emerging self-assurance, but I also talked. I sought through talking some kind of contact or penetration or maybe I thought my loneliness would break like a fever, suddenly, late at night, and in the ague of shivering recovery there would be the stupid and unlikely scenario I’d always envisioned where the girl whom I held lovingly in my arms would melt into me and I’d move what I thought was my arm and instead she’d move, through some fluke of tangled wiring and interconnectedness.
Drooping of the head and upturning of the palms to expose thin, milky skin of wrist, precariously fragile and beneath which cursive vein was inscribed in blue ink; a supplication, a posed (in all senses of meaning) question But I found that the characters who populated books were more three-dimensional than the people I met in reality. They—the characters, I mean—continued to go about their business when the books were closed; people I met ceased to exist when they left the room. I want to transform them. It was anti-personification, textualization. And all touch is language. To enter is to speak.
The first girl I loved had yellowing skin on which I wrote a book in pinks and blacks, raspberry blues, stained ink-red around the edges. The italics were in crimson. The titles were green, fading into yellow. Chapter one began on the lobe of her ankle. Chapter two was a scarlet streak up the back of her leg. Chapter three was swollen, a spreading rouge on her left buttock. Chapter four was clotting scratches on arched lower back, the cup of curved behind rising into plain of bony shoulder (chapter four is a labor of love. I edited and revised, scratching away late into the night. First I started at the shoulder, tracing down diagonally. Terrible. Discarded it. Then I worked downwards, writing in indigo, bold and bright but still not right. I worked upwards finally and all the way across the collarbone. The indentations of clavicle were the second violet stanza. On the neck were magenta enjambments. Along the scalp the ruby marks beneath her hair, where there were violent exclamations). Chapter five—the last chapter—was over her rising chest, a web of rosy allusions along her hips. And all along her bindings.
His hands immobile and lifted to his head so that his hair was pushed mostly through his fingers but not entirely, as though he were a still-life captured on the verge of movement, rather than a person immobilized by the autonomy of words that had overcome him, and his audience, much attuned to his condition, said, respectfully:
(Obligatory echo: thank you, Josef).
Low rumble of preparation for departure: rustle of rain coats conforming to arms therein, slap of lukewarm coffee against the walls of the cup containing it, the indistinct sounds of aging bodies straining against inertia. Until finally emptiness and silence in which
“Fingers latticed; chilled skin beginning to melt into a warm sweat.”
“Anticipatory head tilt?”
“Complimentary head tilt.”
“Lowered eyelashes; timorous lean..?”
“Assertive waist-grab and impatient—
“Nose-crushing, tongue-fumbling kiss.”
When the French statesman Francois Mitterand was 10 days from the end of his life, he resolved to commemorate his own mortality by eating an ortolan—a small, migratory warbler said to capture the soul of France in its song. Nearly extinct, the consumption of this yellow-throated songbird is now prohibited by French law.
On New Year’s Eve, as the story goes, after finishing off 30 oysters and the best of France’s foie gras, Mitterand asked his staff to leave him alone in the darkness of his dining room where he covered his head with an embroidered cloth, lifted his wrinkled hands, and placed a napkin over his head—to prepare for a private capturing of the bird’s aromas, or maybe—as legend says—to hide from God.
Caught alive and kept in darkness to gorge on oats and figs, the ortolan grows to three times its size before it is eaten. Plunged into a vat of Armagnac, roasted whole and served with legs and arms tucked in, its beady eyes stare wide open at the distinguished diner who consumes it—bones and all.
Brought to Mitterand straight from the fire, the small bird looked small—about the size of his thumb, and seemed too hot to eat, steaming as it was. He looked around in his dining room, out the window at his fields, and at the clock on the wall where from a crack in the door the cook nodded to him before closing the light and leaving the French president alone with his orison, for what would be the last meal of his life.
As the tradition goes, Mitterand placed the entire four-ounce bird in his mouth, and allowed its head to dangle out between his lips. Breathing in and out rapidly to cool the bird while it rested on his tongue, Mitterand took 15 minutes to work his way through the warbler’s breast and wings as he cracked its delicate bones in his teeth and its whole life unfolded on his taste buds: the hot wind of Morocco, the whole of its migrations and sorrows reduced to a licorice fuel on its tarred feathers. The pocket of air between its tiny ribs carried the salt of the Mediterranean, the temperate dawning of wheat in its organs, the succulent, flower-scented liquor in its muscles, the scent of France underfoot, and the green, hay-like sweetness of lavender in its skin.
Are these the senses that becomes of us? he thought, To be enjoyed somewhere at a table far away from our flight? The wreath of flowers laid ruddy on our graves the last specter of our travels and consumptions? Who we were and where we kept to—the twine and predator of our nests built into our very skin and the scented undergrowth of our bodies; the ground and the banks.
In its blood he tasted the oak and cognac of the town where he grew up, the bite of his lessons and what he learned in the books that weighted the ceiling above him…The wicked mahogany taste of chocolate mixing with the iron haunts of the Bastille, where the Marquis de Safe sat imprisoned for his cruelty…He tasted the stale infantry breath of his comrades, the foul smell of thrush in his mouth behind German bars a half century ago and the vinegar that always lingered on his grandfather’s hand in the evenings from his day’s work—purple and pickled.
