Authors: Jim Shepard
Like You'd Understand, Anyway: StoriesProject XLove and Hydrogen: New and Selected StoriesNosferatuBatting Against Castro: StoriesKiss of the WolfLights Out in the Reptile HousePaper DollFlights
You've Got to Read This(with Ron Hansen)Unleashed: Poems by Writers' Dogs(with Amy Hempel)Writers at the Movies
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOKPUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright Â© 2011 by Jim ShepardAll rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
The following stories were previously published: “Happy with Crocodiles” inAmerican Scholar;“Poland Is Watching” inThe Atlantic;“Your Fate Hurtles Down at You” inElectric Literature;“Classical Scenes of Farewell” and “The Netherlands Lives with Water” inMcSweeney's;“Boys Town” inThe New Yorker;“Minotaur” inPlayboy;“Low-Hanging Fruit” inTin House;“In Cretaceous Seas” inVice;and “The Track of the Assassins” inZoetrope: All-Story.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication DataShepard, Jim.You think that's bad / by Jim Shepard. â 1st ed.p. cm.eISBN: 978-0-307-59556-0I. Title.PS3569.H39384Y68 2011813â².54âdc22Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 2010035998
Jacket image: Contortionist from Thiele's Photo Rooms /George Eastman House / Gallery StockJacket design by Jason Booher
Other Books by This Author
DedicationMinotaurThe Track of the AssassinsIn Cretaceous SeasThe Netherlands Lives with WaterHappy with CrocodilesYour Fate Hurtles Down at YouLow-Hanging FruitGojira, King of the MonstersBoys TownClassical Scenes of FarewellPoland Is Watching
A Note About the AuthorMinotaur
Kenny I hadn't seen in, what, three, four years. Kenny started with me way back when, the two of us standing there with our hands in our pants right outside the wormhole. Kenny wanders into the Windsock last night like the Keith Richards version of himself with this girl who looks like some movie star's daughter. “Is that you?” he says when he spots me in a booth. “This is the guy you're always talking about?” Carly asks once we're a few minutes into the conversation. The girl's name turns out to be Celestine. Talking to me, every so often he gets distracted and we have to wait until he takes his mouth away from hers.
“So my husband brings you up all the time and then, when I ask what you did together, he always goes, âI can't help you there,'Â ” Carly tells him. “Which of course he knows I know. But he likes to say it anyway.”
With her fingers Celestine brings his cheek over toward her, like nobody's talking, and once they're kissing she works on gently opening his mouth with hers. After a while he makes a sound that's apparently the one she wanted to hear, and she disengages and returns her attention to us.
“How's your wife?” Carly asks him.
Kenny says they're separated and that she's settled down with a project manager from Lockheed.
“Nice to meet you,” Carly tells Celestine.
“Mmm-hmm,” Celestine says.
The wormhole for Kenny and me was what people in the industry call the black world, which is all about projects so far off the books that you're not even allowed to put CLASSIFIED in the gap in your rÃ©sumÃ© afterwards. You're told during recruitment that people in the know will know, and that when it comes to everybody else you shouldn't give a shit.
If you want to know how big the black world is, go click onCOMPTROLLERand thenRESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENTon the DOD's Web site and make a list of the line items with names like Cerulean Blue and budgets listed as “No Number.” Then compare the number of budget items youcanadd up, and subtract that from the DOD's printed budget. Nowthere'san eye-opener for you home actuaries: you're looking at a difference of forty billion dollars.
The black world's everywhere: regular air bases have restricted compounds; defense industries have permanently segregated sites. And anywhere that no one in his right mind would ever go to in the Southwest, there's a black base. Drive along a wash in the back of nowhere in Nevada and you'll suddenly hit a newish fence that goes on forever. Follow the fence and you'll encounter some bland-looking guys in an unmarked pickup. Refuse to do what they say and they'll shoot the tires out from under you and give you a lift to the county lockup.
All of this wasbefore9/11. You can imagine what it's like now.
For a while Kenny helped out at Groom Lake as an engineering troubleshooter for a C-5 airlift squadron that flew only late-night operations, ferrying classified aircraft from the aerospace plants to the test sites. They had a patch that featured a crescent moon overNOYFB. “None Of Your Fucking Business,” he explained when I first saw it. He said that during the down time he hung with the stealth-bomber guys with theirHuge Deposit-No Returnjackets, and he told his wife when she asked that he worked in the Nellis Range, which was a little like telling someone that you worked in the Alps.
I'd met him a few years earlier when Minotaur was hatched outat Lockheed's Skunk Works. He'd been brought in for the sister program, Minion. We were developing an ATOPâan Advanced Technology Observation Platformâand even over the crapper it read:Furtim Vigilans: Vigilance Through Stealth.
It wasn't the secrecy as much as the slogans and patches and badges that drove Carly nuts. “Only you guys would havepatchesfor secret programs,” she said. “Like what're we supposed to do, beintrigued?Guesswhat's going on?”
In the old days Kenny's unit had as its symbol the mushroom, and under it, in Latin:Always in the Dark. The black world's big on patches and Latin. I had one for Minotaur that readDoing God's Work with Other People's Money. I'd heard there was a unit out at Point Mugu that had the ultimate patch: just a black-on-black circle.
“Â âGustatus Similis Pullus,'Â ” Carly said. She was tilting her head to read an oval yellow patch on Kenny's shoulder.
“You know Latin?” he asked.
“Do you know how long I've been tired of this?” she told him.
“Idon't know Latin,” Celestine volunteered.
“Â âTastes Like Chicken,'Â ” he translated.
“Nice,” Carly told him.
“I don't get it,” Celestine said.
“Neither does she,” he told her.
“Oooh. Snap,” Carly said.
“People're supposed to taste like chicken,” I finally told them.
“Oh, right,” Carly said. “So what're you guys doing, eating people?”
“That's what we do: we eat people,” Kenny agreed. He made teeth with his forefingers and thumbs and had them bite up and down.
Carly gave him a head shake and turned to the bar. “Are we gonna order?” she asked.
It's all infowar now. Delivering or screwing up content. We can convince a surface-to-air missile that it's a Maytag dryer. Tell an over-the-horizon radar array that it's through for the day, or that itwants to play music. And we've got lookdown capabilities that can tell you from space whether your aunt's having a Diet Coke or a regular.
What Carly's forgetting is that it's not just about teasing. There's something to be said for esprit de corps. There's all that home-team stuff.
I heard from various sources that Kenny's been all over: Kirtland, Hanscom, White Sands, Groom Lake, Tonopah. “What's my motto?” he said, in front of his wife, the last time I saw him. “Â âA Lifetime of Silence,'Â ” she answered back, as though he'd told her in the nicest possible way to go fuck herself.
What's it like? Carly asked me once. Not being able to tell the people you'reclosestto anything about what you care about most? She was talking about how upset I was at Kenny's having dropped right off the face of the earth. He'd gone off to his new assignment without a backwards glance some two weeks before, with not even aHave a good one, buckoleft behind on a Post-it. She was talking about having just come home from a good vacation with her husband and watching him throw his drink onto the roof because of an e-mail in response to some inquiries that readNo can do, in terms of a back tell. Your Hansel stipulated no bread crumbs.
The glass had rolled back off the shingles into the azaleas. By way of explaining the duration of my upset, I'd let her in on a little of what I'd risked by that little fishing expedition. I asked if she had any idea how long it took to get the kind of security clearance her breadwinner toted around or how many federales with pocket protectors had fine-tooth-combed my every last Visa bill.
“I almost said hello to you two Christmases ago,” Kenny told me now. “Out at SWC in Schriever.”
“You were at SWC in Schriever?” I asked.
“Oh, for Christ's sake,” Carly said. “Don't talk like this if you're not going to tell us what it means.”
“The Space Warfare Center in Colorado,” Kenny said, shrugging when he saw my face. “Let's give the bad guys a fighting chance.”
“I didn't know wehada Space Warfare Center,” Celestine said.
“A Space Warfare Center?” Kenny asked her.
At our rehearsal dinner, now three years back in the rearview mirror, during a lull at our table Carly's college roommate said, “I never had a black eye, but I always kinda wished I did.” Carly looked surprised and said, “Well, I licked one all over once.” And everybody looked at her. “You licked a black eye?” I finally asked. And Carly went, “Oh, I thought she said âblackguy.'Â ”
“You licked a black guy all over?” I asked her later that night. She couldn't see my face in the dark but she knew what I was getting at.
“I did. And it wassogood,” she said. Then she put a hand on the inside of each of my knees and spread my legs as wide as she could.
“What's the biggest secret you think I ever kept from you?” she asked during our most recent relocation, which was last Memorial Day. We had a parakeet in the backseat and were bouncing a U-Haul over a road that you would have said hadn't seen vehicular traffic in twenty-five years. I'd been lent out to Northrup and couldn't even tell her for how long.
“I don't know,” I told her. “I figured you had nothingbutsecrets.” Then she dropped the subject, so for two weeks I went through her e-mails.
“I don't know anything about this Kenny guy,” she told me the day I threw the drink. “Except that you can't get over that he disappeared.”
“You know, sometimes you just register a connection,” I told her later that night in bed. “And not talking about it doesn't have to be some big deal.”
“So it was kind of a romantic thing,” she said.
“Yeah, it was totally physical,” I told her. “Like you and your mom.”
Carly had gotten this far by telling herself that compartmentalizing wasn'tallbad: that some doors may have been shut off but that the really important ones were wide open. And in terms of intimacy, she was far and away as good as things were going to getfor me. We had this look we gave each other in public that said,I know. I already thought that. We'd each been engaged when we met and we'd stuck with each other through a lot of other people's crap. Late at night we lay nose to nose in the dark and told each other stuff nobody else had ever heard us say. I told her about some of the times I'd been a dick and she told me about a kid she'd miscarried, and about another she'd put up for adoption when she was seventeen. She had no idea where he was now, but not a day went by that she didn't think about it. We called them both Little Jimmy. And for a while there was all this magical thinking, and not asking each other all that much because we thought we already knew.
That not-being-on-the-same-page thing had become a bigger issue for me lately, though that's something she didn't know. Which is perfect, she would've said.
What I'd been working on at that point had gone south a little. Another way of putting it would be to say that what I was doing was wrong. The ATOP we'd developed for Minotaur had been an unarmed drone that could hover above one spot like a satellite couldn't, providing instant lookdown for as long as a battlefield commander wanted it. But how long had it taken for us to retrofit them with air-to-surface missiles? And how many Fiats and CitroÃ«ns have those drones taken out because somebody back in Langley thought the right target was in the car?
There was an army of us out there up to the same sorts of hijinks and not able to talk about it. Where I worked, everything was black: not only the test flights, but also the resupply, the maintenance, the search-and-rescue. And the security scrutiny never went away. The guy who led my last project team, at home when he went to bed, after he hit the lights, waved to the surveillance guys. His wife never understood why even in August they had to do everything under the sheets.
On black-world patches you see a lot of sigmas because that's the engineering symbol for the unknown value.
“The Minotaur's the one in the labyrinth, right?” the materials guy in my project team asked the first day. When I told him it was, he wanted to know if the Minotaur was supposed to know where it was going, or if it was lost, too. That'd be funny, I told him. And we joked about the monsterandthe hero just wandering around through all these dark corridors, nobody finding anybody.
And now here I was and here Kenny was, with poor Carly trying to get a fix on either one of us.
“So what brings you to this neck of the woods?” I finally asked him once we were well into our second drinks.
“You know howsadhe was,” Carly asked, “when he couldn't get in touch with you anymore?”
“How sad?” Kenny asked. Celestine seemed curious, too.
“I thought we were gonna have to get him some counseling,” Carly said.
“It's hard to adjust to not being with me anymore,” Kenny told her.
“So did he ever talk to you about me?” she asked.
“You came up,” Kenny answered, and even Celestine picked up on the unpleasantness.
“I'm listening,” Carly said.
“Oh, he was all hot to trot whenever he talked about you,” Kenny said.
“Sang my praises, did he?” Carly's face had the expression she gets when somebody's tracked something into the house.
“When he wasn't shooting himself in the foot about you, he was pretty happy,” Kenny said. “I called it his good-woman face.”
“As in, I had one,” I explained.
“Whenever he tied himself in knots about something, I called it his Little Jimmy face,” he said. When Carly swung around toward him, he said, “Sorry, chief.”
“That was a comic thing for you?” Carly asked me. “The kind of thing you'd tell like a funny story?”
“I never thought it was a funny story,” I told her.
“There's his Little Jimmy face now,” Kenny noted. When she looked at him again, he used his index fingers to pull down on his lower eyelids and made an Emmett Kelly frown.
“We started calling potential targets Little Jimmies,” he said, “whenever we were going to bring the hammer down and maximize collateral damage.”
Carly was looking at something in front of her the way you try not to move even your eyes to keep from throwing up. “What is that supposed to mean?” she finally said in a low voice.
“You know,” Kenny told her. “Â âI don't wike thewooksof thisÂ â¦'Â ”
“Is that ElmerFuddyou're doing?” Celestine wanted to know.
And how could you not laugh, watching him do his poor-sap-in-the-crosshairs shtick?
“This is just the fucking House of Mirth, isn't it?” Carly said. Because she saw on my face just how many doors she'd been dealing with all along, both open and shut, and she also saw the We're-in-the-boat-and-you're-in-the-water expression that guys cut from our project teams always got when they asked if there was anythingwecould do to keep them onboard.
“Jesus Fucking Christ,” she said to herself, because her paradigm had suddenly shifted beyond what even she could have imagined. She thought she'd put up with however many years of stonewalling for a good reason, and she'd just figured out that as far as Castle Hubby went, she hadn't even crossed the moat yet.
Because here's the thing we hadn't talked about, nose to nose on our pillows in the dark: howI've never been closer to anyoneisn't the same asWe're so close. That night I threw the drink, she asked whyIwas so perfect for the black world, and I wanted to tell her, How am Inotperfect for it? It's a sinkhole for resources. Everyone involved with it obsesses about it all the time. Even what theinsidersknow about it is incomplete. Whatever stories youdoget arrive without context. What's not inconclusive is enigmatic, what's not enigmatic is unreliable, and what's not unreliable is quixotic.
She hasn't left yet, which surprisesme, let me tell you. The waitressis showing some alarm at Carly's distress and I've got a hand on her back. She accepts a little rubbing and then has to pull away. “I gotta get out of here,” she goes.
“That girl is not happy,” Celestine says after she's gone.
“Does she even know aboutyourkid?” Kenny asks.
The waitress asks if there's going to be a third round.
“What'd you do that for?” I ask him.
“What'dIdo that for?” Kenny asks.
Celestine leans into him. “Can wego?” she asks. “Will you take me back to theroom?”
“So are you going after her?” Kenny asks.
“Yeah,” I tell him.
“Just not right now?” Kenny goes.
I'd told Carly about the first time I noticed him. I'd heard about this guy in design in a sister program who'd raised a stink about housing the designers next to the production floor so there'd be on-the-spot back-and-forth about problems as they developed. He was twenty-seven at that point. I'd heard that he was so good at aerodynamics that his co-workers claimed he couldseeair. As he moved up we had more dealings with him at Minotaur. He had zero patience for the corporate side, and when the programs rolled out their annual reports on performance and everyone did their song-and-dance with charts and graphs, when his turn came he'd walk to the blackboard and write two numbers. He'd point to the first and go “That's how many we presold,” and point to the second and go “That's how much we made,” and then toss the chalk on the ledge and announce he was going back to work. He wanted to pick my brain about how I hid budgetary items on Minotaur and invited me over to his house and served hard liquor and martini olives. His wife hadn't come out of the bedroom. After an hour I asked if they had any crackers and he said no.
That last time I saw him, it was like he'd had me over just to watch him fight with his wife. When I got there, he handed me a Jose Cuervo and went after her. “What put a bug inyourass?” she finally shouted. And after he'd gone to pour us some more Cuervo,she said, “Would you please get outta here? Because you're not helping at all.” So I followed him into the kitchen to tell him I was hitting the road, but it was like he'd disappeared in his own house.
On the drive home I'd pieced together, in my groping-in-the-dark way, that he was better at this whole lockdown-on-everybody-near-you deal than I was. And worse at it. He fell into it easier, and was more wrecked by it than I would ever be.
I told Carly as much when I got home, and she said, “Anyone's more wrecked byeverythingthan you'll ever be.”
And she'd asked me right then if I thought I was worth the work that was going to be involved in my renovation. By which she meant, she explained, that she needed to know ifIwas going to put in the work. Because she didn't intend to be in this alone. I was definitely willing to put in the work, I told her. And because of that she said that so was she.
She couldn't have done anything more for me than that. Meaning she's that amazing, and I'm that far gone. Because there's one thing I could tell her that I haven't told anybody else, including Kenny. At Penn my old classics professor had been a big-time pacifistâhe always went on about having been in Chicago in '68âand on the last day of Dike, Eros, and Arete he announced to the class that one of our number had signed up with the military. I thought to myself:Fuck you. I can do whatever I want. I was already the odd man out in that class, the one whose comments made everyone look away and then move on. A pretty girl who I'd asked out shot me a look and then gave herself a pursed-lips little smile and checked her daily planner.
“So wish him luck,” my old prof said, “as he commends himself over to the god of chaos.” I remember somebody called out, “Good luck!” And I remember being enraged that I might be turning colors. “About whom,” the prof went on, “Homer wrote, âWhose wrath is relentless. Who, tiny at first, grows until her head plows through heaven as she strides the Earth. Who hurls down bitterness. Who breeds suspicion and divides. And who, everywhere she goes, makes our pain proliferate.'Â ”The Track of the Assassins
My mother liked to remind me that at the age of four I left a garden party one rainy afternoon with my toothbrush in my fist, fully intending a life of exploration, only to be returned later that afternoon by the postman. Her version of the story emphasized the boundaries that her daughter refused to accept. Mine was about the emancipation I felt when I closed the gate latch behind me and left everyone in my wake, and the world came to meet me like a wave.
On April 1, 1930, the first night of my newest expedition, I had a walled garden, overarched by thick trees, all to myself, and still was unable to sleep. I considered rousing my muleteer early but summoned just enough self-discipline to let him rest.
Orion wheeled slowly over the village roofs, and the wind stirred the wraith of a dust storm. I lay listening to the soft and granulating sound of the fall of fine particles. In the starlight I could see the mica in the sand as it gathered on my palms.
My traveler's notebook has on its oilskin cover in English, Arabic, and Persian my name,Freya Stark, and my mother's name and address in Asolo, and the promise of a reward should the notebook be returned. Atop the first page, I inscribed an Arab proverb that I've adopted as one of my life philosophies:The wise man sits by the river, but the fool gets across barefoot.
The river in this particular case is perhaps the remotest area in the entire Middle East: the Persian mountains west of the CaspianSea. This is country that has hardly been explored and never surveyed. The only map I had encompassed fourteen thousand square miles and featured three dotted lines and a centeredXmarking a seasonal encampment for one of the region's nomadic tribes. The rest was blank.
I'm accompanied by a guide, Ismail, and our muleteer, Aziz. The former looks like a convict, ties his trousers with string, and reeks of stale cheese. The latter has none of the former's dignity and seems perpetually gloomy, mostly because his colleague has informed him that he's almost certain to be killed. Both have long since given way to despair at the prospect of protecting a British woman traveling alone.
My plan was to locate the ruins of the mountain citadel of the Assassins, that sinister and ancient sect that for two hundred years held the entire East in its reign of terror. Their impregnable fortress, somewhere in a lost valley of the Alamut, is described by Marco Polo at length in hisTravels. And because Schliemann discovered Troy by continually rereading theIliadwhile he searched, I brought along my copy of theTravels, marked with the annotations of twenty-two years. Besides my aluminum water-bottle, when filled, Polo's account was the heaviest object in my saddlebag.
I no sooner had stepped onto a Lebanese dock before confronting the questions I'd be asked for the next three years: Why was I there? Why was I there alone? What did I intend to accomplish? Upon offering unsatisfactory answers to all three enquiries, I became a master of wrinkling customs officials' brows with perplexity and concern.
I was thirty-four and so thin from my physical travails and my sister's death that other passengers on the cargo ship began to save and wrap foodstuffs for the next time I might happen by. I was a bereaved Englishwoman who'd grown up in Italy and had only just torn free of the octopus of my mother's demands, a child of privilege who'd lived mostly hand-to-mouth, a lover of erudition who'd been mostly self-taught, and a solitary and fierce believer in independencewho was prone to fixations on others. I owed everything to an aunt who'd given me a copy ofArabian Nightsfor my ninth birthday, a kind-hearted Syrian missionary who'd lived down the hill, a sister who had never lost faith in me, and those long months of illness that had left me the time to negotiate the labyrinths of Arabic and then Persian. Once I was stronger I walked an hour to the station three times a week to take the train to San Remo, where for seven years I furthered my progress with Arabic verbs in the company of an old Capuchin monk who'd lived for half his life in Beirut.
