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Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
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Apple iPhone 6s
Mayfair, June 1939

Royal Style at Royal Garden Party
By Cynthia Fervis


   Five thousand honoured guests of Their Excellencies, Lord and Lady Tweedsmuir, stood spellbound along the garden walks at His Majesty’s birthday party at Government House in Ottawa, as Their Majesties made their gracious rounds.
   At half-past four they emerged from Government House by the Chinese Gallery. The King was in morning dress; the Queen chose beige, with soft fur and pearls and a large slightly uptilted hat, her face delicately flushed, her warm blue eyes smiling. All were charmed by her entrancing manner.
   Walking behind Their Majesties were the Governor General and Lady Tweedsmuir, His Excellency a gracious and genial host, Her Excellency poised and beautiful. Her all-white ensemble, enhanced by fox furs from Canada’s Arctic, was set off by a splash of turquoise in her hat. Presented to Their Majesties were Colonel and Mrs. F. Phelan, of Montreal; she wore a printed silk, on which bloomed small vivid flowers, and her smart hat had a large clear brim of Cellophane. Brigadier General and Mrs. W. H. L. Elkins and Miss Joan Elkins, and Mr. and Mrs. Gladstone Murray were similarly honoured.
   Mr. and Mrs. Richard Griffen were singled out; her cape was of silver fox, the furs placed on black chiffon in the form of rays, worn over an orchid costume. Mrs. Douglas Watts wore chartreuse chiffon with a brown velvet jacket, Mrs. F. Reid was trim and lovely in an organdie and Valenciennes lace gown.
   No whisper of tea was heard until the King and Queen had waved farewell, and the cameras had clicked and flashed, and all voices had been raised in God Save the King. After that the birthday cakes held centre stage…enormous white cakes, with snowy icing. The cake served to the King indoors was ornamented not only with roses, shamrocks and thistles, but also with flocks of miniature sugar doves with white pennants in their beaks, the fitting symbols of peace and hope.
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Apple iPhone 6s
The Blind Assassin:
The Be rage Room

   It’s mid-afternoon, cloudy and humid, everything sticky: her white cotton gloves are already smudged just from holding the railing. The world heavy, a solid weight; her heart pushes against it as if pushing against stone. The sultry air holds out against her. Nothing budges.
   But then the train comes in, and she waits at the gate as is required of her, and like a promise fulfilled he comes through it. He sees her, comes towards her, they touch each other quickly, then shake hands as if distantly related. She kisses him briefly on the cheek, because it’s a public place and you never know, and they walk up the slanted ramp into the marble station. She feels new with him, nervous; she’s barely had a chance to look at him. Certainly he’s thinner. What else?
   I had the hell of a time getting back. I didn’t have much money. It was tramp steamers all the way.
   I would have sent you some money, she says.
   I know. But I had no address.
   He leaves his duffel at the baggage check, carries only the small suitcase. He’ll pick up the bag later, he says, but right now he doesn’t want to be hampered. People come and go around them, footsteps and voices; they stand irresolute; they don’t know where to go. She should have thought, she should have arranged something, because of course he has no room, not yet. At least she’s got a flask of scotch, tucked into her handbag. She did remember that.
   They have to go somewhere so they go to a hotel, a cheap one he remembers. It’s the first time they’ve done this and it’s a risk, but as soon as she sees the hotel she knows that no one in it would expect them to be anything but unmarried; or if married, not to each other. She’s worn her summer-weight raincoat from two seasons before, pulled a scarf over her head. The scarf is silk but it was the worst she could do. Maybe they’ll think he’s paying her. She hopes so. That way she’s unremarkable.
   On the stretch of sidewalk outside it there’s broken glass, vomit, what looks like drying blood. Don’t step in it, he says.
   There’s a bar on the ground floor, although it’s called a Beverage Room. Men Only, Ladies and Escorts. Outside there’s a red neon sign, the letters vertical, and a red arrow coming down and bending so that the arrowhead points at the door. Two of the letters are dead so it reads Be rage Room. Small bulbs like Christmas lights flash off and on, running down the sign like ants going down a drainpipe.
   Even at this hour there are men hanging around, waiting for the place to open. He takes her elbow as they go past, hurries her a little. Behind them one of the men makes a noise like a tomcat yowling.
   For the hotel part of things there’s a separate door. The black-and-white mosaic tiling of the entranceway surrounds what was once perhaps a red lion, but it’s been chewed away as if by stone-eating moths and so it’s now more like a mangled polyp. The ochre-yellow linoleum floor hasn’t been scrubbed for some time; splotches of dirt bloom on it like grey pressed flowers.
   He signs the register, pays; while he does this she stands, hoping she looks bored, keeping her face still, eyes above the glum desk clerk, watching the clock. It’s plain, assertive, without pretensions to grace, like a railway clock: utilitarian. This is the time, it says, only one layer of it, there is no other.
   He has the key now. Second floor. There’s a tiny coffin of an elevator but she can’t stand the thought of it, she knows what it will smell like, dirty socks and decaying teeth, and she can’t stand to be in there face to face with him, so close and in that smell. They walk up the stairs. A carpet, once dark blue and red. A pathway strewn with flowers, worn down now to the roots.
   I’m sorry, he said. It could be better.
   What you get is what you pay for, she says, intending brightness; but it’s the wrong thing to say, he may think she’s commenting on his lack of money. It’s good camouflage though, she says, trying to fix it. He doesn’t answer this. She’s talking too much, she can hear herself, and what she’s saying is not at all beguiling. Is she different from what he remembers, is she much changed?
   In the hallway there’s wallpaper, no longer any colour. The doors are dark wood, gouged and gored and flayed. He finds the number, the key turns. It’s a long-shafted old-fashioned key, as if for an ancient strongbox. The room is worse than any of the furnished rooms they’d been in before: those had made at least a surface pretense of being clean. A double bed covered by a slippery spread, imitation quilted satin, a dull yellowy pink like the sole of a foot. One chair, with a leaking upholstered seat that appears to be stuffed with dust. An ashtray of chipped brown glass. Cigarette smoke, spilled beer, and under that another more disturbing smell, like underclothes long unwashed. There’s a transom over the door, its bumpy glass painted white.
   She peels off her gloves, drops them onto the chair along with her coat and scarf, digs the flask out of her handbag. No glasses in sight, they’ll have to swig.
   Does the window open? she says. We could use some fresh air.
   He goes over, hoists the sash. A thick breeze pushes in. Outside, a streetcar grinds past. He turns, still at the window, leaning backwards, his hands behind him on the sill. With the light behind him, all she can see is his outline. He could be anybody.
   Well, he says. Here we are again. He sounds bone tired. It occurs to her that he may not want to do anything in this room but sleep.
   She goes over to him, slips her arms around his waist. I found the story, she says.
   What story?
   Lizard Men of Xenor. I looked everywhere for it, you should have seen me poking around the newsstands, they must have thought I was crazy. I looked and looked.
   Oh, that, he says. You read that piece of tripe? I’d forgotten.
   She won’t show dismay. She won’t show too much need. She won’t say it was a clue that proved his existence; a piece of evidence, however absurd.
   Of course I read it. I kept waiting for the next episode.
   Never wrote it, he says. Too busy getting shot at, from both sides. Our bunch was caught in the middle. I was on the run from the good guys. What a shambles.
   Belatedly his arms come around her. He smells malted. He rests his head on her shoulder, the sandpaper of his cheek against the side of her neck. She has him safe, at least for the moment.
   God I need a drink, he says.
   Don’t go to sleep, she says. Don’t go to sleep yet. Come to bed.

