Authors: Shira Nayman
Tags: #ebook, #book
Warm thanks to Johnny Temple at Akashic, game-changer and visionary; also to Johanna Ingalls and the rest of Akashic’s team. I’m grateful as well to Erin Cox for finding this book its home. My deep gratitude and love go to my family: Lucas, Juliana and Louis, my mother Doreen, my late father Jack, sisters Michèle and Ilana, and brother Marc.
This project has been assisted by the Australian government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body.
This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to real events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Published by Akashic Books
© 2012 by Shira Nayman
Library of Congress Control Number: 2011960948
All rights reserved
To Michèle Nayman and Andrea Masters who helped me find this book
“The Snow Man,” by Wallace Stevens
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To regard the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
The North Shore of Long Island. Late Summer, 1951.
do not fail to see the irony in it—being taken, once again, for someone else. Of course, the circumstances this time could not be more different.
Anyone who has traveled much knows the curiosity of catching sight on a foreign street of someone you’re certain you know, or knew long ago. It’s not a vague similarity of features that seizes your attention but something specific: the exact angle of the protruding teeth, the way the lips pull back with the smile to reveal too much gum; or the elongation of a forehead, the hairline too even. Of all people, you wonder, what could your schoolteacher from decades ago, with his inimitable gait, be doing here? Though you know that by now the teacher, who was old then, must surely be dead. You conclude there must be a finite number of physicalities, of shapes of jaws and brows, of ways a limp can set in or a mouthful of teeth can crowd. You don’t however imagine this to be true, too, of you—that your form is a composite of human parts that, meted out to an unknown individual somewhere else, have achieved a similar effect: that in a distant country you will never visit, a person you once knew will think that a stranger he sights on the street is you.
Or, as in my present troubling case, that the specifics of my own features would evoke so precisely, so insistently—in the eyes not of one person, if my visitor is to believed, but of several—the exact image of someone else. And for this to have happened not once in my life, fluke enough, but twice? In two far-flung countries, involving a likeness to two different people—and me, leading two wholly disconnected lives?
I could not begin to defend myself against the present accusation. I would not presume even to try. My visitor has not been unfriendly: on the contrary. He maintains a posture of respect, bows when he greets me and again when he leaves. He is careful to phrase things in the interrogative, and makes liberal use of the words
. He keeps impulse and enthusiasm at bay, prides himself on reaching conclusions through careful compilation of fact. A thoughtful and diligent young man; I bear him no malice.
His office appears to be sparing no expense in the investigation. He, too, is an immigrant. I cannot help noting how comfortable he seems; he carries himself as if he belongs.
Though I have not angled for such declarations, he has on several occasions assured me that no legal action will proceed unless they are absolutely certain—
, as he put it, breaking into American idiom,
the shadow of a doubt
. I am impressed by the sense of security I have in being an American citizen.
Never once has he asked if the accusations are true. This makes me feel oddly safe—as if he were not a representative of the prosecutor but, rather, my lawyer. This is unfortunate. For one thing, it contributes to a sense of myself as a criminal. It is also likely to put me off guard.
It was clear from the moment I opened the door that evening, three weeks ago, to find Wallace standing there with the stranger, that something sinister was afoot. For Wallace to disturb me at that late hour—11:48 p.m., I checked my wristwatch when I heard the tap on the door—was unprecedented. And then, there was the grimness I sensed beneath Wallace’s professional reserve, as if he could see some danger barreling toward me but was powerless to stop it.
When the young man, with his fastidious good looks and elegant attire, addressed me in German, I knew that Wallace’s fear had not been misplaced. These people know what they are doing: the ambush, the trump card played first, before their subject is even aware that a high-stakes game is under way. Instinctively, I knew I didn’t stand a chance; one cannot undo the reflexive indication of comprehension that surely shows in the face upon hearing one’s mother tongue. Pretending I did not speak German would have been pointless; I had sense enough to realize that.
Sitting behind my desk, looking across at the tapestry of the fox hunt which I’d bought from my antique dealer in London a few months before setting sail for New York, the sound of the German issuing from my own lips seemed like a violation. It was a Tuesday night, so there were virtually no houseguests about, except for Marilyn, who had only lately accepted my invitation to move in for the rest of the summer, and Barnaby, at the tail end of his recuperation. I was aware, however, of the danger—that someone might hear us, that someone might hear us speaking German. When I could no longer tolerate the strain, I switched to English, attempting as much nonchalance as the situation would allow. Thankfully, my visitor followed suit, without a remark.
