1. Elisabeta says, “These are dangerous times for you,” and the boy laughs, turning his face away from her as she holds his upturned hands in her own. She lets go and leans back in her chair. “I’m sorry,” he says. “Seriously. It’s just that…”
She lays an elbow on the table and points a ringed finger like it is a gun. She shakes it at him as if she is admonishing a child.
“Listen,” she says, her anger sharpening her accent. “Listen, I have not lived this long to have someone as young as you laugh in my face. Get out of here. Get out before I make your pecker fall off.”
Carissa says, “But Elisabeta, please—” and Elisabeta, furious, turns the finger on her.
“And you. You should be ashamed. I’ve told you once or a hundred times: You may ignore, but do not mock. Not in front of me.” She turns back to the boy, who has stopped laughing, who is staring dumbly at the tabletop. “I tell you you’re in danger, you laugh at me like I’m the village idiot? Do you laugh in your father’s face, too? Such disrespect?”
He is about the say something, probably something stupid, when a pale girl in a coat too large for her steps through the beaded curtain, sees them all there and says, “Sorry.”
Without turning, Elisabeta says, “I’ll be with you in a moment, Kalen. Please wait in the other room.”
The boy has his wallet out, is leafing through the bills. Elisabeta snorts, her earrings tinkling. It is her turn to laugh. “No charge. I don’t charge fools for their ignorance.”
Carissa says, “Elisabeta, please. That’s why we came here; he is in trouble—”
Elisabeta looks at them both, shakes her head. “He’s in trouble, yes, but can obviously handle it himself. He obviously doesn’t need any help.”
The boy, who probably frightened most people with his size, his tattoos, says, “Hey, I’m sorry, it’s just that—”
She shakes her head again, faces her palm toward him. She says, “No more.” She says, “Carissa, you may come back and see me.” She looks at the boy, who does not return her stare. “You, young man, I don’t want ever to see again. Step down that road alone for all I care.”
2. She was born in Munich in 1933, one of only a few thousand full-blooded Roma that had escaped sterilization (she was too young) and expatriation to Siberia as part of Goebbel’s Gypsy Removal Act. Legislation passed a month after her eighth birthday. Dachau, a hell of snow and hunger, would come later.
She’s seventy-four years old and so, so deathly tired of her own stories.
She rises slowly, a body that’s aged hard and lean over the years. She sets the kettle on the hotplate. There will be tea before she calls Kalen in. Kalen, severe and pretty and so obviously damaged, who hangs on her words like the prophecy. Deathly serious Kalen, who stole one of Elisabeta’s necklaces after her first visit. Elisabeta (too trusting even as an old woman, even in the winter of her life and all she’s been through) had gone to the bathroom, foolishly left the girl alone. The girl and (she realized later) the pendant had been gone when she’d returned to the sitting room. It was a metal bird on a chain; the wings could be pulled apart and when they were, the bird’s breast was exposed, showing a sepia-toned photograph of her mother, taken in 1930. It was one of the few valuables and heirlooms that’d been sent away to distant family, long before their internment, before the full-fledged Nazi occupation. Her father (a temperamental and savagely alcoholic man, but one with foresight) had seen early on which way the German wind would blow.
She’d traveled to France to retrieve it, finally, from a second cousin in 1956. Had held onto it since with an ever-fading mix of awe (that horror can, over the years, yellow and age to nothing more than a vague distaste, bad dreams, the smell of ash, the remembrance of brittle snow against her soles) and a longing for a life, somehow, not forged in the shadow of war. And the necklace had, of course, been that last tangible vestige of her mother, her life, her memory.
In 1956 (Christ, she’d been so young then, young and brave and angry and somehow hopeful!), she traveled to Ste. Mère Eglise. Her second cousin (she’d been older, a housewife, a housewife with a French accent for God’s sake, no trace of Romanian blood left in her, it seemed) had told her, “The Germans came here, too. There was a fierce battle,” and handed her the brooch. As if she were saying they were on equal footing. As if a Romanian refugee in a French village and a girl who’d survived the death camps were on level ground with each other. They were strangers. Elisabeta had stood in that sunlit cottage, smoked as many of the woman’s cigarettes as she could, left without thanks.
