The Absent Vultures of Tribeca
(This long short story was published in The Adirondack Review, many years before Donald Trump called for the expulsion of Muslims from America.)
ON LABOR DAY the vultures disappeared. Nobody could remember when they had not circled early dawn: Death’s falcons, turning miles above the arid northwest reaches of Tribeca, tethered by scent. They had never been social, but a child could place rank meat on the sill in the morning, hidden beneath the fresh Times, and be sure to receive a visit.
Bayan Golder had found it comforting. Her mother had not.
“Mom, the tall one’s here today!”
“Bay, that’s your father’s newspaper.”
“The bird’s not messing it up. And nobody reads paper.”
The tallest had been a favorite. An ancient creature of the New World, perhaps not beautiful but deserving nevertheless. He wore the dust of the city with honor. And now he was gone.
Bayan waited a week. None of the carrion birds had appeared on Labor Day, but the sky had not been clear. Perhaps something in the air had deterred them. She placed the same lure on the sill the next day, more pungent now, and the sky was clear. Bayan’s eyes were sharp, and she would know if they were there: the soul’s phosphenes, particles in the broad sameness of blue. Today that color was undisturbed, except for a single passenger jet unspooling a contrail whose edges feathered slowly into blur. Jet liners disturbed her.
On the seventh day she gave up. Bay was not scientifically minded, but she knew about the vultures. They had infallible senses. The pervious nostrils, arched over nothing, passages right through the head to the sky beyond: these were no skull ornament; they were as sensitive as the bat’s ear, the spider’s foot. Her vultures missed nothing. If they were gone, it was not because they had failed to sense her gift. It was because they were no longer there.
The waitresses were next. They had never been as reliable as the carrion birds — the waitresses were forever becoming successful painters, or moving back to Ireland — but the population was steady enough. Bay had been comforted to see them milling at night about the watering holes. The waitresses were a seasonal indicator, moreover: in the fall they would increase with the returning architects and stylists, the managers and florists. Not this year. As September waned, so did they.
Bayan thought back to the canaries in the subway tunnels. It had been before her time. Back when the subways were important. The subway people had hung cages in the tunnels, and the singing of the canaries had indicated that all was well. When the canaries went silent you knew.
School was unaffected. In the mornings Bayan walked barefoot through the savanna to the aging Village Schoolhouse, where she studied numbers and letters with the children of the old postmodernists, some of the parents so famous that a single new-media work could supply half the school’s budget for a year.
“Why is it called ‘new’?” she had once asked her mother. Laetitia Golder, who had lived off grants until the grants dried up, swallowed quickly and said nothing.
Bay and her mother found each other mutually strange. They shared the occasional subtle characteristic — a habit of scratching the left temple with a middle finger to ward off confusion, small shivers brought on by nothing — but in most other respects they diverged. Bayan celebrated the small, while her mother mourned the universe. The girl was thrilled by the very fact of daylight, and her mother longed only for sleep. Why should the family be anything other than a mystery, thought Bayan with joy, and her mother with regret.
Before Bay left for school the first chill day of November, Laetitia made her put on sandals. Her daughter would happily walk in the frost in bare feet. Laetitia worried that any mother who would let her daughter do this was reprehensible, and — worse — would be thought reprehensible by the school authorities.
Bayan laughed at her mother, then kissed her, because even the most gentle teasing was often misinterpreted. “Okay, I’m wearing sandals. These ones are good, actually. They’re really old — they’ve been uptown.”
Her mother smiled nostalgically.
When Bayan was gone, Laetitia retired to the kitchen table, where she sat staring at nothing and rotating Platonic solids in her mind. Cubes and tetrahedrons were easy. If she concentrated, she could produce a clear, sharp diagram of a perfect dodecahedron turning slowly in mental space. Laetitia could no longer rotate icosahedrons without despair: she would lose edges; triangles would emerge irregular; things fell apart.
Laetitia Golder had been rare in the profusion of couples who made a certain kind of art at a certain time. It was always the man who provided the technology, and took little of the credit; whereas Laetitia programmed and built her husband’s work, and for the longest time was not considered an artist. Simcha Golder had been to art school. He spoke in the accepted elliptical way, which his wife found charming and pretentious. She spoke the language of engineers. Laetitia had earned her degrees in Paris from engineers who had themselves made what she considered great works of art, even if they were embarrassed to shine upon them any light but utility. The truly necessary remains necessary, she had been taught. Only the world changes. If a temple becomes a barracks and then an abattoir, it was a good temple in the first place. It would last.
By the time Bayan was born, Simcha Golder had become “Simcha Golder and Laetitia.” That was how the pieces were signed, and sold. That was how footnotes in the literature would read.
Bay showed no talent for engineering, even less for making and comprehending art. She had inherited the curiosity of both parents, however: the capacity for wonder that had once animated her lugubrious mother, and still showed flashes and sparks in her father, at the oddest moments, when he was not burdened by his unfortunate job. While Laetitia contemplated transcendental objects at the kitchen table, and her father worked the data mines beneath New Fresh Kills, Bay skipped erratically across the savanna, intent upon arriving late at school.
