I Remember You, page 1
Also by Elisabeth de Mariaffi and available from Titan Books
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About the Author
Also Available from Titan Books
Also by Elisabeth de Mariaffi and
available from Titan Books
The Devil You Know
ELISABETH DE MARIAFFI
I Remember You
Print edition ISBN: 9781785657481
E-book edition ISBN: 9781785657498
Published by Titan Books
A division of Titan Publishing Group Ltd
144 Southwark Street, London SE1 0UP
First Titan edition: March 2018
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Copyright © 2018 by Elisabeth de Mariaffi. All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
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For my grandmother,
and especially for her grandmother,
a girl who walked a very long way
A little child died, and its mother fell to weeping. Then the
child came to her and said, “Mother, do not cry so much. I am
deep in water. If you cry any more, I will drown.”
— from Niederlausitzer Volkssagen (Folktales of Lower Lusatia),
compiled by Karl Gander, 1894
The dog was standing at the edge of the clearing, hackles raised. It lowered its head, watching her, but made no warning sound. Heike crouched where she had fallen, on her hands and knees, maybe twenty-five feet away. For a moment she froze, fear dropping low into her body. She was used to worrying about soldiers, but there were no people with the animal. It might have been a wolf.
No: a wolf would not be so purely black, and its fur would be matted. She sat up, moving slowly. Twenty-five feet is nothing for a dog.
She’d come hard through the bush, her arms and hands badly scratched, and her throat raw from calling out, despite the danger of being heard. Her braids loose and tangled. When a root caught her foot, she’d pitched forward, slamming her shoulder against a stump. She hadn’t slept for two days, her bones heavy with exhaustion.
A village dog. She’d been calling for Lena and the dog had heard her. The dog would have heard her coming from some distance. It took a step toward her now, still in the shelter of the forest.
It was early, the sky a light violet. Heike gathered her basket from where it had fallen and rose to her feet. She had no kind of bribe, no treat to throw. The bread she’d been carrying was long gone; the girls living on what they could find, chewing on hay to fool their stomachs, pinching the snow off evergreen boughs and rolling it around on their tongues.
They’d avoided the road, instead making sure to stay half-hidden in the bushes. Two sisters hunting for berries at the edge of a wood. Winter berries. Relentless as little sparrows. Heike told stories to distract them as they walked: the one about a raven that turns into a golden bird, the one about the twelve sisters who disappear every night, dancing through the soles of their shoes by morning. Lena repeating the words in her sleep, Once there was a king who had twelve daughters, each more beautiful than the other.
In the end, they’d wandered too far west. At night, Heike could hear the echo of artillery fire rolling out through the hills, and she’d led Lena deeper and deeper into the woods.
Now she began to skirt the edge of the little clearing, keeping her eyes low. Where the hill descended into valley the earth broke up, rocky, and the trees changed. She gripped a branch for balance, the new buds rough against her skin. Down farther, there was a stream. She could hear it running freely, the water no longer trapped under ice. It was late March, colder in the hills than it would have been at home. She knelt by the stream to drink, and her knees got wet, her skirt soaking through.
On the other side, the forest rose up into another, steeper incline. There was a sound behind her and when she looked, she saw the dog again, maybe fifteen feet away this time. Its eyes on her, unwavering. Whether it was following her or hunting her, Heike could not be sure.
* * *
In Dresden, her mother had often taken them walking by the river at night. The stars came out, one by one, and they rushed to count them where they reflected in the Elbe, a game between the three of them. This seemed so long ago now that Heike no longer knew if it was a real memory or only another story she told, a way to pass the time on the long days of walking.
On a clear night, the river glittered like heaven.
This is what she thought of now, kneeling by the stream. If her mother was looking at the water when the firebombs came down, the whole city sparkling, the river rising up to meet a massive star. Like a shower of suns.
Heike got to her feet. She had on a pair of leather boots and a man’s overcoat, her father’s, and a kerchief around her hair; Lena had worn boys’ pants and shoes with laces. They didn’t have any gloves, and sometimes she’d taken off the kerchief and wrapped it around Lena’s hands like a muff. The tips of her own fingers had suffered, bleaching white now at the touch of any cold. The blood remembers: what’s lost to the mind is not lost to the body.
She clambered up the bank. She’d been circling the same area since Lena was lost—five days, or six, she’d lost count—widening out the search a little each time. At night, she sat with her back against a tree and worked to keep her eyes open. Just in case, in case Lena was somewhere close by, crying. She didn’t want to call out in the nighttime, a girl’s voice, lonely in the dark.