I'd arranged for temporary lodging with the monk's spinster sister in Brummana, a little village on a series of ledges above Beirut's harbor. There I continued to study the Koran, since I knew of no better way to begin to know Arabs than through the stories they knew as children, the stories their parents and nurses told them. In the spring I took the slowest train imaginable through the orchards of the Beqaa Valley to Damascus, where the spinster sister had helped me find two rooms up a steep staircase that was opened to the roof. At night I left a column of empty cans on the steps to warn me of uninvited visitors. The ascent was through a canopy of garments and saucepans and old baskets but the rooms themselves were pleasant, if exposed: in all but one nook, the entire street could see me while I dressed. But there I learned that if I didn't mind about privacy, or for that matter about cleanliness, and made myself independent of other physical needs, I could move about with astonishing freedom for next to no cost. I arranged to attend a girls' school for Arabic grammar, but was forced to leave when a classmate reminded me too powerfully of Vera. I was dumbfounded by the parade of ethnicities and sects: Chaldeans, Mandaeans, Sabaeans, Yezidi, Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Jews. The Sunni were persecuting the Shia and both detested the Druze, while all three loathed the Alawites as beggarly apostates. I was jolted by the visceral immediacy of their hatredsâfor ancient slights!âand reminded that everyone was irrevocably marked by whatever misdeeds their predecessors had committed.
And yet on celebration days everything, from merchants' stalls to horses' tails, was overhung with bouquets of peacock-blue flowers, and petals of apricot blossoms rode the ripples in the water basins outside the shops. On my first trip alone out into the desert, I sat in the shade of a parasol until I was finally surrounded by camels, hundreds of them, their huge legs rising around me like spindly and crooked columns before the herd, in its browsing, eventually moved on.
The following year an even slower train finally brought me to Baghdad, though Scheherazade had neglected to report the seasonal temperatures of 105 degrees or the corpses of donkeys and sheep and even men alongside the river traffic on the Tigris. My mother sent aggrieved letters to the consulate which were dutifully held for me as I roamed the streets and alleys, beside myself, for Nineveh was just to the north, and the ruins of the Sumerians and Ur, with the birthplace of Abraham to the south. I'd arrived a few weeks before the stock-market crash, having expended a total of forty-five pounds on the trip, and still had ten remaining, for emergencies, in my saddlebag.
The sky at sunrise was clear, barring one pink cloud. We peered from our bedrolls at a radiant solitude and a horizon of mountain ranges. The only other sound as my companions began the breakfast fire was that of the wind on the sand, endless grains slipping into and bouncing out of equally endless hollows.
Ismail had spent his life between the Caspian passes and was to answer for my comfort and safety. For that I was paying the equivalent of three shillings per day. He'd kept a shop in Baghdad, could read and write, had completed his pilgrimage to the four Holy Cities, and projected an air of serene virtue unhindered by humility. His smile radiated benevolence until he was contradicted. He wore six bags over his white woolen tunic, including the goatskin that held the ancient cheese that made his face so trying at close quarters.
Aziz meanwhile sported for the morning chill a sheepskin cap that gave him a kind of Struwwelpeter appearance. Our lead mule allowed him to loop the water-skin over the saddle's pommel but then ceased to cooperate and, each time the muleteer approached murmuring reassurances, listened with a lack of conviction before rearing up to put the length of the halter rope between them.
I rolled my sleeping sack and tied it to my saddlebag, which carried a change of clothes and medicines on one side and my notebook and tea and sugar and Polo'sTravelson the other. I kept a little sack of raisins tied to my saddlebow, like Dr. Johnson's lemons in the Hebrides. I thought I had little enough baggage but was still ashamed whenever I glimpsed my companions' kit.
In the distance, flocks of sheep in long processions were drawing toward a patch of green that Aziz had informed me was a renowned spring that welled up out of the stones in three pellucid streams. We were heading to its south, and now enjoyed the last good camp before a long stretch of desert. Ismail, when finally satisfied with the disposition of his bags, took the lead.
The plain opened out before us, dotted every so often with far-off low mounds that I assumed to be buried cities. For three full days we encountered no trace of human beings save the occasional heap of stones arranged days or decades ago. While we rode Ismail sang a Kurdish song whose chorus was “Because of my love / my liver is like a kabob” and whose refrain, to which Aziz joined in, was “Ai Ai Ai.”
On the fourth day we shared a folded piece of bread and two pomegranates beside a compact oasis of brackish water from which a pale yellow water snake darted its head at us. And then that precinct's fertility ceased with the suddenness peculiar to the East, and we were again traversing an expanse covered with black stone that featured fossil shells and fish. For six days more we plodded on toward the sleeping hills through the inhuman emptiness and silence. Every so often Ismail related legends of buried treasure somewhere off in regions to our left or right without turning his head for my response. No one goes a mile into the Near Easternhills without hearing such stories. I asked if some of those treasures might be burial sites and he answered, with the calm innocence of a Persian telling lies, that he'd never done anything so illegal as open a grave.
How many Europeans had ever seen this country? I knew only of Sir Henry Rawlinson, who'd led his Persian regiment across it some ninety years earlier, imagining as he rode the vanished nations that had preceded him.
The foothills when closer revealed themselves to be symmetrical rust-colored headlands akin to the upturned hulls of ships. The escarpments were long and narrow and end-on gave the impression of a fleet at anchor. The bases of the hills were white with salt and nothing, Ismail remarked, would grow on them.
I was cross-examined on the inexplicable problem of why I was not married. Where to begin, I thought later that night. With my game playing? The clumsiness of my flirtations? The continual revelations as to the scope of my ignorance? Only after four months did the young British officers in Baghdad disclose what they'd found so amusing about my blue hat with the sewn-on clock: its hands pointed to the hours of assignationâfive and seven.
Aziz asked if there were any police in the area and Ismail told him that a year or so ago there had been two, and that they had been shot. He related the way robbery would work once we were in the mountains: we'd be approached and asked to allow ourselves to be looted. If we refused our interrogators would withdraw, and we would proceed until an ambush put an end to our obstinacy and to us. This region's local name, he added, translated as “the most advanced point from which one is captured.” He claimed to be looking forward to reaching that part of the country in which one was less frequently murdered. During a rest break, while I stretched, he peered over at me with a mild, untrustworthy expression. And Aziz, when helping me up onto my mount, informed me in a low voice that while our guide was a bad man he would see to it that I came to no harm. Yet as I rode I understood how exhilaratingit could be to climb into a country which was not considered safe.
At the gathering for my sixteenth birthday, my mother began her toast by noting that it seemed to take acquaintances about a month in my presence to overcome their first impression of my plainness. She said that she thought that it was perhaps because my face was more intelligent than pretty, though she had always held that my complexion was milky smooth. That night Vera reminded me that the only thing to do when something unpleasant happened was to pretend it hadn't, and in turn I reminded her of the fact that she was the beautiful daughter, a point to which, as always, she offered no rebuttal.
Our mother's parents had settled in Italy at the time of the Risorgimento, when Tuscany was attracting all varieties of expatriates. She liked to explain that they'd enjoyed such a thriving salon that as a little girl she had found herself at one affair accompanied on the piano by Franz Liszt. She'd had her portrait painted by Edwin Bale, and was widely admired for her winsomeness and flair. As opposed to our father, who was so reticent we might forget he was present. She described herself as more of an enthusiast for projects than for children, and would regale the room with the story of how, having brought me home from the hospital, she'd been dismayed to discover she'd made no provision for my food, my clothes, or my sleeping. By the time Vera was born, a year later, our parents had moved to the pretty hill town of Asolo, and my sister later remarked from her sickbed how much of our childhood had been spent watching adults pack or unpack great trunks. It had been only a small surprise, then, when our mother left us to join the Count di Roascio, in order, she said, to partner in his philanthropic enterprise of providing employment for the area encompassing his family's provincial seat. Later she'd had us join them in their home and, filled with happiness herself, had never noticed that our lives were heaped about in miniature ruins.
There followed a succession of Italian governesses, all erratically trained when it came to schooling, so much so that we quickly learned how to teach ourselves. We'd seen our father only when circumstances allowed. Alone in his emptied house, he gave the impression of being perpetually surrounded by seed catalogs, and as a means of conversing with him we turned ourselves into expert horticulturalists. On walks he taught us topography and geology. With animals he showed us how all of the feelings we couldn't put into words might be expressed through our hands, so that any dog or horse or child could understand, whatever our seeming reticence, how fiercely we cherished their affection. So that even today I'm still happiest just sitting and smoothing a donkey's ears in the sun.
The Assassins were a Persian sect, a branch of the Shia, and they seem to have entered history in 1071 when their founder and first Grand Master, Hassan-i Sabbah, experimented with systematic murder as a political tool, his innovation proving so successful that his ascendancy quickly spread from northern Persia all the way to the Mediterranean. Legends grew of a secret garden where he drugged and seduced his followers, and held forth on the uses of both assassination and the liberal arts, and it was the stumbling attempts of the Crusaders' chronicles to render the word for hashish usersâthe Hashishinâthat gave the sect its name. They were the terror of their neighbors and at once inspired and intimidated the great Christian fighting orders, including the Templars, through the diabolical patience and subterfuge with which they operated. To their enemies they were ubiquitous; to their victims, invisible. Inexorably they extended their domain eastward to the Caspian, where they raised their central stronghold of Alamut, the fortress that symbolized their power until it fell to the Mongol armies some two hundred years later.
They'd become an obsession during Vera's first convalescence. In the dead of winter she had slipped out of the house and wanderedoff into the hills, where a search party found her lying in the snow. She'd been distraught since having learned, four years after our arrival at the Count's house, of his plan to become her suitor. It was as if we'd both been struck with a lash. Our mother when asked had replied that she knew nothing of his intentions, and that what Vera did was her own affair; but when Vera in response had begged to be sent abroad to study sculpture, she'd been sharply reminded that neither her family nor the Count possessed the funds for that sort of adventure.
The pneumonia had almost destroyed her, and as she convalesced I read to her at her bedside. We'd worked through the Greek myths and Siegfried sagas of our childhood and our mother had begun ferrying in volumes from the Count's library as well. At first Vera forbade their use but after a week or so seemed too despairing even for that, and late one night after a particularly dispiriting relapse we both found ourselves horribly engrossed by William of Tyre's chronicle, in which Henry II, Count of Champagne, considering an alliance against the Abbasid, visited the Assassin stronghold of Al-Kahf, where in order to demonstrate his authority their Grand Master beckoned to two of his adherents, who immediately flung themselves over the ramparts to their deaths.
The map was from the Survey of India series, four miles to the inch, and manifested its inaccuracy even in the few features it cited. It offered no hint of the mountains squarely before us. Polo's account, however, had thus far been borne out, its verification expedited by our use of the same method of transport. I resolved to create my own map as I went along, calling a halt three times a day to mark salient features while Ismail dipped into his cheese with an expression that suggested he was still awaiting a lull in the general perversity of my behavior.
It was gratifying to register that we were not marked on any map. For another week we negotiated naked rock rounded by the weather and without vegetation. To the southeast began some desolateand impressively dismaying salt marshes along a bitter stream that spooked the mules. For one stretch we had to unload their saddlebags and drag them by the halter ropes while Aziz shouted into their ears distressing facts about their parentage. We came upon great concentrations of Aghul and camelthorn, as well as bitter colocynth low to the ground. We saw a strange large hole whose bottom was lost to shadow. We rode in a dust storm lasting so long that after we stopped the next morning I discovered beside me two low mounds of reddish sand that revealed themselves in the gathering light to be the sleeping forms of my retainers.
We rode into the evenings, Ismail singing more Kurdish songs while we plodded along in the moonlight. I was stunned each daybreak by how the excess of light seemed to smooth away all before it.
Finally we began the ascent of a steep ravine whose shale slopes offered every few miles a smallish larkspur or some white Aethionema. What looked like yellow heather in the washes of dry gullies were disclosed to be great carpetings of thorns. Rows of flustered little birds took flight as we rode past, and circled back round and resettled once we were gone. With each day my companions' unease increased. And in the evenings they grouped themselves ever more tightly around me on the ground to guard my rest.
When I was a child, there were nights I would startle out of sleep and, in the stillness that followed, would listen to the entire house and become convinced that a flood was slowly filling the room. I heard wavelets beneath my sister's breathing. The only remedy for it was to climb into her bed and fall asleep in her arms, and our mother would scold us when she found us the next morning in our hopeless tangle with cold feet protruding from the bedcovers.
Vera and I were both outsiders who never overcame our odd and lonely upbringing or foreign accent and manner in thatremote Italian hill town, and for many years we were each other's solitary playmates. Vera tied her lavish long hair back with a velvet ribbon so she could take part in my projects of rooting through brambles and bracken, and accompanied me wherever I roamed. She reassured herself with the knowledge that I had to look after her and she had to look after me. Remaining in a room once I had left it seemed to her meaningless. Once the Count took to dropping by our bedroom to chat we used for our secret conferences the kitchen's larder cupboard, which afforded space for two people if they stood without lifting their elbows. She sympathized with my desire to leave but said it was only permissible if I took her with me. While I studied and waited she chided me for brooding too much and being ungrateful for those blessings we enjoyed. One rainy March afternoon she noted I'd been peering out our window for an hour, and wanted to know at what I'd been gazing. It then occurred to me that I'd been looking at a hedge, and that a hedge was not enough at which to have been staring for so long.
We agreed on the necessity of understanding others' affections not as fixed commitments but rather as ever-changing seas, with their tides coming and going. This was of considerable service after the Count's proposal and our mother's response. He repeated his proposal some months later on the occasion of Vera's seventeenth birthday, and the previous week news had arrived that I'd be matriculating at Bedford College, London, a real school at last after all of my scuttering. Our father had agreed to pay the tuition. He himself had resolved to move to England.
Vera had been without words in my presence for a day and a half following this development, and then had slipped into my bed in the wee hours of the morning.
“See?” I whispered to her. “You do love your sister.”
“Put your arms around me,” she whispered back. Her nightgown's periwinkle was indigo in the darkness.
“Not without a declaration of love,” I told her, and when she started to weep I gently teased, “Well, why else are you here?”
She turned so that her back was to my front and my arms could more easily encircle her. “Because I've got nowhere else to go,” she finally whispered.
We awoke to a predawn aurora in the east and the cheerless and clanking procession of a small tribe descending to its winter valley. Ismail offered our greetings and informed me in a low voice that these were people of the Qazvin. The men must have gone ahead previous. There were at most fifty or sixty elders, women, and children, and even so they occupied over an hour in moving past. I went unnoticed in the low light due to the plainness of my chador and the extent of their fatigue. Mules and the occasional small ox were overhung with any number of carpets, cooking pots, poultry baskets, and tent cloths, all crisscrossed with ropes as if lashed to the frames in a windstorm. Mothers carried children on their backs. Stragglers fell out of the column and regained their feet and wavered back into it. Watching the pace they set, I began to understand why two years earlier the Lurs, when fleeing a forced resettlement, had massacred their own families to unburden themselves for the march.
After nine days' advance we were still continuing to climb, the track at times becoming so steep it was impracticable for our heavy-laden mules. We were being taken up into the joyful loneliness of the summits. Ismail's mood continued to deteriorate, and at day's end he would squat, lost in a meadow of resignation, while Aziz and I erected our poor camp. He might answer an inquiry about dinner with the comment that we still possessed some flour, and he responded to complaints by invoking the majesty of God and wondering how he was expected to produce sustenance in an uninhabited land. One evening apropos of nothing he remarked that it was no wonder England was a mighty nation, since its women did what Persian men feared to attempt.
We entered a great canyon and persisted in our ascent whilecrossing and recrossing a stream tumbling down past us. Maidenhair ferns provided a welcome green. Fish in pools at intervals swirled their wide, transparent tails. The water was altogether sweet but Ismail insisted it was known as the Eye of Bitterness. We rode until trees appeared on the high skylines of the ridges and began to spread down the slopes. We passed broom and tamarisk and terebinth, the last bearing blue berries that proved delicious.
We rode until we topped a windswept ridge of sufficient elevation that we could see for twenty miles, and there we made camp. There in that buffeting cold we looked out on Alamut country below and experienced the satisfaction of being able to glimpse, after all we had traversed, proof that the Grail of our imaginations now belonged to the tangible world.
Even as a child I had realized that in the realm of one's family, there was a weight and a drag to all things, but that even so I could walk from morning until nightfall and feel only a pleasant faint trembling in my legs at day's end. Upon receipt of one of my mother's or Vera's letters I might walk from Hyde Park to Deptford Wharf and, while walking, compose my responses. I told them about my revered new professor, William Paton Ker, who was already opening innumerable doors to me, and I conveyed my elation with the country's appetite for discoveries of every stripe: Gertrude Bell had ventured among the Jebel Druze and had reported seeing them devour their sheep raw. When Vera asked if I found Bell's success disheartening, I wrote back that the woman traveled with enough companionship and equipment for a supper club, with her dining tables and mosquito nets, and that she visited only well-charted areas, which differences would clearly distinguish my achievement from hers.
My sister asked if she might come visit, and I told her that she would always be welcome, though I had neither funds with which to entertain her nor place in which to put her. She pointed out thatin roughing it she was at least my equal and offered to sleep on the floor beneath my bed. My housemistress, I observed, would be implacably unhappy with an arrangement such as this.
In subsequent letters she asked if I'd been so very discontented in Italy and if living alone had brought me any more fulfillment. I answered that the discontented were the least capable of living with only themselves, since the same goad that drove them to isolation would spoil their solitude as well. The true traveler left not to renounce but to seek. And while to be given a cold bath was not a merit in itself, to take one voluntarily might be.
A month later my mother wrote that my sister had accepted the Count's proposal, and that Vera was sorrowful she would not be able to realize her dream of a wedding in England. My mother's tone was brisk. For the first time she referred to the Count as Mario. My sister herself wrote that she hoped to become a good friend to him, but also that she felt she'd wasted years in just learning how to live, knowledge that now was going to be locked away. She noted, apropos of another breakdown, that she was so wretched it pleased her to make everyone else wretched as well. And that what attractiveness she ever possessed had deserted her, and that I was now the beautiful one. And I'm disconcerted still by the potency of the thrill I experienced at my escape, amid all of my misery on her behalf. She wrote that our mother had taken her to Venice on holiday, and I read and reread the letter and castigated myself during my circumnavigations of the city, because this was how competitive I could be: once, at the age of eight, when my father had beaten me at chess, I became so enraged that I buried his white queen in the garden.
The descent to the valley was hair-raising. It was as if the entire range on which we'd been perched was a giant breaking wave, and having ascended the gentle backslope, we next had to negotiate down the much steeper face. We made camp that night at its base and then for five days traversed untracked and seared reaches ofred, hardened earth. This country Ismail believed to be inhabited by heretics capable of eating, or at least sitting in, fire. He mentioned with some concern that he didn't think they were Moslem at all.
On the sixth day we encountered, just as Polo's account recorded, a stepped and crooked valley rising to our left. The path of its dried riverbed the Italian called the Track of Thieves. As it narrowed, its walls radiated heat. We could feel our elevation. In the winter, Ismail speculated, a bitter wind must scour out this funnel. Aziz responded from ahead that winters in his village were so cold that even the wolves stayed home.
Eventually we reached the willows and sanjid trees of the Badasht oasis, smaller than Polo described it, and had our bread and raisins by a stream while white-and-black magpies stalked to and fro before us. On either side the cliffs were so high we were untouched by the sun. When Ismail smeared his cheese on his lips as a kind of balm, I found myself longing for the minor relief of some mealtime companionship that didn't involve spitting or mashing food with one's fingers.
We were joined in the late afternoon by a shepherd with crossed eyes and his two sons. They afforded us the standard greeting, polite without effusion, and for a time we sat in a circle in silence that in the East is good manners. Upon seeing the whiteness of my arms they pulled up their own sleeves in order to demonstrate the contrast. Finally the shepherd informed Ismail that they had never seen a European woman. Or man. They seemed pleased with us for having been brave enough to come among them.
They laid out their meal before them and shared what they had with great hospitality. This meant less for them, and when I partook at their insistence, the father looked off downstream with a comfortable kind of sadness and the smaller boy's eyes followed every mouthful I took.
While the boys filled the family goatskin with water and Aziz gathered straw for the mules, the shepherd asked Ismail to explain my presence, glancing over every so often to see if my appearancecorroborated the outlandish story he was receiving. He told us that Alamut was the name not of the fortress but of the valley itself. He said that people often came in search of the fortress but when pressed on that point clarified that to his knowledge only two men had done so in the last seven years. Later, as we made our arrangements for sleep, the boys exclaimed over a wandering tortoise. And then we retired to the tremolo of water running nearby, the sweetest of sounds in the night.
A priest counseling Philip VI of France against the hazards of an exploratory campaign in the East wrote of the Assassins that they were thirsty for human blood, contemptuous of life and salvation, and could, like the devil, encloak themselves in radiance. If encountered they were to be cursed, then fled. They had turnedtaqiyya, the Shia tradition of concealment in the face of persecution, back against the Sunni in the most lethal of configurations. When not disguised they were said to have worn white gowns with red headcloths, the colors of innocence and blood. This and more came from Von Hammer-Purgstall's history of the sect in the London School of Oriental Studies, and when I wrote Vera excitedly of my find, she wrote back, “Wolves in sheep's clothing: of course it would excite you.”