Shops clustered in the dry grass. Here were expensive shoes, spiked at the heel. An entire glass display of them: inclined foot planes, balanced upon needles. The sex workers wore them mostly. Women who stood in one place. You could balance if you did not move quickly.
Bayan both knew and did not know what these women did, truly, for a living. She understood the biology of it, but not the urge itself. Somewhere behind understanding, however, the need was making itself felt — almost making itself seen — especially this year. She was not keen to dispel the mystery. It refracted, through shimmering layers of emotion, her perception of the world: a new way of wanting what she had always wanted.
Bay was no more attractive, in her mind, than her friends the departed vultures. She imagined herself to inspire a similar kind of love, if any: the peculiar regard, half pity and half affection, for what her mother termed the jolie laide. Bayan was hardly ugly, but even at this age her class had divided along aesthetic lines — a class structure determined by facial structure — and Bay’s face was neither symmetrical nor well-proportioned. Her nose was too wide, her forehead too high and her eyes too big.
She felt if anything kin to the prosimians that were everywhere now, having been introduced to Central Park in breeding pairs long ago by a romantic gentleman. He had missed the literature of his homeland, in which lemurs figured prominently, and so he had seeded New York with these strange creatures and their cousins, and they had bred until the island was lousy with them. Still, Bay considered them family, and it pained her every January to find bunches of frozen tarsiers hanging like figs from the blue branches. Many would survive the winter, however, clustered in warm ducts and huddled beneath steaming pipes, and they would breed anew to reinvest the midnight trees with large and mournful eyes.
Bayan came upon the boutiques devoted to bathroom fixtures, hooks and hangers. Utilitarian objects embarrassed to be useful. They had over the years become as foolish as peacocks, sprouting unnecessary enhancements, faux-Byzantine filigree and machine-cut ajoure. Of all the minor revolutions in design, these were the ones that most deeply cut her mother’s heart: the neo-Flamboyants and the Churriguerists, who could not leave even the simplest objects alone. To Laetitia, the damage done was inversely proportionate to the scale of the vandalism; while she could overlook a skyscraper or hangar gilded and vined, she met horror in a salt shaker, a tie clip or trackball grown hairy and maddened with ornament.
It was these boutiques that drew the sex workers at night. They had come at first to gaze into the windows, to admire the doorknobs and forks that clearly dreamed of becoming spiked heels and lace stockings, and here the nascent whores had met those first customers, also drawn to these windows, always in search of something they could not find at home. The johns were complex men, married to bitter modernists; they had been made to feel shame for their tendrilled desires, and had sought release here, in the shadow of the boutiques.
During the day these places were less mystical and less heartbreaking. Bay danced by, the dry grass caressing her knees, and shrugged to note windows full of objects that had contributed so greatly to her mother’s despair. Everything that meant horror to her mother meant nothing to her. How many families have split upon that rock?
I am almost twelve, thought Bay. The vultures are gone, the waitresses too, and I am meant to go to school oblivious, as if these changes are simply ordinary movements of the season. Every day school, a creaking turn of the wheel, when something vast is clearly moving on another scale entirely. I have a choice, thought Bayan: I can move with the smaller wheel, or go with whatever it is that is turning in a grand tragic arc.
I will not go to school today.
* * *
Simcha came home from the mines to find his wife unusually agitated. Laetitia was not given to anything but the most calm distress, and this was new. Bayan had been late before, of course — she was late for most things. By chance her teacher had phoned, however, to discuss the Parents’ Exhibit at the end of the month, and Bay’s absence from school had been mentioned. Was the girl perhaps ill?
Parents in the city learned to keep their fear well beneath the surface. If you remained fully aware always of every possibility, you would be ruled by nerves. It was in truth no more dangerous than any large expanse of wilderness — less so, in fact, because it was punctuated by delicatessens and hotels: oases generally friendly to children, should there be an emergency. Bay’s phone was not now in any area of service, but these shifting domains were so unpredictable these days that Laetitia did not find that alone disturbing. It was a confluence of small things. Simcha was not entirely sympathetic, but he realized that his wife’s apprehension of the world was more subtle than his own.
“Yes, I’m worried. I shouldn’t be: Bayan’s not a baby; she’s not stupid. But something’s not right.”
“She’ll probably show any minute.” He examined his wife’s troubled features: the translucent skin which had shown lines only in the last couple of years; the pale eyes which had once put him in mind of the early Renaissance and now seemed more a sign of incipient blindness. Laetitia’s hair had always been thin, with almost no curl, but it seemed to have thinned more, recently, and fell straight and dead towards the floor like plumb lines.
“Something doesn’t fit.”
Simcha wondered whether he himself had noticed a change in Bay’s behavior recently. A shift in attitude? A new questioning?
He had spoken with his daughter at length the weekend before about the planned school excursion, and whether it was appropriate. Bayan had never been to Ground Zero, and her class had been offered a field trip, funded by the city. It was part of a new program in sensitization: classes were chosen at random to participate in guided visits, where they would view the Monument to the Expulsion, and engage in dialogue.