The necklace had seemed important back then. Some kind of totem. A history of relentlessly interwoven lives encapsulated in the breast of a rusted talisman. Elisabeta has never said anything to Kalen about it; her mother’s image is still etched clear enough behind her eyes. And now, what, fifty years later? More? There are other things in this life to regret than a missing necklace.
But stealing from a gypsy, she thinks now, placing saucers on plates. That’s a laugh. She speaks only English now, sometimes hears German commands, short and clipped, in her dreams. No longer considers herself Roma, or anything else. No longer considers.
As she lights incense and adjusts the scarf covering her hair (they expect the imagery, they do) she thinks back to Carissa and the foolish boy, knowing that if she stepped out of the sitting room and left the apartment, went outside, they would not be there. That people like the two of them do not, can not, stay still for long.
She had been rash with the boy—the danger to him had been obvious to her quickly—but she is too old and has seen too much misplaced bravado to suffer it now. Like she said, he could go the road alone for all she cared.
When the tea is ready and she has filled the cups, she calls Kalen in. The girl walks quietly, seats herself across from Elisabeta without a word, knits her hands together. Some of them are nervous, while others act as if they have bought her as well as the right to sit across from her. Almost all of them asking questions no one except a vengeful God would answer: When will I die? Will there be love for me? Is my husband faithful? Will he be waiting for me in heaven? Will I always be poor?
Diluted and distilled, every question says: Tell me, tell. Is this all there is?
She sees what she sees; she stopped questioning the cards or her own intuition as a child. She knows now that time carves the limbs off everything, curiosity and wonderment included. There are large, scientific words for what she sees with the cards, sees at her table. She has heard them; she doesn’t remember what they are. There are also words like faker, hoax, charlatan: words that she does know, that she’s heard many times. But time carves the limbs off the need for validation as well.
Kalen’s hands are long and thin, even the palms cool to the touch. Elisabeta touches her wrists, those long tapered fingers, concentrating, a small smile playing across her face. After a while she says, “Dear, is there a paramour?”
“A boy? A boyfriend?”
Kalen’s eyes crinkle as she smiles. The girl would be striking were she not so deathly pale, if she didn’t carry such an air of seriousness about her. “I met someone,” she manages. Her eyes go back to her hands as she says, flatly, “He’s okay.”
“Is that what you’d like to talk about today, Kalen?”
She ducks her head, runs her hand under her nose. “No, I…” She looks up at Elisabeta, straightens her shoulders, exhales. “Yes. Yeah, I’d like to talk about it. I don’t know what I’m doing, I guess. Not really.”
“You’re confused,” Elisabeta says simply, taking a sip of her tea.
Kalen laughs derisively (at which one of them, Elisabeta couldn’t say). “Fuck yeah, I’m confused.”
She has various decks of cards, uses each depending on the client and her moods. She takes one from a drawer under the table where they sit and removes the deck from its box. She finds the Lovers, places it face up between them, and says, “This covers you, dear.” She hands the rest to Kalen, who shuffles them wordlessly, quickly—she has done this before—and hands them back.
Incense clouds the small room in the scent of African violets. The flickering candles and small lamps do battle with the shadows. Elisabeta places the deck facedown on the table. She says, “This crosses you,” and pulls the Devil, puts it down.
“Great,” Kalen says.
Elisabeta, still looking at the cards, smiles again. “Don’t get overwhelmed. There are more cards to see.”
She says, “This crowns you,” and draws the Three of Swords.
“What does that mean?”
Elisabeta taps the card with a ringed finger. “This is your intention towards the matter at hand.”
“So what’s my intention?”
Kalen does not usually ask questions. “Three of Swords means heartache, dear. There’s a division within you.” She pulls the next card, the Eight of Cups, and says, “This is beneath you. It represents your inner feelings—you are trying to put the past behind you. A brave thing to do, and very difficult.”
When Elisabeta looks at her, Kalen’s breath hitches in; she scrubs her paper-white hands across her face once, puts them back in her lap.
Elisabeta continues to draw the cards, mentioning what each illustrates in the matter of Kalen and her romantic troubles (and the deeper, more cutting thing that, Elisabeta knows, connects to it.) The Nine of Wands is drawn, the Five of Swords, the Hermit, the Tower, the Queen of Cups.
“This,” Elisabeta says, “is the outcome. The potential outcome, if trends and, dear, your decisions continue as they have been.”
And it is, of course, the Death card.
