"Goddammit. Of course I'm ready, you old hag. Can't you leave me alone for once in your too long life?" Larry mouthed the words without sound, only wishing he could say them aloud. But of course he couldn't. Mother would be angry and upset. She was only calling him down to breakfast like she had every morning for the past forty years or so. She only had his best interests at heart. Wasn't she always saying that a good day starts out with a good breakfast? Larry stopped rummaging through his dresser drawer for a second and listened. Nothing. The old man would no doubt be hunching over his oatmeal, Stirring in the half pat of butter and the allotted teaspoonful or so of milk he was given every morning for breakfast. Larry wondered if the Boraxo he'd poured into the oatmeal tin last night would leave a strange aftertaste. Would the old man even have a clue as to what was happening when he swallowed the first bite. Would he know why his throat was constricting and he was having trouble breathing. Would Mother know anything was wrong or would she lap hers down also, oblivious to the deadly mouthfuls. Larry hoped they would die together. Calling his name and begging for help. He hoped things would work out this time. Not like the little accident he arranged in the garden. That was a fiasco. He was embarrassed to remember it. Even when he was sitting all by himself. Sitting in this same stinking room he'd woken up in every morning of his life since he was four years old. The cowboy and Indian wallpaper Pop had put up for his sixth birthday was a touch faded but still unpeeling. He hated that damn wallpaper. Wished in his heart that he could tear it down with his fingernails. It reminded him of everything he wasn't. Reminded him that he wasn't living on his own. He, Larry K., holder of 42 patents on just about every medical electronic imaging advancement in the last eleven years. Larry K., boy savant and middle aged emotional cripple. When what he wanted to be, how he saw himself in his heart was Larry K., Montana Cowboy. He had, ever since his tenth birthday, wanted to move to Montana and live a cowboy's life. He wanted to live in the bunkhouse with the other cowboys and do cowboy things all day instead of sit in front of a computer in his deathly quiet office at the lab. He wanted to have a cowgirl for a girlfriend. Someone named Kate or Maggie. A clear eyed, rawboned, red-haired woman who would make his shirts by hand and go for long rides with him on his day off. Larry wanted a tall black, yellowed eyed horse that would stand for no one on his back, save Larry. He wanted the courage to spit in any man's eye who looked at him crossways.
"Larry, honey. Come on down, you'll be late for work." Mother's cry rang out like a cracked bell. Larry started, involuntarily twitching his tie into place and rubbing the front of his loafers against the back of his slacks. A neat appearance is so important mother always says. He moved like an automaton down the hallway and to the head of the stairs. He could hear his father rustling the paper and snorting something to mother about what he was reading. Damn. The Boraxo didn't work either. They must have caught on somehow. He hurried down the stairs lest he turn a suspicious eye on himself. He would do better next time. Maybe a drop or three of sulfuric acid on the brake lines of Pop's old '65 Valiant. A clear-cut accident, impossible to trace. He could see their car heaving up against a tree on their daily trip to the post office. Go ahead, stare at me he thought as he silently swallowed his boring breakfast. Laugh while you can. We'll see who laughs last. Larry thought, for the sixteenth thousand time, about how his day would be starting on the ranch. He could almost smell the leather and sweat of the stable, taste the dust and hear the snorts and yells of the men.
"Like I said, Larry. Larry, are you listening to me? Honestly. You haven't answered one thing I've said for the last ten minutes. Are you having one of your spells again darling?" Mother chattered away as she handed him his brown sack lunch. The same damn sack lunch she'd been making him for the seventeen years he'd gone off to work at the lab. The same goddamn tuna sandwich and red apple and three Oreo cookies he always got. That was going to be the first big change. Maggie or Kate or Bess or whoever he found in Montana was going to make him a different lunch every frigging day of the week. Yeah, the old brake line trick. That would do just fine he thought as he pulled away from the curb and headed down the street.
"Did you say something honey?" Mother asked to the blank spot where the car had just been. It had sounded like he said something about the brakes and she hoped it wasn't dangerous for him to be driving the car. "Father,", she yelled back into the house. "Put this on your list of chores. Check the brakes on Larry's car when he gets home from work today." Larry's Pop flinched at the blast and instinctively lowered his eyes before shuffling off to the garage, muttering something about tools, dreaming about his own personal Montana.
Yes, for me too, that was my first encounter with a real impostor. Of course, I did not believe it at first. I behaved as everyone did. No one wanted to believe that our Yehoshua, Shuka Mashiah, the platoon clerk, was an impostor from so far back that a long-standing dossier of suspicions against him amounted to a thick file. As later became clear, he was no mere impostor but a cruel one. He worked as a junior associate in a small town law office in Gush Dan. His manners were so refined that I could not imagine that he was capable of such despicable acts.
But these were professional airs he affected, a magisterial flourish of the hand when signing a document, the aura of a haughty sense of confidence while examining a contract’s fine print. These were the clever traps he set at his desk. He was a small man, slightly built, not strong. He was quick to redden at the slightest matter and whined like a woman. “Shuka, come here, girl,” the men taunted him. “Shuka, hey, don’t go. Be a good girl, Shuka, and bring us something to drink.” The jeers thinly veiled the revenge they sought for the man who had betrayed their trust, who had cheated them like faceless clients of his law office, as if they had not cowered together, shoulder to shoulder, night and day, under mind-numbing bombardments.
He was called up some days after the war broke out. He was not easy to find, he told us, which was why he joined us late. We could not possibly lose the war, he teased: every position in the platoon had been filled before he arrived. A spot was found for him as assistant to the platoon clerk but he soon took control, ensnaring our apathetic commander in a craftily woven web of compliments and flattery.
Why had he not been found at home? Why had he been late arriving at the emergency depot? Pure idiocy, the blockheads in mobilization forgot that he had recently changed addresses. He had moved to a run-down Orthodox neighborhood in Bnei Brak of small, crowded homes forever steaming with heat and dampness in summer and cooking fumes in winter. From their cramped porches bursting with children rose swarms of flying bees and a melody of foreign Hebrew mixed with Yiddish. There was no post office or telephone, nor any conscripts to be rounded up. His call up order skipped from one end of town to the other until he was finally located.
The neighbors watched in surprise as he went down the peeling steps. Still unsure what to make of him, they accompanied him with muttered prayers of mercy. “Yes, go, don’t worry. We will pray for your safety without rest. Fear not, my servant, be not afraid, O worm Jacob.” And then, quietly, they whispered to him, “The war won’t be over so quickly. Some crumbs of the cake will be left even for you.”
Bnei Brak is a small town in the Gush Dan region, built long ago on swamp land overrun with brambles. There is nothing behind it but dense groves of oranges. In his dreams, the dark groves were like the patches of children’s forests back in Europe. Twice each day, the train to Jerusalem whistled just outside his window. On rainy winter mornings, puddles of water lapped over the sidewalks and doorways into the little houses. He never spoke so much as a word about the family he once had, even on evenings dripping with heart-rending nostalgia. When we sat in the dark, sealed in our bunkers and frozen hilltop outposts, hearts opened and the men recalled events of their former lives buried for years. But Shuka Mashiah did not soften.
Yes, its true, he once had a family. The battalion gossiped about the two small daughters and a wife he had been obliged to place in a hospital. They had scattered to every corner of the land. He had erased them from his life and now, though he was certain they knew he had been called to the northern front, they did not even write him. He really did seem truthful describing the breakup of his family. We secretly inspected his personal mail for some weeks. No word at all came from his kin, only those scented pink and blue letters from the divorced woman in Tiberias whom he deceived free of any guilty pangs of conscience.
He was a junior associate, shuffling papers from one desk to another in the law offices where he was employed. He raced after the attorneys when they called on clients, set out refreshments, served them cups of tea and cleaned up when they left. How easy it is to see him, a foppish smile on his face, taking on extra tasks as he did with the platoon’s papers. The work, though not exceptionally demanding, by its nature was humiliating. He makes that a game with them. They move him about like a piece of office furniture. “Fine, but we’ll see.” He labors like an Arab porter. There is something in the joke that changes the entire picture. Shuka Mashiah, a junior associate in whom their confidence was still reserved, very reserved.
But he laughs at all of us, the soldiers and commanders and lawyers, even his landlord. He grunts with effort. A glow suddenly flickers on his red face deep in heaps of paper. He winks at us watching him with trepidation. Then, in military jargon seasoned with a dash of the hybrid language of Bnei Brak, he says, “We’ll see who is really the boss around here.” Not all his virtues and charm were revealed when he became our platoon clerk. Still, with Moshe from the motor pool and Franco the driver, I made the effort to travel to the law offices where he worked. It was clear from the earnest descriptions the people in the office provided that they too saw him as a strange bird ill suited to his tasks. But it never crossed their minds either that they were dealing with a skilled con artist.
I learned from them about his movements, his appealing delivery, his clownish games. He would spend hours glued to the telephone, head bent over the receiver, in hushed tones whispering every imaginable term of endearment to women far, far away. The boys once accidentally overheard a call. It seems he was engrossed in pledging marriage to a nubile secretary he knew in another office. What didn’t he promise her? What words didn’t he speak? He boasted that there was nothing he couldn’t do for her, even going AWOL and deserting the trenches. The way he coaxed her, he was nearly kneeling before the telephone. They were not exaggerating in the least. I confirmed their accounts and even added to them. What I could not forget were the long telephone conversations with his betrothed, the beautiful, innocent divorcee in Tiberias.
“My little darling, sugar, listen to me. Listen to me for a minute. You just don’t know what you’re saying. You’re such a simple innocent, they’ll eat you up. Listen to me, I know my way around this sort of business. It’s not just because I’m an experienced lawyer. I work magic over the clients. They simply can’t resist me. You’ll see.” The men were utterly bewildered by this flood of sweet talk. Not once could we determine the subject of his conversations with the naive little darling. Lots for sale in a Tiberias neighborhood? The battered car he urged her to sell? Money she and her elderly mother kept in a savings account? This swindler, inflicted with the disease of selling lots and buying apartments, cheated his women without a qualm. Like a busy spider, he spun his webs of fine silk. He snared them the way he might drape their bodies in a new dress he had bought just for them. None of the men attributed much importance to his burblings. There was a war out there, and it shook up everything else. Nothing was as solid as it had been before. Men seduced women on the telephone or on long rides to the front or in the dance halls of Tiberias. No evil was apparent yet in any of his actions. How could I guess that Shuka Mashiah – “Fear not, O worm Jacob,. go, we will pray for you” – how could I guess that he was a criminal charlatan?
I remember one icy morning clear and crystalline as the tang of a glass bell. Shuka Mashiah rose early as usual and flung himself into the snow accumulated in the encampment. He undressed and rubbed his red body with handfuls of packed snow. Where had he learned such alien habits of hygiene? He gargled cheerfully, danced on the snow and inhaled the cold, translucent air. Each morning, he made a short run around the basalt compound. Burning his skin, he leapt over low stone walls and hopped into the armored personnel carrier encrusted with ice. The boys set an ambush for him and waited for the right moment to bring him down. His morning acrobatics disgusted them. When he was done, he would do nothing the rest of the day. He stuck like a leech to the tongue-tied cook, bullying him and shooing him to the coffee on the stove. He pestered the platoon’s blas? commander, meddled in our files and fixed the rosters for guard duty and leaves.
When he finished his exercises and dashed home to the glowing hut, the boys blocked him outside the door. He was dragged just as he was, in his long underwear and winter issue undershirt, back into the snow. The daily ceremony of pampering his body enraged the boys. Franco the driver swore to pay him back with a good whipping. “Shukeleh you cuteseleh, I’m begging you, take off that undershirt for just a minute. Come on, let’s see that manly body of yours you tend every morning.” He groveled before them in the snow, naked, but the boys showed him no mercy. “Shukeleh you cuteseleh, come on, let’s see what you have under your long johns.” The boys pulled off his underwear and pounded his genitals with fistfuls of crushed snow. He screamed and pleaded and tried to alert the platoon commander. No one heard his cries for help. Sobbing, he turned red to the roots of his thinning hair and tried to kick the boys assaulting him. “Shukeleh you cuteseleh, show us the jewels between your legs.”