Once she thought she saw a fawn, was sure of its shape and the spindles of its legs, but when she looked again it had only been a fallen branch. She followed any noise, any rustle or crack of twigs, but the sounds never led her to Lena.
Alone now in the woods, she found herself checking again and again for the dog. Anxious. Willing it to be another trick of exhaustion, a vision she could blink away—but it was always there, clo
* * *
On the other side of the rise there was no forest. The dog let out a low growl; it was right beside her now, huge and panting. Taller at the shoulder than Heike’s waist. There was a trace smell of smoke in the air.
She could tell what had happened by the emptiness, by all the paper in the field. What remained after the fighting: every soldier with a picture of his sweetheart in his breast pocket, every soldier with a photograph of his mother. And when they were hit, pfoum! Like confetti.
There were no people left. There were not even bodies. Just bits of paper.
At the edge of the village she found a barn, its door not fixed, the latch batting lightly in the breeze. Heike went inside, shutting the door behind her. If the soldiers had already been through here, then it was a safe place. She hoped that the dog, shut outside, would tire of waiting for her. She climbed up into a corner hayloft and closed her eyes.
Halfway through the night, she heard them come through again, but it was only a handful of voices and some random gunfire, a cleanup crew or a few angry survivors, the dog outside kicking up a fuss and waking her. She pulled herself into a darker corner, holding her breath.
In the morning it was very quiet. She came out from where she was hiding. There was a girl on the barn floor: the soldiers had dragged her in during the night.
When they’d first come in, Heike hadn’t moved, hidden away up near the rafters. But the sound of the girl’s voice, crying out, made her sick with fear, and she crawled to the edge of the loft to see her face, to at least make sure it wasn’t Lena—it wasn’t, this girl tall and lean with copper-coloured hair, sixteen years old at least. Heike pulled her hood tighter, deep in the back corner of the hayloft. Her arms wrapped around her head so that she wouldn’t hear.
Now the soldiers were gone, but the girl was still there. She was dead, her skirt wrapped tight around her face.
Heike looked at her from the hayloft, lying there with her neck at an odd angle, and then climbed down the ladder to the ground. There was no sound from outside. The girl’s body scared her in its stillness, her skin almost blue. She had no boots on, only a pair of house slippers, worn through, not meant for the snow and the outdoors. Once there was a king who had twelve daughters, each more beautiful than the other. Heike left the barn as she’d found it, with the door half open.
It had turned cold again in the night: outside, the ground was white with frost. On the other side of the barn she found the dog, shot in the belly. Its fur was so dark you couldn’t see the wounds, but blood soaked the earth around it.
She crossed back the way she’d come, faster now, her feet sliding as she ran, and all the paper, paper everywhere. Tissue-thin pages from tiny bibles, melting into the ridge of snow. A sound from behind her, the low creak of a half-dead tree moving sharply in the wind. She turned back to look. Beside the dog’s body stood a single crow, its black eye shining.
One just expects it will be used properly. There is no
warning on scalpels, “This is sharp, don’t cut yourself.”
—Dr. Frank Milan Berger, creator of Miltown,
the first mass-market psychiatric drug
Heike had seen the raft the day before. Just a glimpse of it through the trees on her way out, and then again when she was hiking back, the stream sparkling now in the sunlight. It was anchored about forty feet from shore. She’d been following the little river down to where she knew it must spill into open water and was surprised to see it suddenly give way to a pond instead. Wide and flat, an inlet slip of lake. From where she stood on the beach, she could see beyond the tree line to the open glint of Cayuga, the lake formal and civic and plain compared to the closeness of the woods.
Three days of rain had left the ground soft but resistant, and it gave a little under each step. There was ten or fifteen feet of beach, hard-packed and marked with driftwood and the odd fallen log, and here steam rose up off the ground like a thin and expansive curtain, separating woods and pond. Sunlight caught the mist and turned everything to prisms. Too-bright. High summer.
Heike squinted. It was a wood-plank raft, maybe six by six, or a little bigger. Grey-green in the light. To the left of it, there was a bank of young reeds, just the green knife-tips pushing above the waterline, but the raft bobbed slightly and the water looked clear and deep on the far side. Good for swimming. She could bring Daniel here, the next day even, if the rain didn’t come back around. This was the summer of the downpour, the summer of indoor games and puzzles and painting-by-the-window. They were lucky to be on the lake instead of stuck in a city apartment. Eric had been offered a summer of teaching at Cornell that had quickly come to include a position at Willard Asylum. His old stomping ground, in a way: he’d worked some little portion of his residency there. The hospital was one lake over, on Seneca. Eric spent a lot of his time driving and teased that Heike would get jealous. When he’d met her, overseas, she had briefly been his patient.
