Category: Stories Page 2 of 3

Lost Loves Night at Sara’s Virtual Wine Club

Sara went next. She twirled the Merlot in her glass for a moment, then leaned in toward her web cam:


Job, as in the Bible character.

That was the name of the boy she dated all summer in the sleepy Vermont town where she’d just graduated from college. Job had long blond hair and looked a bit like Kurt Cobain around the eyes. He walked in one night to the bar where she worked carrying a small black sketchbook, took a stool at the end of the counter, and asked her for a Guinness. She was hooked.

This was the summer of 2008, when bankers and stock brokers were quietly popping pills and lying down in their beds or standing beside their skyscraper windows, though Sara wasn’t paying attention to the economy. When she wasn’t working at the bar, she and Job would spend weekends at his dad’s house at the lake. Job would sketch clouds or strangely shaped rocks from a lawn chair. Sara would lay out on a towel in her bathing suit.

One night, as they were sitting on the lawn drinking old-fashioneds Sara had made, they heard wheels kicking up the gravel. Two headlights flooded Job’s face. Before they could get up from their chairs, someone coughed in the dark and said, in a man’s measured voice, “Job? It’s Dad.”

Sara had never met a corporate lawyer before. She’d imagined, more or less, Cameron’s dad in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Someone who existed only as a voice on the phone calling his wife to tell her not to wait up. But there he was in the flesh: tall and thin, like Job, but haggard. A bit embarrassed. Job got up to help him with his bags while Sara stood awkwardly by. “Call me Hank,” Job’s dad insisted.

Hank, as it turned out, had very little to say about why he had shown up in the middle of the night, unannounced, over 100 miles away from his three-bedroom apartment in the city and the law firm where he’d worked as a partner for years. Wanted a change of pace, he said. That first night, he volunteered to take the upstairs guest room to stay out of their way, and he remained there, though he could barely stand up straight where the plaster ceiling sloped. The few things he’d brought he tucked away in the closet. He slept on Job’s creaky old twin bed with his feet dangling over the edge.

It doesn’t seem right, Sara told Job the next day when they ate lunch together in town. He doesn’t seem right.

Job looked at her with his soft brown Kurt Cobain eyes. Dad was definitely a weird dude. One time when Job was fourteen he’d left the family for an entire month (before the divorce) to hike the Camino de Santiago alone. He’d call every couple of days from random hostels to say he’d seen a truly spectacular tree or met a pair of elderly cousins who were nuns. Hank was a good provider, though; Job gave him credit for that. He and his sister never had to worry. After the divorce, he diligently appeared at Job’s soccer games, pecking out emails to his clients on his Blackberry, staring absentmindedly at the field swarming with children.

At first, Sara didn’t know how to talk to him. When she’d come over to their place on the weekends she’d avoid being alone with him in the same room. One Saturday afternoon she drove up to find him pacing the field in front of the house with his cellphone mashed to one ear. He was always hunting for a good signal. She brought in the groceries she had bought in town and had started frying garlic for marinara sauce when Hank walked in. He didn’t talk to her at first. When he did stick his head in the kitchen, he waved a big FedEx envelope at her.

What’s that, she’d asked. Proof, he’d said. As she started piecing it together (while boiling pasta, dredging egg-soaked chicken breasts through bread crumbs), Hank had cut his ties to his law firm. They couldn’t buy him out—not fully—but he was done. The end, Hank kept repeating, shaking his head. I just can’t stand to be there for the end.

That night the three of them took their plates out to the screened-in porch. A nice breeze had picked up. Hank brought down an expensive bottle of wine he’d bought in Italy. He told funny stories about Job when he was a kid and asked Sara about her customers at the bar. He never mentioned the firm or the end of the world as he knew it.

Soon after that dinner Sara and Hank began taking walks together in the woods behind the house. He knew nothing about husbandry; she’d grown up on a farm. While they meandered along the narrow trails, Sara stooping down occasionally to point out an interesting mushroom or a fern, they’d talk about New York, London, Buenos Aires, Tokyo—all the cities he’d visited, sometimes months at a time, living in fancy hotels on his clients’ dime. She’d never been to any of them. Sometimes Hank would talk about Job’s mother, back when she was young and beautiful and they didn’t have kids yet, and about the women he’d dated since—mostly other lawyers, a museum curator, a part-time cellist. They never talked about Job. He was like a birthday card you kept propped open on a desk. You knew it was there, you saw it every day, but you never picked it up to read.

The weeks went by and the nights started to get cool again, even though it was only August. Job spent his days in town now. Sara stayed at the house most nights, taking walks with Hank in the mornings, digging up huge rows of earth behind the back door to start a fall vegetable garden. Job had seemed more preoccupied than usual, but otherwise Sara hadn’t noticed much. When he came home one day, unexpectedly, in the middle of the afternoon, she was out in the garden weeding, her knees covered in dirt.

Do you have any idea, he’d said.

About what?

The world. The world out there. The economy. It’s all about to tank. And all this—he jerked his head at the garden, her bucket full of weeds, the house—look at you. You’re so goddamned…happy.

She’d stayed there a moment, the baby sprigs of kale prickling her bare arms. What she said in response, if she said anything at all, she couldn’t remember. She had walked into the kitchen and slowly washed the dirt off her hands in the sink, certain that she would never get to harvest those vegetables.

Within a week Job was gone. As he explained to her calmly, by email, his plan was to apply to med school. He’d work part-time in a lab and take the science classes he needed for pre-reqs. He’d live with his sister until he could get his own place.

They said their goodbyes formally, like adults, one night while Sara was working at the bar. He couldn’t stay for a drink, he explained, he had to finish packing. When she leaned across the counter to hug him, he recoiled just a tiny bit, then gave her a quick peck on the cheek. That was all.

For a whole week afterwards Sara kept away from the house. She thought about the woods. The new little vegetables choking with weeds. Hank. When she finally drove up one night after her shift, she saw a light on in the living room. There were boxes on the hallway floor when she walked in. A smell of something burnt came from the kitchen.

You’re here, he’d said, coming down the stairs with an armful of clothes.

They sat down opposite each other in the living room with the one lamp on: she on the ragged couch, he in the recliner. Like old times.

I didn’t know if you’d come back.

I didn’t know, myself.

You don’t want to join him? He’d like that, you know.

She shook her head. When are you leaving?

Soon. Hey, look, I’ve been thinking. Why don’t you stay here for a while? This is more your place than mine anyway. Spend the fall here. Stay as long as you want.

Here—alone?

Let me take care of you, Sara. For a little while. For Job.

At this she’d started crying. After a minute, Hank went to the kitchen and came back with a bottle of whiskey. He poured them both a glass, then sat down next to her on the couch. After a while he turned off the lamp. They sat in the dark, drinking and talking, until Sara got sleepy and leaned over, letting her head drop against his shoulder. She remembers him stroking her hair.

The next morning, she woke up on the couch with an afghan pulled over her. The boxes,  clothes, Hank—gone. On the coffee table, propped against a candle, he’d left her a note written on the back of a receipt: It’s yours. Below it were the keys to the house.


What did you do? Sara’s friends asked her through their web cams.

Sara shrugged. What could I do? I couldn’t stay there—not without the two of them. So I moved away. Got on with my life. Got a job.

Though I did run into Job a few years ago at our college reunion. He’s a doctor now—a cardiologist or radiologist. Two kids. I asked him about his dad.

Oh, didn’t you know? he asked me, a weird look in his eyes. He passed away years ago, not long after that summer—kidney cancer, an aggressive case. He was gone by Christmas.

No, I didn’t know. I’d never heard from Hank since that night.

Well, dad did pretty well right up to the end. He kept telling me, over and over, how he’d had the best summer of his life.

Nabokov id. 19

They’d been watching Kinton a while: he seemed distracted but distracted in a way that suggested he was listening as well. They could tell he was alone: no one moved around behind him on the screen, no lights went on in the other room as the day drew to its close.  He was fiddling with his ring.

Kinton, an infatuate of letters, was a failed OuLiPoet, as he liked to say.  He liked the way Perec and Queneau and Mathews and Roubaud said something serious by and through the constraints they had to meet.  He liked Nabokov too, and had vainly sought to write in the spirit of Nabokov’s great story “The Vane Sisters.”  But no muse, certainly no pair of muses, presided over his creation.  They could tell that he was brooding, and that for him brooding took the form of a kind of hypnotic distraction by quotation.  But when the previous story ended, he knew immediately that it was his turn to speak.  He shared a screen with title, epigraphs, and footnotes – nothing else; he must have typed them up while he’d had his computer off  earlier that day – and then began, holding out the ring for a moment so that all could see it in distorted but ephemeral close-up, and then began: “Do you see this ring….”

Kinton Ford’s tale:

This bank and shoal of time.

frigida pugnabant calidis, umentia siccis[1]

Shimon ben Shetach used to say: be thorough in the interrogation of witnesses, and be careful with your words, lest from them they learn to lie.[2]

Do you see this ring? It’s inscribed with cutler’s poetry, after that in The Merchant of Venice: “Love me and leave me not.”  And it matches Browning’s (“Do you see this ring?”) in matching another, as his did: one whose inscription I never saw.  Perhaps it matches Shylock’s turkis (turquoise) ring as well, the ring which disappears never to return, unlike Portia’s and Nerissa’s.  The ring, therefore, that truly symbolized his marriage – the ever-fulfilled promise of his marriage – to Leah.  That ring memorializes itself, as the golden bowl does in Henry James.

Looking at this ring as the plague burgeons now I think of the ring it matches, the ring it no longer matches, and which no longer matches it.  And thinking of Shylock, I think of the holy Sabbath he swore by, and of Sabbaths of my youth, learning Talmud with Jeffrey, when no shadow of what would be the future, what is now the present, loomed over us.