He growled in the snow. The boys laughed in his face at his threats. “Listen to me, Shuka, listen to a man of experience. Stop annoying us with your ritual of skin creams and ointments, spare us your toupee. You’re nothing but a platoon clerk, a lowly paper shuffler, no more. You are not the platoon commander’s lieutenant. Nor are you the adjutant. Really, you are nobody. You do not plan the ambushes or decide where the guard posts will be. You can’t deny anyone a pass. Make an impression with your papers on the recruits. What a miserable little clerk you are, a worm prettying himself with cosmetics.” They planted themselves in a circle over him. He writhed in the snow, his pink flesh sparkling as far as the eye could see in the glass-like clarity of the morning. Finally, they stamped on his body as though he were a bag of trash.
Then the door of the shack slowly opened and the platoon commander stretched his limbs and yawned into the bright sun.
“That’s enough, leave Shuka alone I say.” The boys walked off, disappearing into the kitchen and the fuel depot and the ammunition dump. Some returned to the bunker to clear the door of snow that had drifted up during the night. Shuka Mashiah smiled at the platoon commander and quickly slipped on his long underwear. “Keeping in shape, eh, Shuka? I’ve never seen such a health fanatic. I swear, you’re as fit and sleek as a cat. How do you manage it? Hurry up, Shuka, after breakfast we have to drive to battalion headquarters. There is plenty of work ahead of us. Come on now, get dressed.” The platoon commander walked to the urination wall at the edge and leisurely relieved himself as though he had seen nothing and heard nothing, as though he did not understand what no one could have failed to grasp from the sight before him.
Meanwhile, Franco the driver grabbed Shuka and, out of sight of the others, dragged him away from the shack. “Just a moment,” said Franco, “we’re not done yet.” A brief fist fight broke out, ending with Shuka once again prone and helpless in the snow. The boys rushed back, got him to his feet and helped him into the shack. “Hey, health worm, you heard what the platoon commander said. You have to get going.” He was thrown into his bed and cried soundlessly on the soaking sleeping bag until his pale skin regained its unalloyed pink hue. In the motley language he had acquired in Bnei Brak, he muttered oaths of vengeance. It was not long before he made a complete recovery, truly a cat that always lands on its feet. Already, his sharp tongue had the cook serving him at his beck and call and heeding his command to fry up the pancakes at once for the early trip to brigade HQ. By the afternoon, he was seated again in his makeshift office between the tight rows of beds. He stretched out with the telephone, telling his little darling, the beautiful and innocent divorcelah, how pleasant mornings were here in the trenches.
And how quiet everything now was. The cannons did not thunder and fluttering flocks of black jackdaws flew past outside. Their chatter was music to his ears. They roosted by the camp’s little garbage dump. “My sweet, did you know that a small, abandoned orchard was left there? Some bare almond trees and a poor poplar. Our cook is excellent and generous to boot. No homemade porridge can warm your heart like the chocolate porridge he cooks on chilly mornings. What is there for you to complain about, sugar? You know there was never a time when life was so kind to us. Oh, as for the price of the lot that cheat of an agent offered you, don’t you dare listen to him. That crook, a liar and the son of a liar. He’s another of those war parasites taking advantage of unsuspecting women in uniform. No signature, no notice and no documents until its time for a leave. Then together, my darling, together we will go and see about buying the lot.”
When the platoon commander and his aides returned that evening from a long reconnaissance tour, the kerosene heaters were already burning, the shack already alight. The skittish motor of the generator raised a racket behind the earthen embankment. Shuka Mashiah, snapping at the cook’s heels, drove him into the kitchen. “Hop to it, dinner for the platoon commander. And make sure its hot. And a small serving, too, for these bone-chilled men. You’ve wasted enough time today. You play cards the whole day long, shoot dice at night, drink against regulations, the works. Don’t think we don’t see or know it. This platoon’s tireless clerk records it all in his files. It’s our good fortune that he received first rate preparation in the law office.”
Just then, the platoon commander spoke up in a loud voice audible throughout the little post. “Make any good deals today, Shuka? Did you sell cheap flats to half the battalion? Tell us, where do you get it all, eh? You’re agent and broker and contractor all in one. Don’t you gild the lily just a little, Shuka? No need for caution?” The boys stared at him. All the blows suffered that morning, all the humiliation, everything was blotted out as though it had never happened. He told them with a laugh how his pious neighbors in the cramped house in Bnei Brak had seen him off. But he omitted the whispers, “Fear not, O worm Jacob. Our prayers will protect you. Go, go, don’t worry, your share of crumbs from the cake of war will still be there.” Nor did he tell them that he could swiftly translate those words into Yiddish. He did not need to tell the boys everything. He had said more than enough that day.
How much more do I remember of that eventful day? Nearly everything that happened. I am slightly uncertain only of the order of events. I remember the exhausting ride from the Golan Heights to Bnei Brak. I remember the tense return in the dark, then the way a vicious quarrel sprang up in our shack. Shuka Mashiah lost all control of his actions. He pointed his Uzi, cocked and ready, at Moshe from the motor pool. Only my own unexpected presence of mind in the crisis prevented a fatal burst. I pounced on him just as we had been drilled in basic training years and years before. I raised the barrel with my left hand towards the pocked metal sheeting on the ceiling of our decrepit shack while with my right, which was still nimble at the time, I pressed hard on the magazine catch and tried to re- tract it. Shuka squeezed the trigger in anger, and the bolt snapped free into the barrel. But the magazine had already ejected onto the sleeping bag and no shots were fired.
Then, and only then, when the magazine clattered to the floor, and each man watching breathed a deep and secret sigh of relief, the platoon’s indifferent commander glanced up from the evening newspaper we had bought on the road. “Enough horsing around, boys,” he said, “I want you to settle down now. Don’t go too far. I know how to blow my stack, too.” He lowered his eyes to the page again. I paled. So did Shuka Mashiah on his bed. Moshe from the motor pool bent over him, and the other men backed against the walls, also turned white. Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. Something heavy seemed to strangle me. I threw the empty Uzi at the platoon commander’s bed and said, “That’s enough for me. I need to get outside for some fresh air.”
What I really wanted was for the platoon commander to step in and take charge of the quarrel. Instead, he merely drawled across his newspaper, “You’re all just getting too excited. I’ll bet any of you that Shuka would not have fired.”
I stumbled to the door and down the wooden steps. The frigid air cut through me like a razor blade. A cold, dry night had settled over the hill. A freezing wind roared in from the east, shearing everything in its path. The sky was so clear, and the stars so close, I felt that, if there is such a thing in this world as the smell of stars, I could catch their scent. He should at least get up from the newspaper. He should at least say, “I’m confiscating the Uzi until the inquiry is over.” He could have dressed down both of them: “You two, the shooter and the target, I’m putting you both in detention until the end of proceedings. Come on, don’t dawdle, hurry over to the battalion stockade.” His indifference drove me crazy. A sudden weakness seized me. I reproached myself for interfering in a quarrel that was not my own. On the other hand, it was true that only a split second separated ejection of the magazine from a burst of fire from the cocked Uzi. A shiver rippled through me at the thought of what might have happened after the shooting. I suddenly felt the gnawing urge to smoke a cigarette.
I stood by the shack on the side sheltered from the savage wind. A rime of frost glittered on the flanks of the vehicles and the silvery gas tanks and the glistening roofs. A dark night, yet so bright within. I could easily guess the location of the checkpost by the forest, where the road made its first sharp curve on the way to the quarry. Beyond the road, it was possible to see the outlines of the abandoned orchard, the thin limbs of the bare almond trees and the slender branches of the lone poplar. All this was real. It was no dream. This was truly happening. I stood bundled in layers of wool and cloth against the damp and the cold. The dumbstruck men still sat on the other side of the thin wall. Only after I left did they begin to understand the tragedy we had all escaped. I was wracked by the urge for a smoke.
What was it about Shuka Mashiah that so inflamed Franco the driver and Moshe from the motor pool? What was it that even the petite clerk in the law office bore him a grudge? Was he indeed an inveterate liar or did he merely affect the look of a crook? Did the lust for filthy lucre make his head spin and draw him into shameless, transparent lies? Until then, I had never met a real impostor. Here and there, I had heard stories, but I had never lived with him at close quarters, cheek to jowl, one bed next to the other. Is that how a real impostor looks? As we stood in Bnei Brak early that afternoon, he seemed so well-mannered, polite and gentle at the cafe table, so fastidious and extremely eager to be of help. He showed himself a smooth talker there. How clear everything became when he dissected the fine print. “The contracts are not hard,” he smiled, “it is the clients who are hard.” What, indeed, was he, a failed student of the law? An exam cheater caught and expelled from the university? Someone who had bought his legal degree by correspondence? They knew him for what he was at the law office and still willingly took him in. But in wartime, they were glad to see any mobilized soldier home on a short leave, even if he was but a lowly messenger boy.
The guard on duty stopped when he came upon me on his rounds. I begged him for a cigarette but he had only pecan nuts he chewed, sent by his wife from the farm. I took some of the pecans. At first, I found them difficult to crack. I was still jittery and my fingers would not obey me. He showed me the easy way to split them and their slightly bitter taste calmed me down. I told him what had happened in the shack. He had heard nothing outside besides the usual shouts, which gave him no cause at all for suspicion.
Anyway, what did he care what happened to that sleek platoon clerk of ours? “He got what was coming to him,” the guard said. “I saw how he wallowed in the snow. Don’t take pity on him. Too bad the boys didn’t give him a fat snow ball between the legs.”
“I was with him today in Bnei Brak,” I said.
“So what’s the problem?” asked the guard. “Give me a good car and I can make the trip there in less than three hours.”
“Yes,” I said, “but it’s what we saw on the way. This country has gone crazy. Nothing has changed.”
The guard said, “Look, the war will hardly be over before everyone goes back to his little schemes. Jews, what do you want. The war hasn’t ended yet and the Jews are already cheating one another. Look at our impostor. That dandy isn’t worth spit,” said the guard, “it’s really a shame to get excited over him. I’m just sorry the boys didn’t jam his ass with snow.”
I returned to the shack. It suddenly felt cold. The fever that had gripped me after the attempted shooting was gone. The nuts grated on my teeth and their bitter taste calmed me down. I no longer hungered so painfully for a cigarette. Inside, too, tempers had cooled. The men busied themselves, a night like any other at the post. They read the newspaper, played backgammon, made love to the telephone. Shuka Mashiah was one of those waiting in a seat for the phone. When he began to talk with the woman in Tiberias, the unit erupted with him in shouts of joy. “How are you, my little darling? How was your day?” All the listeners lost their hearts to his beautiful, innocent divorcelah. They clung to the phone cord, sent her their warmest regards and swore like merry sailors. Shuka was warned that if he pushed them back and didn’t let them eavesdrop on his sweet nothings, they would drown him again in a bath of snow outside. “Don’t listen to them,” he shouted to her through the tumult. “They’re just sick, starving soldiers.” And they yelled to her, the way street urchins years ago harassed necking couples, “Don’t believe him like a fool. He’s lying to you again through his teeth. Don’t believe him.”
When we arrived at Bnei Brak at long last, Shuka Mashiah took his time instead of hurrying us to his law offices. He led us through narrow, winding streets on the edge of town. Moshe from the motor pool was fidgety and hostile and I feared that he would soon explode and fall on Shuka right in the car. I sat between them in the back seat. For some reason, it was my fate to be a witness to the machinations of Shuka Mashiah. I did not volunteer but neither did I refuse when the men proposed that I go down to Bnei Brak with the two litigants. “You don’t have to do a thing,” they told me. “You just have to play the part of an arbitrator.” I thought, what could be bad about such a trip in the midst of the war? Perhaps it even harbored some good. It would be pleasant to descend from the cold, dry heights to the cozy, caressing lap of the wintry coastal plain. After the dark mole’s life we led in the bunkers, it would be nice to go back and see the routine of city living. To feel again the simple courtesy of civilian passersby, to hear the calls of parents and the joyful squeals of children in the parks, that too would be soothing. It was a pleasure to read the bright-colored entrance signs to parking lots and office buildings. What I loathed were grey tin signs with strange place names and code words for assembly points carelessly daubed.