His sister, Arden, found them the summer house, a rental, close to their own place. Heike’s heart in her throat at the offer. Eric was not one for family connections. But he’d been caught off guard, Arden’s husband suggesting the idea in a way that seemed to leave no room for debate.
She turned back to the forest and let her eyes adjust. She’d been picking her way through the woods in high rubber boots and an old pair of man’s work shorts, belted tight around her waist. There was no set trail. When she stopped and turned around, she could watch the moss spring slowly back into shape where the crush of her boots had pressed it down. Her knuckles and bare thighs scraped against the trees as she made her way through, and she had to grasp the wet branches with her hands to avoid losing her footing. Her hands were damp with bark grit.
Inside the tree line it was cool and damp, but Heike’s feet were hot in the rubber boots. She stood back, just within the shadows. Out on the water, the sun was in full force. She took a moment to gauge where it sat in the afternoon sky. Three o’clock, if she had to guess. Maybe another half-hour before Daniel would be up from his nap and looking for her.
She’d put him to bed late the night before, the way she used to do in the city, the two of them cuddled close in a hammock on the back veranda until the sun was down and the mosquitoes made it impossible. Swaying there as the stars came out. Daniel counted them, one by one, then grew cranky with heat and jumped out to sit next to the table lantern and count instead the moths as they bumped against the glass. Heike told him how she’d learned to count the stars, reflecting off the river, when she was a little girl, and then later at home, to count the corners of the bedroom where she slept as though they were stars. Her own mother’s instruction: if you count the corners of your room and then make a wish, it will come true.
By nine-thirty they’d lost the light entirely. She gathered Dani up for a bath.
Where Eric often sat nearby in the evenings, watching as Daniel set up a course for his wooden trains—each piece of track linking up with a click—this time he’d surprised her, lost to his work. The lamp in the office burning and a bottle of brandy within easy reach. With Daniel sleeping, Heike kept to herself, curled on the couch in the white room at the back of the house until she lost track of the hour, a sketchbook on her lap. The breeze and night sounds through the French doors, an owl just where the yard ended and the forest began. The mosquitoes most interested in her bony parts: clavicle, shoulder, knee.
A bite at the outer edge of her elbow thrummed away now at her patience. She was wearing thin socks and the left one had slipped down below the heel, the skin at the inner edge of her ankle rubbing away like wet tissue. There was a rise just beyond where she was standing, and a kind of clearing that opened out to the pond, and she followed it over and sat down on a stump to take the boot off. The ankle stung. Heike reached into the boot to see if there was anything in there—a piece of bark, a pebble, some little
She’d walked right by it, twice, without seeing it at all.
* * *
— What were you doing out there?
Arden picked up the knife she’d just placed, held it to the light, then polished it furiously with a napkin. They were laying the table for dinner. Heike and Eric, John and Arden. Only the men were both outside.
— I thought these were public lands, Heike said.
— There’s nothing public here, Arden said absently. She laid the knife down again in its place. All the land was handed out in big swaths, she said. After the War of Independence: bounty land in great big bolts, rolling out to the brightest and shiniest, you know. John likes to say his family’s been splashing about here for almost two centuries.
— But you didn’t know you have a neighbour?
Arden swept a hand over the fold of the napkin, then picked it up and sharpened the crease more deliberately between her fingers. She cocked her head.
— Does Eric know you’re just out wandering around in the woods like that?
Heike reached back and untied her apron.
— I was looking for birds, she said. Eric says a hobby is good for the soul. Besides, I couldn’t stand to be cooped up for one more day. She folded the apron over the back of a chair. The sun was low in the sky now, and she thought of Dani, tucked into her own bed upstairs, the puff of white sheets around his face. There’s a raft, she said. I thought I might go back tomorrow. For a swim.
— Good, Arden said. I’m into souls. Let’s eat. I’ve had nothing but grapefruits and hard-boiled eggs all day. She was a tall girl, handsome rather than pretty, with sturdy shoulders and a strong waist. I wish there was no such thing as a reducing diet, she said, stopping in front of the hall mirror to fuss with a capped sleeve.
Heike relaxed, her shoulders softening. The truth was that Eric considered her solo hiking expeditions somewhat ambitious. Arden, on the other hand, found such independence alluring. She had herself been the star pitcher in her girls’ softball league at college—Heike had seen the team photograph—but dropped out of athletics for a different kind of competition, and met John Wyland just before he wrote the bar exam. They’d been married in December, in the city, Arden wearing long sleeves and a white wedding coat with a fur-lined hood over her dress, flanked on either side by pretty bridesmaids.