   He sleeps for three hours. The sun moves, the light dims. She knows she ought to go, but she can’t bear to do that, or to wake him either. What excuse will she present, once she gets back? She invents an old lady tumbling down stairs, an old lady needing rescue; she invents a taxi, a trip to the hospital. How could she leave her to fend for herself, the poor old soul? Lying on the sidewalk without a friend in the world. She’ll say she knows she should have phoned, but there wasn’t a phone nearby, and the old lady was in such pain. She steels herself for the lecture she’ll get, about minding her own business; the shake of the head, because what can be done about her? When will she ever learn to leave well enough alone?
   Downstairs the clock is clicking off the minutes. There are voices in the corridor, the sound of hurrying, rapid pulse of shoes. It’s an in and out business. She lies awake beside him, listening to him sleeping, wondering where he’s gone. Also how much she should tell him—whether she should tell him everything that’s happened. If he asks her to go away with him, then she’ll have to tell. Otherwise perhaps better not. Or not yet.
   When he wakes up he wants another drink, and a cigarette.
   I guess we shouldn’t do this, she says. Smoking in bed. We’ll catch on fire. Burn ourselves up.
   He says nothing.
   What was it like? she says. I read the papers, but that’s not the same.
   No, he says. It’s not.
   I was so worried you might get killed.
   I almost did, he said. The funny thing is, it was hell but I got used to it, and now I can’t get used to this. You’ve put on a bit of weight.
   Oh, am I too fat?
   No. It’s nice. Something to hang on to.
   It’s full dark now. From down below the window, where the beverage room empties onto the street, come snatches of off-key song, shouts, laughter; then the sound of glass shattering. Someone’s smashed a bottle. A woman screams.
   Some celebration they’re having.
   What are they celebrating?
   War.
   But there isn’t a war. It’s all over.
   They’re celebrating the next one, he says. It’s on the way. Everyone’s denying it up there in cloud cuckoo land, but down at ground level you can smell it coming. With Spain shot to hell for target practice, they’ll start in on the serious business pretty soon. It’s like thunder in the air, and they’re excited by it. That’s why all the bottle-smashing. They want to get a head start.
   Oh, surely not, she says. There can’t be another one. They’ve made pacts and everything.
   Peace in our time, he says scornfully. Fucking bullshit. What they’re hoping is that Uncle Joe and Adolf will tear each other to pieces, and get rid of the Jews for them into the bargain, while they sit on their bums and make money.
   You’re as cynical as ever.
   You’re as naive.
   Not quite, she says. Let’s not argue. It won’t be settled by us. But this is more like him, more like the way he was, and so she feels a little better.
   No, he says. You’re right. It won’t be settled by us. We’re small potatoes.
   But you’ll go anyway, she says. If it starts up again. Whether you’re a small potato or not.
   He looks at her. What else can I do?
   He doesn’t know why she’s crying. She tries not to. I wish you’d been wounded, she says. Then you’d have to stay here.
   And a fat lot of good that would do you, he says. Come here.

   Leaving, she can scarcely see. She walks by herself a little, to calm down, but it’s dark and there are too many men on the sidewalk, and so she takes a taxi. Sitting in the back seat, she repairs her mouth, powders her face. When they stop, she rummages in her purse, she pays the taxi, goes up the stone steps and through the arched entranceway, and closes the thick oak door. In her head she’s rehearsing: Sorry I’m late, but you wouldn’t believe what happened to me, I’ve had quite a little adventure.
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Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
The Blind Assassin:
Yellow curtains

   How did the war creep up? How did it gather itself together? What was it made from? What secrets, lies, betrayals? What loves and hatreds? What sums of money, what metals?
   Hope throws a smokescreen. Smoke gets in your eyes and so no one is prepared for it, but suddenly it’s there, like an out-of-control bonfire—like murder, only multiplied. It’s in full spate.

   The war takes place in black and white. For those on the sidelines that is. For those who are actually in it there are many colours, excessive colours, too bright, too red and orange, too liquid and incandescent, but for the others the war is like a newsreel—grainy, smeared, with bursts of staccato noise and large numbers of grey-skinned people rushing or plodding or falling down, everything elsewhere.
   She goes to the newsreels, in the movie theatres. She reads the papers. She knows herself to be at the mercy of events, and she knows by now that events have no mercy.

   She’s made up her mind. She’s determined now, she’ll sacrifice everything and everyone. Nothing and nobody will stand in her way.
   This is what she’ll do. She has it all planned out. She’ll leave the house one day as if it’s any other day. She’ll have money, money of some description. This is the unclear part, but surely something will be possible. What do other people do? They go to the pawnshop, and that’s what she will have done as well. She’ll get the money by pawning things: a gold watch, a silver spoon, a fur coat. Bits and pieces. She’ll pawn them little by little and they won’t be missed.
   It won’t be enough money but it will have to be enough. She’ll rent a room, an inexpensive room but not too dingy—nothing a coat of paint won’t brighten up. She’ll write a letter saying she isn’t coming back. They’ll send emissaries, ambassadors, then lawyers, they’ll threaten, they’ll penalize, she’ll be afraid all the time but she’ll hold firm. She’ll burn all her bridges except the bridge to him, even though the bridge to him is so tenuous. I’ll be back, he said, but how could he be sure? You can’t guarantee such a thing.
   She’ll live on apples and soda crackers, on cups of tea and glasses of milk. Cans of baked beans and corned beef. Also on fried eggs when available, and slices of toast, which she’ll eat at the corner café where the newsboys and early drunks also eat. Veterans will eat there too, more and more of them as the months go past: men missing hands, arms, legs, ears, eyes. She’ll wish to talk with them, but she won’t because any interest from her would be sure to be misunderstood. Her body as usual would get in the way of free speech. Therefore she will only eavesdrop.
   In the café the talk will be about the end of the war, which everyone says is coming. It will only be a matter of time, they’ll say, before it’ll all be mopped up and the boys will be back. The men who say this will be strangers to one another, but they’ll exchange such comments anyway, because the prospect of victory will make them talkative. There will be a different feeling in the air, part optimism, part fear. Any day now the ship will come in, but who can tell what might be on it?
   Her apartment will be above a grocery store, with a kitchenette and a small bathroom. She will buy a house plant—a begonia, or else a fern. She will remember to water this plant and it will not die. The woman running the grocery store will be dark-haired and plump and motherly, and will talk about her thinness and the need for her to eat more, and about what should be done for a chest cold. Perhaps she will be Greek; Greek, or something like it, with big arms and a centre part in her hair, and a bun at the back. Her husband and son will be overseas; she’ll have pictures of them, framed in painted wood, hand-tinted, beside the cash register.
   Both of them—she and this woman—will spend a lot of time listening: for footsteps, a telephone call, a knock on the door. It’s hard to sleep under these circumstances: they’ll discuss remedies for sleeplessness. Occasionally the woman will press an apple into her hand, or an acid-green candy from the glass container of them on the counter. Such gifts will be more comforting to her than their low price would suggest.
   How will he know where to reclaim her? Now that her bridges have been burned. He’ll know, however. He’ll find out somehow, because journeys end in lovers meeting. They should. They must.
   She’ll sew curtains for the windows, yellow curtains, the colour of canaries or the yolks of eggs. Cheerful curtains, like sunshine. Never mind that she doesn’t know how to sew, because the woman downstairs will help her. She’ll starch the curtains and hang them up. She’ll get down on her knees with a whisk and clean out the mouse droppings and dead flies under the kitchen sink. She’ll repaint a set of canisters she’ll find in a junk store, and stencil on them: Tea, Coffee, Sugar, Flour. She will hum to herself while doing this. She’ll buy a new towel, a whole set of new towels. Also sheets, these are important, and pillowcases. She’ll brush her hair a lot.
   These are the joyful things she will do, while waiting for him.
   She’ll buy a radio, a small tinny secondhand one, at the pawnshop; she’ll listen to the news, to keep up with current events. Also she’ll have a telephone: a telephone will be necessary in the long run, although no one will call her on it, not yet. Sometimes she’ll pick it up just to listen to it purr. Or else there will be voices on it, having a conversation on the party line. Mostly it will be women, exchanging the details of meals and weather and bargains and children, and of men who are somewhere else.
   None of this happens, of course. Or it does happen, but not so you would notice. It happens in another dimension of space.
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Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
The Blind Assassin:
The telegram

