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Converstaions at Night

"THE best thing to do is get him married."

"Married?"

"Shh."

"Who'd marry him?"

"Plenty of girls! He's still a big strong fellow, good-looking. Plenty of girls."

When their sweating arms or thighs touched under the sheet they moved apart with a jerk, then lay again staring at the dark.

"What about his pension?" Albrekt asked at last. "She'd get it."

"They'd stay here. Where else? Plenty of girls would jump at the chance. Rent-free. She'd help at the shop, and look after him. Fat chance I'd give up his pension after all I've done. Not even my blood kin. They'd have your brother's room, and he'd sleep in the hall."

This detail gave so much reality to the plan that only after a long time, during which he had scratched his sweaty arms to satisfaction, did Albrekt ask, "You think of anybody special?"

In the hall outside their door a bed creaked as the sleeper turned. Sara was silent a minute, then whispered, "Alitsia Benat."

"Huh!" Albrekt said in vague surprise. The silence lengthened, drew into uneasy, hot-weather sleep. Sara not knowing she had slept found herself sitting up, the sheet tangled about her legs. She got up and peered into the hall. Her nephew lay asleep; the skin of his bare arms and chest looked hard and pale, like stone, in the first light.

"Why'd you yell like that?"

He sat up suddenly, his eyes wide. "What is it?"

"You were talking, yelling. I need my sleep."

He lay still. After Sara had settled back into bed it was silent. He lay listening to the silence. At last something seemed to sigh deeply, outside, in the dawn. A breath of cooler air brushed over him. He also sighed; he turned over on his face and sank into sleep, which was a whiteness to him, like the whitening day.

Outside the dreams, outside the walls, the city Rakava stood still in daybreak. The streets, the old wall with its high gates and towers, the factories that bulked outside the wall, the gardens at the high south edge of town, the whole of the long, tilted plain on which the city was built, lay pale, drained, unmoving. A few fountains clattered in deserted squares. The west was still cold where the great plain sloped off into the dark. A long cloud slowly dissolved into a pinkish mist in the eastern sky, and then the sun's rim, like the lip of a cauldron of liquid steel, tipped over the edge of the world, pouring out daylight. The sky turned blue, the air was streaked with the shadows of towers. Women began to gather at the fountains. The streets darkened with people going to work; and then the rising and falling howl of the siren at the Ferman cloth-factory went over the city, drowning out the slow striking of the cathedral bell.

The door of the apartment slammed. Children were shrieking down in the courtyard. Sanzo sat up, sat on the edge of his bed for a while; after he had dressed he went into Albrekt and Sara's room and stood at the window. He could tell strong light from darkness, but the window faced the court and caught no sunlight. He stood with his hands on the sill, turning his head sometimes, trying to catch the contrast of dark and light, until he heard his father moving about and went into the kitchen to make the old man his coffee.

His aunt had not left the matches in their usual place to the left of the sink. He felt about for the tin box along the counter and shelf, his hands stiff with caution and frustration. He finally located it left out on the table, in plain sight, if he had been able to see. As he got the stove lighted his father came shuffling in.

"How goes it?" Sanzo said.

"The same, the same." The old man was silent till the coffee was ready, then said, "You pour, I got no grip this morning."

Sanzo located the cup with his left hand, brought the coffeepot over it with his right. "On the mark," Volf said, touching his son's hand with his rigid arthritic fingers to keep it in the right place. Between them they got their cups filled. They sat at the table in silence, the father chewing on a piece of bread.

"Hot again," he mumbled.

A bluebottle buzzed in the window, knocking against the glass. That sound and the sound of Volf chewing his bread filled Sanzo's world. A knock on the door came like a gunshot. He jumped up. The old man went on chewing.

He opened the door. "Who is it?" he said.

"Hullo, Sanzo. Lisha."

"Come on in."

"Here's the flour mother borrowed Sunday," she whispered.

"The coffee's hot."

The Benat family lived across the courtyard; Sanzo had known them all since he was ten, when he and his father had come to live with Albrekt and Sara. He had no clear picture of how Alitsia looked, having seen her last when she was fourteen. Her voice was soft, thin, and childish.

She still had not come in. He shrugged and held out his hands for the flour. She put the bag square in his hands so that he did not have to fumble for it.

"Oh, come on in," he said. "I never see you any more."

"Just for a minute. I have to get back to help mother."

"With the laundry? Thought you were working at Rebolts."

"They laid off sixty cutters at the end of last month."

She sat with them at the kitchen table. They talked about the proposed strike at the Ferman cloth factory. Though Volf had not worked for five years, crippled by arthritis, he was full of information from his drinking companions, and Lisha's father was a Union section-head. Sanzo said little. After a while there was a pause.

"Well, what do you see in him?" said the old man's voice.

Lisha's chair creaked; she said nothing.

"Look all you like," Sanzo said, "it's free." He stood up and felt for the cups and plates on the table.

"I'd better go."

"All right!" Turning towards the sink, he misjudged her position, and ran right into her. "Sorry," he said, angrily, for he hated to blunder. He felt her hand, just for a moment, laid very lightly on his arm; he felt the movement of her breath as she said, "Thanks for the coffee, Sanzo." He turned his back, setting the cups down in the sink.

She left, and Volf left a minute later, working his way down the four flights of stairs to the courtyard where he would sit most of the day, hobbling after the sunlight as it shifted from the west to the east wall, until the evening sirens howled and he went to meet his old companions, off work, at the corner tavern. Sanzo washed up the dishes and made the beds, then took his stick and went out. At the Veterans' Hospital they had taught him a blind-man's trade, chair-caning, and Sara had hunted and badgered the local used-furniture sellers until one of them agreed to give Sanzo what caning work came his way. Often it was nothing, but this week there was a set of eight chairs to be done. It was eleven blocks to the shop, but Sanzo knew his routes well. The work itself, in the silent room behind the shop, in the smell of newly cut cane, varnish, mildew, and glue, was pleasant, hypnotic; it was past four when he knocked off, bought himself a sausage roll at the corner bakery, and followed another leg of his route to his uncle's shop, CHEKEY: STATIONERS, a hole in the wall where they sold paper, ink, astrological charts, string, dream-books, pencils, tacks. He had been helping Albrekt, who had no head for figures, with the accounting. But there was very little accounting to be done these days; there were no customers in the shop, and he could hear Sara in the back room working herself up into a rage at Albrekt over something. He shut the shop door so the bell would jangle and bring her out to the front hoping for a customer, and strode on the third leg of his circuit, to the park.