Her parents had not taught her much about the Expulsion, even though it was a matter of quiet pride to her father that he had joined the Jewish Opposition — relatively small beside the African-American Resistance — and had suffered for his opinions. The bureaucracy had been seeded, everyone knew, with minor officials still loyal to the despised previous administration. The make-work projects had not in fact been assigned randomly, and Simcha’s job in the data mines was punishment.
Moreover, although Simcha’s services had not been requested, Laetitia’s expertise had been integral to the construction of the Monument itself. Geometrically it had been absurdly simple of course, but the technical problem, the display itself, was something only Laetitia had ever really tackled before. Years earlier she had made a much smaller object with Simcha for a public art competition. Central to the piece had been a ten-foot sphere of pure light. It was light neither emitted by anything apparent nor reflected. A miniature sun touched the gallery floor at a single point. Touching the wall five feet from the floor was a sphere of undifferentiated black matter, one foot in diameter. How it was suspended remained a mystery, and its composition the artists also refused to identify — although it was rumored to be a meteorite, carved and polished.
Simcha had contributed a sound component which in retrospect was embarrassing. If you leaned close to the bright sphere a young girl’s voice recited from a self-help book whose author had recently committed suicide. If you put your ear up to the dark sphere the same girl read pornographic excerpts from Bataille.
They had lost the competition, but the piece had become famous, mostly for the perfect and mysterious rendering of solid light.
Bayan’s parents were carefully modest when discussing the past. Their daughter had been told almost nothing of their major achievements. Simcha, whose own father’s reputation had oppressed him, insisted that Bayan always be the most celebrated resident of their home.
Bay knew even less about the Expulsion itself. She knew that there had been disgrace and retribution — that the nation had been forced to redefine itself in its own eyes and in the less forgiving eyes of the world — but the details were still not to be found in the textbooks, and most parents were careful to shield their children from generational guilt.
Simcha had not been sure whether to sign the permission forms, and he had probed Bay to determine whether she had the emotional and moral fortitude to come away from the trip unscathed. Many of Simcha’s friends had decided against allowing their children to go. It had been a matter of discussion in the canteen for weeks. The Monument itself was hardly terrifying — quite the opposite — but the plane leading towards it had been worked into a nightmare landscape: a museum of discrete, sessile components, each more distressing than the last.
Nothing in his discussion with Bay had given him cause for alarm. If anything the talk had reinforced his conviction that his daughter was hardy: almost stubbornly cheerful. This disposition may have been a natural protective response to his wife’s emotional makeup, or perhaps it was just who his daughter was, but Simcha was fairly certain that a trip to the Monument would not destroy her. Her class was meant to go at the end of the month, and Bayan had seemed excited. Simcha had changed his mind at the last minute — a tendency towards perpetual cheer was a gift, and he would not forgive himself if this trip robbed her of it. Bay was not pleased with his decision, but had shrugged it off.
“She’ll be here any moment. Really. You could ring her friends’ parents, I guess.”
“I have. I’ve phoned everyone I can think of. You know I’m not like this. I’m not irrational.”
“No, of course not.” Simcha suppressed a grim smile: that was the least of her issues. He paused and examined her drawn face, trying to decide whether it was appropriate to probe just now. “But you’re not happy. You haven’t been happy.”
“That’s meaningless. It’s not affecting my judgment.” She only then realized that they were having the conversation. They had both avoided it for so long, but perhaps she had reached the state where it had to be addressed. Had she really become visibly that much worse? “No, I’m not happy. I’m sorry. I’m not by nature an ecstatic person…”
“But you’re less happy. You’re unhappy. It’s not the same. It’s fairly new, Laetitia.”
“It’s been growing.”
“Simcha, this has nothing to do with my concern here. I’m worried about Bayan; I’m not worried about me.”
At least the topic had been broached. Or presented, made present, forced into the public space of the family theater, as Simcha — always still an art student — put it to himself. He withdrew to the bedroom to change from his work clothes, which were filthy.
Simcha was vain, in an ironic way: he was amused that he was considered handsome — he understood why, but he felt that he had passed off an inferior work on a credulous public. He and Laetitia had been a much admired couple when they were younger, although Simcha had been generally regarded the more exotic partner: not simply more alluring, but the more authentic talent. His vanity had never extended that far — he never imagined or pretended that he had Laetitia’s gifts. She was not simply more intelligent: she was more rigorous, and her ideas were more carefully grounded, architectonically more solid than his.
Simcha gave their projects an air of rhetorical complexity, of something too vague to fully grasp, but unlike so much work that rested solely on that characteristic, theirs had Laetititia’s understanding in its marrow, right down to the machine code. That she had been deprecated as the mere technician was particularly unfair.
Laetitia’s widening despair did not itself distress Simcha so much as what that stain had done to her pellucid mind. Both knew that she had lost her capacity for preternatural clarity, her ability to see the world and its problems as an etched diagram.
Bay represented to both of them a redemptive promise. Although she was completely unlike them — although she had neither of their specific gifts — she embodied the raging hope that had motivated them at the start: the possibility of making something valuable and new. Simcha fully expected Bayan to reveal a gift of her own, or perhaps she already had: that indomitable will to happiness.