Kalen throws her hands up (her bracelets clicking in the shadowed room) and says, “Terrific. Look, I’m gonna need at least one more cigarette before I fuckin croak, okay?”
Elisabeta frowns, shakes her head. “It’s not an actual death, dear. Would I do that to you? The Death card doesn’t mean that. It means that there will be major changes in your life, yes, and probably some of them will be beyond your control.” She locks eyes with the girl, reaches for Kalen’s hand. “Now, ask yourself: would that necessarily be a bad thing? An awful thing? Would change be bad for you?”
“I don’t know,” Kalen says quietly, looking at Elisabeta’s hand laced over hers. “Even if the known sucks, at least it’s known, right?”
Elisabeta says, “And there lies the difficulty for all of us,” trying hard not to smile. To be so young again is something she wouldn’t wish on an enemy, much less herself. Kalen leaves soon after, and it is only later that afternoon that Elisabeta realizes a book of prayers has been taken from the front room.
3. It is a full day, a busy day. Mrs. Meade wants the cards read regarding Mr. Meade and his intentions toward keeping their marriage vows intact. This is Mr. Meade who died in the Korean War. Jeannette Deauchamp, with her toy poodle in her lap, wants to know about the jars of silver dollars she believes her son is burying under the foundation of the house she owns and he still lives in, at thirty-five. Rhonda James wants to know if the cancer will stay gone for good this time, and Elisabeta reads her cards for nothing, afterwards gives her a tin of teas and a small glass cross from her shelf. She finds herself thinking of the boy throughout her day, the big boy with the tattoos, and Kalen.
4. She is twelve and it is April and there is still snow on the ground. She is twelve and her mother is dead now, surely; three days ago she’d been pulled by the wrist by the grinning and frightened soldier with the hook nose (she does not know his name, of course) who is a Death’s Head, who is SS, who leers at Elisabeta and has dirty fingernails. Her mother is dead, her father was put on another train months ago, she doesn’t know where her sisters are. They are all probably dead, she thinks. It is April and she is twelve and the hook-nosed man has gone, fled with the other officers, leaving the camp to the German soldiers. (She will hear of the term skeleton crew decades later and shudder almost to the point of sickness.)
The camp is massive. There are thousands and thousands of bodies in striped uniforms here, so many of them dead, sprawled like sticks on the ground, and she stands in the snow, unmoving. Yesterday and today she has heard no trains over the walls. There are other pockets of prisoners standing together, milling around, stepping wordlessly over the frozen bodies. Nobody speaks. She sees a guard in one of the towers, one of the few with a rifle slung over his shoulder. He is a gray silhouette against the sky. The wind howls and flattens her uniform against the fenceposts of her legs.
She knows no one, at times can’t remember her name. The world is gray and white and green. She is twelve and will find out later it is the last day of April.
5. (She will go through a period when she is in her fifties where she reads military histories, biographies, books about the war. The period will be short, less than six months: Elisabeta will be unable to reconcile the words she reads—those listings of troop movements and tactics and governmental decisions—with the irrefutable fact that the sky over Dachau was sometimes almost impossibly, wondrously blue, as if it were painted. As if it were something manmade.)
6. The next afternoon the boy comes to her shop, alone this time. It is snowing again, covering the gray-brown slush outside in a new blanket of white. She has another hour before her next appointment, but walk-ins happen sometimes, and she begins rinsing out the kettle for tea when she hears the bell above the front door. He steps through the beaded curtain with snow in his hair.
“I told you to leave,” she says, surprising herself with the anger in her voice. “To not come back here.”
He is breathing hard. “Please,” he says. “Please. I’m sorry.”
It is his assumption, she realizes (and why has she never, in all of her history with men, realized this before?), that angers her. His size, his forthrightness, and his assumption that he can return, that he can return here unannounced and unwanted. As if it’s his birthright, by simply being a man (and yes, a frightening one) he can come into her home.
Elisabeta holds the teapot in her bony fists, laced together in front of her belly as if it were a shield. Something that could deflect the stare he’s giving her.
He says, “I’m sorry about yesterday. I need—”
“What do you want here? Why—”
“—why did you come back here?”