It was fiercely hot, though the sun was getting lower. When he looked up at the sun, a greyish mist pressed on his eyes. He found his usual bench. Insects droned in the dry park grass, the city hummed heavily, voices passed by, near and far, in the void. When he felt the shadows rising up around him he started home. His head had begun to ache. A dog followed him for blocks. He could hear its panting and its nails scratching on the pavement. A couple of times he struck out at it with his stick, when he felt it crowding at his ankles, but he did not hit it.

After supper, eaten in haste and silence in the hot kitchen, he sat out in the courtyard with his father and uncle and Kass Benat. They spoke of the strike, of a new dyeing process that was going to cost a whole caste of workmen their jobs, of a foreman who had murdered his wife and children yesterday. The night was windless and sticky.

At ten they went to bed. Sanzo was tired but it was too hot, too close for sleep. He lay thinking again and again that he would get up and go down and sit in the courtyard where it would be cooler. There was a soft, interminable roll of thunder, seeming to die away then muttering on, louder then softer. The hot night gathered round him swathing him in sticky folds, pressing on him, as the girl's body had pressed on him for a second that morning when he had run against her. A sudden chill breeze whacked at the windows, the air changed, the thunder grew loud. Rain began to patter. Sanzo lay still. He knew by a greyish movement inside his eyes when the lightning flashed. Thunder echoed deafening in the well of the courtyard. The rain increased, rattling on the windows. As the storm slackened he relaxed; languor came into him, a faint, sweet well-being; without fear or shame he began to pursue the memory of that moment, that touch, and following it found sleep.

Sara had been polite to him for three days running. Distrustful, he sought to provoke her, but she saved her tantrums for Volf and Albrekt, left the matches where Sanzo could find them, asked him if he didn't want a few kroner back from his pension so he could go to the tavern, and finally asked him if he wouldn't like somebody to come in and read to him now and then.

"Read what?"

"The newspaper, anything you like. It wouldn't be so dull for you. One of the Benat children would do it, Lisha maybe, she's always got a book. You used to read so much."

"I don't any more," he said with stupid sarcasm, but Sara sailed on, talking about Mrs Benat's laundry business, Lisha's losing her job, where Sanzo's mother's old books might have got to, she had been a great reader too, always with a book. Sanzo half listened, made no reply, and was not surprised when Lisha Benat turned up, late the next afternoon, to read to him. Sara usually got her way. She had even dug out, from the closet in Volf's room, three books that had belonged to Sanzo's mother, old novels in school editions. Lisha, who sounded very ill at ease, started in promptly to read one of them, Karantay's The Young Man Liyve. She was husky and fidgety at first, but then began to get interested in what she was reading. She left before Sara and Albrekt came home, saying, "Shall I come back tomorrow?"

"If you want," Sanzo said. "I like your voice."

By the third afternoon she was quite caught in the spell of the long, gentle, romantic story. Sanzo, bored and yet at peace, listened patiently. She came to read two or three afternoons a week, when her mother did not need her; he took to being at home by four, in case she came.

"You like that fellow Liyve," he said one day when she had closed the book. They sat at the kitchen table. It was close and quiet in the kitchen, evening of a long September day.

"Oh, he's so unhappy," she said with such compassion that she then laughed at herself. Sanzo smiled. His face, handsome and rigidly intent, was broken by the smile, changed, brought alive. He reached out, found the book and her hand on it, and put his own hand over hers. "Why does that make you like him?"

"I don't know!"

He got up abruptly and came round the table till he stood right by her chair, so that she could not get up. His face had returned to its usual intent look. "Is it dark?"

"No. Evening."

"I wish I could see you," he said, and his left hand groped and touched her face. She started at the very gentle touch, then sat motionless. He took her by the arms, a groping touch again but followed by a hard grip, and pulled her up to stand against him. He was shaking; she stood quiet in his arms, pressed against him. He kissed her mouth and face, his hand struggled with the buttons of her blouse; then abruptly he let her go, and turned away.

She caught a deep breath, like a sob. The faint September wind stirred around them, blowing in from the open window in another room. He still did not turn, and she said softly, "Sanzo "

"You'd better go on," he said. "I don't know. Sorry. Go on, Lisha."

She stood a moment, then bent and put her lips against his hand, which rested on the table. She picked up her kerchief and went out. When she had closed the door behind her she stopped on the landing outside. There was no sound for some while, then she heard a chair scrape in the apartment, and then, so faint she was not certain it came from behind that door, a whistled tune. Somebody was coming up the stairs and she ran down, but the tune stayed in her head; she knew the words, it was an old song. She hummed it as she crossed the courtyard.

Two tattered beggars met on the street,

'Hey, little brother, give me bread to eat!'

After two days she came again. Neither of them had much to say, and she set to reading at once. They had got to the chapter where the poet Liyve, ill in his garret, is visited by Countess Luisa, the chapter called "The First Night." Lisha's mouth was dry, and several times her breath stuck in her throat. "I need a drink of water," she said, but she did not get it. When she stood up he did, and when she saw him reach out his hand she took it.

This time in her acceptance of him there was one obscure moment, a movement suppressed before it was made, before she knew she had resisted anything. "All right," he whispered, and his hands grew gentler. Her eyes were closed, his were open; they stood there not in lamplight but in darkness, and alone.

The next day they had a go at reading, for they still could not talk to each other, but the reading ended sooner than before. Then for several days Lisha was needed in the laundry. As she worked she kept singing the little song.

'Go to the baker's house, ask him for the key,

If he won't hand it over, say you were sent by me!'

Stooping over the laundry tub, her mother took up the song with her. Lisha stopped singing.