When she failed to come home, Laetitia contemplated poison.
* * *
Bayan turned east. Somewhere at a great distance, never yet traversed, was the river. She had dreamed of the river. Accounts varied, but in her saturated dreams it was so wide that the far bank was no more than a shimmering line, barely thicker than the horizon. The waters raged south, a violent torrent emptying into the unimaginable ocean. So she dreamed. Certain credible sober accounts agreed.
The sandals were fortuitous. Where she stepped now even her feet were not calloused sufficiently to navigate. The surface of Broadway was serrated and treacherous: the liquid rock had frozen into a field of black knives. If she fell it would be into bleeding ribbons.
The desolation here was near complete. Perhaps she spied a black lizard occasionally at the periphery of her vision, but when she turned it was always gone: either slithered into a crevasse, or blended perfectly with the obsidian. Here she expected at any minute her vultures to appear, gliding at the far reaches of sight. The sky disappointed.
Bay refused to regret her decision. It had grown in her for some time: the conviction that school was an error. Routine itself was an error. Let the sun adhere to one path — she would use that meter to plot her own arrhythmic deviation. Bayan regretted only that she had refused to repair to the stairwell some days ago with the new boy, a year younger, who had followed her with raw desperate need from the moment he had first encountered her. He had proposed this, and she had dismissed him. His age was an embarrassment. It was not, of course, but it was supposed to be, and she had bent to convention. She would not make that mistake now.
That ragged bundle at the far side of the road: was it perhaps the remains of a magnificent scavenger? Bay had never seen the corpse of a vulture — it seemed an intolerable paradox. This was neither vulture nor corpse, however. The rags shifted, then heaved, and suddenly she was no longer alone.
The creature — human, apparently — moved with the careful unpleasant elegance of a spider. He was closer to horizontal than upright, and his splayed rags contributed to the impression of too many limbs. He picked a delicate path across the sharp landscape, weaving his way towards Bay.
She could not have run had she chosen to, and anyway she chose not to. He was fascinating, and unexpected, and Bay was hardly put off by the loathsome.
“Hi,” she ventured.
“Are you literate?” The voice wheedled, sycophantic, hypnotic.
“You mean can I read? Yeah.”
“Mm.” The creature pondered this. “Do you have pretty handwriting?” He moved closer, and yes: he proved to have only four limbs, although he was not clearly a biped. His stench briefly choked her, but Bay knew that it would be impolite to betray this.
“Not really. They don’t teach that stuff any more.”
The bowed man lifted his face, seared red, and fixed her with his two (yes two) black eyes. “I can make it pretty. If you write something, I can make it pretty for you.”
“That’s a decent offer, I guess.”
“All you have to do is buy me something to eat. I can make whole pages very pretty for you.”
“I don’t really need that. I don’t do a lot of handwriting. And it doesn’t have to look good when I do.”
“I can give you a little bit of money. If you really need it. I don’t have a lot, and I’m going to have to eat something myself. Are there restaurants around here?”
“Okay. I can give you some.” She pulled the tattered paisley change purse from her front pocket.
“Why do you do this — offer people pretty handwriting?”
“It’s what I was trained to do. Calligraphy. I’m very good. Almost nobody needs it.”
“Did they ever need it?”
“Mm. No. Never a need. But they wanted it. They appreciated it. I was in demand. Nobody in this city better than I am.”
“Are there lots of whatsits in this city?”
“Calligraphers? No. I’m the only one.”
“But there used to be. Many. And I was the very best. I can’t prove it to you, but I was.”
“I believe you.”
“Thank you. You were going to give me some money?”
Bayan counted out a few coins, and placed them in the man’s charred hand.
“Thank you. I’m going to give you some writing. I can’t just take your money.”
“It’s not. Let me write you something.”
Bay followed the homeless calligrapher as he negotiated his careful disgusting way back to where he had been huddled.
He had no desk. He had found a flat face upon the rock, and on this he laid his paper. It was not like any paper Bay had witnessed before: it seemed to be made out of pulp mixed from the city’s filth and some chalky white substance she could not identify. For a pen he used a feather that looked suspiciously as if it had been plucked from one of her departed friends, or their kin. This he dipped into the surface of the rock, which quivered. Bay looked more closely, and saw that it was in fact an indentation in the surface, which had been filled with some substance precisely the same shade as the rock, as if it were that very stone liquefied and poured into itself. With this he wrote on the rough paper, in beautiful letters, something Bay could not read.
With an elaborate gesture, like part of an ancient choreographed ritual (and perhaps it was), the calligrapher presented his lovely and illegible gift to Bayan, and she accepted it with as much formality as she could improvise.
“Thank you. It’s really nice. What does it say?”
The calligrapher was clearly not inclined to decipher his words. Bay decided that it would be impolite to ask twice — perhaps even hurtful — so she simply nodded.
“You’re going to the river?”
“What makes you say that?”
“That’s the way you’re going. Unless you turn, you’ll end up at the river.”
