The following is from Paul Yoon’s collection of stories, The Mountain. The Mountain contains six thematically linked stories, taking place across several continents and time periods. The characters are connected by their traumatic pasts and quests for solace in their futures. Paul Yoon’s first book, Once the Shore, was selected as a New York Times Notable Book. He is a recipient of a 5 under 35 Award & a fellowship from the NYPL.
He waits with the others.
He finds a small space on the already crowded bench that faces the river and when there is the sound of an engine he turns and focuses on the distant headlights or the dust rising from the dirt road. Otherwise he watches the tugboats pulling shipping containers toward the Calais harbor while some of the men shout at the pilots, asking if they are hiring. They blow into their hands. They pace. They throw pebbles at the ships, though no one ever throws far enough to hit them.
Once, a sailor came out, spun a few times on the deck, and launched a small package in their direction. It was the size of a grenade and one of the men had reached for Mikel’s hand, terrified as it landed on the lower bank. Mikel let go and went to retrieve it. It was a pack of cigarettes with a note wrapped around it telling them to go fuck themselves. They smoked the pack that day.
Mikel is the youngest of them. Twenty-four. He also stays the longest. If no one comes the older ones give up and return to the shantytown. A few of them move on, following the river toward the city, hoping to find work there or on the way. There is a new automobile factory down the road and sometimes it is possible to find a temporary job there, working a line or mopping the floors after hours.
In the past two years Mikel has worked for farms regrowing flowers and grains and for companies hired to sift through the rubble of what had been city blocks. He has carried boxes and furniture for the families returning to their homes or moving somewhere else. He has even carried their children, the parents too tired to lift anything. Sometimes a man drives up to the bench and wants company, and Mikel watches as one or two shrug, agree on a price, open the door, and go in.
What wouldn’t he do? In the night, distracted by hunger and unable to sleep, he makes a list, or tries to. It seems important to him, to try to know what he wouldn’t do. He thinks he is the kind of person who would enter the car of a man and keep him company. He never does but perhaps he will one day. He thinks this, turns over, and holds his breath as though he wants to swallow the thought.
It was the dogs he couldn’t stomach. When he collected rubble in the city blocks. He will all his life think of them, the dogs. The starving ones that had entered a pile for shelter. Too weak to move as the workers picked them up with the debris and bricks and threw the animals away into the trucks.
That day Mikel collapsed and vomited. Perhaps he blacked out, he wasn’t sure, only that the workers left him there and moved on. When he looked up he was alone. He was beside a broken wall where someone had painted a tree with lipstick.
He waits until the evening and then he walks home. He is with his neighbor Artur, a Romanian, and they follow the river west away from the city and toward the mountains. It is growing dark but there are still the bright lights of the factories across the water, bright enough to illuminate this side of the bank. Three stars have appeared, above. They stumble upon an American C-ration can on the dirt road. Artur picks it up, shakes it beside his ear. They are still sold on the black market and there are a few crumbs of a biscuit left on the bottom. Artur licks his finger and presses down. He offers half of the remaining crumbs to Mikel.
Mikel regrets it at once because he grows aware of his hunger. He knows Artur feels this, too, because he crushes the can and kicks it toward Mikel. So they begin kicking the can back and forth to distract themselves as they walk. When a car passes they pick it up and hide it as though it were something valuable. Then they try to wave the car down for a ride, though no one ever stops. Still they try every time, the headlights sweeping over their bodies.
They keep walking and playing. Artur balances the can on his foot before shooting it back over. But Mikel misses, and Artur raises his arms and runs briefly in a circle. Mikel retrieves the can and chases him. It feels good to keep moving like this in the cold as it grows darker.
When they catch their breaths, Artur says, I think they’re testing.
They are talking about the explosion they heard earlier that day. Or the faint trail of it. A few claps of thunder from somewhere in the mountains. Though they knew enough to know it wasn’t thunder.
Testing for what? Mikel says.
For the next one, Artur says. The next conflict. To be better.
Mikel kicks the can back. He thinks it’s from the miners. They resumed coal mining farther south and some of the men have gotten steady work there, moving to the temporary cabins that have been built for them, bringing their families if they have families. He envies them, envies the solidness of their days. He envies their families.
Artur is younger than he is. He speaks with a heavy accent. In a year he has discovered little about him. It is how they all live in the shantytown. They know only a few facts about each other. It isn’t conscious; it is, he thinks, a resigned exhaustion after the years that have gone. They survived. What else is there to say? There is little they want to talk about that doesn’t have to do with today. They don’t even want to talk about tomorrow.
He knows Artur was infantry and that he has a younger brother and that the brother is sick. Artur works to support both of them.
There were days in the past year Mikel has told a perspective employer to hire Artur instead, walking away and returning to the bench. And he is uncertain if that is something he should be doing when it is difficult to find work every day, and he is uncertain whether Artur at all cares. But they are the only people in Mikel’s life, so he does it anyway. They are approaching the shantytown now. In the dark they can make out the bare lightbulbs strung up in the shacks and along the eaves of the tin roofs. The bulbs create severe shadows everywhere, a person’s silhouette drifting like a ghost along the paths. Artur picks up the crushed can and they enter the field, smelling food being boiled, hearing dogs and the noise of a radio over the hum of the power generator.
Artur’s brother is in the distance, sweeping litter with a broom. They know it is him because he is the tallest of them and the one with the poorest posture. Emil cannot work but he does what he can among the shanties, helping anyone who needs it.
Though Artur has never confirmed this, there is a rumor that in Romania, Emil had been a painter. Perhaps it isn’t true. Perhaps the rumor started because he collects canisters of paint from the nearby landfill in the valley.
In France, building-repair projects have created a wealth of discarded paint. So there are days when Emil appears on the paths, pushing a cart with a pyramid of tin canisters. If an occupant wants him to, Emil will paint their shacks in whatever color he found. He has painted over a dozen shacks already, some in stripes, some in solids or geometric patterns, so that during the day there are bright shapes scattered in the long field.
Emil waves as they approach and they join him outside where there is a bench he has made out of wood planks and empty paint canisters. None of them have brought back food tonight. Or money. But they have tea and the stale pastries Artur found the other day in the city, watching a baker throw away everything he didn’t sell. Thinking this insane, Artur took as much as he could, stuffing bread and pastries into his pockets, in his excitement forgetting that some were filled with cream and fruit. They burst on his way home, ruining his clothes.
How much Emil had laughed. Mikel, too, when he heard.
They eat what is left and laugh again and even in the cold they remain outside, talking about the day.
Artur’s brother seems both aware of Mikel’s presence and unaware of him. Mikel has never heard the man speak. Emil is a giant who can vanish at any moment, whenever he wishes. On occasion he brushes some dirt off of Artur’s shoulder or looks out into the lighted evening at the flicker of a bat. A dog appears, chasing a rodent or following the scent of food. When the dog finds its way to them Emil leans forward and feeds it the leftover bread.
Mikel wonders what illness the brother has. He knows it is something in the head. There are days when Emil never goes outside. Other days when all he does is stay outside, heading to the landfill. He has watched Emil help others but he has also watched him swing a piece of wood at people he doesn’t know, people who aren’t from here scavenging— swung and lunged at them in a way that made Mikel stop from approaching him.
It is odd that the brothers’ own shanty hasn’t been painted. It is bare, just the colors of the wood and the metal they have found for it. As though some personal seed of belief has escaped Emil. He can do what someone else wants but he can’t do the same for himself. Or perhaps he doesn’t know what he himself wants. Perhaps he wouldn’t know what to paint. Mikel understands that.
Did you hear the explosion? Artur says.
His brother doesn’t answer.
Testing, Artur says, his mouth full of bread.
Mikel imagines the life Emil once had. What his days were like. What kind of paintings he did. Whether there are paintings of his somewhere on a wall or in a vault or buried in a pile of other things forgotten. Or whether they were discarded or burned. He wonders if he will ever see one. He wonders what it means for someone to be a painter. What it takes for someone to stop doing the thing he has always done.
Mikel has done nothing special. This doesn’t bother him. He doesn’t know if it should. It was a life. He moved with his parents. He harvested flowers with them. Worked the Basque farms. He was good at finding things his mother misplaced. A mirror. A brush. As a child he knelt by the river once, pointed, thought he had found the actual moon.