"Can't I sing it too, since I've got it in my ears all day?" Mrs Benat plunged her red, soap-slick arms into the steaming tub. Lisha cranked the wringer on a stiff pair of overalls.

"Take it easy. What's wrong?"

"They won't go through."

"Button caught, maybe. Why are you so jumpy lately?"

"I'm not."

"I'm not Sanzo Chekey, I can see you, my girl!"

Silence again, while Lisha struggled with the wringer. Mrs Benat lifted a basket of wet clothes to the table, bracing it against her chest with a grunt. "Where'd you get this idea of reading to him?"

"His aunt."

"Sara?"

"She said it might cheer him up."

"Cheer him up! Sara? She'd have turned him and Volf both out by now if it wasn't for their pensions. And I don't know as I could blame her. Though he looks after himself as well as you could expect." Mrs Benat hoisted another load onto the table, shook the suds off her swollen hands, and faced her daughter. "Now see here, Alitsia. Sara Chekey's a respectable woman. But you get your ideas from me, not from her. See?"

"Yes, mother."

Lisha was free that afternoon, but did not go to the Chekeys' flat. She took her youngest sister to the park to see the puppetshow, and did not come back till the windy autumn evening was growing dark. That night, in bed, she composed herself in a comfortable but formal position, flat on her back, legs straight, arms along her sides, and set herself to think out what her mother had been saying. It had to do with Sanzo. Did Sara want her and Sanzo to be together? What for? Surely not for the same reason she herself wanted to be with Sanzo.

Then what was wrong with it, did her mother think she might fall in love with Sanzo?

There was a slight pause in her mind, and then she thought, But I am. She had not really thought at all, this last week, since the first time he had kissed her; now her mind cleared, everything falling into place as if it had been that way all along. Doesn't she know that? Lisha wondered, since it was now so obvious. Her mother must understand; she always understood things sooner than Lisha did. But she had not been warning Lisha against Sanzo. All she had said was to stay clear of Sara. That was all right. Lisha did not like Sara, and willingly agreed: she wouldn't listen to anything Sara had to say. What had she to say, anyhow? It was nothing to do with her.

"Sanzo," Lisha said with her lips only, not her voice, so that her sister Eva beside her in the bed wouldn't hear; then, content, she turned on her side with her legs curled up and fell asleep.

The next afternoon she went to the Chekeys' flat, and as they sat down as usual at the kitchen table she looked at Sanzo, studying him. His eyes looked all right, only his intent expression gave away his blindness, but one side of his forehead had a crushed look, and you could follow the scarring even under his hair. How queasy did it make her? Did it make her want to get away, as from hydrocephalic children and beggars with two huge nostrils in place of a nose? No; she wanted to touch that scar, very lightly, as he had first touched her face; she wanted to touch his hair, the corners of his mouth, his strong, beautiful, relaxed hands resting on the table as he waited for her to read, or to speak. The only thing that bothered her was a passivity, an unconscious submissiveness, in the way he sat there so quietly waiting. It was not a face or a body made for passivity.

"I don't want to read today," she said.

"All right."

"Do you want to walk? It's lovely out today."

"All right."

He put on his jacket and followed her down the long dark stairs. Out on the street he did not take her arm, though he had not brought his stick; she did not dare take his.

"The park?"

"No. Up the Hill. There's a place I used to go to. Can't make it by myself."

The Hill was the top edge of Rakava; the houses there were old and large, standing in private parks and gardens. Lisha had never walked there before, though it was only about a mile from her own quarter. A broad wind blew from the south along the quiet, unfamiliar streets. She looked about with wonder and pleasure. "They've all got trees on them, all the streets, like a park," she said.

"What are we on, Sovenskar Street?"

"I didn't notice."

"We must be. Is there a grey wall with glass on top across the street, ahead there? We ought to go on up past that."

They reached thus a big unwalled garden, gone wild, at the end of an unpaved drive. Lisha was faintly anxious about trespassing on these silent domains of the wealthy, but Sanzo walked unhesitating, as if he owned them. The drive became steep and the garden widened on up the slope, its lawns and brambles following the contours of the formal park it had once been. At the end of the drive, built almost against the city wall, a square stone house with empty windows stood staring out over the city below.

They sat down on a slope of uncut grass. The low sun was hot, striking through a grove of trees to their left. Smoke or haze overhung the plains beyond the city. All Rakava lay below them. Here and there among the roofs a column of smoke rose till the south wind sheared it off. The dull, heavy sound of the city underlay the stillness of the garden. Sometimes a dog barked far away or they heard for a moment, caught by an echo off the housefronts, the clap of horse-hooves or a calling voice. At the north and east of the city, where the wall was gone, the factories bulked like big blocks set down among toy houses.

"The place still empty?"

Lisha turned to look up at the house with its black, glassless windows. "Looks like it's been empty forever."

"Gardener at one of the other places told me when I was a kid it's been empty for fifty years. Some foreigner built it. Come here and made a fortune with some machinery of his in the mills. Way back. Never sold the place, just left it. It's got forty rooms, he said." Sanzo was lying back in the grass, his arms under his head and his eyes shut; he looked easy, lazy.

"The city's queer from up here. Half all gold and half dark, and all jammed up together, like stuff in a box. I wonder why it's all squeezed together, with all the room around it. The plains go on forever, it looks like."

"I came up here a lot when I was a kid. Liked to look down on it like that. . . . Filthy city."

"It does look beautiful though, from up here."

"Krasnoy, now, there's a beautiful city."

He had lived a year in Krasnoy, in the Veterans' Hospital, after the land mine had blinded him. "You saw it before?" she asked, and he understanding nodded: "In '17, just after I was drafted. I wanted to go back. Krasnoy's big, it's alive, not dead like this place."

"The towers look queer, the Courts and the old prison, all sticking up out of the shadows like somebody's fingers. . . . What did you do when you used to come here?"

"Nothing. Wandered around. Broke into the house a few times."

"Does it really have forty rooms?"

"I never counted. I got spooked in there. You know what's queer? I used to think it was like a blind man. All the black windows."

His voice was quiet, so was his face, kindled with the strong reddish light of the low sun. Lisha watched him awhile, then looked back at the city.