“The rabbis said that in the afterlife the highest reward would be the study of Torah.”  I remember Jeffrey quoting this quotation, with great earnestness and assurance, and remember my joy in thinking that I would be able to study Torah then, would know the necessary Hebrew and Aramaic, would be able to read Rashi without vowels and Maimonides. The pure study: So there would be no God there, no personal God, anyhow, though perhaps Spinoza’s God.  But no Spinoza, nor Rashi, nor Maimonides either.  Just learning, as we used to say, learning what they used to say, learning with a friend, like Jeffrey, a future friend who would remind me of Jeffrey: when you quote a quotation you’re studying Torah too, you’re throw upon the dangerous words of the wise, words ignited by Rabbi Eliezer’s radioactive warning, spoken in words like coals of fire: “Warm thyself by the fire of the wise, but beware of their glowing coals, lest thou be burnt, for their bite is the bite of the fox, and their sting is the scorpion’s sing, and their hiss is the serpent’s hiss, and all their words are like coals of fire.” (Pirke Avot 2:10)

Rabbi Eliezer came to deny the judgment and the judge.  He violated the Sabbath but he kept teaching: the words like coals of fire burnt all the brighter, all the blacker (like coals of fire) when they became their own judgment.  In these cases we still have judgment here – upon this bank and shoal of time.

“Shoal” is Theobald’s emendation of the Folio’s “schoole.”  They come to the same thing: the shoal of time, here on earth, is the shul where we can learn and go on learning.  The life to come? The same school, the same bank, the river flowing by.  Rabbi Eliezer made the river flow backwards, but the words were not in the river but in the Torah, in the words of those who quoted Torah.  That’s the only life to come, the judgment here of what the judgment will be.

I looked forward to that time without forwardness, but slowly time eroded and there was nothing to look forward to anymore.  The start of things, cold and heat battling, dry raspiness at war with the flood that would drown its sere fragility, looked more and more like the feverish end of things.  The plague was like any other in the history of humanity: some would outlive it and others not.  The end of things would be succeeded for some by other endings, but in the end all would end.

So I sought another life, another folding of the hands before sleep, in those long ago days, just days ago, when the river was in spate as the curve of the infected climbed exponentially.  Like Macbeth, like any millenarian, I took refuge in the present, in sin, in the continuation of sin: sheltered in the place of sin.  Where once sin had taken place in a place prepared for it, now it was the place itself in which I took refuge: the voluntaristic now of its commission.  “My world was split,” says Nabokov in Lolita, and the split itself may have been the source of “an incomparably more poignant bliss” (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2010.p. 18).  Remorse and repentance are forever, but sin is now, this instant, all else that might be near or might impend now far and forgot so I stayed sweetly, for the moment, witnessing from the shore the great onrushing tide.

Witness to this time of universal lying of course I learned to lie.  Not to Claudia, though of course I lied to her, but to Judith, whom I had thought of as the one person to whom I told the truth.  After all, only we knew what we were doing on those stolen afternoons.  The truths we told each other were about the lies we were telling, lies about the risks we were taking by lying to our spouses about how careful we were being.  The coming of the plague meant that there was no living in the past.  The past had known nothing about its coming, and so it was only the most specious of specious presents that shelter seemed possible: the speciousness of sin and betrayal.  When you sin, the punishment will only come later.  When you learn to lie you can go on lying.  Living a lie intensifies fear of death, but fear of death makes living a lie attractive, because at least you’re living.  Where there are lies, there is hope.

Time of course was short since neither of us could plead anything but necessary errands: for staples or liquor or medications.  Somehow Judith was calmer about that, though, and after sex I would lie next to her, lie in both senses, starting to feel anxious to go. While she rested, a picture of tranquility, I’d force myself to take slow and even breaths, counting a hundred long inhalations, then sometimes another hundred, before letting myself seem to stir, as though reluctantly forcing myself to confront the duty to get up and out, as though doing it more for her sake, so that she’d have less explaining to do if her husband wondered where she’d been so long, than for my own. The whole problem was that lying there after sex felt too open-ended to me, too boundaryless, and counting to a hundred “with moderate haste” established a boundary, and doing it twice, when I did, was reasonable enough since counting out the first hundred breaths gave me a sense of how reasonably long, how reasonably short, the second hundred breaths would be, and then I could stir, speak, gather up my clothes, prepare to say goodbye, embrace, kiss, press foreheads together in affectionate sadness, and be on my way.

And yet it was she who broke it off – was it just yesterday, or centuries ago?  I could see it coming – maybe I wanted to see it coming because that was the imminent event that I wanted to see: that and not whatever future the plague had in store. And seeing it coming meant a change in the way I looked at her.  I wanted to look at her face, more closely than ever, to see nothing but her, to lose myself in that sight and so pause that anxious, incessant counting.  Not that I didn’t know her face, but that I did. And I knew also the time that it would be the last time — I could tell, or almost tell.[3] I wanted to see her, years older than when we’d started, see clearly how old she was, memorize her face as it was now, in the present, the face of someone with me only in the present, who’d only ever been with me in the present.  The intermittent but complete intimacy of the hours we spent together was itself a kind of standing separation between us: that’s what made it only something ever occurring now (nunc: never jam to-day: “to-day isn’t any other day, you know”).[4] We could always look closely, completely, without ulterior thoughts, and so we never did: there was no need to memorize, since it was all there. But now I knew it wouldn’t be, and the only way to try to erode that knowledge, try to erode its truth, was to look intensely, to try to communicate that intensity to Judith, not to her character but to the face I had fallen to such perusal of, to make that intensity what made her completely present to me. Still, I think if I had known for sure that this was the last time, I might not have wanted to look so closely. If I wanted to look so closely it was partly with the idea that I could look again, that the passage of time was continuous, that what I was looking at was a moment in a process that would continue, that her aging face (and mine) pointed to a future, the direction that aging takes you in, a future that made her face all the more beautiful, more beautiful than it had ever seemed to me before. It was the beauty of consciousness or meaning that I saw there, or thought I did, the beauty of seeing a face that knew just what I was seeing and how.

This may have been my only experience of seeing without hiding. Seeing for me was always a reserved, secretive experience. If I was looking at something, it was to see, for myself alone, to take in what I alone wanted to attend to. Seeing and speaking were antithetical. To see someone’s face is to see what is invisible to them, and deep down that seemed to me a shocking privilege, one that gave me a strange invulnerability since they were reduced to the empirical and could not see nor know my seeing soul. But what I saw in Judith’s face was her experience of time, I guess, something not empirical. That’s what made her features so open. I don’t mean frank or candid, but unhidden, as though she was willing to be purely on the surface, willing to see without hiding, and willing for me to see her without hiding. If I could memorize it I would memorize the future as well. The passage of time that I saw in her face, that I memorized, would have to mean the passage of time, and when time passed it would be passing for us, and I would see her face again, see it like that. Its beauty was in its open consciousness of time, which meant consciousness of the future, which meant that I could see the future there, and that future was her face.

But it was not to be.  Looking at her so intensely had the effect of invoking the ending I meant to dissolve, and that day, a day like any other, I might have thought, she ended things.  Maybe because she looked more closely at me, responding to the way I looked at her.  After that what else was there to do or so?  I think, because I’d never looked so closely at her before that she’d never looked so closely at me either.  That was sin and hope and refuge at once: what other nunc-stans could there be?  Time to jam the tomorrows together.

I’d always wondered, but didn’t quite want to ask her, why she’d never taken off her wedding ring. Was it a reminder of her own moral objections to what we were doing? Her betrayal, however discreet, of her husband, who of course would never know about it, and never did find out? It seemed to me that keeping conscious of the sense of betrayal made the betrayal seem a little less complete, gave it an ambivalence that insulated her from being wholly in the moment, and so kept her at a distance from the act of adultery even as she engaged in the act. Or maybe it was the opposite, a way of intensifying the thrill. Which might be another way of saying the same thing. But that last time, when we parted, she sitting on the bed and me leaning against the desk, feeling devastated and distant at the same time, not crying although she was, not crying because she was, and I didn’t want to join her in the sad and satisfying mood of inevitability, of one final thing we were doing together, breaking up together, she told me that the ring was always for us. It was the clearest symbol, icon and reminder of what we were doing, the symbol of adultery, not of the marriage she was betraying, but of the betrayal itself, the afternoon hour or two every month, separate from the world of marriage and from the world itself, a separation and closure the ring etched into the daylit air of the room every time she moved, pressed into my own fingers every time we clasped hands.

In the weeks that followed, in that strange reverse divorce that ended our liaison, when she went back to her husband and then to other affairs, with or without her wedding ring I never was to discover though I couldn’t help sad wistful thoughts imagining either scenario, not thoughts saturated with jealousy but with unexpected loss, the loss of what I now couldn’t help imagining or the loss, more total, of the strange, unique thing the ring meant to her, meant to us as she had once thought of us, meant to me that last time when, because it was the last time, she explained it, and I realized that somehow that’s what it had meant to me, subliminally, the whole time — in those weeks I had trouble, as I still do, working out why I was so sad. I hadn’t thought I’d loved her, but perhaps I did, or perhaps this was merely a narcissistic wound, since I had always thought I would be the one to break it off, that I was the one temporizing from month to month, or perhaps the wound was to some conception of loyalty that we’d had: loyalty just to this, to meeting this way in this place outside the world, not outside of time but indifferent to what time measured in the world outside. I’d thought there was nothing we couldn’t talk about because our loyalty was only to being able to talk about anything, our trust was in feeling that trust here was unnecessary and therefore absolute, that we trusted this moment, these hours, as hours in which we didn’t have to rely on even the most attenuated form of trust. We were present like time and light, and we both knew that that was how we were present, the air still and neutral just as we were there, just as I remember how we were there. I think that back before the pandemic those hours suggested a future just like the past: the past was an affair of these hours every month or two, and the future would be too. That would allow me to turn my attention away from some really awful other things that were happening in my life then, happening mainly to some of my friends, things that it causes me great pain to think about even now, so that I could substitute this other pain, real, manageable, limited, unreal, however real it was as well, for what I could not bear to contemplate, events that I won’t go into here. Or maybe it was all of these things, since my loyalty to her was different from love but with its contours, different from life, but with the shape of something that looked like life: there hadn’t been a month that I didn’t want to break it off, but there hadn’t been a month when I felt that I could because I felt loyal to this strange space we’d somehow drawn out of space, and so I think that my loyalty was finally to her, to making her feel that what I felt was an unflagging love, not because I ever had felt such a love — that’s why I think much of my sadness was a narcissistic wound instead — but because feeling so sad was a way to make it seem that way to her, make it seem that I had loved her as much as she had wanted me to all those iterated months, was a way to continue to fake it when there was no longer any need to do so, so that I was loyal to the way I had made loyalty substitute for a love I did not feel. Maybe all in all just that is what love means, the love she needed to think had ended and had therefore been real and complete when she broke it off, the love I needed her to feel that she was breaking off, and so maybe this was a way of falling in love with her after the fact, loyal to the last, and having achieved a sadness I didn’t think I could ever feel.