Mikel is tired. He has done nothing today and yet he is tired. He watches as the brothers rest their heads against each other, grateful to be together again. The sudden physical intimacy tears something in Mikel. He looks down the path. He catches the dog moving in between shacks. The clatter of beads someone has hung outside their entrance. Calais in the distance and the curve of the moon. Briefly the smell of the coast. He never imagined he would live in northern France.
He thanks them for the food and stands. Artur whistles as he leaves. Mikel turns, glimpsing the crushed can in the air, and reaches out to catch it.
Good night, Mikel says. See you tomorrow, good night.
His shanty stands farther down the path. It has been painted blue, a blue that he cannot see in the evening. He lifts aside the wood plank he has been using for a door. There is very little inside. There are a few blankets, a deck of playing cards he had gotten from a tinker, when his parents had stopped to help the man fix a wheel. He had told his parents to pick whatever they wanted and they had let Mikel choose.
He could have picked something useful to them—a pan, a ball of thread, winter socks—but he picked the cards. He had never seen their design before. They were from Germany. Some missionaries had brought them. The tinker didn’t know more than that, didn’t know if they were called anything different or what kind of games you played with them.
In the shanty he lies down and opens the frayed case that still carries the cards. He looks at the illustrations of the drummers and the knights. He counts the cards knowing he is missing one, has been missing one for many years. He tries to make his list again of all the things he wouldn’t do. He listens to the people still awake in the shantytown. Someone’s radio.
He should have picked something useful. When the tinker had asked. But he picked these cards and his parents didn’t mind. Didn’t mind even when they could have used those winter socks. They brought the cards wherever they went and invented their own games and rules of play. The Flying Horseshoe. The King of theWoods.The Divine Palace. The Horse and the Moon. They played when they could, the three of them.
One evening on a flower farm in the southern French mountains he woke to find his parents had fallen asleep together sitting against the trunk of a tree. It was summer and beautiful and they had been delaying heading inside. Above them on a low branch hung a wind chime. His parents’ heads were bowed and their hands were trembling as though they were still picking flowers together. As though they were conversing in their dreams.
These two people in his life who could be as private as a tunnel.
They had been playing cards. Some had slipped from their fingers and scattered. So Mikel walked the field, looking for as many as he could in the grass. The wind chime clattered. He kept the melody in his periphery as he searched. He never found them all. When he returned he sat down near them, to be with them, and his father stirred. He knew it was him, not his mother. But Mikel didn’t turn. He didn’t know why but he didn’t turn. He stayed facing the farm and his father moved over to him, lay down, pressed his head in the space between Mikel’s shoulders, and fell back asleep there.
He thought of how his father never did this again. Of the soft weight of his father on his back. He thought he would like to find that farm again. That field of flowers. That constant melody in the night air. Was it a fragment of a song?
Mikel catches music coming from a distant shanty. Someone passes his door. And then someone else. Like the shadows of a carousel. And then there is nothing, only the spaces in the walls where the moonlight enters.
The next day a truck pulls up to the spot. It is an old military pickup truck though it could be anyone. In Calais they are everywhere, the abandoned American and British automobiles that civilians took for themselves. They are in the streets downtown, in the fields, along the river where Mikel is. They are painted over if paint is available or they are covered with tape or anything else, their disguise so crude and makeshift at times you wonder why they cover the markings at all. No one cares.
On this truck, Sunshine Clearance is written on a piece of cardboard glued to the side of the door.
There are only five on the bench. It is just before dawn and not everyone has arrived. But they all stand and approach. They haven’t seen the two men already on the flatbed. They were lying down, napping, but get up now to look around, their eyes taking in the river as though they have never seen it.
Then a man rolls down the passenger-side window and points at Artur, who is the youngest.
Can you walk? the man says.
He doesn’t understand the question.
Of course I can walk, Artur says.
Distances. Slopes. Higher altitude. Good lungs?
Artur flicks the cigarette he was smoking onto the road.
Great, he says.
The man seems to consider him. His accent.
Fuck if you care, Artur says, growing impatient.
The man laughs. He looks over at the others. None of them can tell whom he is looking at because the man is wearing sunglasses. He is older and keeps the truck running.
Today, you work until dark. But only half-day pay. Then if all goes okay you start again at dawn tomorrow. Full-day pay.
Okay, Artur says.
He reaches for the door but the man tells him to get in the back. The man studies the four remaining and points at Mikel.
Mikel climbs in. The remaining three return to the bench and watch them go. They speed north along the river road and as they near the shantytown they pass the other men heading toward the bench. They recognize each other and wave. On the river a fishing vessel moves in the opposite direction. The moon is still out. The other two on the flatbed have gone back to sleep. Mikel smells wet leaves and urine. He helps Artur light a cigarette in the wind, both of them aware that the man never said what the work is. Then they are gone, past the shanties, farther into the countryside toward the mountains.
The day is starting and as the fog pulls away he sees more of the ruined landscape, the peaks and the bare slopes where trees have yet to grow again. He pulls up the collars of his coat as the wind grows louder. Artur doesn’t mind the wind. He leans back and shuts his eyes as though it is still summer.
The truck turns onto a steep mountain road. The flatbed shakes and a metal tube slides out from underneath the tarp between them. Mikel lifts the corner but catches the man looking at them from the rearview. He recognizes what the tube is but doesn’t think of why it is there. He looks across at Artur and the other men but they all have their eyes closed, luxuriating now in the sudden morning light. For the first time he studies the faces of the two but he has never seen them before. They have beards and they dip their heads over the edge of the truck, exposing their pale throats.
They enter a forest. The road narrows as they continue to climb. It grows dim again and then bright. They turn once more and follow a road that has the track marks of a tank still caked into the dirt. Someone has dropped sandbags to cover the holes in the road. A sign appears in both French and English but he doesn’t catch it. They pass another one. Two more. Now Mikel reads them. He leans over. So does Artur. They have yet to speak. They look at each other and then at the tarp by their feet and it is as though they are asking the other what to do but not knowing how.
Up ahead, a tall mound of stones is blocking the road. The truck stops and the man tells them to pick up what is under the tarp and follow him. Mikel doesn’t have a watch but perhaps it has taken two hours to get here. The light is different here, in this forest. The tall trees severing daylight.
As Artur lifts the tarp, Mikel looks back at the tank treads, something he hasn’t seen in a year. They are like fossils, the spines of dinosaurs. He thinks of the men he has seen over the years, sweeping the roads. There are six of them on the flatbed: metal detectors the Army had once used, old now, the grips frayed, the radios scratched up.
He looks across the truck but the man with sunglasses and the other two have already vanished over the stone pile. He hears the man’s voice and he decides in that moment that he will run. He wants to but the man returns, showing them their payment and tells them to hurry. Artur jumps down. Artur doesn’t run. He climbs over the stones and then Mikel climbs, too, carrying two of the detectors and the radios, which are in canvas bags slung over his shoulder. There is a log just beyond, blocking the road again, and they are all waiting for him there.
As Mikel approaches, he asks the man what the sign on the truck door means. Sunshine Clearance. He doesn’t understand.
I think it’s funny, their new employer says, and takes a detector and a radio. We clear with a smile.
The man smiles with great exaggeration.
He tells them not to lift the coil but to keep it parallel to the ground. He shows them what sound they make through the radio, dropping a few nails and sweeping over them. He says all this very quickly and Mikel can tell Artur doesn’t understand everything. The man checks his watch and tosses them a bottle of talcum powder for their hands. The man is waiting for them to head in.
Mikel knows now what happened to the tank. They can see it over the log farther down the forest road, under the bowing trees, emptied of itself and broken. Blood splatter is crusted on its shell, though he convinces himself it probably isn’t, that it is mud. A wind comes again. He thinks of the money and wants to step in but his body is unable to. His mouth has dried up. He holds his breath. The talcum feels like pinpricks on his fingertips. He understands what the sound was that he heard yesterday. He searches for a fresh crater. He cannot find it.
Artur waits beside him. Mikel knows what they are about to do and he wants to go back to the bench on the river. To sit with the others. He wants this day to end. To walk back to his shanty. To start again tomorrow. He will find something else. He always has. He thinks if Artur ran right now he would, too. He thinks this, gripping the detector as a shadow traces the road. An airplane flies overhead.
It’s simple, the man says, his voice softer and slower, as though he has done this many times before. They are only there to sweep and detect. That is all. Another team will come in for removal and clearance. He says words like this in a way that makes Mikel wonder if the man is a veteran, too.
