Still more asleep than awake, Sarah Mere struggled to regain the last of her dream. The spray of the fountain called her, and she lay perfectly calm until eventually she stood once more at the end of the esplanade. Again she bent, putting a hand to the stone bench to slip off her heels, before continuing barefoot onto the cool grass.
They had brought a blanket that very last evening to spread out on the ground. All the previous times they had lain in bed, falling asleep to the soft sound of false rain splatter coming in the night through the French doors left open to the veranda. But in her dreams they always lay on the bare grass, and sometimes she could even smell it.
The fountain’s water originated not, as they first surmised, from an artesian well but rather from a free-flowing spring situated somewhere high in the hills above the old estate and adjacent vinery. It flowed down through an ancient lead pipe, the force of its falling redirected at the last moment upwards through a brass nozzle before dispersing outwards in a lazy lachrymose arc, falling like the rain she always remembered from the first night they stood on the veranda listening to the spray hitting in the dark against the shallow bluestone-ringed splash pool.
The concierge told them they should come back in winter to see the ice mound that formed in place of the fountain. How is that possible, she’d asked, for didn’t the pipe freeze as well? Mais non, mademoiselle, the attendant replied brightly. The font alone she may freeze.
Mere smiled again at the memory. Still half asleep she reflexively searched with her thumbnail, catching it on the thin metal band at the base of the finger it enclosed and held tightly. Touching the ring recalled again the moment David first slipped it on her and she wanted to stay near to the dream and re-enter; but the idyll dispersed and the illusion of falling water became real as tactile awareness pulled her away from the sleepy reverie and abruptly forward through time. The downstairs shower replaced the fountain of her dream; accounting for the suddenly perceived void in her bed, the sound deceived her. And so searchingly, she slid a hand out expecting to feel the warmth of rumpled sheets recently abandoned, but her fingers encountered only crisp undisturbed coolness instead.
The information registered dully on her mind. Tightening her eyelids against the gray daylight, she tried to reverse her awakening. As a young girl she had once succeeded in doing just the opposite, forcing herself to waken from a pleasant and comforting dream, which she still all these years later vividly remembered. She stood on a stool at the kitchen counter while her mother measured out and combined flour water and fruit, and built an apple pie. Again she saw with her mind’s eye, watching those delicate yet supremely competent hands sliding pure-white crescents of apple off a plate with a knife, catching the dough up with a floured wood rolling pin to lay on a thin covering which, pinched along the perimeter with quickly twisting fingers and thumbs, sealed everything in. Lastly, as if signing the work with the sharp tip of a knife, her mother cut two long graceful ogee curves that would, as the crust baked, open to resemble the slits of a fiddle.
With extreme effort, wanting the dream to become real, she had forced her eyes open, but instead of waking to a brightly lit kitchen containing the reassuring presence of her mother opening the warmed oven to insert a newly made pie, she encountered only herself lying in bed, in the dark, alone, and suddenly so very cold.
She roused herself now, again disappointed, and brushed the tips of her fingers across the crest of both cheeks as she recalled her father’s dour observation:
The harsh reality of dreams alone
Leave us to wish, desire, and last, atone.
She touched a closed eye and felt the lid glide with her fingertip's cool touch as something twitched, electric-like, beneath the skin. Gaining consciousness she discovered the delusion of an empty dream, suddenly realizing no-one waited for her in the shower downstairs. Muffled through pumpkin pine boards and spun glass insulation, she heard, awakening, only the hard morning rain drumming upon the metal roof covering the new kitchen addition. Even so, she lay listening, as if to preserve for a few moments longer the comforting illusion that nothing had changed.
Finally she opened her eyes and looked over the foot of her bed. Milky whiteness obscured the world contained by the picture window on the gable end opposite the loft. No surprise, the far trees were lost in the valley fog. But this morning even the near shagbark hickory stood veiled to her view. Deciding at last to leave the warm bed, Mere stood, feeling the heat of her exposed body falling away. As she adorned herself with her robe, she composed a mental visualization of the scraggly shagbark tree, standing enveloped yet emergent beyond the curve of the driveway, its black branches extending starkly skyward. It would make a good picture, she thought, if properly done.
The next morning it rained again, and once again she reflexively curled the opposed thumb touching the sharp nail to the soft fleshy underside of her finger, and in so doing verified the reality of the thin metal arc that enclosed it. Fleetingly she fell back to sleep. Imagining again the moment of her betrothal, she felt the ring slip on her finger and willed again the sound of that morning’s shower to become once more the soft plash of the Auvergne spring fountain.
For awhile more she indulged the thought, luxuriating in it, as the fantasy became real. Her bed succumbed to the weight of David’s body finally returning to hers and she arched back as his lips moved again on her bare shoulder. He snuggled up close, exploring the descending arc of her belly with tendril-like searching fingers, and his touch made her shiver.
Eventually, when afterwards he got up and dressed, she followed, wearing only her robe, and for a last few quiet moments, separately but together, they sat quietly across from one another at the small kitchen table sharing a bagel while drinking individual coffees au lait. At the door, she gave him a final goodbye kiss on the lips (so quickly done it seemed, in retrospect, nearly chaste) and then lingered in the doorframe, watching him go.
She left the apartment herself a little later that day and, looking up between buildings and the feathery periphery of an ailanthus tree, noted the perfect blue sky enclosing the corporeal world. (Some part of her mind irreverently thought Goering’s blue, which produced a wry smile even as she dreamt.) Traffic moved quietly in the near streets and the city seemed unusually hushed if not entirely stilled. Walking between tall buildings beneath that beautiful clear sky she could not help but believe, despite her bad joke, that the day offered nothing but good and benign prospects—for her and all she loved and knew.
Yet at the onrushing sound she looked up already expecting an incoming rocket. Quickly she located the oncoming source of the sound and stood immobile and amazed, for the reality was more improbable than she could have imagined. Lifting her gaze progressively higher, she tracked the plane’s progress along a narrow strip of sky until it passed by nearly straight overhead. She literally turned on her heels (almost toppling sideways in so doing) and continued to track the startlingly strange flight.
At impact the music in her head cued and the entire montage played like a movie flashback, starting with the surveillance clip she’d later seen of two sullen men pushing hurriedly through a turnstile gate.
Once aloft, these two men and their cohort slit throats, taking control of the plane. The same thing happened again and again and again, while air traffic controllers in their glass-enclosed towers could do no more than make futile inquiries to the light blips unresponsively crossing their soft-lit green screens.
When that first airliner entered David’s building, Mere’s heart stopped, as did the world. For a split second the tower seemed to simply absorb and accept the impact, like a man stunned at being unexpectedly slapped. The plane entered, disappeared, and time momentarily ceased until, after a delay of milliseconds, it blew out the other side. A fireball erupted in that infinitesimal interim and engulfed the interior.
As the building burned and blackened, fire engines rolled out to answer the alarm. People jumped from smoking windows; spectators standing on the ground watched them fall. Many of the watching bystanders held palms to their mouths; others lifted cell phones and attempted to call.
The day that had started so beautifully devolved quickly into a chaotic mess. A crew of steelworkers erecting a building watched as a second airship passed by so close they could see the faces of passengers pressed to the porthole windows; the plane came so near some workers even noticed rivets holding the fuselage intact. And then the plane flew on and they watched it go, straight for the second of the two towers.
When the second plane went in, it amazed all who were watching all over again.
A further shock occurred when unexpectedly the south tower shuddered, slid slightly sideways and down, destroying itself as it went. A cloud billowed up even as the suck of the collapsing building pulled the rising smoke and dust curling back in towards a descending center. Spires of fine ash shot from the sides, arcing out, up and then down like inverted flying buttresses attempting to flee the destruction. People ran from the engulfing concrete-tinged cloud, now more amazed and fearful than before. After a stunned prolonged pause, David’s building followed and fell too, collapsing in upon itself with the same precise, geometric concision.
The music Mere had come to associate with that day accompanied as she saw the entire disaster play out for the umpteenth time yet again, from impending menace to final destruction. Collapsing to her knees in the street when the first building fell, she crumpled altogether and lay down as the second building went too. What a mess, what a marvel sang an insistent voice in her head. And then with a start she awoke, still hearing the words like a benediction unable to console her: Accept everything; it’s supposed to be like this.
She lay curled and crying in the aftermath of her dream, until rolling on her back she stared up at the eggshell ceiling before willing her eyelids closed again, as if by doing so she could shut out the images residing behind them. It was only then she realized there had been no fountain or bathroom shower that early morning, only a rain-induced dream leading her once more to a lost and disconcerting past. Still, she wanted to go back and recapture the beautiful moments before that day turned so ugly. She wanted it so much she lay on her side with her eyes closed and squinting, trying to force the dream backwards hoping at last to feel encompassed once more in her lost lover’s arms. She ached so with yearning to have David hold her again, to tell her everything would be all right—to feel some part of him still residing warm and vital within—she could almost believe he was still with her.
