Is the soul solid, like iron?
Or is it tender and breakable, like
the wings of a moth in the beak of the owl?
There is a corner in the waiting room of one of the great Eastern stations where women never sit. It is always in the shadow and overhung by rows of lockers. It is, however, always frequented–not so much by genuine travelers as by the dying. It is here that a certain element of the abandoned poor seeks a refuge out of the weather, clinging for a few hours longer to the city that has fathered them. In a precisely similar manner, I have seen, on a sunny day in midwinter, a few old brown wasps creep slowly over an abandoned wasp nest in a thicket. Numbed and forgetful and frost-blackened, the hum of the spring hive still resounded faintly in their sodden tissues. Then the temperature would fall and they would drop away into the white oblivion of the snow. Here in the station it is in no way different save that the city is busy in its snows. But the old ones cling to their seats as though these were symbolic and could not be given up. Now and then they sleep, their gray old heads resting with painful awkwardness on the backs of the benches.
Also they are not at rest. For an hour they may sleep in the gasping exhaustion of the ill-nourished and aged who have to walk in the night. Then a policeman comes by on his round and nudges them upright.
“You can’t sleep here,” he growls.
A strange ritual then begins, An old man is difficult to waken.
After a muttered conversation the policeman presses a coin into his hand and passes fiercely along the benches prodding and gesturing toward the door. In his wake, like the birds rising and settling behind the passage of a farmer through a cornfield, the men totter up, move a few paces, and subside once more upon the benches.
One man, after a slight, apologetic lurch, does not move at all. Tubercularly thin, he sleeps on steadily. The policeman does not look back. To him, too, this has become a ritual. He will not have to notice it again officially for another hour.
Once in a while one of the sleepers will not awake. Like the brown wasps, he will have had his wish to die in the great droning center of the hive rather than in some lovely room. It is not so bad here with the shuffle of footsteps and the knowledge that there are others who share the bad luck of the world. There are also the whistles and the sounds of everyone, everyone one in the world, starting on journeys. Amidst so many journeys somebody is bound to come out all right. Somebody.
Maybe it was on a like thought that the brown wasps fell away from the old paper nest in the thicket. You hold till the last, even if it is only to a public seat in a railroad station. You want your place in the hive more than you want a room or a place where the aged can be eased gently out of the way. It is the place that matters, the place at the heart of things. It is life that you want, that bruises your gray old head with the hard chairs; a man has a right to his place.
But sometimes the place is lost in the years behind us. Or sometimes it is a thing of air, a kind of vaporous distortion above a heap of rubble. We cling to a time and a place because without them man is lost, not only man but life. This is why the voices, real or unreal, which speak from the floating trumpets at spiritualist seances are so unnerving. They are the voices out of nowhere whose only reality lies in their ability to stir the memory of a living person with some fragment of the past. Before the medium’s cabinet both the dead and the living revolve endlessly about an episode, a place, an event that has already been engulfed by time.
This feeling runs deep in life; it brings stray cats running over endless miles, and birds homing from the ends of the earth. It is as though all living creatures, and particularly the more intelligent, can survive only by fixing or transforming a bit of time into space or by securing a bit of space with its objects immortalized and made permanent in time. For example, I once saw, on a flower pot in my own living room, the efforts of a field mouse to build a remembered field. I have lived to see this episode repeated in a thousand guises, and since I have spent a large portion of my life in the shade of a nonexistent tree I think I am entitled to speak for the field mouse.
Quiet descended on her, calm, content, as her needle, drawing the silk smoothly to its gentle pause, collected the green folds together and attached them, very lightly, to the belt. So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying “that is all” more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all. Fear no more, says the heart. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall. And the body alone listens to the passing bee; the wave breaking; the dog barking, far away barking and barking.
Although in the end the police weren’t involved, Alma still felt no relief. It was the principal who called, informing her that Curtis had been implicated in the mess at the junior high school. A kind of man who’d supported her own teaching application at Carver five years earlier, he sounded apologetic about the news: someone had broken in through a classroom window at Audubon, and had gone around spray-painting graffiti on the lockers and doors. It wasn’t gang-related; it was more childish fare:
“Mr. Adams is a stupid fuckhead” and “Mr. Doolan likes to touch girls booties.” But the school had called the police in , and between the school officials and two officers from Southwest, they had questioned a hundred students. Finally, someone said they’d heard a couple of boys bragging, and three eighth-graders–Tyrone Cooper, Jason Buford, and Curtis Martindale–were fingered for the crime.
It was clear right off that Curtis wasn’t one of the main perpetrators. he’d just tagged along, both the other boys said; he hadn’t broken any glass and had only used the spray can once. But that was far too much for Alma. As she and Curtis drove out of the school parking lot the day they met with the principal, she saw the two cops watching from their squad car. Although they’d been called in to help with the questioning, they were not asked to make the arrests, because the school had declined to press charges and had opted to punish the boys itself. Now, the cops stared at Curtis from the window of their car, angry at being denied the quarry they’d been summoned to flush.