He will never see him again after today. He will never know a single thing about this man except he is the kind of person who thinks the words on his truck door are funny. Mikel doesn’t yet know that there is a market for undetonated mines in these years after the war. That there is a market for any weapon anyone can find. That you can make more money doing this than you ever had in your life.
Years from now and far from here, Mikel will try to recall if he understood the insanity of the man who brought them to this forest. If he thought of this at all as they began to move across the two-kilometer road that was once used by loggers and miners and then later the Germans. If Mikel understood, it meant he didn’t care. Or it didn’t matter enough.
Artur doesn’t run. Artur mutters a Romanian word and steps over the log first. Artur begins to sweep and the others follow. Mikel is the last to go. He still doesn’t believe he will even as he watches Artur move down the road, hears the man behind him say, Go.
So Mikel steps in. He is over the log now. Past the signs. He takes another step and sweeps. He hears nothing. He has forgotten to turn the radio on. He stops to make sure it is buzzing and sweeps again, suddenly grateful for the powder that absorbs the moisture that has begun to seep from his palms.
Another airplane flies overhead. The sound of it is shattering. It hooks his rib from the inside as though he is a fish and yanks. His legs clatter. The wind is so cold. He wants to scream. He thinks he will feel better if he screams. Perhaps in the momentary noise he does.
He keeps track of Artur as though tethered to him.
They are across from each other on the road, following the ditches. The others from the truck have already moved ahead of them. They have all been assigned areas, arbitrary distances the man decided on by pointing to a branch of a tree where the leaves have turned mustard colored. They are to start at the perimeter along the ditches and then circle in toward the center.
Where has the man gone? He is perhaps behind them, waiting by the log. Mikel doesn’t turn. He looks down at his feet. At legs he believed were shaking but are still. As he moves forward he isn’t convinced he is sweeping but he is, he can see the coil gliding over the dirt and the grass. His own powdered fist. He passes an empty glass bottle in a ditch. A cluster of wildflowers. Then: the reflection of a small, bright object. He doesn’t wonder what it is. He thinks of a wristwatch his father used to wear. He wore it loose and Mikel would slip his fingers under the band whenever they walked together or slept in the freight car of a train as they traveled from one farm to another. The wristband was how his father taught him how to skate. They used to skate rivers in the winter, in the late night as people lit fires on the banks for them to see. The blue ice, their blue breaths, his fingers tucked under his father’s wristwatch as they glided.
He thinks of rivers as he tracks Artur. Then trains. He would like to travel again. Perhaps it is time to move on, to somewhere else, wherever that may be. They never had a home. Home was a cart and two horses.
He concentrates on the rhythm of the sweeping. He listens to the frequency of the radio and keeps going. He thinks only of the sweeping and the frequency. His breathing. The heavy sweeping. His palms begin to sweat. He calls for more talcum powder but the man doesn’t respond. He grips the handle harder and takes another step and another. Now he hears nothing in the cavern of the forest road. Nothing but his breathing.
Artur and the man up ahead move along the perimeter toward the abandoned tank that is perhaps a year old, or older. Then Mikel sees the fresh crater. It is just beyond the tank: a pocket of dark, speckled earth. Artur sees it, too. And then Artur begins to cry. Mikel can hear him over the radio frequency. He can see Artur’s twisted face and sees that he is looking down the ditch on his side at something Mikel cannot make out.
What is it? Mikel calls.
The man up ahead stops and looks, too, though he keeps silent. Mikel doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t want to stop. He is afraid that if he does he will drop the equipment or fall or step out of the line he has been following. He keeps walking. He keeps walking and sweeping and he keeps looking at his feet. He leaves behind Artur, who is still crying, and he keeps moving. He thinks if he moves far enough away he will be back on the bench and this day will end. He hears Artur say, I don’t want to do this anymore.
Farther in the distance there is a short, muted pop and its long echo as the dirt of the forest road rises into the air, dimming the sky with particles of color. It is like a swarm of bees. It happens before he understands someone was standing there. That whoever it was has vanished.
As he turns back toward Artur, who is still by that ditch, he sees another man drop his detector. And he hears shouting. And cursing. And then someone appears on the road, running, as he hears a new noise approaching him, covers his eyes, and feels, briefly, the sudden sway of trees.
Snowdrift has accumulated outside the hospital. New slopes have formed on the lawn. From the window Mikel watches an old woman take a tin tray and slide down a shallow hill, her legs in the air. She tumbles and rolls. Her gray hair unravels in the snow.
He tries to place her among all the people who work here but she is too far and hidden by the collar of her coat.
She lies there looking up, and Mikel follows her eyes. He sees nothing. Only the flat evenness of a thousand clouds.
It is winter. January. He has watched the year pass learning how to walk again. Three months. Unaware of snow. Unaware of where he is. On this hill overlooking Calais and the sea. He wheeled himself out one day and stopped at the main doors, stunned by the height and the view. Construction cranes. The harbor. Ships and ferries sailing to and from England. He turned back in, not yet used to pushing himself with one hand.
He has stayed away from the front doors since then. He keeps to the long ward, the curtains of privacy. The old bareness. The occasional sound of the old woman passing the window, sledding.
He likes being alone. He tries to be alone here whenever he can. He wheels himself down the corridors and the other wings, exploring a building that survived shelling and mortar rounds seven years ago. All the dents in the walls. Strange mounds of powder that he thinks at first is snow only to see it is the dust of broken stones that have fallen. Windows are still waiting to be replaced. After the building was overrun it had turned into an outpost of some kind, because of its location on the hill. There are old German military maps on a shelf in an office with troop positions. He loves their intricacy: the draftsmanship and the detailed topography. He leans in, trying to remember if he was ever in one of those locations.
One day he forgets that Karine is with him when he folds a few and tucks them under his lap. She takes the maps from him and he thinks she has confiscated them. But when she returns him to his bed, Karine slips the maps beneath his mattress.
How little space she takes. He never notices her there until she is. He never hears her or feels the bed shift.
Karine is the volunteer who has been taking care of him. The hospital has run out of uniforms, so she wears an International Red Cross armband. Mikel knows nothing about her. Only that she visits him every morning and keeps him company. In those early months he keeps staring at her hands.
He lifts his arm that is missing a hand and thinks he survived five years of a war with only the graze of a bullet across his shoulder. He thinks about whether his hand is still there somewhere on that mountain road, buried, or scavenged by birds. He can still feel the fingers, catches them touching his thigh in a dream.
He keeps hearing a wind chime.
When the pain becomes unbearable in his hips and his back Karine punches him with morphine. And then, checking to make sure no one is looking, she inserts the needle into her own arm.
She presses her finger to her lips.
Our secret, Karine says.
He discovers later that she is from the Belgian border. That she is twenty-seven, a few years older than him, and has been working in ICRC hospitals for the past year. She mends tears in her clothes with sutures. Some days she wears lipstick. She always smells of the harbor.
You must try, she always says, helping him into the wheelchair and then, as the months go on, helping him with the crutch.
She walks with him. She talks. Even if he doesn’t. He wants to be alone but there is an ease to her he feels himself gravitating toward. This exhausted nurse who has become his one line to the outside.
She talks about the winter and Calais. The new factories. Someone who keeps stealing the flowers in the garden. The lipstick she confesses she steals from a lady in the market. She shows him roof tiles no one can identify, so they keep them in a pile in a room. She shows him the maps. His legs tire and she holds him up and brings him into a room where there is a piano. She settles him onto the bench. She reaches over him and plays a scale, a melody.
Ah! It wasn’t a wind chime. It was you.
She looks at him, confused. His first laughter.
One night he wakes to find his blanket disturbed and he thinks it was Karine. But when she appears she tells him someone came to visit him today. He doesn’t understand. He is in a lake of morphine, afloat.
A man, Karine says. I don’t know his name. Very tall.
Mute? He didn’t speak. He sat for a while and left.
When the morphine leaves him, even in his pain, he limps over to the hospital exit, looking down the hill road. For three days he stays by the window, looking out farther inland but Emil doesn’t come again.
Mikel feels himself growing stronger. He practices walking and climbing the steps at the far end of the hospital with a crutch. He climbs to the top and down and to the top again. He has never been up here before. It is a wide hallway with oil paintings on the walls. There is one of a traveler leaving his home. Another of a distant pale tree. He stops at a still life. His mouth waters at a peach. A pear.