Ismail warned that we should travel as much by night in this region as we could manage, for safety's sake, and the shepherd when taking his leave of us seemed to agree. The path above the oasis after a short stretch led us through a long defile of dark stone the shepherd had called the Black Narrows and in which he had warned us not to linger. When that ended we found our track clinging to a cliff that fell away below us a thousand feet. Each slip by our mules occasioned a curse from Ismail, tired and furious at being forced to navigate such a passage. So narrow that our outside feet hung out over the abyss, it continued for miles with no widening that might allow us to take our ease, and after nightfall thedarkness grew so total that even my mule's ears were lost to sight. I entrusted the edge, step by step, wholly to him.
Mid-morning the next day, round a particularly terrifying corner, the track finally opened out onto an ancient road and the ruins of an old bridge over a cataract plunging away into the valley below: the Alamut stream, I was certain, whose spring provided water for the fortress. From anywhere but this spot, the great ridge and headland of rock seemed to close off with a wall any upward access. We still had a thousand feet to climb, along that thin thread of water which near the top dispersed its spray to the wind, but even so we knew how close we were. After an uncomfortable cliff-side night's rest, a morning's ascent brought us in searing sunlight onto the knife-edge of a ridge. And before us, like the prow of a great ship, was what had to be the western redoubt of the Rock of the Assassins.
Around its northern flank appeared a path tilted on a frighteningly steep gradient through white limestone that powdered like salt beneath the mules' hooves. The scree was sufficiently treacherous that Ismail and I ascended as much with our hands as our feet, Aziz behind us leading the mules. At the summit we scrambled over a low outer wall made of a few loose stones and into a cold wind, sweat-soaked as we were. The height was such that we could plainly see the roundness of the Earth. On the northwestern side a granite pillar adjoining an even higher cliff face formed a natural citadel and revealed itself as the site of the spring, the conduits of which were still visible as grooves running south to rectangular cisterns dug into the solid rock.
The site had long since been pumiced clean by the wind, although traces of the outer walls emerged here and there, as well as half the central keep, still upright and brandishing an iron loophole at its highest point. On all sides the natural walls fell away sheer. From the southern end we looked down two thousand feet of stone. To the east, in huge stone slabs, were round holes four inches deep and eight in diameter that may have held the doorpostsfor giant gates. Out of one hole I fished a piece of blue-glaze pottery pictured in von Hammer-Purgstall's history, and sank to my knees with a cry. “It is Polo's fortress!” I shrieked to Aziz, who smiled back in terror at my agitation.
I was streaming sweat despite the cold. I retrieved the map from my saddlebag and took some bearings with numbed fingers. To the east we could see the great semicircle of a mountain range covered with snow, and through its passes northward a hint, in the haze, of the Caspian jungle and the sea. We were so high that by late afternoon the sunlight had lost its force and our bones seemed to absorb the mountains' frigidity. Ismail, alarmed, wrapped my bedroll about my shoulders, where it flailed and thrashed. I sank to a sitting position while I wept, and the wind felt as I did about the map, buffeting it to pieces.
The next morning I woke to clouds from the Caspian Sea pouring like a wave over the distant watershed to the northeast. They sailed toward us and melted away in the sun's heat before reaching our valley. I had lost the energy to raise my arms and pitched from dehydration to floods of perspiration, and knew immediately that it must be malaria. Ismail examined me and diagnosed that as well as dysentery, two diseases he assured me he was well used to seeing. He prescribed a soup of rice, milk, and almonds that would scrub me out like soap. I reminded him that we had none of those ingredients and he answered that we would make use of them once we did. I instructed him to fetch the quinine from my saddlebag and gave myself a double dose. How far were we from the nearest motor road, or doctor? It was all another world.
They arranged some of their bedding in a kind of awning to shade me from the sun. I spent the day slipping in and out of consciousness in the wind. Cloud shadows came and went on the iron loophole of the keep. I was given some tea to which the goatskin water had imparted a nauseating smell. My mule gave me a fright when she snuffled beneath my head for my toiletries.
I woke to a fire and twilight, and an even more bitter cold. Ismail's eyes wandered from my face to my extra bedding, and hemade no effort at conversation. Aziz beside him gazed at my aluminum water bottle. When able to speak I offered it to him, and he seemed alarmed and said he wouldn't think of depriving me.
By morning the awning was down and I could see the sky. My companions' expressions were full of pity and they kept fanning the flies from my face. Where had the flies come from? And on what at this altitude did they live? The sun every so often managed to erase everything from my sight. I remembered myself on the train to San Remo dreaming of owning a little shop somewhere in a Near Eastern town, for its possibilities for observation and meditation. I remembered myself at sixteen, dressed for a dinner party and murmuring that what I shouldreallyhave liked was to have been pretty.
The wind seemed to have subsided and round us the white rock grew unbearable in the afternoon heat. Ismail pressed my temples between his palms with a slowly increasing pressure I found to be amazingly restful.
The August before I first set foot on that Lebanese dock, our mother had taken my sister on another holiday, this time to the seashore at Varazze, and there Vera had had her miscarriage and developed septicemia. My mother and I had sat at her bedside for the five weeks she suffered. The night before she died, I told her I couldn't help but believe that if she wanted life more, she could hold on to it, and she reassured me that in her time alone with our mother and Mario she had developed certain resources and that she'd been far from only miserable. She had become bright enough through her reading, for example, that he had never grown bored with her. “All you do isweep,” she complained with some weariness and anger later that night. “Aren't you ever happy to be with me?”
A family friend at the funeral confided he'd been so appalled at the news of the marriage that he'd refused my mother's request to use his villa for the reception. Her own eulogy asserted that she and Vera had grown so close that when they were reunited in the next world she doubted Saint Peter would be able to determine one from the other. When I was packed and ready to leave for thestation, Mario remarked that my mother and I had only barely spoken and hardly looked at each other. My mother responded at the piano by commencing Berlioz's “Le DÃ©pit de la bergÃ¨re.”
When her note arrived in Brummana deploring my decision to abandon her so soon after our loss, I wrote back that Vera had died bowing to the agendas of others. In response, after some months, she sent the letter from London in which I'd informed Vera that I could not take her in.
Reading it once more, I recalled another letter to my sister in which I'd enthused about the way my notebooks, with a single word, could save an experience from oblivion, and her response, in which she expressed a lack of surprise that I'd choose the notebook over the diary, since in the former one's emotions were largely omitted in favor of their causes.
In those last few nights with her, I spent what time we had left trying to recover the irrecoverable with only my presence. I wanted to believe that nothing had been lost of what we had shared so many years before. But we look on everyone's transformations as fluid except our own. “Dress them up as you like, but they will always run away,” the King of Naples is reported to have said of his inadequate soldiers. The mother I trusted, the Vera I loved, the woman I imagined myself to be: all of those phantoms have clip-clopped away into limbo.
I told my mother the last time I wrote her that no crime short of murder was comparable to destroying in another the capacity to love. Her silence in response constituted yet another instance of her having behaved with more honor than her surviving daughter had achieved.
The main thing the traveler carries about with her is herself. There's my home, and then the world: the sea is much stronger than the anchor. I've acted wherever I've alighted like a guest for life, or, when at my best, as in that line from thePurgatorio:“We are pilgrims, as you are.”
Over the horizon to the east, the weather that's heading toward us lies in a dark line at the end of the world. Ismail washes my facewith water from the goatskin while Aziz attends to the mules straying in the dusk. “I have more with which to pay you, once we return,” I manage to tell them. Ismail makes a brief gesture as if to clarify that it needn't be discussed. “God give you strength,” he murmurs as we exchange smiles: fellow travelers. Aziz appears beside him. My eyes close under the weight of so much sadness and gratitude. And out of courtesy we say goodnight to one another with our hands upon our breasts.In Cretaceous Seas
Dip your foot in the water and here's what you're playing with: Xiphactinus, all angry underbite and knitting-needle teeth, with heads oddly humped and eyes enraged with accusation, and ribboned bodies so muscular they fracture coral heads when surging through to bust in on insufficiently alert pods of juvenile Clidastes, who spin around to face an oncoming maw that's in a perpetual state of homicidal resentment. The smaller Xiphactinus are three times your length and swallow their prey whole. They're gill-to-gill with Cretoxyrhina, great white sharks fifty feet long with heads the size of Mini Coopers and twelve-inch nightmare triangles of teeth. Mosasaurs big and small, the runts weighing in at two tons and the alphas like tylosaur a stupefying sixty feet. Under the surface, they're U-boats with crocodiles' heads. Pliosaurs in their hunting echelons, competing to see who's the more viciously ill-tempered. Kronosaurs whose jaws provide the kind of leverage that can snap whales' spines. Thalassomedons, the biggest of the elasmosaurs, with twenty-foot watersnake necks that allow the Venus-flytrap teeth to be everywhere at once. Dakosaurs gliding through the murk of fish parts spewed by their initial thrashing attacks.
And rising out of the blue gloom like the ridged bottom itself easing up to meet you, Lipleurodon, holdover from the Jurassic, the biggest predator that ever lived. Families could live in its skull. On the move it's like the continental shelf taking a trip. It feedseverywhere, even in shallow water with the surf breaking over it like a sandbar. Its earth-moving front flippers keep it from stranding. If some of the bigger land predators stand around the shallows trolling for what floats in, that's their mistake. It takes them off their feet like fruit off a tree.
This is the Tethys Ocean, huge, shallow, and warmed by its position locked between the world's two giant supercontinents. This is the place where thepreycould kill a sperm whale. This is all this one guy's bed. This guyâwe'll call him Conroy, because that's his fucking nameâwhose insomnia every night is beyond debilitating, teeming, epic with hostile energy, oceanic. What's his problem? Well, where to begin? Kick your feet and watch something else surface from below. He's been a crappy son, a shitty brother, a lousy father, a lazy helpmate, a wreck of a husband. As a pet owner he's gotten two dogs and a parakeet killed. Some turtles and two other dogs died without his help.
His daughter won't speak and wears a ski hat in the house and writes stories in which family members are eviscerated as the narrator laughs. She's an isolate, watched but not approached.We don't want to make the problem into more than it is. His brother's alone in Florida, an older version of the same pain, just a phone call away. Whenever Conroy makes his hangup indications in their once-in-a-blue-moon conversations, his brother says it was great talking to him. His father's ignoring the doctor's adviceâmost of that advice having to do with meds, his Dilantin, his Prozac, his everything elseâand going downhill because of it, and still they rehearse the same conversational rituals, as though time is standing still instead of vortexing down a drain. His career involves assuring people he's got the answers and he's got their back when he doesn't have the answers and he's all about craven self-interest: he's part of the team rolling out a major new pharmaceutical, one of the accomplished tyros vouching for one of the eminences who did the science, and in that capacity he didn't so much invent his data as cherry-pick it. Will it kill anyone? He hopes not. Because hemeanswell.
He alwaysmeanswell. He tells himself this, treading water in bed.
The good news is who's in this bed with him. His wife, the person he loves most in the world. Here's the thing about his wife: she travels a lot, in her role as headhunter for the Center for American Progress, and she's concerned about him, and the conversational form her concern has lately taken has been to suggest, half-jokingly and half-kindly, that he should have a fling. And to him this sounds like “You should get yourself some tenderness somewhere. Because you ain't getting it here.”
He couldaskif that's what she means. But he's the kind of guy given to building tall towers of self-pity and then watching them sway. So he speculates instead.
In bed he hints around. His wife is all psychological acuity and knows him like she knows her childhood bedroom, but she's always been impatient with hinting and her requests for clarification sound like demands. Exasperation makes him close up shop like a night-blooming flower.
Think of the good you've done, he counsels. Think of the good you continue to do. A breeze blows over the water's surface.
But here's this letter in which a Sri Lankan says he's all but sure he's found some major links between the product and miscarriage. The Sri Lankan wants to know if Conroy didn't review the same data. And here's this journal entry from his daughter:My Throat = the Shit Pit. And here's this dream he keeps having of himself as ringmaster with no acts performing, just a guy holding a hoop looking at him and waiting, and with everyone he's ever let down scattered in the uncomfortable stands, eager to tell him that all of his forays into selflessness have only made clearer what they're not, like a thimbleful of cola after a trek across the Kalahari.
His mode on such nights is the circuit between bed and bathroom and lamplit magazines. But tonight he's heard his daughter downstairs ahead of him, and the delicate hiccups of the little breath-intakes that are her version of crying when it's crucial she not be heard. Her favored position is to wedge herself into thewingbacked chair with her knees by sitting Indian-style. He holds himself still, listening, then throws open the sash on their upper-story bedroom window and climbs out on the roof. And his wife stirs and, sleeping, is sad for his unsettlement. The grit stings his knees. Gravity wants to welcome him forward in a rush. The breeze cools his butt. In the moonlight he's just a naked guy, most of his weight on his hands, his hands bending the front edge of the aluminum gutter, the grass two stories below a blue meridian, zenith and nadir at once.
How do we help? Throw him a life preserver? How longshouldanyone survive in that ocean?
He's Tethys Man, superhero and supervillain all in one. How much does he sweat at night? His sheets smell mildewy in the morning. If you saw him padding to the toilet, stepping naked in place, and waving off the bad images like the world's least fetching drum majorette, would you imagine that “inauthenticity” was a term that haunted him? If you saw him bare-assed on his roof, gauging the distance from the sloping dormer to the strain insulators and primary cables of the telephone wires, would you imagine that once he jumped he'd ferry himself hand over hand from house to house? Would you imagine that if he did, he would have proved something to himself, in his own inchoate way, about his desire for change? Would you imagine that he then hated himself less?
Would you imagine that when he confronted his loved ones' sadnesses, his vanity knew no bounds? Would you imagine that he thought his problems would solve themselves? Would you imagine that he fancied himself the prey when he was really the apologetic predator? Would you imagine that he'd last very long, much less get through this alive? Would you imagine that his kind should die out once and for all? Would you imagine that even now he was telling you the truth?The Netherlands Lives with Water
A long time ago a man had a dog that went down to the shoreline every day and howled. When she returned the man would look at her blankly. Eventually the dog got exasperated. “Hey,” the dog said. “There's a shitstorm of biblical proportions headed your way.” “Please. I'm busy,” the man said. “Hey,” the dog said the next day, and told him the same thing. This went on for a week. Finally the man said, “If you say that once more I'm going to take you out to sea and dump you overboard.” The next morning the dog went down to the shoreline again, and the man followed. “Hey,” the dog said, after a minute. “Yeah?” the man said. “Oh, I think you know,” she told him.
“Or here's another one,” Cato says to me. “Adam goes to God, âWhy'd you make Eve so beautiful?' And God says, âSo you would love her.' And Adam says, âWell, why'd you make her so stupid?' And God says, âSo she would love you.'Â ”
“Well, he thinks it's funny,” Cato says.
“He's eleven years old,” I tell her.
“And very precocious,” she reminds me. Henk makes an overly jovial face and holds two thumbs up. His mother takes her napkin and wipes some egg from his chin.
We met in the same pre-university track. I was a year older but hadn't passed Dutch, so I took it again with her.
“You failed Dutch?” she whispered from her seat behind me.She'd seen me gaping at her when I came in. The teacher had already announced that's what those of us who were older were doing there.
“It's your own language,” she told me later that week. She was holding my penis upright so she could run the edge of her lip along the shaft. I felt like I was about to touch the ceiling.
“You're not very articulate,” she remarked later, on the subject of the sounds I'd produced.
She acted as though I were a spot of sun in an otherwise rainy month. We always met at her house, a short bicycle ride away, and her parents seemed to be perpetually asleep or dead. In three months I saw her father only once, from behind. She explained that she'd been raised by depressives who'd made her one of those girls who'd sit on the playground with the tools of happiness all around her and refuse to play. Her last boyfriend had walked out the week before we'd met. His diagnosis had been that she imposed on everyone else the gloom her family had taught her to expect.
“Do I sadden you?” she'd ask me late at night before taking me in her mouth.
“Will you have children with me?” I started asking her back.
And she was flattered and seemed pleased without being particularly fooled. “I've been thinking about how hard it is to pull information out of you,” she told me one night when we'd pitched our clothes out from under her comforter. I asked what she wanted to know, and she said that was the kind of thing she was talking about. While she was speaking I watched her front teeth, glazed from our kissing. When she had a cold and her nose was blocked up, she looked a little dazed in profile.
“I ask a question and you ask another one,” she complained. “If I ask what your old girlfriend was like, you ask what anyone's old girlfriend is like.”
“So ask what you want to ask,” I told her.
“Do you think,” she said, “that someone like you and someone like me should be together?”
“Because we're so different?” I asked.
“Do you think that someone like you and someone like me should be together?” she repeated.
“Yes,” I told her.
“That's helpful. Thanks,” she responded. And then she wouldn't see me for a week. When I felt I'd waited long enough, I intercepted her outside her home and asked, “Was the right answer no?” And she smiled and kissed me as though hunting up some compensation for diminished expectations. After that it was as if we'd agreed to give ourselves over to what we had. When I put my mouth on her, her hands would bend back at the wrists as if miming helplessness. I disappeared for minutes at a time from my classes, envisioning the trancelike way her lips would part after so much kissing.
The next time she asked me to tell her something about myself I had some candidates lined up. She held my hands away from her, which tented the comforter and provided some cooling air. I told her I still remembered how my older sister always replaced her indigo hair bow with an orange one on royal birthdays. And how I followed her everywhere, chanting that she was a pig, which I was always unjustly punished for. How I fed her staggeringly complicated lies that went on for weeks and ended in disaster with my parents or teachers. How I slept in her bed the last three nights before she died of the flu epidemic.
Her cousins had also died then, Cato told me. If somebody even just mentioned the year 2015, her aunt still went to pieces. She didn't let go of my hands, so I went on, and told her that, being an outsider as a little boy, I'd noticedsomethingwas screwed up with me, but I couldn't put my finger on what. I probably wasn't as baffled by it as I sounded, but it was still more than I'd ever told anyone else.
She'd grown up right off the Boompjes; I'd been way out in Pernis, looking at the Caltex refinery through the haze. The little fishing village was still there then, huddled in the center of the petrochemical sprawl. My sister loved the lights of the complex at night and the fires that went hundreds of feet into the air like solarflares when the waste gases burned off. Kids from other neighborhoods never failed to notice the smell on our skin. The light was that golden sodium vapor light, and my father liked to say it was always Christmas in Pernis. At night I was able to read with my bedroom lamp off. While we got ready for school in the mornings, the dredging platforms with their twin pillars would disappear up into the fog like Gothic cathedrals.
A week after I told her all that, I introduced Cato to Kees. “I've never seen him like this,” he told her. We were both on track for one of the technology universities, maybe Eindhoven, and he hadn't failed Dutch. “Well, I'm a pretty amazing woman,” she explained to him.
Kees and I both went on to study physical geography and got into the water sector. Cato became the media liaison for the program director for Rotterdam Climate Proof. We got married after our third International Knowledge for Climate Research conference. Kees asked us recently which anniversary we had coming up, and I said eleventh and Cato said it was the one hundredth.
It didn't take a crystal ball to realize we were in a growth industry. Gravity and thermal measurements by GRACE satellites had already flagged the partial shutdown of the Atlantic circulation system. The World Glacier Monitoring Service, saddled with having to release one glum piece of news after another, had just that year reported that the Pyrenees, Africa, and the Rockies were all glacier-free. The Americans had just confirmed the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet. Once-in-a-century floods in England were now occurring every two years. Bangladesh was almost entirely a bay and that whole area a war zone because of the displacement issues.
It's the catastrophe for which the Dutch have been planning for fifty years. Or, really, for as long as we've existed. We had cooperative water management before we had a state. The one created the other; either we pulled together as a collective or got swept away asindividuals. The real old-timers had a saying for when things fucked up: “Well, the Netherlands lives with water.” What they meant was that their land flooded twice a day.
Bishop Prudentius of Troyes wrote in his annals that in the ninth century the whole of the country was devoured by the sea; all the settlements disappeared, and the water was higher than the dunes. In the Saint Felix Flood, North Beveland was completely swept away. In the All Saints' Flood, the entire coast was inundated between Flanders and Germany. In 1717 a dike collapse killed fourteen thousand on Christmas night.
“You like going on like this, don't you?” Cato sometimes asks.
“I like the way it focuses your attention,” I told her once.
“Do you like the way it scares our son?” she demanded in return.
“It doesn't scare me,” Henk told us.
“Itdoesscare you,” she told him. “And your father doesn't seem to register that.”
For the last few years, when I've announced that the sky is falling she's answered that our son doesn't need to hear it. And that I always bring it up when there's something else that should be discussed. I always concede her point, but that doesn't get me off the hook. “For instance, I'm still waiting to hear how your mother's making out,” she complains during a dinner when we can't tear Henk's attention away from the Feyenoord celebrations. If its team wins the Cup, the whole town gets drunk. If it loses, the whole town gets drunk.
