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Underground fugue, p.4

Underground Fugue, page 4


Underground Fugue

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  The black lake water slapped the oars; phosphorescence glittered in the rowboats’ wakes. Faint strains of music drifted through the darkness. Lonia has learned in school about the dolomite caves in Bozkovské: dark and dripping, hung with stalactites, clear green water underneath. Here in Moravská Ostrava, coal mines were everywhere underground. From time to time the grownups spoke of mine disasters: explosions, cave-ins, floods. Was there a secret underground lake here as well?

  She interrupts. “Is the castle like the Slezskoostravský hrad?”

  “I should think so,” her father says, “only even bigger and much more grand.”

  “And then?”

  “Well, after following the princesses for three nights,” her father continues, “the old soldier went to see the king. He told the king all about the trapdoor, the underground passage, the lake. As proof, he gave the king a gold-leafed bough he had plucked and a golden goblet from the prince’s banquet spread. The king was grateful. The underground passage was filled up with dirt and the trap door in the princesses’ bedroom nailed firmly shut. There would be no more nighttime dancing, no more escapes.”

  Lonia pities the poor princesses, especially the eldest, married off to the nasty old soldier as his reward. Weren’t they furious that they’d been betrayed?

  “But what happened to them after that?” she said.

  “That’s the end of the story, Lonia, schatzie. Now it’s time to sleep.”


  Another story floats upward toward the light: Lonia and Hugo, ages six and ten. Hugo: pale, angular, all jutting knees and elbows, sagging socks and too-short sleeves. Clever, infuriating Hugo. Lonia always trailing behind, tearing her skirt scrambling after him over chain-link fences or slip-sliding on the forbidden Ostravice river ice.

  An autumn afternoon in the park. A bright, cold sun. Hugo setting dead leaves on fire with a magnifying glass. He crouches, angling the glass. A tail of smoke curls upward from a spot of light.

  “Hugo, stop! Someone’s going to see!”

  He blows on the leaves and the bright spot flares like magic into flame. He looks up, triumphant.

  “I told you it would work!”

  “You’d better put it out.”

  “You’d better shut up.”

  The leaf blackens, curls. Hugo piles on a handful of twigs and leaves. The flames spread and rise. Of course, the air is already smoky. It’s always smoky in this Silesian city with its blast furnaces and coking plants and steel mills. Soot and ash on everything. Always the sulfurous smell of burning coal.

  Hugo crouches lower. A trail of black ants skirts the burning leaves, furring a crack along the pavement.

  “Ants build entire cities underground,” he says, “layers of tunnels connecting rooms where they store their food and lay their eggs. I saw a picture in a book.”

  He stands and blocks the ants’ path with his big scuffed leather shoe. The black line bends toward the flames. Lonia frowns. Why don’t the ants just run away?

  “Hugo, stop, I’ll tell!”

  Her voice blows away like leaves. In her memory, as in children’s stories, there are no adults to tell. The world she inhabits with Hugo exists next door to that other world, the one of proper meals and music lessons and school, of timetables and rules. They slip into it through a trapdoor in the floor, Hugo in the lead, Lonia following behind. Sometimes he takes her hand and instructs her how, should he be in danger, she should go for help. The secrecy worms a worry-hole inside her chest. It makes her feel as important as a thief.

  They are just two children playing in a park, three-quarters of a century ago. The burning leaves will blacken and thin to ash. The flames will soon snuff out. The ants will continue on their way.


  Again the light blurs and shifts. Lonia blinks. How long has she been asleep?

  Her daughter is looking down at her, annoyed. “You said you wanted an omelet, but you haven’t taken a single bite!”

  Lonia cannot remember asking for an omelet. But there it is before her on a tray beside the bed, shiny and yellow, cheese oozing out, congealed.

  She should let them put her in a care home, she thinks. She did not want to be a burden to her daughter, should not have agreed when Esther said she was coming over to stay with her. But she couldn’t bear the prospect of spending her last days warehoused among all those quasi-corpses parked incontinent and drooling in wheelchairs before the telly, catatonic from the drugs. And there is her daughter, looking so very earnest and uptight.