Karine shows him where she has been staying. She takes him farther down the hallway and opens the door. It is a tiny room that was once used for storage. It has a narrow window and on the floor there is a sea of blankets. He cannot explain why but he doubts that anyone else knows she is sleeping here.
You can stay here for a while, she says, unbuttoning the top of her shirt and heading in.
They will only do this a few times.
They sit on the floor, leaning against a wall. She shuts the door with her foot. She takes out a syringe and offers some to him and then gives herself the rest. She takes his arm, wraps it over her shoulder as she lies down on his lap.
Does this hurt?
He feels nothing. He is looking up at the square of light on the wall. He wants to bury his face in her hair but he can no longer move. Pinned against the wall is one of the maps they have stolen. He hasn’t seen it before. There is a red circle in an area near the border to Spain. She has drawn it there, near the Pyrenees and the Basque country. It shocks him. He is suddenly cold, his body hollow.
Remember, she says. That is my mother’s home.
He concentrates on the red circle and the valley. He thinks of a tree and that wind chime and a farm they once worked for and his parents asleep.
Karine, he says, touching her head. Can you play cards?
His tongue is heavy. His body gone. Her eyes still as glass. He had been just outside the blast radius that day. Of the second mine. It wasn’t the shrapnel that entered the right side of him, taking his hand and shattering his leg and his pelvis. It was Artur’s body. The doctors were unable to collect all of the fragments. They didn’t tell him this at first. Later, they thought he would want to know. That there was the right to know. And to explain the nerve damage and the pain that would for the rest of his life, now and then, flare in his hips. Mikel would never be able to bend his knee all the way.
Because Artur was in there. They asked if he understood. This was the first month. He wasn’t walking yet. In the
bed he remained motionless, thinking that he had become a coffin. Then he grabbed a scalpel from the tin tray and began slicing the sutures along the side of his body, reopening the healing skin and screaming while the attendants tried to sedate him. Through the months of morphine he forgot Artur’s name and for a time even his own.
Mikel is discharged at the end of February. The ICRC gives him the crutch he has been using and some spare clothes they have managed to find. There isn’t a coat but they say it will be spring soon as though they are in charge of the weather. They say a bus will come and take him downtown if he wishes. And that they are sorry that they need the bed.
That is all they say. The staff who treated him. Most of them are French but some of them are Canadian and British and they have been here since the end of the war. They look as emptied out as he feels and they speak little French, and Mikel doesn’t know English, so they all stand and smile and wish each other luck in different languages.
He has nothing else. He leans against the crutch and walks out of the hospital down through the courtyard and the garden where there is still snow. He looks for Karine but she isn’t around. He looks for the old woman who slid down the lawn behind the building, but she isn’t around either. Did he imagine her? There are only reflections in the windows. He almost slips on ice but regains his balance and keeps moving down toward the gate.
The street is empty. He is standing against the wall by the street, shivering. In the distance, smoke rises from chimneys. New store awnings, brightly colored, have gone up. Farther, there are dots of movement on a boardwalk. He follows the winding route of a person on a bicycle, the way the person speeds and cuts the corners. He used to do that. He had forgotten. That he was once good at riding a bicycle. How is it possible to forget this? It occurs to him that he will never ride one again. And that he no longer trusts himself. He can think of a field of flowers or a great tree but he isn’t sure anymore what that means to him.
He hears the engine of an automobile. He thinks it is the bus. It isn’t. It is an American car, a Ford, old and rusted, and as it slows in front of him he is choked by a sudden fear. He holds his breath. He doesn’t want the window to roll down. He wants to run. Gripping his crutch, he is about to turn back toward the hospital when Mikel hears his name.
Karine is in the car, clutching the wheel with a cigarette between her fingers. He didn’t know she owned a car.
I don’t, she says, but doesn’t say anything more.
He tucks himself into the passenger seat, throws the crutch in the back, and she drives down the hill into the city. He isn’t expecting the bumps and the gaps the car drives over. He senses the tide of pain, braces for it. Karine notices. She slows. When he is comfortable again he leans back and stares through the car window at the crowded sidewalks and the new stores.
So much is new in Calais. There is architecture he has never seen before, taller buildings. They drive along the water. They pass the ships in the port and the market where steam rises from the stalls of the vendors. Hot teas and soup. Then farther down: shelves of pottery, crates of wine and fish. He looks for a lady selling lipstick. He sees a child in a coat trying to sell kites. He thinks he recognizes a sanitation worker and thinks of the dogs.
He and Karine haven’t spoken. She asks if there is anywhere he wants to stop or go. She tells him there is a ship heading to England today. She knows the crew. She points to a far dock as though she has already planned this.
We can go together, she says.
She doesn’t look at him. She has grown shy.
We can leave, she says. We can start again.
Keep driving, he says.
She drives. He watches as she circles the city and then after an hour he tells her where to turn. They cross a bridge. They turn onto the river road. He hasn’t been here in months. The lights of all the factories are on. He sees a hangar with new cars.
Karine accelerates, driving past the bench. He doesn’t say anything. He turns and sees the men there, their breaths in the air as they throw stones against the frozen river. She keeps going until the land flattens and the shantytown appears. The sky is featureless, all gray. He reaches for her arm.
She veers away from the road and stops.
You live there? she says.
He doesn’t respond. The snow is slow to melt out here.
She keeps the car running and the windows begin to fog.
Would you like me to go with you?
No, he says. I’m okay.
She leans over him and opens the glove compartment. There is a tin box with an ampoule of clear liquid and a syringe. It isn’t labeled. She asks if he wants some but he shakes his head.
It isn’t too late, she says. For the ship. England.
He will always think of her like this, in a car, before she fills the syringe. Before she leans back against the seat and her smile fades. The movement of her shoulder. The words ship and England.
I’ll wait, she says, already a world away from him.
He is caught by a wind when he opens the car door. He climbs down the slope, his shoes and the crutch sinking in the snow. It takes him longer but he doesn’t stop and soon he is approaching the first shanties. Snowmen with twigs for arms stand on the paths. The same dog runs over to him. He greets the animal, feeling happy for a moment before it bounds away. The shantytown looks the same to him but if people recognize him as he heads down the paths they don’t show it. He doesn’t recognize anyone. Somebody waves but it is courtesy.
He heads to Artur and Emil’s place first. He feels his heart as he does. He knocks. But Emil isn’t there. He moves on, farther down, anxious for the blue of the shanty that was his to appear. When it does he knows at once that there is someone in it. He can smell food being cooked. A broth. Then, through a gap, a piece of clothing. Someone’s hand. He steps up and knocks. The same piece of wood is being used as a door.
An old woman answers. Yes? She is wearing a heavy wool sweater and a hat and behind her legs, peering at him, are two children. He recognizes his blankets. Mikel is about to reach for them and say that he lives here but hesitates. He smells the warm soup and looks at the three of them and does nothing.
I left a bag here, he says instead. A long time ago. I was wondering if it’s still here.
The woman grins. She is missing a tooth. He doesn’t know why but it makes him think of his hand. He hides his arm.
No, the woman says. It’s not here, but it’s over there. The bag. He kept it for you.
She points back toward Artur and Emil’s shanty.
He’s still here?
Yes, of course, she says. He’s at the landfill. He collects paint. Even in this weather. Did you know? He’s a painter. We have a painter here.
She seems delighted by this. She asks if he wants to come in and wait here.
You can have some soup, she says.
The children have been playing with marbles. They set the marbles up, flick their fingers, and he watches as one shoots across the narrow floor and hits his shoe. He notices them looking at his arm as he leaves the marble there, thanks the woman, and steps away.
He returns to the other shanty, thinks he will wait out front by the bench, but then opens the door. Inside, on a string, are a few clothes hanging in the air. A pile of blankets are folded carefully and stacked in a corner beside a pair of spare boots. On a shelf is an unopened pack of chocolate and a tin cup with a razor. He goes to the boots, realizing they aren’t spare ones but Artur’s. They’re smaller. He begins to see more of Artur there. A smaller shirt. A smaller pair of gloves.
Mikel finds his bag hanging on the wall. It is a small canvas shoulder bag he found in a ditch years ago. He opens it, finds his comb, his toothbrush, and an inch of toothpaste, near frozen from the cold. His playing cards are there, too, wrapped in a pair of socks. It is all there.