Are you here? Are you with me? She whispered the questions, tentatively touching her belly, before fully realizing what it still hurt to admit: the baby too was gone, proving life could always go a little more wrong. Still, she would look forward to better days, for what purpose was to be found wallowing in regret? Maybe, she thought, trying to find some reassurance, maybe it was all for the best. She clung to the thought, listening to the refrain which faintly played in her head: Accept everything; it’s supposed to be like this.
She wanted to believe; what else could she do?
Newly resolved to forge onward, she rose and dressed quickly. Descending the single flight of steps from the bedroom loft, she walked across the open downstairs to the kitchen and made herself a quick but filling breakfast of two fresh eggs (over easy), bacon, toast with blackberry jam, and black coffee. (Somehow, almost unaccountably, she had no milk.) She dribbled the grease from the fry pan onto a bowl heaping with dog food which, after letting it safely cool for a half minute, she put down for Libby, her nine year old yellow lab. They ate nearly in unison together—which, Mere supposed, gave them both a needed sense of shared companionship. When the rain ended, she put on her blue and black checkered mackinaw and White Sox ball cap, and went with the dog out through the back yard for a walk in the fresh, cool morning air. She carried her favorite Mamiya mid-format camera and took a few tentative pictures. One shot in particular that morning she had hopes for: a yellow and black garden spider stretched out and waiting above a zigzag center of dew-laden sparkling web.
After David’s death, she had purchased the old farm outside of Harmony situated high above the Hudson River some thirty miles north of the city. It had been their dream to retreat to this place and make a home. After they married, they would move here for good. She would continue to take pictures while David commuted by train and continued work in the city. They would raise a family and remain for the most part together and happy ever after. Such a life had seemed at the time an easy thing to attain.
Now, besides the farm, her camera, and her faithful Libby and Tibby, little remained of that dream. Although the insurance policy had paid off the mortgage, it seemed in retrospect an empty acquisition. So she owned the house and the surrounding thirty acres, with barn and attendant outbuildings, free and clear. So what if she did? Somehow it didn’t seem enough, not even with a few hundred thousand left over, because all of it came because David had died. But that wasn’t quite accurate, either. All of it came because he’d imagined what she couldn’t, and signed what she’d considered an excessive policy on each of them after learning she was pregnant. At the time she had laughed at his reflexive fiduciary impulse. Now she wished she could take it back and thank him instead.
She owed something to his stepfather, too. Cyril Bernstein (of Bernstein, Waters, and Higgins) had found it necessary to send a short but pointed letter to the president of Empire Life and Casualty urging reconsideration of their initial decision not to pay out on the policy, citing the fact, as they saw it, that the events of that day constituted acts of war, which were clearly delineated in the terms of policy as being expressly excluded. Cyril suggested adhering to such a tendentious position could possibly cost the company grievously in an unfavorable judgment and/or publicity. “It is our hope,” the letter concluded, “that after due reflection you will agree trust carries a value all its own, far beyond the value of mere money.” After due reflection the president of the insurance company must have agreed, for soon afterwards Mere received from him by overnight mail a certified check tucked inside what seemed a sincere and heartfelt letter of apology.
Emeline Bernstein had wanted her to stay close despite, or maybe because of, David’s death—especially with the baby coming. Standing on the stone steps outside the synagogue after the memorial service, she told Mere they had come to think of her as a daughter, and would continue to do so always after. She and Cyril would help any way they could because, no matter what, they were family.
But losing the baby made Mere feel vaguely undeserving of their love and attention, and she had slowly, guiltily withdrawn. They did still keep in touch, but mostly through correspondence and phone calls. The imposition of that slight distance in their relationship seemed to make for a more comfortable arrangement all around.
As she walked through the door of her studio thinking these thoughts, an idea came to her all at once. She took the digital camera from the wood layout table where she’d left it and walked back to the garden and retook the photo of the spider, planning to send it to Emeline and Cyril via e-mail. Then she went back into the long, narrow barn she and David had converted into her studio, above the mild objection of Elroy, a local contractor they’d hired for the work.
“You all should get you some critters instead and forget this artistic foolishness,” he’d told them. He thought transforming the barn, which as he pointed out remained perfectly suited to the purpose for which it had been built a hundred years before, constituted a transgression on the established order bordering upon madness. Maybe the old barn needed a new roof and some fresh siding, but gutting the stalls and cutting out two-thirds of the upstairs to make a narrow loft and high ceiling struck him as utter nonsense, and he said so more than once.
But in the end even he had to admit the building had metamorphosed beautifully. Spreading his arms, turning his palms up in quiet supplication, he luxuriated upon the completion of his labor in a warm sunbeam slanting down through a high open window, arching backwards and upwards as if taking the light into his soul. His silver curly hair lit like a halo as he absorbed the cathedral-like calm and embraced all the airy open space above the newly exposed beams.
“You still should get you some critters, though,” he insisted.
And they had planned to. She and David had talked about building a chicken coop, a shed for some goats, maybe even another small barn in the back twenty for two or three horses. They would go riding along old trails left behind after the logging of the deep woods, trails they’d as yet only tentatively explored on foot. One day.
She sent the e-mail of the spider and then looked out a bank of square, divided lights. A pond nestled at the bottom of the sloped field before her, ending just shy of the macadam road that followed the undulating terrain of the hill going up to the top and then down the other side. Her cat, Tibby, who had stayed out all night, walked along the edge of the pond on a strand of dry mud, hunting furtively in the opening between the still water and grass.
She felt a quiet shame even now, remembering the assistant to the man David hired to put in the septic tank and sand filter while they vacationed in France. She had initially mistrusted the deaf-mute because he was ‘different’ and only gradually conquered her apprehension. On their return, determined to be friendly, she’d taken out a glass of lemonade as he raked rocks and smoothed the topsoil, readying the lawn for re-seeding. The other men had gone to town and for a few minutes it would be only the deaf man and her. She’d chosen this time to prove something to herself and maybe as well to him. When she offered him the glass the mute assistant appeared momentarily puzzled by the offering and held up a finger, moving it in a wide half circle that ended up pointing back at his chest. Sarah smiled and nodded and stood trying not to stare while he drank, but could not help becoming entirely transfixed when, after giving back the empty glass, he started animatedly moving. Jabbing a finger first one way and then at a slight rising angle to another, the mute emitted as an exclamation to each gesture a barking guttural Huff:
Huff for the pond and once again huff for the other place indicated higher up the hill where the trees lined the far side of the road. And then the man flexed his knees and seemed to be trying to push a column of air towards the sky until, reaching their apogee, both hands stalled, turned, and came falling back towards the earth. He accompanied this arching denouement with a thin wailing wee before again flexing his knees and pushing another air column upwards. On tiptoes, at the utmost of their reach, his hands opened and parted and his fingers fluttered, falling as before until at last both arms retracted as one and lay resting, inert at his sides.
Only later, when David related his discussion with the contractor about the feasibility of diverting a portion of their spring to make a fountain for the pond, did the deaf-mute’s pantomime reveal to her its desperate meaning.
Turning from the pond, she decided suddenly for no particular reason to revisit the city, to get away, to go back and face the demons she only thought she had left there, and so without further delay—knowing time would only allow her an opportunity to formulate a reason not to do it—she picked up the phone and called Helen, her contact at the Green Heron Gallery, and so arranged to bring down some new pictures that next Thursday. After Mere put down the phone, she picked it up again, calling her good friend Gitangeli to propose for the day an afternoon lunch date. Angeli, enthusiastic as always at any new prospect, laughed, “Of course, girl!” and suggested they meet at her classroom.
During their college sophomore year, Mere and Gitangeli had formed a close bond while taking an art class together. Though possessing more raw talent than anyone else Mere had ever met, Angel (as she was then known) decided to make her mark as a teacher rather than artist. She certainly could have made a name for herself had she wanted that kind of life; but she chose quite deliberately to work with mentally challenged children instead, and in doing so tapped a wellspring of insight and inspiration that often amazed even her, the result being that in nurturing their efforts she more than not fed her own creativity as well.
Mere remembered the crayon impressions Gitangeli’s students had drawn of the day they stood watching events through their classroom windows.
One of the drawings depicted Lady Liberty standing small and nearly insignificant in the harbor as a plane exited intact one of two unblemished towers behind her. The plane had simply gone through and kept flying. It was a crude and untutored rendering, but in that child’s simple innocence Mere had felt the first rekindling of her own capacity to hope and believe. Remembering the moment brought tears to her eyes, even all these many months later.