During the ride, a philosophical discussion, profound yet strained and irritating, was conducted in the car. Yehoshua Mashiah argued that now, after the jarring shock of the war, what was needed was a policy of letting bygones be bygones and wiping the slate clean. Whoever had fought, whoever had taken part in the battles, needed to erase all trace of his criminal file, whether it was in the hands of the police or buried in other bureaus. Whoever had been called up during these oppressive months, whoever was ready to risk his life on the battlefield, deserved expunction of whatever petty offenses were attributed to him. He was entitled, perhaps even obliged, to start life anew without the hobbling fear that his charge sheet would trail him forever. We had seen what the old ways had brought us to. Yes, he was prepared to confess that he behaved more than once before the war with galling impudence. Many had acted that way. That was the atmosphere that prevailed among the people he knew. If he were to repent, he would not be alone in that. He was willing to join in a mass wave of repentance. After all, what was he in the final analysis? An insignificant lawyer struggling to make a living? What was he compared to the monstrous liars and cheats who overran the land? What was he compared to the nouveau riches? What was he compared to the contractors who had built the Bar Lev line?
Moshe from the motor pool squirmed in his seat with silent rage. I sensed that he did not believe a single word that left Shuka’s lips. What was this, letting bygones be bygones? Why suddenly this proposal for wiping the slate clean? What reward did criminals deserve? Those who were lawbreakers before the war remained so afterwards. Worse, they were clever, swift to learn their lessons. Someone who was a small time thief before the battles became a major felon after the truce. What hypocrisy was this? Just where had Shuka acquired the piety he now assumed? With our own eyes, we had seen how much injustice the war brought. The good were punished as usual, and how! They were the first to fall, they died in droves. They lost their money and were forced to close their businesses while the wicked, those who had brought all this on us, they alone profited from the disaster.
“Watch them slinking, one by one, from their holes. How quickly they hid when the battles started. Now you can find them everywhere, continuing what they began, even piling new sins on old crimes. They put on airs, thumb their noses at the law and honest, hardworking people, and cheat just as they always have.”
Partly to cool tempers and partly to stem the violent tide of tension flooding the car, I shifted the conversation in another direction. I announced that I had heard an intriguing rumor circulating in the battalion about a senior officer who was popular in the police command. In fact, he was beloved wherever he went. Why? Because he was one of the surviving heroes of the war of independence. Though he was quite old now and no longer knew what he was doing, everyone showed him respect, especially the veteran soldiers of the battalion. No door in the General Staff was closed to him, there was no minister in this bumbling government whose ear he did not have day, night or the Sabbath. He toured the battalion’s pint-sized positions, offering kind words to the soldiers. They had been called up in the first days and felt unjustly abandoned and betrayed, one might say deceived and deluded.
In each outpost, a small celebration was prepared in his honor. The men served up a cooked meal for him just the way he liked it, piping hot bean soup seasoned with a spicy tomato sauce. The moment he sat on the rough wooden bench and slurped the broth, the world around him utterly ceased to exist. He did not speak or reply to pointed questions. He did not even laugh at the crude jokes for which, it was well-known, he had long had a soft spot.
His spirits rose after the meal. He went up to Tel Ha’afar, below the observation post. From there, he bestowed his scintillating comments on the frozen, bundled boys seated at his feet. “In 1948, what do you know, we set out for dreadful battles each night. Night after night, more than 20 times a month. Do you understand what that means? Every second man was wounded. Each soldier knew that if a bullet missed him that night, it would strike down his best buddy.” The boys sat in silence. They had long since grown accustomed to his sprays of saliva as he trembled in hollow enthusiasm. Some chuckled, others interrupted him with catcalls. “Where was our vaunted intelligence? Why weren’t the reserves called up? For god’s sake, who is responsible for this catastrophe? But everyone knows that this is a game. The rules are known and the play ordained. It is all carried on with comradely warmth. The aged officer is already very ill. The battalion whispers that his days are numbered. There are agonizing, sleepless nights when he prays to the gods of war to let him fall in battle, if only by a stray burst of fire or a defective shell. Anything, so long as he doesn’t die in the hospital bed that awaits him. But each such visit, every flyspeck of an outpost, extends his life. He is grateful for his fate and the soldiers at his feet.
The instant he concludes his remarks, wretched soldiers pounce on him seeking favors. Support them with interest-free loans; grant them special bonuses; grease their way with recommendations of one sort or another; plead their case with the top brass, who know him as one of their own. He swells with emotion and fatherly pride. He embraces each of them, shakes their hands, jots their names in his distinctive shorthand into the famous notebook. He promises one and all that he shall fulfill their requests. “You deserve it,” he placates them, and instills in them serene confidence and a warrior’s pride. “You alone are the mighty pillar on which the nation has leaned in these dark days.” Even when his brief visit to the post is over and he rushes to his car, lone soldiers, those who have special requests, surround him. Everyone in the battalion knows the meaning of special problems that cannot be heard out in public. These need privacy, a whisper befits them. We are speaking here of wiping the slate clean of minor criminal offenses, infractions committed rashly and in the folly of youth during the squandered years before the war. No one imagines that things will turn out this way. They are all but grist for the rumor mill.
Rumor now had it that, apart from the official pardon the president granted those convicted of serious crimes, a flurry of pardons for minor offenses was now sweeping the country. It was some sort of clandestine dealing between the senior staff officers of the army and the police. Amnesty would be granted to anyone who had fought in battle, for he had atoned for his sin. Now nothing remained but to assure that the bureaucracies knew of the expunctions, that the papers would be destroyed and the files buried. By the grace of god, everyone’s clock would be turned back.
Shuka Mashiah listened gravely to what I had said while Moshe from the motor pool fidgeted uncomfortably in his seat. It was difficult for them to discern from my words whether I had reported the truth or was merely mocking the great man and our battalion and the remorse awakened in the nation during these days of war. For the few minutes until we arrived at door of the law office, a bewildered silence prevailed in the car.
Snow covered the dark basalt rocks for nearly a full week, then gave them a brighter look as it slowly melted. Rivulets of melted snow trickled among the stones and the black jackdaws roosting in the abandoned orchard took off for the horizon. Heavy vehicles again made their way to the quarry at the peak of the hill. The great tractors returned to their work and tufa dust rose from the excavations. Then the Syrian guns, too, renewed their damned morning bombardments.
For a little while, the boys mistakenly had thought the pleasant calm would never end and rushed to bring their private cars to the post. Now they moved the cars in a panic out of range of the cannons. The entrance to the deserted bunker was cleared and heaters brought inside. We spent long hours there each day. Shuka Mashiah disappeared from the shack for some days and the boys didn’t miss him a bit. On the contrary, they rejoiced at his misfortune. They said he had been summoned to battalion headquarters for an extraordinary investigation into the discovery that the platoon’s adjutant had forged documents. Suspicion had fallen on him. But their celebration of sweet revenge proved premature, for he returned a few days later. All the malicious rumors – that he had gone to clear his name and see that his file got “lost” – were baseless.
Then, one morning just after the dreaded shelling of the bunker, while the haze of blazing shrapnel still hovered over the puddles, his divorcelah appeared. She was as lovely and innocent as she sounded over the phone, the little darling from Tiberias. She stopped her small car in the empty parking lot. The stunned boys instantly gathered around her.
“Where can I find the lawyer Shuka Mashiah?” she asked, starting from the car. She wore a heavy old army skirt. Stung by the biting cold, she breathed aloud and her hands were numb.
“Shuka’s in the office,” they answered. But it was by no means certain that he was a lawyer. That was a matter yet to be finally confirmed.
“Where is the office?” the little darling asked. “In that shack?”
“No, he was moved to the bunker when the shelling started again. Be careful as you go up the slippery path to the bunker. It’s muddy and littered with rocks. Beware of whatever he says. If I were in your place, I wouldn’t believe a single word.”
The indifferent platoon commander was called from his lair and emerged from the shack blinded by the sun’s bright light. “You’re crazy,” he bellowed at the young woman. “Who gave you permission to pass the checkpoints? All positions are on full alert and the shellings can start again at any moment. I have specific orders.” She pulled woolen army gloves from her fingers and quietly explained that Shuka had instructed her before the trip how to outwit the checkpoint guards. He hadn’t told her that orders barred civilians from the line positions. In fact, the soldiers at each point had let her through without hindrance and even wished her success. Only here, by the warped tin sign at the bend below the quarry, had some rude guards, attempting an inspection, insisted on seeing her pass and pawed her papers. But she had learned a few tricks from Shuka. Dear Shuka, helping her even when he was not at her side. Now she must see him right away. She had an urgent problem that would not brook any delay.
The listless platoon commander was perplexed. On the one hand, he wanted the young woman removed at once, escorted by a car assigned to make sure she went back down to the junction. On the other, if her heart was set and she had already taken the risk to get this far, perhaps it really would be better for her to see Shuka. Maybe they really did have compelling business. As the weeks went by, and their stinking time in the trenches dragged on, the men’s pressing problems multiplied. He had no doubt that everyone by now loathed their depressing, inescapable situation. The endless war weighed heavily on us all. He relented and allowed her to enter the office.
She trod the muddy ground leading to the bunker. It was the very spot on which the boys had tripped Shuka, laid him in the snow, stripped him and crammed snow between his legs. Here he had screamed in pain and here they had packed ice on his groin. This was where Franco the driver had tormented him and flung him after their fleeting fist fight. When he fell, his toiletries had sunk into the snow. Now that the snow had melted, one could smell their odors. The scents permeated the mud. When the wild wind momentarily ceased to blow, and the smoke from the generator shifted the other way, it was possible to hug the cold earth and inhale the sweet perfume rising from the dough of muck. Rubbed raw by the snow, his pink body had reddened while his fair, thinning hair gently bobbed beneath the lumps of snow splattered on his head.
So astounded were we all by the rapidity with which events then occurred that I was barely able to follow their precise course. Trailed by the little darling, Shuka Mashiah burst from the bunker. He was forcibly pulling the young divorced woman behind him. She struggled to break his grip and show him the papers in her hand, but he was possessed by a devilish rage, red all over, without the jacket forgotten in his office, sweat glistening on his angry face. They fell and rose, rolled in the mud and rose again entwined in both wrath and desire. As they passed us, Shuka called to the platoon commander, “I have to take this crazy woman back to Tiberias.”
“Very good,” the platoon commander shouted so he could be heard. “You’re saving me some trouble.”
“Don’t worry,” Shuka went on, “I’ll be right back. There’s no need for an escort.” Then to her: “What an imbecile you are. Who told you to sign the papers without me? You idiot, why didn’t you first check out who the property belonged to?”
The young woman fixed us with terrified, apologetic eyes. She was helplessly dragged behind him, stumbling over every pebble. “Where did you hide the keys?” Shuka roared at her. “Give me your purse.” He brusquely snatched her handbag. “Give me these too,” he insisted, and grabbed the sheaf of papers. “You can throw these forged papers to the winds. I’ll prove to them that you were insane when you signed.” He opened the car door and pushed the befuddled little darling inside. He threw her purse after her and locked the door. “If that’s what you want, I’ll prove that you were out of your mind. How did you get here, peabrain? You’re crazy, who drives into a bombardment? And who promised you the rent money? And why didn’t an idiot like you first check out who the damned lot belonged to?”
As he maneuvered on the parking lot, he shouted to us, “I left everything on the desk in the bunker, the duty roster and the guard shift rotations. Just don’t make a hopeless mess of everything for me.” Through the tiny windows of the departing car, we saw the innocent beauty from Tiberias sagging limp against her beloved. He must have dealt her a sharp, furtive jab of his elbow, for her face contorted with pain and she lurched back in her seat. We could only guess at how he cursed her in his rage and wailed in his self-righteous voice, “How did I ever get mixed up with you?” To himself, he surely whispered through teeth gritted in fury, “‘Fear not, my servant, O worm Jacob, we have saved a worthy crumb of the cake of war for you too.’ What a fool you are, you’ve worried for nothing. It is not the war that will cut short your life but this lunatic at your side, the innocent, unfortunate woman from Tiberias.”