My mother's now at the point that no one can deny is dementia. She's still in the little house on Polluxstraat, even though the Pernis she knew seems to have evaporated around her. Cato finds it unconscionable that I've allowed her to stay there on her own, without help. “Let me guess,” she says whenever she brings it up. “You don't want to talk about it.”
She doesn't know the half of it. The day after my father's funeral, my mother brought me into their bedroom and showed me the paperwork on what she called their Rainy Day Account, astaggering amount. Where had they gotten so much? “Your father,” she told me unhelpfully. When I went home that night and Cato asked what was new, I told her about my mother's regime of short walks.
At each stage in the transfer of assets, financial advisors or bank officers have asked if my wife's name would be on the account as well. She still has no idea it exists. It means that I now have a secret net worth more than triple my family's. What am I up to? Your guess is as good as mine.
“Have you talked to anyone about the live-in position?” Cato now asks. I'd raised the idea with my mother, who'd started shouting that she never should have told me about the money. Since then I'd been less bullish about bringing Cato and Henk around to see her.
I tell her things are progressing just as we'd hope.
“Just as we'd hope?” she repeats.
“That's it in a nutshell,” I tell her, a little playfully, but her expression makes it clear she's waiting for a real explanation.
“Don't you have homework?” I ask Henk, and he and his mother exchange a look. I've always believed that I'm a master at hiding my feelings, but I seem to be alone in that regard.
Cato's been through this before in various iterations. When my mother was first diagnosed, I hashed through the whole thing with Kees, who'd been in my office when the call came in. And then later that night I told Cato there'd been no change, so as not to have to trudge through the whole story again. But the doctor had called the next day, when I was out, to see how I was taking the news, and she got it all from him.
Henk looks at me like he's using my face to attempt some long division.
Cato eats without saying anything until she finally loses her temper with the cutlery. “I told you before that if you don't want to do this, I can,” she says.
“There's nothing that needs doing,” I tell her.
“There's plenty that needs doing,” she says. She pulls the remotefrom Henk and switches off the news. “Look at him,” she complains to Henk. “He's always got his eyes somewhere else. Does he even know that he shakes his head when he listens?”
Pneumatic hammers pick up where they left off outside our window. There's always construction somewhere. Why not rip up the streets? The Germans did such a good job of it in 1940 that it's as if we've been competing with them ever since. Rotterdam: a deep hole in the pavement with a sign telling you to approach at your own risk. Our whole lives, walking through the city has meant muddy shoes.
As we're undressing that night she asks how I'd rate my recent performance as a husband.
I don't know; maybe not so good, not so bad, I tell her.
She answers that if I were a minister, I'd resign.
“What area are we talking about here,” I wonder aloud, “in terms of performance?”
“Go to sleep,” she tells me, and turns off the lamp.
If climate change is a hammer to the Dutch, the head's coming down more or less where we live. Rotterdam sits astride a plain that absorbs the Scheldt, Meuse, and Rhine outflows, and what we're facing is a troika of rising sea level, peak river discharges, and extreme weather events. We've got the jewel of our water defensesâthe staggeringly massive water barriers at Maeslant and Dordrecht, and the rest of the Delta Worksâready to shut off the North Sea during the next cataclysmic storm, but what are we to do when that coincides with the peak river discharges? Sea levels are leaping up, our ground is subsiding, it's raining harder and more often, and our program of managed floodingâMake Room for the Riversâwas overwhelmed long ago. The dunes and dikes at eleven locations from Ter Heijde to Westkapelle no longer meet what we decided would be the minimum safety standards. Temporary emergency measures are starting to be known to the public as Hans Brinkers.
And this winter's been a festival of bad news. Kees's team has measured increased snowmelt in the Alps to go along with prolonged rainfall across Northern Europe and steadily increasing windspeeds during gales, all of which lead to increasingly ominous winter flows, especially in the Rhine. He and Iâknown around the office as the Pessimistsâforecasted this winter's discharge at eighteen thousand cubic meters per second. It's now up to twenty-one. What are those of us in charge of dealing with that supposed to do? A megastorm at this point would swamp the barriers from both sides and inundate Rotterdam and its surroundingsâthree million peopleâwithin twenty-four hours.
Which is quite the challenge for someone in media relations. “Remember, the Netherlands will always be here,” Cato likes to say when signing off with one of the news agencies. “Though probably under three meters of water,” she'll add after she hangs up.
Before this most recent emergency, my area of expertise had to do with the strength and loading of the Water Defense structures, especially in terms of the Scheldt estuary. We'd been integrating forecasting and security software for high-risk areas and trying to get Arcadis to understand that it needed to share almost everything with IBM and vice versa. I'd even been lent out to work on the Venice, London, and Saint Petersburg surge barriers. But now all of us were back home and thrown into the Weak Links Project, an overeducated fire brigade formed to address new vulnerabilities the minute they emerged.
Our faces are turned helplessly to the Alps. There's been a series of cloudbursts on the eastern slopes: thirty-five centimeters of rain in the last two weeks. The Germans have long since raised their river dikes to funnel the water right past them and into the Netherlands. Some of that water will be taken up in the soil, some in lakes and ponds and catchment basins, and some in polders and farmland that we've set aside for flooding emergencies. Some in water plazas and water gardens and specially designed underground parking garages and reservoirs. The rest will keep moving downriver to Rotterdam and the closed surge barriers.
“Well, âChange is the soul of Rotterdam,'Â ” Kees joked when we first looked at the numbers on the meteorological disaster ahead. We were given private notification that there would be vertical evacuation if the warning time for an untenable situation was under two hours, and horizontal evacuation if it was over two.
“What am I supposed to do,” Cato demanded to know when I told her, “tell the helicopter that we have to pop over to Henk's school?” He now has an agreed-upon code; when it appears on his iFuze, he's to leave school immediately and head to her office.
But in the meantime we operate as though it won't come to that. We think we'll come up with something, as we always have. Where would New Orleans or the Mekong Delta be without Dutch hydraulics and Dutch water management? And where would the U.S. and Europe be if we hadn't led them out of the financial panic and depression, just by being ourselves? EU dominoes from Iceland to Ireland to Italy came down around our ears but there we sat, having been protected by our own Dutchness. What was the joke about us, after all? That we didn't go to the banks to take money out; we went to put money in. Who was going to be the first, as economy after economy capsized, to pony up the political courage to nationalize their banks and work cooperatively? Well, who took the public good more seriously than the Dutch? Who was more in love with rules? Who tells anyone who'll listen that we're providing the rest of the world with a glimpse of what the future will be?
After a third straight sleepless nightâ“Oh, who gets any sleep in the water sector?” Kees answered irritably the morning I complained about itâI leave the office early and ride a water taxi to Pernis. In Nieuwe Maas the shipping is so thick that it's like kayaking through canyons, and the taxi captain charges extra for what he calls a piloting fee. We tip and tumble on the backswells while four tugs nudge a supertanker sideways into its berth like puppiessnuffling at the base of a cliff. The tanker's hull is so high that we can't see any superstructure above it.
I hike from the dock to Polluxstraat, the traffic on the A4 above rolling like surf. “Look who's here,” my mother says, instead of hello, and goes about her tea-making as though I dropped in unannounced every afternoon. We sit in the breakfast nook off the kitchen. Before she settles in, she reverses the pillow embroidered “Good Night” so that it now reads “Good Morning.”
“How's Henk?” she asks, and I tell her he's got some kind of chest thing. “As long as he's healthy,” she replies. I don't see any reason to quibble.
The bottom shelves of her refrigerator are puddled with liquid from deliquescing vegetables and something spilled. The bristles of her bottle scraper on the counter are coated with dried mayonnaise. The front of her nightgown is an archipelago of stains.
“How's Cato?” she asks.
“Cato wants to know if we're going to get you some help,” I tell her.
“I just talked with her,” my mother says irritably. “She didn't say anything like that.”
“You talked with her? What'd you talk about?” I ask. But she waves me off. “Did you talk to her or not?”
“That girl from up north you brought here to meet me, I couldn't even understand her,” she tells me. She talks about regional differences as though her country's the size of China.
“We thought she seemed very efficient,” I reply. “What else did Cato talk with you about?”
But she's already shifted her interest to the window. Years ago she had a traffic mirror mounted outside on the frame to let her spy on the street unobserved. She uses a finger to widen the gap in the lace curtains.
What else should she do all day long? She never goes out. The street's her revival house, always showing the same movie.
The holes in her winter stockings are patched with a carnivalarray of colored thread. We always lived by the maxim that things last longer mended than new. My whole life, I heard that with thrift and hard work I could build a mansion. My father had a typewritten note tacked to the wall in his office at home:Let those with abundance remember that they are surrounded by thorns.
“Who saidthat?” Cato asked when we were going through his belongings.
“Calvin,” I told her.
“Well, you would know,” she said.
He hadn't been so much a conservative as a man whose life philosophy had boiled down to the principle of no nonsense. I'd noticed even as a tiny boy that whenever he liked a business associate, or anyone else, that's what he said about them.
My mother's got her nose to the glass at this point. “You think you're the only one with secrets,” she remarks.
“What's that supposed to mean?” I ask, but she acts as though she's not going to dignify that with a response. Follow-up questions don't get anywhere, either. I sit with her a while longer. We watch a Chinese game show. I soak her bread in milk, walk her to the toilet, and tell her we have to at least think about moving her bed downstairs somewhere. The steps to her second floor are vertiginous even by Dutch standards, and the risers accommodate less than half your foot. She makes an effort to follow what I'm saying, puzzled that she needs to puzzle something out. But then her expression dissipates and she complains she spent half the night looking for the coffee grinder.
“Why were you looking for the coffee grinder?” I ask, a question I have to repeat. Then I stop, for fear of frightening her.
Henk's class is viewing a presentation at the Climate campusâ“Water: Precious Resource and Deadly Companion”âso we have the dinner table to ourselves. Since Cato's day was even longer than mine, I prepared the meal, two cans of pea soup with pigs' knucklesand some Belgian beer, but she's too tired to complain. She's dealing with both the Americans, who are always hectoring for clarification on the changing risk factors for our projects in Miami and New Orleans, and the Germans, who've publicly dug in their heels on the issue of accepting any spillover from the Rhine in order to take some of the pressure off the situation downstream.
It's the usual debate, as far as the latter argument's concerned. We take the high roadâit's only through cooperation that we can face such monumental challenges, etc.âwhile other countries scoff at our aspirations toward ever more comprehensive safety measures. The German foreign minister last year accused us on a simulcast of acting like old women.
“Maybe he's right,” Cato says wearily. “Sometimes I wonder what it'd be like to live in a country where you don't need a license to build a fence around your garden.”
Exasperated, we indulge in a little Dutch bashing. No one complains about themselves as well as the Dutch. Cato asks if I remember that story about the manufacturers having to certify that each of the chocolate letters handed out by Santa Claus contained an equal amount of chocolate. I remind her about the number-one download of the year turning out to have been offireworks sound effects, for those New Year's revelers who found real fireworks too worrisome.
After we stop, she looks at me, her mouth a little slack. “Why does this sort of thing make us horny?” she wonders.
“Maybe it's the pea soup,” I tell her in the shower. She's examining little crescents of fingernail marks where she held me when she came. Then she turns off the water and we wrap ourselves in the bedsheet-sized towel she had made in Surinam. Cocooned on the floor in the tiny, steamy bathroom we discuss Kees's love life. He now shops at a singles' supermarket, the kind where you use a blue basket if you're taken and a yellow if you're available. When I asked how his latest fling was working out, he said, “Well, I'm back to the yellow basket.”
Cato thinks this is hilarious.
“How'dweget to be so lucky?” I ask her. We're spooning and she does a minimal grind that allows me to grow inside her.
“The other day someone from BBC1 asked my boss that same question about how he ended up where he did,” she says. She turns her cheek so I can kiss it.
“What'd he say?” I ask when I've moved from her cheek to her neck. She's not a big fan of her boss.
She shrugs comfortably, her shoulder blades against my chest. I wrap my arms tighter so the fit is even more perfect. The gist of his answer, she tells me, was mostly by not asking too many questions.
My mother always had memory problems and even before my sister died my father said that he didn't blame her; she'd seen her own brothers swept away in the 1953 flood and had been a wreck for years afterward. On January 31, the night after her sixth birthday, a storm field that covered the entire North Sea swept down out of the northwest with winds that registered gale force 11 and combined with a spring tide to raise the sea six meters over NAP. The breakers overtopped the dikes in eighty-nine locations over a 170-kilometer stretch and hollowed them out on their land sides so that the surges that followed broke them. My mother remembered eating her soup alongside her two brothers listening to the wind increase in volume until her father went out to check on the barn and the draft from the opened door blew their board game off the table. Her mother's Bible pages flapped in her hands like panicked birds. Water was seeping through the window casing, and her brother touched it and held out his finger for her to taste. She remembered his look when she realized that it was salty: not rain but spray from the sea.
Her father returned and said they all had to leave, now. They held hands in a chain and he went first and she went second, and once the door was open, the wind staggered him and blew her offher feet. He managed to retrieve her but by then they couldn't find the others in the dark and the rain. She was soaked in ice and the water was already up to her thighs and in the distance she could see breakers where the dike had been. They headed inland and found refuge inside a neighbor's brick home and discovered that the back half of the house had already been torn away by the water. He led her up the stairs to the third floor and through a trapdoor onto the roof. Their neighbors were already there, and her mother, huddling against the wind and the cold. The house west of them imploded but its roof held together and was pushed upright in front of theirs, diverting the main force of the flood around them like a breakwater. She remembered holding her father's hand so their bodies would be found in the same place. Her mother shrieked and pointed and she saw her brothers beside a woman with a baby on the roof of the house beyond them to the east. Each wave that broke against the front drenched her brothers and the woman with spray, and the woman kept turning her torso to shield the baby. And then the front of the house caved in and they all became bobbing heads in the water that were swept around the collapsing walls and away.
She remembered the wind finally dying down by mid-morning, a heavy mist in the gray sky, and a fishing smack off to the north coasting between the rooftops and bringing people on board. She remembered a dog lowered on a rope, its paws flailing as it turned.
After their rescue, she remembered a telegraph pole slanted over, its wires tugged by the current. She remembered the water smelling of gasoline and mud, treetops uncovered by the waves, and a clog between two steep roofs filled with floating branches and dead cattle. She remembered a vast plain of wreckage on the water and the smell of dead fish traveling on the wind. She remembered two older boys sitting beside her and examining the silt driven inside an unopened bottle of soda by the force of the waves. She remembered her mother's animal sounds and the length of time it took to get to dry land, and her father's chin on her mother'sbent back, his head bumping and wobbling whenever they crossed the wakes of other boats.
We always knew this was coming. Years ago the city fathers thought it was our big opportunity. Rotterdam no longer would be just the ugly port, or Amsterdam without the attractions. The bad news was going to impact us first and foremost, so we put out the word that we were looking for people with the nerve to put into practice what was barely possible anywhere else. The result was Waterplan 4 Rotterdam, with brand-new approaches to storage and safety: water plazas, super cisterns, water balloons, green roofs, and even traffic tunnels that doubled as immense drainage systems would all siphon off danger. It roped in Kees and Cato and me and by the end of the first week had set Cato against us. Her mandate was to showcase Dutch ingenuity, so the last thing she needed was the Pessimists clamoring for more funding because nothing anyone had come up with yet was going to work. As far as she was concerned, our country was the testing ground for all high-profile adaptive measures and practically oriented knowledge and prototype projects that would attract worldwide attention and become a sluice-gate for high-tech exports. She spent her days in the international marketplace hawking the notion that we were safe here because we had the knowledge and were using it to find creative solutions. We were all assuming that a secure population was a collective social good for which the government and private sector alike would remain responsible, a notion, we soon realized, not universally embraced by other countries.
Sea-facing barriers are inspected both by hand and by laser imaging. Smart dikes schedule their own maintenance based on sensors that detect seepage or changes in pressure and stability. Satellites track ocean currents and water-mass volumes. The areas most at risk have been divided into dike-ring compartments in an attempt to make the country a system of watertight doors. Our road and infrastructure networks now function independently ofthe ground layer. Nine entire neighborhoods have been made amphibious, built on hollow platforms that will rise with the water but remain anchored to submerged foundations. And besides the giant storm barriers, atop our dikes we've mounted titanium-braced walls that unfold from concrete channels, leviathan-like inflatable rubber dams, and special grasses grown on plastic-mat revetments to anchor the inner walls.
“Is it all enough?” Henk will ask, whenever there's a day of unremitting rain. “Oh, honey, it's more than enough,” Cato will tell him, and then quiz him on our emergency code.
“It's funny how this kind of work has been good for me,” Cato says. She's asked me to go for a walk, an activity she knows I'll find nostalgically stirring. We tramped all over the city before and after lovemaking when we first got together. “All of this end-of-the-world stuff apparently cheers me up,” she remarks. “I guess it's the same thing I used to get at home. All those glum faces, and I had to do the song-and-dance that explained why they got out of bed in the morning.”
“The heavy lifting,” I tell her.
“Exactly,” she says with a faux mournfulness. “The heavy lifting. We're on for another simulcast tomorrow and it'll be three Germans with long faces and Cato the Optimist.”
We negotiate a herd of bicycles on a plaza and she veers ahead of me toward the harbor. When we cross the skylights of the traffic tunnels, giant container haulers shudder by beneath our feet. She has a beautiful back, accentuated by the military cut of her overcoat.
“Except that the people you're dealing with nowwantto be fooled,” I tell her.
“It's not that they want to be fooled,” she answers. “It's just that they're not convinced they need to go around glum all the time.”
“How'd that philosophy work with your parents?” I ask.
“Not so well,” she says sadly.
We turn on Boompjes, which is sure to add to her melancholy. A seven-story construction crane with legs curving inward perches like a spider over the river.
“Your mother called about the coffee grinder,” she remarks. “I couldn't pin down what she was talking about.”
Boys in bathing suits are pitching themselves off the high dock by the Strand, though it seems much too cold for that, and the river too dirty. Even in the chill I can smell tar and rope and, strangely, fresh bread.
“She called you or you called her?” I ask.
“I just told you,” Cato says.
“It seems odd that she'd call you,” I tell her.
“Whatwasshe talking about?” Cato wants to know.
“I assume she was having trouble working the coffee grinder,” I tell her.
“Working it or finding it?” she asks.
“Working it, I think,” I suggest. “Shecalledyou?”
“Oh my God,” Cato says.
“I'm just asking,” I tell her after a minute.
All of Maashaven is blocked from view by a giant suction dredger that's being barged out to Maasvlakte 2. Preceded by six tugs, it looks like a small city going by. The thing uses dragheads connected to tubes the size of railway tunnels and harvests sand down to a depth of twenty meters. It'll be deepening the docking areas out at Yangtzehaven, Europahaven, and Mississippihaven. There's been some worry that all of this dredging has been undermining the water defenses on the other side of the channel, which is the last thing we need. Kees has been dealing with their horseshit for a few weeks now.
We rest on a bench in front of some law offices. Over the front entrance, cameras have been installed to monitor the surveillance cameras, which have been vandalized. Once the dredger has passed, we can see a family of day campers on the opposite bank who've pitched their tent on a berm overlooking the channel.
“Isn't it too cold for camping?” I ask her.
“Wasn't it too cold for swimming?” she responds, reminding me of the boys we'd passed.
She says Henk keeps replaying the same footage on his iFuze of Feyenoord's MVP being lowered into the stadium beneath the team flag by a V/STOL. “So here's what I'm thinking,” she continues, as if that led directly to her next thought. She mentions a conservatory in Berlin, fantastically expensive, that has a chamber-music program. She'd like to send Henk there during his winter break, and maybe longer.
This seems to me to be mostly about his safety, though I don't acknowledge that. He's a gifted cellist, but hardly seems devoted to the instrument.
With her pitchman's good cheer she repeats the amount it will cost, which to me sounds like enough for a week in a five-star hotel. But she says money can always be found for a good idea, and if it can't, then it wasn't a good idea. Finally she adds that as a hydraulic engineer, I'm the equivalent of an atomic physicist in technological prestige.
Atomic physicists don't make a whole lot of money, either, I remind her. And our argument proceeds from there. I can see her disappointment expanding as we speak, and even as my inner organs start to contract I sit on the information of my hidden nest egg and allow all of the unhappiness to unfold. This takes forever. The word in our country for the decision-making process is the same as the one we use for what we pour over pancakes. Our national mindset pivots around the word “but”: as in “This, yes, but that, too.” Cato puts her fingers to her temples and sheaths her cheeks with her palms. Her arguments run aground on my tolerance, which has been elsewhere described as a refusal to listen. Passion in Dutch meetings is punished by being ignored. The idea is that the argument itself matters, not the intensity with which it's presented. Outright rejections of a position are rare; what you get instead are suggestions for improvement that if followed would annihilate the original intent. And then everyone checks their agendas to schedule the next meeting.
Just like that, we're walking back. We're single-file again, and it's gotten colder.
From our earliest years, we're taught not to burden others with our emotions. A young Amsterdammer in the Climate campus is known as the Thespian because he sobbed in public at a co-worker's funeral. “You don't need to eliminate your emotions,” Kees reminded him when the Amsterdammer complained about the way he'd been treated. “You just need to be a little more economical with them.”