"You can tell that Countess Luisa is going to run out on Liyve," she said, dreamily.

Sanzo laughed, a real laugh of amusement or pleasure, and reached out his hand towards her. When she took it he pulled her back to lie beside him, her head on his shoulder. The weedy turf was as soft as a mattress. Lisha could see nothing over the curve of Sanzo's chest but the sky and the top of the chestnut grove. They lay quiet in the warm dying sunlight, and Lisha was absolutely happy for almost the first time and probably the last time in her life. She was not about to let that go until she had to. It was he who stirred at last and said, "Sun must be down, it's getting cold."

They went back down the wide, calm streets, back into their world. There the streets were noisy and jammed with people coming home from the mills. Sanzo had kept hold of Lisha's hand, so she was able to guide him, but whenever somebody jostled him (no oftener in fact than they jostled her) she felt at fault. Being tall he had to stride, of course, but he did plow straight ahead regardless, and keeping a bit ahead of him to fend off collisions was a job. By the time they got to their building he was frowning as usual, and she was out of breath. They said good night flatly at his entrance, and she stood watching him start up the stairs with that same unhesitating step. Each step taken in darkness.

"Where've you been to?" said a deep voice behind her. She jumped.

"Walking with Sanzo Chekey, father."

Kass Benat, short, broad, and blocky in the twilight, said, "Thought he got about pretty good by himself."

"Yes, he does." Lisha smiled widely. Her father stood before her, solid, pondering. "Go on up," he said finally, and went on to wash himself at the pump in the courtyard.

"She'll get married sometime, you know."

"Maybe," said Mrs Benat.

"What maybe? She's turned eighteen. There's prettier girls but she's a good one. Any day now, she'll marry."

"Not if she's mixed up with that Sanzo she won't."

"Get your pillow over on your side, it's in my eye. What d'you mean, mixed up?"

"How should I know?"

Kass sat up. "What are you telling me?" he demanded hoarsely.

"Nothing. I know that girl. But some of our neighbors could tell you plenty. And each other."

"Why do you let her go there and get talked about, then?"

There was a pause. "Well, because I'm stupid," Mrs Benat said heavily into the darkness. "I just didn't think anything about it. How was I to? He's blind."

There was another pause and Kass said, in an uneasy tone, "It isn't Sanzo's fault. He's a good fellow. He was a fine workman. It's not his fault."

"You don't have to tell me. A big good-looking boy like that. And as steady as you were, too. It doesn't make any sense, I'd like to ask the good Lord what he's driving at. . . ."

"Well, all the same. What are you going to do about it?"

"I can handle Sara. She'll give me a handle. I know her. She's got no patience. But that girl If I talk to her again it'll just put more ideas in her head!"

"Talk to him, then."

A longer pause. Kass was half asleep when his wife burst out, "What do you mean, talk to him?"

Kass grunted.

"You talk to him, if it's so easy!"

"Turn it off, old lady. I'm tired."

"I wash my hands of it," Mrs Benat said furiously.

Kass reached over and slapped her on the rump. She gave a deep, angry sigh. And they settled down close side by side and slept, while the dark rising wind of autumn scoured the streets and courts.

Old Volf in his windowless bedroom heard the wind prying at the walls, whining. Through the wall Albrekt snored softly, Sara snored deep and slow. After a long time there were creaks and clinks from the kitchen. Volf got up, found his shoes and ragged padded wrapper, and shuffled into the kitchen. No light was on.

"That you, Sanzo?"

"Right."

"Light a candle." He waited, ill at ease in the black darkness. A tin rattled, a match scraped, and around the tiny blue flame the world reappeared.

"Is it lit?"

"Down a little. That's it."

They sat down at the table, Volf trying to pull the wrapper over his legs for warmth. Sanzo was dressed, but his shirt was buttoned wrong; he looked mean and haggard. In front of him on the table were a bottle and a glass. He poured the glass full and pushed it towards his father. Volf got it between his crippled hands and began to drink it in large mouthfuls, with a long savouring pause between each. Tired of waiting, Sanzo got himself another glass, poured it half full, and drank it straight off.

When Volf was done he looked at his son awhile, and said, "Alexander."

"What is it?"

Volf sat looking at him, and finally got up, repeating the name by which no one but Sanzo's mother, fifteen years dead, had ever called him: "Alexander . . ." He touched his son's shoulder with his stiff fingers, stood there a moment, and shuffled back to his room.

Sanzo poured out and drank again. He found it hard to get drunk alone; he wasn't sure if he was drunk yet or not. It was like sitting in a thick fog that never thinned and never got any thicker: a blankness. "Blank, not dark," he said, pointing a finger he could not see at no one there. These words had a great significance, but he did not like the sound of his voice for some reason. He felt for the glass, which had ceased to exist, and drank out of the bottle. The blankness remained the same as before. "Go away, go away, go away," he said. This time he liked the sound of his voice. "You aren't there. None of you. Nobody's there. I'm right here." This was satisfying, but he was beginning to feel sick. "I'm here, God damn it, I'm here," he said loudly. No one answered, no one woke. No one was there. "I'm here," he said. His mouth was twitching and trembling. He put his head down on his arms to make that stop; he was so dizzy he thought he was falling off the chair, but he fell asleep instead. The candle near his hand burned down and out. He slept on, hunched over the table, while the wind whined and the streets grew dim with morning.

"Well all I said was she was over there a lot lately."

"Yes?" Mrs Benat said in a tone of mild but serious interest.

"And she got all huffy," said Eva, the second daughter, sixteen.

"Mh, she did?"

"He can't even work, what does he act so stuck up for?"

"He works."

"Oh, fixing chairs or something. But he always acts so stuck up, and then she got stuck up when I asked her. Is my hair straight?" Eva was pretty, as her mother had been at sixteen. She was dressed now to walk out with one of the many solemn, bony-wristed youths who requested that privilege, and to earn it had to undergo a close inspection of their persons and their antecedents by Mr and Mrs Benat.

After she had gone Mrs Benat put up her darning and went into the younger children's room. Lisha was humming her five-year-old sister to sleep with the song about the two beggars. The wind that had risen the night before rattled the window in gusts.