She took the same morning train David always rode to Manhattan, and sat for awhile looking out the window at the interplay of dark and light chopping on the wide river below, then turned away to read from a book. At the last stop she walked past the interior lit four-sided globe clock, passed through slanting sunbeams infiltrating the cathedral-like concourse, and came finally to the end of the grand terminal. Once outside again, she paused, hit by sudden bright daylight. Reflexively she blinked once and sneezed before traversing on, her left arm holding a portfolio of pictures pinned to her breast, leaving the right free to balance the shallow descent, at a stiletto-heeled clip, of wide, well-worn marble steps to the street.
Gitangeli displayed a mouthful of perfect, incredibly white teeth, smiling as she rose from behind the desk where she’d been reading a paperback novel.
“What are you reading?” Mere asked, looking down over Gitangeli’s shoulder at the thick book lying tented on her desk. She read the gold-embossed title as they hugged, and could not help notice the front cover showed a well-muscled, bare-chested man riding a winged unicorn, apparently charging forward to meet some unrepresented danger with a lance, while a comely blonde held on tight right behind him.
“Oh,” Gitangeli said, breaking their embrace, “just some mind-rotting drivel. It’s my one guilty pleasure.”
“You should have more than just one,” Mere laughed.
“I know!” Gitangeli laughed too, covering her mouth with purple-nailed fingers while her black eyes blazed conspiratorially above them.
“So tell me,” Mere pressed. “What’s new? Is there someone in your life, someone I should know about?”
“If only.” Angeli shut her eyes, denying the suggestion with a small downward thrust of her hand. “It seems all my romances are vicarious now. But who knows. I have a whole summer off. I’ve decided to just relax and paint and not worry about a thing. If love finds me, then fine. Otherwise, Que sera, sera.”
“You should come see me, then.”
“Oh, I plan to. Not today, not tomorrow, but soon. Soon, I promise.”
Mere glanced around the room and felt sadness, as if recognizing another part of her past had irretrievably disappeared with the children’s renditions of the twin towers she saw were no longer displayed. Instead, crayon drawings of red barns, grazing horses and piebald cows had replaced them.
“You changed your décor,” she observed, trying to withhold her disappointment.
“Yes,” Angeli said. She turned and pointed out individual pictures as she expounded on their merits, directing Mere’s gaze one picture at a time around the perimeter of the room. “As you can see, we ended the year in a country phase. Mrs. Catalonia’s class and mine took a field trip into the Meadowlands to see how milk is made. And the children responded with some wonderful drawings. Just look at the detail in this one.”
The detail consisted of some puffy white clouds. At the conclusion of the tour, Mere edged away and walked to the far side of the room where a bank of windows allowed a view of the bay and the still disconcerting void in the skyline.
“I wonder when they’ll start putting up something new,” she said, just to say something.
“I don’t know. No one does, I guess.”
Actually, she didn’t care if not another thing was ever built on that spot. She remembered the columns of blue light reaching forever heavenwards in the dark. And that got her thinking how it had once been. Before the event she and David sometimes still met in the surprisingly calm interstice between those busy paired buildings where commerce rose straight for the sky. The calm open area in between became for them a convenient refuge of relative seclusion among millions where a stainless steel world, now destroyed, symbolized—her dreams no doubt exaggerated these perceptions—a seemingly inviolable world impaled and encompassed, held aloft on opposing points of a crescent. She and David had first met there one day by chance, before meeting again by design and taking the short walk to Trinity Church and holding hands at the wrought iron fence enclosing the gravestones of the Revolutionary dead, after which they concluded their excursion by going down the street for Cokes and Soubrettes.
Later they returned to the pavilion and walked hand in hand past the stainless steel globe to a quiet and largely overlooked recess where they stopped behind a replica bronze little mermaid and kissed their first kiss.
That world was but a memory now and she would have preferred keeping it inviolately so, the grounds open and undeveloped as a kind of park or unadorned memorial, with reflecting pools to reflect on and reflect, maybe once a year, those columnar blue lights extending forever into the night.
“Let’s get something to eat, shall we?” Gitangeli picked her book off the desk, closing it without marking her place, and slipped it into a crocheted bag she then slung over one shoulder, adding with a sideways glance as she stepped towards the door: “I have something to show you.”
The way she said that word something made Mere suspicious. She knew Gitangeli too well not to think she had some ulterior motive in choosing the place they were headed.
His name, revealed by the tag pinned to his tight waiters’ vest, was Ahmed. He seemed Arabian to Mere, even though Gitangeli tried repeatedly to correct her, saying Arabic instead. But Mere retained her original impression involving Arabian knights and faraway conquest, replete with the promise of romance and exotic locales, and so she persisted in her original description while Gitangeli persisted correcting with hers until it became, after two iterations, their own private joke. In any case, Mere found Ahmed surprisingly friendly, and she silently upbraided herself for expecting on first sight that he might be otherwise. He smiled broadly as if, understanding her doubts, he wished to allay her suspicions and put her at ease. Mere even supposed within that first half minute of their meeting that he had begun flirting with her, a suspicion reinforced when she handed the menu back and he touched her hand. Accepting the chance, looking boldly up into his eyes, she was sure he deliberately held his fingers to hers as he stared back in what seemed a blatant attempt to appraise her.
“Isn’t he a dream?” Gitangeli leaned eagerly forward, whispering the inquiry when he’d left to fulfill their order.
“He seems nice enough,” Mere replied, affecting a noncommittal detachment. She felt hardly ready to acknowledge to herself, much less to anyone else, the possibility of raw sexual attraction towards a stranger. She wasn’t ready yet. Anyway, he did look Arabic, whatever that meant; probably, she thought, retaining a trace of suspicion, it meant he was Muslim. And, noting the fact with a wry interior irony, she was a lapsed Catholic good girl, previously engaged to a Jew. She told herself it could never work, would never work, and pushed the dimly perceived idea of a romance out of her mind.
Still, she was curious, and eventually she maneuvered Gitangeli into confirming her original suspicion.
“He worships at a mosque nearby,” she told her, as they left the café’s walled patio enclave for the open street. “You want to go see?”
“Yes you do.”
“I know you better than you know yourself, then. You must come with me and check it out.”
So they walked the three blocks to the small mosque delineated by a gold crescent nearly enclosing a small star above the doorway. They stood on the opposite sidewalk long enough to watch some men wearing colorful head coverings enter and not leave. Mere imagined the iconic symbols of night under which these men passed ushered them away from the world of light towards darkness. Thinking these thoughts made her glad she believed, as much as she believed, in something different. But what she believed still confused her for, as a girl, and even now as an adult, she could not quite integrate in her mind a conception of the son of God and the son of man, and so she had come to intentionally misconstrue things to her understanding. Whereas son of man made no sense to her, substituting the homophone sun—as a metaphor describing the light of the world dispelling its darkness—did. Of course, out of simple respect and courtesy for her friend (who was in any case actually Hindu and not Muslim) Mere held her own counsel about these things. Nonetheless, something—a vague sense of mission, perhaps—was that day triggered within her and she returned alone to the same place a week later seeking some kind of answer, though the exact question eluded her ability to form it. She stood across the street from the mosque and waited until the muezzin completed intoning the call to prayers, but not finding whatever it was she had come for, she readied to depart, disappointed, when Ahmed came up behind and surprised her.
Smiling broadly, taking and holding her hand (only after she had extended it, somewhat automatically, in as much a small act of defense as of greeting) he told her, first bending to kiss her knuckles, that if she would only wait through evening prayers it would be his great pleasure to accompany her somewhere afterwards. So they went out that first night for coffee. A week later they met again for dinner. A week after that Mere asked Ahmed to attend the opening of her photo exhibit at the Green Heron Gallery, where they stood next to a sculpture called Madonna and child, which name they agreed meaningfully transformed a simple tapering block of marble with a hole near the top and another in a bulge near the floor. Later, when they were alone, she surprised herself by asking if he’d like to go with her somewhere sometime to take pictures.
During the interval between their first meeting and this last one Mere removed the diamond ring David had placed on her finger. She wasn’t sure of the day, but still vividly—and a little guiltily—remembered opening the little black box and pushing the ring back into the fold of platinum satin cloth before putting it away, perhaps for all time, in the right top drawer of her dresser.
Gitangeli claimed later to have known all along it would happen. She recognized Mere’s need to explore what she herself didn’t understand, fearing, as she put it, the not knowing more than the knowing. Gitangeli explained Ahmed represented the other and Mere needed to know conclusively and first hand there was nothing to fear. Gitangeli further explained that in the year preceding, she had shared an acquaintance with Ahmed amounting, despite her desire for more, to little beyond casual friendship--until that day when she sought out and found Ahmed with tears in his eyes, bitterly denouncing the attack on their city; the she felt more attracted to him than ever. More to the point, he had been, at least temporarily, attracted to her too. They had hugged and then kissed, and may even have made love had his roommate not returned at the exact moment Ahmed’s hand began unbuttoning her blouse. But she felt strangely attracted to Mere too, and felt the same desire to fill the void created by her friend’s loss. And so, in the months that followed, recognizing that she herself could do no more for either friend, she devised a plan that might at once sublimate and, vicariously at least, consummate her desire for both.