Another thing I never told Cato: my sister and I the week before she caught the flu had been jumping into the river in the winter as well. That was my idea. When she came out, her feet and lips were blue and she sneezed all the way home. “Do you think I'll catch a cold?” she asked that night. “Go to sleep,” I answered.
We take a shortcut through the sunken pedestrian mall they call the Shopping Gutter. By the time we reach our street it's dark, raining again, and the muddy pavement's shining in the lights of the cafes. Along the new athletic complex in the distance, sapphire-blue searchlights are lancing up into the rain at even intervals, like meteorological harp strings. “I don't know if youknowwhat this does to me, or you don't,” Cato says at our doorstep, once she's stopped and turned. Her thick brown hair is beaded with moisture where it's not soaked. “But either way, it's just so miserable.”
I actuallyhavethe solution to our problem, I'm reminded as I follow her up the stairs. The thought makes me feel rehabilitated, as though I've told her instead of only myself.
Cato always maintained that when it came to their marriage, her parents practiced a sort of apocalyptic utilitarianism: on the one hand they were sure everything was going to hell in a handbasket, while on the other they continued to operate as if things could be turned around with a few practical measures.
But there's always that moment in a country's history when it becomes obvious the earth is less manageable than previouslythought. Ten years ago we needed to conduct comprehensive assessments of the flood defenses every five years. Now safety margins are adjusted every six months to take new revelations into account. For the last year and a half we've been told to build into our designs for whatever we're working on features that restrict the damaging effectsafteran inevitable inundation. There won't be any retreating back to the hinterlands, either, because given the numbers we're facing there won't be any hinterlands. It's gotten to the point that pedestrians are banned from many of the sea-facing dikes in the far west even on calm days. At the entrance to the Haringvlietdam they've erected an immense yellow caution sign that shows two tiny stick figures with their arms raised in alarm at a black wave three times their size that's curling over them.
I watched Kees's face during a recent simulation as one of his new configurations for a smart dike was overwhelmed in half the time he would have predicted. It had always been the Dutch assumption that we would resolve the problems facing us from a position of strength. But we passed that station long ago. At this point each of us understands privately that we're operating under the banner of lost control.
The next morning we're crammed together into Rotterdam Climate Proof's Smartvan and heading west on N211, still not speaking. Cato's driving. At 140 km/hr the rain fans across the windshield energetically, racing the wipers. Gray clouds seem to be rushing in from the sea in the distance. We cross some polders that are already flooded, and there's a rocking buoyancy when we traverse that part of the road that's floating. Trucks sweep by backwards and recede behind us in the spray.
The only sounds are those of tires and wipers and rain. Exploring the radio is like visiting the Tower of Babel: Turks, Berbers, Cape Verdeans, Antilleans, Angolans, Portuguese, Croatians, Brazilians, Chinese. Cato managed to relocate her simulcast with her three long-faced Germans to the Hoek van Holland; she told themshe wanted the Maeslant barrier as a backdrop, but what she really intends is to surprise them, live, with the state of the water levels already. Out near the barrier it's pretty dramatic. Cato the Optimist with indisputable visual evidence that the sky is falling: can the German position remain unshaken in the face of that? Will her grandstanding work? It's hard to say. It's pretty clear that nothing else will.
“Want me to talk about Gravenzande?” I ask her. “That's the sort of thing that will really jolt the boys from the Reich.”
“That's just what I need,” she answers. “You starting a panic about something that might not even be true.”
Gravenzande's where she's going to drop me, a few kilometers away. Three days ago geologists there turned up crushed shell deposits seven meters higher on the dune lines inland than anyone believed floods had ever reached, deposits that look to be only about ten thousand years old. If this ends up confirmed, it's seriously bad news, given what it clarifies about how cataclysmic things could get even before the climate's more recent turn for the worse.
It's Saturday, and we'll probably put in twelve hours. Henk's getting more comfortable with his weekend nanny than with us. As Cato likes to tell him when she's trying to induce him to do his chores: “Around here, you work.” By which she means that old joke that when you buy a shirt in Rotterdam, it comes with the sleeves already rolled up.
We pass poplars lining the canals in neat rows, a canary-yellow smudge of a house submerged to its second-floor windows and, beyond a roundabout, a pair of decrepit rugby goalposts.
“You're really going to announce that if the Germans pull their weight, everything's going to be fine?” I ask. But she ignores me.
She needs a decision, she tells me a few minutes later, as though tired of asking. Henk's winter break is coming up. I venture that I thought it wasn't until the twelfth, and she reminds me with exasperation that it's the fifth, the schools now staggering vacation times to avoid overloading the transportation systems.
We pass the curved sod roofs of factories. The secret account's not a problem but a solution, I decide, and as I model to myself ways of implementing it as such, Cato finally assertsâas though she's waited too long alreadyâthat she's found the answer: she could take that Royal Dutch Shell offer to reconfigure their regional media relations, they could set her up in Wannsee, and Henk could commute. They could stay out there and get a bump in income besides. Henk could enroll in the conservatory.
We exit N211 northwest on an even smaller access road to the coast, and within a kilometer it ends in a turnabout next to the dunes. She pulls the car around so it's pointed back toward her simulcast, turns off the engine, and sits there beside me with her hands in her lap.
“How long has this been in the works?” I ask. She wants to know what I mean, and I tell her that it doesn't seem like so obscure a question; she said no to Shell years ago, so where did this new offer come from?
She shrugs, as if I'd asked if they were paying her moving expenses. “They called. I told them I'd listen to what they had to say.”
“They called you,” I tell her.
“They called me,” she repeats.
She's only trying to hedge her bets, I tell myself to combat the panic. Our country's all about spreading risk around. “Do people just walk into this conservatory?” I ask. “Or do you have to apply?”
She doesn't answer, which I take to mean that she and Henk already have applied and he's been accepted. “How did Henk feel about this good news?” I ask.
“He wanted to tell you,” Cato answers.
“And we'd see each other every other weekend? Once a month?” I'm attempting a version of steely neutrality but can feel the terror worming its way forward.
“This is just one option of many,” she reminds me. “We need to talk about all of them.” She adds that she has to go. And that I should see all this as being primarily about Henk, not us. I answerthat the Netherlands will always be here, and she smiles and starts the van.
“You sure there's nothing else you want to talk to me about?” she asks.
“Like what?” I say. “I want to talk to you about everything.”
She jiggles the gear shift lightly, considering me. “You're going to let me drive away,” she says, “with your having left it at that.”
“I don't want you to drive away at all,” I tell her.
“Well, there is that,” she concedes bitterly. She waits another full minute, then a curtain comes down on her expression and she puts the car in gear. She honks when she's pulling out.
At the top of the dune I watch surfers in wetsuits wading into the breakers in the rain. The rain picks up and sets the sea's surface in a constant agitation. Even the surfers keep low, to stay out of it. The wet sand's like brown sugar in my shoes.
Five hundred thousand years ago it was possible to walk from where I live to England. At that point the Thames was a tributary of the Rhine. Even during the Romans' occupation, the Zuider Zee was dry. But by the sixth centuryB.C. we were building artificial hills out of marsh grass mixed with manure and our own refuse to keep our feet out of the water. And then in the seventeenth century Hulsebosch invented the Archimedes screw, and water wheels could raise a flow four meters higher than where it began, and we started to make real progress at keeping what the old people called “the Waterwolf” from the door.
In the fifteenth century Philip the Good ordered the sand dike that constituted the original Hondsbossche Seawall to be restored, and another built behind it as a backup. He named the latter the Sleeper Dike. For extra security he had another constructed behind that, calling that one the Dreamer Dike. Ever since, schoolchildren have learned, as one of their first geography sentences, that “Between Camperduinen and Petten lie three dikes: the Watcher, the Sleeper, and the Dreamer.”
We're raised with the double message that we have to address our worst fears but that nonetheless they'll also somehow domesticate themselves. Fifteen years ago Rotterdam Climate Proof revived “The Netherlands lives with water” as a slogan, the accompanying poster featuring a two-panel cartoon in which a towering wave in the first panel is breaking before its crest over a terrified little boy, and in the second it separates into immense foamy fingers so he can relievedly shake its hand.
When Cato told me about that first offer from Shell, I couldseeher flash of feral excitement about what she was turning down. Royal Dutch Shell! She would've been fronting for one of the biggest corporations in the world. We conceived Henk a few nights later. There was a lot of urgent talk about getting deeper and closer and I remember striving once she'd guided me inside her to have my penis reach the back of her throat. Periodically we slowed into the barest sort of movement, just to further take stock of what was happening, and at one point we paused in our tremoring and I put my lips to her ear and reminded her of what she'd passed up. After winning them over, she could have picked her city: Tokyo, Los Angeles, Rio. The notion caused a momentary lack of focus in her eyes. Then as a response she started moving along a contraction, and Shell and other options including speech evanesced away.
If she were to leave me, where would I be? It's as if she was put here to force my interaction with humans. And still I don't pull it off. It's like that story we were told as children, of Jesus telling the rich young man to go and sell all he has and give it to the poor, but instead the rich man chose to keep what he had, and went away sorrowful. When we talked about it, Kees said he always assumed the guy had settled in Holland.
That Monday, more bad news: warm air and heavy rain has ventured many meters above established snowlines in the western Alps, and Kees holds up before me with both hands GRACE's latest printouts about a storm cell whose potential numbers we keeprechecking because they seem so extravagant. He spends the rest of the morning on the phone trying to stress that we've hit another type of threshold here; that these are calamity-level numbers. It seems to him that everyone's saying they recognize the urgency of the new situation but that no one's acting like it. During lunch a call comes in about the hinge-and-socket joint, itself five stories high, of one of the Maeslant doors. In order to allow the doors to roll with the waves, the joints are designed to operate like a human shoulder, swinging along both horizontal and vertical axes and transferring the unimaginable stresses to the joint's foundation. The maintenance engineers are reporting that the foundation blockâall 52,000 tons of itâis moving.
Finally Kees flicks off his phone receptor and squeezes his eyes shut in despair. “Maybe our history's just the history of picking up after disasters like this,” he tells me. “The Italians do pasta sauce and we do body retrieval.”
After waiting a few minutes for updated numbers, I call Cato and fail to get through and then try my mother, who says she's soaking her corns. I can picture the enamel basin with the legend “Contented Feet” around the rim. The image seems to confirm that we're all naked in the world, so I tell her to get some things together, that I'm sending someone out for her, that she needs to leave town for a little while.
It's amazing I'm able to keep trying Cato's numbers, given what's broken loose at every level of water management nationwide. Everyone's shouting into headpieces and clattering away at laptops at the same time. At the Delta stations the situation has already triggered the automatic emergency procedures with their checklists and hour-by-hour protocols. Outside my office window the canal is lined with barges of cows, of all things, awaiting their river pilot to transport them to safety. The road in front of them is a gypsy caravan of traffic piled high with suitcases and furniture and roped-down plastic bags. The occasional dog hangs from a carwindow. Those roads that can float should allow vehicular evacuation for six or seven hours longer than the other roads will. The civil defense teams at roundabouts and intersections are doing what they can to dispense biopacs and aquacells. Through the glass everyone seems to be behaving well, though with a maximum of commotion.
I've got the mayor of Ter Heijde on one line saying he's up to his ass in ice water and demanding to know where the fabled Weak Links Project has gone when Cato's voice finally breaks in on the other.
“Where are you?” I shout, and the mayor shouts back “Where do youthink?” I kill his line and ask again, and Cato answers, “What?” In just her one-word inflection, I can tell she heard what I said. “Is Henk with you?” I shout, and Kees and some of the others around the office look up despite the pandemic of shouting. I ask again and she says that he is. When I ask if she's awaiting evacuation, she answers that she's already in Berlin.
I'm shouting other questions when Kees cups a palm over my receptor and says, “Here's an idea. Why don't you sort out all of your personal problems now?”
After Cato's line goes dead I can't raise her again, or she won't answer. We're engaged in such a blizzard of calls that it almost doesn't matter. “Whoa,” Kees says, his hands dropping to his desk, and a number of our co-workers go silent as well, because the windows facing west are now rattling and black with rain. I look out mine, and bags and other debris are tearing free of the traffic caravan and sailing east. The rain curtain hits the cows in their barges and their ears flatten like mules and their eyes squint shut at the gale's power.
“Our ride is here,” Kees calls, shaking my shoulder, and I realize that everyone's hurriedly collecting laptops and flash drives. There's a tumult heading up the stairs to the roof and the roar of the wind every time the door's opened, and the scrabbling sounds of people dragging something outside before the door slams shut. And then, with surprising abruptness, it's quiet.
My window continues to shake as though it's not double pane but cellophane. Now that our land has subsided as much as it has, when the water does come, it will come like a wall, and each dike that stops it will force it to turn, and in its churning it will begin to spiral and bore into the earth, eroding away the dike walls, until the pressure builds and that dike collapses and it's on to the next one, with more pressure piling up behind, and so on and so on until every last barrier falls and the water thunders forward like a hand sweeping everything from the table.
The lights go off, and then on and off again, before the halogen emergency lights in the corridors engage, with their irritated buzzing.
It's easier to see out with the interior lights gone. Along the line of cars a man carrying a framed painting staggers at an angle, like a sailboat tacking. He passes a woman in a van with her head against the headrest and her mouth open in anOhof fatigue.
I'm imagining the helicopter crew's negotiations with my mother, and their fireman's carry once those negotiations have fallen through. She told me once that she often recalled how long they drifted in the flood of 1953 through the darkness without the sky getting any lighter. When the sun finally rose they watched the navy drop food and blankets and rubber boats and bottles of cooking gas to people on roofs or isolated high spots, and when their boat passed a small body lying across an eave with its arms in the water, her father told her that it was resting. She remembered later that morning telling her mother, who'd grown calmer, that it was a good sign they saw so few people floating, and before her father could stop her she answered that the drowned didn't float straightaway but took a few days to come up.
And she talked with fondness about how tenderly her father had tended to her later, after she'd been blinded by some windblown grit, by suggesting she rub one eye to make the other weep, like farmers did when bothered by chaff. And she remembered, too, the strangeness of one of the prayers her village priest recitedonce they were back in their old church, the masonry buttressed with steel beams and planking to keep the walls from sagging outwards any further:I sink into deep mire, where there is no standing; I come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me.
The window's immense pane shudders and flexes before me from the force of what's pouring out of the North Sea. Water's beginning to run its fingers under the seal on the sash. Cato will send me wry and brisk and newsy text updates whether she receives answers or not, and Henk will author a few as well. Everyone in Berlin will track the developments on the monitors above them while they shop or travel or work, the teaser heading reading something likeThe Netherlands Under Siege. Some of the more sober will think,That could have been us. Some of the more perceptive will consider that it soon might well be.
My finger's on the Cato icon on the screen without exerting the additional pressure that would initiate another call. What sort of person ends up with someone like me? What sort of person finds thatacceptable, year to year? We went on vacations and fielded each other's calls and took turns reading Henk to sleep and let slip away the miracle that was there between us when we first came together. We hunkered down before the wind picked up. We modeled risk management for our son when instead we could have embraced the freefall of that astonishingHere, this is yours to hold. We told each otherI think I knowwhen we should've saidLead me farther through your amazing, astonishing interior.
Cato was moved by my mother's flood memories, but brought to tears only by the one my mother cherished from that year: the Queen's address to the nation afterwards, her celebration of what the crucible of the disaster had produced, and the return, at long last, of the unity the country had displayed during the war. My mother had years ago purchased a vinyl record of the speech, and later had a neighbor transfer it to a digital format. She played it once while we were visiting, and Henk knelt at the window spying on whoever was hurrying by. And my mother held the weepingCato's hand and she held mine and Henk gave us fair warning of anything of interest on the street, while the Queen's warm and smooth voice thanked us all for working together in that one great cause, soldiering on without a thought for care, or grief, or inner divisions, and without even realizing what we were denying ourselves.Happy with Crocodiles
Her envelope had hearts where theo's in my name should have been and I tore it open and read her letter right there in the sun. The V-Mail was like onionskin and in the humidity you spent all your time peeling sheets apart and flapping them dry. Two guys who'd been waiting behind me for their mail passed out and fell over. Our CO had orders to keep everyone under some sort of shade until further notice. That was it in terms of his responsibilities for the day. But the mail hadn't caught up to us since Port Moresby so even this one load pulled most of us out around the truck.
The guy next to me spat on the back fender just to watch it sizzle. As far as we could tell, we were the only four companies not getting any beach breezes, and we'd been sitting through this for two weeks and were pretty much wiped out to a man. Guys just lay in the bush with their feet sticking out onto the trail. The Bren gun carrier already looked like a planter, it was so overgrown. Almost nothing was running because the lubricating oils ran off or evaporated. We'd lost half our water when the heat dissolved the jerry cans' enamel lining. Two unshaded shells farther down the trail had exploded. The tents accumulated heat like furnaces. The midday sun raised blisters on an arm in ten minutes. One of the medics timed it. Everybody lost so much fluid and salt that we had ice-pick headaches or down-on-all-fours dry heaves and cramping. Turning your head wasn't worth the effort. Pickets got confusedand shot at anything. A few facing the afternoon sun on the water went snowblind from the glare and didn't bother to report it until relieved.
At least the Japs were lying low, too. I had a palm-frond bush hat but even through that the sun beat on my head like a mallet.
The first paragraph was all about how good it was to hear I was okay. It made her whole day easier, apparently. The second said “To answer your question, no, I didn't see your brother when he was home on leave.” But he'd already written that she had. And then he'd left it at that.
“Get out of thesun, Foss,” the CO called.
One of the guys who'd passed out came to and staggered back to his tent. The other guy just lay there. The guy behind me got handed a Christmas package, but whatever was in it was smashed flat and melted besides. He picked over it standing in the truck cab's shadow.
The PFC dishing out the mail was clearly hacked off that he had to do it right there on the trail. There was one good patch of shade from a clump of coconut palms and no one was budging out of it to let him park his truck. He called a name and if someone didn't answer right away he pitched the letter or package over the side and went on to the next one. He was wearing a bush helmet and on the back of it someone had drawn a woman with her legs spread and written “Your Mother Says Hi” across the brim.
The third paragraph went on to something else as though that was the end of it. So-and-so said such-and-such about a friend of hers, could I believe that?
“What do you need, a road map?” my friend Leo said when I asked him about it.
“What?” I asked, like I already knew. “What do you think you think is going on?”
“What do IthinkI think is going on?” he asked, and the rest of Dog Company, a little ways farther off the trail, laughed. We'd heard that Baker and Fox Companies had been bombed with daisy cutters the night before, so we were working on two-man slittrenches, and in the close quarters entrenching tools kept whipping by people's ears. “I think the two of them spend a lot of time agreeing on what a great guy you are. I think it makes them sad for you and they cry together in their beer. And then I think he's sticking his dick in her.”
“What's wrong withhim?” our staff sergeant asked Leo while we redug our slit trenches the next morning. As if everybody else was the picture of contentment. If it rained at all during the night we lost like a foot and a half of depth to the mud.
“He's jealous of his brother,” Leo told him.
“His brother better-lookin' than him?” the staff sergeant asked, amused.
“I've seen knotholes better-lookin' than him,” Leo told him.
“Why would he think it was about looks?” I asked him later.
“Why wouldn't he think I was jealous of something else?”
“Where the heck ischow?” Leo wondered. Guys were milling around the bivouac, waiting. You could always tell when a hot meal was late, because everybody started acting like zoo animals.
We were the Second Battalion, 126th Infantry, 32nd Division, Michigan and Wisconsin National Guard, here in New Guinea all of fourteen days andâleave it to the Armyâapparently the spearhead of General MacArthur's upcoming drive to dislodge what everyone agreed were two divisions of the world's most fearsome jungle fighters from one of the world's most impenetrable jungles.
Two of us hadn't hit puberty yet. Three of us couldn't see without our glasses, and our hygiene officer couldn't seewiththem. Before this, only one of the Wisconsin guys had been out of the state. We were fifteen miles from the nearest hut and a hundred and fifty from the nearest civilization, in the form of the mostly uninhabited northeastern Australian coast. We were ten thousand miles from home.
We'd trained in South Carolina, which didn't prepare us much for jungle fighting but did its bit in getting us ready for the humidity. Any number of us couldn't keep up during the double-time drills, which meant we had to run around the entire battalion areathree times with knapsacks full of grenades. At one point our unit was first in the entire camp in hospitalizations.
We just weren't crackerjack soldiers. Guys who panicked every morning about climbing into full field dress and getting their beds made in time for reveille and inspection started sleeping already dressed and under their beds. We were each scored on particular skills and then all classified as riflemen anyway and herded onto transports and shipped out. Once we got through the Panama Canal the ships were under orders to never stop moving, so anybody who fell overboard would have to take care of himself. We slept in the holds in canvas hammocks slung in tiers of four from the support beams. The top slot was so close to the metal ceiling that if you tried to see your feet you cracked your head. Everything smelled of socks or farts or armpit. Weapons were stowed in baggage racks and anything else got dumped on the floor. In the exact middle of the trip everyone was issued five dollars, a huge morale builder with the dice and card players. Some guys slept on deck because of the smell or because they figured they'd have a better shot of getting off if the boat was torpedoed. Like that would've mattered: all the cargo was high explosives. The whole stern hold was mostly gasoline in seventy-gallon drums.