"She asleep? Come along."

Lisha followed her mother to the kitchen.

"Make us a cup of chocolate. I'm dead tired Ough, this little place. If we had a room where you girls could sit with your boys. I don't like this walking out, it's not right. A girl ought to be at home for her courting. . . ."

She said no more until Lisha had made the chocolate and sat down at the table with her. Then she said, "I don't want you going to the Chekeys' any more, Lisha."

Lisha set down her cup. She smoothed out a crease in her skirt, and folded the end of the belt under the buckle.

"Why not, mother?"

"People talk."

"People have to talk about something."

"Not about my daughter."

"Can he come here, then?"

Mrs Benat was startled by this flank attack, bold and almost impudent, the last thing she expected from Lisha. Shaken, she spoke out bluntly: "No. Do you mean you have been courting?"

"I guess so."

"The man is blind, Alitsia!"

"I know," the girl said, without irony.

"He can't he can't earn a living!"

"His pension's two hundred and fifty."

"Two hundred and fifty!"

"It's two hundred and fifty more than a lot of people are making these days," Lisha said. "Besides, I can work."

"Lisha, you're not talking of marrying him?"

"We haven't yet."

"But Lisha! Don't you see "

Mrs Benat's voice had grown soft, desperate. She laid the palms of her hands on the table, short, fine hands swollen with hot water and strong soap.

"Lisha, listen to me. I'm forty years old. Half my life I've lived in this city, twenty years in this place, these four rooms. I came here when I was your age. I was born in Foranoy, you know that, it's an old town too, but not a trap like this one. Your grandfather was a mill hand. We had a house there, a house with a parlor, and a yard with a rose bush. When your grandmother was dying, you wouldn't remember, but she kept asking, when are we going home? When are we going home? I liked it fine here at first, I was young, I met your father, we were going to move back up north, in a year or two. And we talked about it. And you children came. And then the war, and good pay. And now that's all gone and it's nothing but strikes and wage cuts. So I finally looked back and saw that we'll never get out, we're here for good. When I saw that I made a vow, Lisha. You'll say I'm not in church from one year to the next, but I went to the cathedral, and I made a vow to the Virgin of the Sovena there. I said, Holy Mother, I'll stay here, it's all right, if you'll let my children get out. I'll never say another word, if you'll just let them get away, get out of here."

She looked up at her daughter. Her voice grew still softer. "Do you see what I'm getting at, Lisha? Your father's a man in ten thousand. But what has he to show for it? Nothing. Nothing saved. The same flat we moved into when we married. The same job. Practically the same wages. That's how it is in this trap, this city. I see him caught in that, what about you? I won't have it! I want you to marry well, and get out of here! Let me finish. If you married Sanzo Chekey, two can scrape by on that pension of his, but what about children? And there isn't any work for you now. If you married him, you know where you'd go? Across the yard. From four rooms to three. With Sara and Albrekt and the old man. And work for nothing in their ratty little shop. And be tied to a man who'd come to hate you because he couldn't help you. Oh, I know Sanzo, he was always proud, and don't think I haven't grieved for him. But you're my child, and it's your life, Lisha, all your life!"

Her voice had risen, and it quavered on the last words. In tears, Lisha put out her hands across the table and held her mother's tightly. "Listen, mother, I promise if Sanzo ever says anything maybe he won't, I don't know if he does, and I still can't find a job, so we'd have enough to move, then I'll say no."

"You don't think he'd let you earn his living?"

Though Lisha's eyes were swollen with tears and her cheeks were wet, she spoke quite steadily. "He's proud," she said, "but he's not stupid, mother."

"But Lisha, can't you find a whole man!"

The girl released her hands and sat up straighter. She said nothing.

"Promise me you won't see him again."

"I can't. I promised all I could, mother."

There was a silence between them.

"You never crossed me in anything," Mrs Benat said, in a heavy, pondering tone. "You've been a good one, always. You're grown now. I can't lock you in like a slut. Kass might say yes, but I can't do it now. It's up to you, Lisha. You can save yourself, and him. Or you can waste it all."

"Save myself? For what?" the girl said, without any bitterness. "There never was anybody but him. Even when I was a little kid, before he went into the army. To waste that, that would be a sin. . . . Maybe it was kind of a sin, a little bit, to make that vow, too, mother."

Mrs Benat stood up. "Who's to say?" she asked wearily. "I want to spare my daughter a miserable life, and she tells me it's a sin."

"Not for you, mother. For me. I can't keep your vows!"

"Well, God forgive us both, then. And him. I meant it for the best, Lisha." Mrs Benat went off to her room, walking heavily. Lisha sat on at the table, turning a spoon over and over in her hands. She felt no triumph from having for the first time in her life opposed and defeated her mother. She felt only weariness, and sometimes as she sat tears welled into her eyes again. The only good thing about it all was that there was no longer anyone she feared. At last she went into the room she shared with Eva, found a pencil and a scrap of paper, and wrote a very brief letter to Sanzo Chekey, telling him that she loved him. When it was written she folded it very small, put it in a heavy old gilt-brass locket her mother had given her, and fastened the chain about her neck. Then she went to bed, and lay a long time listening to the endless, aimless blowing of the wind.

Sara Chekey, as Mrs Benat had said, had no patience. That same night she said to her nephew, while Volf and Albrekt were at the tavern, "Sanzo, you ever think about getting married? Don't pull a face like that. I'm serious. I thought of it a while back, I'll tell you why. You should see Lisha Benat's face when she looks at you. That's what put it into my head."

He turned towards Sara and said coolly, "What business of yours is it how she looks at me?"

"I've got eyes, I can see what's in front of me!" Then she caught her breath; but Sanzo gave his disquieting laugh. "Go ahead and look, then," he said. "Only don't bother to tell me."

"Listen, Sanzo Chekey, there you stand in your pride acting like nothing on earth made any difference to you, and never think that what I'm saying might have some sense in it you might listen to. What good do you think I'd get out of your marrying? I was just thinking of you and happened to notice "

"Drop it," he said. His voice had broken into the strained, arrogant note that exasperated Sara. She turned on him with a rush of justifications and accusations.