But that came later. In the immediate weeks after the attack Gitangeli desired only to shield Mere and protect her from further duress. One night, against her better judgment (for she didn’t think her friend was yet ready to engage in such discourse) she accompanied Mere to a symposium at St. Bartholomew College where they heard a panel of resident and invited lecturers expound upon the question: Why do they hate us? Appearing at the podium wearing a long maroon dress and kinky black hair, a lady professor suggested an initial answer: Women in the decadent West show themselves off in Wonder bras and jeans. And now even little girls dress suggestively and wear makeup. Should we really be surprised others find our ways—our culture—offensive?
After the lecture a discussion ensued off to one side of the refreshments table (on which, Gitangeli graphically remembered, were set a bowl of pink punch, three kinds of crackers and two shades of cubed cheese). A young man with a horsetail length of hair down his back said the real reason they hated us was we occupied their lands and took their oil. He gave as evidence the observation that we invaded Afghanistan primarily so that Unoco could put in a pipeline. Going after bin Laden was just a convenient excuse. What real proof existed he was behind the attack, anyway? The government couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth. But the young man with the horsetail flowing from the back of his head wouldn’t be fooled, and neither should anyone else be.
As he spoke, another young man nodded in solemn agreement. “There’s certainly more going on than we are being led to believe,” he murmured. From there the conversation became ever more aggressively conspiratorial. Eventually someone suggested the people in the twin towers were nothing but little Eichmans who probably deserved what they got. After all, hadn’t they helped feed the capitalist maw of oppression? Maybe throwing a monkey wrench into the works was actually a good thing. Maybe, finally, this was the start of the long anticipated revolution destined to transform the world.
At that, Mere had heard enough. She put her plate down on the edge of the table and walked away mute. Behind her she heard Gitangeli defending the honor of the ill-considered dead, telling the assembled idiots—idiots being the exact word she used—that some of the victims in the towers that day died feeding the capitalist maw in order that people in the third world might have something to eat too. Were they really so ignorant about how things really worked not to know that?
Once back at the farmhouse, Gitangeli put on a purple-red sarong and gold satin blouse. She pulled back and pinned her shiny black hair, exposing her ears, narrowing her lovely wide face. Her olive skin glowed, her obsidian eyes sparkled, and to Mere’s eyes she looked in the soft candlelight ever more exotic and mysterious. They opened a bottle of red wine and played a game of Parcheesi until the bottle was finished. Then Gitangeli sat close on the floor and started stroking her friend’s hair as Mere began crying softly on her shoulder. Eventually, she kissed the center part of Mere’s soft golden hair and embraced her. Gitangeli ended up giving her friend a long kiss on the lips, which Mere briefly returned before breaking it off and abruptly standing.
She went outside, crossed the backyard; Gitangeli quietly followed. A few minutes later a plane flew over, rising past stars into the negative image of a cloud. The distant roar of its engines ascended in pitch as if it were going up into a tunnel. Then the cloud engulfed the jet and the tunnel closed, abruptly shutting off the sound behind it.
Never did either attempt to speak about what happened between them that night, but the kiss seemed for Gitangeli to have left an unacknowledged blemish on their friendship. However, the corresponding and unspoken fact remained: Mere loved her too. But this love was complicated and based on more than desire; she would forever be grateful for what her friend had said earlier that evening in defense of David’s memory and honor.
There was no need then, except in her own mind, for Gitangeli to make amends, but she eventually decided nonetheless to try, and so eventually did by introducing Mere to Ahmed. Only in such a way could she think to prove her relationship with each of them was well-intentioned and innocent, if not entirely pure. And that’s how it started.
Yet the idea had not come all at once, but had evolved over the course of the long cold winter that followed the kiss, coming to Gitangeli fully formed only in the wake of a dream that occurred during a weekend stay with Mere at the farmhouse during the early printemps as the snows began to recede.
In the dream—derived, Gitangeli retrospectively understood, from conversations and events occurring the preceding day—she assumed the form and nature and very being of her friend, and thus attained knowledge and insight beyond what she might ever otherwise have obtained.
It was a strange and eerie inversion, disconcerting in retrospect because it seemed, as dreams sometimes do, so plausible, in the moment, and real.
Thus it came to be that while asleep and lying beside herself (dreaming she was Mere while at the same time understanding she lay beside her) she awoke and rose from her bed (which was not really hers but Mere’s, after all) after which she dressed and walked downstairs to the violin case waiting where it had lain unopened for the entire preceding six months on a small cherry table between two north-facing living-room windows. Unclasping the case locks, she tilt the lid back against the wall and under the incandescent light from a reproduction Tiffany lamp appraised the forsaken instrument displayed like an amber jewel upon a lush inlay of nearly black purple felt. She pulled at the thickest string with her pinky nail and remembered Miss Darling, the violin teacher who believed in keeping the case open, the instrument accessible, so that even in casually passing one might more likely pick up the fiddle and play, if only briefly. She felt guilt—or more accurately, felt Mere’s conscience acting upon her own sleeping consciousness—and regretted leaving the violin closed up all this time. She excused the neglect with a rationalization, telling herself that exposing the delicate instrument to atmospheric changes wasn’t perhaps the best course of action, either. Again she pulled at the largest string, this time plucking it with her nail, but instead of a bright transcendent sound only a dull reverberation followed, muffled by the soft velvet enclosure. That was enough, for now. She wasn’t quite ready to pick up the instrument and play, not yet. The moment would come, but it would have to wait for some other day.
By the time she finished breakfast the rain had stopped. She put on her blue and black Mackinaw and wool cap, pulling it down like a soft shell on her head. Outside she found herself—Gitangeli—waiting. The air felt surprisingly warm, though the ground remained half frozen, covered in places with patches of snow. The driveway still held a thin glare of ice in old tire tracks and she watched herself (as Mere, watching Gitangeli) slip. Here and there fog lifted and condensed, floating waist high in elongated ephemeral white bands. She walked into the field to the east side of the house and took a picture of a fog-enclosed hickory tree, setting the aperture at f 5.8, explaining to her watching self as she did something she wouldn’t have otherwise known, that by increasing the shutter speed manually she could darken the tree and bring out the fog. Her fingers reddened, exposed to the damp cold as she worked; it wasn’t as warm out as she’d first thought, and she made a fist with her empty hand and blew into it as she turned away from the tree to follow the dog down the path to where a barbed wire fence enclosed the neighbor’s black and white cows. She shared, as she focused on them, her little joke, calling them black and white cows, even titling them such in her photos. She took another four pictures, keeping the aperture constant, altering only the shutter speed to gauge the effect. She enjoyed taking pictures of cows, she explained, all the while working to refine the composition and exposure, because doing so involved no sense of urgency or hurry. Usually, unless you approached too fast, they were happy just to stand where they were and chew their cuds while you fiddled. (Hearing these words come from her mouth she couldn’t help but laugh a little in her sleep.)
By the time she got to the studio it was just eight o’clock. Sustaining the dream illusion awhile longer, she watched her waking self walk Libby up towards the spring by the woods, then turned and entered the old converted barn to review some previously made photos. She wiled away a succession of quiet moments opening files she had let lie dormant too long. Still there remained one file she hesitated to open, for contained within it were the pictures documenting the trip to Auvergne. There would be the one exposure she wanted most—or least—to look at again, the one showing her and David sitting together on the stone wall at the fountain where he had slipped the ring on her finger. She had taken the photo at the end of their stay, setting the camera on the neatly fitted block wall, stepping back to enter the picture and wait for the moment the timer would run down as David’s fingers curled into her hair, with her leaning against him. A little bit of stone blurred the very bottom of the exposure in the foreground, which might be edited out or left as a reminder of what the moment had actually felt like. She lowered a hand transported in time and place to touch stone underneath her, feeling the sandy grit on her fingers as she entered another dimension entirely.
Gradually, she awoke from that deeper dream as the light of the sun intensified and dispersed the vaporous fog of morning. She sat in the studio again, alone with an archive of memories. Selecting a disc of Mozart’s Greatest Hits she slipped it into the player. Across the workbench a row of salvaged, square, divided light windows framed a long view of the milky sky. Her eyes fell upon the steaming hill and still frozen pond below, already melting at the periphery. Ripples and bubbles in the old glass panels imparted to the scene an impressionistic, old-fashioned appearance. Skulking at the edge of the pond, a cat walked away towards the road, looking so much like Mister Tibbs that Gitangeli (as Mere) momentarily questioned her memory. But no, she distinctly recalled him lying near her that morning still asleep on the bed.
