The Loving Years

The Loving Years
(c) Tomoko Takahashi Harvey 2006
by Inga Abele

Translated from the Latvian by llze Klavina Mueller

If you lie quietly and without moving, you can hear centaurs running past the window. That's what Emma said, Emma, who's standing a couple of blocks from here on the doorstep of the Lutheran church waiting for me to marry her. No matter how hard I strain I can't hear a single centaur. Outside the windows roars the waterfall of the street. I hear the usual noises of the city - they stream into the room, slowly spinning like a whirlpool at the center of the world, then running through the cracks in the door along with the ants and the cockroaches. In the bed by the wall lies my sister's daughter. As I ponder this and that, I see sleep patting the child's face with cool fingertips, trembling in her eyelashes or passing over rapidly like an unexpected brightness.
It wasn't that easy to talk her into closing her eyes. I sense how anxiously Emma is waiting for me on the stone steps where crows hop across the gravestones while flecks of dust float down from the spruces onto the black snow. And maybe that's how we got to talking about centaurs. The little girl asked me if I believe in them, and I didn't know what to say. And what did I really know about them, she asked. I said that a centaur is half human and half horse. The girl considered that for a while and added that they're definitely blue. I don't know why a young person like her is so sure. But the child became more silent and distant, blue and even bluer light froze in her eyes, and her eyelids fell shut as sleep picked her like a fruit.
But Emma is lying, she knows there's no such thing as centaurs, I just don't know how to make her admit it. Soon she will understand that I don't exist either and never will; angry and infinitely sad, she will trample underfoot on the stairs an exotic flower she paid for dearly. But I have never liked women of Emma's type. Her heavy black overcoat is buttoned up to her collar, she's wearing a colorful cap she bought in Oslo, and her gait - what about her gait? - rolling and resolute, as though there were an oversized male member in her way. As though life was a river that sweeps you off your feet. She feels that sooner or later there's going to be anarchy. "Everything points in that direction", she keeps on saying. The centaur is pure anarchy too in her view, and it's a miracle that she let herself be talked into going to church to get married. Maybe because I wanted to take the marriage witnesses off the street. "The first people we meet!" she exclaimed, her dark eyes blazing. This possibility fascinated and excited her. Unfortunately a church is a church and giving up her principles will cost Emma dear. In my mind's eye I see her delicate fingers tearing a red flower, pulling strip after strip of skin from the stalk. I am so sorry. With each quarter of an hour the clocks rumble, sink their tentacles deeper and deeper into me, causing pain. But really I've never liked women of Emma's type.
I like tall, sunny women with a cheerful disposition. Like my sister Kristine, whose child I am watching now so she won't roll out of bed in her sleep. When my sister sits in the kitchen peeling potatoes and her hair flows past her round face like pure yellow paint, the splendid movements of her elbows make everything right: the stairs wet with pee and the draft stinking of the basement, the splintery floors, the stench of frozen potatoes, neighbours who're constantly arguing or fighting, botches of sunlight on the faded wallpaper, a tape recorder on the kitchen table, and even hit tunes, on hearing which, Emma, from sheer disgust, would split into poisonous globules of mercury. Kristine simply goes to the window, pulls back the curtains with a single sweeping gesture, and smiles out at the world in a brilliant arc of sunbeams that hurts the eyes. Her smile alone is enough to make Emma's candles pale and Grandmother's face, which resembles a shriveled potato, relax for a moment in love.
The door creaks and the old woman comes shuffling in. This morning she is driven by restlessness, for it's the day she gets her pension. On pension days she's awake by five, buttons a little white collar onto a prewar dress, sets out her passport on her pillow, and floats through the dark toward morning like a gaunt ship. Only infinite patience and time are capable of creating something like this out of flesh, sinews, and food. Muttering softly she covers the child, looks into my face. On my neck I feel her breath, with its fragrance of marsh tea and raisins. This fragrance is born in her cupboard, in whose bottom drawer there's an album with portraits of a tall, young, sunny, and laughing woman. Kristine is the same type. Still, I can't understand how this flesh, which hangs loose on her bones like a century-old tortoise`s, could ever have been firm and hot like Emma's hip when we lie pressed close at night, while the old woman comes to check on us. She bends over the bed and stands there for a long time, reproachful like a wrinkled angel with a candle in her hand around which the darkness melts, disappearing into the golden hole of the flame like black chocolate. Emma sputters into my armpit, I want her at once, I lust for her as never before, but by the bed stands this age-old creature with a candle, muttering something about the kitchen table not being cleared, the chain on the door not being fastened, and girls, who are like hookers these days. Emma is on the verge of laughter, but I want to tell the punishing goddess, "enough already", that I hate this time that now spoils all that is good between us and I don't want to be part of it. But then, with a swish of her bedroom slippers, the ancient Fury turns around and glides out of the room, which is filled with fragrant darkness.
This time too she gazes into my face for a long time, as I keep my eyes closed tight as I can. For I don't want to answer her inquiries about a broken cup or about where my sister's been gadding about for the third day running. Over the long years we've said all that's important, and gradually it vanishes from the face of the earth. Rarely now is there a flash of comprehension in our eyes about something other than buying forgotten bread, or pain that turns the seams of one's bones inside out.
She lets out a big sigh, as though a mountain lay on the nape of her neck, and slowly drags herself from the living room to the kitchen, where a bed has been made up for her in the corner.
