Each night she dies in a new way.
She’s at a café in Paris, waiting to be picked up by the car we both know is the car that will take her away. She drinks her coffee serenely even though both of us know she’ll be picked up at any moment. We’re in a café garden, and she starts to put on mascara, glances at the street where the car will shortly be arriving. We talk and laugh, her face is at once troubled and untroubled, phlegmatic and melancholy. Her forehead is creased and on her lips is an ironic smile. Then comes the car. And she is completely calm.
A ship. She’s hanged from the mast. She’s lying on the bed and I’m lying next to her, holding her hand. She talks as though nothing were out of the ordinary. I go to a meeting assuming she’ll still be there when I get back, but during the meeting someone in a white suit walks in and tells me she’s just died.
We’re talking. She’s standing behind the television in a coat. Her suitcase tells me she’s leaving. She’ll take the train back soon, she says, her eyes are shining. I want to go with her. She tells me death is purple. I can’t see her, I only hear her voice.
Not until the next night do I see her, in a pink dress on a sand-swept platform. She stirs slightly and tells me she died on this and that day and wasn’t it strange.
One night about a week ago she was on a ship, dressed in a beige coat, high-heeled shoes and earrings that dangled.
My face was swollen when I woke up, I was dizzy. The room was silent as a desert. That’s what my nights are like, sparks of white, and I bathe in them, but my days are awake.
Before I never used to dream. I always assumed it was my cold heart that kept the dreams at bay. Even so, I’d wake up with a sense of something foreign pulling me down, as if I had forgotten something at the bottom of myself. I’d have to get up and take a shower. It’s different now. Lately where an infection has kept me in bed, the visions have returned.
I see a white ship embedded in the wall. It sits a ways in, forming a relief I find comforting. But then someone on the ship stands up, a woman with white hair. The ship rocks gently. Snow falls onto her hair, turning it so white my teeth hurt. She opens her hand, and cupped inside it is a scorched human head. It’s too small to tell who it is. I get closer, but she lets go and the head evaporates.
The vision continues: Iris is on the ship and she speaks to me. She says she has a new husband now, she won’t tell me who. I feel as though I’m both her father and her husband. I want the best for her. Iris says: “I’m bringing back a black fish, would you and Anton like to have it in the living room?” I can’t reply, there’s an ache in my throat.
I wake up on the couch to the sound of birds chirping nervously outside. I see Iris’s startled face. The image comes seeping through the wall. It seeps through the trees, the sky, the clouds, the bathwater. It seeps through the coffee: I’m being punished now. I think of last autumn, right after she disappeared. I carried her body in my stomach like a poisonous fish in a barrel. I gnawed at the sores on my hand to taste blood. Now it’s different. My head pounds with a pleasant sort of pain. With time I’ve come to feel proud about not forgetting.
A glaucous pigeon is perched on the windowsill. We stare at one another, but there’s no contact between us. The horses are nowhere to be seen today. They were imported from an island with too little grass. Here we have the resources, they say, for wild horses. They’ll never be eaten, only admired. Not like the pheasants in cages. The cows, the hostile cows.
Sometimes at night I’ll reach out after Iris in bed only to find empty air between my hands, and she no longer places her cool hands in them, like that time she lay sleepless on the couch last year, and I stood there on the cold kitchen floor in the dark asking whether she wanted to listen to music. She didn’t, she said and coughed. She wanted to listen to the raven cries, she said and coughed harder. And she wanted to listen to the shimmering of the snow. That morning she had broken her bones.
“Fetch me a leaf from that bush, please,” she said to Anton, who was sitting on a chair, looking at her intently. “Just give it to me. I want to taste it.” Anton got up and went outside. He returned with a leaf. I unwrapped a bar of dark chocolate. “Wouldn’t you prefer this?’” I asked, handing each of them a third of the bar. “A beech leaf,” she insisted, eyes fixed on the leaf as she accepted the chocolate. Thank you. She ate the beech leaf together with the chocolate. Anton laughed almost inaudibly and stared at her mouth.
On the pastures stood the cows. Our freezers would soon be full of them. One bellowed in the distance. Beyond the fields you could see the lake, black as coal and solid. There was a red tinge to the woods and a myriad of small ice-covered ponds, all of them red.