   The telegram is delivered in the usual way, by a man in a dark uniform whose face brings no glad tidings. When they’re hired for the job they teach them that expression, remote but doleful, like a dark blank bell. The closed coffin look.
   The telegram comes in a yellow envelope with a glassine window, and it says the same thing telegrams like that always say—the words distant, like the words of a stranger, an intruder, standing at the far end of a long empty room. There aren’t many words, but every word is distinct: inform, loss, regret. Careful, neutral words, with a hidden question behind them: What did you expect?
   What’s this about? Who is this? she says. Oh. I remember. It’s him. That man. But why did they send it to me? I’m scarcely the next of kin!
   Kin? says one of them. Did he have any? It’s meant to be a witticism.
   She laughs. It’s nothing to do with me. She crumples up the telegram, which she assumes they’ve read on the sly before passing it on to her. They read all of the mail; that goes without saying. She sits down, a little too abruptly. I’m sorry, she says. I feel quite strange all of a sudden.
   Here you go. This’ll buck you up. Drink it down, that’s the ticket.
   Thank you. It’s nothing to do with me, but still it’s a shock. It’s like someone walking on your grave. She shivers.
   Easy does it. You look a little green. Don’t take it personally.
   Perhaps it was a mistake. Perhaps they got the addresses mixed.
   Could have done. Or perhaps it was his own doing. Perhaps it was his idea of a joke. He was an odd duck, as I recall.
   Odder than we thought. What a filthy rotten thing to do! If he was alive you could sue him for mischief.
   Perhaps he was trying to make you feel guilty. That’s what they do, his kind. Envious, all of them. Dog in the manger. Don’t let it worry you.
   Well, it’s not a very nice thing, no matter how you look at it.
   Nice? Why would it be nice? He was never what you’d call nice.
   I suppose I could write to the superior officer. Demand an explanation.
   Why would he know anything about it? It wouldn’t have been him, it was some functionary on this end of things. They just use what’s written down in the records. He’d say it was a snafu, by no means the first, from what I hear.
   Anyway, no sense in making a fuss. It would just draw attention, and no matter what you do you’ll never find out why he did it.
   Not unless the dead walk. Their eyes are bright, all watching her, alert. What are they afraid of? What are they afraid she’ll do?
   I wish you wouldn’t use that word, she says fretfully.
   What word? Oh. She means dead. Might as well call a spade a spade. No sense not. Now, don’t be…
   I don’t like spades. I don’t like what they’re used for—digging holes in the ground.
   Don’t be morbid.
   Get her a handkerchief. It’s no time to badger her. She should go upstairs, have a little rest. Then she’ll be right as rain.
   Don’t let it upset you.
   Don’t take it to heart.
   Forget it.
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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
The Blind Assassin:
The destruction of Sakiel-Norn

   In the night she wakes abruptly, her heart pounding. She slips out of bed and makes her way silently towards the window, and raises the sash higher and leans out. There’s the moon, almost full, spider-veined with old scars, and below it the ambient sub-orange glow cast up into the sky by the street lights. Beneath is the sidewalk, patchy with shadow and partially hidden by the chestnut tree in the yard, its branches spread out like a hard thick net, its white-moth flowers glimmering faintly.
   There’s a man, looking up. She can see the dark eyebrows, the hollows of the eye sockets, the smile a white slash across the oval of his face. At the V below his throat there’s pallor: a shirt. He lifts his hand, motions: he wants her to join him—slip out of the window, climb down through the tree. She’s afraid though. She’s afraid she’ll fall.
   Now he’s on the windowsill outside, now he’s in the room. The flowers of the chestnut tree flare up: by their white light she can see his face, the skin greyish, half-toned; two-dimensional, like a photograph, but smudged. There’s a smell of burning bacon. He isn’t looking at her, not at her exactly; it’s as if she is her own shadow and he’s looking at that. At where her eyes would be if her shadow could see.
   She longs to touch him, but she hesitates: surely if she were to take him in her arms he would blur, then dissolve, into shreds of cloth, into smoke, into molecules, into atoms. Her hands would go right through him.
   I said I would come back.
   What’s happened to you? What’s wrong?
   Don’t you know?

   Then they’re outside, on the roof it seems, looking down on the city, but it isn’t any city she’s ever seen. It’s as if one huge bomb has fallen on it, it’s all in flames, everything burning at once—houses, streets, palaces, fountains and temples—exploding, bursting like fireworks. There’s no sound. It burns silently, as if in a picture—white, yellow, red and orange. No screams. No people in it; the people must be dead already. Beside her he flickers in the flickering light.
   Nothing will be left of it, he says. A heap of stones, a few old words. It’s gone now, it’s erased. Nobody will remember.
   But it was so beautiful! she says. Now it seems to her like a place she’s known; she’s known it very well, she’s known it like the back of her hand. In the sky three moons have risen. Zycron, she thinks. Beloved planet, land of my heart. Where once, long ago, I was happy. All gone now, all destroyed. She can’t bear to look at the flames.
   Beautiful for some, he says. That’s always the problem.
   What went wrong? Who did this?
   The old woman.
   What?
   L’histoire, cette vieille dame exaltée et menteuse.
   He shines like tin. His eyes are vertical slits. He isn’t what she remembers. Everything that made him singular has been burned away. Never mind, he says. They’ll build it up again. They always do.
   Now she’s afraid of him. You’ve changed so much, she says.
   The situation was critical. We had to fight fire with fire.
   You won, though. I know you won!
   Nobody won.
   Has she made a mistake? Surely there was news of victory. There was a parade, she says. I heard about it. There was a brass band.
   Look at me, he says.
   But she can’t. She can’t focus on him, he won’t stay steady. He’s indeterminate, he wavers, like a candle flame but devoid of light. She can’t see his eyes.
   He’s dead, of course. Of course he’s dead, because didn’t she get the telegram? But it’s only an invention, all of this. It’s only another dimension of space. Why then is there such desolation?
   He’s moving away now, and she can’t call after him, her throat won’t make a sound. Now he’s gone.
   She feels a choking pressure around the heart. No, no, no, no, says a voice inside her head. Tears are running down her face.

   This is when she wakes up really.
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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
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Apple iPhone 6s
Thirteen

Gloves

   Today it’s raining, the thin, abstemious rain of early April. Already the blue scilla are beginning to flower, the daffodils have their snouts above ground, the self-seeded forget-me-nots are creeping up, getting ready to hog the light. Here it comes—another year of vegetative hustling and jostling. They never seem to get tired of it: plants have no memories, that’s why. They can’t remember how many times they’ve done all this before.
   I must admit it’s a surprise to find myself still here, still talking to you. I prefer to think of it as talking, although of course it isn’t: I’m saying nothing, you’re hearing nothing. The only thing between us is this black line: a thread thrown onto the empty page, into the empty air.
   The winter’s ice in the Louveteau Gorge is almost gone, even in the shaded crevasses of the cliffs. The water, black and then white, hurtles down through the limestone chasms and over the boulders, effortlessly as ever. A violent sound, but soothing; alluring, almost. You can see how people are drawn to it. To waterfalls, to high places, to deserts and deep lakes—places of no return.
   Only one corpse in the river so far this year, a drug-ridden young woman from Toronto. Another girl in a hurry. Another waste of time, her own. She had relatives here, an aunt, an uncle. Already they’re the objects of narrow sideways looks, as if they had something to do with it; already they’ve assumed the cornered, angry air of the consciously innocent. I’m sure they’re blameless, but they’re alive, and whoever’s left alive gets blamed. That’s the rule in things like this. Unfair, but there it is.

   Yesterday morning Walter came round, to see about the spring tune-up. That’s what he calls the household fix-it routine he goes through, on my behalf, every year. He brought his toolbox, his hand-held electric saw, his electric screwdriver: he likes nothing better than to be whirring away like part of a motor.
   He parked all these tools on the back porch, then stomped around outside the house. When he came back in he had a gratified expression. “Garden gate missing a slat,” he said. “I can whack her in today, paint her when it’s dry.”
   “Oh, don’t bother,” I say, as I do every year. “Everything’s falling apart, but it will last me out.”
   Walter ignores this, as always. “Front steps too,” he says. “Need paint. One of them should come right off—put a new one on her. You let it go too long, the water gets in and then you get the rot. Maybe a stain though, for the porch, better for the wood. We could put another colour strip along the edges of the steps, so people could see better. The way it is they could miss their footing, hurt themselves.” He uses we out of courtesy, and by people he means me. “I can have that new step in later today.”
   “You’ll get all wet,” I said. “The weather channel says more of the same.”
   “Nope, it’ll clear up.” He didn’t even look at the sky.

