In the place I used to be from, people liked to say strange things. The biggest purveyors of strangeness were grandmothers—mostly because they foraged in dark places a lot, and watched state television when they weren’t foraging.
It was my grandmother who told me that your soul remained connected to the soul of whoever you slept with first for a whole seven years. “Even if the sex was terrible,” she pointed out with a quick nudge and dirty laugh. It was meant to make me choose well, I guess.
Back then I lived on a boulevard where the leaves on the trees stayed red all year. If you were coming home a little drunk in the evening, you could squint your eyes and imagine the boulevard was on fire. It gave the area an aura of bittersweet impermanence that drove the housing prices up.
I liked my building on the boulevard. All the staircases in it were winding, all of the apartments haunted. If you came out to the balcony for a cigarette at night and stood very still, you could hear the ghosts calling to each other from across the courtyard, and it gave you a large feeling that your chest struggled to contain.
The worsening economy made it so there were a lot of very rich men and a lot of very poor men and not many normal men around. The government was busy drinking. The lights were always blinking and going out in various parts of town. “Neighborhood’s winking up at God,” my grandmother used to say on nights like that. “But you can’t make him pay attention.”
My mother had been from a prominent family, and due to the social inertia common to the rich, I was still invited to parties in the more expensive areas of town. I usually wore a black dress and a black flower pinned to my chest for those occasions. “Doesn’t it defeat the purpose?” A rich man asked me once upon spotting the flower. “I don’t think beautiful things should have a purpose,” I said with conviction (I used to have convictions). The man laughed, but not unkindly.
His name was H. We became friends. He was not handsome or adventurous or tall or any of the other things a fashionable man was supposed to be besides being rich, but I liked to hear him talk. He could make anything sound interesting, even artificially inflated property prices and the accounting practices of semi-legal casinos, which operated out of every basement in town. He often said things like “I can’t better your circumstances” to me, but my circumstances suited me fine.
In my apartment, the ceilings were so high that you always felt as though they were tugging you upward. I had an agreeable black cat, and spiders that politely descended from their webs to listen to me talk. The kitchen was flooded with light in the mornings, and the living room was flooded with light in the evenings, which was appropriate. There were old mosaics on the walls and the floors were pine, which made every room seem bigger. I was so fond of my apartment that I went to interior design college, wanting to go out into the world and make more of it look like my home.
I saw H often after class. He talked, I listened. He taught me about which forks were for cheese and which were for peaches. “You’re a peach,” he said, a little wistfully. He bought me a fox stole and the fox’s head would bare its teeth and bark when trouble was near.
One day, G, H’s older brother, came to town. G sat himself at the head of our dinner table and watched me eat. He was handsome, but his gaze was flat, like a dead man’s. “You didn’t tell me about your girlfriend,” G said to his brother. “I don’t appreciate not being given the chance to approve the dinner guest list.”
“There’s nothing between us, and what’s the point of putting her on a guest list, there isn’t even a main course tonight,” H said quickly, and looked small and worried.
Offended, I said that H should be allowed to have dinner with whom he wanted. He was certainly old enough. The fox’s head barked, but it was already too late.
G got up from the table and shook me out of my chair and ripped my dress open and bent me over with my face pressed into the good silverware. I told myself I wouldn’t scream, but getting fucked by him was like being stabbed with a dull knife and so I screamed quite a bit, and it went on until I couldn’t take it anymore, and then it went on well past that.
After he finally came, G wiped my blood off himself with the tablecloth. “You were right,” G told his brother. “Nothing between you after all. But I had to check.” It hurt too much to sit, so I curled up on the floor, and could have stayed in that position for a long time, except some servants came and hauled me up and took me to the gate. They were good servants and gave me an old coat to wear over my ruined dress, so that no one else could notice the liberties that had been taken with me, and try to take liberties of their own.
At home, I burned my stole, but kept the fox’s head, just in case.
I took baths. I got high. I went dancing with my classmates. I took a course on the history of non-violent resistance against the hegemony of the upper class. I got very high. I graduated and received my diploma while bombed out of my mind. At the ceremony, I stumbled and the diploma slipped from my hands, but my uncle, who was in the audience, clapped anyway.