He wonders what Emil has been doing with it. If he wanted Mikel to have it he would have returned it to him when he visited. If Emil was the one who visited.
Mikel leaves the bag hanging on the wall and returns outside. It is now late in the afternoon and the temperature is dropping. The wind has come back. He looks up wondering if it will snow again. He walks to the center of the path and tries to spot the landfill behind the field. He considers waiting. He thinks he should wait but no one appears in the distance.
He wonders where he will go.
Mikel leaves the shanties and walks back to the road. Karine is still there. The car is still there. The engine is running. He opens the driver’s-side door. Her head is tilted back, her mouth is parted, and the used syringe lies between her fingers. The small cloud of her breath rises up toward the car ceiling.
He places the back of his hand against her neck. He is mindful of the cold but he wants to touch her one more time. She seems younger to him then, much younger than she is. He wonders if he will ever see her again. He imagines a future where this seems possible. This woman who has taken care of him. This one remaining thread in his life.
He thinks of turning the engine off but he doesn’t want her to freeze. It is difficult to see the distant ridges. Even the river. He hears a train. A far riverboat.
All day he has been carrying Karine’s map folded in his back pocket. Looking for her before he left, he had gone up to her room and saw it there. He takes it out now and is about to place it in the car but changes his mind and tucks it back into his pocket.
Mikel returns to the road. As he leaves, the wind comes down, changing the shapes of the snowdrifts again.
She wakes to an impossible distance.
From that tunnel she has slipped into for a year, Karine struggles to find where she is. She searches for something to hold in that far perspective. She clings to a muted, steady wind. Then becomes aware that it is not wind. She breaks her gaze away. It seems to take an hour to look down, to reach for the ignition. She tries and gives up. She drops, sinks, feels a bright warmth, and stays a little longer.
When she opens her eyes again a man is looking down at her through the window. He has lifted a gloved hand toward the glass. A tin canister of some kind is under his arm. Karine smiles. He opens the door, asks if she is all right, and she reaches for him. She can’t remember the last time someone asked her that.
He turns the car engine off. He came because the car fumes were visible from the field. As he leans over she can smell paint on him, and the ice in his beard claws her cheek, jolting her awake for a moment.
He is the tallest man she has ever seen. Still holding the canister, he lifts her with his free arm and without any effort flings her over his shoulder. He carries her like a sack as he walks down the slope into the shantytown. She senses the sway of her body as though it is not her own. It tickles her, and she laughs. She hears him release the canister and sees it hit the snow like a bomb, and she keeps her eyes on it for as long as she can as he walks down a lane.
The world is upside down. Shanties. Doors. If the man speaks to anyone she cannot hear. It is only the wind now. And then, surprising her, a wind chime. She wants to follow the noise but he turns, lowering her, and she is through a door into a room.
She watches as he buries her in blankets. She wonders why, she isn’t cold. I’m not cold, she says, unaware that she doesn’t say this out loud and that she is trembling. She is comfortable and settles into the fabrics as the man lights a small, contained fire in the middle of the room and smoke begins to rise toward a gap in the tin roof where there is a circle of evening.
Her first days without the morphine he keeps her in the shanty, buried in blankets as she vacillates between shaking from the cold and sweating so much she believes in her delirium that a new season has arrived. She wants to rip her clothes away but the man holds her, wiping away her sweat. She sweats and yet her teeth clatter. She ruins her clothes, feels the wetness in her pants and all over.
Then the burning begins. The flames in the shanty fire have somehow leapt into her. She screams as it cooks her from the inside and then it turns into ice that she is convinced she must break to get her blood to work again. She hits her arms. She rakes her fingernails over them. She doesn’t stop until all the ice has broken.
Five days this goes on. She bleeds all over a blanket from her scratching and the man tries to protect her wrists with torn pieces of a shirt. He heats soup if he has it or boils rice or even soaks stale bread in hot water, forming dumplings the size of pebbles for her to swallow. She is always vomiting. She tries to flee, crawling half out of the shanty, and begs a frightened woman for morphine. He cleans the floor. He wraps more pieces of torn clothes around her limbs. He never leaves.
He is at times Mikel. Other times he is her brother. Other times Karine believes she is at the hospital and this man is a doctor. In the last days, when the nausea and the vomiting begin to recede, when she begins to surface, she feels grateful for him and keeps calling him The Doctor.
She no longer shakes. She feels her blood again. She is aware that she has slept. She tastes. Touches. She is dressed in clothes that aren’t hers. A man’s clothes. She is in a room with a hole in the ceiling where the weather and light funnel down.
Karine gets up. She wraps a blanket around her shoulders and steps outside for the first time in six days, walks up and down the lanes of the shantytown, surrounded by her own breath in the cold. Alone, she watches a man appear from the distant landfill, pushing a cart.
You don’t have to go, the man says, and she wonders if it is the first time he has spoken to her—she tries to remember, searching for any recognition of his voice, which is calm, shy.
That night she leaves the shanty again. He doesn’t follow her. She can see him watching through the open entrance. She crosses into the sloped field toward the main road. There is a low moon beyond. The car is no longer there, the tracks covered in fresh snow. Wrapping the blanket tighter over her, she looks toward the city and then in the opposite direction, deeper into the country.
Karine doesn’t go. Not right away. Winter passes for her in the shantytown with him. She learns his name. She walks with him every day to the landfill and they collect whatever they can. Food. Paint. Insulation. She accompanies him through the shanties and as he stands to the side she asks if someone needs anything done.
Emil will do whatever they ask. Fix a roof. Build a new door. She helps him plug in holes in walls with pieces of wood or sometimes pieces of a tire. They chop wood or pile sheets of galvanized metal to sell or barter with. They collect snow in buckets and melt it.
They are paid with food, utensils, and trinkets. Someone gives her a music sheet and she holds it for a while, stilled by a note of memory.
They learn nothing about each other, the way she has learned nothing about so many people she has encountered over the years. She isn’t even sure if half the time the Romanian understands what she is saying. But in the shanty-town they are always together, sharing everything they find or earn, and every evening he turns so they sleep feet to head around the small fire.
Some days Emil is weak the way she was weak, when it feels as though he has lost himself in a private fortress, and as her energy returns to her, she takes care of him instead. She cooks for him. She wraps him in blankets. She kisses him. She tastes the chalk of his tongue and runs her hands across his stomach. Sometimes she does it quickly and other times she teases him a little, drawing the pleasure out for him, and listens to the gentle whimper of his voice and feels his own hands on her as shadows pass over them.
In the nights when she cannot sleep she thinks of Mikel. Not of the time she spent with him as much as the first time she saw him, the way he had walked in. The truck had left him at the gate and sped away. The only survivor. His body splattered with that intimate color. How he kept asking for a handkerchief.
There’s something on my face, he said to her as she ran to him.
His mind unaware that he was walking with a shattered leg and a broken pelvis. That his hand was gone and that he was reaching for her with nothing.
She doesn’t tell him that there are days in the landfill when she searches for needles. Ampoules. If Karine ever finds one she would probably break it with her teeth and drink it. She begins to distract herself by talking about other things, finding that old desire for other lives she lived before this one.
She tells Emil that her father took care of horses near the Belgian border. That her mother was born at the opposite end of the country, near Spain, on a farm that once cultivated flowers. Poppies and lavender. That her brother used to wake her in the morning by sneaking outside and leaning through her open window like some ghost.
She says all this and wants him to understand the intimacy of memory, a person’s history. She wants him to care, knowing secretly that it is for herself that she shares all this. To convince herself that she has a history, that one exists.
He never says anything back. It is as though he hasn’t heard. He takes her hands and together they walk over the hills of debris and the garbage as though they are the last people on this earth and he cannot be more content.
One day she asks this man whom she has lived with for over a month what he was before all this. Where he is from. If he knew Mikel. She asks him whose clothes she is wearing, knowing they are too small to be his own.
He grows angry. He shakes his fists and tightens his mouth and she doesn’t know why until he says, Before all this? He mocks the way she said this. As though the before was better, he says, his voice different now, louder than she is used to.
When he hits her, once, he is as surprised as she is. She sees it on his face. The way it falls in shame. She approaches him, ignoring the circle of heat pulsing on the side of her face. She isn’t angry. She tells him she isn’t. She takes his hands, not expecting him to hit her again, but he does, striking her in the same spot and as she bends over, stunned, he grabs her shoulders and pushes her down the landfill. She tumbles, spins, feels a cold bright snap against her head. Blinded by a dizziness, she thinks she is vomiting. Before she can focus and rise he is on her and has pinned her down. She hears the crush of a metal can as he lies on top of her and struggles with her clothes. Cold air hits her torso.
