My Watson, he makes a mockery out of everything I say. His lips part and meet, subsequently exposing and concealing his slightly crooked teeth. I stretch out my fingers to teasingly brush the three inflamed stripes on his lower jaw. He backs away, shocked, and I know I’ve crossed an invisible line. I’ve touched him on the inside without taking his clothes off, moving his three faces—the one I know, the one he knows, and the one no-one knows— through his broken skin.
I went up the attic yesterday, and I
called your name. You weren’t there. So I
scrolled through, the endless posts,
in which I thought I had inscribed your presence
you weren’t there.
My brother Chris had once told me about architects who knew how to heat up walls of stone. The idea behind this construction was actually quite simple: inside the hollow walls, the architect would place metal tubes that conveyed boiling river water. The tower in which we had lived for so long, so painfully long, had always been cold, so I assume that its builder had not known this little trick, or had been unable or unwilling to utilize it otherwise. The former I could believe easily; as I climbed the long, spiral staircase, it again occurred to me that the tower was oddly built. The higher you climbed, the narrower the corridor walls became, so that I felt my shoulders scouring painfully against the walls. To make matters worse, the steps of the marble spiral staircase were unpolished and uneven; an ignorant visitor could easily stumble and break his neck and the narrow walls would clamp a fat individual long before he or she would reach the top of the tower.
Good thing I’m so skinny, I thought. Chris had also been skinny, though it would not have mattered much if he hadn’t been. My anxious brother had always shunned the narrow descent of the tower. I felt a trail of blood dripping down my elbow and I welcomed the familiar pain, while I squeezed through the last stretch of the narrow corridor with much difficulty. I wondered whether my brother had been consumed by the flames or had fallen down the staircase trying to escape them, cracking his blond head on the cold, hard marble.
Chris, I thought desperately as my bony hand clenched the flaming torch. Chris, I would have done anything to save you. Everything. You know that, right?
My booted foot reached staggering the last step.
“Just a few more steps,” my father cried hoarsely. He didn’t glance over his shoulder, but not because he was afraid. I was sure of that. There was no man in this world who was braver than my dad. Chris walked in front of me and behind my father. His white-blond curls came down to his shoulders. He didn’t want to have his hair cut, probably because the baker’s doe-eyed daughter had once told him that she liked his beautiful, blonde hair. Chris, however, kept insisting that he was just afraid of the sharp scissors that mother wielded so clumsily.
“I really can’t tell the difference between Dutch and German,” said Chris without looking up from the book he was reading. His crooked legs, clad in cheap denim, didn’t look so odd when he kept them stretched out on the cold floor, like he did now.
“Oh yeah?” I asked listlessly, counting the cracks in the ceiling. There was a big spider that had not been there yesterday, diligently weaving his web in the left corner of the ceiling. The spider annoyed me, because he spoiled the familiarity of the room. Now I had to ask Chris to throw it out of the window and then he would definitely tease me because I was a girl who was afraid of spiders.
Maybe he’ll freeze to death, I thought, hopefully, while I pulled the duvet of bearskin firmer around me. For some reason, they never froze to death.
“You’re not listening. You never listen,” Chris said.
“I am, I am,” I yawned, with one eye on The Spider That Hadn’t Been There Yesterday in case it should move. “I just hate learning foreign anguages. Latin gives me headaches; German is only good for swearing. ”
“You’re a bloody fool, y’know,” said Chris, and he slammed the book shut. I think he was angry.
“We’re eating crab tonight. I’m going straight down to buy them. They are cheap on Sundays,” I said, disregarding Chris’s snub. The Spider Who Hadn’t Been There Yesterday suddenly moved gracefully across its glistening web; I suppressed a shiver.
“Are you staying away all day, again?” Chris asked bleakly. I felt a pang of guilt, not quite strong enough to outweigh my desire for fresh air .
“Maybe. I don’t know,” I said evasively, and I rose from the bed to lace up my boots.
“Well then. Go and have fun without me. Take your sweet time, sister,” Chris muttered, and there was resentment in his voice. It doesn’t matter where I go or how long I stay away, I thought. It will never be enough, to forget. About Mom. About Dad who left us here and never came back. Angrily, I laced up my left boot and immediately noticed, horrified, that the black heel had been scratched.
