He believes if they were to cut his body open, they would
find all kinds of maps inside.
He sits in his blue wingback chair surrounded by boxes. His daughter,
Eva has been busy packing his things all morning. He knows what she
thinks. That he cannot live on his own any longer.
Perhaps she is right.
An old topographical map of frayed and yellowing silk is spread out in
his lap. It shows the Pyrenees with their jutting, undulating ridges
and cartoonish halos of clouds shrouding the tallest peaks. Stains the
color of tea freckle across its sheen. When he lifts it up to the
light, he can see the threads separating, the blotched faded images of
mountains and sky wavering against the bright air. With a palsied
finger he traces its lines, remembering the gray winter landscape of
France, his stomach flat against the earth, his cheek resting against
his rifle. He had floated down to earth; the dome of his parachute
spread open like a vast apron in the sky.
He remembers the open grave they had ordered him to dig, the clumps of
dark, muddy earth on his shovel, his face sweating in the freezing air.
He remembers the smell of the earth.
Eva is playing a CD of Mozart arias, her voice softly echoing the
soprano's. She sounds like her mother.
He closes his eyes, drops his head back. He dreams of the open grave,
thinking of his escape. Harrowing. The stuff of novels, which he had
turned it into. Six years of work. Now it is just a thick dusty
manuscript, thanks to that sorry New York agent who couldn't sell ice
cream to a six-year old.
"Poppi?" Eva touches his shoulder.
He opens his eyes, looks around. Bare windows. The room feels
strangely unfamiliar. He looks up at her face, her quiet eyes, her
slight smile. She has her mother's voice, her pale beauty.
"How about some lunch?" she asks.
He nods. "Did you know when your mother left me, she not only took you
and Niels, she took the good silver, too?"
Eva drops her face, purses her lips, shaking her head. "Oh, Poppi,
that's so long ago! You know how she was. She just couldn't stand
being away from Vienna."
"She couldn't stand not inflicting her own kind of punishment."
Eva laughs. "For God's sake, Poppi" she sighs. "Why do you always drag
yourself back through all that ancient discord?"
"Ancient what?" he mutters, feeling irritated with Eva as she turns,
heads back to the kitchen, singing along softly again, Exsultate jubilate. Beautiful B flat above a C.
"I'll make you a sandwich," she says, partly jubilate.
"You know I only tell you these things now to make you laugh," he says.
Her voice rises again. She chides him as she spreads mayonnaise on
bread, laying slices of turkey and tomato on top.
He looks at the silk map. The sky is a flat blue, but he remembers it
as something at once deeply iridescent; something you could travel
through without ever hoping to get to the other side.
Sonya still remains a bruising mystery. He had met her in Vienna after
the war, when her star as an opera singer, was rising. She was from
Linz. He would watch her at the Statsopera backstage. His vigils had
been many, the bouquets he had delivered to her dressing room elaborate.
His patience, his adoration had ultimately proved persuasive. They were
married in a ceremony at the Votivkirche, the church founded by a
grateful Franz Josef. By the time they crossed the Atlantic together,
she was pregnant with Eva.
It was a world no longer at war. They were happy. They flew to
America. He promised to build a house for them by the sea.
* * *
There are things for which a transcript does not exist. Things which
belong only to him. It is hot in the small hospital room. The window
is open, only partly, because there is no screen. There is,
occasionally, a breeze, but it is so hot, so utterly stifling it makes
breathing painful. His right thigh burns. The pain emanates through a
dense, morphine induced slumber. It is the kind of pain that stuns him
into a deep silence. The hospital is in Naples, and from some of the
windows, other soldiers can see Mount Vesuvius, calmly rising from a
mist in the distance.
He cannot see the volcano from where he lies. Beyond his window is a
gray building. Lines of laundry hang in startling profusion; row after
sagging row of white bed sheets and lace underwear, T-shirts, a man's
khaki pants, a woman's cotton scarf that carries a pattern of roses,
children's socks that look like the tongues of animals. The building
next door was bombed, but this one has remained, and the women here
still insist on hanging the laundry in the sun.
He sleeps. It is not yet the future for him. The wound on his thigh
has been cleaned and stitched. The torn ends of his skin have not yet
fused. The bandage is large and wraps around his thigh like a woman's
girdle hugs her waist. His knee is a swollen yellow knot, twice its
He hears Eva, it must be Eva, moving boxes, muttering and sighing, but
it feels as if she is miles away, like a vector on a distant horizon;
and it is only possible to discern the aura of her fretfulness, her
He dreams. He is swallowed by that dream. The dream of the boy who is
running, always running. He runs across a field, wearing dark shorts
and a white shirt, arms waving in the air. There are large gray clouds
above, blocking the sun. The landscape is flat and brown and open, and
there are trees,- fruit trees, pear and apple, that look small against
the sky and in the sky the gray has swallowed the blue. There is a low
fence, the fence he built to enclose the orchard, and the boy runs
alongside it, his fingers grazing the white wood as he races towards the
house. The arrangement of tree and fence and field and sky have become
distorted; stretched and expanded so that everything is smaller and too
far away. The boy is too far away and it would not be possible to run
after him. Now he cannot see the boy, cannot see how small he is as he
loses his footing where the ground slopes downward. But he remembers
where that shallow dip and rise of earth occurs, how easily it breaks
one's stride, there just near the orchard. He knows that before the
lightning strikes the boy, he will cut his knee on a sharp piece of rock
as he falls, before the force of the lightening throws him, leaving him
lying there stunned and motionless out beyond the last pear tree.
The telegram rests, like a folded handkerchief, on his bandaged thigh.
He remembers seeing the words about the boy and about the tree -- which
he imagined to be the pear tree he planted when they first bought the
farm - and about the lightning. There is nothing about the boy's
bleeding knee, nothing about the swallows that he knows would have been
there, flying mournfully above, fleeing the storm clouds; nothing about
the boy's face, startled and mute.
It is not yet the future for him. He remembers the telegram, but was it
in the dream? Or did it make the dream? A breeze lifts the telegram
and it falls away from his bandaged thigh, floating to the floor.
The sound of Eva's voice; something that brings him back, something that
locks him in time. One summer many years later, he sits on the balcony
of his small apartment on Amelia Island watching the sea. Eva is there,
sitting across from him, quietly peeling an orange. She asks him about
this boy who, had he lived, would have been her half-brother. He is
quiet at first, but then, in a low voice, he tells her the facts of what
happened. He talks about how the boy just tripped, a freakish accident,
and then the lightning struck. Eva listens, nodding, her mouth drawn
down as slowly, carefully, she lays pieces of orange peel in a neat pile
on a small glass table between them, his tumbler of bourbon nearby, ice
melting in the sun. He remembers the simple declarative words of that
telegram; how his incomprehension betrayed their clarity. And the
dreams that followed. Always, those birds are there circling the skies,
always that unbidden premonition of how quickly the sky darkened, how
the drops of rain gathered, pouring through the trees in the orchard as
the boy's breathing ceased.
The sea moves in, retreats, making a sound like breathing, over and over