Mozart’s concerto for flute and harp played softly in the background, the swelling flute motif affective yet brief. She felt it tug at her heartstrings and her eyes misted; indulging the emotion, she began softly to cry. But prematurely it seemed the theme changed to something less intimate and intense, as if approaching the presence of God the composer chose prudently to turn away and go elsewhere.
Leaving the Gallery the night of the opening, Ahmed accompanied Mere home on the train. By silent agreement, the vague promise of a distant, undefined sometime moved immediately to the present. Mere wondered what she was doing, knew all too well, felt both apprehension and excitement as she walked beside him from the gallery towards the station. She assuaged the remaining guilt by telling herself her hesitation and fear arose from mere prejudice not danger, and she needed to prove to herself she wasn’t like that.
They sat quietly in the train booth, shy in public, but even more so when finally together alone. Mere showed another portfolio of her pictures as they sat on the living room couch. Ahmed liked the black and white photos, he said, because they revealed subtleties of light and shadow that color might too easily overwhelm. He especially liked the black and white image of the spider in the garden. He said it looked tense but at the same time relaxed, the way he himself felt just that moment. Mere asked if it would be all right if they opened a bottle of wine. She thought it might help them relax, but was largely ignorant of Islam’s prohibitions. Ahmed said it would be fine as long as they didn’t get drunk and then surprised her by clinking his glass against hers while proposing a toast: To friendship and love and a long happy life.
They finished the bottle and turned off the light. Through the window on the far side of the couch they watched the moon rise through a gauzy fringe of locust trees. Mere felt her head spin when they kissed, and Ahmed started to undress her. Dissonantly and yet reassuringly, a fragment of half-forgotten lyric floated in her mind as his hand sought her breast. She closed her eyes and felt her lips form and softly repeat the words: Only a brave man can break through.
She awoke during the night from a frightening dream in which she sat on a plane (reflexively retracting her legs where she lay) looking out a window at the buildings passing just below. She reached for the other side of the bed for her lover and felt instantly relieved and reassured to feel his warm body. The next morning she awoke at first light to the sound of birdsong filtering through the open upstairs windows. She kept her eyes closed as she reached again across the cool sheet and touched her fingers tentatively against the warmth of the person still lying beside her. For a first waking moment she had feared it had all been a dream. And then she remembered a good part of it had indeed been a dream as she remembered who was lying beside her. She wondered what David would think and retracted her hand, but Ahmed’s stronger hand caught hers and pulled it back and she followed without resisting until, along with his luminous brown eyes, her heart opened when he whispered, Good morning.
In the weeks to follow, Mere made accommodations to her new Muslim lover in both subtle and not so subtle ways. She threw out the bacon, stopped buying sliced ham. After Libby woke Ahmed by licking him in the face one morning, she spent nights after that on the back stoop, an arrangement she didn’t seem to mind one bit. But the biggest change occurred in Mere’s assessment of Islam. She came to see it as less foreign and threatening and more benign, merely an alternative way of believing. After all, wasn’t it supposed to be the all-encompassing religion of peace? And indeed, after Ahmed knelt on his prayer mat and bowed towards the east, he did seem infused with a palpable serenity and calm that she couldn’t help but feel too.
Someday, he said, he hoped she might submit as well, and it became something of a joke between them that he submitted and she didn’t. But then he would smile and say she would submit in due time, and they both knew what that meant.
They sometimes talked about what they were doing, but were seldom otherwise bothered or troubled and were never long separated, though Ahmed still often went to the mosque where he served, in Mere’s imperfect understanding, as some kind of high-level acolyte. When they were alone and Ahmed wanted to make love he would often simply ask if she was his wife; Mere would reply that she was, and he was her husband. The ritual answered their separate needs—his devotional, hers emotional—though the question revealed Ahmed’s unspoken expectation that, one day, she would open her eyes to the true light of Islam, after which they might be married for real.
But she could not entirely shake the belief that being Muslim or Baptist or even Catholic were little different as avenues to submission for the many and control for a few. Call it what you will, crusade or jihad, it amounted to the same thing.
“No, that is wrong,” Ahmed insisted. “Jihad is something a man should fight in his own heart, not against others.” Likewise he insisted that men who flew planes into buildings or blew up markets with car bombs were not from Allah but the Devil. He spoke with feeling derived from his experience in Algiers where his own father had died at the hands of such killers.
In time these minor debates united them; only the outside world could threaten their peace. Some of their happiest moments were found doing the simplest things: hoeing the garden or watering the asparagus or picking black raspberries, with Libby following behind and nibbling off the low-hanging fruit that they missed. One morning they found a luminous green snake lying by the tomatoes, nearly invisible in the grass. They let it lie and looked for it on subsequent mornings, sometimes finding it but more often not. Mere said they were like the couple in the Garden except nothing could threaten them here, and not even the outer world seemed able to intrude on their bliss, though occasionally a neighbor boy rode through the property on a yellow four-wheeler, temporarily disrupting the peace.
“When bush comes to shove,” the boy liked to say as a preface to emphasizing some point or another. Mere found him endearing. But then he started to come by more and more often, and both she and Ahmed came more and more to dislike it. One afternoon they were drifting together on the pond in the rowboat when the neighbor boy stopped his yellow four-wheeler on the ridge above the pond and watched them. Mere decided that was enough. As he came back through the property later that day, she caught him and asked if he would not come by anymore. The boy listened and then nodded silently assenting to her request. Slipping the helmet back down over his head he gave her one last sideways look, only his eyes showing through the visor like those of a woman in a chador as he drove off.
Mere hoped she hadn’t hurt his feelings or made an enemy. The next day, however, the boy returned, his mother chauffeuring him to the back door in a forest green Jeep. At first neither mother nor son saw Mere riding the lawn tractor, mowing out beyond the studio. The boy and mother just looked at the back door, waiting for Mere to come out. But when she drove in closer they heard and then saw her and waved out through the Jeep’s open windows. The boy got out and said there was a dog that looked just like Libby heading down the hill. Did Mere own another dog or know anything about it?
“It’s got a real tight collar,” the boy said, approaching as he came around the back of the Jeep. “If you get a chance, you should maybe loosen it up some.”
“Okay,” Mere agreed, “will do.” She smiled at the mother and the mother returned the same knowing smile and gave a short wave, starting the engine again as the boy climbed back in.
“That was strange,” Mere said to herself as she watched the Jeep go down the drive. But at least, she persuaded herself, there didn’t seem to be any hard feelings.
Such episodes were easy to handle when Ahmed wasn’t around. But other times proved more problematical. The most embarrassing encounter took place the day Mere’s one-time prospective in-laws appeared at the farm nearly unannounced. Short of five minute’s warning delivered by cell phone as they drove from town, Cyril and Emeline caught Mere and Ahmed next to unawares, which would have been a disaster.
They were in the black raspberry patch picking berries when Mere heard the phone and ran to get it. Breathlessly, she ran back to Ahmed and told him to hide in the converted barn studio, but he balked and wouldn’t do it.
“Don’t be silly, girl,” he told her. “I’m not a cornered rat, you know.”
Nonetheless, she implored him to co-operate and finally he assented at least to act as her gardener. She thrust into his hand a cutting tool built like a heavy steel scissors with a flat coil spring connecting the handles.
“Here, go cut some roses,” Mere said. She playfully flicked him away with the backs of her fingers and watched him go sulkily to the garden where he pulled off his indigo tee-shirt, tying it like a bandana around his head. At first he stood still, looking off across the valley towards the far horizon, but finally he started snipping at the roses, every action of his body exuding resentment, remaining overtly sullen in his demeanor even as the Bernstein’s black Cadillac came up the drive a minute later.
Mere’s pathetic attempt at subterfuge fooled them not a whit. Emeline looked out at the supposed gardener and asked Mere if he wasn’t really a friend of hers.
“It’s not any of our business, dear,” Cyril said, attempting to remain neutral. But the very fact he tried to help her out only made Mere feel that much guiltier. She asked if they wanted iced tea, thinking they might all go out to the picnic table at the end of the house by the rose garden, from where she could casually extend an invitation for Ahmed to join them. No, Emeline said, they had to get going. They had just wanted to stop in for a moment to see her.
Ahmed stayed in the garden even after they had gone, and finally Mere realized he would not relent until she went out to him.
“You treat me like a slave,” he said, angrily snipping a rose stem.
“I’m so sorry, Ahmed.”
“Is this how it is to be with us?”
“No, Ahmed. I promise never again.”
“Here.” He gave her the rose, pushing the stem forcibly with his palm against hers. She winced as a thorn pressed into her flesh.
“That is nothing compared to the pain you have caused me. But that is not all.”
“What then, Ahmed?”
He lifted the stem from her hand, revealing a small welling puncture. He delicately touched the place with a finger, as if to staunch the flow and remove the hurt. She closed her eyes, feeling a strange pleasure.
