The man at the other end of the note bought her a coffee. They sat on the veranda, he lost behind sunglasses, she exposed and verdant in Italian sunshine. He touched her hand first. He touched her hand first. She squeezed his fingers and staggered through the debris of words learned from a dictionary and practiced in a mirror. He rose. She asked him where he was going.
The cat is waking up. Antje sucks a breath and drops water on its lips. She strokes its cheeks.
She found the cat in the lobby, swept aside with a pile of dust. She’d nudged it with a trainer and it hadn’t moved. It wasn’t until she’d knelt down and put her ear to its chest that she’d realized it was alive. It had lived in a bassinette since then. Antje often sits with the cat, rocking the swing, feeding it when it has the strength to open its lips.
Now the cat is waking up. Antje puts it on her shoulder. There is a little heartbeat underneath the skin, next to her ear.
Later, the cat is on the couch beside her, sleeping. Antje has one hand in its scruff, the other on her belly. There is a little heartbeat there, too, but more muted and much deeper. The television is on. In Labrador, a bus full of senior citizens has slid off a highway and into a stream. There are policemen helping old people out of the water. No one is hurt. No one has died. She watches to make sure that everyone is okay.
He assured her that olives taken from the tree were clean. They tasted like oil, she found. He brought her down to the old path, so beaten that it would one day carve off a portion of the cliff and drop it into the Mediterranean. They went to the first of the five villages along the shore, it quiet with siesta except for the young woman who was cleaning a bistro that had no menus. They ate bread and drank wine from steel cups. Do you want to see the next village? he asked. All of them, she said. All of them.
Antje opens the door and rushes to the bassinette. The cat is purring. It has been moving around. She takes it out and puts it on the ground, lets it eat out of a dish that she has heaped with food.
“You have an appointment tomorrow,” says her sister on the phone, as though Antje has forgotten.
“Pick me up at 10. Can you bring breakfast?”
Hanne grinds her teeth, as though she would like to say no. But she cannot. Antje hangs up. Tomorrow is far away. Tomorrow is so lost that there is no hope in her but for seeing it eventually, as it creeps under the doorway, filters through the window, announces itself with the voice of someone on the radio.
A little moon creature is kicking in her belly. A cat is eating from a dish. She goes to a cupboard and pours herself a drink. In the first sip, she sees what tomorrow is going to bring: how it’s going to provide a laugh, how it’s going to take it away, where she is going to go, what she is going to say and to who. The second sip is richer, sweeter. Tomorrow is just a word, she thinks. She is by the window, sitting on the sill. She is drinking and feeling and that is enough.
On the beach of the village, there were hundreds of people. Some were laying on rocks in the water, backs arched and hands splayed. Others were rising and falling with the waves. A woman was running in the surf, screaming that she had lost her wedding ring. He laughed and asked her to come with him to his family stall, a birchwood hut with no roof. Forget these ombrellone people, he said, as though she were looking at anyone else. Inside the hut was a pressed lettino, next to a nightstand heaped with books. She lay down with him and looked at the sky through the square opening. Clouds crept into view, then were gone. Voices came, and passed beyond. There was the sound of the Mediterranean. He was speaking his language now, not bothering with what he knew of hers. She shivered, and soared. Grasped for the sky. Tumbled into the firmness of the lettino, until it had her. The door may have opened. Eyes may have appeared in the space of the missing roof. There is no rain here, he assured her. No need for shelter, or for hiding. We are outside. There are no walls. And as he said it, the sun crept into view overhead, burning away the shadow. Soon, it was all that she could see as she lay there with him, as their skin baked underneath rolls of sea spray, within the memory of shadows that were forbidden in the air of that small cabin.
Hanne gives Antje a cheese roll. “What is wrong with your eyes? Why do you look like that? Did the doctor say anything about it?”
“No,” says Antje, eating.
“Did she say anything else? How is the baby?”
“All is good. In two months, you’ll be an aunt.” In Antje’s ears, it sounds like a bribe. She hopes that this will be the last of it, but Hanne persists. Antje tells her what the doctor said, everything.
Hanne takes her to a diner, because she does not feel that she brought enough food. “I don’t understand your shape. You are pregnant but look so thin. You were always thin, even when you were fat.” She says this with a smile, as though Antje will recall some funny joke that Hanne has been saying for years, but she cannot remember it, does not know what this means. “I am going to move you into our house next week.”
Hanne’s teeth rub. “To take care of you, what do you think? We have space. You stay with us. We take care of you. Very simple.”
“I can’t,” explains Antje, and lays out her reasons. Hanne has an answer for all of them. Each excuse that Antje can give has been planned against, as though this is a type of warfare and Hanne is a general who is practiced at moving her troops over the board to trap Antje. To surround her. To require her surrender.
Antje puts her hands up. She is going to be shot, she thinks. She is going to die. But then she remembers, “I have a cat now. Hanne, I have a cat. I can’t leave the cat behind. I just can’t.”
This is a weapon for which Hanne has not planned. She stares as Antje chews on bacon and eats jam from a pouch.
“My children are allergic,” says Hanne.
“I know. I’m sorry. But thank you, Hanne, for trying.”