We had one fifty-caliber mounted aft for protection. If we'd been attacked by three guys in a motor launch, we would've been A-OK.
We were only in Australia a week when we were told to pack up for New Guinea. We were playing baseball with some Kiwis when we heard. Leo was in the batter's box when they called the game. He dropped his bat in the dirt and said, “Shit. I can hit this guy.”
When we got within range of the coast, the smell of everything rotting was so strong that we could pick it up before the shore was even in sight. “Whatisthat?” Leo asked. We were all hanging on the cable railings. “That's the jungle,” one of the LCT pilots told him. “What'swrongwith it?” Leo asked, and the guy laughed. It was like you could taste the germs in the air. Nobody on deck wanted to open his mouth.
It took our pathfinders an hour just to locate the trailhead that supposedly led inland. If you stepped five yards into the wall of leaves, you disappeared completely. All the barracks bags had to be left behind for the hump, so we carried only our weapons and ammo, knives, quinine tablets, mosquito lotion, canteens, and canvas water buckets. Everything else was left to the bearers. Our first night was spent in an old Aussie camp that was mostly a supply dump, camouflaged. Since Leo and I couldn't sleep we watched the natives file in carrying everything on poles on their shoulders. They looked scrawny, but judging by the loads they were plenty strong. I tried out some sign language on one. “You need something?” the guy asked when I finished.
They made their own pile and then went off the trail to sleep by themselves. Fifteen of them took like three steps and disappeared. Leo fell asleep too, finally. Then it was just me, listening to the bugs.
I got Leo's advice about everything. He was older, twenty-one, and had been in the Army for three years and Dog Company for two. We'd been friends since stateside. Or at least we'd gone off on passes together. He liked to say I spent the whole war surprised. Sometimes he enlarged it to life instead of just the war. “You know I ain't got a single friend?” he told me, like it had just hit him, the night we came ashore.
“What do you mean?” I asked him. “You got me.”
“Yeah, that's right,” he said after a minute, looking at me. Then he let it go.
The week we met he asked if I was a virgin, and when I told him no that's how Linda came up. He said, “So you've really done everything with her?” and for some reason I told him about all four nights. This was on the chow line and at one point I looked up and the guy ladling out the creamed chipped beef had just frozen in mid-pour. “You did all that?” Leo asked as we found a table. And I told him yes. Because I had.
Linda was in my high-school geography class and my brother was two years ahead. We all drove around in her older brother's car and argued about whether Mineral Point was the deadest place in Wisconsin or the deadest place on earth. We did our drinking at the turnoff for the abandoned quarry and her brother always said you could do human sacrifice there and nobody would find it for a year and a half. One night after I got my permit he let us have the car and we drove out there thinking about what he'd told us. “I want to show you something,” she said in this low voice once I'd turned off the headlights, then took my head with one hand and leaned me over and kissed me as if she was looking for something really carefully with her mouth and it was all the same to her if she never found it. “Like this,” she whispered a few times, showing me how to make it even better.
“I think I need to show you something else,” she whispered later, and pushed me back again and unbuckled my pants and pulled them down past my hips. She brought her head down to where my pants were. “Where's your brother?” she asked, like she was making conversation.
“I don't know,” I said, not even sure how I managed to say that. “What're youdoing?” I asked her, holding her shoulders and her hair.
She laughed a little and let me go. I could feel the wetness and the cold air. “Mmm,” she said, and the warmth came all around me again.
I didn't know what to say. “Would youmarryme?” I finally called out, with my eyes closed, and she laughed again.
The next time we went back I got protection from my brother and we did everything else. The third time I pushed her up against her door and she started making noises, too.
“Why'd you ask about my brother when we were out here that other night?” I said afterwards, when we were just resting.
“When?” she wanted to know. “With my brother?”
I had my face on her shoulder and she had a foot up on the dash. “No, alone,” I told her.
“I don't know,” she said. “I don't remember.” She sighed and shifted around and pulled me with her. The car seat underneath us felt soaked.
“So how'd it go, sport?” my brother asked when I got back. “Don't even tell me. I can see.”
“So I hear you guys are going steady,” he told me the next day after school.
“Where'd you get that?” I asked, though I was happy to hear it. “Linda wants to know all about you,” he said.
“Why doesn't she ask me?” I said. She'd given me a wave in geography, then disappeared with her friends at the bell.
“I guess because she wants the truth,” he said.
“So what'd you tell her?” I asked.
“What do you think?” he said. “That she jumped the wrong Foss.”
“What're you boys talking about?” our mom said, coming into the kitchen. She had a bowl of hard-boiled eggs to slice and she was going to line the bottom of her vegetable pie with them.
“Your son's talking about his new hobby,” my brother said.
“Sounds like he's talking about a girl,” our mom told him, shelling the eggs into a bowl.
“Where did you find time to talk to her?” I asked him.
“I like to think I don't wait for life to come to me,” he said, hefting one of the peeled eggs and dropping it back into the bowl.
“Which one did you just touch?” our mom demanded.
“All of them,” he said. He used both hands to smooth back his hair.
“She's my girl,” I reminded him. “I'm the one who just toldyouthat,” he said.
“So youaretalking about a girl,” our mom said. “What's her name?”
The cat wandered into the room and nosed at his dish. He sat down and we watched his tail do a few slow curls.
“I guess it's none of my business,” she finally said to herself after looking back and forth at the two of us.
“Your mom's funny,” Linda told me the next time we were alone.
“How do you knowthat?” I asked her. I put her brother's keys up under the sun visor so they wouldn't jingle when we moved around the steering wheel. I had a little pillow she'd brought for the armrest on the door, and the car was making ticking noises in the quiet.
“I have my sources,” she said, smoothing her cheek along mine.
“How often do youseemy brother?” I asked.
“Every single minute of every single day,” she murmured. Then she asked if I could do something for her, and explained what it was. While she waited for me to register what she was talking about, she pointed out that one part of me really wanted to, anyway.
It rained for a full day and everything that could come crawling up out of a hole did: mosquitoes, sand flies, black flies, and leeches. Leo went to clean out his mess kit and found a spider in the bowl clenched like a fist. Nothing got put on without first having been shaken and reshaken. Most mornings something fell out and we all did the stamping dance before it got away.
We took to using smoke pots and head nets for the mosquitoes. But then we couldn't eat. On one side of the trail the ants were so small that the only kind of netting that could keep them out would have also kept out the air. Ticks clustered in the pinch points in our clothes. In one slit trench, what we thought was smoke one morning turned out to be a cloud of fleas. Little pelletlike bugs even got into the C-rations. Cockroaches ate the glue in the field manuals. Termites collapsed the CO's field table and cot. We were told to splash or make noise when crossing the creek, because the aborigines said it was happy with crocodiles. By that, we were told, they meant lousy with them.
“Sonoisescares crocodiles?” Leo wanted to know while they were telling us this.
“No, not really,” the guy giving the briefing confessed.
Some guys were so bored and hot that they sat in the water anyway. “I'm hoping one comes by,” Doubek, our radioman, said when we teased him about it. “Crocodile takes a piece of this ass, I got my ticket home.”
Everywhere you went, if you asked somebody how it was going, he said, “Sweatin' it out, boy. Sweatin' it out.” After a while that changed to, “Well, it won't be long now!” Some of the officers thought the guys who said that were serious.
We had reason to be a little shaky in terms of morale when it came to the big picture. All during basic and the long boat ride over, there'd been nothing but bad news from this part of the world: we were told at least we had Rabaul and its naval base, though none of us knew where Rabaul was, and by the time we found out it had surrendered. They showed us a newsreel calledSingapore the Impregnablethe week before the Japs took it. Darwin was bombed. Jap submarines shelled Newcastle. “Isn't that inEngland?” Leo asked.
“The other Newcastle,” a swabbie told him. We were on deck mid-ocean, lounging near the garbage dump on the stern. “Well, tell the Aussies help is on the way,” Leo said, picking through a crate of wrinkled oranges from the officers' mess.
Apparently things had looked so bleak that the Aussies figured they'd justgive upthe northern half of their country, planning to draw their defensive line just above their southern cities. MacArthur supposedly talked them out of it.
Part of his argument, we were told, was that the Japs didn't even have total control of New Guinea. Though it was only the terrain that left Moresby in our hands. No one could get over the mountains and through the jungle in any kind of fighting shape. All we had holding that side of the island was a Wirraway, two Catalina flying boats, and a Hudson minus its wing. When we came ashore some guys were working on the wing. They had one anti-aircraft gun. In the event of a Jap attack, they said, their orders were to hold out for at least thirty-six hours. When we exclaimedat that, they looked insulted and snapped that Rabaul had only held out for four. The news wasn't all bad, though: it turned out that if they depressed their anti-aircraft gun to its minimum elevation, they could also use it against landing craft.
When our barracks bags finally arrived they showed up slit open and looted. The CO said he wasn't going to report it because we'd only seem like a bunch of crybabies. I dropped my rifle into the creek and pulled it out full of sand and water, then spent two nights cleaning it while everybody else was sleeping. Leo found the hammock he'd shanghaied from the boat in the bottom of his barracks bag, and tried to rig it up to a tree and pulled the tree down. The tree was sixty feet high and as thick as he was. The rain forest was so dense it only fell a third of the way before it got hung up on the other trees. The whole thing was swarming with red ants. He said after he got out of the creek and started putting his clothes on again that the bites were like getting stuck with hat pins.
The aborigines came and went. When they wanted something, they did some work. They kept saying “Dehori.” It was pretty much the main word of their language. It meant “Wait a while.”
We got moved farther off the trail into denser jungle. Under the canopy, night fell so fast it was like you'd gone blind. Every so often some of us got to hike to the beach to pick up rations and lug water. Each trip we passed the same noncom from Graves Registration, just sitting around. That's how we knew there was a lot of fighting going on somewhere: he'd run out of forms.
Offshore, one of our old freighters had been bombed in half and waves were breaking over the bow, which was lying on its side. There was a wrecked Bren gun carrier at the low-tide mark, already half buried by the sand. There was no real harbor so the natives had to ferry all the supplies in on their outriggers, hollowed-out logs with two little poles connected to pontoons on both sides. Everything came in wet because the slightest weight shift capsized the hulls. The quartermaster running the show sat in a folding chair in shorts and a sleeveless sweater way too big for him. The last time we saw him he was trying to open a can of apricots with abayonet. That night at sundown we hung around before heading back because they were supposed to be showing a movie on the side of the hospital tent, but the projector got bollixed up and the picture kept getting the jiggers.
My brother was in the Air Corps. He wasn't a pilot, but still.
“It's not like he's a pilot,” I told Leo.
“Ever see their uniforms?” he asked me. “They gotwingson their chest. They walk into a bar and the girls are all, âWhat's it like to be up that high in the air?' What do they ask us? What's it like to dig a hole?”
He also got twice as many leaves as me. Every time he was reassigned, I heard about another one. And every last time, he went home.
“He's a homebody,” Leo shrugged. “He misses his ma.”
“You're not helping,” I told him.
“I don't see that as my job,” he answered.
I only signed up because Linda was in tears one day and wouldn't talk about it. “So your brother enlisted, huh?” her best friend said when I asked what was wrong.
“Linda's upset aboutthat?” I asked her.
“I'm just saying I heard, is all,” she said, offended.
I tried for the Air Corps too, but washed out on account of my eyes. Even though I hardly ever wear glasses.
The next day I signed up for the Army National Guard, just in case there was a chance to stay stateside. “I'm goin' away,” I told Linda outside of school.
“I know. Everybody is,” she said. Then she gave me a huge hug, pulled back to look at various parts of my face, and kissed me, right there in front of everybody.
That was at the beginning of the summer. I had a few weeks before I had to report, but for most of them her family was off at their house on the lake in Michigan.
“So have you brought up marriage?” my brother asked me thenight before he left. I was due to report two weeks after him. You couldn't talk to our mom about it. She was so upset the cat refused to come out of the cellar.
“Marriage?” I said.
“I didn't think so,” he said.
“You think I should bring up marriage?” I asked him later that night, out on the porch. It wasn't so much a porch as two steps, but we called it the porch.
“That's all your mother needs to hear,” he said.
Our father was trying to calm her down in the living room. That's how he spent most nights at that point. He wasn't happy about it. Whenever she stopped for a minute you could hear the radio.
“I don't think I'm ready to get married,” I said. But the minute I said it I thought,But I do want to beburiedwith her.
Clouds came over and turned black and it rained for three straight weeks. “Where're all thebirdsgoing?” our medic asked right before it started. The trail washed out. They started calling the turnoff to the beach the Raging Rapids. The main forward-supply depot was a lake. The first downpour was like a train coming through and beat at our shoulders and bounced in huge sprays off our helmets. Four days into it our clothes started rotting. Whatever we carried in waterproof bags was soaked. Whatever we carried in watertight containers was mildewed. Tent supports collapsed, trenches filled in, bridges were washed away. The mud got into mess kits and stewpots and underwear and eyes. Guys walked through some areas by holding on to ropes tied tree-to-tree. Everywhere you put your boot you sank in. Every so often someone would pitch into a flooded slit trench. Shoes were gardens of green mold around the insoles. Field telephones corroded. Insulating material rotted. Batteries ruptured and leaked. Rifle cartridges rusted. Ration cans when opened already stank.
We had one day when it was cloudy and then thirty-six moredays of rain. Everybody was covered with rashes, sores, blisters, bubbles, boils, and bites. Guys got tropical ulcers, dysentery, pneumonia, and scrub typhus. The skin under married guys' rings got infected with fungus. Our toes turned black and looked fused. The medics called it jungle rot. The rule was that only a temperature over 103 moved you to the rear. The mud sucked the soles off our boots. Everybody just squatted or sat in the rain and shook. Guys with dysentery tried to stay on sloping ground.
On the thirty-seventh day we got the news we were moving up. Doubek, sitting up to his neck in his flooded slit trench, cheered.
“What do you think, we're going somewhere where itisn'training?” Leo asked.
“Who knows when it comes to this screwy country?” Doubek said.
About sixty percent of us were still fit to walk somewhere. Everybody had given up on raingear a long time before. Nobody carried packs but a lot of guys stuffed C-ration cans into their hip pockets. On a little patch of high ground we dumped in a pile everything we wanted carried and the native in charge divided the loads among the bearers while we watched. When the rain was at its worst he sometimes cupped his hands around his mouth and chin and just drank.
Our jumping-off point was apparently six miles away. The sooner we got there, the more time we'd have to hunker down and get a hot meal before moving forward.
Most of the way we had to march alongside the trail, a knee-deep river of glue. Every so often you'd see guys working together to try and pull something loose from the middle of it, like it was flypaper.
By an hour in we were stumbling along blind, just trying to keep our bodies focused on the next step. Other companies with nothing to do came out of their bivouacs to watch us go up the line. By two hours in, those of us in the back of the column started passing guys up front who'd fallen out. We'd started at first lightand by nighttime we still weren't there and a third of the unit was back behind us. For dinner they handed around boxes of cold canned hash and hard biscuits. When you took a spoon of hash the space in the tin filled with rainwater. Everybody slept where they came to a halt. The CO slogged around for a head count and figured we'd lost forty-five percent of those who'd been able to march. The next morning the major he reported to told him that we'd ended up with the best mark of the battalion.
There were a lot of units around us, packed into not much space. I recognized the PFC who'd been dishing out the mail. While we were waiting, more and more of our stragglers stumbled in. A trail in front of us ran up a hill and disappeared. From the other side, even over the rain, we could hear the occasional small-arms fire. People were cleaning their guns as best they could and hoarding clips. A couple guys threw up and it washed away as soon as it hit the ground. I upended my helmet for a drink. While it filled I threw in a few halazone tablets just to be safe. “Think there are germs in this water?” I asked Leo.
“About nine fucking million,” he said. He did this thing with his hand like he was wringing it in the rain to dry it off. The mud was so fine it outlined his fingerprints. He cupped his hands and splashed himself. Cleaning his face seemed to make him feel better.
Twenty minutes, the CO announced. We were to be the first assault group. We didn't know where we were headed besides that hill, but our platoon leaders apparently did.
Everyone was sitting cross-legged with his rifle in his lap. The mess sergeant went around with a C-ration stack and guys took what they wanted for breakfast. I had a cold can of beans and sat there mashing them between my molars. Leo chewed on his thumb. We could see G for George, the battalion's heavy-weapons company, trying to find stable spots on the slope for their mortars. Whatever we picked upâour spoons, our bloc clips, everything covered in mudâgot even greasier from all the cleaning oil.
We were National Guard recruits from Wisconsin. Our uniformswere rags, our boots sponges, our rifles waterlogged. We'd never been so tired in our lives. Everybody was sick. No one was talking. All of us were crouched over our weapons. I remembered how amazing it had been to think, when I first saw this place, that some of us were going to stay on it, dead.
“Biggest drunk of your lives, all of it on me, once we're off the line,” the CO called out. He and the lieutenant shared a little waterproof map and kept looking up the slope and then back at the map.
“Drinks on the CO,” the lieutenant agreed. Our staff sergeants went from group to group, checking weapons and whacking shoulders.
When I was a kid my dad was always off working for the CCC, mostly putting up power lines around the southern part of the state. He did some fence construction and tree planting, too. He was one of the oldest guys there. He worked forty hours a week for thirty dollars a month, with twenty-five of it sent home to the family. He had to wear a uniform and live in a camp during the week. He got up to a bugle at sunrise and only came home on weekends. He said the sign over the main gate read “We're Here to Lick Old Man Depression.” “Lick him where?” he said when my mom quoted it to some friends they had over. She shushed him. After that he got a job building roads, but didn't get home much more often. And one night around Christmastime he came home late with frostbite on his feet. Just a little bit, but he was still mad about it. I was seven and my brother was nine. Our dad was sitting with his feet in a pan of water while we sat there watching him. Our mom was somewhere else, staying out of the way. There were Christmas carols on the radio. He looked at us from top to bottom and bottom to top like he hadn't found anything yet that looked the way it was supposed to.
“What's the matter?” my brother finally asked him. I was amazed he'd found the guts to do that.
My dad sat there and didn't say anything. We all listened to my mom empty the pan from under the icebox.
“What's the matter?” my brother asked again.
“What's the matter?” my dad said, exactly the same way. It made my brother tear up. One of the Christmas carols ended and another one started. Finally we couldn't stand how he was looking at us. My brother left first, but I hung around for a minute, to see if it was just my brother or the both of us he hated.
With five minutes left we were told we weren't going yet. There was some softening up that was supposed to have happened ahead of our attack, but all we could hear was the rain and thekekekekeksound that the geckos made. Word was that the mortar shells were still stuck somewhere down the trail and nobody knew what was up with our artillery. We weren't happy about waiting but were even less happy about going.
“So what are you going to do about this Linda-and-your-brother thing?” Leo said. “I mean if you're not dead.”
My stomach was barely keeping itself together. I was taking deep breaths to help with that. “You know what I sometimes wonder?” I finally asked him. “How does she know so much about doing it? Where did that information come from?”
“Oh,” Leo said, raising his hand, “I thinkIknow.”
While we sat there the CO told us we were headed for a foot track over the Owen Stanley Range through the Gap. This range was one of the steepest in the world and divided the island in half. The staff sergeants told us to dump anything nonessential because whatever we took was going to be on our backs the whole way. Doubek inverted his pack and it turned out he'd collected twenty-eight cans of sliced peaches. He figured he could carry six and started trying to eat the rest right there. “One thing the American Army's never going to run out of,” Leo said, watching him. “Canned fruit.”
We finally got the go-ahead even though the rain hadn't let upand there'd been no artillery. “What happened to the softening up, sir?” Leo asked the CO as he passed our position.
“The thinking now is that we're going to take 'em by surprise,” the CO called back. He got everybody moving and we all climbed a preliminary hill, slipping and sliding. No one could keep his head up without losing his footing.
At the top everyone was already beat, but on the other side of a little swale we could see our path climbing up into the clouds. The occasional scout was slithering down the slope in our direction. Where the trail went was cut off by the same clouds that were raining all over us.
It took us about an hour to get organized at the base and ready to climb. Three porters were coming along to hump the extra ammunition until we came under fire. The CO let us rest for a half an hour and then got us going again. The slopes kept sliding out from under us and the porters got a bang over how bad we were at keeping our feet. In places where the mud was covered with leaves a guy would manage maybe one step before falling and taking the next three guys down with him. “Heads up” meant “Catch whoever's sliding down at you.” We took breaks on our hands and knees with water streaming over our wrists.
I started throwing up and tried to do it on the side of the trail. We passed abandoned emplacements so well camouflaged that a couple guys fell into them. A little farther up was a switchback and a curtain of jungle that came down like a wall. We came across some sulfa packs and morphine needles scattered in the mud. A boot.
From below Leo tugged at my pant leg. “Hang back,” he said quietly. I stepped a foot and hand off the trail and rested, chest heaving, and let a couple guys go by. Leo stopped behind me.