“I hurt you,” he said, and she opened her eyes and her mouth to respond only to close them again as Ahmed raised the finger to her lips. He then kissed her, sharing the ferric salt taste of her blood.
In a moment she felt intensely aroused, wanting to love him, wanting him to love her, right there in the garden. She didn’t care, wouldn’t care if someone discovered them, wouldn’t care even if as they were undressing each other Cyril and Emeline were to pull up again and discover them going at it. But Ahmed pulled away and wouldn’t touch her any further.
“If I am a slave, you are a slave.’” He bent down and picked up the rose that had fallen to the ground and held it out to her. “You must submit.”
“To you, Ahmed? To God? To Allah?” Hesitating a half second, she added, “What would you have me do?”
“It’s up to you, girl.”
“You’re still mad at me,” she observed, flatly.
“A little and that is my problem.”
“Mine too, I dare say.”
“Little girl,” he said slowly, “I dare say it is.”
A small smile crossed Ahmed’s lips then as she accepted the rose, and Mere knew whatever else might occur, their lives would continue together as before, evolving in understanding of one another, for some time to come.
The next day they were once again picking black raspberries out in the field by the side yard when Ahmed came up behind her. He pulled her head back, his fist entangling her hair, and kissed the right side of her neck as his other hand slipped around up under her left arm and began deftly unbuttoning her shirt. Closing her eyes, she anticipated his touch; when his fingers at last found her breasts, she gasped and bit her lower lip. He lightly touched and then stroked a bare nipple, whispering that it felt like a freshly ripened berry. He pinched it and she whimpered, biting her lip even harder.
“Submit,” he growled low in her ear, and she did willingly, bending over and bowing as he briskly pulled her jeans to her knees. Of their own weight they dropped the rest of the way to her ankles as he let go, and when she stepped awkwardly from them she felt a small illicit thrill, standing almost entirely exposed, wearing only her sheer purple panties.
Ahmed took one step back and appraised her.
“Allah as my witness,” he said, “you are a beautiful creature.”
“Thank you, Ahmed.”
“I love you, girl.”
“I love you too, Ahmed.”
“And you will submit.”
“I will submit to you my love.”
She felt her panties slip down her thigh as his fingers pushed them to her knees, after which they slid easily down her calves, falling loosely against her ankles. She stepped free and bowed again, pushing her hands flat against the ground, spreading her feet as Ahmed’s rough palms reached around and parted her thighs even further. He then gripped her bare hips, clenching her sensitive skin with surprisingly sharp nails, while she steadied and held herself against the ground, bracing for the force of the onslaught to follow. For a moment more he approximated her pliant act of submission as he bent and gently kissed the space between her shoulder blades. It took awhile for him to fully position, and then in one abrupt motion he pushed into her. The suddenness caused her to gasp and close both eyes with a blissful grimace. She bit down on her lip again until the gruff command came to look. Obediently she craned back in a largely futile attempt to see. She opened her mouth, gaping, and sought his face above the raspberry patch enclosing them both. But that part of him was only a blur at the far edge of her vision, moving beneath a cotton cloud and an otherwise empty expanse of clear cobalt sky.
Two years later, during the season of ripening raspberries, Ahmed and Mere stood amid them one last time, saying goodbye.
Neither knew then Ahmed would never come back, although he well knew what he did was dangerous; Mere only knew what he told her, and clung to the promise he whispered before parting: One day, Inshallah, they would be inseparably married for real.
On a cold night the winter previous, as they lay together on a blanket watching a wood fire, he had divulged to her a compromising confidence: He did not desire ever to leave her, but his frequent departures and occasionally long absences were required to interdict and defuse hidden dangers. That’s all he would say. The rest he left to her imagination. But the problem was, in her feverish imaginings she conjured up the darkest of possibilities.
The worst and most nagging of them all was not that Ahmed might eventually be found out and murdered by plotting Islamists, but that he himself might be one too. Mere did not allow herself to delve into such thoughts too deeply, yet could not entirely expel them either.
More likely, she told herself, he was only fooling with her, which led to the possibility he had another woman—perhaps even a wife. But sad as it made her, Mere found that worrisome possibility preferable to most all the others.
The day after he left, the weather changed like a premonition. Mere went out without shoes or socks into a misty cool, fall-like morning holding in her left hand a small Tupperware container. The lawn felt damp and pliant underfoot as she crossed the lawn to the black raspberries. Small evanescent webs lay saturated with dew suspended on top of the grass. The summer had hardly begun yet overnight it seemed already to be over. Not only the temperature, but the atmosphere and aroma of life had changed, though part of the change might simply have been a matter of perception. Mere realized as much, suspected her new loneliness heightened awareness of life’s transience, causing her mind to register of the world what her heart already knew. The simple fact was she missed Ahmed, and missed him all the more until she had enough and no longer wished to pick berries. She picked only a sufficient quantity to cover the bottom of the container and, judging the amount ample to top a bowl of cold cereal, crossed the lawn back to the house. Was it her imagination, then, accounting for what she perceived as she ate, or did the fruit of the present taste less sweet than before, now that he had gone?
One thing was indubitably true. The sweet perfume of the peonies that had graced the house the night of their last meal together faded away almost to nothing over the next few days. Clearing the table after breakfast a week later, Mere clutched the dried stems, lifting them from the stagnant water remaining in the clear green-blue vase. At her touch a sudden shocking fall of withered pink petals landed with a soft but audible thud on the table.
The air stayed cool all that week and the sky at the end turned the color of clear cerulean glass. The remaining green berries turned red, the red berries black, until the last few of them left were either picked or let go. Birds got to some, others shriveled like raisins in the afternoon sun. Soon even the little white rounded cones from whence all the berries had grown withered and turned brown.
After another week Mere became so lonely she didn’t know what to do. Seeking to combat the feeling of abandonment she began once again to stalk the grounds surrounding the house, taking pictures. One morning while shooting a rabbit out behind the studio she discovered a translucent garter snake skin laid out in the asparagus, and discovered the live snake curled and retracting against its self moments later. She encountered what she believed to be the very same snake a day later when it lifted its head and in rapid sequence flicked out its forked red tongue before slithering off into the tall grass.
Besides hunting spiders and rabbits and snakes in the grass, she spent progressively more time in the insular world of her darkroom, stirring chemicals, working with the enlarger, projecting light through exposed film onto paper. She especially liked lifting the handle of the long stemmed hydrant and letting a heavy stream of spring water wash over the finished prints in the long soapstone trough after she’d fixed them. The hydrant and low trough were Elroy’s proudest contribution. As good as any of that fancy darkroom stuff, he’d said, and actually better considering the advantage in cost. And furthermore the pipe wouldn’t freeze, ever. He had galldarnguaranteed it.
So she coped, making pictures, avoiding the older photos that could most powerfully affect her, until one day coming unexpectedly across an all but forgotten picture of Ahmed and herself and Libby sitting together by the pond she began to wonder anew where this life of hers would lead her.
She sat at the workbench by the windows peering through binoculars, overlooking the same pond in the photo. A great blue heron stood entirely still, his image mirrored in the water with the reeds around him. Despite all her faith and love, some part of her consciousness still couldn’t help associating the heron with Ahmed and herself with a fish he had patiently waited to spear and so capture.
She slipped a disc into the stereo and listened to the music she would always associate with the day everything had changed forever. Sitting back, closing her eyes, she recalled and began to replay in her mind all the images she had formerly tried to forget. But the emotions were still too close to remember. She opened her eyes and looked again at the photo of Libby and herself and her new lover Ahmed, rendered not in the simple contrast of black and white, but all the multitude of shades between. Long ago she had learned most of reality existed in the moderate zones. Absolute light and dark revealed nothing. Yet now she wondered if she really knew anything. And what could a photo tell, after all?
She didn’t know, but she tried to discern in it some small truth nonetheless and looked closer. Ahmed’s eyes were soft and luminous, not at all the dead eyes of a killer. She remembered the day they put Libby to sleep, and how he had knelt at her grave after setting her in, silently touching her side one last time as quiet tears streaked his cheeks. No, Mere whispered, he wasn’t a murderer. She closed her eyes and listened as the song of that day played and surprisingly she felt better, silently mouthing the words: We’re all the same, and no one thinks so, and it’s okay, and I’m small and I’m divine, and it’s beautiful.
A black car arrived a day later and a man, tall and slightly ascetic emerged from the otherwise empty back seat. He introduced himself at the door as agent Jack Reynolds of the FBI, opening what looked like a black billfold which showed his picture on a stamped and embossed document to prove who he was. Mere wondered how he had found her as she led him to the living room. Taking a seat on the couch, he unwound a string securing the flap of a manila folder and slid a small stack of photos out onto the glass-topped coffee table. Agent Reynolds drew his fingers across their glossy surfaces, fanning them a little sideways like a large deck of cards. Mere stifled the impulse to tell him he should never touch a photo that way as doing so would leave fingerprints.