You don’t have to go, he says, the way he said it the first time, and he keeps saying it as she twirls her fingers around something beside her hip that has the texture of hair.
There is a wetness dripping down the side of her face and she has to shut one of her eyes. She lets go. Fumbles.
Tries again. She finds something to grip. The weight of him presses into her. Karine screams. She swings. Feels the ping of impact, the shock of it traveling up her wrist. She thinks he will shout or cry in pain the way the convalescents did at the hospital but he doesn’t. He rolls to his side and looks up at the sky as though unsure of what has just happened.
When she stands she almost trips on her pants that are twisted around her ankles. She falls on her knees over him and swings down, overwhelmed by a fury she is unaware existed within her. Or was unaware could escape her. She swings with whatever it is she is holding and she swings down again, listening to him shouting now and screaming until she realizes he isn’t saying anything at all but that it is her own voice. It was always her own voice.
She stops. She looks down. His ruined face. A bubble of air forms around his ripped lips. She cannot see his eyes. There is pulp in one of his sockets. He no longer has a nose. She stumbles back.
Emil moves. He is still alive. He tries to stand but he can’t, so he crawls away from her, limb by limb, sinking farther into the camouflage of the landfill.
It is the last time she ever sees him. Karine waits for him in the shanty for a day. She takes the bag hanging on a nail on the wall. In the bag is a deck of cards, a comb, and a near-empty tube of toothpaste. She packs clothes, a pocket mirror, and the sheet of music. She heads out toward the main road. Her boots sink in the field where there are still islands of snow.
She walks, away from the city, as cars pass. Trucks pass. No one stops. She keeps walking, farther into the country-side as the light begins to dim. She walks to warm herself. She thinks of heat.
At the end of the day, Karine hears a train.
Her body is stiff and sore but she runs toward the tracks as the train rushes by her and she sees the women and the men in the last freight car that is missing a door, and she grips the hand that is reaching down for her and is pulled up.
The train continues south. She stays awake with the moon, the long, broken fields. Damage from old fires. Through the evening more passengers disembark and others get on. From the edge of the car she follows the distant approach of two children, hurrying. She helps them up. All these people still returning, even now, to what remains of their homes or going somewhere else, to start again, settle somewhere new.
The train rattles and shakes. The woman behind Karine has been holding her so that she doesn’t fall. This stranger who reached for her as soon as the train began to turn.
She will never know what this woman looks like. Whether she is old or young or her own age. To her the person will forever be only the shape and the pressure of an embrace. Red dirt under a thumbnail. A woven bracelet that carries a strand of hair.
All night they travel like this. Then Karine unlocks the arms of the woman, jumps, and enters the first moment of the morning.
Karine avoids Paris and stays to the northern coast. And then in the following days she begins to head south, down the western side of the country toward Bordeaux. She hops more train cars. She catches lifts on the back of pickup trucks with aid workers or migrants heading to a vineyard or other farms to earn some money.
Horses gallop after a truck she is on. It is as though she has never seen a horse before. She is stunned by them. For two beats she is convinced her father will appear. There are mounds of fresh dirt in the paddock. Covered holes from mortar rounds and other artillery fire. She watches as the horses still avoid those spots, leaping over them or going around as they chase after the truck until they are blocked by a fence.
April, far from the harvesting season, but a vineyard needs help racking. So for a few days Karine works in the labyrinthine cellars, siphoning wine from one barrel to another, leaving the sediment behind.
She is surprised a vineyard has survived. It is managed by an elderly couple and on occasion, as she works, she can see them from the high, narrow windows in the cellar. She stops working and follows them, from window to window, past the other workers who ignore her. She catches the sight of the couple’s boots and the matching gait of their walk and as they move toward a hill she sees them whole, their carefulness and yet their energy as the man picks weeds from the grass and the woman claps, startling some birds she doesn’t want disturbing the garden.
They pay little but they offer meals and shelter. She eats cheese and bread and olives and wine. The flavors and the richness of it all almost makes her cry. She tries to control herself, eating slowly, and avoids the eyes of everyone else as they gather in the barn, by the cots, where they will sleep. Metal drums stand scattered around the floor, filled with wood they can burn if they are cold in the night.
She lies on a cot beside a woman who talks in her dreams.
Still hungry, Karine sucks on her fingertips, tasting the salt of the olives and the tannins of the fermenting wine. She thinks if a vineyard has survived then somewhere in this country there is still a field of poppies and lavender.
Wood cracks and falls apart in the drums. Someone coughs into a bale of hay.
When I am scared, I think of that, the dreamer beside her says.
She keeps going. She heads south, riding in the back of more cars and walking. At an inn, she walks in, checks the calendar on the wall, steals a pencil, and starts to record the dates on the back of the music sheet.
On a warm night in May, Karine finds a tree to rest under and falls asleep, listening to the wind, covered in the sway of shadows.
She wakes to the sound of an engine. Then the engine turning off. Still lying under the tree, Karine watches as a man unzips his trousers by the road and urinates. He is smoking a cigarette and he squints from the smoke and the sun.
Hearing the stream of urine, she is suddenly freezing. She shivers. She can’t feel her body. In her drowsiness she tries to remember the night before in case it is some reaction to morphine. But no, she hasn’t touched it. She is just cold, sleeping outdoors, and as she gets up the man sees her and shouts.
Mierda, he says, quickly zipping up his pants and spitting out his cigarette.
Karine, warming herself under the sun, approaches him. The Spaniard is blushing and refuses to look at her. He is wearing a Basque beret, and she wonders if he was in the Resistance, a maquisard, like Mikel. She recalls slipping a beret on him once at the hospital, thinking he would want it but he didn’t, he threw it back into the room where they saved the clothes of the dead to use.
The car the Spaniard is leaning on has the cloth flag of the ICRC cross on the door. There is a Red Cross armband on him, too. For a moment she believes she is wearing hers but then remembers.
She hasn’t yet noticed the two others in the car. A man and a woman. The window rolls down. The other man could be Spanish, too, but begins to speak in English. So he is an American. He is asking if she is all right, though she isn’t quite certain. He mimics shivering and wraps his arms around himself. The woman beside him laughs. Karine hasn’t spoken English in a long time. Her mind reaches for some words.
Can I come with you? she says.
Not sure you want to go that far, the American says. He looks like a Spaniard to her. There is something about
him she cannot place, pin down. The woman who laughed has yet to speak but she is wearing an armband, too. She leans across the man and says, We’re on our way to the border. You can come with us as far as you need to.
She says all this in French. Karine reaches for the front car door but the Spaniard stops her.
Your bag, he says.
I’m sorry, the French woman says.
Karine opens her bag for the man to inspect. He shakes the C rations she bought a week ago and asks her about the playing cards and the music sheet. She doesn’t answer. He taps her arms. She can sense him regaining his pride as he grins like a boy and slowly runs his hands over her. She doesn’t move. He lets her in, and they go.
The American’s name is Oliver. The French woman is named Camille. They say they are aid workers but they have no supplies. She thinks the truck is too small to carry much but perhaps they are a part of a larger group. They say they are heading into the Basque country and Spain. Koldo, the driver, is their guide.
Karine’s wrist itches. Perhaps something bit her while she slept. But the car is pleasant and she leans back in the seat and looks up at the light in the cypresses.
Koldo asks where she wants to go.
She says, Le Sen.
They are between Bordeaux and Bergerac and by her guess they are only two hours away.
She has yet to decide whether she trusts everyone in the car or no one.
Koldo knows the town. He says, Okay.
It takes four. It takes all day. They roll down the window and smoke cigarettes. It is an old Peugeot, low to the road, and she feels every bump and the shake of the axles as they navigate craters and fallen trees and sometimes the road not even there, indistinguishable from the field. The bridge they believe existed over the Garonne was blown and no one has yet to rebuild it. They drive over wood planks that cover a narrow, dirt lane, and one of the planks caves, swallowing the corner of the car. Oliver, Camille, and Karine get out and attempt to push the car out.
As she helps, Karine looks down and catches, in the hole below, the remains of a horse, an eye looking back. Oliver sees it, too. They keep pushing until the car finds traction again and speeds down the lane for a short while. Koldo waves his cigarette in the air and honks. She looks at the horse one more time. Two airplanes fly by, their long shadows moving over the hills.