   Walter went off to get the necessities—some planks, I suppose—and I spent the interval reclining on the parlour sofa, like some vaporous novelistic heroine who’s been forgotten in the pages of her own book and left to yellow and mildew and crumble away like the book itself.
   A morbid image, Myra would say.
   What else would you suggest? I would reply.
   The fact is that my heart has been acting up again. Acting up, a peculiar phrase. It’s what people say to minimize the gravity of their condition. It implies that the offending part (heart, stomach, liver, whatever) is a fractious, bratty child, which can be brought into line with a slap or a sharp word. At the same time, that these symptoms—these tremors and pains, these palpitations—are mere theatrics, and that the organ in question will soon stop capering about and making a spectacle of itself, and resume its placid, off-stage existence.
   The doctor isn’t pleased. He’s been muttering about tests and scans, and trips into Toronto where the specialists lurk, those few who have not fled for greener pastures. He’s changed my pills, added another one to the arsenal. He’s even suggested the possibility of an operation. What would be involved, I asked, and what would be accomplished? Too much of one, as it turns out, and not enough of the other. He suspects that nothing short of a whole new unit—his term, as if it’s a dishwasher we’re talking about—will do. Also I would have to stand in line, waiting for someone else’s unit, one that’s no longer needed. Not to put too fine a gloss on it, someone else’s heart, ripped out of some youngster: you wouldn’t want to install an old rickety wizened-up one like the one you intend to throw away. What you want is something fresh and juicy.
   But who knows where they get those things? Street children in Latin America is my guess; or so goes the most paranoid rumour. Stolen hearts, black-market hearts, wrenched from between broken ribs, warm and bleeding, offered up to the false god. What is the false god? We are. Us and our money. That’s what Laura would say. Don’t touch that money, Reenie would say. You don’t know where it’s been.
   Could I live with myself, knowing I was carrying the heart of a dead child?
   But if not, then what?
   Please don’t mistake this rambling angst for stoicism. I take my pills, I take my halting walks, but there’s nothing I can do for dread.

   After lunch—a piece of hard cheese, a glass of dubious milk, a flabby carrot, Myra having fallen down this week on her self-appointed task of stocking my refrigerator—Walter returned. He measured, sawed, hammered, then knocked on the back door to say he was sorry for the noise but everything was shipshape now.
   “I made you some coffee,” I said. This is a ritual on these April occasions. Had I burned it this time? No matter. He was used to Myra’s.
   “Don’t mind if I do.” He removed his rubber boots carefully and left them on the back porch—Myra has him well trained, he’s not allowed to track what she calls his dirt onto what she calls her carpets —then tiptoed in his mammoth socks across my kitchen floor; which, thanks to the energetic scourings and polishings of Myra’s woman, is now as slick and treacherous as a glacier. It used to have a useful adhesive skin on it, an accumulation of dust and grime like a thin coating of glue, but no longer. I really should strew it with grit, or I’ll slip on it and do myself an injury.
   Watching Walter tiptoe was a treat in itself—an elephant walking on eggs. He reached the kitchen table, setting his yellow leather work gloves down on it, where they lay like giant, extra paws.
   “New gloves,” I said. They were so new they almost glowed. Not a scratch on them either.
   “Myra got those. Guy three streets over, took the ends of his fingers off with a fretsaw and she’s all steamed up about it, worried I’ll do the same or worse. But that guy’s a numbnuts, moved here from Toronto, pardon my French but he shouldn’t be allowed to fool with saws, could of took his head off while he was at it, no loss to the world either. I told her, have to be ten bricks short of a load to pull a stunt like that, and anyways I don’t own a fretsaw. But she makes me cart the darn things around anyways. Every time I go out the door, it’s Yoo-hoo, here’s your gloves.”
   “You could lose them,” I said.
   “She’d buy others,” he said gloomily.
   “Leave them here. Say you forgot them and you’ll pick them up later. Then just don’t pick them up.” I had an image of myself, during lonely nights, holding one of Walter’s vacated, leathery hands: it would be a companion of sorts. Pathetic. Maybe I should buy a cat, or a small dog. Something warm and uncritical and furry—a fellow creature, helping me to keep watch by night. We need the mammalian huddle: too much solitude is bad for the eyesight. But if I got something like that I’d most likely trip over it and break my neck.
   Walter’s mouth twitched, the tips of his upper teeth showed: it was a grin. “Great minds think alike, eh?” he said. “Then maybe you could dump the suckers in the trash, accidentally on purpose.”
   “Walter, you are a rascal,” I said. Walter grinned more, added five spoons of sugar to the coffee, downed it, then placed both hands on the table and levered himself into the air, like an obelisk raised by ropes. In that motion I suddenly foresaw what his last action would be, in relation to me: he’ll hoist one end of my coffin.
   He knows it too. He’s standing by. He’s not a handyman for nothing. He won’t make a fuss, he won’t drop me, he’ll make sure I travel in level, horizontal safely on this last, short voyage of mine. “Up she goes,” he’ll say. And up I will go.
   Lugubrious. I know it; and sentimental as well. But please bear with me. The dying are allowed a certain latitude, like children on their birthdays.
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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
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Apple iPhone 6s
Home fires

   Last night I watched the television news. I shouldn’t do that, it’s bad for the digestion. There’s another war somewhere, what they call a minor one, though of course it isn’t minor for anyone who happens to get caught up in it. They have a generic look to them, these wars—the men in camouflage gear with scarves over their mouths and noses, the drifts of smoke, the gutted buildings, the broken, weeping civilians. Endless mothers, carrying endless limp children, their faces splotched with blood; endless bewildered old men. They cart the young men off and murder them, intending to forestall revenge, as the Greeks did at Troy. Hitler’s excuse too for killing Jewish babies, as I recall.
   The wars break out and die down, but then there’s a flareup elsewhere. Houses cracked open like eggs, their contents torched or stolen or stomped vindictively underfoot; refugees strafed from airplanes. In a million cellars the bewildered royal family faces the firing squad; the gems sewn into their corsets will not save them. Herod’s troops patrol a thousand streets; just next door, Napoleon makes off with the silverware. In the wake of the invasion, any invasion, the ditches fill up with raped women. To be fair, raped men as well. Raped children, raped dogs and cats. Things can get out of control.
   But not here; not in this gentle, tedious backwater; not in Port Ticonderoga, despite a druggie or two in the parks, despite the occasional break-in, despite the occasional body found floating around in the eddies. We hunker down here, drinking our bedtime drinks, nibbling our bedtime snacks, peering at the world as if through a secret window, and when we’ve had enough of it we turn it off. So much for the twentieth century, we say, as we make our way upstairs. But there’s a far-off roaring, like a tidal wave racing inshore. Here comes the twenty-first century, sweeping overhead like a spaceship filled with ruthless lizard-eyed aliens or a metal pterodactyl. Sooner or later it will sniff us out, it will tear the roofs off our flimsy little burrows with its iron claws, and then we will be just as naked and shivering and starving and diseased and hopeless as the rest.
   Excuse this digression. At my age you indulge in these apocalyptic visions. You say, The end of the world is at hand. You lie to yourself—I’m glad I won’t be around to see it —when in fact you’d like nothing better, as long as you can watch it through the little secret window, as long as you won’t be involved.
   But why bother about the end of the world? It’s the end of the world every day, for someone. Time rises and rises, and when it reaches the level of your eyes you drown.

   What happened next? For a moment I’ve lost the thread, it’s hard for me to remember, but then I do. It was the war, of course. We weren’t prepared for it, but at the same time we knew we’d been there before. It was the same chill, the chill that rolled in like a fog, the chill into which I was born. As then, everything took on a shivering anxiety—the chairs, the tables, the streets and the street lights, the sky, the air. Overnight, whole portions of what had been acknowledged as reality simply vanished. This is what happens when there’s a war.
   But you are too young to remember which war that might have been. Every war is the war for whoever’s lived through it. The one to which I’m referring began in early September of 1939, and went on until…Well, it’s in the history books. You can look it up.
   Keep the home fires burning, was one of the old war slogans. Whenever I heard that, I used to picture a horde of women with flowing hair and glittering eyes, making their way furtively, in ones or twos, by moonlight, setting fire to their own homes.

   In the months before the war began, my marriage to Richard was already foundering, though it might be said to have foundered from the beginning. I’d had one miscarriage and then another. Richard on his part had had one mistress and then another, or so I suspected—inevitable (Winifred would later say) considering my frail state of health, and Richard’s urges. Men had urges, in those days; they were numerous, these urges; they lived underground in the dark nooks and crannies of a man’s being, and once in a while they would gather strength and sally forth, like a plague of rats. They were so cunning and strong, how could any real man be expected to prevail against them? This was the doctrine according to Winifred, and—to be fair—to lots of other people as well.
   These mistresses of Richard’s were (I assumed) his secretaries—always very young, always pretty, always decent girls. He’d hire them fresh from whatever academy produced them. For a while they would patronize me nervously, over the telephone, when I’d call him at the office. They would also be dispatched to purchase gifts for me, and order flowers. He liked them to keep their priorities straight: I was the official wife, and he had no intention of divorcing me. Divorced men did not become leaders of their countries, not in those days. This situation gave me a certain amount of power, but it was power only if I did not exercise it. In fact it was power only if I pretended to know nothing. The threat hanging over him was that I might find out; that I might open what was already an open secret, and set free all kinds of evils.
   Did I care? Yes, in a way. But half a loaf is better than none, I would tell myself, and Richard was just a kind of loaf. He was the bread on the table, for Aimee as well as for myself. Rise above it, as Reenie used to say, and I did try. I tried to rise above it, up into the sky, like a runaway balloon, and some of the time I succeeded.
   I occupied my time, I’d learned how to do that. I had taken up gardening in earnest now, I was getting some results. Not everything died. I had plans for a perennial shade garden.
   Richard kept up appearances. So did I. We attended cocktail parties and dinners, we made entrances and exits together, his hand on my elbow. We made a point of a drink or two before dinner, or three; I was becoming a little too fond of gin, in this combination or that, but I wasn’t too close to the edge as long as I could feel my toes and hold my tongue. We were still skating on the surface of things—on the thin ice of good manners, which hides the dark tarn beneath: once it melts, you’re sunk.
   Half a life is better than none.