“How far's this fucking thing go on?” Doubek panted, climbing past. He lifted his head to see and the jungle up above us went nuts. The wall of leaves jittered and blurred and the noise of all the fire at once was a pandemonium.
Doubek's shirt came alive from the inside and he spread-eagledout past me and pinwheeled down the slope, crashing through the undergrowth. His helmet sailed off in another direction. We all gripped the mud, hugging the slope. Leaves, sticks, bark, and splinters flew and spun, popping from trees. The noise sucked the air out of us. It stopped my ability to think. I was under a little lip of overhang with Leo below me. My boots kicked through a mat of stems. Thorns tore at my cheek. I was clawing and looking to burrow. Some guys were firing back but I wasn't one of them. The firing went on and then it stopped in front of us and after a minute you could hear the CO screaming to cease fire.
When the last of our guys did, the sound of the rain came back. And some whimpering and cursing. The CO and one of the staff sergeants shouted orders. Leo had to crawl up and over me before I could bring myself to move. He thought I was dead.
“How is he?” the CO called up to him.
“Untouched,” Leo called back down.
“What about the other guys?” the CO wanted to know. I could see him twenty feet below us, one shoulder dug in, his outer arm cradling his carbine. Every so often he had to stick a heel back in the mud to keep from sliding. He meant the guys ahead of me. There'd been about six of them.
Leo told him none of them was calling for a medic, which he took to be a bad sign.
We could hear the clatter of new clips being fed into guns up above us.
“Should we fall back, sir? Sir?” Leo called.
“Form on me! Form on me!” a sergeant called out below.
“Fallback?” the CO called. “What's the problem? We ran into Japs?” I think he thought he was funny.
We were flattened against the muck, the mud and rainwater pouring straight through our clothes.
“Keep an eye out, you two,” the CO called. Then he called a meeting on the slope right below us: him and the lieutenant and a couple of the staff sergeants. He asked for suggestions. Nobody had any. Could we spread out? one of them finally asked. Could weprovide any covering fire? Was there any room anywhere to maneuver?
“This is depressing,” Leo finally said to me, after they'd all gone quiet.
“That might be the one trouble spot, though,” we heard the CO venture to guess. “It could be that we only have to get past that.”
“You all right?” Leo asked me. His nose was next to mine.
“You guyswatchin'?” the CO called.
We both looked up at the switchback. Even in the rain the mists were creeping around the bottoms of the trees. We still hadn't seen a Jap.
“They're not going to let us go back down, are they?” I asked Leo. I'd never been so cold in my life and started shivering the minute the shooting stopped. I hadn't meant to be crying but I was.
“Think of it this way,” Leo said. “Linda'll be taken care of.”
“Fuckthis place,” I told him.
“Yeah,” he told me back.
The third or fourth night we all drove around in Linda's brother's car, I'd walked over to her house but her mom said she was still getting dressed. I was welcome to wait, she told me, there in the parlor or out back with Glenn. Glenn was the older brother. Glenn it turned out was in the shed. “How're you doin',” I said to him.
“What's itlooklike I'm doing?” he said back.
Stuff like that happened every single place I went. “Marble mouth,” my dad would say to my mom at the dinner table when I asked a question. “I understood him perfectly,” she sometimes said, but then he'd be mad atherthe rest of the night.
“Leave those alone,” Glenn said.
I didn't see what he was talking about. There wasn't a lot of light in the shed. “You beentrapping?” I asked when my eyes adjusted.
“Those are cat skins,” he said. “I'm drying cat skins.”
“Your brother's drying cat skins,” I told Linda the first night we had the car to ourselves.
“What are youtalkingabout?” she said. And I decided it was the last time I'd ever bring up something that would make her move her hand away.
“What do you think,yourbrother's Mister Normal?” she asked.
She told me I could ride in front with Glenn and we'd gotten a block from her house when she asked what my brother was up to. “Let's go get him,” she said, before I answered.
“Yeah, let's go get the brother,” Glenn said.
When we got to my house my brother was already sitting on the front steps. “Well, this is a surprise,” he said, and got in the back with Linda.
“Eyes front, buddy,” Glenn said when I turned to look back at them. The whole way to the quarry, if I started to turn around he jiggled the steering wheel and we all rocked and swayed. Linda told him to stop and he told her it wasn't him, it was me, so she toldmeto sit still.
“I want to look at you,” I said.
“That's sweet,” my brother said.
“It is,” Linda told him.
When we got to the quarry, she said she had to pee.
“I better go with you,” my brother told her. “It's pretty dark out there.”
“No, thank you,” she said. “I can handle this myself.”
She was gone a long time. I sat in the car with my brother and Glenn and thought of her poking around in the dark, feeling for a safe place.
Glenn had his arm along the top of the seat so his fingers were at my shoulder. My brother whistled to himself the same two notes that went up and down, up and down.
“What I wouldn't give to be a little flower right now,” Glenn said.
“Two little flowers,” my brother said.
“I should go look for her,” I told them.
They both snorted. “She knows this place better than we do,” Glenn said.
“Or at least as well,” my brother told him.
I tried a few sentences in my head and then said, “So you guys have been here before.”
There was a pause like they were deciding who was going to answer.
“We been here before,” my brother confirmed.
Linda finally appeared out of the dark, wet-eyed, and opened the door and climbed in.
“You okay?” I said.
“Absolutely,” she said.
“Shouldn'tIbe in the back with you?” I asked.
“Yeah, absolutely.Move, you,” she said to my brother.
“Absolutely,” my brother said.
“Absolutely,” Glenn said.
In the light when the car door opened again I could see Linda flinch.
“We gotta give these two some time alone,” my brother told Glenn.
“Absolutely,” Glenn said.
“But first I have to show you something,” my brother said, meaning me.
“Now?” I asked him. I had one foot in the backseat.
“Don't go now,” Linda said. She had her back to her door and was holding out some fingers to me.
“C'mon, chief, this'll only take a minute,” my brother said. “I need toaskyou something.”
“This doesn't feel right,” I said.
“It'll feel right once you're back,” my brother said. “Five minutes. Then we'll clear out and it's all you and her.”
Linda had lowered her arm and was looking out the back.
“Five minutes,” my brother repeated.
I got out. He led me down a trail. I looked over my shoulder before we went around some rocks and saw Glenn opening his door.
It wasn't five minutes. It was more like twenty. What my brother wanted to ask was if I thought our dad was getting worse. If I thought he was drinking again. “I didn't know he was drinking in the first place,” I told him. “You dragged me out here to tell me that?”
Linda was alone in the car when we got back. “Where's Glenn?” I asked.
“I don't know,” she said.
“How long have you been here by yourself?” I asked.
“He just left,” she said.
“I'll go hunt him down,” my brother said. “You two behave while I'm gone.”
I got in next to Linda but her face was wet and she didn't shove over so half of me was still hanging out the open door. I braced myself with a foot in the dirt. “What's the matter?” I asked. “What happened?”
She nodded and smiled and wiped her eyes and said she was okay, that sometimes she got happy and sad at the same time. I was going to ask her again what happened but she scooched over and patted the seat where she'd just been and told me to shut the door. She brought her face closer and wiped her mouth with her fingertips and said, “Do something for me. Show me how much you want to kiss me.”
“What are yousadabout?” I asked her later.
“If I thought you really wanted to know, I'd tell you,” she finally whispered. And we lay there for a little while, me holding on to her, her holding on to me.
“See what I mean?” she finally said.
“Why do you think Linda was crying tonight?” I asked my brother after they dropped us off. He and Glenn had given us a half hour, then hopped in the front seat and driven off without even asking us if we were ready.
It looked like the question bothered him and I had to ask him again before he answered me. “I think she feels lucky to be with you,” he said.
“I don't think that's it,” I told him.
“Don't you feel lucky to be with her?” he asked.
I do, I thought that night, lying there in bed.I do, I thought, every miserable night on the troop ship, and in the slit trenches, and listening to Leo talking to himself as soon as he thought I'd fallen asleep.
We waited the rest of the afternoon for the artillery support. I spent an hour watching rainwater pour off vines and creepers alongside the trail. In the rain we only knew the sun had gone down when we realized we couldn't make out each other's expressions. Word came up the line to dig in, so Leo slid back below me to his old spot and started going at it with his entrenching tool. He was always the first man in the company to finish his hole. He had it easier than I did because he was shaking less and was more off to the side. With all the water coming down the trail it was like rerouting a waterfall. By the time I was finished I was sheltered enough from the main flow that it missed my head and shoulders.
The rain started to let up and every so often the clouds and mist cleared and I could see black peaks high above us. I'd shake and then settle down, shake and settle back down.
Pretty soon it would be dark. Anything we tried to do besides sit tight would be blind and probably of no use. I would be the perimeter. Maybe Leo would be too. When they came down the trail they'd be coming over us first.
We'd all heard the stories of how quiet they could be, creeping through the timber, easing over rocks drenched in rain. They had special rubber boots with separate big toes. They had night-camouflaged bayonets with serrated top edges.
They could see where we couldn't. Once they were on top of me they'd see bodies all the way down the hillside. Guys who wereall mud, bearded to the eyes. Guys who could barely move. Guys who hadn't asked to be there but if left alive the next day would get to their feet and follow the artillery in and try to kill as many Japs as they came across. Guys who'd think,The way they are, they deserve it. Like the Japs who'd crouch over Leo and me. When they rolled us over they'd be shocked to see what we'd come to. Shocked to see what they'd done. Shocked to feel the ugliness we felt every single day, even with thoseâespecially with thoseâwe cherished the most.Your Fate Hurtles Down at You
We call ourselvesdie HarschblÃ¶deln:the Frozen Idiots. There are four of us who've volunteered to spend the coldest winter in recent memory in a little hut perched on a wind-blasted slope of the Weissfluhjoch 3,500 meters above Davos. We're doing research. The hut, we like to say, is naturally refrigerated from the outside and a good starting point for all sorts of adventures, nearly all of them lethal.
It's been seven years since the federal government in Berne appointed its commission to develop a study program for avalanche defense measures. Five sites were established in the high Alps, and as Bader likes to say, we drew the short straw. Bader, Bucher, Haefeli, and I wrap ourselves in blanket layers and spend hours at a time given over to our tasks. The cold has already caused Haefeli to report kidney complaints.
He's our unofficial leader. They found him working on a dambuilding project in Spain, the commission having concluded correctly that his groundbreaking work on soil mechanics would translate usefully into this new field of endeavor. Bucher's an engineer who inherited his interest in snow and ice from his father, a meteorologist who in 1909 led the second expedition across Greenland. Bader was Professor Niggli's star pupil, so he's our resident crystallographer. And I'm considered the touchingly passionate amateur and porter, having charmed my way into the group through the adroit use of my mother's journals.
It might be 1939 but this high up we have no heat and only kerosene lanterns for light. Our facilities are not good. Our budget is laughable. We're engaged in a kind of research for which there are few precedents. But as Bader also likes to say, a spirit of discovery and a saving capacity for brandy in the early afternoon drives us on.
We encounter more than our share of mockery down in Davos, since your average burgher is only somewhat impressed by the notion of the complexities of snow. But together we're now approaching the completion of a monumental work of three years: ourSnow and Its Metamorphism, with its sections on crystallography, snow mechanics, and variations in snow cover. My mother has written that the instant it appears, she must have a copy. I've told her I'll deliver it myself.
Like all pioneers we've endured our share of embarrassment. Bader for a time insisted on measuring the hardness of any snow-pack by firing a revolver into it, and his method was discredited only after we'd wasted an afternoon hunting for his test rounds in the snow. And on All Hallows' Eve we shoveled the accumulation from our roof and started an avalanche that all the way down in Davos destroyed the church on the outskirts of town.
I'm hardly alone in being excessively invested in our success. At the age of eighteen Haefeli lost his father in what he calls a scale 5 avalanche. As to be distinguished from, say, a scale 1 or 2 type, which obliterates the odd house each winter but otherwise goes unnoticed.
His scale 5 was an airborne avalanche in GlÃ¤rnisch that dropped down the steeper slopes above his town with its blast clouds mushrooming out on both sides. His father had sent him to check their rabbit traps on a higher, forested slope and had stayed behind to start the cooking pot. The avalanche dropped two thousand vertical meters in under a mile and crossed the valley floor with such velocity that it exploded upward two hundred feet on the opposite hillside, uprooting spruces and alders there with such force that they pinwheeled through the air. The ensuing snow cloud obscuredthe sun. It took ten minutes to settle while Haefeli skied frantically down into the debris. Throughout the next days' search for survivors, there were still atmospheric effects from the amount of snow concussed into the upper atmosphere.
The rescuers found that even concrete-reinforced buildings had been pile-driven flat. When he finally located a neighbor's three-story stone house, he mistook it for a terrazzo floor.
Fifty-two homes were gone. Seventeen people were dug out of a meeting house the following spring, huddled together in a circle facing inward. Three hundred meters from the path of the snow, the air blast had blown the cupola off a convent tower.
But when it came to a good night's sleep I had my own problems.
In my childhood it was general practice for Swiss schools around the Christmas holidays to sponsor Sport Week, during which we all hiked to mountain huts to ski. My brother Willi and I were nothing but agony for our harried teachers every step up the mountains and back. He was a devotee of whanging the rope tows once the class hit an especially steep and slippery part of the hillside. I did creative things with graupel or whatever other sorts of ice pellets I could collect from under roof eaves or along creek beds.
We were both in secondary school, and sixteen. I'd selected the science stream and was groping my way into physics and chemistry, while he'd chosen the literary life and went about fracturing Latin and Greek. Even this surprised me: when had he become interested in Latin and Greek? But given the kind of brothers we were, the question never arose.
I claimed to be interested in university; he didn't. Our father, to whom such things mattered, called us his happy imbeciles, took pride in our skiing, and liked to say with a kind of amiability during family meals that we could do what we pleased as long as it reflected well on him.
He styled himself an Alpine guide, though considering how hedressed when in town, he might as well have been the village mayor, complete with watch fob and homburg. He always spoke as though a stroke of fate had left him in the business of helping Englishmen scale ice cliffs, and claimed to be content only at altitudes over 3,000 meters, but we knew him to be unhappy even there. The sole thing that seemed to please him were his homemade medicines. Willi considered him reproachful but carried on with whatever he wished, secure in our mother's support. I followed his moods minutely, even as disinterest emanated from him like a vapor. We had one elder sister who found all of this distasteful and whose response was to do her chores but otherwise keep to her room, awaiting romances that arrived every few months via subscription.
Willi's self-absorption left him impatient with experts. On our summer trek on the Eiger glacier the year before, we'd been matched for International Brotherhood Week with a hiking group from Chamonix. They spoke no German and we spoke no French, so only the teachers could converse. At one point the French teacher brought the group to a halt by cautioning us that any noise where we stood could topple the ice seracs looming above us.
Willi and I had been on glaciers since we were eight. While everyone watched, he scaled the most dangerous-looking of the seracs and, having established his balance at the top, shouted loud enough to have brought down the Eiger's north face. “What's French for âYou don't know what you're talking about'?” he called to our teacher as he climbed back down.
We were to base our day around one of the ski huts above Kleine Scheidegg. The village itself, on a high pass, consists of three hotels for skiers and climbers and the train station and some maintenance buildings serving the Jungfraubahn, but our group managed to lose one of our classmates there anywayâa boy from the remote highlands where a cowherd might spend the entire summer in a hut, with his cows and family separated only by a waist-high dividerâand by the time he was located we were already an hour behind schedule. We were led by one of the schoolmistresseswho held a ski instructor's certificate and her assistant, a twenty-year-old engineering student named Jenny. They had as their responsibility fourteen boys and ten girls.
In summer, the ski run to which we were headed involved a steep climb along the edge of a dark forest broken by occasional sunlit clearings, before the trees thinned out and there were meadows where miniature butterflies wavered on willowherbs and moss campion. Immediately above sheep and goats found their upland pastures. Above that were only rocks and the occasional ibex. An escarpment above the rocks was ideal for wind-sheltered forts. We'd discovered it on our ninth birthday. Willi said it was one of those rare places where nothing could be grown or sold, that the world had produced exclusively for someone's happiness. In winter storms the wind piled snow onto it, the cornices overhanging the mountain's flanks below. And the night before our Sport Week outing brought strong westerly winds and a heavy accumulation on the eastern slopes. Avalanche warning bulletins had been sent to the hotels an hour after our departure.
We spread ourselves out around the bowl of the main slope. Some of us had climbed in chaps for greater waterproofing and were still shedding them and checking our bindings when our schoolmistress led the others down into the bowl. The postmaster's daughter, Ruth Lindner, of whom Willi and I both retained fantasies, waited behind with us while we horsed about, setting her hands atop her poles in a counterfeit of patience. She had red hair and pale smooth skin and a habit, when laughing with us, of lowering her eyes to our mouths, and this we found impossibly stirring.
The skiers who'd set off were already slaloming a hundred yards below. We'd been taught from the cradle that however much we thought we knew, in winter there were always places where our ignorance and bad luck could destroy us. A heavy new snowmass above and an unstable bowl below: in this sort of circumstance our father would have cautioned us, if uncertain, to back away.
“Race you,” I said.
“Raceme?” Willi answered. And he nosed his ski tips out over the bowl edge.
“See if you can stay on your feet,” I teased him from above, flumphing my uphill ski down into a drift.
There was a deep cutting sound, like shears tearing through heavy fabric. The snowfield split all the way across the bowl, and the entire slab, half a kilometer across, broke free, taking Willi with it. He was enveloped immediately. Ruth shrieked. I helped her pole herself farther back. The tons of snow roaring down caught the skiers below and carried them away in seconds. One little girl managed to remain upright on a cascading wave but then she too was upended and buried, the clouds of snowdust obscuring everything else.
Guides climbing up from the hotels spread the alarm and already had the rescue under way when Ruth and I reached the debris field. The digging went on for thirty-six hours and fifteen of our classmates, including Willi and the schoolmistress, were uncovered alive. The young assistant Jenny and seven others were dug out as corpses. Two were still missing when the last of their family members stopped digging three weeks later.
My brother had been fifteen feet deep at the very back edge of the run-out. They found him with the sounding rod used for locating the road after heavy snowfalls. He'd managed to get his arm over his face and survived because of the resulting air pocket. A shattered ski tip near the surface had aided in his location. One of the rescuers who dug him out kept using the old saying “Such a terrible child!” for the difficulties they were encountering with the shocking density of the snowmass once it had packed in on itself. Not even sure if he was down there, we called for Willi to not lose heart. Ruth dug beside me and I was taken aback by the grandeur of her panic and misery. “Helpus!” she cried at one point, as if I weren't digging as furiously as the rest.
He was under the snow for two hours. When his face was finally cleared, it was blue and he was unconscious but the guides revived him with a breathing tube even as he still lay trapped. And whensomeone covered his face with a hat to keep the snow from falling into his mouth and eyes, he shouted for it to be taken away, that he wanted air and light.
He was hurried home on a litter and spent the next two days recovering. I fed him oxtail soup, his favorite. His injuries seemed slight. He asked about Ruth. He answered our questions about how he felt but related nothing of the experience. When we spoke in private he peered at me strangely and looked away. On the third night, when I put out the lamp, he seemed suddenly upset and asked not to be left alone. “You're not alone,” I said. “I'm right here.” He cried out for our mother and began a horrible rattling in his throat, at which he clawed, and I flew down the stairs to get her. By the time we returned he was dead.
The doctor called in another doctor, who called in a third. Each tramped slush through our house and drank coffee while they hypothesized and my mother trailed from room to room in their wake, tidying and weeping until she could barely stand. Their final opinion was contentious but two favored delayed shock as the cause of death. The third held forth on the keys to survival in such a situation, the most important being the moral and physical strength of the victim. He was thrown bodily out of the house by my father.
The inquiry into the tragedy held that the group leadersâthe schoolmistress and her dead assistantâwere blameless, but the parents of the children swept away decided otherwise, and within a year the miserable and ostracized schoolmistress was forced to resign her post.
How could our mother have survived such a thing? She had always seemed to carry within herself some quality of calm against which adverse circumstances contended in vain, but in this case she couldn't purge her rage at the selfishness of those whose blitheness had put the less foolhardy at risk. She received little support from my father, who refused to assign blame, so she took to callingour home “our miserable little kingdom,” and at the dinner table mounting what questions she could as if blank with fatigue.
By May, scraps from the two missing children poked through the spring melt like budding plants, and in the course of a day or two a glove, a scarf, and a ski pole turned up. Renewed digging recovered one of the little girls, her body face-down, her arms extended downhill, her back broken and her legs splayed up and over it.
Our mother talked to everyone she considered knowledgeable about the nature of what had happened, and why. From as early as we could remember, she'd always gathered information of one kind or another. I'd never known anyone with a more hospitable mind. My sister often complained that no one could spend any time in our mother's company without learning something. She was the sort of woman who recorded items of interest in a journal kept in her bedroom, and she joked to our father when teased about it that it represented a store of observations that would someday be more systematically confirmed as scientific research. Why did one snowfall of a given depth produce avalanches when another did not? Why was the period of maximum danger those few hours immediately following the storm? Why might any number of people cross a slope in safety only to have another member of their party set the disaster in motion? She remembered from childhood a horrible avalanche in her grandmother's village: a bridge and four houses had been destroyed and a nine-year-old boy entombed in his bed, still clutching his cherished stuffed horse.