“Then I guess I will. End up there. I guess.”
“You will find that useful,” said the calligrapher, indicating his gift.
“Great. Well, goodbye then.”
The spindly man said nothing. He pursed his lips, as if contemplating her goodbye. And then he turned away.
Bay, who was now feeling uncomfortable, walked on. Broadway was behind her soon. On this perpendicular street there was nothing more inconvenient than the occasional pothole. Open manholes topped by corrugated orange cylinders focused clouds of steam. On either side a slum mounted. The favelas were built on top of each other, these piles soon reaching so high on either side that she felt as if she were moving through a canyon of poverty.
The residents seemed cheerful enough. They hung bright laundry from lines strung between windows, and gossiped loudly to each other, in a language she did not recognize. Bright caged birds — none of them vultures or raptors — gossiped in a rasping language of their own. Some would occasionally shift into parodic, impertinent imitations of their owners. A constant scent of raw sewage ruined some of the experience, but Bayan found herself oddly happy, here where nobody owned much.
How many weeks Bay stayed in this almost infinite neighborhood she could not say. She was adopted by a serial team of maternal women, all determined to feed her and keep her safe from their brooding, tattooed sons. Nobody had much space. She slept in what corners there were. Bayan had no talent for languages, but she had little trouble communicating, as there was never that much to say. Her new family was aware that she was trying to make her way to the river, an aim that impressed them as both fascinating and unwise. Perhaps she would be happier simply to live among them? Having no space clearly made little difference to their lives, nor did the addition of another resident.
Bayan certainly considered the possibility of staying there, where her only responsibilities were to feed the brilliant birds and keep the women company, but it was another decision that had brought her to this place, and she chose to remain true to it. One morning she let them know that she was leaving. With tears and admiration and quantities of food, they set her back on the road.
After two days of walking, the slum at last thinned out. The shacks to either side were only one story high now, and the wet grass grew tall between them. And then she was at the river.
* * *
Simcha knew that very few couples survived the loss of a child. It was a paradoxical burden: difficult for one person to bear, impossible for two. Laetitia had pulled through the night with little difficulty. She was fine. For a woman with such a mind for perfection, his wife was surprisingly incompetent when it came to ordinary human things. Death. She had taken the wrong pills, in the wrong amount, and her stomach had been pumped. She was fine.
They were not.
* * *
It was hardly a torrent. It was a brown, placid thing, snaking south. The surface rippled occasionally: the only indication of a current. Bayan was disappointed. She felt that the edge of her world ought to be perhaps violent, or at the very least dramatic.
The far shore gleamed with expensive glass buildings, monotonous and far taller than she had ever experienced in Manhattan. An ancient bridge hung from impossibly thick cables. Boats clung to the shore: houseboats, yachts, warships and junks. In front of her the remains of a broad once-white ferry terminal creaked. Its electronic signage was long dead and obsolete, inhabited now by starlings and spiders, and Bayan imagined that the building had not served a function in recent memory.
As she approached, however, she saw a man in uniform sitting on a bench in the shadows. The uniform was nondescript, but he looked as if he perhaps took tickets. Epaulets indicated that he might even captain a boat. At the back of the terminal was piled, incongruously, a tall floating heap of leaves. Bay could now see that it hid an ancient ferry, listing slightly, tethered to the back of the terminal with filthy fat ropes.
Bay had some change left, and wondered whether it was sufficient to purchase a ferry trip, and where that trip might take her.
She approached the uniformed man, who examined her with perhaps the saddest eyes she had ever encountered. Even her mother, in her deepest moments, could not compete with this apparent sorrow. Bay was not moved to pity, however: this man had an air of quiet strength, as if he were perhaps more capable of bearing sorrow than anyone. His unhappiness did not seem to weaken him.
“I’d like a ticket please,” said Bayan. “If you’re the man who sells them. I don’t have a lot of money, so I’m not sure how far I get to go.” She opened the plastic shopping bag that she was carrying her things in, to fish for her change purse.
“Let me see that.” The man showed no interest in her money, but fixed immediately upon the document, which Bay had removed from the bag in order to find her change. Her gift from the calligrapher. (Or perhaps it was not a gift — she had paid, after all.) Bay had kept it clean and unbent, in a folder she had found on the street.
“Oh this. I can’t read it actually. It’s just supposed to be pretty handwriting.”
“No it’s not. Let me see.”
Bayan held out the paper and the man took it. He handled it more carefully than she ever had. He spent a long time examining it.
“I used to see these. Often. I haven’t seen one in years.”
“What is it?”
“It will gain you passage. Are you ready to go?”
“I don’t have much money.”
The uniformed man shook his head, sadly: you do not understand any of this, do you. He refused to touch her money. Bayan followed him to the ferry, and stood on the dock as he pulled huge armfuls of leaves from the deck. When he had cleared enough space, he unwound the massy ropes from their bollards.
At one time this ferry must have been manned by a large crew. It took the captain an age to clear the boat of leaves and detach it from its berth. He indicated that Bay should board. When he had heaved the last rope onto the deck beside her, he stepped swiftly onto the drifting ferry and moved with professional purpose to the cabin in front. Bayan decided to follow him.