I'm in the shower. Outside it's raining and Lola is calling my name, but I don't feel I can be blamed for showering after a night with her purple cunt. Now I'm here, and it's exactly as I had hoped it would be. I feel nothing, I feel good. I scrub her liquids off of me.
Earlier in the day I was boiling potatoes and she came home with a chicken. Now it's in the oven, filling the house with a sweet scent. She loves wrapping the thighs in paper towels once they're roasted. It's the fourth month of this: these evenings. Beef. Eggs. Salmon. Chicken. I suppose I ought to call it paradise. I wash Lola's sticky liquids off my skin, taking my time even though she's still calling. I've scrubbed the honey off my hands. She came four times when she stuck her honey- covered fingers up my ass. She licked me.
Her breasts looked like ripe plums, my instincts were impaired. I went flaccid when I saw her naked today, remained frozen until she lay down on her stomach and wiggled her behind. I really tried to give myself over. After her four orgasms we had coffee, and she told me about the dream she had last night about a depressed man who cut off his cock and then drowned himself. I said no man was likely to do that. After that she got up to check on the chicken in the oven, and I went to shower.
I can't see my balls for foam. Maybe I'll stay in the shower until bedtime. Lola didn't even cry when I told her about Greece today. "With me, you never know. I might just suddenly jet off to visit my last remaining relatives in Greece," I said.
One time, after I had put Anton to bed, Iris and I went out to the garden, down by the old tree trunks. "From now on, I'll sit on your back from morning till night. Forever," Iris announced, squeezing me so hard my shoulders hurt and I extricated myself, she lay back in the grass and I sat down on the bench and watched her.
Beyond the garden, the mist hung across the fields, billowing among white clouds. Everything shrouded in white haze, the sky reflecting the air, I sighed, surrendered and smiled at her, couldn't help it, and she took my hand, rested her head on my shoulder and began to cry. She was afraid of herself, she said and crawled beneath the tree. I lay down behind her, ran my hands across her shoulders, pushed into her, and she climbed on top of me. As she rode me, the only thing I could think of was that I was freezing, that we were ruining the lawn, that we were lying on the ground, that we were like plucked birds, and I looked up at the sky and felt very distant from her. The cabbages and artichokes dangled limply from the crown of the tree where we had once hung them. She let out a loud laugh and walked inside with semen dripping from between her legs. I was awoken in the grass by the sound of her hauling the baby carriage out of the shed and across the gravel. The carriage was rusty, it had been a long time since Anton had last lain in it.
"Look, I put in clean bedding," she shouted and called for Anton, who was making mud pies with his bucket. She tried to pick him up, but he howled and threw himself facedown into the grass, clinging onto the rose bed with his belly jutted out and back arched into the shape of a bow, and she had to strap him down because he kept screaming that he wanted to walk by himself.
Later that day a fog descended across the area, the garden grew dark. Anton climbed up the tree, and I went outside and sawed off its biggest branch. I did it to let more light into the garden, but the only difference was that I could now see our neighbor Lola's animals behind the fence, and the dogs in cages in her garden.
We take the baby carriage for a test-run on the beach in bright October sun. We've put blankets in it so it looks as though Iris has already given birth and people smile at us. I think we must look proud. Seventeen years ago.
The light starts to fade above the murky gray water, and the few waves that were just there have already disappeared. Now the water lies still in the last light from the sliver of sun peeking out from behind the wispy clouds.The sky frees itself from the sun, the sea lets go of the sky, night takes over. The baby carriage smells of fresh laundry, even from all the way down here where we lie talking. Everything becomes both bigger and smaller when the last bit of pink slips from the sky's grasp and we fall quiet too, begin to shiver and wrap ourselves in the blanket.
We fall asleep beneath the blanket on the beach under the gawking eyes of a row of shining seagulls perched on their poles in the dark water. The seagulls are still staring at us when we wake up, ice cold in the sand, and the sky has risen, the sun undulates like half a face on the horizon and we're frozen stiff. Someone has stolen the blanket.
We head towards home. The pier and the poles with the seagulls have lost their appeal, the seaweed stinks, the baby carriage now clatters across the rocks and reeds. We race across the frigid sand. Up on the road, where the swamp extends as far as the eye can see, we find the blanket in the sewer that runs between the reeds. We stare at the wastewater gushing over the blanket. Iris sends me a quizzical look. "Should we bring it home and wash it or just leave it?"