I could not prevent any of it. I simply was unable to do a thing, either to stop events from taking their inevitable course or to divert the inexorable flow in which these events hurtled past one another. I sat myself down at the little outpost on the high peak of the hill, deep in the enclave captured from the Syrians. From my lofty perch, I observed the yellow bulldozers biting into the veins of tufa in the quarry below. Exposed beneath the receding snow were remnants of the terrible battle fought for conquest of the hill. When had that been? How many months had passed since then? To me, it seemed not months but years. Torn coats dotted the defensive trenches now abandoned and clogged with cascades of earth. Odd bits of personal equipment left by the Syrian soldiers lay scattered on the ground. Chinese hand grenades were strewn around shattered entrenching tools. Every scrap imaginable had been swept into the shallow ditches. Wherever one looked, shell fragments were rusting among the crocuses.
And what could I have done if Shuka the impostor had aroused some small measure of compassion? Could I have found him on my own? Could I have stopped him by myself and stayed his swindler’s hand? Could I alone have marched him to the judge advocate’s chambers and said a few words on his behalf? Had anyone asked for my opinion? Besides, he had disappeared after returning the little darling, and not even this mighty colossus of an army could discover where he had gone to ground. It was as though he knew that the summons to an official inquiry awaited him on his return. He did not report and since then had held the dubious status of AWOL.
The platoon commander gave up on him after a week and went down to the battalion adjutant. Among other matters, he reported Shuka Mashiah’s absence. Moshe from the motor pool and Franco the driver, fearing that he would be too lethargic to follow through on a complaint, volunteered to go with him. They wanted to help with the report and inundate the military police investigators with tales of Shuka’s crimes. Had these two met Shuka on their way down, lying wounded by the side of the road from a surprise artillery attack, they would not have lifted a finger to save him. He disgusted them, pure and simple. They would let him howl in the ditch until he died, just to stop him from maligning them.
They returned that evening, tired from the long trip. The platoon commander was weary and did not want to repeat everything he had learned down there. He said only that he had given a report on Shuka. To his surprise, the adjutant’s office already knew the name. They knew of his scams and were waiting only for a complaint that would stand up in court. From an anonymous source, the battalion adjutant had received detailed, nearly comprehensive tips about his earlier swindles as a civilian in the cities where he had properties in Gush Dan and complaints from women he had cheated. But the senior officer, the favorite of the enlisted men, had faltered and failed to complete his investigation. He could not surmount the obstacles he encountered in tracking Shuka’s amazing flim-flams.
Shuka was accused of a host of crimes. He had defrauded the innocent and deceived the foolish, posed as a notary and drafted false documents. He had once even impersonated a building contractor and sold fictitious apartments. But there was always someone who felt cheated and immediately lodged a complaint. The description of his features grew more accurate with each report. His ruddy skin was noted again and again, as were his light, thinning hair and even the ever-present scent of his ointments. Most of his crimes consisted of conning divorced and abandoned women into bogus real estate deals. It was amazing how they fell into his traps time after time. They gladly placed in his hands small plots they had inherited, little apartments bought with their last cent and sums of money put aside for a rainy day.
Our platoon commander lost his temper this time and added his modest account to the statements in the file. “I needed to take you,” he said, “not those two hotheads. They got excited right away, they babbled, they became unruly and had no telltale details to add. You would have described him better. You slept in the bed next to his for months. You saw him rolling naked in the snow each morning. Whether you liked it or not, you heard his endless telephone conversations with the innocent divorcelah from Tiberias.”
“But I might have forgotten all that on purpose,” I said. “Maybe I would suddenly have felt sorry and asked myself, ‘Why should I turn in this poor fellow?'” What’s more, he had never done me wrong. Anyway, the Bnei Brak detectives were on his trail, joined now by the military police. And how could I have been of help? I did know him well. He was no hero. We all had seen how Franco the driver sent him flying into the snow with the first punch.
But his two ardent antagonists swore before the platoon to find him and take vengeance. Now they had permission from every police department in the world, now they were certain he was indeed a wanted criminal and not merely a noxious amateur. Even the big-hearted officer, who did right by the common soldiers over the heads of their commanders, had failed, his indictment gone uncharged. Shuka’s blood was fair game, a man hunt had to be launched at once. Take him alive. Yank him by their own fingers from the rat hole he had scurried down. They swore before us to tear him limb from limb. They would flay him to the last sinew until no sign remained that he had once been a man. They would clean out his pockets, leave him without so much as a coin, and compel him, dead or alive, to pay the debt he owed his victims.
Moshe from the motor pool turned indignantly to me in his new-found insolence. Had I not interfered in the violent quarrel that broke out in the shack and cast the magazine from the cocked Uzi, justice would have been done long ago to that filthy impostor. Whoever protected the wicked in the end was tainted himself. I would have to feel for myself, with those refined sensibilities of which I bragged, that this dandy, this scented paper-worm, this coddled bachelor, was nothing but a wanted criminal. The war had not purged the guilty. The nights spent waiting in ambush would not shave even a hair from his due punishment.
But I could not have prevented anything, not the fate that was Shuka Mashiah’s and not the suffering inflicted on the poor divorcelah. When the revenge-hungry boys fell on the telephone and dialed her little apartment, I could not stop them from pouring out their wrath on her. They cursed her and swore foul oaths in her ears until I could bear it no longer and left the shack. I remembered how this small woman had managed to pass every army roadblock. I remembered how she had shriveled in the fierce cold that gripped the hill. But I had failed to block her path to the bunker and the makeshift platoon office. I had failed to save her from the hurtful hands of her beloved, who treated her like a hostage, not a sweetheart. Yes, I was obliged to make amends for my inability to shift events from the course set for them long before.
Only later did I learn the full story of the hunt for revenge. It was some days before I found out that they had gone straight to Bnei Brak and immediately located the law office. The astonished secretary who met them said that it had never occurred to her that he was an impostor. He had never been registered as a lawyer. With some difficulty, he had served as an assistant in the office, a sort of a messenger boy. She knew he had printed up elegant business cards and exquisite stationery. She knew of his knack for mimicking the measured language of the lawyers in the office. Now and then, she had peeked into private papers not intended for her eyes. But she had considered all this a big joke.
When they asked her for his address, she gave them a number of listings scattered in the office’s nooks and crannies. They diligently and methodically checked these out, one after another. Late in the afternoon, they arrived at the little neighborhood at the edge of the developed section of Bnei Brak, not far from the orange groves. Frogs croaked in the sea of stagnant puddles around them. Gray crows circled above the open ground. One could easily see the tree trunks, the rusting iron gates, the blue-tinged hills in the distance. The train rumbled as it passed close overhead. Its whistle rattled the roofs of the quarter’s humbles homes and falling soot coated the sidewalks below.
In silence, they climbed the steps and blocked all the doors to the building. They closed in on him like an animal caught in a trap. Only afterwards was I informed how they broke inside and surprised him in his sleep, how they rushed forward and overpowered him without a glance at the young woman in his bed. They were polite to her, however, made no threats and let her go. They didn’t even ask for her name. “You don’t know this criminal,” they said. “After we settle our score with him, we’ll explain everything.” Then, and only then, they collected the debt he owed.
I later learned that the men of the platoon lingered several days exacting it. He had promised Moshe from the motor pool a cheap apartment, for which he received a sizeable payment. To Franco the driver he had promised a small parcel of land next to his house outside the city. Franco had been helplessly confused by the stack of papers Shuka induced him to sign.
How did they collect the debt? That is a silly question. They rousted him in a daze from his sleep; on his knees, he signed a release for each of them. They sprained his ankles, and he gave back all their money. They thrashed his back, and he swore never to cheat anyone again. And finally, when he thought they were finally done with him, the revenge seekers, still unsatisfied, came at him again and made him crawl back and forth on his belly through the festering puddles.
Even the battalion adjutant’s office did not know who had called the Bnei Brak police. They found it hard to explain how he had turned up, sick and feverish, at the jail or how the report had arrived at battalion headquarters directing them to come quickly to secure his release. “It’s wartime,” the police shouted. “Who needs worthless parasites shirking their duty here?” The kindly officer who had survived the bloody nights of the war of independence personally went to help return him to the battalion. “We don’t abandon a soldier,” he faintly whispered in his escort’s ear, “even if he is a bit of a stinker.” But even his appearance was of no use. Shuka Mashiah, the impostor from Bnei Brak, remained in jail.
I could not prevent his pious neighbors from crowding his door when the police arrived to take him into custody. Nor could I stop them from blessing him. Was it one of them one had called in the tip? “Fear not, O worm Jacob, what did we tell you? No need to rush. The lord looks after all men. Neither shall he diminish your lot. Just as you won the crumbs of the cake of war, so you shall the crumbs of the judges’ justice.” They whispered to him in secret, as though concealing notes in his clothes for the long trip, “Go, go. He who protected you there will protect you also inside the walls.”
The months after that passed quickly. I even failed to keep up with the newspapers. Had they covered his trial in the breathless police blotter columns? Had they named all his victims? Did he actually get his charges quashed? I was not called to testify. No one cared for my thoughts. And then I met troubles of my own and lacked the time even to ask the men of the platoon if he had conned the judges. Had he succeeded in having the slate wiped clean? When all was said and done, had the beautiful, innocent divorcee from Tiberias forgiven him?
“Clean Slate” translated by Alan Sacks
Many years ago
When King John married the Russian Princess Nadia, it broke Gwendolyn's heart. When he died at the age of twenty-five, it almost killed her.
Gwendolyn's grief was great, so great that she couldn't leave her bedchamber for over a month. She wanted to hide from the public because she wasn't his wife. Gwendolyn couldn't express hardly any emotion, let alone grief, without raising eyebrows. The gossipy Royal Court watched her every move, and seemed to comment on her every movement. On her days in court, Gwendolyn saw them standing idle around the Royal Castle, talking about her. She knew that they were, for their eyes were suddenly diverted and the voices were hushed. The ladies of the court loved to gossip about those who were higher up in status, and you couldn't get much higher in the court than Gwendolyn. She was the daughter of the Lord of Folles, the closest advisor to the late King Joseph, and hero of the Battle of Milston, and the wife of the Duke of Mulengrad, closest friend and advisor to the late King John.
But Gwendolyn had bigger plans on her mind at the moment. She was expecting her first child. There were plans to be made and family to be notified. It pleased her when Thomas, her husband, insisted she stay home from the Royal Court and allow him to take care of her family business for her. It was really a relief to be away from the gossip. She thought she would enjoy being home.
She soon learned being home wasn't that great of a blessing. Gwendolyn realized how lonely she was. Thomas was swamped with both family estates' business now to take care of and was not around that often. As a result of her loneliness, she found herself thinking about the past constantly. Gwendolyn yearned for her mother, who died when she was young, she barely knew her. Every time Thomas discussed business with her, she thought of her father and how he should be handling the estate affairs, not her. He died only a year ago.
Gwendolyn often thought of her sister Jacqueline and cried. She remembered how the family blamed Jacqueline for her mother's death, since she died in childbirth. The memory of Jacqueline haunted her for she alone felt she was responsible for her fate. Jacqueline ran away, possibly from taking Gwendolyn's advice a little too much to heart. No one knew where she was. But most of all, she missed John.
His memory made her smile. She remembered her childhood with him and Thomas. Their playground was the Royal Castle. The members of the royal court smiled when they saw the future King playing with the children of his father's closest advisors. They laughed at them as they ran by them, saying how contagious their laughter was.
When Thomas was young he was groomed to enter the clergy and he spent more time studying than Gwen and John. It seemed natural that Gwendolyn and John be drawn to each other: they had known each other all of their lives. They fell in love when they were five. The Courtiers murmured she would be the next Queen. John said he would marry her one day. It wasn't meant to be, she told herself as she remembered those days. In order to seal a treaty with Russia, John had to marry Princess Nadia.
Her father promptly sent her back to the family estate, a large sweeping castle and lands called the Folles an hour ride from the royal court, after he informed her of the engagement. Everyone agreed it would be for the best. "For the best" was a statement she loathed. Her entire life people had said that to her. "It is for the best that your sister stay at the Folles," they said when her sister was ill, which was often, and couldn't ride to court with her and father. "It's for the best that you don't visit your mother's grave", they said when she found out where it was and snuck there one day. And now, instead of being the Queen, she returned to the court as his childhood friend, ranking somewhere around his cousins in social importance in the court. Everyone kept staying it was for the best that she stay away for a while and that made her blood boil.