He stands there while the curtain’s beads whisper quietly behind him. He holds his hands out, the palms up. His mouth wavers, as if he were about to scream or begin to weep. There is something, a cardinal or a devil, tattooed on his throat. “I need help,” he says, and it is not fear that makes her jut her chin towards the table, just once, signaling him to sit down. It’s not fear. It’s not because he is a man who needs something from a woman. It’s not compassion or empathy like it was with Rhonda James earlier today, it is not anger. It’s not for money. She does not direct him to sit because she is lonely. Elisabeta is not lonely, not exactly.
She does it because it should be done. Because, even while the relentlessness of evil can take on a kind of metronomic precision, horrific in its mundanity, and though she has long quit believing in evil having a Doppler, something as lofty and idiotic as Good or Justice, the world is still a simple place. The look this boy has carved into his face, this dread, is not come by easily. There is a reason for it, and she has a place for him to sit, and it is snowing out there and warm in here. She does it because some things should simply be done. As old as she is, she still does things, sometimes, in spite of herself.
“I have tea,” she says. “I won’t give you another reading.”
He sits at the table. He puts his hands on the table, then folds them in his lap. “I don’t want one,” he says, almost a whisper.
“No? You don’t?”
“I know what my problem is. I know what my danger is.”
She fills the kettle. “And what is your danger?” She resists the urge to address him as boy. (There is still a vestige of resentment there, in spite of her decision to allow him to stay.) She asks, although she already knows the reason, at least vaguely; he is still breathing hard, as if he’d been running.
“People are after me,” he says simply.
“And you need a place to hide.”
He looks up at her then, that same desperateness drawn across his mouth, his eyes. She sees the tattoo on his throat is not a devil but a flower, a red rose. He says, “Just for a minute, okay?” He sits. Elisabeta stands at the burner, and when the tea is done and has steeped in their cracked cups, the two drink at the table. She has not said anything to him when he begins speaking, starts telling her his story. She listens, she sips her tea. His breathing calms, he relaxes, asks if he can take his jacket off. She nods her assent. In the middle of his story, he says, “My name’s Theo. Theo or Teddy, either one. They call me Shark sometimes.” He smiles into his tea, shrugs, is embarrassed. “It’s just a nickname.” He tells her about the men that are after him and his father—people have always told her their stories—and this story is no different; it is about money, money owed. Always money or sex or what passes for love but is almost always really greed. Almost always about what people feel they are owed.
He finishes his story and his tea at the same time. “So they’re after us,” he tells her, “because of that. And they were chasing me and I remembered this place and came in here after I’d been able to ditch them. Thank you for not, you know, kicking me out.”
She sees that a skull is tattooed on the inside of one wrist, a coffin on the other. She wants to ask him about the rose on his throat, this blending of icons—life and death, etched forever on a body with what is probably nothing more than the impetuousness of the young—and instead finds herself speaking, speaking about herself.
7. Dachau, the camp on the outskirts of the city, is sprawling and massive and gray all the time. She is twelve years old. It is the last day of April and all of the officers have fled. Bodies, carved down to bone and tightened skin, litter the ground like trash. Possibly thousands of them—the eyes and heart eventually, awfully, grow numb to it. The wind curls over the wall, howling, and a guard walks along the tower’s rim like a toy, back and forth. Elisabeta stands still, does not move from her snow-flecked patch of earth to another spot, to hard-packed ground. The pain in her feet is distant, belongs to someone else. She sees a man’s hand on the ground, curled and frozen into a claw; it’s connected to an arm that’s connected to one of those bodies she hardly really sees anymore. But today, now, she finds herself staring at it, this carved-skin hand and its wrist traveling down into a dirty striped uniform. They have done no labor for days, have been merely taken from their bunker (their pens, her mother had called them before the Death’s Head had pulled her away) to walk aimlessly on the grounds.
She hears the muffled chatter of machine gun fire off in the distance, the sound traveling low and humble across the wall, and the guard in the tower unslings his rifle, takes the binoculars from his chest, looks through them. Some of the prisoners begin to stir; for the first time that day she hears the murmur of human voices. Other guards appear from bunkers, walking quickly, but not many, not nearly as many as usual. They have been abandoned here. She asks herself again, Why did we stay? Why didn’t we leave when we could, rather than send our trinkets away? Her father drank kerosene once, after the rationing of alcohol and cigarettes and food became normal, when he could no longer buy or steal wine. He had turned blue, vomited for hours, Elisabeta thinking he would die. Wishes now that he had, that she had run away long before she found herself here.