I thought of those accumulated hours, accumulated months, as a strange impersonal time, beds I could only think of as empty, abandoned every night to the oblique nights we never thought of, nights without the glare of day solarizing tenderness into some shared, fixed intensity, days that seemed abandoned now forever, become whiter and whiter with that unstoppable solarization, till all that remained to me was the frame of the empty room, its perimeter.  Just as you can only see the inscription when the ring is off, circling its circling emptiness, glowing like fire, like a coal of vain indigo, deepening nothing.  

They waited a minute but he clearly had no more to say.  And it was too dark to see the ring anyhow.


[1] See Ovid 19 [Metamorphoses]

[2] Pirke Avot 1:9

[3] The Talmud speaks of the eight prophets descended from Rahab, and how you can tell the prophets from their descendants and ancestors.  Prophecy guarantees time.  As Hartley Coleridge said of his father, I was to prove no prophet.  On Rahab vide Nabokov, id. 19.

[4] The vanishing point? Nunc’s 0?  Vide Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, and especially in these frumious times “Jabberwocky” – and what the “toves did” (p.19 of Carroll’s 1896 edition).

The Cage

Editor’s Note: If you are viewing this story on a mobile device, turn the device horizontally to view it in landscape mode.

The cage took five days to arrive instead of two. It was a simple, black, one-door folding crate for extra-extra-large dogs, four feet long and three wide and tall. They set it up at the foot of their bed. It looked natural and unnatural, like a family heirloom and a thing that belonged in the yard.

“This is a cage for an animal,” he said.

“I love it,” she said. “I never want to leave it.”

She crawled in and curled into a fetal position, and he latched the door. The metal bars of the padlocks slid home with a satisfying click.


It became a challenge to Sarah, her internal Everest, to see how long she could stay in the cage before the panic swelled and she squeezed the button to send Caleb an alert. It was like holding your breath underwater; she could do it only so long before her body forced her to take a breath and fill her lungs with anxiety and the need to leave the cage. With practice, though, she was able to hold her breath for longer and longer until she could stay in the perfect emptiness for an hour, an afternoon, a day.

It was only logical that the other furniture needed to go. Caleb had to shuffle sideways between the cage and armoire to reach the bathroom, and he couldn’t see Sarah from all angles. He placed an ad, emptied and wiped the armoire, and covered the cage. When the movers came, he watched from the bathroom, a pistol at his side, and trailed them from doorway to doorway as they wheeled it out. Then he locked the door, wiped the doorknobs and remaining furniture, and put the gun back in its case.


Every morning he unlocked the cage and touched her calf. She would jolt and crawl out, stretch, use the restroom, and eat. She answered whatever he said in monosyllables, and he stopped expecting responses. She dressed in a conservative blouse and long skirt, he in a vest and tie.

When they were ready, they sat on the sofa and recorded a video for his congregation. He delivered a short sermon, a talk on a verse and the news, and reminded everyone to favor faith not fear, prayer not worry, but to be wise and cautious. He directed those in need to the pantry and those with employment to a charity. She smiled with her mouth closed and told the viewers to be well.

Afterwards, she would scrub the makeup from her face, shower, and crawl into the cage in her pajamas. He would change into white pants and shirt and watch her settle.

“I don’t understand it,” he said in the second week. “I miss touching you.”

“I know you don’t understand,” she said. “But I need it. I want to be negated.”


After the cage came the mask, then the earmuffs, the body suit, the bowls, the rabbit water bottle, and the bucket, all of it black like the interlaced wire of the cage.

“I want it darker,” Sarah said one day after Caleb left the room. “I want it to look like my soul.”

It was too operatic, she knew, but it was what she wanted. She wanted the darkness and nothingness wrapped around her like her childhood bedroom when she’d had migraines, the sun-blocking curtains drawn, the door closed, her head under the blanket. She wanted a darkness entire and complete, like the dark in a cave when you turn off your headlamp and listen to the drip of the water slowly enlarging the stalagmites and stalactites with the minerals left behind. She wanted a darkness you could feel, that you could reach out and stroke like silk. When she was in it, cage locked and senses nulled, she felt a total and pervasive calm.

After the armoire went the bed, their dressers, the dining set, the desk in the office and the furniture in the other bedrooms, until the only places with furnishings were their bedroom and the backdrop of his services. Their bed he replaced with a cot he’d had since his scouting days, and he moved the cross from above his dresser to the wall above Sarah’s cage.

“The space needs to be lighter,” Caleb said. “The energy needs to flow.”

Wide open spaces were what he wanted. He threw open the curtains and blinds and strolled through the house and looked out at the birds singing and dancing. Once, he saw a bird mount another, and he’d looked away. He supposed that, to the animals looking in, he might seem on exhibit, but with the furniture gone and the windows on the walls like paintings in a gallery, he could almost fool himself into thinking the opposite, that he was on a trip to a museum or zoo.


One morning in the third week of the cage, she didn’t put on her ear muffs or mask after the sermon. Instead, she crawled into the cage and arched her back and presented herself. He sat on the cot and sneered. She looked him in the eyes and sneered back.

He unzipped and squatted to insert himself between the bars, and she contorted her body and turned her head to take him in her mouth. He laced his fingers into the top of the cage, and the joints of it rattled with his weight. His groan became a growl and her whimper a grunt, their sounds like those of the unconverted, the damned, the animals in the field.

When his legs and her neck were too sore to continue, he lay beside the cage and they laughed. She held a bar with one hand and he wrapped her fingers in his. When their breathing slowed, she pulled her hand back and covered away her senses. He lay on the cot and watched her, the room holy in its barrenness and purity of purpose, the sight of her miraculous in its deprivation, the cross above her on the wall, her body curled up like a lamb’s in the grass.


What Sarah felt was anger at what they’d woken up. It was a primal thing that had lived in the dark and only been resting, and now she couldn’t ignore it and instead of the perfect quiet emptiness she could sense it breathing in a corner of the cavern. She added the last purchases to her ensemble, then, the pièces de résistance, a chastity belt with leather straps and metal chains and faceplate and lock, and a muffle that locked behind her head. But even with that she couldn’t stop herself. When she’d feel the walls of the cavern shake, she’d run her hands over the cage bars until she found Caleb, and she’d take him in hand.

What Caleb felt was a great, shuddering guilt. It wasn’t Sarah he was disgusted with, but himself, his answering lust when he entered the room and saw her in her cage. He took it out on her, prodded her with the broomstick and thwacked what he could reach with the wooden spoon until her muffled and pleasured moans made him lose control again. He found a counselor to speak to by phone, anonymously, and what she said was they weren’t deviant or damaged or traumatized, they were privileged and healthy and whole and only experimenting playfully. He’d hung up on her. It didn’t feel playful to him.


Two months in, she lay quiet in the cage, the slow rise and fall of her chest the only sign of life. He performed seven-, fifteen-, and thirty-minute workouts in the dining room. He flung books sideways at the hole in a cornhole platform in the guest bedroom. He stared out the window at a squirrel. Then he went to the cage and unlocked it.

She looked around like a blind person searching for a voice then kicked him as he grabbed her by the calves and pulled. She made the same grunt again and again through the muffle. He stopped only when he heard the alarm and realized she’d pressed the button. He unlocked the muffle and she clenched it in her fist, the straps hanging limp from either side.

“Red,” she said. She hadn’t lowered her mask, and she directed her face not at his eyes but over his shoulder at the cross. “Red, red, red.”

“I don’t think I can take it anymore,” he said.

“You’re not the one who has to take it.”

She strapped the muffle on and pulled the door shut, fumbled with the latches and locks until she closed them. He sat against the wall and watched her with his fingers pressed to his neck, his pulse quick as a bird’s.

Header image by Ihor Dudnyk.

Post Hanc…

This story is a slightly fictionalized, but nonetheless, highly accurate account of a conversation that occurred between myself and a good friend who—in the interests of privacy—I will name only as T hereafter. The conversation occurred via Facetime when we discovered, via texting, that we had both, in our quarantine induced boredom, watched an episode of the popular TV show Archer in which the titular character visits a version of the afterlife. This prompted a brief text exchange which, for all intents and purposes, was a means of prompting ourselves to have a more in-depth conversation over our own respective beverages of choice (red wine for T and Dewar’s for myself). What follows is a transcript of that Facetime conversation, with the salutations excised, even though T’s was rather…weird. I think it was Attic Greek?


MYSELF:  I’d always imagined hell to be whatever you imagined your worst day alive as. What’s ironic is that for me that’s probably the exact opposite of what life has been like under quarantine. To be stressed and out and about and working and interacting and errand-ing. The obligatory exchange, both figurative and literal, unnerves me. Were I to have to live it for an eternity I think I’d find it hellish.

T: Hold your tongue, fellow. Enough talk. I myself, the mind, am present to the blessed and good and pure and merciful – to the reverent – and my presence becomes a help; they quickly recognize everything, and they propitiate the father lovingly and give thanks, praising and singing hymns affectionately and in the order appropriate to him. Before giving up the body to its proper death, they loathe the senses for they see their effects. Or rather I, the mind, will not permit the effects of the body to strike and work their results on them. As gatekeeper, I will refuse entry to the evil and shameful effects, cutting off the anxieties that come from them.

MYSELF: So you see heaven or paradise as purely mental or spiritual?

T: I was deeply happy because I was filled with what I wished, for the sleep of my body became sobriety of soul, the closing of my eyes became true vision, my silence became pregnant with good, and the birthing of the word became a progeny of goods.

MYSELF: How much have you had to drink?

T:  (hurriedly) Holy is god, the father of all;

Holy is god, whose counsel is done by his own powers;

Holy is god, who wishes to be known and is known by his own people; Holy are you, who by the word have constituted all things that are; Holy are you, from whom all nature was born as image;

Holy are you, of whom nature has not made a like figure;

Holy are you, who are stronger than every power;

Holy are you, who surpass every excellence;

Holy are you, mightier than praises.

At this point, I was frightened. T didn’t look right. Didn’t sound right. Once the glossolalia began, I hung up on him.

I resumed binge watching Archer and at some point I must’ve fallen asleep.

There, T visited me in a dream.