For the longest time they left a wake of wet leaves, which peeled away from the roof and sides of the boat as their speed increased. Bay tried to make conversation, although she did not have great hopes that the captain would have much to say to her. She imagined, however, that he knew many things.
“So where are we going?”
“You will see soon enough.”
“Not far, then?”
Her questions did not seem to irritate him as he deflected them. She felt welcome to ask more, and sensed that she might even receive a response should she come up with the right one. At last she did.
“So you wouldn’t maybe know why the vultures are gone? Why they left?”
“You would leave too.”
“I have sort of.”
“They are disappointed.”
“And the waitresses? They’re leaving.”
“They no longer wish to serve.”
Further questions received increasingly less direct answers, until it again no longer felt like a conversation. Bay lapsed into silence. She watched the captain’s almost colorless hands move slowly and perfectly on the wheels and controls as the ferry took them south.
For perhaps a months they made their slow way down the river, hugging the Manhattan shore. Sea gypsies brought them food and would accept no payment.
When at last the tip of the island could be seen ahead and on the right, the captain slowed the boat then shut down the engine. They were drifting now, between Brooklyn and Manhattan, heading towards neither. He sat back in his chair, with his eyes upon the river before them.
Bayan felt that it was upon her to make a decision. For the longest time now she had forgotten — deliberately forgotten — about her mother, and her father, and where she had fed the vultures until they had disappeared. Upon remembering them, Bay considered which way that memory inclined her. She knew that she was probably causing great unhappiness by her absence. She knew as well that her return would bind her to the patterns she had carefully rejected. A decision to turn right, however, was not yet a decision to go home. It took her back in that direction, for a time, but it was not final.
“Do you mind if we go back to Manhattan?”
The captain smiled faintly. “What I mind is of no consequence.” He started the engine and the ferry began to move again, gradually returning to speed. He spun the wheel clockwise.
The landscape that rose before them had the trappings of former wealth: the tops of the older buildings displayed subtle detailing and ornament, probably unnoticed even by the proud citizens who had paid for them. The fact of their elaboration is what mattered, then and now. Those who worked here had expected to move through expensive space. Nobody required this any more. Nobody worked here.
Some had tasks, it was true, but this was more a labor of love — or hatred — than work, and on the dock they were greeted by one of these. The ferry had bumped up against the pier at a terminal even less well preserved than the one they had left. The man who took the ropes met the captain’s eyes, briefly, but they said nothing to each other. Bayan had the impression of an old and profound acquaintance. Not a friendship. But they had probably dealt with each other for much of their lives. Then again she had felt this about herself, upon meeting the captain.
“Welcome,” said this man to Bayan, warmly, as he helped her step across the moving gap between the ferry and pier. The captain presented him with Bay’s calligraphed document, which the man perused with piercing interest. “Mm. Perfect, isn’t it.”
“Yes,” said the captain. “I am glad that he retains his talent.”
“I’m surprised he’s still alive.”
“I am glad of that too. Young lady, this guide will take you from here.”
“Thanks,” said Bayan. “For the ride. I appreciate it. Nice meeting you.” She genuinely meant this, although she was not sure that her words mattered much to him. The captain nodded, and stepped back onto the ferry, but did not seem eager to depart. He sat on a bench in the stern, and stared at the empty part of the city that Bayan was to enter.
* * *
Simcha Golder and his wife had tried to live apart. He had moved out, as she was the fragile one. Just as they were forever bound together in footnotes and aging gallery invitations, however, it proved impossible. Three weeks later Simcha had moved back in. All of his time, when not working, was devoted to Laetitia. Towards keeping her from that terrible choice. When he was not home, friends would take turns being with her. It was an indefinite family, extending through time and always changing, but without hiatus. It would never be complete.
* * *
“Yes, welcome,” said the guide. “I’ll stay by you here. You’ll be okay. Don’t wander off.” The guide wore a huge blazer, which would not have been much more elegant had it fit: it was a shiny weave of orange polyester — once perhaps part of a uniform, but never one that indicated anything like the status of the grey captain. It was far too wide in the shoulders, and his clumsy hands almost disappeared into the sleeves.
“Can you tell me about the calligry?”
“Calligraphy. Could I? Dear I could tell you whole maybe tedious long stories, epic stories that would massage your heart and split it like a pomegranate then wind the red halves in threads of spun gold, but that’s not really appropriate. Not anymore.”
“Oh, it depends upon what you value. That’s a changing thing. What people value. To me it has infinite value, infinite, but what I care about nobody much cares about anymore, and what disgusts me is what drives other men to do the most amazing things. I suggest you keep it. Keep it until you die and then leave it in your will to someone you love even more than yourself. That’s my suggestion. On the other hand you might wish to toss it into the garbage can over there. Your call.”