There is an explosion, closer than the gunfire, and she knows that something is happening. Understands it clinically, distantly, like the crunch of snow under her feet. Guards form a loose line around the prisoners in her area and she understands they will all be shot, all be murdered. That the American soldiers are coming, that the war is over, that they have been left here and the German soldiers will shoot them all and fight the Americans to the death over the place and the idea, over these ugly, low-slung concrete buildings, the tired stands of spruce and pine scattered throughout, over the towers and the walls. Over the principle of no surrender, ever. This idea that death is finally walking towards her warms Elisabeta—is met with something that could nearly be relief. She is twelve and finds herself smiling with what may be gratitude.
But they do not stand the prisoners in a firing line, do not begin shooting and bayoneting them like hogs. The soldiers push them into groups, rough pockets of people. One prisoner tries to push a soldier and is hit in the back of the neck by another soldier. He stumbles, falls to his knees, his hands covering his head. His face is a death mask, pulled tight over bones. She looks, tries to find the man’s hand lying in the snow, can’t; there are too many bodies. Too many people are moving. A woman who could be thirty or seventy steps on a man’s face, slips, falls to her knees in the crust of snow.
The guard steps into the tower, disappears.
More and more soldiers are arriving, quickly. Some of them hobble, sick or wounded, from the infirmary—some with rifles slung over their shoulders or carrying pistols, most unarmed. They herd the inmates into small groups against the wall. The camp is huge, and the idea of this happening all over it is something she cannot imagine, cannot picture. Elisabeta stands where she has been put, stiffens as if shocked when a guard shoots a fallen inmate in the face twice with a pistol. The guard’s ears jut from beneath his helmet; there are two red blooms of color under his eyes. The inmate’s hand, two small holes in the palm, does not fall from his face. She sees no blood. Elisabeta looks up, sees the gray wall, the off-white sky against the guard tower the color of wet cotton. The guard has now gathered other men up there, each of them looking through binoculars. All of them, perhaps half a dozen, run back into the tower, again disappear from sight.
She stands in the snow. The guards, milling and frantic, will not look the prisoners in the eye—they keep looking among each other, looking to each other for instruction. Their orders are clipped and contradictory. Stay here. Move there. Lie down, goddammit. Stand up, you piece of shit. Elisabeta knows this is happening all over the rest of the camp as well—the barracks and infirmaries emptied of wounded and sick, inmate and Nazi alike—and still feels nothing; a fatigue, a yearning to simply lay down and sleep forever. Her gratitude dissipates now that she knows this will not be the end.
Some fifty yards down the wall (past two of the towers—this is how Elisabeta measures space and distance in Dachau), past one of the squat cement infirmary buildings, the gates are opened (living prisoners stacked and smashed on each side of the wall, loose strings of soldiers keeping them packed tight) and she hears a volley of gunfire before she sees them, before she sees the men.
Sixty, seventy, a hundred Americans step through the gates and enter the compound.
And there is nothing like singing inside of her, nothing that comes close to joy, a sense of retribution.
Rifles and machine guns whirling from one German soldier to another, the men fanning out in a wedge, the Americans keep coming in, barking words in English—she spoke only German and Romanian then—their pale faces sick and bright with horror.
They are just boys. The Germans seem older to her—these boys seem as if they could almost be her age, boys she would court in a few years, in a different life. One boy—saying “Jesus Christ” over and over again, she knows that word—leans over, presses his rifle across his knees, and vomits in the snow. It lands on a body and Elisabeta turns away. She sees the men from the guard tower exit the doorway at the tower’s base, the six of them stepping in rigid formation. She peers over another inmate’s shoulder and sees five of the six men stop and salute, palms outward. One of them is shivering.
The sixth man (is it the one who walked relentlessly her section of the wall’s perimeter? It’s impossible to tell) approaches a cluster of Americans, stops and salutes. He attempts to hand a sheaf of papers to one of the soldiers. The American looks down at the clutch of papers as if he doesn’t know what it could possibly be, as if it’s a winged snake or a man’s head. His hands are flexing maniacally at his sides. Then he reaches out—the knuckles of his hands are red and chapped—as if he is going to take the papers from the soldier’s hand. Instead he surges forward, grips the German soldier’s throat while the other hand tries to unbuckle the pistol at his side.