After a time, the sweetness of the bird turned bitter, he remembered his place in the room, quickly sucked down the last of its ambrosial fats, removed its beak from his mouth, and shut his eyes to the darkness of the room.
My, how your slow eyes have chalked up
my body and how deliberate your fingers
have pulled down the zipper of my fine dress.
Each day is either— either or with you. Tell me again,
which day is the one that you last missed me.
Think: to miss someone who lives just downtown.
Indeed, I have acted, tried to become the better actor,
to prove all the fantastic ways that I could change into you,
prove you, a worn costume I could remove should I choose.
Maybe it is true, but if you are, won’t you call me
a masochist, too? They already do. At least I have not
been selfish: I should be proud to play selflessly you,
would act small every day if acting smaller were acting
you. Play me: return me to that moth-balled shop.
Find yourself a perfect pair. How could I not mind
if another shiny girl found you here. You, treasure,
now priced at half what I cost. Tell me, which one
of them did you own before, could you own later.
Who else do you own now? Sure, sell me out: buy me back.
Go on and loan me. I cannot be bargained for.
They’ll come for you today,
As they have come before.
On their knees,
They’ll hold arms to your head,
and blindfolds to theirs.
The bodies will hang in the night.
Perfect circles above each eye
That had never seen itself so beautiful.
I asked you once, for what do you kill,
Where is it that I’ve instilled in you
This murderous notion?
I am the form of beauty, you answered,
Thus a child of Mephisto;
I am born of death, that is my bargain.
There is nothing above which I do not rise,
Yet I am the mere extension of your surgeon’s hand.
There is preciousness in the gasp of death,
In its singularity
Like the gasp of a maiden.
The bodies will hang in the night,
Constellations in your eye.
You will cry tears of diamonds.
Drip, drip, drip, drip.
The bodies will hang in the night,
And I will come to carry you home.
There was a moment to turn back maybe when you were sobering.
but you are turned in now displeased by the moors. by two words
of a poem, by a woman on the street, her worried hair. it has gotten wet.
Maybe it would be less if we could disintegrate. we could be compelled
by what is lost, titrate the mourning. so that what I carry in the distressed
pockets beneath my eyes becomes a spectacle. a vision.
The plump pundit laughs with teeth of
green jello, confiscated from fat fingers
of an ocean saint. Small sprays
of fear, enticing as Lorelei’s lullaby
to a deaf-mute porcupine. Before
the gift of lettuce: the empty cage
of a man’s rattling heart, the purple
paws of an empty dinosaur costume, torn
from the needy child winter forgot.
I am Boca Raton. See—my palms
like candied yams, a small Thanksgiving.
My words are hieroglyphs painted
as a coquette’s face, a talisman
held close to the chest. Share
your splintered wooden soul, I hunger like
the prowling: lean-flanked, alone,
rheumy, fleshy, all mutton and eyes.
He laughs over his clipboard, gums
diseased as quashed revolution, screaming—
the tune of mermaids harpooned.
winter keeps us warm.
dewy powder, coated, kept upon a pip.
it’s blue o’clock in the morning.
it steps like cream from the bullhoof,
the bullock befriending bard
suckling the viper at her
the milk grimily drips over the yard,
the stair, the cushioned hillock:
fang to the breast, tiss – a shout in the street.
creamy instep goes nlooshk nlooshk down the path.
melty clouddrops ip ip into the pail,
barren field and shriveled pap -
shine of spring hushed hot on the skin.
then the axe to the head, most humane they say.
fastest for the quick.
chop. moo. blood gurgles in the milk and her gristle lolls.
it’s a fine cut, sir, medium medium rare I most utterly assure you.
all knees buckle nlooshk in the yard. ip ip
ooze in the dead bucket.
it’s green o’clock on the hillside.
Sally who wears red bras under thin T-shirts
has a boy who cut his eye
out with a knife. He keeps a marble
in the socket, sometimes pops
it into a dirty palm and touches
the arms of skinny girls who scream
and scream. Plunders quarters
and ice cream sandwiches, jams
the eye back, runs wild,
shattered alleys home.
Sally who got kicked out of three projects already,
curses air, busts up sticks and toys and
cheap lawn furniture, rages
about children spying and the evil eye.
Lifts her shirt up in the middle of the street like Mardi Gras.
Doesn’t see her boy, home with his quarters,
his good eye closed. How his marble
swirls blue and green,
looks like the whole world.
to cool it
- try ginger with age old cheese
to heat it
- mint in the microwave
to play it
- silly bands
to dream it
- a poem
You’ll remember who gave these to you when you find them in a thrift store twenty years later. The woman followed us out briskly, but we couldn’t find the exit. There was no suitable ash tray among the future selling by ellipsis. If she says, it’s a good narrative because of ellipsis, it’s because she’s not clear about the weather beneath the umbrella and what clings to the fabrics. Anyway, the coffee table book is water under the bridge and so is that time card forgiveness. Punching you elevates me into a free breathing light, so I strut fantastically before I write. Scotch tape, the occasional scribble of dreams. Though often, she was more likely to be found dead. The mug shot was unbecoming, what do you expect? I can’t believe you put my coffee in the fridge, that’s almost as thoughtful as waking me with a cup of it. I have been awake so long, I don’t prefer sleep. I’m dealing with it too, this coming out thing.