"That's done it," Sanzo broke in. "I'll never see that girl again." There being nowhere else to get away from Sara, he went out, slamming the door behind him. He ran down the stairs. Out on the street, without his stick, his coat, or any money, he stopped, and stood there. Lisha wanted to get him, did she? and Sara wanted him got? And they had laid their little plans, and he had fallen for it! When the awful tension of humiliation and rage began to subside, he had lost his bearings and did not know which direction he was facing, whether he had moved away from the doorway or not. He had to grope around for several minutes to locate himself. People passed by, talking; they paid no attention to him, or thought he was drunk. At last he found the entrance, went back upstairs, took ten kroner from his father's little cashbox, brushed past the protesting Sara, and slammed the door a second time.

He came back about ten the next morning, flopped down on his hallway bed, and slept all day. It was Sunday, and his uncle, having to pass the sprawled figure several times, finally said to Sara, "Why'd he go bust out again? Took all his money, Volf says. He ain't bust out like that all summer. Like he used to when he first got home."

"Yes, drinking up the money that's to support him and his father, that's all he's good for."

Albrekt scratched his head and as usual answered slowly and not exactly to the point. "Seems like a hell of a life for a fellow only twenty-six," he said.

The next day at four Lisha came to the apartment. He proposed that they walk out; they went up onto the Hill, to the garden. It was October now, an overcast day getting ready to rain. Neither of them spoke as they walked. They sat down on the grass below the empty house. Lisha shivered, looking out over the grey city, its thousand streets, its huge factories. Without sunlight, the garden was dominated by the forbidding dark bulk of the chestnut grove. A train whistled across town far away.

"What's it look like?"

"All grey and black."

She heard the childish whispering note in her own voice. But it had not cost his pride to ask the question of her. That was good, that lightened her heart a little. If they could only go on talking, or if he would touch her, so that for him she would be there, then it would be all right. Soon he did reach out to her, and willingly she put herself entirely inside the hold of his arm, resting her cheek against his shoulder. She felt a tension in him as if he had something he wanted to say, and she was about to ask him what it was, when he lifted her face with his hand and kissed her. The kiss grew insistent. He turned so that his weight was on her and pushed her back, the pressure of his mouth sliding down to her throat and to her breasts. She tried to speak and could not, tried to push him away and could not. His weight pushed her down, his shoulder blocked out the sky. Her stomach contracted in a knot, she could not see, but she managed to gasp out, "Let me go," a weak thin whisper. He paid no heed; he crushed her down into the stiff grass and the darkness of the earth, with such strength that she felt only weakness, weakness as if she were dying. But when he tried to force her legs apart with his hand it hurt, so sharply that she began to struggle again, to fight like an animal. She got one arm free, pushed his head away, and writhed out from under him in one convulsive movement. She got to all fours, staggered to her feet, and ran.

Sanzo lay there, his face half buried in the grass.

When she came back to him he had not moved. Her tears, which she had managed to control, started again as she stood by him.

"Come on, get up, Sanzo," she said softly.

He lay still.

"Come on."

After a while he twisted round and sat up. His white face was scored with the crisscross marks of the stiff grass, and his eyes when he opened them looked to the side, as if staring across to the grove of chestnuts.

"Let's go home, Sanzo," she whispered to his terrible face. He drew back his lips and said, "Get away. Let me alone."

"I want to go home."

"Then go! Go on, do you think I need you? Go on, get out!" He tried to push her away, only striking her knee. Lisha went, and waited for him at the side of the drive outside the garden. When he passed her she held her breath, and when he was a good way past her she began to follow him, trying to walk soundlessly. The rain had started, thin drops slanting from a low, quiet sky.

Sanzo did not have his stick. He strode along boldly at first, as he did when he walked with her, but then began to slow down, evidently losing his nerve. He got along all right for a while, and once she heard him whistling his jig-tune through his teeth. Once off the Hill, in the noisier streets where he could not hear echoes, he began to hesitate, lost his bearings and took a wrong turn. Lisha followed close behind him. People stared at both of them. He stopped short at last, and she heard him ask of no one, "Is this Bargay Street?"

A man approaching him stared at him and then answered, "No, you're way off." He took Sanzo's arm and headed him back the right way, with directions, and questions about was he blind, was it a mill accident or the war. Sanzo went off, but before he had gone a block he stopped again and stood there. Lisha caught up with him and took his arm in silence. He was breathing very hard, like an exhausted runner.

"Lisha?"

"Yes. Come on."

But at first he could not move at all, could not take a step.

They went on, slowly, though the rain was getting thicker. When they reached their building he put out his hand to the entranceway, touching the bricks; with that as reassurance he turned to her and said, "Don't come again."

"Good night, Sanzo," she said.

"It's no good, see," he said, and at once started up the stairs. She went on to her entrance.

For several days he went to the furniture store in the afternoon and stayed there late, not coming home till dinner time. Then there was no caning or repairing to be done for a while, and he took to going to the park in the late afternoon. He kept this up after the winter east wind had begun to blow, bringing the rain, the sleet, the thin, damp, dirty snow. When he stayed in the apartment all day, a nervous boredom would grow and grow in him; his hands shook and he lost the sensitivity of his touch, could not tell what he was handling, whether he was handling anything at all. This drove him out, and out longer, until he brought back a headache and a cough. Fever wrung him and rattled him for a week, and left him prey to more coughs and fevers every time he went out.

The weakness, the stupidity of ill health were a relief to him. But it was hard on Sara. She had to leave breakfast ready for him and Volf now, and pay for patent medicines for his headache which sometimes made him cry out in pain, and be waked at night by his coughing. She had never done anything but work hard, and could have compensated herself by nagging and complaining; but it wasn't the work, it was his presence, his always being there, intent, listless, blind, doing nothing, saying nothing. That exasperated her till she would shout at poor Albrekt as they walked to the shop, "I can't stand it, I can't stay in that house with him!"