However, he didn’t visit me in an embodied form. In my dream I was sitting on a bench behind a building. Letters appeared on the wall of the building and, instinctively, I knew it was T communicating with me.

PreFIRM YR ABLUTIONS

                                                PARADISE CLAIMS THE BODY &

ONLY                         MIND IS LEFT HERE  TO HAUNT

                                         SURVIVORS, …

I sipped the coffee I was drinking. Reading the illuminated text on this dream wall.

“Why are you communicating with me in this way?”

                                                          paradise claims

the                                                                       body

do not repent sin — sinner

“Are you in hell?”

no

“Paradise?”

no

“Limbo?”

in a way

                                  paradise        claims           thebody

“My….transgressions…my sins…my vices…will they…keep me from paradise?”

                                  they r

yr                               paradise.  prepare ye theway

“But…the drinking, the drugs, the promiscuity…the only damned thing about the quarantine that bothers me is the lack ofprepare ye the way

…”

“Paradise” claims the body

Here below, the evil that is not excessive is the good, and the good is the least amount of evil here below. The good cannot be cleansed of vice here below, for the good is spoiled by evil here below and, once spoiled, it no longer remains good. Since it does not remain so, it becomes evil. The good is in god alone, then, or god himself is the good. Therefore, Asclepius, only the name of the good exists among mankind – never the fact. It cannot exist here. Material body, squeezed on all sides by vice, sufferings, pains, longings, angry feelings, delusions and mindless opinions, has no room for the good.

“I thought you said you weren’t in hell…”

paradise claims th’ body bc         thebody            is what must be                                                        saved. . .

I woke up from this dream with a start. I picked up my phone and it had been blowing up with messages.

T was acting funny because it turned out he had a benign tumor in his brain that was affecting his language center. At a certain point it interrupted blood flow enough so that T had slipped into a coma and his girlfriend called for an ambulance to take him to the hospital. None of us dare go visit him, for fear of contracting the virus, as cases continue to grow exponentially. Whether he’ll pull through or not, we don’t know. Life and death, health and illness, these things soldier on in the face of pandemic, quarantine, isolation, loneliness, pain, lust, and uncertainty, And if one cannot be aware of the frailty of existence at moments like this when can we? And as a survivor of traumatic brain injury myself, the moment with T is especially fraught; I want to sit next to his bed, to hold his hand, to talk to him. Even if he is unresponsive. Who knows if the hospital he is in has enough PPE to do the surgery to attempt to relieve the pressure in his brain and restore blood flow. If he were to catch the virus, it would almost certainly be the end of him in this compromised state. And as someone that cares for two elderly parents, I simply cannot take the risk. But I like to think that, despite everything, T gave us the key to comfort ourselves in this delicate, liminal, frightening space: Paradise claims the body.

Coda

T still hovers between life and death, we still sit in quarantine, but I have spent a lot of that time thinking about what T meant when he visited me in that dream to tell me about paradise. It was to not fear frailty, to not judge onesself for missing bars, or weed, or making out, or sex. Part of the unspoken hierarchy of Western post-Cartesian dualism is that not only are body and mind/spirit separate, but that mind/spirit is superior or preferable. And to know that this site of longings and imperfections and vices is the part of each of us upon which Paradise stakes its claim means that we are, none of us, sick. We are, none of us, depraved. Or abnormal. We are as we are meant to be. We just pass judgment upon our imperfections. But no more. The body lives, the body dies, the mind judges, the spirit judges, but the body cannot be judged. It is claimed by paradise. I don’t think it is a coincidence that reappearing in the midst of this plague is another iteration of the old Cathar heresy that was so prevalent in southern Europe at the end of the Black Death. And that once the plague passed, the heresy did as well (aided by the Albigensian Crusades of course). But I hope, perhaps this time things will be different. Because we need not deserve paradise. Our vices are claimed by it. Our sins. We are, none of us, perfect, but we are, all of us, worthy of paradise. Claimed by it. Heirs to it. Rather than return to normal, let us return to the body and in so doing, claim Paradise, here on earth, for ourselves.

Regard Everything as a Dream

Ernesto sat across from his wife, Maria, on the balcony of their apartment in Rome, sipping wine. In spite of the beauty that surrounded them, he was lost in thought about his latest writing project, which expanded his thinking about the intensification of paranoid anxieties in times of physical vulnerability. In several of his psychoanalytic cases, he had observed that patients who were struggling with various illnesses described their symptoms not as indifferent failures of their bodily systems but, rather, as persecutory forces seeking to undermine their bodily integrity.

He had analyzed his interest in the topic and knew it stemmed from his own childhood frailty. Several times, his mother had told him, it was thought that he might himself die from various ailments as a child. Why were some people more prone to these paranoid anxieties? The baby, he reasoned, experiences his mother — bejeweled, intoxicating creature — as the source of all goodness. Because of his limited cognitive capacity, in moments of intense distress he experiences his pain as inflicted upon him by the mother. This, Ernesto felt, led to feelings of rage and fear that mother might punish him for that rage. Adults for whom these dynamics had been prominent as children were, thus, more likely to suffer from paranoid anxiety in times of physical illness, to anthropomorphize their ailments, relating to them in the same ways they had related to the maternal figure in infancy. All of this, he knew, was highly inferential, for babies did not formulate their thoughts in language. Yet he felt it captured the essence of the situation.

“Ernesto! Where are you?” Maria said, nearly shouting and rapping her fingers on the table.

“Oh, I’m sorry dear, what were you saying?”

“Dios mio, Ernesto!” Maria said, quietly now though her large, hoop earrings continued to shake. “You are barely here today, sweetheart. What is on your mind?”

Truthfully, Ernesto realized, he was terrified. Only a month earlier, Maria had been diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer. Although she seemed at peace, committed to doing everything possible to recover, he remained haunted by the diagnosis. When the doctor had informed them, his first thought had been, “Of course. It was all too good to be true.”

Over the coming years, she waged a courageous battle against the disease, pursuing every conventional and alternative medical therapy available to save, and then to prolong, her life. And yet in the end, her spirit, which he had once thought was utterly indomitable, was vanquished by the mindless tenacity of the disease. Their only conflict in those final months had been about this. “You must persist,” he had urged her again and again, tears in his eyes. He could see that his insistence caused her pain and yet he could not cease in his efforts to move her. Even then, a part of him knew that his insistence was egocentric, stemming from fear of the pain that he would suffer were he to lose her and from his irrational anger toward her for falling ill. When she finally died, a part of him felt that he deserved it, that he ought to be punished for his selfishness.


Ernesto realized, startled, that his laptop had been emitting a loud chirp for several moments. He had been drifting off into daydreams again, of a time long ago. Maria had been his wife for nearly a two decades before she had died after a long struggle with cancer — ten years ago.

Yes, theirs had been a whirlwind romance. Meeting at a psychoanalytic conference in San Francisco, he, a young but ambitious psychologist, had been drawn to her passionate intensity which was harnessed to a sharp intelligence. An Italian psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, she had been in the city to present at the conference, where he had first witnessed her mind at work as she spoke insightfully about the psychotic core, the nucleus of madness that lay deep within the minds of those who had suffered early trauma but had been covered over by layers of defensive character formation. He had been inspired by her as he had never been before.

He had, to his surprise, gathered the courage to invite her for a drink that evening. The pair sat across from each other in a dusky, San Francisco bar, night having descended upon the city long ago. As she spoke — what she had spoken about, he could scarcely recall — sipping her Cardinale, the blood-red tonic somehow accentuating her straight, jet black hair as it swirled in her cocktail glass, he reveled in the intensity of her focus upon him, an attention that stemmed from her own need to be understood. He found that he was hungry for it, nearly feral, as if he had lived without something essential for his entire life without even knowing it.

He now understood that as his wife and lover, Maria had provided an important maternal function that he had, as a child, lacked. When he was only five, now so long ago, his own mother had died suddenly. There had been no intimation that her body was turning on her, just the caprice of human frailty: a vessel had burst in her brain and she had expired before his father could even gather her into the car for the ride to the hospital. Ernesto had walked in, home from school, as his father sat on the floor, tears streaming down his face and cradling his now dead-wife. Over the following year, his father had taken on all the responsibilities of parenting, a gentle a competent man. The loss had nevertheless left a absence deep within Ernesto’s soul, though usually covered over by his well-developed intellect and ceaseless ambition.

After that fateful night of cocktails in San Francisco, which ended with Ernesto accompanying Maria back to her room in the Westin Saint Francis hotel, the couple had remained in nearly constant communication, though separated by half the world. And within the year, he had relocated to Rome and, six months later, opened a practice in the same suite as his soon-to-be wife. He behaved with a spontaneity, even impulsiveness, he had never witnessed in himself. The first years of their marriage had been deeply enjoyable and that enjoyment had deepened into a steadfast, committed love. Her death, after a long struggle, had been shattering and he had clung to his work as a drowning man to a life preserver.

He was glad that she had not lived to see the plague. The virus began in China, apparently making the jump from snakes to people, and quickly sweeping throughout the country. The world watched as the Chinese were decimated. The pestilence resisted every measure taken to contain it or ameliorate its assault, from enforced isolation to intensive regimens of antivirals and antibiotics. Inevitably, it made its way around the world. The president of the United States, his breathtaking arrogance on full display, reassured the population that there was “nothing” to worry about, even as scientists said otherwise. Within two months, the States had been torn apart, their medical facilities overwhelmed and millions dead. The situation had been worse in less developed countries: there hadn’t even been enough healthy men to carry away the dead.

Italy, where Ernesto remained, had done better. The population had been ordered to shelter in place early on, forbidden from leaving their dwellings even for food or medical supplies. Government trucks dropped rations of food at street corners, which could be picked up by family members wearing gloves and masks. In spite of these precautions, the hospitals were quickly overwhelmed and most medical personnel were, as far as he could tell, deceased. As these events unfolded, he could feel the cold grip of fear begin to take hold of his spine. He worried, at times, that he was losing his hold on reality as he started at old photographs of Maria or paced back and forth in his apartment, the sounds of sirens and weeping drifting in from the streets. Yet he was committed to carrying on with his patients, both to serve them and to maintain his sanity.


“Regard everything as a dream.”