The first picture was the same one Mere had glimpsed on the news, of the man Ahmed had once introduced to her outside the mosque as his brother.
“I’m not sure where to begin,” Agent Reynolds began. He tapped the picture with the tip of his middle finger and cleared his throat, his voice a half register lower as he proceeded, plodding on. “This man—Yousef Nidal—was found murdered, executed really, a bullet to the back of the head, his body left in a shallow grave near Sheldrake Pond, this side of Liberty.” He passed his fingers lightly over a photo of Ahmed and pulled another from underneath it as Mere held her breath, fearing whatever it showed would only further involve her or her lover. But the photo depicted only some other seeming Arabic, a young man, totally unremarkable in appearance if not for an exotic gold-embroidered red robe and black turban.
“This man here,” Reynolds steadily continued, tapping the second photo lightly with the same middle finger, “belonged to a group calling itself the Islamic Brotherhood of Jihad. Nidal and Ahmed went to meet with him last Tuesday when something went wrong. Yesterday he was found in a ditch with his throat nearly cut through. Meanwhile,” Agent Reynolds looked up from the pictures, “Ahmed has disappeared and gone quiet.”
Struck dumb, Mere could do no more than stare at the photo. Agent Reynolds coughed softly, clearing his throat.
“I need to know whatever you can tell me,” he gently prodded.
Mere sat, still slightly stunned, and continued to look at the photos, appraising each one for some meaning, sitting mute for another half minute before beginning to relate the little she knew. The first man she had seen only once, the second one never at all. Ahmed had gone away without telling her where he was headed off to or why or with whom; she hadn’t seen or heard from him either, in over two weeks.
“I was afraid of that,” Reynolds murmured, and suddenly Mere became newly afraid too—for Ahmed, but as well for her self. She couldn’t help wondering what Agent Reynolds knew or suspected or might eventually find out. Had the FBI tapped her phone, employed satellite surveillance to spy on her home? She wondered if they might not also possess incriminating glossy eight by tens of her and Ahmed romping in the raspberry patch. But if Reynolds possessed such pictures, he didn’t let on.
“The first murdered man…” Reynolds again paused and Mere looked up and blinked, waiting. “Nidal was working for us deep undercover. The second man was his contact inside the IBJ. Now we have the head of the Brotherhood claiming Ahmed killed them both.”
“I find that unbelievable,” Mere gasped. She blinked again, her eyes welling.
“As do I,” Reynolds said quietly. He looked down while Mere continued to watch him, searching for some further indication of his beliefs as he sat perched at the front edge of the couch, his long legs splayed at the knees, tapping the picture. “If one of your guys ends up eliminating the other, then...” He left the sentence unfinished as if for the first time considering the full implication. “Ahmed was one of our highest valued assets within the entire metro Muslim community. But anything’s possible, I suppose. It’s worrisome he should simply disappear. He may have fooled us badly or…”
Agent Reynolds left the rest of this thought unstated as well, but Mere finished it in her mind and wondered for the first time if she really belonged in Ahmed’s world after all. Suddenly she feared she might never see her beautiful Arabian lover again.
Reynolds gathered the photos, slipping them back into the manila envelope. He rewound the string, securing the narrow isosceles flap. He then stood and, without looking, reached two fingers into the interior breast pocket of his suit coat.
“If Ahmed should again contact you,” he said, extracting a card and extending it with the same two fingers, “please give me a call.”
Mere accepted the card quietly and held it at her side, looking at it only after the black car had rolled down the driveway and turned on the road.
That night she found herself again beside herself in her dreams. She awoke, sat up, and lay back down, merging with sleep into her prone body as she continued to dream a dream in which she lay awake soaking up the comforting warmth of the sun. Somehow she had survived the crash and lay small and scared and alone, remembering her own fear reflected in the faces of the amazed steel workers as she looked helplessly out the airliner’s small portal-like window. She could not imagine how she had come to be flying, remembering during the course of the dream her own parents had died in an air crash, orphaning her at a young age; she had renewed a vow after watching the flights going into the towers (disregarding the chronology of things) never to board an airplane again. The very thought of going aloft sent a spasm of fear down her spine. She curled up into a ball and tried to dismiss both the dream of flying and the shivering fear, but all seemed entwined with her now, as were her past and future and present. The unsettling thought she’d been given a premonition kept her awake until the pre-dawn birds began chirping.
But as luck or fate or Allah would have it, she received a reassuring message that very morning. The electronic ascending arpeggio emanating from the computer alerted her to the online presence of another as she made coffee in the kitchen. Returning upstairs, she found a blinking orange tab on her toolbar. Ahmed, using the nom de guerre Blackdog_sirius, wished to converse with his beloved Persephone_princess.
She clicked on the orange tab, opening a box on her screen and typed in the single word “Here” in reply to the waiting question: “Where are you?” She wanted to ask the same thing, but Ahmed was already typing.
—I miss you girl
—I miss you too, my boy
—Are you still the same girl?
—Yes, and are you still the same boy?
In like vein, back and forth, one simple line at a time, they continued flirting across the ether awhile longer and said what they each so yearned to do with the other. Mere restrained the impulse to share her new secret, wanting to wait until she could see the look of surprise (and, she hoped, pride and pleasure) on his face when she told him. She would get that chance soon enough because Ahmed told her to meet him, then when and where; so she gathered his things from the thin metal box at the back of his personal drawer in the bedroom bureau. Next she went to the bank and withdrew six thousand dollars in new twenties. She told herself what he had by inference essentially told her: only her money could ensure his salvation. She repeated the words in her head as the teller slid three paper-banded bundles of fresh twenties across the stainless steel counter. Slipping them into her purse, she left the dim lobby, sneezing twice in quick succession upon exiting into the bright summer sunlight before pulling the dark glasses down from her hair. She became acutely attuned to everything then. As the glass door closed behind, reflecting a flashing pane of light before her, she heard the sound of her own heels walking away on the sidewalk and feared someone else, unknown, following.
Just the very act of carrying the money seemed vaguely criminal, as if she were an accomplice to something she should have known better to avoid. So it was she feared being followed and walked away half expecting any moment to be surrounded by black cars and plainclothes agents pulling guns from their vests and shouting for her to surrender. But such dramatic imaginings left her after a few uneventful minutes feeling silly. No, she decided, they would undoubtedly play it very cool; likely one agent seemingly alone would simply sidle up inconspicuously beside her and calmly whisper: Come with me.
But once on the expressway, she began to feel no-one could catch her—though she realized she might still catch herself, or rather allow herself to be caught. Still it remained possible she was only leading them straight to Ahmed nonetheless. Alternatively then, she could flee in another direction. Or she could do as Agent Reynolds had instructed: call and let him make the next move.
But she wouldn’t do that. She had disowned and betrayed her love once already, disrespected and dismissed him, sending him out to the garden that day Cyril and Emeline arrived unexpectedly. She was determined never to do anything like it again. Either she trusted and loved him or she didn’t. I will trust him, she told herself, and I do.
They met in a small café in a little place called Appalachin on the far side of Binghamton. Ahmed bought her lunch. They sat at a table outside to be alone and private and made only inconsequential small talk at first, getting reacquainted. Glancing nervously towards the parking lot, they took turns looking at the front of Mere’s car parked close at the edge of the pavement before them.
“You brought the money?” Ahmed put the question abruptly. Lifting a tall glass of iced tea he took a long drink.
“Yes, of course.” Mere frowned slightly, taken slightly aback by his efficient cool bluntness. She lifted her own iced tea and noticed the outside of the glass sweating. Over the course of the afternoon a southerly wind had blown in bringing a welcome change from the cool morning preceding. She hoped the sudden warmth presaged a storm and for a brief moment she allowed herself to believe they would make love that evening to violent thunder and lightning and afterwards lie spent and content, falling asleep to the sound of an incessant yet gentle rain.
“You are a good girl.” Ahmed smiled reassuringly, putting the glass down. “Now I have something to give you.” He lifted a laptop from beside him and slid it across the table. A wan smile formed on Mere’s mouth as her eyes beheld the bitten apple logo adorning the cover.
“What is this, Ahmed, the repository of forbidden knowledge?”
“Precisely,” he said, shooting her a quick furtive look. “It was Nidal’s. Give it to Reynolds when you return. He will know what to do.”
“But I’m going with you,” she protested.
He shook his head as if to say no, but reconsidered, possibly realizing she might still be either a threat or an asset.
“Only as far as Toronto,” he said, and Mere didn’t argue, suddenly aware impetuousness was a trait neither of them deemed valuable.
“As far as Toronto,” she conceded.
Her car and only one other occupied the parking lot the whole time they sat in the café and Mere began to relax and let go the notion she was being secretly watched or pursued. She felt progressively better as they got back on the expressway and journeyed on, both of them still happily together and free. Maybe, she told herself, there had never been anything to fear after all.