  She sits up straighter, forces herself to swallow a few bites of egg. She has lost all sense of taste. One always forgot. She gives her daughter her best approximation of a smile.

  Seated by the side of the bed, Esther crosses and re-crosses her legs. “When you’re feeling a bit better, Mum, maybe I’ll take you for a nice walk in the park. Would you like that?”

  Lonia almost snorts. Stick her in a pram, take her on an outing to the park! It was just as everyone said—they treat you like an infant when you’re old. Before long Esther would be changing her nappies, wiping her bum, spoon-feeding her stewed prunes.

  Her husband, Isaac, had been lucky—a swift blow to the heart and that was it. Well, at least she has survived. She has raised their daughter, lived out her life. She has done her best. Now it was time.

  “I am ready,” Lonia says to Isaac, wherever he is. Lately she has felt that he is closer. She often senses the shadowy presence of other people here in the room with her, fleeting as bats at night. She knows it is some sort of hallucination—a sign that her mind is going, in all likelihood—but to her surprise it doesn’t frighten her. Rather it gives her a kind of comfort to think that Isaac is here with her now. Sometimes her brother Hugo and her father are there as well. The lost, returned at last.

  Everything ended in loss, of course. That was the way of life. It no longer angers her. She is old enough to accept it. She feels lucky to have found Isaac, to have had that kind of love, even if for too short a time. She hopes her daughter finds someone to love again sometime soon. Or if not love, she hopes at least that Esther finds the person that she needs.



  She is sitting on the front steps, smoking. She tucks her skirt between her thighs, presses her knees together. Today the neighborhood is peaceful. Parked cars shine in the morning light. It is May Day. Elsewhere girls are twirling ribbons around maypoles; men are high-stepping Morris dances in the streets. She flips the word over like a coin inside her head.

  May Day. Mayday. M’aider.

  The sun is warm on her face, the sky a slip of wedgwood blue beyond the leaves. Across the street, a dumpster blocks the pavement, heaped with broken boards and chunks of drywall and empty sacks of dry concrete. Usually the racket is horrendous, but happily, there’s no work going on today. It’s a basement conversion, by the looks of it. Probably some rich investment banker turning the Victorian-era coal cellar into a fancy media room or a suite for the nanny or a private gym. Esther has even heard of people putting in full-size swimming pools underground.

  The windows on the other side of the semidetached house, the doctor’s side, are reflective, dark. She cranes her head, half watching for the boy, his son. It was odd that you could live so close to other people and hardly ever see them. The two sides of the house adjoin along the upstairs hallway; downstairs the two sitting rooms share a common wall. But mostly she forgets the neighboring side is there at all.

  Amir. It’s a common name in both Arabic and Hebrew, and with those dark features he could pass as either Muslim or Jew. But it is the icon that she pictures when she thinks of him. Those heavy-lidded eyes, that flat and knowing gaze.

  At this hour on a Sunday she would imagine that he’s still asleep, bare shouldered, wrapped in rumpled sheets, the sun pressing at the edges of the blinds. She wonders how he feels about living at home with his father instead of at university. She wonders what he is studying, whether he has a girlfriend or a job, what
sorts of things he likes to do. She wonders again about that cat burglar’s dark cap, that dark hoodie, those muddy boots. She almost laughs out loud at the thought of herself sitting out there like a fool, imagining that he was breaking in. But what had he been up to that night, so late? What was the meaning of that look?

  The gray cat slinks along the sloping whitewashed balustrade that divides her steps from the doctor’s. It must belong to him. It regards her as if it wants to tell her something, its head cocked to the side, its tail flicking like a metronome. Esther reaches out and wiggles her fingers, and it comes and rubs its head against her hand, then shies away.