   I’ve failed to convey Richard, in any rounded sense. He remains a cardboard cutout. I know that. I can’t truly describe him, I can’t get a precise focus: he’s blurred, like the face in some wet, discarded newspaper. Even at the time he appeared to me smaller than life, although larger than life as well. It came from his having too much money, too much presence in the world—you were tempted to expect more from him than was there, and so what was average in him seemed like deficiency. He was ruthless, but not like a lion; more like a sort of large rodent. He tunnelled underground; he killed things by chewing off their roots.
   He had the wherewithal for grand gestures, for acts of significant generosity, but he made none. He had become like a statue of himself: huge, public, imposing, hollow.
   It wasn’t that he was too big for his boots: he wasn’t big enough for them. That’s it in a nutshell.

   At the outbreak of the war, Richard was in a tight spot. He’d been too cozy with the Germans in his business dealings, too admiring of them in his speeches. Like many of his peers, he’d turned too blind an eye to their brutal violations of democracy; a democracy that many of our leaders had been decrying as unworkable, but that they were now keen to defend.
   Richard also stood to lose a lot of money, since he could no longer trade with those who had overnight become the enemy. He had to do some scrambling, some kowtowing; it didn’t sit well with him, but he did it. He managed to salvage his position, and to scramble back into favour—well, he wasn’t the only one with dirty hands, so it was best for the others not to point their own tainted fingers at him—and soon his factories were blasting away, full steam ahead for the war effort, and no one was more patriotic than he. Thus it wasn’t counted against him when Russia came in on the side of the Allies, and Joseph Stalin was suddenly everybody’s loveable uncle. True, Richard had said much against the Communists, but that was once upon a time. It was all swept under the carpet now, because weren’t your enemy’s enemies your friends?
   Meanwhile I trudged through the days, not as usual—the usual had altered—but as best I could. Dogged is the word I’d use now, to describe myself then. Or stupefied, that would do as well. There were no more garden parties to contend with, no more silk stockings except through the black market. Meat was rationed, and butter, and sugar: if you wanted more of those things, more than other people got, it became important to establish certain contacts. No more transatlantic voyages on luxury liners—the Queen Mary became a troop ship. The radio stopped being a portable bandshell and became a frenetic oracle; every evening I turned it on to hear the news, which at first was always bad.
   The war went on and on, a relentless motor. It wore people down—the constant, dreary tension. It was like listening to someone grinding his teeth, in the dusk before dawn, while you lie sleepless night after night after night.
   There were some benefits to be had, however. Mr. Murgatroyd left us, to join the army. It was then I learned to drive. I took over one of the cars, the Bentley I think it was, and Richard had it registered to me—that gave us more gasoline. (Gasoline was rationed, of course, though less so for people like Richard.) It also gave me more freedom, although it was not a freedom that had much use for me any more.
   I caught a cold, which turned to bronchitis—everyone had a cold that winter. It took me months to get rid of it. I spent a lot of time in bed, feeling sad. I coughed and coughed. I no longer went to the newsreels—the speeches, the battles, the bombings and the devastation, the victories, even the invasions. Stirring times, or so we were told, but I’d lost interest.
   The end of the war approached. It got nearer and nearer. Then it occurred. I remembered the silence after the last war had ended, and then the ringing of the bells. It had been November, then, with ice on the puddles, and now it was spring. There were parades. There were proclamations. Trumpets were blown.
   It wasn’t so easy, though, ending the war. A war is a huge fire; the ashes from it drift far, and settle slowly.
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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
Diana Sweets

   Today I walked as far as the Jubilee Bridge, then along to the doughnut shop, where I ate almost a third of an orange cruller. A great wodge of flour and fat, spreading out through my arteries like silt.
   Then I went off to the washroom. Someone was in the middle cubicle, so I waited, avoiding the mirror. Age thins your skin; you can see the veins, the tendons. Also it thickens you. It’s hard to get back to what you were before, when you were skinless.
   At last the door opened and a girl came out—a darkish girl, in sullen clothing, her eyes ringed with soot. She gave a little shriek, then a laugh. “Sorry,” she said, “I didn’t see you there, you creeped me out.” Her accent was foreign, but she belonged here: she was of the nationality of the young. It’s I who am the stranger now.
   The newest message was in gold marker: You can’t get to Heaven without Jesus. Already the annotators had been at work: Jesus had been crossed out, and Death written above it, in black.
   And below that, in green:


   Heaven is in a grain of sand.

Blake

   And below that, in orange:


   Heaven is on the Planet Xenor.

Laura Chase

   Another misquote.

   The war ended officially in the first week of May—the war in Europe, that is. Which was the only part of it that would have concerned Laura.
   A week later she telephoned. She placed the call in the morning, an hour after breakfast, when she must have known Richard would not be at home. I didn’t recognize her voice, I’d given up expecting her. I thought at first that she was the woman from my dressmaker’s.
   “It’s me,” she said.
   “Where are you?” I said carefully. You must recall that she was by this time an unknown quantity to me—perhaps of questionable stability.
   “I’m here,” she said. “In the city.” She wouldn’t tell me where she was staying, but she named a street corner where I could pick her up, later that afternoon. In that case we could have tea, I said. Diana Sweets was where I intended to take her. It was safe, it was secluded, it catered mostly to women; they knew me there. I said I would bring my car.
   “Oh, do you have a car now?”
   “More or less.” I described it.
   “It sounds like quite a chariot,” she said lightly.