In Le Sen, they find an inn. They are the only ones there. It is on the corner of the short, cobblestone street that is the center of the town, and she wonders if her mother walked these streets as a child, whether the inn was there, what on this street was here when she was. She knows only the town’s name from her memory. It was her mother’s nearest town.
She is restless. The aid workers are starving and eat at the café connected to the inn. No one else is there. The inn-keeper arrives and tends the bar. There is dried meat on the menu and they order all of it, plus three carafes of wine, and they eat while Koldo makes jokes about the day and the drive.
They are all tired and Karine stands, approaches the café windows. The sky is clear, nearing dark. The streets are empty except for a boy who is kicking a ball around. Some lights are on and she hears the faint murmur of a radio. There is little evidence of a war here. Or little she can see. One of the lucky towns, she thinks, and then wonders what that even means.
Across the room, Koldo has found a portable record player at the bar and pesters the innkeeper to play some records the Germans have left behind. It is American music. Ella Fitzgerald. It reminds her of the hospital. An American nurse who used to scat to an imagined song after every surgery, shutting her eyes, shaking her hands, and pretending to stand in front of a microphone in the corner of the room, someone’s blood still on her arms.
Koldo approaches Camille, a cigarette stuck to his lips. There is always a cigarette stuck to his lips. She will remember this. He shakes his hips. Camille reaches for his beret and puts it on her and they dance, a little drunk, maybe a lot, and the bartender smiles and Oliver drinks his wine, watching. She watches Oliver and believes that a year ago she would have approached him at this moment, sat down, or danced with him.
She should stop drinking wine. She feels the sudden desire to be in the slipstream of morphine. Surprised at how fast it always hits her. She takes out another cigarette from Koldo’s pack. The boy from outside is now peering in, his hands raised to the windowpane, the ball tucked under his arm. She waves but he backs away and runs down the street, away from the town.
Was her mother ever in this café, smoking? Did she ever sit beside someone at a table? Did she ever smoke? She never spoke of her life here. Only the flowers. Or perhaps she did.
Karine wants to build a narrative. Or remember a lost one.
But she can’t imagine her mother as a girl, not yet.
She approaches the bartender and shares a name, asks if he knew the family. He shakes his head and wipes the bar. As she crosses the room again, around Koldo and Camille who are still dancing, she pictures a young woman moving east across a country for a man and for children. Mama, the future nurse at a Belgian hospital. Papa the horse breeder who was traveling through here, selling horses. She sees her brother again reaching for her through the open window, waking her with the smell of the lake on his arms. The aban-doned church they used to explore together, climbing the stones, though she can’t remember now where that was.
And who are these people she has come here with? She sits beside Oliver, this man casually drinking his wine, and recognizes that her life these past four years has been mo-ments with strangers. Or perhaps it always was. What terri-fies her is that she doesn’t know if this makes up a life. She says this to Oliver, surprised by her own openness. She is unsure if she says it the way she wants to in English, whether it sounds like something else but it seems to her like the only honest thing she has said in years.
Oliver stubs out his cigarette. He tells her he saw Ella once on a ferryboat on the Hudson River. She didn’t want to be recognized, so she was wearing a long-brimmed felt hat that fluttered in the wind. He says: The bird comes, swoops down, thinks the hat’s food, snatches it with its claws, and away it goes, this blue hat, Ella’s hat, high above the river, into the valley.
He finishes his wine and pours more. She likes that he is calling the great singer by only her first name. She likes the intimacy of it.
I swear, he says. Even the sound of surprise in her voice sounded like song.
So he is from New York. There is this, something she knows about him. A river. A ferryboat. The small scar across his nose, the origin of which could be as plain as a branch or as romantic as a novel.
Karine asks if he wants to dance. Oliver laughs.
Not at all, he says.
If he was at all curious about her he no longer shows it. He drinks more wine and smokes. The innkeeper flips over the record. As the music plays again, Oliver is gone some-where in a far room in his mind.
She leans into his shoulder, smelling the sourness of his shirt collar. Only this. She watches the other two, who are like trees in a lazy wind. She feels everyone’s exhaustion along with her own and she wonders for how long these three strangers have been in France. Her wrist itches again.
She wonders what it is.
She asks about the scar. Ella Fitzgerald sings.
She shares a room with Camille. Camille pays for it. They are on the top floor and have each taken a narrow bed. Their feet face the window. Camille, drunk, shares some dirty French jokes, pleased to be speaking in her native language. She doesn’t wait for Karine to laugh. She laughs on her own and the room fills with her sleepiness.
Karine turns to her side and asks if they are really aid workers. Camille laughs again. She doesn’t say anything for a while. She kicks away the covers and stares up at the night-time ceiling.
She says, more quietly now, We’re looking for the Ameri-can’s brother.
Well, I guess he was already found. We’re going to iden-tify the remains. Well, no. I already identified them. I’m tak-ing Oliver so he can bring his brother home. Though it won’t happen the way he imagines. The body. It’s in bad shape. I’m sorry. I laugh when I’m drunk.
She covers her mouth and lies still again, her body pale as snow. In the silence, Karine drifts, holding on to some fragment, some memory, the old noises of the inn. She is back at the hospital searching. She is in a wheelchair. She finds Oliver’s brother half buried in trash, his eyes gone.
She wakes from this, splashes water on her face, and leaves early. She follows the street away from the town. A house light is on. She wonders if it is the boy but it is a man asleep on a rocking chair, his spectacles hooked over a finger and dangling close to the floor.
She keeps walking. The street curves up a slope and she enters a valley. In the high distance, near the ridge, she catches the smoke from a fire. She thinks she can make out a rooftop there but she is unsure. She follows the road, far-ther into the valley, reaching a long field where there is a stone cottage. It appears to be the only structure breaking the distance. She spots a well. A tree out front. If there had been flowers they are gone but the house appears to have survived.
Karine sits down at the edge of the field, facing the dis-tant property, waiting for movement. She has no idea if this is the place. The morning comes and spreads over the grass. She plucks a blade and chews on it. When nothing happens Karine makes her way across. It is colder here than in the town, windier. As she passes the tree she reaches up to touch a branch.
There is a bench with a bucket near the front door. The door cracked open. A few windows broken. She stays out-side at first, circling the perimeter. She goes around the main house and gazes out at the field beyond where there is a wrecked airplane, one of its wings in the air and the other snapped into pieces in the grass. The painted flag on the tail is visible though she doesn’t know what country it belongs to. When she heads down she is careful not to touch it as though the metal is still hot.
And then she does, stepping up onto the wing and peer-ing down into the cockpit. The control panel and even the seat have been stripped and taken, scavenged for the black market. She can smell the faint trace of something burned. She gets back down and leans on the wing. She looks around, at the flat landscape, then up at the far mountain where there is smoke again.
She stays on the wing for a while and then heads back up, entering the cottage, to the dusty furniture, the long kitchen table, teacups. Pillows. An oil painting hangs tilted on the wall. There are also leaves piled up everywhere. An eggshell from a hatched bird. The smell of past seasons. Each corner like some abandoned story.
She wanders the corridors. She checks the rooms. In the first she finds long scratch marks. She bends down, spreads her hands, matches her fingers with the lines. Beside these lie a set of wind chimes. She picks it up and holds it to the light. It is as though a storm had picked it up from the tree outside, or from her mind, and carried it in.
She approaches the last room. She slides open the door. She stops. Holds her breath as she stumbles back. Her hands tremble. She grips them and breathes through her mouth. She looks in again.
In the far corner there is a figure on his knees. His head is bowed. The sun is falling on the old jumpsuit he is wear-ing, his hair nearly gone, the discolored, shriveled skin of his neck. She covers her nose with the sleeve of her shirt and goes closer. She turns to face him. As she does she feels a touch on her shoulder and screams.
Mierda, Koldo says, pinching his nose, looking down at the corpse.
He wraps his arms around her. He covers her eyes. She lets him, leaning into him as he brings her out. He brings her out to the bench where she vomits into the bucket. Bile and wine slosh in the tin. Koldo holds back her hair.
Come on, he says, in French. Let’s go.
Karine shakes her head. She spits. No.
We’re leaving soon, he says. You can come.
No, she says.
He stands in front of her. He is looking at the years of grief contained in her face and her body.