  She stubs out her cigarette, tosses the butt into the bushes, brushes off her skirt, and goes back in. Her mother is still upstairs asleep as well. It is exhausting, it seems, this work of dying, although it is not happening as quickly as the doctors seemed to expect. In the meantime, Esther shops and does the laundry and prepares the meals. She makes roasts and stews, boils stock from root vegetables and marrowbones, decorates butter cookies with dabs of jam and powdered sugar, bakes baguettes and boules of sourdough bread. Today she’ll make croissants, she thinks. She goes back down to the kitchen and pulls out a canister of flour, a large bowl, a packet of dry yeast.

  She likes these hours in her mother’s kitchen, the radio droning in the background, as she chops and measures, stirs and sifts. It is not unlike her work in the conservation lab at the museum, days spent dabbing at a varnish-encrusted canvas with a swab or scraping gently with a scalpel at six-hundred-year-old paint. She loved the physicality of it, the chemical transformations that brought the images back from beneath the accumulated centuries of grime and neglect. She almost misses it. She could go back—she has only taken an extended leave. But she doubts she will. She feels the same way about her abandoned career as she does about her failing marriage: a toxi amalgam of regret mixed with relief. From here, her life back in New York—the life she has lived for over twenty years—feels almost like a story that belongs to someone else. It is good she got away. Her mother needs her here, at least.

  She bends down and pulls a tray of croissants out of the oven. Just for a moment, considering the golden pastry flaking like gold leaf, she feels she has created a perfect, lasting thing. But she eats little and her mother eats even less, and much of what she makes she ends up throwing away.


  In warmth of the afternoon, Esther helps her mother outside to the garden. The park is out of the question; she doesn’t know what she was thinking, imagining she could push a wheelchair all the way to Regent’s Park or Hampstead Heath. This will have to do instead.

  “The garden is a sight,” her mother grumbles. She perches on the wooden bench, wrapped in a cardigan and a scarf and gloves.

  Birds are twittering in the mulberry, hidden in the branches that trail to the ground like a Victorian lady’s skirt. There is the damp green smell of grass, the forsythia’s bright flare. New shoots, furled as tightly as tiny umbrellas, are pushing their green tips through last fall’s rotten leaves. There will not be many more days like this.

  Her mother gestures to the flower beds along the base of the garden wall, beneath the thicket of wisteria vines. “If you could just tidy them up a bit. Clear away those sticks and leaves.”

  Esther is not much of a gardener. Her potted plants turned brown and withered; her Christmas cactus flowered in August, not December, and soon died. She can manage cut flowers, just about. “I’ll do my best,” she says.

  “In Opava—Troppau—my grandparents had a lovely garden,” her mother says.

  Esther leans her head back and shuts her eyes. A red planet pulses behind her lids. Her mother tells the same stories over and over. All her life she’s heard these stories, bedtime stories, fabulous as fairy tales. Her mother’s body warm beside her in the shifting darkness. The mattress tilting beneath her mother’s weight. She’d like to know what lies behind the well-worn contours. The details hidden in the seams.

  “I loved to visit there when I was a little girl,” her mother continues. “In Moravská Ostrava we had only a flat and there was no place to play outside except on the street. But my grandparents had a villa with a garden. My grandmother grew runner beans on poles, tomatoes, cucumbers, peas. My grandfather was famous for his roses. They were big and round, almost like peonies—quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

  “It was forbidden to play near the roses, of course. But one day, my brother Hugo managed to toss his ball directly into the rosebushes. He came in for dinner with scratches right up and down his arms. We were certain he would catch it! But my Oma stepped out of the kitchen, hands on her hips, and fixed my grandfather with a look. ‘He’s just a boy!’ she said. And then my grandfather did not dare to say another word.”

  In Esther’s mother’s stories, there is no war. There is only the before: the vegetables and the roses, thorn-scratched Hugo, her grandmother’s defense. Of what happened to her brother, lost during the war, her mother never speaks.

  Esther says, “What happened to the villa?”

  “What’s that?”

  “Your grandparents’ villa,” she says, louder. “After the war. Did they get it back?”

  “My grandfather died in 1938. My grandmother came to live with us. She did not live much longer after that. Perhaps not even one year.”

  “So the villa was sold?”

  “I don’t know.” She purses her lips. “I was just a girl.”