I squat down over the blanket. There are already snails trailing across its teddy bear pattern and tiny frogs underneath it. Iris nudges me aside, bends down and picks up the blanket herself, hands it to me in a manner that is both impatient and hesitant and it starts to rain. I take the blanket and put it back in the baby carriage, but I can no longer look her in the eye, as if making eye contact now would be bad luck.
Later Iris hands me her diagnosis on a sheet of white paper with the same impatience and hesitation with which she handed me the blanket. She hands it to me and it's raining. She hands me the white sheet of paper, fresh from the printer with the diagnosis written on it.
A very elegant woman is watching me from the window, and she tells me there's something in my hair and that I'll have to remove it so I'm presentable when I go see Iris, who's sitting out by Hornbæk Lake. I think it's the day we visit her mother out here for the first time, because I don't recognize the streets and avoid the eyes of strangers. "Come on," I say, "let's go to the heath." We walk for a bit and Iris sits back down, but I can't sit, not yet, I just stare at her.
"She's sitting there because she wants to ask you something. It's not important,"says the woman in my windowsill, it is important. I touch my hand to my hair and feel something there, like an egg wrapped in thick cobwebs. It's stuck, like a scab on a wound, and I'm reluctant to pull it out, but the woman looks at me with such reproach that I rip it out with a single yank. A dried fish lands on the bed, its empty eyes stare at me and I flick it onto the floor, chuckling unimpressed. Granted, I have been in the sea for a long time and they've had to hoist me up, but a single fish in my hair—it could've been much worse.
I spot Iris again, gazing out across the lake with a vacant expression, not looking like someone who will destroy people's lives by disappearing. She's wearing the same dress as before, as if it's the only one she owns. It's the one she always wore back then, and her hair clip is the same too, and her makeup, two lines extend from each eye and her lips are red. I want to ask her what it is she wants to ask me. Just ask, I whisper to myself, just ask . . .
From the living room I catch myself staring at Lola, who's hunched over in the garden, sweeping snow off the slabs, revealing the red line between her buttocks. I stare at the red line as if it's trying to tell me something. Her broom upsets the snow's white slumber.
Once it was Iris standing out there, in a linen shirt as thick as a dog's coat. I sat in the draft of the open window watching her plod around in the mud. Before long the white linen was soaked through with sweat. I wanted to rest. I hadn’t shut an eye all week. It was unbearable. We misunderstood each other. Wept and shouted. Pleaded and slept. She came running inside, insisting that something was wrong with her. We sat down with a cup of tea and she went on about a Russian ship that had leaked toxic chemicals into the sea. It happened the previous summer, and she had bathed in that water each morning, all autumn and winter long. She booked an appointment for a screening.
The stove is my only company. It eats like a small child. I tend it with an affection I didn't know I had in me. Just now, when it began to smoke, I fed it more logs. I could just throw my arms around it with glee. Iris appears in the ice flowers as they slowly slide down the window. The sight is elating, elating in a way I haven't felt since I filmed her riding horses in the paddock. She laughed as she rode. I forgot myself, forgot to breathe.
The coffee machine keeps me awake. Lola gave it to me for my birthday. I've never been able to operate that machine, but today I plugged it in and it works just fine and makes a decent cup of coffee. I've drunk six cups already just this morning. I need to be careful I don't end up with bowel infection, like the time Iris left me alone with Anton when he was a baby. I drank so much coffee I ended up with an inflammation from all that acid. One morning I was lying in the greenhouse with a stomachache, trying to eat breakfast while Anton crawled around at my feet. He would soon turn one. I asked him to go play outside in the garden. The door clattered and he was gone.
From my seat in the wicker sofa in the greenhouse I could see Lola behind the hedge. She lay sunbathing in nothing but underwear, her breasts so warm they spilled across her belly, and I couldn't take my eyes off her chest, swollen like the hull of a boat that's been in the water for too long.
When I looked for Anton on the lawn, he'd run away from home again. He often did that. He'd run a mile through the forest, down to the old bunkers on the beach, where he'd play with the roots, yank at them and chop them off with sharp rocks. That's how he got his colds. Iris would never forgive me for letting him run around on his own, I thought as I got dressed and ran through the woods to the beach.