The world is too saturated with passion, she has no place to lie down and die. At night, beds creak and mattresses squeak, cries alternate with sudden hot intakes of breath, the confessions of drunks with tapes of English lessons at full volume. Sad and cool under the white sheet that's mended in the middle, she listens to these noises. She does not envy the strength that is scattered by the headlights of cars as they flash past or the loins of men, she hardly envies anything, hardly even thinks any more. Yet once in a while her pride, which has burned down to coals, still glimmers in reaction to undeserved, insolent silence, for instance when she comes into the living room where the kids from school, friends of Kristine's son, have gathered. The air is heated up by their juicy boys' bodies and dirty, tender fingers, their red lips, bursts of laughter, and most important of all, those insolent silences and looks. Then she must make her escape like a chambermaid who has been pilfering, and must stuff away her approaching death like a shameful secret under her pillow. Kristine gets home toward morning, her clothes soaked with smoke and perfumes, and on her hot shoulder the old woman can finally have a cry and reject the words of comfort, saying: "All of this is good for me now. The more people renounce me, the easier it is for me."
I'm asleep and don't hear a single centaur, but I vaguely begin to recall a morning when, in a bus filled with people's breaths, Grandma and I go to Pasvale to visit her Vitauts. Whooshing, rocking from side to side, the bus speeds through the yellowed expanses of Lithuania. My sister and I sit in the soft, hot bowl of her lap. The driver lights up from time to time, the bus is filled with bitter smoke and perfunctory currents of wind. The ploughed fields lie in chilling calm, the sky is like a half tattered tablecloth, the bus brakes spasmodically near yellow cottages where turkeys stroll about in groves of spruce trees, their necks red, freezing in the icy wind.
Grandma is going to Pasvale to tell her Vitauts that their only daughter, our mamma, was taken by the river. But Vitauts doesn't come and I have to look into her large eyes, surrounded by little wrinkles. There's a strange grayness there. The loving years, she says. And now.
On the way back snow falls over us.
Someone's ringing the doorbell. My eyes open and I see the arcs of the little girl's eyebrows across from me. She's of the same stock as the old Fury. I'm sure that was my mother's stock too. I am filled with unbearable agitation. Just like this morning, when I and the old woman met on the threshold and driven by a sudden force, astonishing her and myself, I desperately pressed my lips on her wrinkled lips, as though trying to get back. Where it was wonderful and where it's no longer possible. Where no one has yet renounced anyone.
There's the doorbell again. I'm waiting for shuffling steps to crochet hurriedly out of the kitchen corner to open the door. But chill silence reigns throughout the house. l have to get up myself. Reverently I look into the kitchen. There's nothing but a small huddled bundle under a mended sheet and silence, so that every noise can be distinguished and planted in a pot like a flower.
Outside the door stands a nice fond postman, who is startled when she sees the expression on my face. "Thank you, my friend", I tell her, sign for my grandmother on the pension list and pull the mail carrier into the living room. "My grandmother died today, my sister is a whore and doesn't come to see the children, I'll give you all this money, just sit here with this dear child while I run somewhere for a minute. I'm sure your grandmother, too, told you that you can't leave children alone, for then the garbage hag switches them for the devil's child with a big head and staring eyes. Anyway, there's a certain person I simply have to see!"
Outside there's slush, but I don't avoid the snow with which a dirty stream of cars greets me, and once I even trip over an emaciated dog who whimpers and looks into my eyes reproachfully. It is a silence that chills people and draws them together in this muddy, cold world. It's always right next to you, only a step away. Emma can cope with it so well, even though I don't like women of her type at all.
In the church they look at me with distrust, want to stop me at the altar, but I go there torn by dark passions like a Saracen and say that I'll turn the damn church upside down if they don't tell me what happened to the girl who was waiting on the steps.
In the sacristy the minister very calmly asks whether this girl had a red flower in her hands.
"I think so", I answer, becoming more cheerful.
"Well, if that's the case, then she got married an hour ago."
Oh Emma, my Emma. l sit on the little bench in the churchyard and feel the damp slowly penetrating my underwear. Over the church the wind crumbles tiny snowflakes. I can picture her, approaching the first person who comes toward her: She looks up and the snow melts on her hot face, swollen with crying.
"Could you love me?" she asks him. "Even just for one day?"
Yes, Emma, now I'm an abandoned centaur whose tail has never understood what his ears want. At the same time I'm proud of you. It's just the kind of thing you would do, and really - only a very ignorant passerby would not go into the church with you. I'm thinking about all these things as I secretly look at my naked grandma, for the mail carrier turned out to be a sensible person. While waiting for me, she's opened the window so the soul can get outside and placed two-lat coins on Grandma's eyelids, and now we can wash her. The old woman had everybody fooled - only her face seems worn out like the diary of the century, ready to be tossed into the fire, but her legs are slender and firm, her breasts white, and her belly is radiant like a lily. I look at it reverently, a gift I've received unexpectedly, a last miracle when the hands have already let go and everything is lost.
The doorbell keeps ringing. I come back to my senses and find myself deep in a grey day. The dear child is sitting up in bed, eyes still full of the due light of sleep, clutching her teddy bear. But from the direction of the door I hear the shuffling of bedroom slippers and a voice muttering. As always, the old woman declares that all women these days are hookers, and that I should get my ass out of bed, because one of them's looking for me.
At the top of the stairs stands Emma with a crushed red flower in her hand. Crazy with joy and happy as a dog's tail, I let her hit me, and declare that I really, honestly, SWEAR I had fallen asleep, waiting for a blue centaur to run past the window.

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