But the only one who escaped that winter was old Volf. A few nights before Christmas he went out with the ten kroner Sara gave him back monthly from his pension, came back with his bottle, and climbed up three of the four flights of stairs but not the fourth. Heart failure laid him down on the stair-landing, where he was found an hour later. Laid in his coffin he looked a bigger man, and his face in death, intent, unseeing, was a darker version of his son's face. All old friends and neighbors came to the funeral, for which the Chekeys went into debt. The Benats were there, but Sanzo did not hear Lisha's voice.

Sanzo moved out of the hall into the windowless bedroom that had been his father's, and things went on as before, a little easier on Sara.

In January one of Eva's young men, a dyer at the Ferman mill, perhaps discouraged by the competition for Eva, began looking around and saw Lisha. If she saw him it was without fear and without interest; but when he asked her to walk out with him she agreed. She was as quiet and amenable as she had always been, there was no change in her, except that she and her mother were closer friends than they had been, talking together as equals, working together as partners. Her mother certainly saw the young man, but she said nothing about him to Lisha, nor did Lisha say anything except, occasionally, "I'll be walking out with Givan after supper."

Across one night of March the wind from the frozen eastern plains dropped and a humid wind rose up from the south. The rain turned warm and large. In the morning weeds were pushing up between the stones of the courtyard, the city's fountains ran full and noisy, voices carried further down the streets, the sky was dotted with small bluish clouds. That night Lisha and Givan followed one of the Rakava lovers' walks, out through the East Gate to the ruins of a guard tower; and there in the cold and starlight he asked her to marry him. She looked out to the great falling darkness of the Hill and plains, and back to the lights of the city half hidden by the broken outer wall. It took her a long time to answer. "I can't," she said.

"Why not, Lisha?"

She shook her head.

"You were in love with somebody, he went off, or he's already married, or something went wrong with it like that. I know that. I asked you knowing it."

"Why?" she said with anguish. He answered directly: "Because it's over, and it's my time now."

That shook her, and sensing it, he said, with sudden humbleness, "Think about it."

"I will. But "

"Just think about it. It's the right thing to do, Lisha. I'm the one for you. And I'm not the kind that changes my mind."

That made her smile a little, because of Eva, but also because it was true. He was a shy, determined, holdfast fellow. What if I did? she thought, and at once felt herself become humble with his humility, protected, certain, safe.

"It's not fair to ask me now," she said with a flash of anger, so that he insisted no more than to ask her, as they parted at her entrance, to think about it. She said she would. And she did.

It was how long, five months now, since the day in the wild garden on the Hill; and she still woke in the night from a dream that the stiff dry grass of autumn was pushing against her back and she could not move or speak or see. Then as she woke from the dream she would see the sky suddenly, and rain falling straight from it on her. It was of that she had to think, only that.

She saw Sanzo oftener now that it was sunny. She always spoke to him. He would be sitting in the yard near the pump sometimes, as his father had used to do. When she came for water for the washing and pressing, she would greet him: "Afternoon, Sanzo."

"That you, Lisha?"

His skin was white and dull, and his hands looked too large on his wrists.

One day in early April she was ironing alone down in the cellar room which her mother rented as a laundry. Light came in through small windows set high in the wall, at ground level; sparse grass and weeds stirred in the sunlight just outside the dusty glass. A streak of sunshine fell across the shirt she was pressing, and the steam rose, smelling sharp of ozone. She began to sing aloud.

Two tattered beggars met on the street.

'Hey, little brother, give me bread to eat!'

'Go to the baker's house, ask him for the key,

If he won't hand it over, say you were sent by me!'

She had to go out for water for the sprinkling-bottle. After the dusk of the cellar, the sunlight filled her eyes with whorls and blots of black and gold. Still humming, she went to the pump.

Sanzo had just come out of the house. "Morning, Lisha."

"Morning, Sanzo."

He sat down on the bench, stretching out his long legs, raising his face to the sun. She stood silent by the pump and looked at him. She looked at him intently, judgingly.

"You still there?"

"Yes, I'm here."

"I never see you any more."

She took this in silence. Presently she came and sat down beside him, setting the jug of water down carefully under the bench. "Have you been feeling better?"

"Guess so."

"The sun, it's like we could all get out and live again. It's really spring now. Smell this." She picked the small white flower of a weed that had come up between the flagstones near the pump, and put it in his hand. "It's too little to feel it. Smell it. It smells like pancakes."

He dropped the flower and bowed his head as if looking down at it. "What have you been up to lately? Besides the laundry?"

"Oh, I don't know. Eva's getting married, next month. To Ventse Estay. They're going to move to Brailava, up north. He's a bricklayer, there's work up there."

"And how about you?"

"Oh, I'm staying here," she said, and then feeling the dull, cold condescension of his tone added, "I'm engaged."

"Who to?"

"Givan Fenne."

"What's he do?"

"Dyer at Ferman. He's secretary of the Union section."

Sanzo got up, strode across the yard to the archway, then turned and more hesitantly came back. He stood there a couple of yards from her, his hands hanging at his sides; he was not quite facing her. "Good for you, congratulations!" he said, and turned to go.

"Sanzo!"

He stopped and waited.

"Stay here a minute."

"What for?"

"Because I want you to."

He stood still.

"I wanted to tell you . . ." But she got stuck. He came back, felt for the bench, and sat down.

"Look, Lisha," he said in a cooler voice, "it doesn't make any difference."

"Yes it does, it makes a lot. I wanted to tell you that I'm not engaged. He did ask me, but I'm not."

He was listening, but without expression. "Then why'd you say you were?"

"I don't know. To make you mad."

"And so?"

"And so," said Lisha. "And so, I wanted to tell you that you may be blind but that's no excuse for being deaf, dumb, and stupid. I know you were sick and I'm very sorry, but you'd be sicker if I had anything to do with it."

Sanzo sat motionless. "What the hell?" he said. She did not answer; and after quite a while he turned, his hand reaching out and then stopping in mid-gesture, and said nervously, "Lisha?"

"I'm right here."

"Thought you'd gone."

"I'm not done yet."

"Well, go ahead. Nobody's stopping you."

"You are."

A pause.

"Look, Lisha, I have to. Don't you see that?"