In this time, he often thought of his supervisor, an esteemed Italian psychoanalyst who had been his still point as he made his way through the rigorous training to become a psychoanalyst in Italy. As a young psychologist, it was impossible to imagine that such a man would have taken him into supervision. Yet Maria, to his eternal gratitude, had interceded on his behalf. The two had formed a generative relationship. Speaking in an accent that always seemed to Ernesto to have an enviable flourish, his supervisor frequently reminded him that everything patients say must be regarded as a dream, as an unconscious communication about what is happening on a deep emotional level between analyst and analysand in the psychoanalytic session.

Even as he moved his sessions to the computer, meeting face-to-face through video chat — a decision that would have been unthinkable for an esteemed psychoanalyst such as himself in times past — he held tightly to his supervisor’s advice. This, he was certain, provided him with enough distance to survive the onslaught of symptoms — bleeding noses, sweating foreheads, and finally vomiting and diarrhea — that had besieged his patients. At times, though, he had been unable to maintain the prescribed analytic stance. Only the night before, waking in bed in the middle of the night, he felt that the world was pressing down upon him, threatening to bury him alive. It was as if the universe was animated by a malevolent force, its cold eyes upon him.

Now he clicked the green “Accept” button and, after a brief delay, Linda, appeared on the screen. Her face was pale and streaked with tears. On her chin, he could see several dark black splotches. Blood, perhaps? Ernesto didn’t speak but, instead, waited for her to begin the session, as was the usual custom. As he waited, the small muscle beneath his right eye twitched repetitively, betraying his tension. When she finally spoke, her voice was rough and quiet.

“I am so tired of fighting, doctor. I simply cannot resist anymore.”

To his surprise, Ernesto deviated from the prescribed parameters of technique. With an avalanche of rage, he yelled at the screen. “You must, Linda! We all must fight this damned affliction. You must survive!” He stopped, shocked at his indiscretion, even as tears began to fill his large, brown eyes and his body shook with emotion that he could not name. There was silence as Linda looked into the screen, her eyes surprised at the display of passion from this man who she had come to know as only steady, reasonable, and reserved. Finally he spoke again.

“I must apologize, Linda. I do not know what came over me.”

Suddenly her hand rose to her mouth as she began to cough, first once and then a second time, her shoulders shaking with the effort. Her body seemed small and frail, a pale imitation of the woman that Ernesto had worked with for nearly eight years. When she drew her hand back from her mouth, it was covered in sticky, black blood. She gasped quietly, her eyes wide.

“I cannot,” Linda said once more, her voice even quieter. With that, her body slid downward in her chair, disappearing below the view of the computer’s video camera. He heard her body land upon the floor with a quiet thump and then there was silence, save for the hum of the kitchen appliances that he could now see, occupying the space where previously Linda had been.

Ernesto sat, stunned. After nearly half an hour had passed, his mind cloaked in numbness, he clicked the red “End Call” button. His eyes were rimmed with tears, though his mind remained empty and cold. He stood and walked to the door of his apartments balcony, a place where he and Maria had shared so many wonderful memories. It was here that they had dined most evenings, sipping wine as they watched the passerby’s in his historic city. It was here, he remembered, that they had last made love, pulling an old futon mattress out onto the balcony, hidden by the covered railing. She had been so frail then, her body assaulted by the drugs intended to save her life. Opening the sliding balcony door for the first time in weeks, he stepped outside, the cool breeze making goosebumps erupt on his pale skin. He listened for the sounds that usually animated the city he had come to love. Yet now there was only silence.

An Exam

This non-fiction piece describes events that took place in the mid-eighties in Communist Romania when both abortion and contraception were illegal. The Communist dictator, Ceausescu, took this decision after returning from a trip in China, when he concluded that he was too great a president for such a small country, and an increase in population was necessary. The poem used as a motto here was very famous at the time and its author was taken away the right to publish.


An entire nation
As yet unborn
Yet condemned to be born,
Fetus by fetus,
An entire nation
Doesn’t hear, doesn’t see, doesn’t get it,
But carries on
Through squirming female bodies,
Through the blood of mothers
No one bothered to ask.

“The Children’s Crusade” by Ana Blandiana (translated from the Romanian by Alta Ifland)

I don’t remember what year of college it was. Was I a freshman? A sophomore? I really cannot remember. But I know I was in college, and that year, all female students—who, in the College of Philology, outnumbered by far the male students—were told that they were not allowed to take their exams unless they presented proof that they had undergone the obligatory gynecological exam the female population was subjected to. Women who were employed—and almost all adult women were—were forced to go to regular checkups through their workplace, but, until then, students had somehow managed to dodge that. Until someone from a high position of authority found a solution—someone, very likely, endowed with two balls and a penis, and who was, therefore, exempt from such exams (unless the order came from the dictator’s wife herself)—and now, as I walked into the exam room (not the gynecological exam, the exam for French literature), I wondered which of the students would have their “proof,” and which of the professors would ask for it.

It was a beautiful, high-ceilinged room with dark paneled wood all around in an elegant, nineteenth-century building, which, like most old buildings, was very cold. The natural coolness of such a place was exacerbated by the endemic lack of heating during those years, which meant that in winter we had to wear our coats inside, and steam came out of our mouths as we debated the difference between symbolism and the decadent movement or mal de siècle. I should add that at the time, students had to spend most of the day in those cold halls because we had forty contact hour per week—a way of making sure we were all accounted for, and not up to God-knows-what—and by the time classes were over, we were like frozen twigs that could snap if you just touched them.

But this must have happened in spring because it wasn’t too cold. I walked up to the long desk on the podium behind which sat two or three professors from our department, the chair included, all women. In front of me there were two other female students. The first student took a small piece of paper from her schoolbag and gave it to the department chair, a woman in her early forties, who gave a satisfactory nod, and then she, the professor, gave the young woman another piece of paper. So many years have passed and some details have been erased by time, so I don’t remember why those strips of paper were so small (literally, about two square inches or so); all I remember is that the first piece was the “proof,” and the second one contained the subject of the exam (it was an oral exam, so it was a different topic for each of us).

The first woman in line and the department chair had done their paper exchange. The next woman in front of me—I don’t recall her name, but I can still see her face, a large, open face with long, light brown hair—stood in front of the professors and, showing her empty hand, explained that she had nothing against the exam (the gynecological exam, not the French one), but had refused to subject herself to it because she’d heard from students in other colleges that they had gotten infected with STDs from the gynecologist who had examined dozens of students one after another without gloves. Her statement, which had been made without resentment, only with a certain negative energy, was followed by an uncomfortable silence, which was ended by the department chair. She was not sympathetic to what she had just heard. She mumbled something dismissive and said that she would allow the student to take the exam (the French one), but she still had to undergo the other exam. When it was my turn, I extended my empty hand toward the chair’s in order to take the piece of paper with the subject. She looked inquisitively at my hand and I stared at her blankly. For a few seconds no one said anything. Would she dare ask for it? She did. Reader, I am trying to give you as true an account as possible, so I must admit that I don’t remember exactly what I said. All I know is that I let her understand I had no “proof” and no intention of getting one. She repeated what she had told the other student, this time in a more aggressive tone, and on that condition only she allowed me to take the exam.

Now, you are probably applauding my “courage,” thinking, Good for her, she “resisted,” etc. Oh, you are so wonderfully naïve! So, wonderfully, Americanly naïve! Let me just add that in those days failing an exam meant repeating the entire year, and my parents would have never accepted, or been able to afford, that. And, in the event that I had been expelled from college, I would have had to take a job, which would have brought me in the end to the same gynecological table.

We all went together. We were rounded up in class—it was a class of literature, not French literature, something else, but, to be honest, I prefer to avoid being more precise here in case the professor in question ever stumbles upon this piece, which is unlikely, but you never know. The door opened suddenly, and the department chair came in and notified us that the class was going to be suspended and we were all going to go to the gynecological exam, together with the professor. This announcement provoked an audible gasp among the students, who began a heated discussion with the chair. As the female students voiced disagreement, I watched out of the corner of my eye the male professor whose class had been interrupted. He was a man in his late forties, a famous scholar in his field whom I respected and even liked as a person. As the female students were trying to decide what was worse, to lose a whole year and even risk being expelled from college, or get an STD, the professor had taken a nail file from his pocket and was busily filing his nails.

Eventually, we all went—the docile ones who had accepted the situation from the very beginning without question, as well as the rebels, who had initially declared that they would rather be expelled than subject themselves to this. And the professor too. We were about twenty girls or so. Twenty girls and a male professor walking down the downtown streets toward the University clinic as if on a field trip. It was a beautiful, late spring day and we too were beautiful in our early summer, colorful dresses.

We arrived at the clinic and for several minutes stood in front of the building, still trying to negotiate a way out of it. Again, the professor took his nail file out of his pocket and got busy. Around him, a bunch of young women blabbered about the lower parts of their bodies, while the male professor was…well, what could he have done, really? We entered the clinic.

The hall was full of young women and every several minutes the exam-room door opened to reveal a short, portly man with the face of a badger—oh, I remember him well, yes, I do! He was the only gynecologist for the entire clinic, and he had to examine thousands of young women within a few weeks. He did not wear gloves. In his defense: where could he have found them? In those years, a handful of doctors in the entire country had gloves—those who worked for the nomenklatura. Health care was free (that is, if you don’t count the bribes one had to pay for everything, the cigarettes, the coffee, the meat, the soap one could find only on the black market, and which could add up quickly to a monthly income), but it came without gloves, anesthesia, or medication. There was no gynecological table either. Instead, a chair served the purpose, one of those uncomfortable student wooden chairs with metallic legs. Honestly, I don’t recall where the women were supposed to place their legs because by the time my turn came, the man was so behind schedule the exam consisted of a … breast exam.

This was the scene: several, maybe four or five, students were shoved into the room, and there, they took their shirts and bras off, and the doctor … here, I am not sure what word to use: “examined” would be the appropriate one in such a situation, except that what he did had nothing to do with what a breast exam normally consists of. The doctor touched the women’s breasts, he touched them in a way that was both pro-forma and obscene—I know, a contradiction, but this is what it seemed like: the man had to fulfill his workload, and since the number of patients was so large, the only way to do it was perfunctorily. But how perfunctory can a gynecological exam be, after all? Just waiting for all those women to undress would take forever, so the “breast exam” was, obviously, the best alternative. Eventually, we each got our little piece of paper and took it to our French exams.