Since then, it has become, for me, a bit of a game. My visitor begins each meeting by addressing me in German; I wait until an apt moment presents itself and then slip into English. I have perhaps invested this aspect of our meetings with too much significance, as if I am in danger only while speaking German, regaining a return to safety the moment the world is again cast in the language of my adopted country, the only language I have spoken—until my visitor first appeared three long weeks before today—since alighting on American soil almost six years ago.
The fact is, there may never again be, for me, safe ground of any kind. This realization infuses everything; it is as if someone has placed before me a screen of acrid smoke, sickening my senses and tainting the world I have so carefully pieced together. When I walk, now, in the gardens, the flowers appear remote, closed to me, as if I had done them, too, some wrong. The halls of my beloved house seem either painfully empty or painfully crowded: when I am alone, they echo with isolation; on weekends, when the guests abound, I feel A Mind Winter encroached upon. Even the woods, where I have always found peace, seem alive with disruption—the birdcalls too shrill, the leaf cover too dense, the occasional scuttlings underfoot now alive with threat. I feel ridiculous, and yet find myself creeping about in a state of diffuse fear, afraid that I will be bitten or stung, or else set upon by some official or artist I invited months ago from the vantage of my prior sportive, socializing self.
I have no intention, however, of canceling any of the planned festivities. It would likely draw attention, even suspicion. The only moments of equanimity I can still count on are my late-night visits to the basement studio where Marilyn is working on the catalog for her exhibition. I know it is a refuge for her too—from the goings-on of the house, from the strains of her marriage, and the affair I suspect she has embarked upon with Barnaby. As she works, I simply sit, and either read or think.
Marilyn reminded me of Christine from the moment we met—on the second-floor landing, I recall. Though opposite in coloring (Marilyn, dark; Christine, fair), there was something uncannily similar about their eyes: a distinctive quality of both vibrancy and distress, a vitality shot through with unease. Perhaps it was this likeness that made me feel immediately at home with Marilyn. I am not a person who readily makes attachments.
In any event, I find myself seeking Marilyn’s company more and more. Her simultaneous presence and distance is calming; she is both absorbed in her work and also aware of my troubled state, concerned while showing a deep respect for my privacy. Bless her.
And yet, being with Marilyn also makes me more keenly aware of the span of years during which I have willed Christine from my consciousness. I have come to realize, through Marilyn, that despite my efforts to devote myself single-mindedly to my new life—which is to say, life without Christine—Christine has in fact been there all along, stored, with care, in the attic of my soul.
It was with Christine that I crossed from purgatory and rejoined the living. I do not know why she chose to flee; perhaps I never will. This no longer torments me as it once did. I soothe myself with thoughts of Christine’s new life across the farthest ocean, in China: a culture that could not be more different from that of her native England. Surely she found the peace she was seeking—the peace that for some reason she was not able to find with me. I see her dressed in crisp cotton, engrossed in a book while sipping oolong tea in a stately, colonial club, relieved of the Shanghai heat by a giant wooden fan circling overhead. Her face, smoothed of its disquiet, now gives full play to her unusual beauty.
I dwell for long moments on such images: not to punish myself, but only that I might touch Christine protectively in my mind’s eye, that I might whisper on her image a blessing. A paltry blessing, to be sure, given its source, one that begs forgiveness at the same time as it bestows whatever sorry sparks of hope I have left in this heavy chest. It is all I have to give.
Did I have to lose her, so that she might find herself and flourish? Is this to be the case, too, with Marilyn?
We could not be more different from one another—Christine, Marilyn, and I. And yet, I see us as three comparable figures, up against the same squall. Only this too: I may be battling alongside them, but I am also the eye of the storm, the terrible, still center. Not merely one of the hurricane’s combatants, but somehow also its source, and therefore, as it happens, a void, which is to say, nothing at all.
That first meeting with the visitor seemed interminable, though it was probably no more than an hour. For the first half of it we were speaking at cross-purposes, a dark version of an Oscar Wilde comedy. All the time he was talking about “the accusation,” I simply assumed that I had been found out, that the visitor had come to discuss the paintings. Why would I not? Harboring such a secret—one that cuts to the quick of your being—can turn the world to a parliament of watchful eyes, and fill every unexpected situation with the threat of discovery.