Anton was sitting on the pier, staring at some seagulls that skimmed low across the water before landing on the surface, as though their wings were too heavy or the sun too hot for them to hold themselves aloft. I pulled him into my arms and carried him home.
Back home in bed he began to wail. He screamed so even the animals on the pasture stopped to listen, as if they too were anxious adults. Later that night a rash broke out across his arms.
In the following years he would run away increasingly often and come back reeking of bird. The smell clung to his clothes, his bed was covered with feathers from the coat he slept in, and when I opened the door to his bedroom feathers would flutter across my shoes and out into the hallway. In the weekends when he was home from school I would ask him to use his window as a door, which generally helped lighten the mood in the house.
Anton also had a habit of rescuing birds and bats that had fallen down or gotten stuck, entangled in seaweed or plastic. He would care for them until they were able to fly again, but often he'd keep them for longer than necessary. He filled his closet with baby birds, fed them without asking me for permission.
One morning, as soon as he had slammed the door and wandered off with light steps across the gravel, I rummaged through the kitchen cabinet, found a can of air freshener, went up to his room, quickly located the source of the stench and opened the foul-smelling closet. The filthy clothes had to be hanging in there. I pulled the cap off of the can and emptied the entire content into the void. Immediately there came a shrill squeaking from the dark, baby birds shot out of the closet and dropped to the floor, seemingly poisoned. Next thing I knew the floor was strewn with dead baby birds. Still now I feel ashamed.
When Iris was pregnant with Anton, she would sit outside gripping her belly in nothing but a rust-colored top, and passersby would gawk at her. Sometimes when I wasn't home she would sob loudly and the tourists who came by would stop to comfort her. I built a fence so she would only share the things she wept about with me. She told me about an incident with her mother, Else, many years ago.
They had quarreled and her mother had locked her in a little room above the henhouse. When Else came to let Iris back out, she didn't want to leave. She had come to like sitting in the dark, listening to the mechanical fish her father had given her when she was nine, before he left. A big stuffed fish with a pink belly, white fins and a green back. On its backside was a key and if you twisted it and let go, the fish would sing mourning songs in an Italian dialect.
Nel Cor nun piu mi sento brillar gioventú. Cogion del mio tormento
Amor, cei colpa tu . . .
Pietá, pietá, pietá.
Amor e un certo che disperar mi fa . . .
All the damage that fish caused when I burned it, I can't bear to think of it.
Else left us the house when she died. The first time I saw her it was impossible to tell she was sick because she never stopped smiling, all done up in a Chinese sarong, serving us vanilla biscuits. I wolfed them down and had to go throw up in the woods. On the way back to the house I noticed the greenhouse in the garden. It had been converted into a study, and Iris asked if we could have our tea out there. Else brought us another bowl of vanilla biscuits right away.
As we sat there looking out across the garden and drinking our tea, I asked to see Iris's dark room in the henhouse, but Else, in a voice as cold as a bell, declared:
"It burned down last year." Iris nodded emphatically.
When Else died three months later, we inherited the house and went out and bought a baby carriage at a flea market in Hornbæk before she was even pregnant. When Anton came, Iris moved the cradle out into the greenhouse where she also kept her books and had the mechanical fish sing for him. Sometimes the machinery would get jammed up and the fish would sing the first line over and over again.
Nel Cor non piu mi sento brillar la gioventú . . .
I hid the fish away, but Iris found it and put it back by Anton's side. There was nothing else to do, and so I burned the fish. Anton spotted the remains of it in the fire. He was lured over by the sound of the fish's hoarse song, which didn't cease, even in the flames. The key must have gotten stuck for good, and now it sang, again and again:
Disperar mi fa . . . disperar . . . mi fa . . .
I put out the fire, pulled the charred machine from the ashes and smashed it against the wall, and the song became an ear-splitting howl, a siren.
Amor, amor, amor, amor.
I'll never forget the night we waited for the fish's howl to finally die out. By the end Anton was screaming too, and I waded out into the sea with the fish, hurled it as far as I could, hoping the current would carry it to Sweden.
When I came home, Iris was blindfolded. "How long do you plan on wearing that?" I asked. "Who knows? I see better in the dark because everything becomes so bright inside my head," she said. I looked at her for a moment, then I closed the door. The next morning she was gone.
Why do I still write about Iris? Why do I hope my words will eat away the past? She's lodged in my throat like mercury. I wish I could spit her out.