Now, you may wonder: but what was the point of the exam? Wasn’t the (obligatory) gynecological exam done in order to reveal a possible pregnancy? Sure. Then, what’s the point of a breast exam if it cannot reveal a pregnancy? Well, that is, again, a wonderfully naïve question. I failed to explain that all this took place in the mid to late eighties in Romania during Communism, and one thing specific to Communism is that everything functions so poorly at all levels that even repressive policies can only be partially enforced because of overall inefficiency. So, the next year when we showed up for our oral exams, some female students had the tiny piece of paper from the doctor, others didn’t. This time, some of the professors admonished the rebellious students, others simply shrugged their shoulders.

It’s not just that abortion was illegal—there was no contraception available whatsoever. And yet, women refused to give birth. They inserted hangers and wires inside their uteruses, they died by the dozens of thousands, they went to prison, and even when they carried their pregnancies to term, their bodies rebelled against birth—yes, I remember discussions with doctors at the time, who claimed that a strange phenomenon was happening, that a suspiciously high number of women wouldn’t dilate properly when giving birth.

I remember an aunt of mine who, for several weeks walked around with a tube inserted in her uterus: she went to work, washed dishes and chatted, all the while hosting that alien thing inside her body until one day a piece of bloody flesh fell in her underwear together with the tube. She took a break, went to the bathroom and returned several minutes later to resume working in the kitchen, after discreetly dumping a small package in the trash. I remember conversations between my mother—my mother who was, and still is, like most Romanians, quite religious—and female neighbors, or mothers of childhood friends.

“How many did you have?” (Mother)

“Thirteen. And you?” (Neighbor)

I am not going to tell you how many abortions my mother had—it was less than the neighbor, but still, quite a high number. The same question, addressed to the mother of my best childhood friend elicited the answer “Almost forty.” You may find this hard to believe, but think about it: if you are sexually active for, say, thirty-five years until you reach menopause, and during this time you have no contraceptive means available, and your husband has no sexual education, forty pregnancies sounds quite plausible. But can you wrap your head around the life of a woman who undergoes more than one abortion every year, each time in secrecy, never knowing whether she’ll succeed or end up in prison? Can you see the life of this woman, what she must feel when her husband comes near her at night, the never-ending, gnawing worry, can you see this life? Can you see the lives of millions of women, “the blood of mothers/No one bothered to ask”?


I wrote this story after many states in the Trump administration began adopting anti-abortion legislation, which, like many other recent events, brought back memories from Communist Romania. When you read this piece think how easy it is to make anyone, university professors included, accept the unacceptable. And next time you feel tempted to praise free healthcare in Cuba or any other Communist country, remember that healthcare in the above story was free too. The lack of gloves and medical equipment weren’t due to a “crisis”—this is how we lived for almost half a century. 

Header photo by Scott Edelman.

The Portal

Subject: Day 19 of 2nd region wide ‘recalibrated’ lockdown
[unspecified frequencies]
Time started: 9:30 a.m. Eastern Time
Location: West of the Capital


He left his car keys in the fridge. I paused from minding the tv.
It was agreed that the last beer was mine.
I wasn’t ready to die. Therefore, I took it.

A state funeral was taking place.

Each had earlier received a notice of clean bill of health from the state’s medical workforce, or what’s left of it after waves of infections cut down nearly half of its uniformed personnel in charge of the health of remaining heads of state.

All eight of them were asked to serve as pallbearers to the chief of the ‘pangolin’ state: three especial moneyed sycophants, two military ‘persons in command’, a forex advisor who came early with two other companions, a zoo owner and an old mining czar, all arriving by chopper.

The original pallbearers would be replaced by five alternating teams.

All were at one point in their lives procurement lawyers.

‘Luckily, all the children were gone,’ I said to myself, as the news followed the funeral line cut through the main roads of the capital, even at this point encountering few pockets of resistance, ‘what silliness!’ I added, as the event, anyhow, decided to redeem itself.

With Pied Piper-like effect unfolding on television screens and online news channels, a throng of remaining infection-free state devotees, wearing no protective suits, went along the slow funeral lead.

I rushed to look outside.

I wondered, ‘since when did she learn to speak Portuguese?’

3:38 p.m. A local reporter for foreign news channel in hazmat suit started yelling with bootless effect in live coverage of the parade. ‘You are witnessing behind me the most indolent relapse into non-stupidity!’

The thing is there were roadblocks all around, hurriedly assembled on orders of the state during the early days of rioting.–

Roadblocks consisting of antiquated army trucks, WWII air force and navy vintage tonnage (the entire armed forces in an otiose display of defense preparedness), stacked up on critical choke points by hundreds of tall cranes, ballast tractors and flatbed trailers, massive front-end loaders working in the inner cities in droves.

At 4:45 pm., more than seven hours since the funeral march started,the media is now reporting that the final order of the state was supposedly relayed through the adjutant of the chief of the quarantine police, at this point presumed dead or infected, a former cleric turned jeweler before he was recruited in the academy.

The adjutant, according to a police defector in the news, warned that the city’s defenses would fall sooner than expected.

He conveyed his apprehension to few non-commissioned officers in the army who were mixed with their division to form a combined defense corps, some of them broke ranks upon seeing ‘his’ list.

Losing the army’s entire tank divisions to plague infection and defections in the air force lowered the morale of the remaining services loyal to the regime.

Apparently, the final order was to re-enforce the barriers using thousands of impounded cars, defective ambulances, shopping carts, beer and carbonated water cases, not to mention tons of junk refrigerators, aircons, automobile and computer parts, even body hair removal machines…

…’all sorts of industrial scrap, combining with hundreds of full gravity flow fuel tanks, truckloads of wood piles, tree logs, and repurposed stumps, mining rubble piles, all dispatched from the provinces, starving wild animals still in their cages – everything in ‘his’ list would have formed a whole ‘climate change’ footprint consisting of top-heavy defenses to protect the state’s last remaining stronghold.’

The news anchor was reading from a list.

{‘Money couldn’t buy you Cohiba.’ I muttered to myself as I went about with a cigarette in hand to return to the balcony}.

Not that it escaped the news channels, but the boundary between reality and all the panic bordering on the unspeakable quickly merged into a stunning pastiche of maximum alertness. In addition to a preposterous trailer hoard of ‘blessed icons, and liturgy booklets’ to redouble their defenses with, there were to be, in an itemized list tucked inside the adjutant’s front combat pocket,

‘eight more shiploads of pre-Vatican sanctuary lamps;

two tanker volumes of communion rails;

an Olympic swimming pool storage capacity of decades’ old credence tables;

four hectarage of cheap ablution cups,

all the churches’ pews in the whole central region, detached from their floors, which could overload two cargo planes, the last to land in a heavily bombarded airport, south of the capital, among the worst-hit by the pandemic;

thousands of broken tiles, once parts of churches’ naves,

and a regular marine invading division truckloads of lavabo dish,

including precious wooden panels from choir lofts one could imagine spitting tunes of muted church songs from all the dead children in the world, tailored to forgettable occasions, name it,

baptisms, weddings, and funerals.’

No sooner the pangolin state ground to a halt.

The adjutant and his crew fled into the inner cities.

5:32 p.m. News reports indicated that the ‘last additions’ were all incredibly amassed by select squad teams of the quarantine force under the ground orders of the chief in charge of the roadblocks who was the first to succumb in his unit to faith starvation, later joining the piles of corpses he was supposed to wedge a protective barrier from.

Anyone who survived the first assaults knew this.

There were hardly any supermarket, grocery, and pharmacy around, triage centers, near public sinks and common wash-hand basins, outside of the only government hospital still functioning which decided to restrict its emergency room services to uniformed and medical personnel, sick or wounded in the battles. The dead ones among them were no-brainer.

A number of private hospitals were the first medical facilities to succumb to the social fuses of collapse, burned down by a group of youth insurgents, combining forces with hundreds of army deserters, security assets, led by an air force mutineer, with the rank of a major, sans the assault choppers and fabled aircraft under his command. The allegation was these hospitals had been infested by money.

6:00 p.m. These are the ones fortified by the most capable crowd control units of the leftover police and military corps, down to a pitiful undersized yet combat-ready platoon manning a 50-meter radius for each defense post duty, skilled to carry out mass extermination by sheer horrible instincts, turned on by the fear of lethal microbes wiping out exposed human populations with natural precision and brevity.

But this was before the final human tsunami overwhelmed the ‘Bureau of Trolls’ building that was constructed by the state three years ago (giving in to public pressure).

{‘The media was having a field day’}…

It became the last command post, where the government was protecting vast stockpiles of farm and vegetable seeds, food and essential supplies that could last for several months to ride out the rebellion, stored in a mammoth airconditioned steel vault, built in secrecy during the early surge of the plague, after the state retreated in rapid stages from defending the lifelines of the cities, and after rheumatic and pneumonic diseases cut a swathe through the ranks until the killer fever set in.

Besides the plague, implanted cadres reported that there were still sizeable columns of infested hordes physically capable of wreaking serious damage, armed with stashes of automatic weapons, army explosives, unquantifiable caches of ordinary warheads, mortars, and counter-assault equipment used by government troops in the early days of the siege. Their eagerness to go ahead with the final push reflected the fact that they were racing against time before the affliction reduce their bodies to urban rats’ daily intake statistics.  

Despite being plague-ridden, and abandoned by their old units, these imbedded agents chose to remain loyal to the regime by feeding information to every quarantine post they found, using the old technique of wireless telegraphing during the day, in exchange for ‘washed meat’.

Now lacking a central ‘diversion’ committee as in their heydays, the funeral party had to literally shovel themselves away from the physical ruins of their cowardly depravity. This time they couldn’t pass up the chance to celebrate defeat.

This is breaking news’ [media announcement].

6:45 p.m. {‘chomping at the bit, the media was complaining of a long coverage that beat all purposes of buildup.’ ‘impatience was compounded by the fact that their ground correspondents had to cover the event in hazmat suits, maintaining a lazy distance from the funeral.’ ‘there were a handful of drones left to sweep an air coverage’. ‘chopper news pilots refused to fly.’ ‘and how the parade managed to go past these enormous blockades using only hand tools was a mystery to many.’ By now the godhead was leading silent torch-bearing funeral attendees past the old treasury building.

Ahead of the frontward pack of the deathly parade loomed the most strategic of all rallying points. It is the biggest place in the capital, renamed in honor of a 70’s revered swindler.

They were making a noble sacrifice for the surviving herd despite widespread infections among them. What also defied explanation is most of the survivors refused quarantine passes at the height of the pandemic.

