War, romance, sleep, death


Bear liked mustard, he liked mustard on his german dogs, brautwurst with sauerkraut. Not mild mustard, hot hot mustard, mustard that lets you know you are a man. When we were falling in love, it was like living in the trenches, like Hitler and Mussolini and bombs going off all round us. Really exciting, but crazy wrong.

Bear was rich, rich in ideology, rich in actual money. He sold cars to the Germans, he sold honey to the British, he sold watches to the Italians. The Swiss and the French he sold reservations to rest resorts in foreign lands far away from the bombing. The English and French had bad nerves and loss, lots of loss. Bear was half English, he liked to say, an aunt named Bessie, an uncle who lived in Inverness (Scots, I know, but Bear did not make that distinction).

We met while I was shopping between raids, between bombings, in a period of artificial peace. I was buying a leather handbag, and thinking about having my initials monogrammed on it. The shopkeeper was kind and attentive, and I would hardly have noticed the pause when Bear walked in, if it hadn’t been wartime. In wartime the little hairs on our arms stand up, tiny antennas reading fear, reading danger. Bear brought danger into the room. Danger and heat, and I admit to being young. I bought the handbag and left without the monogram. Bear followed me out and bought me a coffee on the sidewalk where the umbrellas had been brought out in the fall sunlight in an act of shocking optimism. The end of this war, the beginning of another.

This little village had some damage, some churches and banks that were shells. Every night, we covered the windows, and inside each flat, each small cottage, the stories were short and cheerful, to put the children to sleep. Short, to get as much sleep as possible before the sirens woke us. Cheerful, to convince us that tonight, as least, there would be none. I believe Bear slept heavily and well, all through the war.


The train was slow in stopping. She stood in the steam and the fog. The brakes screamed, the babies waved their little hands. Cccchhhhh. Ccchhhh. Stop. Her ankles are aswirl with smoke, she stands and waits and watches. Getting off the train. Polish grandmothers, Swiss nannies. Soldiers, flirting and giving cigarettes to Swiss nannies.

How many times will I call myself back through my bones? she wonders. My bones, the bones of memory, even when I am old and will have learned how to take some and leave some. Some memory. Every night, I see them again. There I am. Me, in my blue eye liner. Dressed as someone other than myself. Taken out of myself, by soldiers, and bombs and my missing child.

In May, when the weather is warming, what woman, what mother, can imagine the loss of a child, the whole in the ground where an entire building filled with hundreds of lives had been just moments before. Ana will sing in a low voice to the men who killed her child. She will hold them one by one against her body. And each one, before he dies, will see two things distinctly on her face. First, her grief. Second, his own death. And so she goes from gardener and mother to siren and chanteuse and killer.

This is a simple poem. Biblical, even. Ana has gone back to the basics: vengeance, rage and power. Tonight they are drinking at a club, brightly lit, with windows covered. The room is heavy with smoke. Smoke is swirling around her; she looks at him. She leans forward, he looks at her, at her blue eye shadow. She holds up her cigarette. He leans in to light it for her. She looks up and their eyes meet. For a moment he feels lost, something is wrong. She smiles, he smiles back, and the moment drifts away.


2 Responses to “War, romance, sleep, death”

  1. 1 Tek September 16, 2008 at 9:48 am

    “gone back to the basics: vengeance, rage and power”
    very evocative

  2. 2 Teresa September 16, 2008 at 4:02 pm

    Thanks, Tek — it keeps coming up. My characters are rattling their cages at me – they all want out. I believe my book is coming together, at least the “basics”. Maybe I finally know what I want to write about.

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