My uncle was a kind man and a traditionalist who saw nepotism as a necessity in these trying times. He offered me a job redecorating and managing the hotel he owned. “It’s a fine building, and lots of people come and go there,” he told me. “You will like it.”
The world outside was an unpredictable place, and the hotel therefore needed to be a place of especial calm. I saw to it that the pillows were always plump, the room service trolleys unobtrusive, the lighting buttery and muted. We had the long, snake-like corridors re-carpeted in such a way as to have them eat all sound. I picked out cheerfully sparkling chandeliers for all of the best rooms, and spent time beneath them on double beds with the more attractive of the guests.
“You’re a doll,” the hotel guests murmured into my hair at night. “Better than a peach,” I would say. “Peaches go bad quickly.”
The epoch was also going bad quickly. Real wages fell, exports slowed. During corruption trials, which took place every day from Monday to Friday, courthouse walls shook from the powerful snoring of judges.
Bored out of its mind, the government started an undeclared war by the border one day. The soldiers in the war called themselves shadows and not soldiers, and they had no clear chain of command, and could do whatever the fuck they wanted.
One day, a shadow soldier was doing whatever the fuck he wanted, and pressed a button on a missile launcher. Shortly thereafter a passenger plane screamed out of the sky, scattering children and adults, toys and luggage, over fields and villages. In the state media, this was justified by pointing out that it happened very quickly and none of the passengers had much time to realize they were dying as they died, which, the media pointed out, was an OK death, maybe not preferable, but certainly not the worst out there.
The body of a toddler crashed through the thatched roof of my cousin’s house that afternoon. My cousin couldn’t bear to have the roof patched up, and on my advice she installed a skylight where the toddler-shaped hole had been. My cousin claimed you could see visions through the panel at night—ancient galaxies pinwheeling across the sky, worlds where pain did not exist. It was obvious that my cousin made that last part up. She was a drinker.
The world went on faltering. News of my mother reached me sometimes. She had gone to live the bandit’s life after my father was killed in a business dispute many years ago. My grandmother insisted that my mother had “capped” most of the “dumb nuts” responsible. My grandmother watched a lot of crime shows, and they informed her worldview.
When I wasn’t busy at the hotel, I went on foraging trips with my grandmother. We found chestnuts for soup and teeth for bracelets. There were lots of dead things in the earth, and they spoke their own language. Grandmother understood it, and found uses for everything we stumbled upon. Anything can be a gift, it’s only a question of angles, she would say.
But like a fuck you from the earth, mutilated bodies of women and children began turning up in the soil of the woodlands by the city. It eventually occurred to the local population that a serial killer was on the loose. There were some lynchings. The real killer was caught when even his wife began to realize that all of the blood and viscera on the shirts she laundered for him were suspicious, but this only happened after a hundred children died.
My grandmother made a memorial for all of the children in her garden shed, and invented stories of what would have happened to them had they lived. “Ivan became a world-renowned sand sculptor,” she would say. “Laura became an accountant—not world-renowned or anything, but an honest one, which is fine by us.” Grandmother was a little crazy at that point, but that was also fine by us.
Atop the memorial sat a photo of my father, young and smiling and with no idea as to what lay ahead of him.
It was getting harder and harder to do business in town. The water pressure at the hotel dropped after a politician built a new bathhouse for his harem and diverted half of the neighborhood’s water supply there. The guests got moodier and many perfectly decent room service trays and flatscreen TVs suffered for it. You could only keep the chaos outside at bay for so long. It always found a way in, in the end.
One day, my grandmother went foraging alone and got stuck in a bear trap that locals had laid down for the serial killer and had characteristically forgotten to remove. Some other foragers found her eventually and called an ambulance, but the driver of one ambulance was drunk and the other ambulance had just had its wheels stolen and help didn’t come fast enough.
I laid my grandmother to rest in her shed, with pictures of my father and all of the dead children for company. I set the shed on fire. Some homeless people came out of the woods nearby and warmed themselves by that fire, and I figured that grandmother would have been glad about that particular development.
I took a lot of walks. One day I passed a church with many expensive cars parked outside. A wedding service was being concluded. I saw H and his very young bride emerging onto the church steps, looking happy in the muted way of people who had to look happy all day so that the pictures would turn out OK. The bells rang out and startled the birds on nearby roofs, and I silently willed one of the birds to shit on H’s morning coat, but none did.