But she knew she would have to come back to court eventually. So, almost a month after the wedding, Gwendolyn made her first appearance to the court to meet the new Princess. She found it dreadful. She heard the whispers of the court as she entered the reception room at the Royal Castle. The female Courtiers lined the walls talking about the wedding until they saw her. Then their faces turned sad. They started saying to each other "Such a shame," "What will she do?" But when she approached them, they embraced her with great sympathy. They wanted her to be Queen. She was one of their own. She loved John and would care for him. She at least spoke their language, and they knew what the inflections in her voice meant. They told her this with their eyes and expressions. Many of the women in the court patted her hand when she greeted them and gave her the most wonderful looks of understanding. It made her cry.
Before the Princess Nadia would be introduced to the court, she tried to leave. She left the room and ran into Thomas in the hallway. "What are you doing?" he asked. He saw the tears pouring down her face.
"I can't do this. Not for all the gold on Earth."
"Gwen, you can do this," he said as he gave her a hug. "You can't hide from the court forever."
"Yes I can! I can't face her. What do I say?"
Thomas smiled as he let her go. "You courtesy and say 'Hello, I am Lady Gwendolyn of Folles and you are an awful person and I hate you." They shared a laugh together, just like when they were kids. Thomas sat with her until she was ready. Then, together, they turned around and headed back to the reception room. It was Thomas who held her hand when the Princess was introduced to her.
"So you are the Gwendolyn I have heard so much about," her interpreter said. Nadia looked her over as Gwen noticed how beautifully overdressed she was. There was a moment of terror in the court as the awkwardness of the situation set in. The two stared at each other for a moment. Nadia broke the silence as she inquired where Gwendolyn was during the wedding celebration. It was Thomas who answered for her.
"Urgent family business at the Folles. It's her family estate. Quite breathe taking. You and John should come with us one weekend to visit." It was the first time that Thomas ever referred to them as "us". It made her feel wonderful. John started sending for her shortly after the death of his father, who died just two months after the wedding. He was as miserable as she was. But when they were together, things were okay. It felt like home to her.
Thomas knew all about it. John and Gwendolyn confided in him everything. Thomas was the politician, and the plan maker. Since his father and brother died in the great illnesses that happened around every winter, he became the Duke of Mulengrad. He was also the closest advisor to the King and one of the most eligible men in the court. It came as no shock to anyone when Gwendolyn and Thomas's engagement was announced. However, Thomas married her to protect her, not completely out of romantic love. Their commitment to each other was of solidarity to the past and friendship, and the marriage worked. No one asked questions when she learned that she was pregnant. Everyone assumed the child was Thomas'.
That was the past. Now, in the confines of the Castle of Mulengrad, just a ten-minute ride to the city gates, Gwendolyn wandered around the house as the baby grew and wished she could have seen John before he died. His death was too sudden. She didn't get to see him. Not on his deathbed, not at his funeral (she was too ill in the early stages of pregnancy to go), so she never had a chance to say goodbye.
Gwendolyn decided she had to say goodbye; maybe she would start to be happy again, have some sense of closure. Her mind whipped up a plan to see his grave and say goodbye. He was laid to rest in the Abbey at Shergold. Shergold held the royal and some of the noble tombs, including her mother's family and Thomas's family. It was only up the road about a half of an hour away.
Every Tuesday and Saturday morning at eight thirty, the Memorial Mass was said at the Cathedral. She would ride to Shergold on Tuesday at seven, say her prayers to her family and most of all to John, and ride back for the Memorial Mass. It made wonderful sense. Most people only visited Shergold on Saturday or Sunday. No one would be there. No one would see her.
The first Tuesday, her groom rode her to Shergold in a borrowed carriage. Gwendolyn entered the abbey alone. She went to her family crypt, and visited her grandparents and her namesake, Aunt Gwendolyn. Carefully, she said her prayers and left the vault. Her family's tombs were near the royal tombs towards the center of the abbey. In fact, they were across from each other. She knew exactly where they were; she remembered it from her childhood. Careful not to make too much noise from her skirts and shoes, Gwendolyn walked over to the Royal Vault. Much to her shock, She found a metal gate blocked the only entrance. She searched her memory, trying to see if the gate had always been there and she had just forgotten it.
Angrily, Gwendolyn tugged at the gate hoping it would open, but it shook loudly and the sound of metal being ground against its self echoed through the vaults. The sound tore her ears and echoed so loudly that she was sure she would have caught the attention of a monk on his way to early mass. With her hands still on the rails of the gate, she peered in. Then as if in a memory, Gwendolyn remembered being there when she was little. John and Thomas were with her. They played around the tombs while some tutor rambled on and on about the history of the royal family. She thought for a minute she heard their laughter...
Icy tears ran down her face. Why do I want the past, she said to herself. Why do I want to go back so badly? Why can't I let it all go and move on?
A bell tolled somewhere, marking the half-hour. Realizing that she wasn't at home, and that she was sobbing uncontrollably, she pulled herself together and left. Gwendolyn had not felt this horrible in a while; not since the death of her mother or the disappearance of her sister or even John's death. Gwendolyn realized that if she were younger, or even if she wasn't pregnant, she would have climbed the gate. It really wasn't that tall. Gwendolyn was determined that by next Tuesday, she would figure out a way in.
The next Tuesday, she still had not figured out a practical way to get in; but she went anyway and paid her respects to her family. Gwendolyn walked over to the royal tombs just to look in. A small part of her felt defeated, but at least she was here in spirit. John would know that she tried to say goodbye.
She leaned up against the gate to look in. There was a slight sound of metal screeching, but it opened. Gwendolyn looked around in amazement. Maybe someone was around. She looked around to see if there was a monk or member of the royal family had entered the tomb. But there was no one there.
Gwendolyn gathered up her skirts and walked in carefully, not to make too much noise as she walked through the tombs. The tombs came up to her waste with their names on the sides. Each tomb was carved with an effigy of the person in stone. They stared up into space blankly. There was no real statement on their faces; no personality, no sign of what they were really like in life. John's tomb was towards the back. His effigy looked nothing like him. In fact, he looked old to her. There was nothing to indicate he was young or anything about him.Gwendolyn suddenly felt worse for visiting. It bothered her to be here. She didn't want him to be remembered this way.
"I'm a fool," she muttered aloud. A stupid fool, she emphasized to herself. It's over now. John was king for almost three years. Not even long enough to establish any sort of legacy. He will be one of those kings her children will learn about as a filler between two other kings.
Tears poured out of her. She couldn't control herself. Gwendolyn collapsed on the floor. Lost in grief, the noise of footsteps didn't register with her at first, but when she heard them again Gwendolyn quickly composed herself. Fearing the gate became locked, she ran for the gate. It was still open, and she ran out. Someone saw her. She knew it. In fear, Gwen ran up the stairs and out of the abbey. When she reached the carriage, Gwendolyn ordered the groom to speed to the cathedral. They didn't slow until they passed the city gates.
Once she reached the Cathedral, Gwendolyn heard the mass. It had already begun. So she headed for the Lady Chapel, the small chapel to the side of the main sanctuary. It was a place Gwendolyn really liked to be when she wanted to be alone. In her head, she would pray to her mother, just like she always did when she was a child.
Gwendolyn wasn't sure how long she had sat there. She was lost in her own thoughts. It surprised her when without thinking she walked up to the small altar in the chapel. She wanted a closer look at the statue of the Madonna. It was a graceful statue of the Madonna holding the Infant Christ. It seemed so delicate. Gwendolyn looked at in detail, from head to toe. On the base of the statue, there was a small dedication plaque. It was tarnished, but Gwendolyn was able to make out the dedication:
Lady Louisa of Folles
Beloved Mother and Wife
"One of our prized treasures," a voice said from behind her. It caught her off guard and she spun around to find the source. Cardinal William was walking towards her. He was a tall man, looking even larger in his red robe. A small red cap covered his graying hair and he walked forward with the longest strides she had ever seen. When he reached her, he stood behind her and gazed at the statue in awe like she did. "It is from France. Hand made and taken to the Holy Land to be blessed."
"It is dedicated to the memory of my mother," Gwendolyn said in shock.
"It is a good thing you are her daughter. For a moment, I thought I was seeing a ghost," he said with a smile.
"You knew my mother?"
Carefully, he looked at her again. "Yes, I did. In fact, I married your parents." He paused and took another look at her. "And I baptized both you and your sister."
Gwendolyn turned and watched as he walked away from her to the row of chairs in front of the altar. He sat down rather pompously, she thought, for it looked like he was now about ready to hold court. That sort of arrogance normally angered her, and the Cardinal seemed to be oozing in it. However, she was intrigued. She had never known anyone who spoke of her mother freely. Most of her questions were rejected or avoided.
"How did you know Mother?"
"We grew up together. Much like you and your Thomas except quite plutonic." Gwendolyn blushed with this comment. Even if he didn't know all the facts.
She turned and walked over and sat down next to him. "So you know Thomas?"
"Like most members of the court I watched the two of you and King John as you grew up," the memory of this made his face light up. "I was so pleased when you and Thomas married."
"I love him dearly." She added.
"Yes, I know," he said sharply. A little too sharply for her comfort.
There was a pause in the conversation. The Cardinal stared a head at the little altar. Gwendolyn searched for the right questions about her mother. Since he was there at Jacqueline's baptism, he had to be at Mother's funeral. He was one of the few people she felt would have the right answer to the question she most wanted answered. Gwendolyn took a deep breath and asked: "Your Eminence, I must ask you a question and please don't feel you have to answer it. But do you blame Jacqueline for Mother's death?"
The question caught her off guard. It was obvious to her that he searched for the right answer, for it took him a while to answer. "No. Why would I?"
"Everyone else did."
"My child your mother died bringing Jacqueline into this world. That's how much she loved her. Anyone who blamed Jacqueline is being selfish."
Tears welled in her eyes when Cardinal William finished his statement. "Father always did."
"No, he didn't. It was however a painful reminder and with Jacqueline being such a sickly child, he feared he was going to loose her as well." Cardinal William spoke authoritatively, as if he was in expert in her family's relations. "You may not know this, but you are more like your mother than Jacqueline is. Jacqueline was more like your father in disposition. It pained him greatly that there was nothing he could do to ease so much of the pain she went through. And I think it disturbed him as well that she bared it gracefully. She never once complained or whined. Not aloud anyway."
Gwendolyn was intrigued by his arrogance. "How do you know so much?"
Cardinal William looked shocked. "I was there."
"Why don't I remember you?"
"Because you were too wrapped up in your own world, which consisted of Thomas and John, and your cousins."
Possibly, Gwendolyn thought to herself. She was a typical child. "How do you know so much of what Father was thinking?"
"He told me. It was a terrible blow to him when Jacqueline ran away. He went through a lot of trouble to arrange that marriage to Prince Stephan. She could have been Queen of Bron today." He said this with a smile of wonder, as if he was visualizing the possibilities.
"I miss her," Gwendolyn muttered.
"You two were close, weren't you?" He asked.
"Yes. I always felt I had to love her since Father didn't; didn't at least show her anyway. I wish she was around so that I could talk to her."
"Angry because she ran out of her own wedding?"
Gwendolyn looked up in shock. "Angry? There is no way I could be mad at her for that. That was the single bravest act I have ever seen a woman commit. I am proud of her for it and will be forever."
"What do you have against marriage?" Cardinal William asked in horror.
Gwendolyn was getting angry. The constant line of questioning was beginning to bother her. "Nothing."
"Are you happily married?"
"Why praise your sister for running out on it?"
Controlling her temper the best she could she stood up. "Your Eminence, I love my husband. We have known and loved each other for years. I praise my sister because she would not accept a marriage with someone she did not love simply because it fit into her father's plans."
"I'm sorry to have angered you so. I see you have much of your father in you now. That legendary temper made your father a hero you know." He looked at her stomach, bulging noticeably out of her layers of dress. "This can't be good for you. Please, sit down," as he motioned for her to sit next to him.
He looked down at his hands. Gwendolyn stared at that statue on the altar. There was a moment of awkwardness. "I'm sorry if I have upset you," he said as he continued to stare at him hands.