Now they knew it’s time to comply…

Thousands of hungry hordes, unable in the early days of the riots to push beyond crowd control units unleashing brutal weapons of a massacre, now with little force required, stormed into what used to be protected high-tiered communes, close societies’ mansions, spotless garden-decorated villas, all gates left opened by the last caretakers to man them before scarpering on their own, upscale condo units of stir-crazy owners who rushed to the city’s most historied place the instant they heard the news. The pangolin godhead is dead!

Some wealthy political clans from nearby provinces flew in with private helicopters to get to the capital for the chance to meet their Maker. There were incredibly thousands of them, enough to build an enormous war machine, except these hordes were extraordinary for their unexpected mute demeanor, much to the amazement of, still in comparison, thousands more left, now following the tv coverage and internet feeds in newly found but now infested colonies, from a previous population of millions decimated by the starvation apocalypse.

7:58 p.m. Online news feeds were still showing what happened during the early swell of resistance, leaving thousands of dead, mostly seniors and children, rotting adult corpses littering on and about the major city thoroughfares, deserted inner streets, minor road arteries that follow discreet tunnels of water distribution systems that border on dense citywide grids of garbage regulation underground. State workers using power shovels from the early days of roadblocking were ordered to pile up the corpses in run-down meat factories that used to supply a third of the region’s monthly consumption.

City officials also banned burning the corpses and mass burials as encouraged by health authorities before the rioting erupted, a last-ditch effort to leave the naked alternative to the food rationing nightmare to bare survival instincts.

9:15 p.m. {At first, I couldn’t say I was familiar with its origin. I must have read it somewhere.

There was an old edition of Blue Mars, at least. An open crate sits beside the bottom rim of a small private collection bookcase. To the right of the boxed set was a 59-inch Futura column lamp.

It’s only now that I noticed I’ve been staying in the balcony since before dawn, on the 31st of a 40 high-rise, making quick side-glances on the television with puzzling news feeds flashing on the screen, each already offering a final coup d’oeil at the simmering spectacle, terrible head pounders in caffeine overdose!}

Before being overrun by a workers’ union, an international news agency revealed that some of the local rich families managed to escape the country. This was before a news blackout was planned which came to force nationwide only after an incident was lodged by an old couple about the presence of a mass grave on the southern tip of the region.

Curiously, what began as a trend in megapolises overseas, local corporate news channels weren’t also spared from the labor takeover. Spreading the news of the death of god was day one of the new face of broadcast media.

{} It was then that I started to feel something approaching behind me; a cold movement of insidious, quietly amassing force, sleuthing close to my back… I was tempted to swing around… No.

… [Like forcing lilies for Easter, I was beginning to recall its origin]} …

State media outlets later dismissed the place as a fake farm; still one among many fake farms reported on police blotters across the capital by similar suspecting couples.

10:56 p.m. Feeling somewhat relieved to recall, as the other local news channel aired before sundown, that it’s not going to rain for the rest of the evening, I smoked my last stolen cigarette, from a leftover pack that, in his rush to leave the building to join his comrades in the pyre, must have slipped the 3-bedroom size unit owner’s notice. The signatures of his lifestyle reflected the room’s modernist fluency, its slickness to a fault with wisely measured room temperature was once the gold standard for cloud-specialists.

He left his car keys and his phone in the fridge.

At the height of the food riots, anyone’s phone contacts were either dead or had given up betraying their locations to the outside world to seek help from friends or relatives wherever they might be. The army retaliated using geotagging systems to send in vicious tank convoys, mortar and machine gun hellfire, and leaving a trail of carnage. By the second week of rioting, only few select areas of the capital were exempted from citywide suspension of mobile services, signal jamming and frequency blackout for radio broadcast.

I paused from minding the tv.

It was agreed that the last beer was mine.

I wasn’t ready to die. Therefore, I took it.

From the balcony, I was regarding in the skyline the penthouse of the closest foreign-owned hotel to our place, with all the dimming light of the stars from distant galaxies I could harvest in the atmosphere above (alas, the pink moon was still weeks away), from around the range of the high wind blowing unsteadily, perpendicular to the floor level of the building where I was lucky to be brought in, just to help my failing sight. Surprisingly, there were no reports of sporadic takeovers of foreign-owned hotel consortiums sprawling through a popular boulevard, near a foreign embassy, and across the now haunted beachside, casinos and relaxation resorts, all the fancied bathhouses that once preoccupied my adolescent daydreams. I ended up being a priest.

11:34 p.m. A ludicrous life-size graduation portrait, one from a certified male egotist, joined the rest of pricey furniture that lent the place its true character. Along with other movable assets, the condo unit would be divided according to three-person carving up scheme, take it or leave it. Speaking of the picture, it was leaning on a soundproof wall to the left of a large thick vinyl sliding glass window facing what’s left of the skyline. The old world (was it?) was drawing to a close.

An odd couple was preparing the late dinner. They were the ones who proposed how to split the booties. ‘It was the reinvention of democracy,’ I thought. Like cutting up a pretentious looking oar with a certain gauge thickness that only a jeweler’s saw could divide up in precise equal parts.

I recalled a pair of Maine Coon and a band of Brazilian shorthairs were also to form parts of the constituents of ‘the’ theory.

I glanced at the dining table. For the last time, I thought pets were not allowed in condos.

At the heart of the city’s biggest square where the funeral swarm was expected to camp out, a large bonfire was lit to the deafening roars of an eager front crowd, how they broke their silence was a ritual invented almost as instantly as they stepped into what they took to be the main entrance, smelling of diesel oil, their febrile mockup faces a ghoulish mural of combustible physiognomies, excitable dummies of flammable gas, as they set their way in to complete the march of the largest assembly ever organized in pandemic days.

On the northernmost tip of the square, facing the sea, a giant portal hole, rushed to completion by all the best engineers commissioned by the state (this was a media habit that didn’t die with the old world: the ‘entranceway’ hype was catching on), which was supposed to deliver the body of the godhead, and his devotees to Abaddon, was beginning to behave, everyone in the room couldn’t mistake what they’re seeing at the moment, like the bad mouth of a tv evangelist spewing fire and brimstone. ‘This is still a developing news’

I decided to face the couple now who were gearing up to jump on the weirdest impulse that’s about to drown them. I’ve never seen them so anxious. ‘Where did they get the wine?’ ‘Where are the neighbors?’

They rushed to the dining table.

A shorthair in a serving bowl.

I said, ‘I’m leaving in two days.’

They must have heard me, then quickly regarded the portrait on the wall.

All eyes now on an officer jacket, hanging on the floor lamp; then, fretfully, on the ‘Carne de vinha d’alhos’.

It was the woman’s voice.

It occurred to me now why the phone was stuck in the fridge.

4:20 a.m. ‘Day 20.’

photo by @MIkeElliott

The Date

He lives outside the city walls. But the suburbs are no refuge now. He does not understand what is happening. His nature was always to fear the worst. But now his complacent view of what is worst has been shaken. He cannot assess the degree of inadequacy of his imagination.

As were his ancestors before him, he is inside a small, dark room, before a screen. But if he confesses, it isn’t to a priest. This is a wholly different rite, but one well-observed, this frequent recourse to a tool whose mechanisms he also does not understand. (For now, they are working.) But as he stares at the screen, a voice speaks, suggesting a camaraderie of confusion. From this he can take some comfort. He likes the notion. Uncharacteristically, he wants to join.

He tells a story:


The park seems deserted save for the two of them. Pigeons wander on the concrete slabs. They approach: him first, then her. Neither pays any attention to the birds. He leans back against the slats of the bench on which they sit. He appreciates the hard feel of the wood pressed against his spine: something familiar, reliable. He wants to stare at her, but doesn’t let himself do so. She is looking at the dry fountain filled with shreds of last fall’s leaves.

“So I’m not here and you are,” he says, looking down.

She nods. Her phone spans two slats of the bench’s wooden seat. “And where are you right now?” she asks.

“Same place I ended up yesterday. Home. On my night-table.”

“Still in bed at this hour? Lazy, aren’t you?”

They’ve been here for more than five minutes, but nothing has yet been decided. He can see no one else, no sign of anyone or anything watching. But you never can tell. It’s time; past time.

She stalls, to his disappointment. “So you’re naked then,” she says. “Just you. Plain old you.”

He thinks about pulling out the lining of his empty left pocket, but decides that would be too silly. “Yes,” he says. “Just the way I’ll come to you. Unconnected. With the brim of my baseball cap pulled down low.” He shows her how. “And they haven’t implanted that chip yet.”

Was that a joke? Must be, she thinks. But it alarms her that she’s not sure. Even so, she grins, and he responds with a slightly amped up version of the smile he’d thrown her yesterday when they saw each other for the first time, crossing paths in this park. They’d talked very briefly before he’d interrupted to explain why he had to take a quick walk back to his apartment, two blocks away. Of course that was always the key step. Would she be there when he got back? She was. Then they’d had a longer conversation. Not too long, he hoped, though he’d never seen any evidence of cameras in this space. Yesterday, they’d wasted no words. But now that it was time for yes or no, they were delaying.

 “So tell me again,” she says, stumbling over the phrase. “When was it over?”

“Three weeks ago. Four, probably. I’m fine. I’m safe.”

“Then why would they still track you?”

“Because they can.”

She nods, thinking. Does she trust what he says? And even if it’s true, is four weeks enough? Some experts disagree. Outliers, she hopes and believes. After all, no one is safer than a survivor, the conventional wisdom claims.

“Once I leave my place,” he is saying, “they’ll be no way for you to reach me. I’ll be like destiny, heading right for your door. No way to avoid it. Me, I mean.”

She rolls her eyes.

“How far from here did you say your place is?” he asks.

“I didn’t,” she replies. “Not really. But it’s not far.”

“Then your destiny is already nearly at your doorstep.”

She laughs and decides there’s some droplet of cleverness about him. Better to be thought corny than dangerous.

She, too, looks around for faces or cameras. She makes up her mind.

She tells him her address and asks if he’s sure he can remember it. He nods.

They agree on the day: tomorrow. And the time: Noon.


He has told his story. He feels some satisfaction and much shame. Was there not some better use of his time? But what would that have been? He can imagine responses to these questions. But he finds none of them convincing.

The Forest of M.