Bayan could not imagine ever giving it up now. She marveled at this silly man who used so many words to say so little. His bulbous features were entirely wrong on his skinny face, and his laugh was too high and nasal to be sane. As they wandered into the hollow space between the built ghosts of wealth, the guide continued to speak in ways that made her do all of the thinking, the most difficult thinking, thoughts she had never considered pursuing before. He was a useless riddle, and somehow she was producing useful answers.
“I don’t get many visitors, not unofficial visitors, not these days. They send buses full of young people, well-prepared, and so not at all prepared, all wide open eyes and you know that they’re never going to really see anything, then go home and talk about what they haven’t seen, and feel good about it. Dialogue, they call it. Which is the one thing it isn’t. Awful job I have. But you’re here on your own, took your own unprodded path, didn’t you. You’re a visitor. You’re the rare person I’m down here to talk to still, or I would leave, wouldn’t I.”
“How long have you been here?”
“You don’t think I’m going to answer that, do you?” He laughed his sneezing laugh. “I have my dignity. If I told you how long I’ve been down here you’d think I was pathetic: don’t I have anything better to do? But no, to be honest, I don’t have anything better to do. Anyway, I’ll leave it to you to imagine how long I’ve been down here. You still have an imagination, and I’m sure you can give me a crazy long history full of all sorts of adventures I haven’t had, and I’d like that.”
He walked with jaunty, clumsy strides, his shoulders bouncing from side to side. Bayan had to take two steps to every one of his. She loved his attitude, his determination to be joyous despite everything: it was what she had worked to achieve all her life, without knowing it, and now she knew it.
“I’m not going to leave you alone, don’t you worry about that dear. I’ll be here, and no matter how horrible it gets you’ll have someone beside you who’s seen that and worse, and I’m just fine, if you like, although a lot of people wouldn’t consider me fine at all. Damaged goods. But ‘goods’ — that’s the crucial thing I like to think. Try to stay goods, I insist, and you can bear all the damage in the world. We’re getting closer.”
“What are we going to see?”
“Well, that’s precisely what I’m not going to tell you, isn’t it. I’m a guide. I’m not your eyes.”
“So, the ferry boat captain. Do you know him well?”
“Not sure what that means.”
“Have you known him for a long time?”
The guide laughed, and while he laughed he thought about why he was laughing, which made him laugh even harder, until he could barely breathe. “That’s extremely good. That’s a question. I couldn’t ask a better question myself. Oh my.”
“He doesn’t seem very happy.”
“Well, you wouldn’t be, would you. He’s not unhappy, really — he is unhappiness. That’s what he is, which is nice of him to be, because he takes on all of the misery that overflows, and makes it into himself, or we’d all be so much unhappier ourselves. You don’t have to worry about him, no. I think he’s a much luckier person in his unhappiness than most people are who smile even when they’re sleeping. Except you, of course. I think you’re lucky. Look at you. I bet you smile in your sleep, but you have reason for it, and most of those smiling sleepers have none. I was a child too. Most people never were.”
The surfaces down here — streets and walls and objects — were smudged grey, as if they had been covered in ash, then wiped down by incompetent cleaners. Bayan imagined that she would find it all much more depressing if she had not been blessed with this company.
“So where do you think I should go next?” asked Bay.
“Next? Next? You haven’t even gone here yet, and you’re thinking about next? Oh my. You’re a live one, working overtime in your soul, aren’t you — you’re not settled down at all. Which is all very good, of course, and I suspect there will be a next, and then a next after that, and you won’t know about any of them until you get there. Lucky you. We’re getting closer.”
As they approached, the guide said less and less, and Bayan sensed that he would at some point lapse into silence. He no longer laughed. This seemed appropriate. She stopped asking questions.
The silence came. They walked for the longest time. And then he spoke low. Whatever was foolish in the old man was gone now.
“You want to know how I became a guide, of course, it’s the question pressing hardest on you, the most pressing question. You have been waiting.”
Bayan had not, she was sure, but then she realized that she had.
“I expect you have never been to Europe, the Old World, where we come from, you and me and much of what we know. Our people left for a reason. You are Jewish.”
“My father,” said Bayan.
“Then you both are and are not. For the Jews, you are not. For those who hate us, and there are continents filled with them, you are. I am Jewish on my mother’s side, and that makes me acceptable to both: to those who would have me join with them in prayer and those who would hang me from hooks. I am much wanted, if you wish to look at it that way, by my friends and by my enemies, and my enemies I am quite sure want me with the greater hunger, because hatred generally wins out over companionship as a mover of men. These are things you have not been told yet, and are too young to know, but you have chosen to come here and that is sealed.
“And so I went to the Old World and visited the graves. In Prague the tombstones are famous, the broken teeth of a once beautiful mouth almost but not entirely silenced. The synagogue too is famous because it is tiny and in its tininess holds immensity, and don’t be surprised if the most weighty monuments are lighter than air. I went to visit this place as a tourist, and I was much younger, not quite as young as you are now, but younger and not very serious at all, wanting to be serious but not knowing how. A tourist.”
Yes. This is what Bayan had wanted to hear.
“At the entrance to the cemetery I was greeted by a woman as tiny as that synagogue, on a different scale from you and me, as many things are in the place that we came from. I don’t mean that as an insult, or anything like that, it’s simply that being vast is not necessarily a physical thing, as I say.”