“Scheissehunde!” the American screams, spit falling in a string from his teeth, cords rigid in his neck as he shoves the man away. The papers fall to the frosted ground—like snowflakes, they fall like snowflakes, she thinks—and the American shoots the soldier twice in the stomach. The man stumbles to the ground, lands on his ass with his hands crisscrossed over his guts, his eyes are looking nowhere, and the American steps on the sheaf of papers, leaves a bootprint, and presses the pistol against the man’s eye, firing, firing. Hours later, an American soldier gives her an orange and a piece of chocolate. She eats them both at the same time, and the tastes flare in her mouth like stars. “Lee,” he says, touching his heart, unable to look her in the eye, to stop looking at the sticks of her legs, the jutting wedges of her wrists. His eyes are red from weeping. Her mouth is full. She tells him her name.
8. “Elisabeta?” the boy in her apartment says after a long time. “That’s a pretty name.”
“It means ‘God is my oath,’” she says, and aches for a cigarette for the first time in decades. Her tea is cold.
He says nothing—he is trying to be kind to her. And he is thinking, probably, about God, the impossible juxtaposition of God and a place and time like Dachau and 1945. She no longer considers.
“It’s foolish,” she says. “A foolish meaning—I would’ve liked another name, Flower or Sunshine or, ha, Rock—something that you knew what it was from the beginning, as soon as it was said.” She smiles, embarrassed now that she has told him about herself. Wishes he was gone now that she’s allowed herself to say this.
“Like mine,” he says. “Like my nickname.”
What she hasn’t told him! This boy with a skull drawn on his wrist—has he ever seen an actual skull before? A body? Bodies dead and stacked and mounded thirty deep in a traincar? The things she could say to this boy who has marked himself as if he’s been through unimaginable wars.
It was seconds after the American had shot the German soldier in the eye that the massacre had started. (She would later find out that the German was merely a lieutenant, that the camp was down to a staff of less than 600 men. That the papers he’d attempted to hand over to the American, despite what she’d thought, were papers of official surrender.) The lieutenant had rocked back into the snow—and there was blood now, yes—and somewhere to her right, behind her, someone opened fire on the other five soldiers. Four of them sagged, crumpled. One ran.
It was thirty, forty minutes of slaughter. She does not understand why the Germans did not fight back. Few of them had rifles, per orders, but still. It was pandemonium. Gunfire filled the world—she saw two inmates club a man to death with a rock, three more exchange a bullwhip and whip a naked soldier until he no longer moved. One inmate, singing and crazed, had taken a German rifle from the ground and shot a corpse over and over again until an American placed a hand on his shoulder, gently took the weapon from him. The man had fallen to the ground, covered his face and lay weeping in the mud and snow. She had found a spot against the wall, the concrete cool and dark and pocked against her cheek, and curled herself around her legs. Vehicles arrived, tanks and hulking green things carrying more soldiers. The treads of these things threw dark mud in fans and strings.
It was after various men argued (she could see that they were all high-ranking officers—they arrived in jeeps, their shoulders and lapels had been sheared in color) and one had left, angry, that they lined up the remaining German soldiers against the wall and two Americans, lying down behind machineguns, killed them all, hundreds of them. She could not see the Germans, but she could see, from her spot against the wall, one of the machinegunners shifting his weapon back and forth, back and forth, hot shells jumping and arcing to the ground. The roar of the guns lasted for minutes. After that there was the sporadic pop! as Americans went through the bodies, shooting the moving or blinking ones to make sure.
She was twelve and it resolved nothing at all.
Outside, the snow has stopped coming down. Elisabeta looks out the window, one hand gathered like a brooch at her throat.
“Are you safe now? Is it safe for you to go outside? I have clients.”
He nods quickly, shy and awkward now, rising from his chair and gathering his coat, as if they were lovers.
It is only when his hand has parted the beaded curtain that he turns and thanks her. He says, “I don’t know what I would have done,” and she does not know if he means if he had been in the camp or today, had she not let him in.
“I’m sorry,” he says, and Elisabeta turns to the wall and rolls her eyes. Would be thrilled if someone told her she would never, ever have to hear those two words again.
“Thank you,” she says. “Please be careful.” It has become impossible to hate him—his ignorance coupled with his earnestness carves the hate out of her like a seed. He leaves, and she stands at the window as the curtain whispers and eventually grows quiet.