She spent more time with me as her preoccupation intensified. There was no one else. Her daughter had grown into a long, thin adult with a glum capacity for overwork and no interest in the business of the world. We had few visitors, but if one overstayed his welcome my sister would twist her hair and wonder audibly, as if interrogating herself, “Why doesn't he leave? Why doesn't heleave?”
Early one morning I found my mother on my bed. When shesaw I was awake, she remarked that Willi's shoulders had been so broad that it made him appear shorter than he was. “And mine, too,” I said. “And yours, too,” she smiled. Somewhere far away a dog was barking as if beside itself with alarm.
I told her I thought I might have started the avalanche. She said, “You didn't start the avalanche.” I told her I might have, though I hadn't yet explained how. She reminded me of the farmers' old saying thattheydidn't make the hay, that the sun made the hay.
“I thinkImade the avalanche,” she finally suggested. When I asked what she was talking about, she wondered if I remembered the Oberlanders' tale of the cowherd whose mother thought he'd gone astray and, enraged by having been offered only spoiled milk by his new wife, called on ice from the mountain above to come bury them both and all of their cows.
How old was I then? Seventeen. But even someone that young can be shocked by his own paralysis in the face of need. My mother sat on my bed picking her heart to pieces and I suffered at the spectacle and accepted her caresses and wept along with her and fell back asleep comforted, never offering my own account of what might have happened, whether or not it would have helped. The subject was dropped. And that morning more than anything else is what's driven me to avalanche research.
Bucher's a good Christian but even he gave up the long ski down to services after a few weeks, and instead we spend our Sabbaths admiring the early-morning calm of the mountains. The sun peeps over the sentinel peaks behind us and the entire snow-covered world becomes a radiance thrown back at the sky. The only sounds are those we make. On our trips to Davos for supplies, Bader and I for a few months held a mock competition for the affections of an Alsatian widow, who negotiated the burden of her sexual magnetism with an appealing modesty. Then, in February, I slipped on an ice sheet outside a bakery and bounced down twoflights of steps. “So much for the surviving Eckel brother,” Ruth Lindner said in response from across the street.
What was she doing in Davos? She'd trained as a teacher and been reassigned to a new school district. How did she like teaching? She hoped the change of scene would help. What did her parents make of the move? They'd been against it, but lately she'd felt home was more like prison. We arranged to meet for coffee the following weekend, and back at the hut the group made much of my announcement of my withdrawal from the Alsatian sweepstakes.
I'd lost track of Ruth after Willi's memorial service. My last words to her had been “I blame myself,” and her response had been, “I blame everyone.” Then she'd gone on holiday to her maternal grandparents' farm near Merligen. That visit had extended itself, and my two letters to that address were returned unopened. When I'd pressed her father for an explanation, he said that the postmaster must have found them undeliverable. When I'd protested that he was the postmaster, he lost his temper. My parents had been no more help. Her few friends claimed to be equally mystified.
Over coffee she asked how I was finding Davos and then moved on to Willi: his poor grades and how he liked to present himself as indisposed to exertion indoors, and how outside he had no time for anything except his skis. She became misty-eyed. She asked if he'd ever told me that the high summits were like giants at their windows looking down at us.
“No,” I said. She wore a beeswax-and-aloe mixture on her lips to protect them, and the effect was like a ceramic glaze I longed to test with my finger.
“He told me that,” she said, pleased.
She asked if I remembered a winter camping trip some of our classmates had taken a month before the Sport Week outing. I told her I remembered it better than she imagined. I'd worked up the courage to ask if she was going and she'd said no, so I'd dropped out. Later I discovered that both she and Willi had gone.
“Had that always been the plan?” I wanted to know, pained even after all these years.
“I need you to listen,” she told me.
“What do you suppose I'm doing?” I answered.
“This is not easy for me,” she went on to say.
“Does it seem so for me?” I asked.
She told me that the first afternoon they'd pitched camp in a little squall of butterflies blown above the snowline by an updraft. That night a full moon had risen above their tents and their breath vapor had frozen onto the canvas above them. It had broken off in a sheet when in the predawn stillness she'd lifted the flap to slip into Willi's tent.
“I don't need to hear this,” I told her. But it was as if I'd claimed I did. She said that once they'd shed their clothes and embraced inside his sleeping sack, she'd felt the way she had years earlier during an electrical storm when her hair had lifted itself into the air and her hands, holding a rake, had sung like a kettle with the discharge.
We sat across from each other and our coffees. Why does anyone choose one brother and not another? I wanted to ask.
“You have his facial expressions,” she said instead.
“Twins are like that,” I answered.
“He told your mother when he got back,” she added, addressing my silence. That part of the story seemed to affect her most of all.
“Told her what?” I asked.
“That we were in love,” she said.
A truck outside the window ground its gears. “And you got pregnant,” I suggested.
“And I got pregnant,” she said. She seemed to be considering our hands.
Carousers clattering skis and poles came and went. “Did my mother find out?” I wanted to know.
“I assume she guessed,” Ruth said.
“I have to get back,” I told her.
At the door, while I bundled against the weather, she said she was sorry, and had so much more to tell me. She asked if I would see her again. When at first I didn't respond, she removed one of my mittens and placed my hand against her cheek. But she already knew what I wanted. She already knew what I felt. It was as if there'd never been any point in pretending otherwise.
The position in which she left me brought to mind the subject that Haefeli insists should be absorbing our every waking moment. The American W. A. Bentley was the first to have photographed snow crystals, having recorded over six thousand different forms before conceding that he'd only scratched the surface, given the number of types that must exist. Such crystals are formed when water vapor in the cooling air condenses onto particulate matter in the atmosphere and then freezes, the ice particles growing as more vapor attaches itself in a process called sublimation: that small miracle, Bader reminds us, as we dig cores, in which a substance transforms itself from gas to solid without having passed through its liquid state. The variations in design are as infinite as the conditions that govern the crystals' development, but each as it reaches the ground is subject to a change of environment: from having been a separate entity, it becomes a minute part of the mass and begins to undergo a series of changes in its nature, all of which will reflect on the stability of the area of which it's a part. When new snow alights, its crystals interlock by means of their fine branches and spikes, but the strength of this cohesion is undermined by destructive metamorphism as the branches and spikes regress under the pressure of rising temperatures or the snow's weight. It was Professor Paulcke of Innsbruck who first observed a particular kind of degraded crystal that because of its shape constituted a noncohesive mass in the snow cover: such crystals were excessively fragile and ran like loose pebbles; they formed, wherever they werefound, a hugely unstable base for the other layers above. He called them “depth hoar” or “swim-snow.” My mother recorded the same phenomenon in her journals and called it “sugar snow” because it refused to bond even when squeezed tightly in the hand. Haefeli loved the term. A stratum of such crystals is like a layer of ball bearings under the tons of more recently fallen snow on a slope, requiring only the slightest jar to set the mass in motion.
We spend the afternoon, after my coffee with Ruth, cutting blocks of snow out of various slopes and tapping the tops to test the frequency of layer fracture and collapse. Bader wears an out-sized dinner jacket over his cardigan, claiming it's the only material he's discovered to which snow doesn't cling. He looks as young as I do, in his beardlessness reminding everyone of a cleric or a shepherd. Before Professor Niggli found him, he'd lived a life circumscribed by the peaks at either end of his valley.
I'm teased for being love-struck because of my silence, then teased further for failing to react. But throughout the day, my heart roams in and out of my chest as though tethered to its own misery. Of course my mother knewâthat was the source of her Oberlander remarkâand in my newly reconfigured map of that time, everyone knew everything, except Willi's endlessly oblivious brother. Had she had the baby? Of course, but how could I have left without asking if she'd had the baby?
“I need to go back down,” I finally told Haefeli as we hiked back from a northeastern ice wall. We'd been sampling under a nine-meter cornice.
“Not right now you don't,” he answered.
“Now he's pouting,” Bucher informed the group, half an hour later.
“What are you going to settle today?” Haefeli wants to know once we're all back in the hut for the night. The sun's a vermilion line along the western ridge. “Are you going to go down there and profess your undying love? Haul her back up here for your wedding night?”
He's working by lantern light on what he calls a penetrometer: a pointed steel tube a meter long for measuring the firmness of strata. He has the two virtues perhaps most important to such a place as this: presence of mind and affability. In his own casual way he combines for us the functions of priest, guide, and hotelier. Once, during a rockfall in a narrow gully, he stepped between me and a head-sized stone that appeared out of the snowcloud, and deflected it with the handle of his shovel much like a cricketer bats a ball.
“Go if you have to,” he finally tells me later that night, in exasperation, into the frigid darkness above our hammocks and blankets. “Go. Go. Go. God knows we don't need you up here.”
Of course it occurs to me only as I finally reach Davos the next morning that she's in school and will be for most of the day. I have little money to spare but waste some anyway on coffee and a sweet roll to get in out of the cold. The lunch rush comes and goes. My nose to the window, I man the chair farthest from the door with the unsettled vacancy of an old dog left home alone.
At the awaited hour I'm outside her school, the dismissal bell ringing, and shouting and happy children stream past, looking no different than we were. “What are you doing here?” she wants to know. Somehow she's come out another door and come up to me from behind.
“So you had the baby?” I ask.
“This is my supervisor, Frau DÃ¶ring,” she tells me.
Frau DÃ¶ring and I exchange greetings, and she appears to be hoping that whatever I'd just asked will be repeated.
“This is the brother of my late fiancÃ©e,” Ruth informs her. It's as if the world's been filled with unexpectedly painful things.
Once back at the coffee shop she asks, “Why do you think you're so in love with me? What is it that you think you love?”
“You never answered about the baby,” I tell her.
She looks at me, gauging my reaction, and makes a let's-get-on-with-it face.
“You gave it to an orphanage,” I tell her. “Some convent or other. The Sisters of Perpetual Help.”
She continues to consider me. I'm not weeping, but I might as well be.
“What is it you want?” she finally asks. “You want me to say that you're as nice a boy as Willi?” After a silence she adds, “I always thought of you as the sort of boy who pinned the periodic table over his bed, instead of pictures of girls from magazines.”
An older couple at an adjacent table has grown quiet, eavesdropping.
“I thought about you more than Willi did,” I finally tell her. “That camping trip when you werewithhim, I thought about you more than he did.”
It angers her, and that's at least something between us.
The eavesdropping couple resumes its conversation.
She talks a little about her work. She remarks how her loneliness has been exacerbated by her fondness for children. At least here she slept better, though. Maybe that's what relocation was: a balm for the faint-hearted.
“You said you had more to tell me,” I remind her.
She puts a hand around my coffee cup. “I've always liked you,” she says. “I'll put the question to you. Doyouthink you were Willi's equal?”
She's sympathetic and tender and would sleep with me if she weren't sure it would lead to further tediousness. She'd like to help but she's also sure of the justice of this injustice, just as the English believe the poor to be poor and the rich rich because God has decreed it so.
“You're not really still unable to get over this, are you?” she asks.
“What we're doing on the mountain is more important than any of this,” I tell her, and she's relieved to hear it.
“How's your mother?” she wants to know.
Outside she turns and steps close and presses her mouth to my cheek and then lets it drift across my lips. “There's no reason for us to stay angry with one another,” she says, as though confiding this to my mouth. The couple from the adjacent table emerges, fixing their collars and hats, and excuse themselves to get by.
My mother and I had both dealt with our devastation in the months after Willi's death by devoting our free time to the library at Lauterbrunnen. We seemed to have arrived at this attempted solution independently. We went mostly after chores on Saturdays. Sometimes I'd take the bus and discover, having arrived, that my father had driven my mother in the car. Sometimes I'd search for a book in the card catalog and discover that she'd already signed it out and was leafing through it on the other side of the reading room. There was very little written, then, about the properties of snow, and we were continually driven back to geographies and histories of the high Alps, there to glean what we could. We encountered Strabo's accounts of passes subject to the collapse of whole snow-mountains above them that swept his companions into abysmal chasms: passes he described as “places beyond remedy.” We found Polybius's account of Hannibal's having had to witness the eruption of a slope that took with it his entire vanguard. Saint Bernard's of having stepped out of a chapel to relieve himself when his fellow pilgrims inside were scoured away by a roaring river of snow, and his prayer, having been saved downslope in the branches of a pine, that the Lord restore him to his brethren so he might instruct them not to venture into this place of torment. Early one rain-swept evening my mother set before me a memoir in which one of Napoleon's generals related an anecdote of a drummer boy swept into a gorge who drummed for several days in the hope of attracting rescue before he finally fell silent. The librarians, intrigued by our industry and single-mindedness, helped out with sources. We read how in ancient days avalanches were so omnipotent and incontestable that they were understood to be diabolicweapons of the powers of darkness. How else to explain an entire village smashed flat while a china cupboard with all its contents remained undamaged? A single pine left upright on the roof of a pastor's house, as if it had grown there? A house so shattered that one of the children had been found in a meadow three miles away, tucked up into her bed as if by human hands? Each of these stories caused my mother pain. Each of them drove us on.
If one house was spared and others destroyed, it was because that house had been favored by the spirits. When I first came across that claim, I closed the book and circled the library before returning to it. And those spirits rode astride such calamities as they thundered down the slope. Erstfeld's town history recorded a spinster blown from her house who, still in her rocking chair, negotiated a wave of snow into the center of her village, and who, as she was giving thanks to Providence for her life, was carried to a clearing by her enraged neighbors, surrounded by a pyre, and burned alive.
How was my mother? I answered Ruth's question before I left to return to my hut mates. My mother wasn't doing so well. My mother, like everyone else in this drama, seemed determined to blame herself. My mother used to believe that we all could call the thunder down onto anyone's head whenever we wanted.
“You're just like Willi,” Ruth said in response, after a moment. And it was the first time that I saw something in her look like the admiration he must have enjoyed.
Those were the sorts of histories, reiterated for Haefeli and Bucher, that insured my success when I interviewed to join the group. Haefeli believes there's much to be learned from such narratives, particularly when the phenomena described have been confirmed elsewhere. He collects his own and recounts them for us when he's in the mood, once we're swinging in our hammocks in the dark. They're especially compelling when we reflect that we're hearing them in an area that itself is an avalanche zone. “I think our friend Eckelwantsto be blown out of his hammock,” Bader complains about my appetite for them.
As a compromise, Haefeli promises us just one more for thetime being. A sixteenth-century avalanche just below us in Davos was recorded to have generated such force that it smashed through the ice of the lakeâmeasured at a meter in thicknessâand scattered an abundance of fish killed by the concussion out onto the snow. But then he can't resist adding two more: one of a porter he knew, an Austrian, who stepped momentarily off his line of ascent to adjust a shoulder harness and saw his three companions blasted out of their skis by a snowcloud moving with such velocity that its sound seemed behind it. And another of an infamous pass called Drostobel, above Klosters, that came to be known as a deathtrap because of an extraordinarily large and steep catchment area that fed into a single gully. Drostobel, the French liked to say, was German for “Your fate hurtles down at you.”
The following weekend we all ski down to Davos to resupply. I'm responsible for the sausage, bread, lemons, raisins, prunes, sugar, and raspberry syrup. The entire way down I'm determined not to call on Ruth and the instant I hit the valley floor I go to the rooming-house address she provided. I'm ushered into the breakfast room and watch her butter both sides of a biscuit before she glances toward me.
The breakfast room has a view of the Jakobshorn. Filaments of snow and vapor stream from its summit in the wind. It's foreshortened here, as opposed to how it appears from 3,500 meters. Under overcast conditions the peak splits the clouds that pass over as a boulder does a stream.
“I was always jealous of your mother,” Ruth remarks, once I've settled into my chair. The wicker seat's seen better days and every movement occasions fusillades of pops and cracks.
“She and Willi had this tradition of summer walks,” I tell her, though she probably knows. “She called them revivifying. She told me a neighbor said to her once, âYou have twin sons, yet I always see you with only the one.'Â ”
“It was kind of your mother to have passed that along to you,”Ruth responds. No one's come out of the kitchen to see if there's anything I require.
“When I've dreamed of him, he's always been with your mother and you,” she adds. She says that in the last one, he had a hold of her ear.
“Been with us in what way?” I want to know.
She smiles at the practicality of my question. “Could you be any more Swiss?” she asks.
“You think I'm not forthcoming,” I tell her.
“I think some people don't seem towantinformation,” she tells me. She's crimping the lacework under the creamer and it reminds me how, even back at school, her brain and fingers were always at work.
“So do you know where the baby is now?” I ask.
“I should hope so,” she says, and more comes into focus with a jolt.
“You didn't give it away,” I tell her.
“Her,” she says. “Marguerite. Why would I give her away? She's with her grandmother. Probably napping.”
We both take a few moments to ponder this. The housemistress brings a filled coffeepot.
“Are you bringing the baby here?” I ask.
“I'm going to try my hand at homemaking,” she tells me. “Don't the French have a word for a cow that at the end of the day just gives up on its own desires and returns, without being herded, to the stable?”
“A little girl,” I say to myself.
“Maybe I'll end up as one of those women you see tossing hay in the upper fields,” she jokes.
“Willi's little girl,” I say.
“Your mother and father both have met her,” she tells me.
“Of course they have,” I tell her back. One of Haefeli's most insistent bromides concerning snow safety describes how at certain altitudes, nothing might be less like a particular location than that same location under different conditions.
.Â Â .Â Â .
Everyone's all bustle and efficiency in the hut when I finally labor up to it in midafternoon. While I unpack the provisions, Bader informs me that we're going on a rescue. Down in town the group discovered that a pair of Germans have gotten themselves in a fix on the south face of the Rinerhorn, just over the ridge. From below it was apparent that they were in some sort of distress and that the easiest route to them was from our hut. Haefeli's and Bucher's silence while he relates all of this is unsettling.
Once we're ready we set out. Haefeli straps onto each of us one of his innovations: what he calls avalanche cords, thin red ropes eight meters long that will trail behind us like long tails. Each has a fisherman's float on the end and the hope is that those, at least, would be visible on the surface should the slope let go. They've never been tested. He still hasn't spoken and now he's taken the lead. Bader, who tends to chatter when frightened, is behind me in the column and tells me more than I want to know. The south face is a vast bowl that catches the sun from all angles and channels avalanches from each side into its middle. Climbing that bowl in heavy snow will be like climbing up into a funnel. Haefeli has in Bader's presence called that face “self-cleaning” because it avalanches so often. In the summer smashed trees and boulders spread out from its base like a river delta. Bader's from the flat-lands and not one to panic easilyâfor some weeks he thought the White Death the villagers referred to was a local cheeseâbut even his eyes are glittery with apprehension. And the sudden rise of temperature around midday will have softened the snow.
We follow Haefeli's thigh-deep track through the heavy drifts and enter from our ridge halfway up the bowl. The Germans are lodged on the face only a couple of hundred meters above us. One waves and the other has perhaps broken his leg. None of us speak. Who knows why the Germans do what they do.
We keep a gap of fifteen meters between each of us. We put ourboots only in one another's tracks. With each step we listen for the sound that indicates our weight has broken the layer between strata and that the ball bearings of the depth hoar are about to start into motion. It never comes. Haefeli has us traverse laterally, once we've reached the Germans, across the face to get out of the bowl as quickly as possible. Bucher and I take the injured boy's shoulders and Bader his good leg. His broken one we bind with his snowshoe.
The sun is setting by the time we return from having guided them down to a part of the slope from which a sledge can carry them to Davos. We'd traded off hauling the boy but we're all still exhausted and fall into our hammocks after barely stripping off our outer garments. No one's even lit the lamp.
“We should have stayed down in the village,” Haefeli says out of the darkness, thinking of the slopes around and above us. Twenty centimeters have fallen in snowstorms in the last three days, and temperatures have dipped and climbed with a kind of cheerful incoherence. Bader was the last one in, and on almost his last step before regaining the hut he triggered a slab release that carried away below us a piece of the slope the breadth of a city block. It swept off an outcropping to the southwest and then was lost to sight.
Now everything has settled into a quiet. The night is windless and no one stirs in their hammocks. There's no sound of snoring.
Eventually I hear Bader's breathing, and then Bucher's. A hammock eyelet creaks. The mountain makes subtle, low-frequency sounds, like freight shifting.
I ask Haefeli if he's awake. He responds so as not to disturb the others. He says that an avalanche's release depends on a system of factors so complicated that prediction involves as much divination as science. I offer as rebuttal that we do know some things, and he says of course: we know that gravity and temperature fluctuations together propel the settling and creep that create the stress within the layers. And that those stresses are greater or smaller dependingon the slope's steepness and the snowpack's weight and viscosity. And that the snow's ability to resist that stress is measured by its cohesion, or the friction between its crystals.
For an avalanche to occur, then, he murmurs, something has to either increase the stress or decrease the cohesion. The process by which the ratio changes can be gradual, or some kind of incident.