It got cold, and then it got colder, and then it got so cold that the air went down like needles in the throat. My uncle took one look at the heating bills and shut down the hotel. He went north and didn’t leave a forwarding address. My beloved chandeliers were put into black slipcovers like body bags, and I imagined them wintering sleepily in there, trusting us to return, and felt bad for them.
It was dangerous to stay in the city, now that the heating came on only sporadically and food was running scarce. I decamped to a country farm owned by my uncle’s friends, the sort of rich family that has a lot of money for interior design and not a lot of sense to when it came to spending it. I brought my fox’s head and my spiders and my cat, because I didn’t want to leave them in the city to die, there had been too much death already.
I liked the farm. Its perimeter fence was high.
In the place they called the farmstead, I got rid of the gilded mirrors and the dusty brocade curtains and installed ergonomic sinks and skylights wherever it was appropriate. I put books nobody in that house had ever read or would read onto new oak shelves. I made the dining hall look like a dining hall, and not a brothel. The farm owners became more confident about throwing country balls and hosting intimate get-togethers. I had taken their money and transformed it into social legitimacy. They rewarded me well for it. It wasn’t a life I wanted, validating the crassly rich, but it was the life available to me.
At one of the gatherings that wasn’t quite intimate but only halfway to a ball, G showed up. Or maybe it wasn’t G at all. I don’t know if it was G’s voice I heard in the den, cascading with laughter at some probably unfunny thing that our host had said. I went to sleep with a knife under my pillow that night, and for a few weeks after that, until I read somewhere that G had been killed in one of the terror attacks that had become common in the city. There were other victims, most of them women and children, and I complained to the spiders about not being able to celebrate. There was nobody else to complain to.
Months went by. The mail showed up later and later, if at all. Cellphone reception was unreliable. At night, shouting, gunshots, and disconcerting flute music could be heard from beyond the perimeter walls.
One day, a couple of orphans showed up at the front gate and said the world was ending. The world seemed intent to go on, but the sky began turning funny colors at night. Nobody liked this development. People reasoned it could be bad for the crops.
The orphans started catching sideways glances. When mutterings about witchcraft started up at dinner, and the fox’s head on the mantelpiece in my bedroom began howling at night, I took the orphans and left. The fox’s head came too, as did the spiders, but the black cat stayed behind, seduced by the opportunities presented by a rodent infestation in the main barn. I tried to not hold a grudge about that.
We traveled and saw cities burning. We traveled and saw cities lit up at night and operating as usual—all of the local corruption schemes still intact, all of the dive bars still open, and all of the grandmothers still sitting outside the residential buildings, eating sunflower seeds and making spiteful observations about the moral character of their passing neighbors.
We crossed the border through a hole in a fence, and stayed for a few days with my village cousin in the country next door. She no longer drank much. She was delighted by the orphans and by the spiders. The latter ate all of the flies in her house.
In the evenings, we sat under the skylight in her roof and drank moonshine with the door open onto the yard. Through the skylight, I saw an old comet dragging an entourage of all the things I ever lost behind it. I saw the sun age and grow bloated with shell hydrogen and regret. I saw my dad.
In the yard, the orphans coated themselves with industrial-strength bug spray and fell asleep reading books in hammocks, not looking like orphans anymore but looking like the sort of children who read books in hammocks. The sky winked down at us with stars and meteors in the night and cricket choruses rang out from the grass. I looked at the world and caught myself wanting to make this moment in its history stay.
When the moonshine ran out, I left the spiders to feed on the kitchen flies and hopefully live out their lives in peace. We said our goodbyes and crossed the border on a moonless night. There, militias were barreling down the roads, and you couldn’t find bottled water or a clean bathroom to save your life. The woods were bereft of birdsong, unless you counted the cackling of crows, and we didn’t, not really.
By a poisoned well deep in the scorched countryside, we found H, walking around in circles and muttering to himself. I wondered if his young wife had abandoned him there. She had looked like a practical woman. We went to shelter in an empty house and H followed us there, and hooted, and screamed, and swatted at imaginary insects for a while. When I awoke in the blurry hours of dawn, I saw H standing over one of the sleeping orphans with a knife. “I can’t better your situation,” H was saying. The fox’s head howled.