She was surprised and disturbed to hear anything like wisdom emerge from this man.
“The woman insisted that I follow her from grave to grave as she told me the terrible history of that place, and I was annoyed. I had not come here to pay a guide, you see. They are always hungry, guides; they will take you through the most profound experiences — or so they insist, as they are guiding you — and then they want a tip. I had come to experience the atmosphere, as a tourist, feeling of course that this would be sufficient for me to take in the history and the suffering, and here she was burdening me with history, with the details of suffering, and she would want a tip.
“She pointed out the important graves. And as we approached the most important of the dead in that place, she told me about the greater death that had been planned and almost accomplished: how it was here that the murderer intended a museum to display the artifacts of an erased people, so that their erasure might be celebrated, perhaps, as something quaint for tourists to experience as an interesting diversion between lunch and dinner. Here as well he had created the most palatable place of suffering, so that the world might come by and visit and return home with the conviction that nothing horrible was happening here. No real suffering. Much less murder. Much less erasure.
“Those who lived here and were meant to become less and less, they knew. They very much knew. But even knowing this they refused to become less. They wrote literature — even the children — and they talked about what they had written and criticized it fiercely. As if this still mattered.
“All of these things the tiny woman told me as she led me to the grave of that great rabbi, who had lived long before this scale of murder was even contemplated in the world. And even he who knew magic might well have been unable to comprehend what would happen: even if he could have seen it with his peerless inner eye, and perhaps he could. He is the one who made a monster, they say, which we cannot think of as a monster now that history has changed the meaning of that word. And still I was annoyed that this woman would not let me be, to enjoy the suffering on my own without her insistence that she guide me, and I knew that I would have to pay her, and I had not asked for this.
“When we arrived at the grave of the great rabbi who had known magic, she pointed to the stones laid upon that grave, tiny stone upon great stone, and she explained that it was a custom here when honoring and remembering the dead to leave a small stone on the grave. A stone prayer.
“And I come here, she said, every day to lay a stone on this grave, and tell the story to whichever person shows up at the entrance to this place, because my family was held in this city and made a palatable form of suffering for outsiders and then murdered as an afterthought, and I am the only one left to tell the story.”
The guide stopped and gazed at Bayan’s face. The eyes too big and forehead too tall and nothing symmetrical.
“And I knew that she would never have taken money had I offered it. And I was ashamed.”
He began to walk again, slowly.
“And that is how I became a guide.”
They were entering the museum.
It was like no museum ever witnessed. Perhaps in a small way like that museum planned by the murderer, although not the same. It was a vast empty space, a blighted park. The objects were placed at a distance from each other in a way that seemed almost random, but no: it was a dreadful story, told in silence, which the guide narrated in silence by simply guiding her from object to object. Here cast in iron were the ships and airplanes filled to suffocation with the deported, with no unbearable detail neglected. Here in flickering electronic candlelight were the faces of the Child Suicides. Set in blocks of glass, never again to touch the air much less human hands: the prayer mats stained with blood.
This was the Museum of the Expulsion. Pieces arranged in emptiness, with only a silent guide to make sense of them. Or no sense. But to put them in order. This crime. Then this violation. This crime. Humiliation this way. What was done here. What was left. Why even the vultures had finally departed because there was no one left to die.
The Museum was a plane tilted upwards almost imperceptibly: what Simcha would have identified as a stage raked towards an invisible audience. Simcha would have theorized that here Bayan and her guide were actors, no longer external to the drama, the blocking predetermined and punctuated by hideous props. Bayan wished that her father were here to say something of this sort. To explain it all, even if his explanations made no sense to her. She cried so rarely.
They traversed the flat rising Museum in a circuitous fashion. It was a skewed invisible labyrinth leading upward, and then sideways, and then down, but always a little bit further upward when they returned. Bayan had been taken to every display, had witnessed every object, when her guide walked the last few steps to the lip of the plane, and she moved nervously to join him.
Beneath her, the lone object in a space ten times as wide and ten times as deep as the Museum they had climbed, glowed. Bayan knew that her mother must have had some hand in this. Bay had seen what her mother could make. Had made. The Monument to the Expulsion was a light without origin, neither produced nor reflected. It simply was. A cube of proportions determined by history or perhaps prophecy or perhaps the birth of prophecy: purest light where the original was black.
Bay and her guide descended the iron stair to Ground Zero. Wordlessly he took her in a circle around the cube of light, counterclockwise. It was perhaps eight times as tall as she was. One corner pointed north. This they passed first. Bayan considered her mother, who must have had a hand in this. The next pointed west. Perhaps Bay would return home. The vultures might return if there were someone left to die. They rounded the corner to the south. I could be that person. They approached the eastern corner. She thought on this possibility.
And there, set into the eastern corner of the cube, was absence. As if a large jewel had once been set into the cube of pure light, at a height just above her eyes, and was now gone. The guide stood beside it. This hole in the light. He examined Bayan in silence beside the emptiness, and she made her decision.