   Laura was standing on the corner of King and Spadina, right where she said she’d be. It wasn’t the most savoury district, but she didn’t seem perturbed by that. I honked, and she waved and then came over and climbed in. I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. Immediately I felt treacherous.
   “I can’t believe you’re really here,” I said to her.
   “But here I am.”
   I was close to tears all of a sudden; she seemed unconcerned. Her cheek had been very cool, though. Cool and thin.
   “I hope you didn’t mention anything to Richard, though,” she said. “About me being here. Or Winifred,” she added, “because it’s the same thing.”
   “I wouldn’t do that,” I said. She said nothing.
   Because I was driving, I could not look at her directly. For that I had to wait until I’d parked the car, then until we’d walked to Diana Sweets, and then until we were seated across from each other. At last I could see all of her, full on.
   She was and was not the Laura I remembered. Older, of course—we both were—but more than that. She was neatly, even austerely dressed, in a dull-blue shirtwaist dress with a pleated bodice and small buttons down the front; her hair was pulled back into a severe chignon. She appeared shrunken, fallen in on herself, leached of colour, but at the same time translucent—as if little spikes of light were being nailed out through her skin from the inside, as if thorns of light were shooting out from her in a prickly haze, like a thistle held up to the sun. It’s a hard effect to describe. (Nor should you set much store by it: my eyes were already warping, I already needed glasses, though I didn’t yet know it. The fuzzy light around Laura may have been simply an optical flaw.)
   We ordered. She wanted coffee rather than tea. It would be bad coffee, I warned her—you couldn’t get good coffee in a place like this, because of the war. But she said, “I’m used to bad coffee.”
   There was a silence. I hardly knew where to begin. I wasn’t yet ready to ask her what she was doing back in Toronto. Where had she been all this time? I asked. What had she been doing?
   “I was in Avilion, at first,” she said.
   “But it was all closed up!” It had been, all through the war. We hadn’t been back for years. “How did you get in?”
   “Oh, you know,” she said. “We could always get in when we wanted to.”
   I remembered the coal chute, the dubious lock on one of the cellar doors. But that had been repaired, long ago. “Did you break a window?”
   “I didn’t have to. Reenie kept a key,” she said. “But don’t tell.”
   “The furnace can’t have been on. There couldn’t have been any heat,” I said.
   “There wasn’t,” she said. “But there were a lot of mice.”
   Our coffee arrived. It tasted of burned toast crumbs and roasted chicory, not surprising since that’s what they put into it. “Do you want some cake or something?” I said. “It’s not bad cake here.” She was so thin, I felt she could use some cake.
   “No, thanks.”
   “Then what did you do?”
   “Then I turned twenty-one, so I had a little money, from Father. So I went to Halifax.”
   “Halifax? Why Halifax?”
   “It was where the ships came in.”
   I didn’t pursue this. There was a reason behind it, there always was with Laura; it was a reason I shied away from hearing. “But what were you doing?”
   “This and that,” she said. “I made myself useful.” Which was all she would say on that score. I supposed it would have been a soup kitchen of some kind, or the equivalent. Cleaning toilets in a hospital, that sort of thing. “Didn’t you get my letters? From Bella Vista? Reenie said you didn’t.”
   “No,” I said. “I never got any letters.”
   “I expect they stole them. And they wouldn’t let you call, or come to see me?”
   “They said it would be bad for you.”
   She laughed a little. “It would have been bad for you,” she said. “You really shouldn’t stay there, in that house. You shouldn’t stay with him. He’s very evil.”
   “I know you’ve always felt that, but what else can I do?” I said. “He’d never give me a divorce. And I don’t have any money.”
   “That’s no excuse.”
   “Maybe not for you. You’ve got your trust fund, from Father, but I have no such thing. And what about Aimee?”
   “You could take her with you.”
   “Easier said than done. She might not want to come. She’s pretty stuck on Richard, at the moment, if you must know.”
   “Why would she be?” said Laura.
   “He butters her up. He gives her things.”
   “I wrote you from Halifax,” said Laura, changing the subject.
   “I never got those letters either.”
   “I expect Richard reads your mail,” said Laura.
   “I expect he does,” I said. The conversation was taking a turn I hadn’t expected. I’d assumed I’d be consoling Laura, commiserating with her, hearing a sad tale, but instead she was lecturing me. How easily we slid back into our old roles.
   “What did he tell you about me?” she said now. “About putting me into that place?”
   There it was, then, right out on the table. This was the crossroads: either Laura had been mad, or Richard had been lying. I couldn’t believe both. “He told me a story,” I said evasively.
   “What sort of a story? Don’t worry, I won’t get upset. I just want to know.”
   “He said you were—well, mentally disturbed.”
   “Naturally. He would say that. What else did he say?”
   “He said you thought you were pregnant, but it was just a delusion.”
   “I was pregnant,” said Laura. “That was the whole point—that was why they whisked me out of sight in such a hurry. Him and Winifred—they were scared stiff. The disgrace, the scandal—you can imagine what they’d think it would do to his big fat chances.”
   “Yes. I can see that.” I could see it, too—the hush-hush call from the doctor, the panic, the hasty conference between the two of them, the spur-of-the-moment plan. Then the other version of events, the false one, concocted just for me. I was docile enough as a rule, but they must have known there was a line somewhere. They must have been afraid of what I might do, once they’d crossed it.
   “Anyway, I didn’t have the baby. That’s one of the things they do, at Bella Vista.”
   “One of the things?” I was feeling quite stupid.
   “Besides the mumbo-jumbo, I mean, and the pills and machines. They do extractions,” she said. “They conk you out with ether, like the dentist. Then they take out the babies. Then they tell you you’ve made the whole thing up. Then when you accuse them of it, they say you’re a danger to yourself and others.”
   She was so calm, so plausible. “Laura,” I said, “are you sure? About the baby, I mean. Are you sure there really was one?”
   “Of course I’m sure,” she said. “Why would I make such a thing up?”
   There was still room for doubt, but this time I believed Laura. “How did it happen?” I whispered. “Who was the father?” Such a thing called for whispering.
   “If you don’t already know, I don’t think I can tell you,” said Laura.
   I supposed it must have been Alex Thomas. Alex was the only man Laura had ever shown any interest in—besides Father, that is, and God. I hated to acknowledge such a possibility, but really there was no other choice. They must have met during those days when she’d been playing hookey, from her first school in Toronto, and then later, when she was no longer going to school at all; when she was supposed to be cheering up decrepit old paupers in the hospital, dressed in her prissy, sanctimonious little pinafore, and lying her head off the whole time. No doubt he’d got a cheap thrill out of the pinafore, it was the sort of outré touch that would have appealed to him. Perhaps that was why she’d dropped out—to meet Alex. She’d been how old—fifteen, sixteen? How could he have done such a thing?
   “Were you in love with him?” I said.
   “In love?” said Laura. “Who with?”
   “With—you know,” I couldn’t say it.
   “Oh no,” said Laura, “not at all. It was horrible, but I had to do it. I had to make the sacrifice. I had to take the pain and suffering onto myself. That’s what I promised God. I knew if I did that, it would save Alex.”
   “What on earth do you mean?” My newfound reliance on Laura’s sanity was crumbling: we were back in the realm of her loony metaphysics. “Save Alex from what?”
   “From being caught. They would have shot him. Callie Fitzsimmons knew where he was, and she told. She told Richard.”
   “I can’t believe that.”
   “Callie was a snitch,” said Laura. “That’s what Richard said—he said Callie kept him informed. Remember when she was in jail, and Richard got her out? That’s why he did it. He owed it to her.”
   I found this construction of events quite breathtaking. Also monstrous, though there was a slight, a very slight possibility, that it might be true. But if so, Callie must have been lying. How would she have known where Alex was? He’d moved so often.
   He might have kept in touch with Callie, though. He might have done. She was one of the people he might have trusted.
   “I kept my end of the bargain,” said Laura, “and it worked. God doesn’t cheat. But then Alex went off to the war. After he got back from Spain, I mean. That’s what Callie said—she told me.”
   I couldn’t make sense of this. I was feeling quite dizzy. “Laura,” I said, “why did you come here?”
   “Because the war’s over,” said Laura patiently, “and Alex will be back soon. If I wasn’t here, he wouldn’t know where to find me. He wouldn’t know about Bella Vista, he wouldn’t know I went to Halifax. The only address he’ll have for me is yours. He’ll get a message through to me somehow.” She had the infuriating iron-clad confidence of the true believer.
   I wanted to shake her. I closed my eyes for a moment. I saw the pool at Avilion, the stone nymph dipping her toes; I saw the too-hot sun glinting on the rubbery green leaves, that day after Mother’s funeral. I felt sick to my stomach, from too much cake and sugar. Laura was sitting on the ledge beside me, humming to herself complacently, secure in the conviction that everything was all right really and the angels were on her side, because she’d made some secret, dotty pact with God.
   My fingers itched with spite. I knew what had happened next. I’d pushed her off.

   Now I’m coming to the part that still haunts me. Now I should have bitten my tongue, now I should have kept my mouth shut. Out of love, I should have lied, or said anything else: anything but the truth. Never interrupt a sleepwalker, Reenie used to say. The shock can kill them.
   “Laura, I hate to tell you this,” I said, “but whatever it was you did, it didn’t save Alex. Alex is dead. He was killed in the war, six months ago. In Holland.”
   The light around her faded. She went very white. It was like watching wax cool.
   “How do you know?”
   “I got the telegram,” I said. “They sent it to me. He listed me as next of kin.” Even then I could have changed course; I could have said, There must have been a mistake, it must have been meant for you. But I didn’t say that. Instead I said, “It was very indiscreet of him. He shouldn’t have done that, considering Richard. But he didn’t have any family, and we’d been lovers, you see—in secret, for quite a long time—and who else did he have?”
   Laura said nothing. She only looked at me. She looked right through me. Lord knows what she saw. A sinking ship, a city in flames, a knife in the back. I recognized the look, however: it was the look she’d had that day she’d almost drowned in the Louveteau River, just as she was going under—terrified, cold, rapturous. Gleaming like steel.
   After a moment she stood up, reached across the table, and picked up my purse, quickly and almost delicately, as if it contained something fragile. Then she turned and walked out of the restaurant. I didn’t move to stop her. I was taken by surprise, and by the time I myself was out of my chair, Laura was gone.
   There was some confusion about paying the bill—I had no money other than what had been in the purse, which my sister—I explained—had taken by mistake. I promised reimbursement the next day. After I’d got that settled, I almost ran to where I’d parked the car. It was gone. The car keys too had been in my purse. I hadn’t been aware that Laura had learned how to drive.
   I walked for several blocks, concocting stories. I couldn’t tell Richard and Winifred what had really happened to my car: it would be used as one more piece of evidence against Laura. I’d say instead that I’d had a breakdown and the car had been towed to a garage, and they’d called a taxi for me, and I’d got into it and been driven all the way home before I’d realized I’d left my purse in the car by mistake. Nothing to worry about, I’d say. It would all be set straight in the morning.
   Then I really did call a taxi. Mrs. Murgatroyd would be at the house to let me in, and to pay the taxi for me.
   Richard wasn’t home for dinner. He was at some club or other, eating a foul dinner, making a speech. He was running hard by now, he had the goal in sight. This goal—I now know—was not just wealth or power. What he wanted was respect—respect, despite his new money. He longed for it, he thirsted for it; he wished to wield respect, not only like a hammer but like a sceptre. Such desires are not in themselves despicable.
   This particular club was for men only; otherwise I would have been there, Sitting in the background, smiling, applauding at the end. On such occasions I would give Aimee’s nanny the night off and undertake bedtime myself. I supervised Aimee’s bath, read to her, then tucked her in. On that particular night she was unusually slow in going to sleep: she must have known I was worried about something. I sat beside her, holding her hand and stroking her forehead and looking out the window, until she dozed off.
   Where had Laura gone, where was she staying, what had she done with my car? How could I reach her, what could I say to put things right?
   A June bug was blundering against the window, drawn by the light. It bumped over the glass like a blind thumb. It sounded angry, and thwarted, and also helpless.
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Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
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Escarpment