All the things that are happening now – the pandemic, the war in Syria, bush fires in Australia, Brexit, the Whakaari volcano eruption – all of that is the fault of my grandfather. He caused it all by being a good man and a loving father, but nothing could excuse him, and he knew that. He just dragged on his existence in the home for the elderly and contemplated the end of the world. He thought how different everything could have been had he been more steadfast in his faith. He had one thing to do, and he failed at that.

It was a nursing home for veterans, for he had been a soldier, took part in the battle of Stalingrad, went all the way to Berlin. He must have been one of those good Russians, I hope, one of the few who didn’t pillage or rape, coming back with no foreign watches or jewelry. He was also older than other soldiers. He was lucky (he said) that they let him serve at forty. Otherwise, he would have forged his documents. He was going to fight regardless of his age, regardless of the fact that he had a young child at home.

Not that he ever felt safe in Moscow. One night in 1939, my grandfather heard the apartment buzzer, and said goodbye to his wife. He was sure they were coming to arrest him. Three men stood on his threshold, but they didn’t ask him to come with them. They just stood in the hallway for a few minutes shifting from one foot to the other. “Perhaps they made a mistake,” thought my grandfather. He even offered them a drink, but they declined. After they left, my grandmother started giggling nervously. She laughed and laughed, she just wasn’t able to stop. My grandfather should have slapped her face, but couldn’t bring himself to do it.  She went on laughing until she sobbed and exhausted herself, and told my grandfather to thank his Jewish God for saving him. 

Less than a year later my father was born.

My father worked in a chess factory. He carved little figurines out of wood. He could make them very small and very special, every figurine possessing its own character. Each of the sets he carved was unique, and the factory sold them abroad for a lot of money. That’s why they kept him despite his drinking. He was a quiet drinker. He had the humility of the man who knew he should have died, but didn’t, and who should have been a vehicle for something higher than himself, but wasn’t. He was just my father. He was just my grandfather’s son. And instead of boisterous twins vying for their birthright, he got me, an oddball whom no man would marry.

Every weekend my father and I would visit my grandfather in his nursing home. The few hours we spent there seemed interminable. My father rarely made it through the journey sober. Grandfather, enraged that my father had shown up drunk, cursed at him, my father shouted back, and the hours were spent in incessant bickering that made me want to cover my ears with my hands. Or, if my father was sober, no words would pass between them at all, and we would waste our visit in complete silence, interrupted only by sighs.

Very late in his life my father told me about what happened in the Forest of M. It was the year 1953 (or was it 1954?), so he must have been around fourteen. It’s a pity he wasn’t more precise in his recollection, because sometimes I think that the death of Stalin had something to do with it, and thus I am curious whether it happened before or after the March of ‘53. But my father’s memory was muddled. He said they had gone to the forest: my grandfather had promised him a campfire. If they were camping, then it couldn’t have been winter. Or maybe they went to get some spruce branches for the New Year, for each Soviet citizen celebrated the New Year. Then it could have been winter after all. But he made no mention of snow.

My father said they went into the forest, and the deeper into the forest they went the more his suspicions grew. He had seen his father put a knife into his pocket. He thought: “My father wants to kill me.” With each step, he was more convinced. His father (my future grandfather) walked behind him. My father turned his head and saw the look in his father’s eyes. He thought again: “My father is going to kill me,” and he started running. His father ran after him. They ran silently, desperately, through the thick Russian forest. Then my father’s leg gave out and he fell. He lay helplessly on the ground, for he was a slight fourteen-year old, or maybe even thirteen. He saw his father come closer, the knife in his hand, about to stab him. 

“How could I have known,” asked my grandfather at his son’s funeral forty years later (he died of liver cirrhosis), “that the voice I had heard in my head while queuing in a canteen was really the voice of God? It might have been a delusion. It had asked me to sacrifice my son, my baby. I almost did it. But then I threw the knife away. I helped my son to get up, and carried him home. I loved him more than anything. I guess I loved him more than the world. 

“On my way home,” he said, “I looked up at the sky. The clouds parted, and I beheld the disappointed face of God. Then I knew that we were all doomed, and that it was my fault. I asked God: let me just bring the boy home. 

“And He let me carry him.”

Rondel

Filomena having told her story, the queen commended her, and bade Gabriele speak. He said it was his purpose to tell us of how what may seem to be chance is no such thing, and is often within our ken. Asking for our permission to tell a story of a time of pestilence, such as ours was, he forthright began thus, in the dry and simple manner that befitted him, as he was not from Florence, but from another place and another time.


The first one was the one who lived just some way to the left. The signs were obvious only in retrospect: a tell-tale weariness around the eyes, an uncertain gait, hoarseness. O. was not sure he was truly remembering those signs, given how much others talked about them later. He was fairly certain he had not seen him past the initial stage.

The next ones were his neighbor, who shared a small cottage with his dog, and his friend in number 5, who visited him often. (They never seemed to talk much; they mainly sat to drink tea and play chess on the courtyard, with a desultory air about them.) Nobody thought it important, or rather O. did not; he overheard their situation being mentioned when he went to get bread.

The season had been even drier than usual; there was barely a spot of green on the slopes, save for the olive trees, and dust seemed to be everywhere. But then, in that place, dust was even more of a feeling than a thing, almost a moral condition. Otherwise it would not have seemed less present in places that were opposed to it, as ideas: the canal, a town clock, the street in front of a well-kept place. It was also less of an issue if one just did not care, or had long decided to refuse to be bothered by it.

Then it was the third house, and the place next to 5, predictably, but also number ten. At that point it seemed to be all that people could be heard talking about. Some things transmit by vicinity and by affinity, thought O., but then of course they would; people who do the same things tend to meet, even if one of those things is taking walks alone. At least that is how O. pictured 10 and the man with the dog now, walking up by a crag with no apparent purpose. Or perhaps it was only 10 that he had seen that way, once; still, he felt as if there was something else that the two men both did or had. They were middle-aged and thin, with wrinkled faces.

It was around then that he who fell ill first died. People came from out of town to take him away — relatives perhaps, and someone who looked official.

Then it was 4, and the old woman in 15, and 7; or perhaps 11 and 12 were first. It was all predictable. People should have tried to leave before then. The bridge down the road was now closed, and gendarmes had come to set up a barrier on the uphill route. Of course people should or could still have left in some other way, had they wanted to. Number 12 was friends with 10, and was said to have gone to cook for him and help him. Three and 15 were related in some fashion — 15 was an old aunt, though others said she had really been 3’s mother’s housekeeper. Perhaps 3 had paid a call before taking his cough seriously, or whatever it was that went wrong with him first.

O. did not himself have relatives in town, or anywhere in the province. He also had no friends, or anybody he particularly cared for in one way or the other. He had come years ago, and had imposed on himself a certain discipline. He would read and take care of his own needs. Above all, he had wanted to be left to his own thoughts, and to have fewer of them, letting the less relevant and more futile ones die out. He kept a diary and tended to a small garden. He had no visitors. If he had anything in common with anybody else, he did not know it; even if there were such a thing as transmission by affinity, rather than contact, the only person he would get something from, he thought, was himself.

The curfew was imposed after the beginning of the next wave. He first heard of the case of 16. The curfew was strict, and obeyed for the most part, though nobody from elsewhere stayed to enforce it. After 16 came 13. Maybe that was just the order in which others said they knew about it. (O. went to town to buy chickpeas and more bread; that, he was told at the shop, was still allowed.) Also 17, of whom O. knew nothing, save that, like 11, he had a pet canary, whose cage he would hang outside when it was sunny. Or sunny but not all too sunny. Perhaps 17 had been ill before 16, or around the same time.

Then nothing seemed to happen. There must have been few people left to ask. O. stayed indoors and rarely looked outside the window. He recorded what he knew in his diary; then he would read, or sit at the desk and do nothing at all. Time seemed to plod on with deaf dullness; the walls were ochre and dull, the bare tree outside was dull, silence and his mind were also becoming dull.

The next time he went to town, a good number of days later, everything looked bare and uninhabited. There were signs of abandonment; wild plants seemed to be just starting to grow roadside and in cracks. A faint hint of a familiar aromatic herb wafted about the old sundial.

Walking across the empty town square, O. saw 9, and talked to her from a distance. All was well with her, said 9, but everybody else was gone. Perhaps 14 was still there; all others were gone. 18 had fallen very ill more than a week ago; he had got it from 15, most likely.

At that point, O. knew that his turn had come; time was up for 9, time was up for himself, and nobody would be left, not that it mattered. Of course it had been fairly quick, it had to be fairly quick, and of course he could have foreseen it.


Such was the story told by Gabriele. While Filomena found its conceit clear and simple, others were not of the same mind. When the queen asked her to explain it, she began to speak on this wise, saying it was only seemly that some facts that ought to be known to all first be set out, so that all could exercise their wit in seeing by their own devices what was already clear to some.


Modular arithmetic for neophytes.

Consider the hours on a clock. (It may help to label noon/midnight as 0 rather 12, but in the end it makes no difference.) Three hours after 2 equals five o’clock: 3+2 = 5. However, we do not say that three hours after 10 is thirteen o’clock, but one o’clock. What we have here is a system where 3+10 = 1. Substraction works in the same way: three hours before 4 is one o’clock, but three hours before 1 is ten o’clock: 4-3=1, 1-3=10. We can even multiply in this context: setting the clock forward by five hours four times is the same as setting it forward by 8 hours (54 = 8), and that is in turn the same as setting the clock backwards by 4 hours (54 = 8 = -4).

More formally and more generally, we can define arithmetic modulo m, where m stands for a positive integer of our choice. (In the case of a clock, m = 12, or m = 24 if you have a 24-hour clock.) The idea is that two integers are put in the same equivalence class — that is, are declared to be “the same” — if their difference is divisible by m. (“Divisible” means “divisible without leaving a residue”: 36 is divisible by 12, and so are 0 or -12, but 35 and 37 are not divisible by 12, and neither are -35 nor -37.) We go back to our examples: the difference between 1-3 (= -2, in the usual arithmetic) and 10 is -12, which is divisible by 12; the difference between 5*4 and 8 is 12, which is also divisible by 12.

The usual laws of addition and multiplication (e.g., commutativity, i.e., “the order of the summands (or factors) does not affect the result”, etc.) still hold. A number does not change if multiplied by 1, or if 0 is added to it. Zero times any number is still zero.

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