And Alma was nervous–because of her son’s flirtation with the law, but also because of the start of the larger romance it might imply.
The twins returned home a short time before three, urgently summoned by their mother. They found Angela Vicario lying face down on the dining room couch, her face all bruised, but she’d stopped crying. “I was no longer frightened,” she told me. “On the contrary: I felt as if the drowsiness of death had finally been lifted from me, and the only thing I wanted was for it all to be over quickly so I could flop down and go to sleep.” Pedro Vicario, the more forceful of the brothers, picked her up by the waist and sat her on the dining room table.
“All right, girl,” he said to her, trembling with rage, “tell us who it was.”
She only took the time necessary to say the name. She looked for it in the shadows, she found it at first sight among the many, many easily confused names from this world and the other, and she nailed it to the wall with her well-aimed dart, like a butterfly with no will whose sentence has always been written.
“Santiago Nasar,” she said.
–Translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa
I was never young. Whoever I was then is dead. I’ve always figured it that you die each day and each day is a box, you see, all numbered and neat; but never go back and lift the lids, because you’ve died a couple of thousand times in your life, and that’s a lot of corpses, each dead in a different way, each with a worse expression. Each of those days is a different you, somebody you don’t know or understand or want to understand.
—No Particular Night or Morning
Detach from Learning and You Have No Worries
Detach from learning and you have no worries.
How far apart are yes and yeah?
How far apart are good and bad?
The things people fear cannot but be feared.
Wild indeed the uncentered!
Most people celebrate
as if they were barbecueing a slaughtered cow,
or taking in the springtime vistas;
I alone am aloof,
showing no sign,
like an infant that doesn’t yet smile,
as if with nowhere to go.
Joseph’s horse raised its head and sniffed the air. On top of the ridge stood a clump of giant madrone trees, and Joseph saw with wonder how nearly they resembled meat and muscles. They thrust up muscular limbs as red as flayed flesh and twisted like bodies on the rack. Joseph laid his hand on one of the branches as he rode by, and it was cold and sleek and hard. But the leaves at the ends of the horrible limbs were bright green and shiny. Pitiless and terrible trees, the madrones. They cried with pain when burned.
Joseph gained the ridge-top and looked down on the grass lands of his new homestead where the wild oats moved in silver waves under a little wind, where the patches of blue lupins lay like shadows in a clear lucent night, and the poppies on the side hills were broad rays of sun. He drew up to look at the long grassy meadows in which clumps of live oaks stood like perpetual senates ruling over the land. The river with its mask of trees cut a twisting path down through the valley. Two miles away he could see, beside a gigantic lonely oak, the white speck of his tent pitched and left while he went to record his homestead. A long time he sat there. As he looked into the valley, Joseph felt his body flushing with a hot fluid of love. “This is mine,” he said simply, and his eyes sparkled with tears and his brain was filled with wonder that this should be his. There was pity in him for the grass and the flowers; he felt that the trees were his children and the land his child. For a moment he seemed to float high in the air and to look down upon it. “It’s mine,” he said again, “and I must take care of it.”
I think about pinball, and how being a kid’s like being shot up the firing lane and there’s no veering left or right;
you’re just sort of propelled. But once you clear the top, like when you’re sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen, suddenly
there’s a thousand different paths you can take, some amazing, others not.
Tiny little differences in angles and speed’ll totally alter what happens to you later, so a fraction of an inch to the right, and the ball’ll just hit a pinger and a dinger and fly down between your flippers, no messing, a waste of 10 p. But a fraction to the left and it’s action in the play zone, bumpers and kickers, ramps and slingshots and fame on the high-score table. My problem is, I don’t know what I want, apart from a bit of money to buy food later on today. Until the day before yesterday all I wanted was Vinny, but I won’t make that mistake again. Like a shiny silver pinball whizzing out of the firing lane, I’ve not got the faintest bloody clue where I’m going or what’ll happen next.
“Comfortable?” he asked, and she nodded, her eyes closed. Jonas squeezed cleansing lotion onto the clean sponge at the edge of the tub and began to wash her frail body.
Last night he had watched his father bathed the newchild. This was much the same: the fragile skin, the soothing water, the gentle motion of his hand, slippery with soap. The relaxed, peaceful smile on the woman’s face reminded him of Gabriel being bathed.
And the nakedness, too. It was against the rules for children or adults to look at another’s nakedness; but the rule did not apply to newchildren or the Old. Jonas was glad. It was a nuisance to keep oneself covered while changing for games, and the required apology if one had by mistake glimpsed another’s body was always awkward.
He couldn’t see why it was necessary.
He liked the feeling of safety here in this warm and quiet room; he liked the expression of trust on the woman’s face as she lay in the water unprotected, exposed, and free.