   Today my brain dealt me a sudden blank; a whiteout, as if by snow. It wasn’t someone’s name that disappeared—in any case that’s usual—but a word, which turned itself upside down and emptied itself of meaning like a cardboard cup blown over.
   This word was escarpment. Why had it presented itself? Escarpment, escarpment, I repeated, possibly out loud, but no image appeared to me. Was it an object, an activity, a state of mind, a bodily defect?
   Nothing. Vertigo. I tottered on the brink, grabbed at air. In the end I resorted to the dictionary. Escarpment, a vertical fortification, or else a steep cliff-face.
   In the beginning was the word, we once believed. Did God know what a flimsy thing the word might be? How tenuous, how casually erased?
   Perhaps this is what happened to Laura—pushed her quite literally over the edge. The words she had relied on, building her house of cards on them, believing them solid, had flipped over and shown her their hollow centres, and then skittered away from her like so much waste paper.
   God. Trust. Sacrifice. Justice.
   Faith. Hope. Love.
   Not to mention sister. Well, yes. There’s always that.

   The morning after my tea with Laura at Diana Sweets, I hovered near the telephone. The hours passed: no word. I had a luncheon date, with Winifred and two of her committee members, at the Arcadian Court. It was always better with Winifred to stick to agreed plans—otherwise she got curious—and so I went.
   We were told about Winifred’s latest venture, a cabaret in aid of wounded servicemen. There would be singing and dancing, and some of the girls were putting on a can-can routine, so we must all roll up our sleeves and pitch in, and sell tickets. Would Winifred herself be kicking up her heels in a ruffled petticoat and black stockings? I sincerely hoped not. By now she was on the wrong side of scraggy.
   “You’re looking a bit wan, Iris,” said Winifred, her head on one side.
   “Am I?” I said pleasantly. She’d been telling me lately I wasn’t up to par. What she meant was that I was not doing all I could to prop up Richard, to propel him forward along his path to glory.
   “Yes, a bit faded. Richard wearing you out? That man has energy to burn!” She was in high good spirits. Her plans—her plans for Richard—must have been going well, despite my laxness.
   But I could not pay much attention to her; I was too anxious about Laura. What would I do if she didn’t turn up soon? I could scarcely report that my car had been stolen: I didn’t want her to be arrested. Richard wouldn’t have wanted that either. It was in nobody’s interests.
   I returned home, to be told by Mrs. Murgatroyd that Laura had been there during my absence. She hadn’t even rung the doorbell—Mrs. Murgatroyd had just happened to run across her in the front hall. It was a jolt, to see Miss Laura in the flesh after all these years, it was like seeing a ghost. No, she hadn’t left any address. She’d said something, though. Tell Iris I’ll talk to her later. Something like that. She’d left the house keys on the letter tray; said she’d taken them by mistake. A funny thing to take by mistake, said Mrs. Murgatroyd, whose pug nose smelled a fish. She no longer believed my story about the garage.
   I was relieved: all might yet be well. Laura was still in town. She would talk to me later.
   She has, too, though she tends to repeat herself, as the dead have a habit of doing. They say all the things they said to you in life; but they rarely say anything new.

   I was changing out of my luncheon outfit when the policeman arrived, with news of the accident. Laura had gone through a Danger barrier, then right off the St. Clair Avenue bridge into the ravine far below. It was a terrible smash-up, said the policeman, shaking his head sadly. She’d been driving my car: they’d traced the licence. At first they’d thought—naturally—that I myself must be the burned woman found in the wreck.
   Now that would have been news.

   After the policeman had left I tried to stop shaking. I needed to keep calm, I needed to pull myself together. You’ll have to face the music, Reenie used to say, but what kind of music did she have in mind? It wasn’t dance music. A harsh brass band, a parade of some kind, with crowds of people on both sides, pointing and jeering. An executioner at the end of the road, with energy to burn.
   There would of course be a cross-examination from Richard. My story about the car and the garage would still hold if I added that I’d seen Laura for tea that day, but hadn’t told him because I hadn’t wanted to upset him unnecessarily just before a crucial speech. (All his speeches were crucial, now; he was approaching the brass ring.)
   Laura had been in the car when it had broken down, I’d say; she’d accompanied me to the garage. When I’d left my purse behind, she must have picked it up, and then it would have been child’s play for her to go the next morning and reclaim the car, paying for it with a forged cheque from my chequebook. I’d tear out a cheque, for verisimilitude; if pressed for the name of the garage, I’d say I’d forgotten. If pressed further, I’d cry. How could I be expected to remember a trivial detail like that, I’d say, at a time like this?
   I went upstairs to change. To visit the morgue I would need a pair of gloves, and a hat with a veil. There might be reporters, photographers, already. I’d drive down, I thought, and then remembered that my car was now scrap. I would have to call a taxi.
   Also I ought to warn Richard, at his office: As soon as the word got out, the corpse flies would besiege him. He was too prominent for things to be otherwise. He would wish to have a statement of grief prepared.
   I made the phone call. Richard’s latest young secretary answered. I told her the matter was urgent, and that no, it could not be communicated through her. I would have to speak with Richard in person.
   There was a pause while Richard was located. “What is it?” he said. He never appreciated being phoned at the office.
   “There’s been a terrible accident,” I said. “It’s Laura. The car she was driving went off a bridge.”
   He said nothing.
   “It was my car.”
   He said nothing.
   “I’m afraid she’s dead,” I said.
   “My God.” A pause. “Where has she been all this time? When did she get back? What was she doing in your car?”
   “I thought you needed to know at once, before the papers get hold of it,” I said.
   “Yes,” he said. “That was wise.”
   “Now I have to go down to the morgue.”
   “The morgue?” he said. “The city morgue? What the hell for?”
   “It’s where they’ve put her.”
   “Well, get her out of there,” he said. “Take her somewhere decent. Somewhere more…”
   “Private,” I said. “Yes, I’ll do that. I should tell you there’s been some implication—from the police, one of them was just here—some suggestion…”
   “What? What did you tell them? What suggestion?” He sounded quite alarmed.
   “Only that she did it on purpose.”
   “Nonsense,” he said. “It must have been an accident. I hope you said that.”
   “Of course. But there were witnesses. They saw…”
   “Was there a note? If there was, burn it.”
   “Two of them, a lawyer and something in a bank. She had white gloves on. They saw her turn the wheel.”
   “Trick of the light,” he said. “Or else they were drunk. I’ll call the lawyer. I’ll handle it.”
   I set down the telephone. I went into my dressing room: I would need black, and a handkerchief. I’ll have to tell Aimee, I thought. I’ll say it was the bridge. I’ll say the bridge broke.
   I opened the drawer where I kept my stockings, and there were the notebooks—five of them, cheap school exercise books from our time with Mr. Erskine, tied together with kitchen string. Laura’s name was printed on the top cover, in pencil—her childish lettering. Underneath that: Mathematics. Laura hated mathematics.
   Old schoolwork, I thought. No: old homework. Why had she left me these?