Come with us, he says, and his voice grows softer. When she doesn’t answer Koldo lights a cigarette, gives
it to her, and lights one for himself. He stands there thinking. He checks his watch. He examines the door of the cottage, tries to shut it. He looks through the broken windows.
You have your bag? Your rations?
He takes off his beret and puts it on her head.
Then I’ll come back. After. Keep your head warm.
He walks toward the tree where he has parked his car. The engine is still running. He circles the tree, accelerates out toward the main road, and is gone.
Karine returns to the last room. She sits beside the pilot. She doesn’t know what to do. She stays in the room as though it will tell her. He managed to take his helmet off. It is there, beside him, like the replica of a planet.
She is afraid to touch him. But she does, holding his re-maining hand, the brittle dark skin, wondering what hap-pened. She lifts the body, shocked by its lightness. She pulls it out of the room, down the corridor, and out of the house. She takes a shovel from the shed and digs. She digs behind the cottage, facing the airplane. She digs as deep as she can, until she can no longer feel her arms, and she buries him. She stumbles back inside the cottage and sleeps.
She sleeps a full day. She sleeps on the bench by the kitchen table, forgetting that there are beds in the rooms. When she wakes it is late afternoon. She wakes scratching her wrist. She looks out the window and wonders if she imagined the smoke rising from the valley ridge.
From the bag she pulls out the music sheet. She unfolds it on the kitchen table, beside the pocket mirror. The playing cards she places on a shelf.
Then she cleans the house. Or as best as she can. She finds a broom and sweeps. She collects the leaves and the eggshell and the broken bits of wood and all the years that have accumulated in pieces and brings them outside. She hangs the wind chimes. She ignores her hunger as her body slips into the rhythm of cleaning the house, the ease of it, so she keeps working.
She will have to find a way to cover the windows. In the shed she finds seeds and a wheelbarrow. Ceramic pots. A bi-cycle with flat tires. Ignoring the tires, she practices riding it, luxuriating in the movement. She circles the tree. The wind chimes clatter and clang as she hits them. She goes back to clean the cottage some more and then rides the bicycle again until the day starts to end.
Even in the cold she washes her clothes in the bucket outside. She has nothing to wear, so she doesn’t wear any-thing. She watches her breath leave her in bursts. The road. She thinks about a map she once owned and wonders if it is still at the hospital. Whether the circle she drew points to where she is now or whether she was wrong, whether she is now somewhere else. She wrings water out of the clothes that were never hers. The water cools the itching in her arm. It keeps her awake. Clear.
In the kitchen she finds a rusted bread knife. She balances the mirror on the table and begins to cut her hair. She cuts it until it is the length of her chin. She stares at the face as though it isn’t a reflection but someone else by a window. She smiles.
Waiting for the clothes to dry, wrapped up in a blanket, Karine eats a C ration. The strange paste of food and bis-cuits and chocolate. It all tastes like nothing to her. She eats another, opening cabinets and drawers filled with utensils, plates, bowls, listening to things clatter, echo, and doing it again to hear the sounds once more.
Her second night in this new place. When she is done she goes back and forth from the well to the bathtub inside until it is half full and then boils as much as she can on the stove. She climbs in, bringing the mirror and the knife in case she needs to cut her hair some more. She lowers her head, sub-merges herself. A shadow passes overhead. She rises, quickly, looks around. She can hear the water dripping from her hair. Then the cooing of the bird that has slipped in from the door that won’t stay closed. The bird settles on a ceiling beam near her, tilts its head, flies away again.
She thinks of the pilot. Who he was. If someone is look-ing for him.
Karine pours more water into the tub. She brings the mirror toward her and searches her own face for some part of her family, unwilling to admit that there are days when she cannot remember them.
The bird flies in again. The wind blows the door wide open and from the tub she has a view of the tree. The night.
She tries to recall the last time she felt this kind of si-lence. The last time she was this alone. She scratches her wrist. She wonders what it is. She is no longer sure what to do anymore. Where to go. How to be. She presses down on the skin. She is startled by some piece of bone or shard that is loose in there, under the skin. She picks up the bread knife and presses the tip against her wrist. She presses until her skin breaks and in the nighttime she sees the slim, new river along her arm, the way it follows her wrist and swirls into the water. The cool sting. The heat. She inserts the tip of her finger into the incision and begins to search for whatever is there. She pushes down.
But there is nothing there. Another gust of wind. She hears the hinges of the door. She looks down at her finger inside her wrist and the blood coming out and the water now all dark and she shouts and begins to cry. She keeps shouting and cry-ing as she reaches for the towel. She wraps her wrist and holds it hard. The burn and the pulse of it dizzies her. She gags. She thinks she is going to pass out. With her teeth she ties a knot as tightly as she can, and then it is done and she lowers her arms into the water.
She breathes. She calms. Through the door a light appears high in the valley. It is where she saw smoke yesterday. It is a window, perhaps. Or still a fire. She lies in the tub, holding her wrist, and stays up with it.
The morning is bright and clear. She finds another towel, cleans the wound, and wraps her wrist again. Even though there is no one else, she does this in the corner, hidden from view. She passes the tub but avoids looking at the water that is still there. She puts on her clean clothes. She drinks what is left of the kettle water.
She wonders what she will do today. As she steps outside a man appears on the valley road. He is walking with a casual slowness and when he is closer she can spot the basket he is carrying and the rifle slung over his shoulder. He turns into the field, approaching the tree, and she lifts a hand for shade and sees it is not a man but the boy she saw out the window at the inn. She makes her way toward him, and they meet under the tree.
The boy lifts the basket toward her, grinning like a sailor who is visiting a port.
Is there morphine? Karine says.
No. Are you hurt?
He eyes her wrist.
What happened there? he says.
Kitchen accident, she says. What happened there?
He blushes. He hides his hand that is missing a thumb.
I can still shoot, the boy says.
They haven’t moved from the tree. He has pale hair and is wearing rubber boots and a hunting jacket too large for him. He hits the wind chimes and they listen.
Are you maquis?
He points to the beret she is wearing.
No, she says, and takes it off.
Karine introduces herself. They shake hands.
His name is Luc. He is eleven. He lives up there, he says, and points to where she saw the window and the fire.
Are you alone? she asks.
He shrugs. Sometimes, he says, but doesn’t elaborate. You live here? Now?
She thinks about how to respond to this. She says, Yes. So you found him? the boy says, and gestures toward the
corner window of the cottage.
Yes, she says. I found him.
We saw the plane, the boy says.We saw it spin and go down.
And then we saw him. He went in there. He never came out.
Luc doesn’t say who he saw it with. He has grown silent. She looks across at the far field and imagines the trajectory of the pilot, his exit and his crawl as he holds his chest, which is crushed, and makes his way toward the house, unaware that he is already dead.
Luc sits down. He lifts the cloth that has been covering the basket. The boy has carried a dozen eggs, bread, cheese, and a jar of preserves. A bottle of wine. She lowers herself, careful of the pain in her arm.
You sit down like an old man, the boy says, and she laughs.
It hurts to laugh. He tears off the heel of the bread and throws it to her.
She settles under the tree with him and together they eat. She can hear him chewing. The heaviness of the rifle as he lowers it beside him.
Were there ever flowers in those fields? Karine asks.
I think so, the boy says, chewing with his mouth open.
I don’t know. I’m sorry. There are things I can’t remember.
He taps his head and frowns. She tells him it is okay.
You must be tired, she says. From the walk.
I’m tired, Luc says.
He stops eating and lies down in the grass. He is still shy about his missing thumb and makes a fist to hide the wound. He shuts his eyes.
You can stay here if you want, Karine says.
Okay, he says.
I mean, you don’t have to go back up there. If you don’t want to.
I can stay?
You can stay.
And what will I do?
Do you know how to play cards? she says.
He has not opened his eyes. The shadow of the wind chimes are moving over him.
No, Luc says. I don’t think so. No.
Then we’ll play cards.
We’ll rest. We’ll sleep and we’ll eat. We’ll stop and we’ll wait. We’ll get better. We’ll start again.
We’ll get better? he says.
And we’ll wait?
Someone will come?
Someone will come, Karine says, and leans back against the tree.
She watches the boy’s chest rise and fall. She hears him breathing. She hears the bending branches and then the sound of a small, bright thing overhead, crossing.
From The Mountain. Used with permission of Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2017 by Paul Yoon.