It's Lola's soft nipple. I don't know why it makes me nauseous. She's ashamed of it too. That nipple just doesn't get stiff like the other. One of them protrudes while the other is smushed together like a belly after a caesarean. Today it was more difficult than usual. Even though I sucked on it for a long time, it just wouldn't stiffen. I almost couldn't forgive her for that fault. I nearly cried. I've been all around the world only to end up with a dead nipple.
Today the pills worked and I started off towards town. My insides felt uneasy, my back was sweating, my breathing was out of control, and I couldn't keep going. I didn't see a single tree on the way home, didn't see anything, didn't think of anything, drifted along in a prickling fog. I could have stumbled right into the water and not even known it because the air was wet and the sky looked like it had gills, but when I sat down in front of the computer I was calm. Lola's message lay on the keyboard: the results of my scans were ambiguous. What had initially looked like an inflammation in the urinary tract had appeared to be a small lump in the second, but in the most recent scans they couldn't find anything at all.
I didn't eat, didn't even swallow my own saliva. I limped around and had to lie down every other second. Eventually Lola and I ate a small meal of pasta with cream on the couch. A moment's peace ensued and we sat down at the kitchen table in the gently flickering light that illuminated the placemats and the little angel figurine Iris once bought on her trip to Italy.
I asked Lola whether she thought we ought to light the candle the angel was still holding out in front of our plates. She stared at me for a long time and then she blinked. It was hard to tell whether she meant yes or no. I attempted a smile, but then I couldn't stand it any longer. The memories became too clear. I reached for the newspaper.
Iris loved milk and grapes and never touched cigarettes or alcohol. She got drunk off strong cordials and herbal tea. Even so, the lung cancer killed her. It's all that poison in the air, in the sea, in our food. In the end she ate nothing but whole foods, and we spent a fortune on the most freshly squeezed fruits, cold-pressed oils and spices. Several hundreds of kroner per packet. She drank extra virgin olive oil to make her guts and lungs strong.
Iris loved to wake up at night and take a footbath with essential oils and write little notes to herself. They made her laugh when she read them the next day. She thought they sounded terribly pathetic. Her notes were about the darkness she always spoke of. Darkness had taken root inside her back in the days when she would sit in the henhouse all alone listening to the rain. She had told me that, and she had explained that later on she could never stand large crowds because she would miss the silence and the darkness and all that space around her in the henhouse, just her and the singing fish. Only after I had thrown it into the sea did she tell me that the fish had been a gift from her father on her ninth birthday, the last birthday she spent with both parents before her father left them. I hadn't expected Iris to pack her bags and leave for six months just because I threw the ugly present into the sea.
A storm is raging above the house, walnuts keep dropping onto the roof. The mice scurry about inside the walls. I've got a cup of instant coffee, a bowl of soup and the calendar. Morning has slipped into evening before it became afternoon, and I look out at the big pile of old zucchinis and cabbage heads lying there, stinking putridly. Down at the end of the garden there's no longer any fence, the garden dissolves into the fields.
I catch a pungent whiff of bird, it makes me feel feeble and I think of a spring many years ago when I walked along that path with Anton. I suppose he was a year old. Iris had been in southern Italy for five months. The weather had turned. It was one of those humid summer nights where flocks of small birds would plunge through the treetops. Infinitely quiet in the woods. Only the stream broke the silence. No voices. No footsteps. I held his hand in mine as we walked. Buttercups and bishop's weed. We came to a grove. Hard little rosehips nestled among the pines and a blood beech. I said they looked like seashells that had been stuck on. Did he grow attached to me? We ventured in deeper. It was even quieter, there was nothing to fear. He gripped my hand tightly, I felt grateful, the evening sky was bright. Brief glimpses of fluttering wings up above. We saw chestnut trees and eventually we heard a sound. A crow and further off the barking of a dog. We paused by a thicket covered in ivy, inside of which was a bird's nest covered in cobwebs. I squeezed his hand. Anton looked startled and I was forced to let go, he couldn't understand me. He said he was frightened and wanted to go home. We went the long way round. It had grown increasingly humid over the course of the evening. We trod on tiny frogs. The flowers had closed up and were silent. Little moths buzzed in the dusk. We walked towards home, he broke into a run when he saw the house, shouting "Mom!" But the living room was empty.