She knows nothing except that she will never see him again, and that sometimes things are taken and not given back.
9. It is during the next spring that she dies. Elisabeta goes painlessly, in her sleep, in a chair in the sitting room; she would have been delighted, had she known—she had always pictured something that took months, that took every breath and inch and dignity away from her. It is spring and colors run riot in the parks; chrome and glass wink in the heat; the flowers on her sill stretch and bend towards the sun.
It is Rhonda James who finds her. Rhonda has gotten her hair done to celebrate meeting with the doctors, who told her what Elisabeta had implied earlier that winter—the tumor had been successfully removed, the cancer was gone. The angel food cake she’s brought is set carelessly on Elisabeta’s reading table; Rhonda weeps like a child as she calls the paramedics, as she realizes Elisabeta will not be waking up. She adjusts Elisabeta’s scarf, tucking a curl of gray hair behind her ear. She folds her hands in her lap.
There is nothing as literal or lofty as a community that surrounds this woman in her death, no—Jeannette Deauchamp’s son does not unearth jars of rare coins from the house’s foundation to pay for a casket and a service, Kalen never returns the items she has taken—but Elisabeta is still remembered. There are those who remember her insights, her intuitions—there are scientific names for these things—or how her fingers would trace lightly over theirs as she searched for whatever it was she searched for when reading. There are those who remember her as the bitter and slightly crazed “fortune teller” who lived in the apartment at the corner of the building, of course, but there are some who know her name, who spoke to her and received words returned in kind, people who remember how this woman’s mouth curled in a small smile, remember how light her eyes became when she stepped in front of an open window, into a swath of sunlight. To whatever minute degree, there are people, themselves still upright and walking and talking for a time, who remember her.
And it was while she slept, during that last sleep before her death, that she had the most wonderful dream, maybe the loveliest dream of her life. She had snuffed the flames on all the candles in the room, placed a small blanket over her lap as she sat in a chair in the corner—it was spring, there was life outside that was in bloom, but bodies as old as hers ran hot or cold at their own whims, it seemed. She was so tired; her chin gently fell to her breastbone.
This dream, in this dream she is so young, she is a child with unmarked arms and long, copper-shot hair, with strong and straight-lined limbs, and she is standing in an endless field of grass so green that it cannot be real, cannot—the color is so good and right it nearly hurts her eyes to look at. The green grass reaches Elisabeta’s waist and is met at the horizon with a shimmering gold sky, expansive and warm, the sun up there like an eye or a coin. The wind blows her hair back from her brow and runs a hand over the grass that makes a sound like shhh, shhh.
And ahead of her, turned away and in a dress more beautiful than she ever owned in life, stands Elisabeta’s mother. She stands toward the sun and runs her hands over the impossible grass that says shhh, shhh.
Oh her legs are strong as she runs to her mother through the grass.
Her mother’s face is the same face from the photograph, the photograph inside the metal bird’s chest—unlined and beautiful and unworried. Her hair is gathered in a braid that coils down her back. She smiles at Elisabeta, who wraps her arms around her mother’s waist, rests her face against her belly, feels the fabric against her cheek, hears the shhh, shhh of the sky’s hands running over the grass.
I missed you so much, Elisabeta says. There is no sadness here, no regret, not in the green grass under a sky like this.
Her mother pulls her to her, holds her. I’m so glad you came, copila. I don’t want to be alone here. Do you?
Oh no! No! Elisabeta says, and she is crying now against her mother’s belly because she is so happy, because they are together and it has been such a long and wearisome life sometimes.
And her mother begins singing then, her mother’s voice blends into the sounds of the wind running soft hands over the emerald grass, shhh, shhh, she says, and it is the loveliest lullaby Elisabeta has ever heard.
[This story first appeared in print in The Ne'er-Do-Well #1.]
Keith Rosson’s fiction has appeared in Gulf Stream, PANK, The Nervous Breakdown, Camera Obscura Journal, and more. He is the author of the long-running art and creative nonfiction journal Avow, as well as the omnibus The Best of Intentions: The Avow Anthology. He is also an illustrator and graphic designer, having completed work for Against Me, Lucero, Interpol, and others. A ferocious advocate for the cassette tape, he can be reached at keithrosson.com.