She walked to the other villages alone. She hadn’t expected him to reappear, no matter how many olive groves she visited. At the next village, the trees had been spoiled, the olives infected with fly larvae that looked like slugs. They served wine in glass at the last village. It was the place he lived, and though they had not promised to see each other again, she hoped to catch a glimpse of him so that she would understand his life. In a café filled with foaming cappuccino – overwhelmed by the taste of cinnamon and ground clove – she began writing. Words came, the ones she had been looking for all along on this trip, the same ones that had not been available earlier, tucked as they were in a tin box she had left far across the sea. Her handwriting looked unfamiliar, but there were twirls on each letter that pleased her. She was writing on the subject of that man, about whose life she knew nothing – but yet knew enough to fill in the spaces he had not shared, to reveal his story as she chose to do.
Antje retches. In the mirror, her hair is shrinking.
“I would have to give you away,” she says to the cat, still unnamed, as she considers Hanne’s offer again. “I would have to see you leave. I cannot do that, can I?”
She is drinking beer. But it is raining outside, and beer is not enough for that. Vodka mixes with orange juice until she can barely taste it. One hand is on her belly. The other is raised to her lips. The whole world is quiet. It is completely alone.
“I have you,” she says to the cat. “I thought you were gone, but you woke up. You woke up. You did.”
When the bottle is finished, she makes a phone call. The deliveryman knocks on the door instead of pushing the doorbell. Antje stands off to the side with the chain on, as though she is afraid of intrusion, but really it is to hide the shape of her belly. She thanks him and he is gone, and then she is on the couch, and then there is no orange juice left, and then the beer bottles are swimming on the floor as the cat pushes them about. They clink and sound like music, accompanied by rain that does not seem it will ever end.
In the middle of the country, she found other characters: a military man who rode a bicycle to his garrison, an old grandmother practicing tai chi, a despot writing his pamphlets of protest on a park bench. They melted into her words. She melted into the memory of them. And the story grew. It burgeoned beyond its bounds, willful with a life of its own.
The television is dead. A bottle tried to come out of it, and is now stuck in the glass. The rain has stopped. Antje is looking at the mirror. There is a stranger in her apartment, who wants to take her life away. This stranger has no name.
“You can’t have it,” she says to the stranger. The water is running. It is running and running and running and it sears her fingers whenever she puts them into the stream.
Flying west over the Atlantic, she felt as though she would miss the old land. As though she had become a part of it, and that going back to the new world was a stamp of disrespect. But when she landed, there were people there, everywhere, and they were happy to see her. She hugged them and kissed them as she had never done. But she did not tell them about the lump in her satchel, the collection of paper that she had finished in the air, resolved with a final flourish that now lived deep within her. It’s a book, she wanted to tell them. But instead she had said nothing.
“Eat,” she tells the cat, laying out more food. She falls. Her head is spinning. Her fingers are blistering. She drinks.
There is a stranger in her apartment each time she passes the window. Outside is black. She turns the music on, but it will not work. Something is wrong. She tries to sing, but this is not what Antje knows how to do, and she cannot remember any words from any song. She picks up the phone, but it is dead. It is broken into pieces.
The next time she goes into the bathroom, she smashes the mirror.
She found a place to stay, something to keep her busy, but it was that lump in that satchel that kept her connected to the places she had been. She opened it often, surprised by the words, that they looked as though they had been composed in her handwriting but surely couldn’t have been. It was not what she knew how to do. But the characters were there, beckoning to her to come back, to stay with them. Asking her why she had chosen to leave.
Antje bleeds from her hands. She finishes the bottle. Yes, she thinks, there is a collection of old thinking and ancient thoughts bundled between two blankets in the closet. She pulls it out, chews on the paper. She wants to take it back in. To reverse the flow. To make it hers again, because somehow it came out of her and somehow that diminishes who she is and what she can do. The words are unfamiliar. Written by a stranger.
The glass is sharp. It hurts a great deal. It hurts and never stops.
She found that she did not know, after a while, the person that had given her the greatest hope she had ever had. Something was growing within her. She could feel it move. Could see its face. Knew that it had something to say to her, its own story that it would like to put in front of the one she had made in a place far away, and then come here to forget. She had forgotten. But this other story was growing, and nothing would stop it. Nothing.
She cuts. Slices into her abdomen. It should hurt. It should scare her, this pain. But it is just part of a story, a new one, and she cannot wait for the one inside her to finish its tale. She cuts. Blood drips on the floorboards, pooling around the beer bottles. The cat is drinking it. She puts her hand into herself, through the jagged opening that she has made. Feels her soul. It is right there. It is right there, and she pulls it out.
A bundle of paper is on the couch. Her bloody handprint is on its cover, surer than any name, purer than any identity she could imagine.
She is screaming. Beer makes that go away. The last drink is shattered glass in her mouth as she pulls a story out of her. It is found, fleshy, and tied to her. She cuts.
There is no mirror anymore to guide her hands as she sews herself together. She cleans herself with rubbing alcohol. Drinks. The cat is in the corner. It looks dead but she knows that it is not. It is just sleeping. She puts her ear to it when she is done repairing herself. A little heartbeat is right beneath the skin, muttering away in a land made of dream.
She goes to the bassinette. A little body is curled there, totally still. The mattress is thick with blood. She swings the child. She gives it a name. She remembers a story. She forgets it again. Antje wonders that the little thing should be so still. She rocks the bassinette, knowing that in time, the child will wake up. She will put her ear to it in an hour, a day, a week. And suddenly its heart will be beating. Suddenly it will make a sound and open its eyes to look at her. She knows that this will happen. She knows this because a new story is growing inside her, telling her that it must.
<<<<<this was a tough story to write. I was going to put a warning at the beginning, but decided against it. I hope it doesn’t bring anyone pain, certainly not my intent, but please know that if you need to let me have it in the comments, I welcome that discussion if that’s what’s warranted.>>>>>