When we got home from the doctor's, Iris went out and sat in the greenhouse. I asked her if she wanted to listen to music, and she said she wanted to hear something new. I fetched the boombox and put on various CDs. She was gazing out across the snow with her eyes shut. She asked, "Will I be here tomorrow?"
"What do you think of the music? Will any of it do?" I asked. "No, I detest Richard Wagner. Just put on Mozart after all... Requiem." Her head slumped forwards.
She was asleep. It must have been the morphine.
I sat down behind her and rolled the wheelchair back and forth. "Violin," she whispered, squeezing my hand. "Violin would be nice. Number five."
Then she fell back asleep. My coffee was getting cold. I stared at the snow and the trees. The snow wasn't sleeping. The trees weren't sleeping. The birds were painted across the clouds.
The first time Lola came over was to make neighborly arrangements in August. She was going babysit Anton at our house while we were in Italy. Lola came in and stood in the hallway, watching me do the dishes. I pretended not to notice, kept my back to her. She had to walk over and put her hand on my arm before I turned around. An exchange of pleasantries and then, when she asked about Iris's condition, I was ready to send her on her way, but Iris called out from the bedroom, "Just let her help!"
I told Lola that Anton would sometimes wake from his nap when someone came over, that he wasn't used to company, that it was best to let him watch TV in his pajamas, best to leave the house to him. Sooner or later he would start going outside again.
She stood there flipping through my books. I offered her a cup of coffee, I was drinking one myself, after all. I kept my eyes to myself. She spoke very little. I had feared that she would want to chat. I just stared at her rubber boots as if they were a crystal ball that could tell me why I had to lose my wife, my Iris, Anton's mother.
After Iris died, Lola came over to help with Anton. We walked around in the garden and I told her about how Anton was rubbing himself with Iris's oils every morning and eating from her stash of nuts and dried fruits. I told her that a pigeon kept him company, sitting on the roof gutter staring at him while he lay on the couch. It still lives there. I've put seeds in the birdhouse on the tree for the pigeon, but it stays put in the gutter. It's settled in for good, it no longer eats or flies.
One morning, shortly before Iris returns from her trip, Anton gets sick, he's almost a year old. He starts to whimper upstairs. It's a few days after I'd already had to go fetch him from the beach once.
I run upstairs and try to comfort Anton, who's howling so loudly even curious birds come sit on the window ledge to watch him.
His arms are covered in a rash, in thick feathers, and I lay a damp cloth on his forehead hoping it will disappear, I'd hate to wake the neighbors, if, that is, there are any neighbors in this new neighborhood of dark houses. There's the baker in any case, I think to myself as I lay my aching head on the pillow beside Anton and we rest side by side. I wake up and watch him. When he wakes I ask if it stills hurts and he nods.
I put Anton in the playpen, swallow a piece of stale bread and go out to fetch the doctor, who follows me back to the house and sits down beside Anton, takes a blood sample, dabs his skin and affixes a cotton ball with a piece of tape. Solemnly he announces that the results will be back in six days and snaps his bag shut. I invite him to join me for coffee in the garden and after a few cups at the table our conversation flows effortlessly.
The doctor mentions bird disease as another possibility, but he can't say anything for sure yet, he just wants to know whether the boy has been in contact with birds? I tell him I don't know and think of our walks in the woods, by the sea, through the fields, we've fed ducks and geese, picked up dead animals, moles, mice and birds, buried them in the woods. "If so, what would it mean?"
The doctor turns his face away and says: "It means anything is possible. We don't know. I'm afraid I have to go now, the clinic opens at noon. Where's your wife?" "She isn't home, why?" "Just a thought. It could be a psychological thing, something in here, if you know what I mean." He points to his head with a telling smile. I nod, smiling too. "She'll be home soon!"
Anton's condition improves, but the feathers remain as though stitched into the skin of his neck. I don't mention the matter of the bird disease when Iris gets home. Once again the horses in the garden placidly tolerate the bites of insects, Iris and Anton spend hours watching the animals graze. Later they run away to the beach together and spend the night at the bunkers, concealed from the world beneath thick roots that hang from the embankments. When I bring them their lunch, I find them asleep under Anton's blanket with the stallions on it, leaping and galloping through white clouds. Didn't I light a fire? And didn't I stay with them? Or did I go home? And did I sleep alone in our bed?