Gwendolyn hadn't felt so much grief in her life. In a moment, she was grieving for her past: her mother, father, sister, and her love. Never before had the pain loss been as great. All she could ask about was the statue. "Where did you get that?"
"Your Father bought it for your mother. I don't know the details. But when your father left for the Holy Land he carried it with him and had it blessed at the site of Christ's birth. It was your Mother's favorite piece."
"So why is it here?" she said angrily.
"Your Father gave it to me when he furnished the funds to build this chapel. It was right after your mother's death."
Cardinal didn't know what to say. He simply uttered the fact that he didn't know. Another awkward silence began. It lasted a few moments until the sound of mass exiting the cathedral broke them back to reality. "Are you looking forward to motherhood yourself?" he asked.
"Very much so."
"I suspect you will not be at the formal coronation ceremony next month."
"No, the baby will be too much in the way by then."
"I suppose too it is hard being so close to King John to see the coronation of Prince Stephan."
"Yes, it was all very sudden." Gwendolyn added.
"You know I was with him until he died along with Queen Nadia. Will it give you any comfort to know he died peacefully?"
Gwendolyn froze for a moment. She didn't know what to say.
"I also took his last confession."
Angered, Gwendolyn looked at him. The comment angered her. It was almost like he was flaunting a secret. She searched her mind for a diplomatic way out of the conversation. But he continued. "He wanted me to look after you."
Angered by this comment, Gwendolyn got up and stormed out. Cardinal William followed her as she tore out the Lady Chapel and out to the door. When he caught up to her she was almost to the door. "Did I say something to offend, Duchess?"
"For the record, I prefer to be called by my father's family title, which makes me the Lady of Folles. And if you are hinting at some innuendo or courtly rumor about me and King John I really don't appreciate it."
Angered, he stormed in front of her. "Follow me," he said as he stormed towards the confessionals. Usually, Gwendolyn did not take orders. Being a member of nobility, she gave them, she never took them. Yet, she swallowed her pride and anger, and followed him into the confessional. She sat down on the bench, placed her hands on her belly.
She watched as he opened the confessional window.
"My child, I loved your mother as a sister. She was one of the kindest women I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. In respect your mother, I would never hurt you."
"I'm sorry if my actions were defensive, your Eminence," Gwendolyn said without apology. "I have heard so many rumors about me and my child I'm sick of them."
"Would you like to know about John's last day?"
Gwendolyn looked at him in shock. She didn't remember saying yes, but he began to tell her anyway. "He was in and out of consciousness, but he stayed lucid enough to give me his final confession. I can tell you that he loved you dearly and felt horrible about not being with you."
Tears poured down her face as he continued. "He did not want to die for he was excited to see his child. He told me that he wanted to live long enough to see you give birth. He was so weak though, I knew it wouldn't happen. And he told me I was the third person on earth to know the truth about your child. He begged my silence."
"So why are you telling me this now?" Gwendolyn said between her tears.
"So that you may have a friend other than Thomas. Admit the fact that you are alone in the world. Aside from Thomas, you have your fundamentalist uncle and aunt who oversee the Folles. You can't tell them anything. You don't know where Jacqueline is and I am the only link to your family. Truth be told I miss your mother's friendship and I was hoping that you and I could be friends."
Gwendolyn thought about this for a moment. "I must have your total confidence."
"I swear on your mother's grave. You have my word."
Gwendolyn whipped the tears out of her eyes as the clock in town struck the half-hour. "I need to go," she said as she got up and walked out of the booth. She was halfway to the door when she realized she never thanked him. Gwendolyn quickly turned around and walked back to him. He was standing there watching her walk away.
"Thank you," she said as she took his hand in hers. "You have given me a great deal of peace and for that I don't know if I could ever fully repay you. Would you please come by our home sometime and tell me more about my mother?"
Cardinal William stood there in shock. He didn't know how to respond. He uttered the words "I would love to." She smiled a smile that reminded him so much her mother and he felt a tear roll down his face as she walked out the door.
At dinner that night, Thomas commented on how much happier Gwendolyn seemed.
"I discovered an old friend today," Gwendolyn answered on how she had changed her mood.
Thomas dropped his goblet.
"Do you have any idea of who he is?" Thomas asked as the servants cleaned up the split cup.
"He was a childhood friend of Mother's."
"He is an advisor to King Stephan."
Thomas saw that she didn't care. "Anything you say around him could be taken to the King."
Gwendolyn got up and walked over to his chair. She bent down and whispered in his ear: "Are you asking if he knows about the baby?"
"He swore on Mother's grave the secret dies with him."
"I can't believe you told him."
"He already knew."
"John told him."
Thomas was upset. He got up from the table and walked over to the fireplace. Gwendolyn remained beside his chair for a moment. Then she walked over to him. "It hit me today during my visit to Shergold that John will be remembered as a filler king. You remember those long lists of Kings we had to remember in history. His name will simply be a name to be memorized on a list. Nothing else will be remembered. No one will mention his kindness; or how he tired to help the poor or bring peace with Brittany and Spain." Gwendolyn whispered.
"I never knew my mother. Mother was gone and you remember how my father was never around. Every time I asked, no one ever told me anything about her. If something happens to you and me Cardinal William will be around to tell our children about us. About John and the good he tried to do. That way, we will live on."
"Stephan may very well be insane," Thomas whispered back. "And if he finds out the truth we could die."
"Small price to pay for a friend," she said, smiling.
Enraptured, to the very core of my aesthetic being, I sought out the title of the work. I found it engraved upon a tiny silver plaque at the bottom of the frame. It bore the legend:
"The Exquisite One"
She certainly was! The title was quite a perfect testament to the girl who modeled for the painter.
I became very curious as to the identity of the lady, and sought out the attention of the museum's curator. He was a wizened old man, I guessed his age to be approaching the eighties mark, and when he spoke it was as though one were conversing with a spirit of the desert - his voice was possessed of an overwhelming dryness. I can recall now, upon hearing that voice for the first time, how it made me shudder in the most intense discomfort - the deep timbre of his speech brought to mind terrible images of droughts and crumbled papyrus; it was as though his mouth had never before known the luxury of saliva.
When I succeeded in grasping the old mans attention he fixed his dolorous, gray eyes upon mine; then arched his bushy white eyebrows in a mark of interrogation. I recognized my cue to speak:
"The model - in that picture." Here I indicated the "The Exquisite One." "Have you any idea of her identity?"
A slight frown furrowed the curator's brow as he attempted to open the vaults of his vast memories. For almost an entire minute he waded through a sea of useless information and superfluous recollection, before he opened his parched, cracked lips and spoke in a sterile bass:
"The name, I am afraid sir, quite eludes me at present; if indeed I ever knew it at all."
The crestfallen look upon my face must have implored him to speak still further of the painting. He did so, in an evidently much aired speech; his voice adopted the monotonous and unchanging tone peculiar to such practiced soliloquies:
"I can, however, tell you as much as you may wish to know about the painting itself. It was completed two hundred and twenty three years ago by a young artist named Darius Drake, who began the work as an anniversary gift for his young wife. It is she who is the 'exquisite' one featured. While this is the only surviving example of Drakes work - the rest were destroyed in a horrific blaze that consumed his home and himself - we may conclude from the personal diaries of those who knew him; and also from reviews of his other works that remain extant, that he was an artist possessed of an unusual passion. Indeed, at least this much may be gleaned from even a fleeting study of the work you see before you. It is quite a striking painting - everything depicted within it is crafted to the point of the most eloquent perfection - from the detail upon the lady's cheeks, to the ghostly aurifery that he has managed to have radiate from the painting by a meticulous study of the appropriate shades of color and techniques of application. There is no doubt that Drake was an artist of the highest rank, and that the blaze which gutted his home has deprived the world of many great masterpieces."
Here, he paused, and inhaled a great amount of air - evidently exhausted after delivering his speech for what was, perhaps, the thousandth time. I grimaced when I heard his chest give a dry rattle. It amused me to see him lick his ravaged lips, for his mouth was at least as dry as they were, and he did not succeed in moistening them. Perhaps his objective was merely to dust them, as one would an old antique.
I turned my attention once again to the painting, my eyes hungrily embracing all the divine sensory data that they could receive. I was about to thank the curator for the information that he had supplied me with, when I heard him utter something more under his breath. Even though it meant hearing the dust of that worn voice again, I begged his pardon.
He looked quite uncomfortable as he realized that I wished for him to repeat his silent remark, and made motions to usher my attention towards some other subject. I pressed him further and he protested that he had said nothing of any interest or importance. I politely requested once more, and with a disparaging sigh he repeated:
"His talent. A testament to the deadliness of man's passions!"
I stood, somewhat taken aback by the nihilistic nature of the statement, and - despite the curators obvious unwillingness - I attacked his restraint and pleaded with him to tell me how such a talent could possibly prove to be "deadly."
At this, the curator grimaced - which produced quite a startling effect as his face was already considerably wrinkled - and prepared to speak once again. His obvious discomfort displayed that he quite clearly had absolutely no wish to relate the story, which made me want to hear it all the more. When he began to speak my ears relished the sound of his voice - as thought my insatiable curiosity had dressed it in attractive silks, instead of the rough fabrics in which it was usually shod.
As he spoke, his eyes stared distantly into a vacant vacuum of private space, and the rest of his body remained entirely stationary. Only the thin, cragged, lips of his mouth moved as he spoke, softly and slowly; drawing out the aggravating husk of his parched voice.
"I have already told you how passionate the man was about his painting. With him, painting seemed to be the way that he could attain the very summits of god hood - he spiritualized the physical vistas he saw before him through the medium of his paints; it was said that no matter how ghastly the object he painted, the end result that stood upon his easel always shone with a divine effulgence. Drake was a master, and, like all masters, he had his own strict routine of working. Whenever he was painting, it was entirely necessary that he remained in a locked room with all of the materials and equipment pertinent to his latest project. He also brought with him a leather bound journal, which still exists and is housed in the library of this very museum."
My face must have registered my delight, for the old man nodded reverently and signaled for me to hold my silence. He continued his monologue in a hushed voice, which was barely elevated above the pitch of a whisper:
"The journal he used to record his meditations concerning the painting he had just completed, to list the outstanding details of the work - and also to write how he felt about it.
"He would not emerge from the room until he had completed his painting, and recorded all of the appropriate details inside his journal. It is said that he often stayed as long as four or five days locked inside this room, forsaking food and drink - all forms of nourishment, in fact - and also very likely neglecting to sleep.
"Drakes dedication to his art was utterly ferocious, he lived and breathed the very essence of the gifted artist. It seems that this was enough to make his wife jealous. There exist tales that tell of the most feral arguments occurring between each of them; all concerning where Drakes adoration's should be focused the most - upon his wife, or upon his painting. Given the frequency of these arguments, it would appear that Drake favored his painting. It was perhaps in order to appease his wife that, upon their anniversary, he informed her that he wished to 'immortalize her in the flowing rapture of art's ardent flood,' as he wrote concerning the portrait in his journal."
It was at this point that I first noticed a change in the old mans character. His face took the appearance of one who is entirely ill at ease, if not a little frightened - and his voice, now slightly cracked in its unnerving husk, began to sound almost foreboding. Despite myself, I felt an entirely unpleasant shiver torment my body.
I swallowed as he continued to speak, all the while wondering and waiting what unpleasant scenes his stony voice would soon relate.
"So Drake set to work upon 'The Exquisite One.' He made no allowances in his eccentric and very unhealthy method of work. He, as usual, took with him to the rooms interior all of the materials necessary for his new picture - this time, of course, including his wife - and began right away."
Here the curator again paused, merely to clear his throat. It was an unnecessary action - his throat was not blocked in any way. A dry rumble coursed throughout his chest. He resumed his recitative; and I noticed that it was becoming quite an effort for him to speak, his speech began to lose a good deal of its previous eloquence. The curator's story was obviously making him very uneasy; I sensed that he had not shared it with others very often.
"He worked with a great fever of strength unusual even for him - almost bestial, it would seem. To his wife he acted like an utter tyrant, he would not allow her to move or change her position an inch - he required her to stay put - to stay entirely still; as he wished her to be. Drake required that his working environment be utterly without fault, everything had to be perfect, even his wife's position, right down to the exact millimeter. You may imagine the torture the woman felt! To most of us, sitting still for a mere half an hour is an abject impossibility - but to do it for the time that gifted despot required for his portrait to meet his own strict satisfaction - unthinkable!"