"No, I don't. Sanzo, let me explain "

"No. Don't. I'm not a stone wall, Lisha."

They sat side by side in the warmth a while.

"You'd better marry that fellow."

"I can't."

"Don't be a fool."

"I can't get around it. Around you."

He turned his face away. In a strained, stifled voice he said, "I wanted to apologise " He made a vague gesture.

"No! Don't."

There was a silence again. Sanzo sat up straighter and rubbed his hands over his eyes and forehead, painfully. "Look, Lisha, it's no good. Honestly. There's your parents, what are they going to say, but that's not it, it's all the rest of it, living with my aunt and uncle, I can't A man has to have something to offer."

"Don't be humble."

"I'm not. I never have been. I know what I am and this this business doesn't make any difference to that, to me. But it does, it would to somebody else."

"I want to marry you," Lisha said. "If you want to marry me, then do, and if you don't then don't. I can't do it all by myself. But at least remember I'm in on it too!"

"It's you I'm thinking of."

"No it's not. You're thinking of yourself, being blind and the rest of it. You let me think about that, don't think I haven't, either."

"I have thought about you. All winter. All the time. It it doesn't fit, Lisha."

"Not there, no."

"Where, then? Where do we fit? In the house up there on the Hill? We can split it, twenty rooms each. . . ."

"Sanzo, I have to go finish the ironing, it has to be ready at noon. If we decide anything we can figure out that kind of thing. I'd like to get clear out of Rakava."

"Are you," he hesitated. "Will you come this afternoon?"

"All right."

She went off, swinging the water-jug. When she got to the cellar she stood there beside the ironing board and burst into tears. She had not cried for months; she had thought she was too old for tears and would not cry again. She cried without knowing why, her tears ran like a river free of the ice-lock of winter. They ran down her cheeks; she felt neither joy nor grief, and went on with her work long before her tears stopped.

At four o'clock she started to go to the Chekeys' flat, but Sanzo was waiting for her in the courtyard. They went up the Hill to the wild garden, to the lawn above the chestnut grove. The new grass was sparse and soft. In the green darkness of the grove the first candles of the chestnuts burned yellowish-white. A few pigeons soared in the warm, smoky air above the city.

"There's roses all around the house. Would they mind if I picked some?"

"They? Who?"

"All right, I'll be right back."

She came back with a handful of the small, red, thorny roses. Sanzo had lain back with his arms under his head. She sat down by him. The broad, sweet April wind blew over them level with the low sun. "Well," he said, "we haven't got anywhere, have we?"

"I don't know. I think so."

"When did you get like this?"

"Like what?"

"Oh, you know. You used to be different." His voice when he was relaxed had a warm, burring note in it, pleasant to hear. "You never said anything. . . . You know what?"

"What?"

"We never finished reading that book."

He yawned and turned on his side, facing her. She put her hand on his.

"When you were a kid you used to smile all the time. Do you still?"

"Not since I met you," she said, smiling.

Her hand lay still on his.

"Listen. I get the disability pension, two-fifty. It would get us out of Rakava. That's what you want?"

"Yes, I do."

"Well, there's Krasnoy. Unemployment's not supposed to be so bad there, and there must be cheap places to live, it's a bigger city."

"I thought of it too. There must be more jobs there, it's not all one industry like here. I could get something."

"I could pick up something with this caning, if there was anybody with any money wanting things like that done. I can handle repair work too, I was doing some last fall." He seemed to be listening to his own words; and suddenly he gave his strange laugh, that changed his face. "Listen," he said, "this is no good. You going to lead me to Krasnoy by the hand? Forget it. You ought to get away, all right. Clear away. Marry that fellow and get away. Use your head, Lisha."

He had sat up, his arms around his knees, not facing her.

"You talk as if we were both beggars," she said. "As if we had nothing to give each other and nowhere to go."

"That's it. That's the point. We don't. I don't. Do you think getting out of this place will make any difference? Do you think it'll change me? Do you think if I walk around the corner . . . ?" He was trying for irony but achieved only agony. Lisha clenched her hands. "No, of course I don't," she said. "Don't talk like everybody else. They all say that. We can't leave Rakava, we're stuck here. I can't marry Sanzo Chekey, he's blind. We can't do anything we want to do, we haven't got enough money. It's all true, it's all perfectly true. But it's not all. Is it true that if you're a beggar you mustn't beg? What else can you do? If you get a piece of bread do you throw it away? If you felt like I do, Sanzo, you'd take what you were given and hold on to it!"

"Lisha," he said, "oh God, I want to hold on Nothing " He reached to her and she came to him; they held each other. He struggled to speak but could not for a long time. "You know I want you, I need you, there is nothing, there is nothing else," he stammered, and she, denying, denying his need, said, "No, no, no, no," but held him with all the strength she had. It was still much less than his. After a while he let her go, and taking her hand stroked it a little. "Look," he said quietly enough, "I do you know. Only it's a very long chance, Lisha."

"We'll never get a chance that isn't long."

"You would."

"You are my long chance," she said, with a kind of bitterness, and a profound certainty.

He found nothing to say to that for a while. Finally he drew a long breath and said very softly, "What you said about begging . . . There was a doctor, two years ago at the hospital where I was, he said something like that, he said what are you afraid of, you see what the dead see, and still you're alive. What have you got to lose?"

"I know what I've got to lose," Lisha said. "And I'm not going to."

"I know what I've got to gain," he said. "That's what scares me." His face was raised, as if he were looking out over the city. It was a very strong face, hard and intent, and Lisha looking at him was shaken; she shut her eyes. She knew that it was she, her will, her presence, that set him free; but she must go with him into freedom, and it was a place she had never been before. In the darkness she whispered, "All right, I'm scared too."

"Well, hang on," he said, putting his arm around her shoulders. "If you hang on, I will."

They sat there, not talking much, as the sun sank into the mist above the plains of April, and the towers and windows of the city yellowed in the falling light. As the sun set they went down the Hill together, out of the silent garden with its beautiful, ruined, staring house, into the smoke and noise and crowding of the thousand streets, where already night had fallen.

1920


Ile Forest | Orsinian Tales | The Road East