[ . . . ]
I'm not eating at the moment, all I drink is coffee, and I prefer to drink it alone.
Friday night I woke up to find Lola lighting the candle in front of Iris's picture in the living room, she whispered a few words, and I tried to fall back asleep. It was getting light outside, the day stretched out ahead of me, far too long. Lola wouldn't be going out to do bookkeeping for the nursing home like usual. I peeked over at her bluish silhouette in the living room. The candle flickered and a moth flew into the flame.
We didn't talk about Iris. We never do.
This morning Lola came over and lay down close beside me in the bed and whispered: "You haven't forgotten who kept you warm when Iris left, have you?" I pushed her away: "I can't remember and won't remember."
Even in my sleep I remember, I remember Lola's red panties tight across her white pubic hair. I remember my rage when I came inside her and saw Iris in my mind. Saw us fucking.
Lola wore perfume and didn't smell of hospital, she had a wardrobe with a future, ball gowns, bathrobes, lacy underwear, an empty bedroom for a child and a closet full of unworn dresses she wanted to wear for me.
Anton saw us together once. He was fourteen years old then, and that day he shot a pheasant from his window with an air gun. He bounded down the stairs ecstatically and shot it in the head. It rattled and fell still. Then he attempted to chop off its head, but he couldn't aim properly and so I helped him. We hung it up to dry and ate it that same evening. It tasted of nothing, of flour.
One day I followed him into the woods and watched as he stopped next to a fence. A heron had gotten one of its wings caught in the barbed wire. When he kneeled down next to the bird, it began to flap its wings. He reached out after the caught wing but it slapped him across his arm. The heron must have been stuck in the barbed wire for a while, because there were leaves between all the feathers on its back. Anton managed to take hold, but the wing slipped right out of his grasp. It was ever so smooth and his fingers were greasy. He wiped his hand off on his pants.
The wings stopped flapping. He hesitated before taking hold again. The heron lay practically motionless, watching him. He gazed back into its black button eyes. The bird cowered when he pulled off his sweater, squawking anxiously and thrashing its wings. Anton took a few steps back and then leapt forward to rescue the heron once and for all. He threw his sweater over the bird's body, and the darkness seemed to calm it. There was no sound or movement from beneath the fabric. Carefully he slid his hand up beneath the sweater and loosened its talons from the barbed wire. Then he crept his hand further up and along the greasy wing to the tip that was caught. He tried to disentangle the barbed wire from the wing but eventually had to resort to force and tear it out, leaving him with a handful of bloody feathers.
He put his sweater back on, and the bird shot up into the air only to land back on the ground straight away with a deep, raucous, horrifying roar. His sweater was covered in something that looked like brown oil. Then he ran.
When I got home, he was already in the shower rinsing off. I went into the bathroom afterwards and found that it stank sweetly. I recognized the smell from when Anton was little. There were feathers in the shower, bloody, big and small. I kept an eye on him over the next few days. He smelled of sweat and kept his arms covered with long gloves. He shed feathers that sprouted from the back of his neck. I snuck up on him with a washcloth and tried to wipe them away, but the feathers remained stuck on and he ran off. The next day he was wearing his hoodie.
Last year, March twenty-third.
She went to a screening. Outside it was storming. People asked each other what happened to spring. It was bitterly cold. I was waiting to hear from her. I waited for her while the storm raged, expecting her at any moment. Finally she returned with wet hair, and after telling me the results without looking me in the eye, she walked off towards the woods. I chased after her and for a moment she stopped and stared at me. Then she continued down the muddy road. Even though the storm was raging and I feared for her safety I didn't follow her. I sat and watched the birds being buffeted by the wind and tumbling onto the grass. Then I got up and poured the rest of the beer down the sink as I watched Iris disappear through the garden in wet clothes.
[ . . . ]
I take the last picture of Iris out of the album, the picture I took by the lake when I drove her out there for the last time. It was a year ago. The yellow tinge made her face glow, it was impossible to tell whether she was getting better or worse. She asked to rest in the sun, and meanwhile I walked out to the bird nests alone.