"How long did it take for Drake to complete the portrait?" I all but blurted the question out. I could not believe that any man could be so Draconian, and yet produce such images of beauty and perfection.
The curator sighed in a curious form of detached resignation. His answer fell from his lips as easily as would a heavy boulder from a cliff - his voice I now found to be almost as harrowing as the ghastly account:
"It took Drake eight days to complete the portrait."
As this answer, phrased in a terrible simplicity, sunk in, I could feel my skin shrivel in an unsubtle chill. My entire body, I noticed, was quite tense - I unclenched my fists and found a cool sheen of sweat upon my palms.
"Eight days," I repeated, I could not bring myself to comment any further. It was simply beyond my comprehension as to how Drakes wife managed to stay in position for such a time, nor could I understand why she did not protest to her cruel husband.
The curator, intuiting my chain of thoughts, continued. His voice acted as a deadly measure against any hope that I may have had in collecting my peace; it was charged with emotion and as rough as the gravel of the streets.
"Of course, she could not resist changing her position - but even then she managed to regulate her composure for a remarkably long period of time. Drakes journal reports that she often did not move an inch until the pain of the inevitable cramping caused her to weep. But imagine the cycle she followed - sitting for hours in great discomfort, then almost collapsing from pain, and repeating it over and over again - all for the sake of her husbands pernicious demands."
"But why did she not argue, protest against his wickedness?"
"I can only assume her love for him was tremendous, but that she knew his love for his painting was greater. Perhaps she thought that if she were capable of entwining herself within his art, his adoration would be redirected towards her."
"And deservingly so," I muttered.
"She submitted to agony, for love's dear sake. But please remember that her ordeal was worsened by the complete absence of food and water - even sleep."
The curator stopped speaking, too disgusted to continue.
It was then that the breath caught in my throat, a terrible realization impressed itself upon my horrified mind. For it was at that moment I recalled the curators remark which had originally prompted this macabre narrative:
". . . the deadliness of man's passions!"
With the acutest desolation spreading within my very being, I allowed my gaze to fall once more on Drake's masterpiece. I caressed the picture with a despondent eye. It no longer evoked inside me an ecstatic delight for the beauty of the painting and model alike; but rather, for the black selfishness of man. What dark embraces had that broken beauty yielded to? What perfidious attraction had Drake cast over that fallen angel, so as to cause her to submit to his hideous command?
Observing my entirely wretched stare the old man spoke, his voice resonating like a cracked bell - pulling me further down the spiral.
"As you have obviously surmised, when Drake lay down his brushes and victoriously finished the last sentence in his infamous journal - he found his wife to be quite dead. In a berserk fury he flung journal and portrait alike from the room. He instructed his manservant to take the finished portrait and journal to the town hall, so that future generations would learn of his appalling downfall.
"When his servant left, Drake set alight his studio. The flames were possessed of terrible strength, for his paints were very flammable, and they soon spread to the remaining quarters of his home. When the fire had sated its terrible hunger, they had consumed Drake - his physical being, and his spiritual ancestry; in the form of his paintings. The corpse of his wife was, inevitably, swallowed within the flames along with everything else."
The curator, satisfied that he had explained all as best he could, slowly walked away; his face set like granite. He retreated to a chair in the far corner of the gallery and began to smoke a long black cigar; relishing the smoke wrought by the heat of his matches flame.
And so I stood. I stood and and I stared. As I stared my vision was fraught with scarlet fingers of glowering fury, - which created a mock halo around the picture - and the roar of a mighty inferno rocked within my ears. My fevered mind reproduced for me those hideous moments when all was decimated within those searing flames - and the hideous deeds of Drake were dissolved in a cleansing caress.
perfect against the brilliant sky
whispering beauty to the wind
the Temple stands
reflected by the sea
Long ago I called your spirits
hiding behind Doric columns
fearful they might hear
and so awake them
from ancestral sleep
I will climb the narrow path
upward to the mountain
Not as I did once in childlike fear
I will wait for them to wake
The climb to the top was steep. The only access, a narrow winding path. Ruts and dislodged stones from torrential winter storms, and an occasional fallen tree branch made the ascent difficult.
The Mediterranean sun beat down without mercy on two small figures moving slowly up the mountain, their slender young bodies bent over to steady themselves against the strong wind. They made this climb many times before, but never in August, when the dreaded sirocco blew across the island, its fiery fingers reaching as far as Arles across the sea.
The sisters' fine leather sandals, not fit for climbing, gave little protection against the rough terrain. Whenever Gina cried out in pain, Ariana stopped to wipe away the tears and comfort her.
Nonna Maria, reluctant though she was about her grandchildren's frequent visits to Monte Erice, would give permission only if an older cousin went with them. This Sunday morning, amid the chaos, the tears, the cries of anguish, Gina and Ariana hurried away without consent.
Ariana extended a dusty hand to her younger sister, helping her up the last few steps to the plateau. The hot wind, slightly cooled by the sea below, was now bearable. In a few minutes they would reach the Temple that loomed in all its majesty before them. This is where Gina and Ariana, and cousin Lola spent many hours at play away from the prying eyes of adults. When it was too warm to play, cousin Lola recited stories about Venus, who rose from the sea in her golden cockleshell chariot and her son Eryx, the giant.
Reaching the Temple, the two sisters sat in their favorite spot near the altar that Venus built, their usual high spirits subdued by exhaustion and anxiety.
Gina broke the quiet. "Ariana... I'm thirsty."
Ariana got up and led the way to a shallow brook, that would become a deep river as it flowed down into the valley. In cupped hands they drank the clear cool water, then splashed some on their flushed moist faces. They sat down on the mossy bank, kicked off their dusty sandals, and stepped carefully into the water. The sight of frightened minnows scattering in all directions made them laugh, forgetting for the moment the fearful scene earlier.
The morning had started out happy and full of anticipation. They were going to a Festa in celebration of Santa Rosalia. Nonno Pepe had prepared the painted cart with bells and ribbons, and harnessed Titina the mule, for the short journey to Palermo. There, they would meet other family members. The previous day, the sisters' uncle Vito, had gone hunting with his best friend. They planned to cut the hunt short on this Holy Sunday, and join in the celebration.
Gina and Ariana had finished a breakfast of bread and coffee. They were busy helping nonna Maria pack lunch, when they heard zia Flora's shrill cry. It was difficult at first to understand her. But as she came closer to the house, her cries became clear and terribly familiar.
"Compare Vito is dead! They have killed him!"
Gina was still too young to comprehend. But Ariana had heard those ominous words before. Only a few months ago, Donna Caterina's son, Andrea, was found dead, a cork forced into his mouth. He lay on his back on the cobblestone piazza, blood oozing from the many lupari gunshots; eyes wide open, still filled with terror of his own death.
"I want to go home. I'm hungry," complained Gina.
Ariana answered with adult patience. "In a little while we'll go back."
"Are we going to the Festa?"
"It's too late."
"Ariana, I'm afraid. Are you afraid?"
Ariana's answer was slow and careful. "Yes... a little.."
"I don't like Zia Flora. She made nonna Maria cry. Why did she make nonna cry?"
"I think it's because... maybe... zio Vito is never coming back."
"Never, ever? Why?" Gina's dark eyes opened wide in disbelief. Ariana had to tell her now.
"Gina.. listen... some bad men killed zio Vito... like they did Andrea."
Gina choked back tears. "That's not true! He'll come back. Zio Vito always comes back. He promised to bring me green almonds."
"Gina... Gina... zio Vito is dead. We will never see him again. He's up in heaven with Andrea."
"No... no! Don't say that! He's home... you'll see... and he will come to the Festa. Please Ariana... let's hurry home."
Gina was hysterical now. Lenora's frantic calling was barely audible over Gina's loud cries, as she appeared at the edge of the plateau. Gina scrambled to her feet, and ran into her aunt's waiting arms. Ariana put on her sandals and picked up her sister's pair.
"Zia Lenora, is... is... zio Vito still in the piazza?"
"No Ariana. He's home now."
"Do we have to go home? Do we have to see him?"
"No cara... you and Gina can stay with me for a while."
Ariana trembled. For the first time that day she cried. Lenora embraced and kissed her. With Gina holding tight to her aunt's apron, they started the long slow descent.
Hearing himself referred to as "mister" caught the stranger off guard, for he was only eighteen, not much older than the boy who had just offered him that token of respect. In no hurry for a response to his question, the boy took a clean rag from his hip pocket and dunked it in a bucket of water he brought to a weak froth by wringing out his rag in it. Leaning over the hood of the car, he took one corner of the rag and flung it over to the far end of the windshield, and then he slid up on the hood, on his belly, and wiped that far half thoroughly. Then, emitting a groan that made him sound older than his fifteen years, he eased back down and went to work on the driver's side of the windshield.
He stood back and admired his effort. With his thumbnail he removed the only bit of gunk standing between him and a job well done. Then from his other hip pocket he took a second rag and dried off the windshield, once again slithering over the hood to reach the far side. "Won't you have anything else, mister?" he asked again.
The stranger wondered what more than gas there could be to the place, but his upbringing and good sense kept him from saying as much. But it did feel good to the stranger to be out of that stuffy car for a minute. He reached into his shirt pocket and took out his cigarettes and lighter. Impressed with the stranger's fancy cigarette lighter, the boy stepped up for a closer look, sending wafting into the stranger's nostrils the harsh scent of the gasoline embedding itself in the boy's overalls, causing the stranger to fear that the boy might be combustible. The stranger put the lighter safely back in his pocket, the still unlit cigarette behind his ear. He asked the boy if there was anything to drink inside.
"Sure there is," said the boy. "I'll let you have a cold drink for nothin'." How lonely this kid must be, thought the stranger. He followed the boy up to the building. It wasn't a service station by any stretch of the imagination, just a frame building with a corrugated tin roof, from which one or more of the boy's relations observed the gasoline pumps every day . . . every day each year. What a racket a Texas hailstorm must make of that place in the springtime, was the stranger's reaction to the structure.
Before the building stood a vertical water tap beside which lay a pet's overturned plastic bowl. The industrious boy took the minute it took to rinse the bowl and refill it, and then he carefully placed it in the shade of the building, accidentally sloshing some of the water on his put-upon overalls. The boy held open the screen door for his guest. It was a sparse room filled with nothing but two chairs, a table, a large soda case, and a box fan on the floor, into which was fixed the staff of a tiny American flag that was now only hanging from a thread or two, flapping madly.
A black cat was resting curled up on top of the soda case. With one sweep of his arm, the boy sent the startled cat hurtling, but, as all cats do, this rudely awakened one landed on four padded paws, stood there stunned for a moment, and then wandered over beneath one of the chairs and massaged its back against the chair bottom, his tormentor forgiven.
The boy then took a chilled bottle of soda from the case and used the opener hanging from a wire tacked to the ceiling. He held out the bottle, saying, "Here you are, mister. You just sit down and drink this. You can have it for nothin'."
The stranger thanked him. Not wanting to disturb the cat, the stranger hopped up on the soda case and leaned against the wall. After setting out an ashtray for the stranger's use, the boy had gone to sit behind the table, so the stranger felt he was at a safe enough distance to light his cigarette, which he did, with three smooth and practiced motions of his quick fingers, all of which were noticed by the boy, who was duly impressed by them because there were no smokers in his family, and if there were, certainly none with such a fine lighter, which disappeared back into the stranger's pocket after its brief performance.
"What's the name of your town?" asked the stranger, more for something to say than to learn the name of the place.
"Why, this isn't any town," said the boy, laughing, slapping the table. "This is just a few houses alongside the highway. Town? Ha! That's a laugh, mister. Nearest town's Hyde, two miles on down the way you were headed. My daddy works out there." Though curious, the stranger didn't have the strength just then to ask the boy what his father did in Hyde, so he just nodded his head in comprehension and shut his eyes. The stranger had been driving since dawn, and it was now 1:00 p.m., so he was rightfully tired.