I killed H instantly, without thinking. One minute he was alive, and the next minute my knife was in his heart. The orphans didn’t wake up. Or else they pretended to not wake up.
I dragged the body downstairs and dumped it in the yard for the crows. I cleaned up the blood with paper towels I found in the pantry. The electricity was still on, and I made myself coffee that I also found in the pantry. I stood in the kitchen. It was a nice kitchen with a rough-hewn wooden table and a big stone arch and white walls and large ceramic tiles on the floor, also white, and all of that really maximized the space.
I looked out into the yard and felt confused about myself. “For fuck’s sake,” I told the first crow that alighted on the branches of the tree outside. “This isn’t me. I tell people what color to paint their dining rooms for a living.”
The weather got hotter. Soon, we could smell the forest fires even if there was no forest for miles. We went north. People still had money in the north, and villagers and city dwellers would hire me for my expert re-planning advice. People were retreating from the world into their homes, and needed their homes to make up for it.
One day, I heard flute music in a birch grove by the road, and a man emerged, as pale and thin as the trees that surrounded him. He had watery eyes and was instantly unlikable. “I could put those children to use,” he said. “Could even pay you a good price for them.” In my bag, the fox’s head yipped and howled. It was always so late with its warnings. Still, it tried. I gave it points for effort.
“Or I could just take them,” the man ventured. “Who are you to keep me from what I want?”
“We can find out,” I said.
I want to tell you that it was easy, but it was long and hard. The toughest part was not letting him take my knife. I’d read enough about people killed by their own weapons. I didn’t want to go that way. There was something insulting about it. We panted and rolled and there was a strange intimacy to the proceedings. I got him with my knife to his sallow cheek by the end, and then the orphans—my good orphans—stuck a branch into him for good measure. Then we kicked him for a long time. Then we rested. Then I found a creek to wash the blood off.
“You’re a nice lady,” the boy orphan told me as I washed. “You don’t look it right this second—but you’re generally nice.”
“Life depends on who finds you first. It could be the wolf, or it could be the good witch,” said the girl orphan. “You’re like a wolf who’s a good witch underneath.”
I hugged them and we all cried, because what else was there to do.
That night by a bonfire in a village that had not succumbed to anarchy, the orphans slept on either side of me, and I counted the years since G raped me. It was less than seven. I didn’t want to read too much into it, though it occurred to me what I wanted didn’t matter much. It certainly didn’t matter before, when G was alive.
I remembered my grandmother and how she said that anything can be a gift. I wanted her back so that I could argue with her, so that I could throw up my hands and leave the room, knowing that she would wait for me to soon return, smirking into her beer the whole time.
We went further north. The heat tried to chase us, then gave up. Moss hugged the trees and flowers peeked out from the bramble. Water encroached upon the land, smiling beluga whales haunting its depths. The orphans would jump in to swim with them as I sat on the docks, the world entering me gently, from all directions. The sun would try to go down, then give up, climbing back up again, battered but bright.
In an outpost full of seasonal fishermen and scientists and other useful people, where a thick forest met a blue and windblown sea, I was hired to redesign an old marine research center. The place was awash with money due to how many smuggling routes intersected in it, but if you wanted to stay, you had to contribute. We lived in a cabin, which, as I told the orphans, was “Viking-like” in its simplicity. They dutifully took notes. If the old world was collapsing, the new world would have to be shaped by designers just as much as anyone, they reasoned. Designers would have to make sure that all of the pieces of it fit.
There was always fresh fish at the market, not to mention shrimp, though you had to haggle for it. Frozen food was cheaper, but you had to haggle for it too. One day, I got the price of a kilo of frozen shrimp way down, but it came in a two-kilo bag, and I began trying to extract the icy, comma-like shrimp from the bag to be weighed, but they were a clumpy, frozen mess and it was hard. A customer who was watching, a tall, bearded man, leaned over and brought his huge fist down onto the bag with a satisfying crack, knocking a bunch of shrimp loose. “There you go,” he said, and smiled. His eyes were pale like a sled dog’s. His voice was low. I liked him.
We cooked the shrimp together in the cabin that evening and had a feast. The man brought aged cheese and hot sauce and other rarities. The children, I no longer thought of them as the orphans, ate themselves silly and went upstairs to sleep. The man took a bottle of grape vodka from his bag, another rarity, and we drank it by the fire. I put a blanket down and we had sex right there, giddy from the vodka and from each other.