   I could have stopped there. I could have chosen ignorance, but I did what you would have done—what you’ve already done, if you’ve read this far. I chose knowledge instead.
   Most of us will. We’ll choose knowledge no matter what, we’ll maim ourselves in the process, we’ll stick our hands into the flames for it if necessary. Curiosity is not our only motive: love or grief or despair or hatred is what drives us on. We’ll spy relentlessly on the dead: we’ll open their letters, we’ll read their journals, we’ll go through their trash, hoping for a hint, a final word, an explanation, from those who have deserted us—who’ve left us holding the bag, which is often a good deal emptier than we’d supposed.
   But what about those who plant such clues, for us to stumble on? Why do they bother? Egotism? Pity? Revenge? A simple claim to existence, like scribbling your initials on a washroom wall? The combination of presence and anonymity—confession without penance, truth without consequences—it has its attractions. Getting the blood off your hands, one way or another.
   Those who leave such evidence can scarcely complain if strangers come along afterwards and poke their noses into every single thing that would once have been none of their business. And not only strangers: lovers, friends, relations. We’re voyeurs, all of us. Why should we assume that anything in the past is ours for the taking, simply because we’ve found it? We’re all grave robbers, once we open the doors locked by others.
   But only locked. The rooms and their contents have been left intact. If those leaving them had wanted oblivion, there was always fire.
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Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
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Apple iPhone 6s
Fourteen

The golden lock

   I have to hurry now. I can see the end, glimmering far up ahead of me, as if it’s a roadside motel, on a dark night, in the rain. A last-chance postwar motel, where no questions are, asked and none of the names in the front-desk register are real and it’s cash in advance. The office is strung with old Christmas-tree lights; behind it a clump of murky cabins, the pillows fragrant with mildew. A moon-faced gas pump out front. No gas though, it’s run out many decades ago. Here’s where you stop.
   The end, a warm safe haven. A place to rest. But I haven’t reached it yet, and I’m old and tired, and on foot, and limping. Lost in the woods, and no white stones to mark the way, and treacherous ground to cover.
   Wolves, I invoke you! Dead women with azure hair and eyes like snake-filled pits, I summon you! Stand by me now, as we near the end! Guide my shaking arthritic fingers, my tacky black ballpoint pen; keep my leaking heart afloat for just a few more days, until I can set things in order. Be my companions, my helpers and my friends; once more, I add, for haven’t we been well-acquainted in the past?
   All things have their place, as Reenie used to say; or, in a fouler mood, to Mrs. Hillcoate, No flowers without shit. Mr. Erskine did teach me a few useful tricks. A well-wrought invocation to the Furies can come in handy, in case of need. When it’s primarily a question of revenge.
   I did believe, at first, that I wanted only justice. I thought my heart was pure. We do like to have such good opinions of our own motives when we’re about to do something harmful, to someone else. But as Mr. Erskine also pointed out, Eros with his bow and arrows is not the only blind god. Justitia is the other one. Clumsy blind gods with edged weapons: Justitia totes a sword, which, coupled with her blindfold, is a pretty good recipe for cutting yourself.

   You’ll want of course to know what was in Laura’s notebooks. They’re as she herself left them, tied up with their grubby brown string, left for you in my steamer trunk along with everything else. I haven’t changed anything. You can see for yourself. The pages torn out of them were not torn out by me.
   What was I expecting, on that dread-filled May day in 1945? Confessions, reproaches? Or else a diary, detailing the lovers’ meetings between Laura and Alex Thomas? No doubt, no doubt. I was prepared for laceration. And I received it, though not in the way I’d imagined.
   I cut the string, fanned out the notebooks. There were five of them: Mathematics, Geography, French, History, and Latin. The books of knowledge.
   She writes like an angel, it says of Laura, on the back of one of the editions of The Blind Assassin. An American edition, as I recall, with gold scrollwork on the cover: they set a lot of store by angels in those parts. In point of fact, angels don’t write much. They record sins and the names of the damned and the saved, or they appear as disembodied hands and scribble warnings on walls. Or they deliver messages, few of which are good news: God be with you is not an unmixed blessing.
   Keeping all this in mind, yes: Laura wrote like an angel. In other words, not very much. But to the point.

   Latin was the notebook I opened first. Most of the remaining pages in it were blank; there were jagged edges where Laura must have ripped out her old homework. She left one passage, a translation she’d made—with my help, and also with the help of the library at Avilion—of the concluding lines of Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid. Dido has stabbed herself on the burning pyre or altar she’s made of all the objects connected to her vanished lover, Aeneas, who has sailed away to fulfill his destiny through warfare. Although bleeding like a stuck pig, Dido is having a hard time dying. She was doing a lot of writhing. Mr. Erskine, as I recall, enjoyed that part.
   I remembered the day she wrote it. The late sunlight was coming in through my bedroom window. Laura was lying on the floor, kicking her sock feet in the air, laboriously transcribing our scribbled-over collaboration into her book. She smelled of Ivory soap, and of pencil shavings.
   Then powerful Juno felt sorry for her long-time sufferings and uneasy journey, and sent Iris from Olympus to cut the agonizing soul from the body that still held onto it. This had to be done because Dido was not dying a natural death or one caused by other people, but in despair, driven to it by a crazy impulse. Anyway Proserpine hadn’t yet cut off the golden lock from her head or sent her down to the Underworld.
   So now, all misty, her wings yellow as a crocus, trailing a thousand rainbow colours that sparkled in the sunlight, Iris flew down, and hovering over Dido, she said:
   As I was told to do, I take this sacred thing which belongs to the God of Death; and I release you from your body.
   Then all warmth stopped at once, and her life vanished into the air.
   “Why did she have to cut off a piece of the hair?” said Laura. “That Iris?”
   I had no idea. “It was just a thing she had to do,” I said. “Sort of like an offering.” I’d been pleased to discover that I had the same name as a person in a story, and wasn’t just named after some flower, as I’d always thought. The botanical motif, for girls, had been strong in my mother’s family.
   “It helped Dido get out of her body,” said Laura. “She didn’t want to be alive any more. It put her out of her misery, so it was the right thing to do. Wasn’t it?”
   “I guess so,” I said. I wasn’t much interested in such fine ethical points. Peculiar things happened in poems. There was no point in trying to make sense of them. I did wonder though whether Dido had been a blonde; she’d seemed more like a brunette to me, in the rest of the story.
   “Who is the God of Death? Why does he want the hair?”
   “That’s enough about hair,” I said. “We’ve done the Latin. Now let’s finish the French. Mr. Erskine gave us too much, as usual. Now: Il ne faut pas toucher aux idoles: la dorure en reste aux mains.”
   “How about, don’t interfere with false gods, you’ll get the gold paint all over your hands?”
   “There’s nothing about paint.”
   “But that’s what it really means.”
   “You know Mr. Erskine. He doesn’t care what it means.”
   “I hate Mr. Erskine. I wish we had Miss Violence back.”
   “So do I. I wish we had Mother back.”
   “So do I.”
   Mr. Erskine hadn’t thought much of this Latin translation of Laura’s. It had his red pencil slashes all over it.
   How can I describe the pool of grief into which I was now falling? I can’t describe it, and so I won’t try.

   I riffled through the other notebooks. History was blank, except for the photograph Laura had glued into it—herself and Alex Thomas at the button factory picnic, both of them now coloured light yellow, with my detached blue hand crawling towards them across the lawn. Geography contained nothing but a short description of Port Ticonderoga that Mr. Erskine had assigned. “This middle-sized town is situated at the junction of the Louveteau River and the Jogues River and is noted for stones and other things,” was Laura’s first sentence. French had had all the French removed from it. Instead it held the list of odd words Alex Thomas had left behind him in our attic, and that—I now discovered—Laura had not burned, after all. Anchoryne, berel, carchineal, diamite, ebonort …A foreign language, true, but one I’d learned to understand, better than I ever understood French.
   Mathematics had a long column of numbers, with words opposite some of them. It took me a few minutes to realize what kinds of numbers they were. They were dates. The first date coincided with my return from Europe, the last was three months or so before Laura’s departure for Bella Vista. The words were these:
   Avilion, no. No. No. Sunnyside. No. Xanadu, no. No. Queen Mary, no no. New York, no. Avilion. No at first.
   Water Nixie, X. “Besotted.”
   Toronto again. X.
   X. X. X. X.
   O.
   That was the whole story. Everything was known. It had been there all along, right before my very eyes. How could I have been so blind?
   Not Alex Thomas, then. Not ever Alex. Alex belonged, for Laura, in another dimension of space.
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