  “Didn’t you ever want to go back? To visit?”

  “Go back? No. It was impossible.”

  “Now, I mean. Since the Wall came down. Didn’t you want to see it again? The place where you grew up?”

  Her mother blinks like a lizard in the sun. “No.”

  A commotion of flapping and squawking erupts in the mulberry. The gray cat is crouching on the garden wall, its gaze fixed on the tree.

  “It’s always prowling about, you know, that cat,” her mother says. “It belongs to the Arab next door.”

  “Will you stop calling him that? He’s from Iran.” Esther stands and waves at the cat. “We could have gone back together, you know,” she says, turning back. “It’s a shame we never did it. I would have liked to go. It would have been fun.”

  “There’s nothing there to see.”

  “I don’t know about that.”

  “The place I knew is gone.”

  Esther sits down again. “I hear that all things Jewish are trendy, these days, in Poland. Can you believe it? I read about it the other day. Apparently there’s a big Jewish culture festival in Kraków, with klezmer bands, ‘Jewish’ food, Hasidic dancing, lectures, films—the works. Ten thousand people attend! Who knew?”

  “Nostalgia comes easily when there are no more Jews,” her mother says dismissively.

  “At least they’re doing something to preserve the past.”

  Her mother frowns. “Ostrava was no shtetl. We spoke German and Czech, not Yiddish. The Rothschilds and the Guttmans owned the coal mines and the iron works and the steel mills. The Jews were kings.”

  “Maybe that was the problem.”

  Her mother ignores this comment. “My father trained as a lawyer in Prague. He was very intelligent, a cultured man. He loved Wagner and Beethoven and Goethe. He loved his country. He fought in the Kaiser’s army. He had great faith in the triumph of rationality over primitive superstition.” She shakes her head. “Nebbich. My poor father.”

  Not happily ever after. This is how her mother’s stories always end. Her mother has no faith. Because of that, or in spite of it, she had Esther baptized in the Church of England, as if a sprinkling of water and a mumbled prayer would protect her from future persecutions of the Jews.

  The cat uncoils and springs toward the tree. The starlings flap upward from the branches in a puff of black, like smoke.


  Later, she sits on a chair pulled up beside her mother’s bed, watching the evening news on television. A report of Oxford students injur
ed jumping into the Cherwell off the Magdalen Bridge. Esther freezes, remote in hand, her arm outstretched. It’s a May Morning tradition, this jumping from the bridge—only this year, the water, always shallow, is not even knee deep. More than fifty students have required treatment from paramedics and a dozen have been taken to hospital with spinal injuries and broken limbs. The soprano voices of the Magdalen College boys’ choir warble from the college tower as rescuers pull an injured boy into a rubber raft. A mob of students crowds the low bridge span. A girl climbs onto the parapet. The camera zooms in. Esther holds her breath. The girl’s white dress billows as she leaps.


  On other afternoons, after the nurse arrives, Esther walks. She wanders along the leafy streets of Swiss Cottage and South Hampstead, long blocks lined with regency mansions and Georgian terraces with their graceful, arched bay windows and white-railed steps. Some days she ventures farther out along Belsize Lane to the green expanse of Hampstead Heath where, from Parliament Hill, she can see, delicate as a watercolor landscape, the dome of St. Paul’s, the crosshatched Gherkin, the BBC tower, the Knightsbridge Barracks, the slim bangle of the London Eye. One day she walks as far as Camden, crossing Regent’s Park to the canal. She used to bring Noah here sometimes when he was little to watch the narrowboats go through the locks. They would walk along the towpath, reading the names of the crazy sisterhood stenciled on the low-slung hulls: Medusa, Ophelia, Topsy Annie, Lorna-Anne, Lady Jane. The water was a milky brown in the sunlight, dark green and dappled in the shade, thick with smells of weeds and diesel fumes, cigarettes and toast. On the boats’ flat rooftops, they’d spy a gargoyle, a satellite dish, a string of prayer flags, a jolly garden gnome, a foil pinwheel scattering trapezoids of light.

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