“How come you eat so well?” I asked afterward, my head resting on his shoulder. The cinders pulsated in the fireplace like a heartbeat. An owl hooted from somewhere in the thin-blooded northern night. “I work as a bandit,” he said.
“Oh for God’s sake.”
“I only steal from the corrupt managers of state corporations. I hand out medicine to the poor. And I get great, great deals on contraband cheese and vodka.”
“Lovely,” I told him, even though I didn’t believe him. I had a hard time believing men. He kissed me and we had sex again, a sleepy, unhurried, pre-dawn kind of sex. When he left the outpost, he asked us to come with him. I told him that the children and I were too enamored of the straight life to do it, but it was a lie. I was the only one who still tried to love the straight life, even though it wouldn’t love me back.
Autumn came and the storms started. The sea grew ruffled and moody. I finished working on the old research center and got a job at the market, remembering that I had to be useful in order to stay. The hours at the market were long, I was home rarely.
The children were fearless swimmers, but they were no match for the sea. One day, a rogue wave reached out like a tongue and took the girl while I was busy weighing a shipment of shark fins.
“What’s the fucking point of fucking anything now,” the boy would say. I would tell him that the point was that we were still together, and that the girl would have wanted it this way.
“How the fuck would you know,” he said.
I tried my best to keep my eye on him, but he wanted to fight the sea. He swam out into the storms and called the girl’s name, and one day, a wave brought him down onto the rocks and cracked his skull, and if it wasn’t for the surprisingly timely howling of the fox head that had turned seaward when it happened, I would not have found him fast enough.
I sat by the boy’s hospital bed and thought about the girl. A rogue wave had deposited her into the world, parents unknown, provenance lost to time and bad record-keeping, and a rogue wave had taken her back. Life depends on who finds you first. I had found her, but I could not keep her. “I tried, though,” I said out loud. And the damp walls and the night wind rattling the window frame all answered that trying didn’t matter. Not in this world, anyway.
The vodka-toting bandit showed up in the hospital room at dawn. I don’t remember how he came in. Maybe the tentative morning light brought him into existence, him and his pale eyes. I expected him to call me an idiot, but he didn’t do it, which decided everything. He looked at me and waited, and I nodded, and he smiled. “I didn’t think you would be back,” I told him. “I have to bring you to where you’re going, where you’ve always been going,” he said. His words were a mystery to me, but I liked the sound of them, which was the important part.
Eventually the three of us went west, over the sort of terrain where no car or tank or spy could follow, on good horses who sighed when you stroked their handsome necks. At night, the sky sprawled out above, stars arranged into constellations I couldn’t name. The wind tasted like salt and grass and brought back memories, or past dreams that disguised themselves memories, I really couldn’t tell. Had I been on this road before? Maybe.
The phone reception was terrible, but I stood on a rock once and called my cousin, who told me that the boulevard I had used to live on had been paved over, and by the time the paving had been finished, no one could remember what it was being paved over for, so the workers just left, and concrete lay for miles, and that was that. It had been on the news and everything. I wanted to mourn the boulevard, and the years that I spent there, and the person I once was, but in the end I let it all go easily, sadness exiting me like breath.
The bandit took us to deep gulch, a secret place, where smoke from campfires was being swept off toward the sea. There was music down in the gulch, a symphony of constantly ringing satellite phones, guns being taken apart and put back together again, children playing, stew bubbling in pots, oily moonshine being poured, the noise of life, swelling and unruly, with no grand plan or design behind it, existing for existence’s sake. The boy and I stood there listening for a long time.
And there was a woman. I couldn’t tell you much about her. Or maybe I could, and am not sure that I want to. The woman was waiting for us at the entrance to the secret place that we had searched and hoped for. Maybe she was patient, or maybe she wasn’t. Maybe she looked kind, or not particularly so. She had many names, but you never knew which one was real. Maybe they all were. And I would say all of her names in the dark, through all the troubles that were yet to come. She was maker and destroyer, the milk and the starless void. She failed me and she saved me. She was a mother, in other words.
“In the place I used to be from …” The woman began when she saw me, but I cut her off.
“It’s OK,” I said. “I already know.”