Having scratched its back thoroughly, the tomcat eased out from under the chair, stretched itself on the cool, vinyl floor, and, in one smooth motion, gracefully leapt up and lit on its favorite spot beside the young man on the soda case, taking care to leave itself in range of an outstretched arm should the visitor take a notion to stroke him. But the only movements the man made were ones involved with smoking his cigarette. At last the cat rose up and crept over beside the man, making contact with his blue-jeaned thigh, causing the man, still not bothering to open his eyes, to grope for the cat's head and scratch between its ears, causing the cat's motor to run as if they were old familiars.
On the opposite wall from the front door was the back door counterpart, left open, as was the front door most years from March to October, creating a fairly reliable draught that aided the box fan in keeping the still, heavy air moving in that close room. A screen door kept out the insects. Suddenly the back screen door was opened silently, and in stepped a young lady. She accidentally let the screen door get away from her, and it slammed with a clap that would have awakened any dead within a dozen miles, and then she looked up and spied the stranger on the soda case. In a wordless expression of OOPS!, she lifted her fingertips to her mouth in surprise.
Because of the murderous reflection of the sun given off by the windshield of an old pickup truck parked just beyond the back door, the stranger couldn't make out much besides the girl's splendid form beneath her back-lit daisy-print dress. It wasn't that she had forgotten her slip; she just never bothered with one when she wasn't going into Hyde. She stepped out of the light and into the otherwise poorly illuminated room. The visitor leaned forward and let his eyes adjust for a better look, but then he remembered his manners and slid down off the soda case and took a blind man's step toward her; he nodded his head to her.
"You've gone and woken him up, Taffy," said the boy. "Just look what you've gone and done."
The girl smiled a wicked smile and then closed the two steps between her and the stranger. Balancing herself by placing her hands on the stranger's shoulders, she stood up on her bare toes, saying, "Here's for that," and kissed the surprised stranger full on the lips. Stepping back away from him, wiping her lips with the back of her hand, she said, "Well, I think that should make everything about as all right as before I let that door slam." She crossed her arms over her chest and, without knowing it, arranged her bare feet in perfect third ballet position.
Not knowing what to say, the stranger said nothing. He just watched the girl, standing there with a look of expectation all over her face, an expectant look she augmented by beginning to tap her right foot. The stranger's ears were ringing. He detected a metallic scent to her perspiration when she kissed him, and some of that perspiration and scent was left upon his upper lip--and it wasn't unpleasant; he found it outdoorsy, natural. He stood there, his weight back on his heels.
Finally the girl bent forward at the middle, causing the stranger to shift additional weight to his heels. Turning to her brother, she said, "This one talk, Franky? Have you heard a word out of his head since he pulled up?"
"Sure he can talk," said Franky. "Me and him's been talking about all kinds of things."
Then the girl seemed to have lost all interest in the mute stranger, who, by this time, had managed to go back and lean against the relatively safe haven that was the soda case, and she went and sat atop the table, before her brother; she gazed out the window.
"I thought you said you'd be pickin' weeds till dinner," said Franky to his sister.
"Oh, I picked a trayful, but then I saw your gabby friend here pull in and not drive on, so I thought I'd just come in and see who was passing through. Anyway, you can't get any sun; it's all clouds out there now except for the sun shining through a pretty circle in the clouds. Come see it." She got up, and Franky followed her to the back window just in time to see the last sliver of sun become overrun by black rain clouds. "Oh, shoot," she said. "I should have shown you right when I came in."
Then the two of them went and took their places at the table. Moments later the first fat raindrops began to sound on the tin roof; the brother and sister looked at each other and smiled. Franky stood up and edged around the table and stood by his sister. The racket on the roof increased, and lines of water limned from the eave above the back door. Then the girl hopped off the table and slowly straightened up to her full height beside her brother. "Shelter!" she cried. Then she gave her brother a firm shove, and the two of them raced past the stranger and out the back door, allowing it to slam freely.
The slamming of the door took the stranger's mind off the girl's kiss, and he found himself alone. Beyond the walls he could hear the boy and girl's whooping and hollering, and it was plain they were making their way around the house. They weren't outside for more than two minutes when they came clamoring back inside, panting for breath in between the general hilarity of their laughter.
Shelter was a game they played on rainy days. The two of them would run around the house, clinging as best they could to the walls beneath the eaves, and the winner was the one who was driest after making it around the house. Soon followed the usual argument about which of them had one. "Oh, then, let's ask him," said the girl, turning to the stranger. She led her brother by the wrist, and they stood before the stranger. "What's your name?" she asked.
"Joe," he said softly, the first words to pass his lips since the girl first barged through the door and cast her spell upon him. "Joe Bragg."
"Well . . . which one of us looks the driest?" she asked. Joe knew that she and her brother had been disagreeing about which of them was driest, so it wasn't necessary for the girl to explain to him her curious question. He quickly looked Franky up and down and then lingered some over the girl. Joe decided the girl and her brother were equally sopping, so the contest was declared a tie. The girl then got a disgusted look on her face and said that only someone with no guts would say it was a tie.
And then Joe Bragg said, just as gamely, "I think that someone with no guts would have said you were the winner."
"Oh, you do, do you?" she said haughtily. She stared at him for a moment and said, "I do, too." She smiled for him. She was lovely, even in her disheveled state. Her nose was freckled, and her hair, though rendered brown by the rain, he knew from before that it was blond and straight, and that, though now it clung like some serpent round her fine neck, its usual nature was to rest softly upon her shoulders, just as it had done when she had kissed him. He admired her spirit, but he was pleased that she was showing signs of warming to him.
"Taffy's not really crazy, mister," said Franky. "It's just that she's got no manners."
Taffy had moved toward the back door, leaving an unsteady and diminishing line of raindrops to mark where she had passed. "Just see how it's coming down now!" she said, causing the others to join her at the back door. And the rain was surging in its intensity, raising a terrific clatter on the roof. Then, following one last increase in its strength, the rain began to let up and then stopped altogether.
Calm was restored to the room, and the three held their breath better to appreciate the subtle sounds resulting from the brief storm: the clink, clink of drops falling from the roof and striking against the blade of a shovel left leaning against the back wall of the building, and then bursting into a fine mist and falling noiselessly into a trickle of runoff passing the width of the building, on its way to the swollen creek ranging east and west beneath the highway bridge just down the way; the thwack, thwack of drops on the rim of the plastic cat dish out front, now murky and undrinkable to a picky cat that was often treated as royalty--when it wasn't being swept to the floor from its perch on the soda case.
Like the rainstorm itself, these remnant sounds of it soon abated and were forgotten when the three young people resumed their places--brother and sister at the table, Joe Bragg atop the soda case. The girl asked Joe where he was from. He said that he was from Oklahoma, and that he was driving through Texas on his way to Mexico, where he would be spending his spring college break.
"How long are you off for?" asked Franky. "Seems like you'd just have to turn back by the time you got down to Mexico."
Though Joe considered his days as a college man behind him, for he didn't plan on going back, he said that the holiday was nine days long, plenty of time to see some of Mexico.
"What are you studying up there at college?" asked the girl.
"Oh... business," he said.
"Business?" she said, not approving. "If I was in college, I'd be taking something fancier than that. I'd be in music or art, something like that. Business. That sounds as dull as anything I've ever yawned over."
Joe hated hearing that, because he had lied to them about what he was studying. Truth was, he had been taking art--painting--but he thought people at this lazy Texas stop would find that sissified, and not something with which a real man would be involved. He wished he had back his statement about what he was studying in school. Then he thought he saw an out to his mess:
"Oh, business isn't all I'm taking. I'm taking painting, too."
"Painting!" said Taffy, her interest piqued.
"Sure. My trunk's full of all my gear. I'm going down to Mexico to paint."
"Oh, I want to see it! I want to see all your gear!" said Taffy, hurrying over to the front door, holding open the screen for the two boys. As if negotiating stepping stones, they stayed to the few patches of grass while traversing the yard. The going became messy as they neared the car, for the dirt running alongside the gravel road had become slick with sucking mud. Taffy didn't care. Without hesitating, she went on tough bare feet to the rear of the car and stood there with her expression of expectation on her animated face, while the two boys fretted at the mud for a second prior to leaping over it, Taffy steadying Franky after his rough landing.
"Oh, lift this thing," she said of the trunk, wringing her hands impatiently.
Joe found his keys and opened the trunk. Taffy leaned over for a glimpse at what an artist's tools of the trade might look like. It wasn't much: a box containing three sketching pads, four sketching pencils, an unused sandpaper pad, and one tube of paint missing its cap. "What's this ol' junk?" she demanded, lifting out one of the pads, fanning through it and finding only blank pages. "You said you were going down to Mexico to paint." She picked up the paint tube and gave it a squirt; nothing came out. "I don't see any paint here, but for this dried-up tube of it."
Joe was embarrassed. Thinking quickly, he said, "Don't you think they've got paint down in Mexico? I'm just sketching stuff along the way down there."
Then Taffy asked him where he kept his sketches since, by now, she had looked through all of his pads and found nothing. Before Joe could answer, Franky, peering through the back window of the car, said there was another pad on the back seat, adding that he was sure that one was filled with sketches ("masterpieces" was the term he used).
Taffy saw Joe's face fall when Franky said that, so she raced around the car and, finding the back door locked, opened the driver's door and unlocked the back one. She opened the door and had to wrestle a bit with Joe to be first to the pad. He released her when he found his arms around her waist and her frowning at that. She opened the pad and found a charicature of Joe's denim-covered ankles and his shoes. Then she fanned the pages, and the rest were blank. She saw the shoe sketch for what it was: something done by a would-be artist grasping at straws, one not knowing what to draw or paint.
"Here's what I think of this," she said, taking the tail end of his drawing, letting the rest of the pad dangle, then tearing the drawing in half vertically, handing the torn-off half back to its owner who stood still with it for a moment until it gave way and fell into the mud and gravel, one half of the abused drawing still in his hand, showing his ridiculous left shoe and pantsleg.
With a vengeance, Joe wadded up that half a sketch and flung it into the trunk. He slammed it shut. Still thinking the best of the stranger, Franky knelt down and retrieved the pad from the mud. As he rose up to hand it to Joe, his sloppy sneakers slurped in the mud. Joe looked down with disgust at what the boy offered him. Half the pad was sopped, and the chocolate liquid ran off the cover as if ashamed at what it had come in contact with.
"Aw, that won't be any good now," Joe said resignedly. "Get rid of it."
Franky looked all around. He wound up slinging it beneath the car, for it was plain Joe was right, the thing would be useless. Taffy had stood by, watching the boys, her arms crossed over her chest, shaking her head at them--mostly at Joe, who had begun to disappoint. She walked up to Joe, and he gave her an embarrassed smile, the kind a child might wear if he had just been caught weighing and shaking wrapped Christmas gifts.
"Well, I can see it all clearly now," said Taffy, gazing knowingly into Joe's eyes. "You're only a pretend painter."
"I am not," said Joe. "I just haven't seen anything worth sketching yet. I drove half of Oklahoma and half of Texas, and I still haven't seen anything worth sketching."
"Half of Oklahoma and half of Texas?" demanded Taffy.
"That's right," said Joe.
"And you think drawing your old shoe was better than drawing all the pretty things you must have passed on your way here?"
"What of it?" said Joe.
"Well," said Taffy, "if it wasn't for your car sitting here, I'd say you must have sleepwalked the whole way."
"Oh, go on. You don't know anything about it," said Joe, his self-confidence long lost, his self-respect going into hiding.
Taffy regarded him closely and began to take pity on him. Then she had an idea. She told him to open the trunk back up, which he did, and then she took from it one of the sketching pads and a couple of his sketching pencils. She said, "All you need is a little inspiration. Come on!" She took him by the hand and led him through the building and over the stepping stones to the small garden she kept behind the building.
Joe looked at her garden. There were tomato plants of various shades of wilted brown and green lynched on wooden stakes, none of them bearing fruit. All that could be said for the garden was that it was void of weeds; and there in the middle sat the stool Taffy sat on to pull them, the seat sheeted with rainwater.
She said, "Isn't it just so much prettier than anything you could ever even have a dream about?" She went to the back of the house and took from there a folding aluminum chair she sat in every evening so she could admire her garden. She walked the chair over to Joe, set it down for him, and handed him his pad and sketching pencils.
Joe sat down and began to sketch.