I spotted a nest, a strange sight. An enormous bird being fed by a little bird, a worm halfway down its beak. The big one was utterly helpless, it must have been a baby. I shuddered and turned around to look at Iris. She had stood up and was now walking towards me. Delighted, I ran to her, but she stopped and stared at me for a whole minute or maybe several minutes. She looked frightened, and her legs began to buckle beneath her. I ran over and caught her. She said: "It's getting better and better," and I said: "Tomorrow you'll be able to walk on your own," and helped her back into the wheelchair. That's when I thought to take the picture.
She's got a hesitant look on her face in the picture, she looks slightly afraid, but what's most frightening is the glimmer of contempt in her eyes, a look I've never noticed before now. I wonder whether she hated me a little, whether she hated me for living on, for not joining her in death. Or whether she resented me for kneeling down and laying my head in her lap, and whether she knew without my saying anything that it smelled of sickness there too, and that I was powerless against the empty smell of hospital coming from her lap. The lie had wedged itself between us. I wrapped my arms around her when she said: "Quit pretending you're me."
Another picture, this one of Iris and her mother Else. In the picture Iris is thirteen but she looks twenty. They're holding hands on a bright summer day, so bright their expressions are almost erased by the light. And yet they look afraid, I can't bear seeing them look afraid. I put the picture down.
When were saying goodbye, I remember how at one point Iris sat down and peered into the lake. I asked what she was looking for. She said she had dropped a hairpin in the water when looking at her reflection. I reached my hand into the depths and immediately came across something cold and sharp. She took it and slid it in, pinning her hair back tightly. Then she unpinned her hair again so it covered her face and leaned over. Her face and neck and back were concealed behind her hair. I wanted to free her from all that hair. I pushed the locks aside and was about to say goodbye, but she turned her back and tossed her hair backwards as if upset, and when I asked what was the matter she said: "Nothing!"
She took my hand and rocked back and forth with her hair still covering her face. I feared she might fall over. Then she sat completely still. She drew her hair back, and I stared at her face as it came into view. It was silver and shining. I couldn't see her eyes, I leaned forwards to touch her cheeks and study her eyelids. She opened her eyes again and a green color flowed out. I fell asleep.
Later we sat by the lake. It was raining, the shore flooded in minutes. Tiny frogs jumped out of the water. We pulled our knees to our chests. There were spiders, frogs and broken lily pads everywhere. We crept back further and further until we were pressed against a land bank. It was cold and mossy and gave way. The earth poured over us and for a moment we couldn't see each other.
Lola isn't here. I look in the kitchen. The trapdoor is open. A dank odor is rising from below. Lola is rummaging about down there. "Come here!" Her shout is cold, as is her laugh. "I was looking for a baptism gown but then I came across these. There are horses everywhere."
Lola hands me the last horse picture Iris drew on our trip to Sicily. Just a horse face, gray and dull, on a thick piece of paper. The mane is painted gray. It was the horse Iris saw fall into the harbor in a dream. She could see only its eyes and mane as it drowned. It had gone mad and ran off, and in the dream Iris chased it down to the harbor and was forced to shoot it and that was how it ended up in the water. I was uninterested in the drawing and went upstairs into the living room. Later that day, when I decided to brave the pain and go outside, I tripped over a log.
A few miles down the beach I pass the fishermen and after that it's just me, on my own with the water. It seems so easy to wade out into the depths, as if that's the point. Three times I try to scream and then everything goes black. I lean back against a pile of boulders. There's an old dog running around at the water's edge, sniffing at the seaweed. It shits in the sand and covers it up. Then it digs the shit back up and sniffs that. An old, scrawny dog. There are no ships at sea. There are no colors on the beach. Everything is gray like the rocks, nothing but a few hushed clucks from the waves. I empty the biscuit tin into the sea.
I'm not thinking of anything. I'm on the couch watching TV with Iris's old pants on, eating Iris's nuts. Anton has gone out into the woods to the new bird sanctuary. I smell of the ash I got on my clothes, in my face, in my hair, I taste it, I taste the ash I got in my mouth when I emptied the urn into the waves. I had failed to take into account the sea breeze. But I don't shower. I like it this way. It smells good, so I don't change my clothes. Lola isn't here anyway. Lola is no longer in my garden eating raw ginger somewhere in the shade of the trees, fumbling for attention like the hands of a child. "Ginger is good for the day you get cancer," Lola once told me. What does she know about sickness. She wanted to get married.