“If only you weren’t such a baby,” I snapped, rubbing the heel. “You could’ve come with me.” I knew I was being cruel, but quite frankly I couldn’t have cared less about Chris’s feelings. All I knew was that I was sick—sick of being locked up, and looking after my crippled, claustrophobic brother.
The carpet catches fire, and my sleeves too. I flee, without looking back.
Not a memory.
The tapestry appeared to have been unaffected by the flames yet when I touched it the whole thing crumbled underneath my trembling hand. Our books, our precious gateways to the outside world, had been reduced to ashes, dust and the lingering smell of burned paper. I lifted the torch a little higher and saw, on the wall, a single shard of glass, which had once been a mirror. A long, equine face with hollow eyes was staring back at me. It was Chris.
It wasn’t Chris.
My brother’s eyes had been bright blue. The eyes in the mirror were two lonely pools, not blue, but black, as dark and dead as the mythic waters of the Styx.
He was too young to be so infinite.
But he had the new ice age in his cool, lingering gaze.
And I lost my virginity to frostbite.
She had been everything I hadn’t been: generous, outgoing and glamorous but also reckless, irresponsible and sarcastic. Her tragedies had given her a streak of vulnerability, quite visible in the brittleness of her slowly decaying beauty. I resorted to writing; she numbed her heartaches with parties and dangerous men. As foes, we fought a lot—even more as friends. Whenever I scorned her for hooking up with a brooding stranger or walking home alone at night, she would laugh in my face, first mocking me, embarrassing me, telling me I didn’t know how to have fun, and then begging me for forgiveness, crying, apologizing, saying she hadn’t meant it that way. In retrospect, I am not quite sure whether I liked her all that much. I guess it was that adventurous, elusive side of her that drew me in. Even now, so many years after her untimely death, I still wonder whether she had ever realized that being with her was the closest I had ever been to falling in love with a girl.
The snow continued to fall, incessantly, cloaking the city in ice. “This is the coldest day you’ll ever have,” my mother said softly. Her cool, ungloved fingers were tightly wrapped around my wrist as we walked with cautious steps, trying not to slip, behind my father. His flaming red coat first reminded me of the old lighthouse that guarded our quiet shores, and then of the tale of Snow White, whose mother had spilled her own blood on the snow outside her window when she, startled by the chirp of a bird, had pricked herself while doing her needlework. “This is the coldest day you’ll ever have,” my mother repeated. Quite surprised, I looked up to study my mother’s face which looked frozen and stern under her woolen bonnet. Specks of snow were clutching to the dark curls that had escaped her hat, making her look, I thought, quite enchanting. A winter queen. “There have been colder days, Mom, ” I sighed. Last winter, we nearly starved for it had been so cold that the harvest in our province had failed. My baby brother had also fallen victim to that same cruel winter, dying of pneumonia when he was four months old. For a second I wondered, bewildered, how my mother could be so forgetful, but then she said: “That was the coldest day I ever had,” and I looked up again, and saw tears clinging to her snowy lashes. She had not forgotten. And suddenly it seemed to me that the snow in her hair no longer made her look queenly, but old and cold like the city.
“Tell me a tale, gramps.”
“Alright. Once upon a war, I lost my left foot and my front teeth. When I returned home, gloriously footless, my friends deemed me a true hero. Now they’re six feet under, and I’m no longer a hero. And my foot? Still missing. The only thing that grew back, postbellum, was my virginity. The end.”
“That’s not a good tale, gramps. ”
“You didn’t ask for a good tale. You asked for a tale.”
“I didn’t ask for a true tale, either.”
“You’re hard to please, eh? No wonder you’re single. But alright then, I’ll tell you another one.”
“About grandma. You don’t look a whole lot like her; she was a beauty, you see. Silky, black curls, and mesmerizing eyes, darker still. Her blood was ablaze with the kind of fire that stirs quietly beneath the Earth. You only had to look into her face, and you’d know it.”
“She survived the war.”
“She is sitting next to me, wearing gems in her thinning hair as we continue into the rest of our happy ever after.”
“Gramps. None of that is true. Grandma died a long, long time ago.”
“But you didn’t ask for a true tale. You asked for a tale.”