Mere wanted to know all of what happened in the time since their last parting, but she waited, trusting Ahmed to tell her in his own way, in his own time. He started by asking if she remembered that day they sat together after laying Libby to rest under the green apple tree. A fall of premature apples had made the sitting uncomfortable. Mere laughed as he recalled her taking one small green apple out from under her as she sat and offering it to him with an open palm. But then she bit her tongue, remembering the laptop and realizing all over again the irrevocable truth that consequences accrue with our knowledge. Ahmed lightly touched her near thigh as she drove, and she felt the muscle reflexively respond beneath his fingertips as he caressed her.
“You have shown me only good,” he said quietly, as if knowing her mind.
“I hope so Ahmed.”
“You want to know what happened to me.” He spoke declaratively, yet she understood his words as a question and answered with a half-whispered Yes. And so as she drove he told her the story of how the man he had once introduced to her as his brother had betrayed him to another on a remote country road.
The men forced him from the grassy shoulder into the woods, where he was made to dig his own grave. But then as he knelt before it, awaiting the flash of light that he imagined would consign him to darkness forever, he heard a gunshot and a body fell on the ground behind him. He turned his head, astounded to see the man who had betrayed him had himself been betrayed, shot by the man who held Ahmed’s gun.
“The world is a more complicated and dangerous place than you know,” is all that he would say after that, and Mere pursed her lips and nodded her head in quiet acknowledgement, though in truth she perceived so little it may as well have been nothing of what he meant.
“If I were a bad man,” he continued, as if to refute an unspoken accusation, “do you know how many of you I could kill with a single jar of anthrax? Imagine that, if you will. But most people can’t or won’t or are simply incapable of confronting such a thing. Before the towers came down, no one would believe a few men with box-cutting knives could bring this nation to her knees. But it happened, did it not? So if I say I could do a hundred times worse with a Mason jar of anthrax do not for a moment doubt it. But I will not tell even you how to do it. That is knowledge no one should possess.”
“Ahmed,” she pleaded. “Stop speaking this way. I trust you. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.” But in truth she didn’t know how far to trust him. How many of you? The words echoed, the distance implied by this alienating locution upsetting and worrying to her.
“I know,” she protested. “It is only my own insecurity, and no fault of yours, that makes me talk so. I will be quiet now. Please, Ahmed, I beg you. Let us forget all about it.”
After that, alternating between mutual quiet and inconsequential conversation, they rode north and west, eliciting no more than a solemn nod from a Customs agent while crossing the Peace Bridge to Niagara Falls where they stopped and strolled hand in hand beneath the billowing mists before continuing on to Toronto, renting a room and making love, possibly, Mere thought, for the very last time.
Before setting out on her journey that morning she had looked at the French passport in the thin metal box. The face on the document she knew as Ahmed’s. But the far different and foreign name attributed to it was that of a stranger, Ismal al-Harab.
Who was this man really? What did he do? What had he done? Where was he off to? What would become of him, and of her? She didn’t know a satisfactory answer to any of these questions, and maybe would never. Most importantly, how would he react to the knowledge she was carrying his child? She put the matter to herself the most dispassionate way possible: Was she an asset to him still or had she become only a hindrance?
They undressed. A flash of lighting lit up the room as the inevitable storm approached. A long growl of thunder followed and in the subsequent quiet she told him she held their growing baby within her. She glanced up but then, unable to meet his eyes, closed hers and knelt as if praying on the mattress to await his response. He knelt behind her. She felt him take her hair in his fist, pulling her head back, exposing her neck to the blade some part of her tensed body still expected to come. The thumbnail of his free hand described the beginning bulge of her belly and involuntarily she recalled a dream within a dream wherein her slit womb released butterflies fluttering free to the sky before she woke to feel his palm on her body. As in waking from that dream she next felt his soft mouth and then a small bite at the side of her neck. His warm hand stroked the slight protuberance of her belly while his mouth kissed the sensitive part of her neck first below and then up under her ear. A chill shot through her entire body as he whispered, “Girl, I love you.”
Back home, she found Agent Reynolds’ card and called, expecting him to be irate with her or at least disappointed. Instead, he simply thanked her for what little information she could give about Ahmed’s—Ismal’s—whereabouts.
What a strange word, whereabouts. Mere moved it around in her mouth, saying it again and again, tasting its meaning until Agent Reynolds arrived.
He paid yet another visit a week later, extending his long legs one last time from the back of the shiny black car that brought him. He started by thanking Mere again for the laptop; it had been far more valuable to them than she could ever know.
“We’ve tracked the man you knew as Ahmed to Marseille. His handler there assures us he is well and safe and everything is fine. At the last he determined—and you will appreciate the irony, I think—he could no longer trust us. But he trusted you, trusts you. And he wants you to come to him.”
Agent Reynolds declined Mere’s invitation to enter the house. This wasn’t a social visit, he said. He winked, but the gesture seemed to bother him more than it did her and he busied himself as if to cover his embarrassment by extracting a card in the same vaguely preoccupied manner as before, reaching his fingers blindly into the interior of his faintly pinstriped gray suit coat. He took out a pen and stood with his legs widely planted like a traffic officer writing a ticket, and carefully printed a cipher on the back.
“If you go to Marseille,” he said, handing the card to her backside up. “Call this number. Somebody will arrange you a meeting.”
“Thank you,” Mere murmured. “I’m sure Ahmed thanks you too.”
“Give him our best, won’t you?”
“Yes, I most certainly will. Again, thank you.”
Reynolds returned to the car door, opened it, but then hesitated; still holding onto the handle, he turned and looked back.
“Parlez vous Francaise?” he said at last.
“Un peu,” Mere replied. She matched Agent Reynolds’ slight smile with one of her own and then watched him duck his head into the car and shut the door. Facing forward, he raised a hand to the open window as the profile image of him disappeared into dark as the car moved on down the drive and away.
A short month later, Mere sat on the grey weathered picnic table situated off the back end of the house and watched as a sudden gust of wind blew leaves and ripe apples down onto Libby’s favorite, final, resting place. A gentler yet more constant breeze moved across Mere’s face and arms like a stream of cool water, raising goosebumps, portending autumn. Mere closed her eyes, remembering the last time she and Ahmed sat there together until, entirely unbidden, a fragment of conversation as well came to mind:
“I know why Adam took Eve’s apple,” he’d said, accepting the small bitter fruit she held up for him in her palm.
“And why is that, dear?”
“Simply, he could not bear to live in a world without her.”
Awhile later she got up and checked the house one last time before locking it and getting in the car to make the slightly roundabout drive to stay with Gitangeli before going on to the airport the next morning. Everything else had been arranged with Cyril, who, as ever, neither approved nor disapproved of her notions; he would simply see to her finances and accede to her wishes. If she needed money he would wire it. If Gitangeli needed any help he would see to that too, for she had taken a sabbatical from work and would be living at the old farm house and caretaking the surrounding grounds in Mere’s absence.
At the airport early the next morning, standing in the concourse near the glass doors leading to the screening area, she and Gitangeli kissed once chastely on the lips, then pressed cheek to cheek in a long goodbye embrace, with Gitangeli finally giving her a breathless “Be safe” before letting her go. But as Mere turned, still unsure whether she could find the courage to fly, Gitangeli remembered one more thing she had to bestow: a manila envelope with a blood-red string nearly identical to the one Agent Reynolds had carried to her not so long ago.
“Wait until you’re on the plane,” Gitangeli instructed, flashing a sidelong look pregnant with meaning. As the airplane took off, Mere sat alone in first class, held upright and confined by a lap strap. She clasped the folder with both hands and closed her eyes, stifling a small yelp as the force of the thrust took her to the sky.
For awhile more she didn’t look. When finally she did open her eyes she discovered a dark man, seeming Arabic, smiling enigmatically at her from across the aisle. Abjuring fear, Mere gave him a weak smile in return. Don’t worry, she reassured herself, everything will be all right.
Curiosity at last prevailed over apprehension and she unwound the thin red string binding Gitangeli’s folder. Lifting the flap revealed a child’s crayon depiction of a plane flying intact beyond two unbroken towers. Fighting back tears, Mere turned with a sigh towards the window and again closed her eyes.
Wanting no more than to feel the sun on her face, she willed her body to relax. Her mind gradually followed her senses as she sought to become truly accepting. Taking a deep breath and slowly exhaling, she whispered Inshallah thrice in incantation. It helped as well to imagine Lady Liberty, receding yet still resolutely holding a torch for the world. Everything wrong would be all right, she believed, everything would be all right. Reclining in the seat, extending her legs, Sarah Mere gave out a final soft sigh as, submitting to faith, she let her every fear go and fell towards sleep.
It was September and she was on her way.
That Day is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.