In the middle of the wood there is a house and in the middle of the house there is a room and in the middle of the room there is a bed and in the middle of the bed there is a woman.
‘Joseph, Joseph, is that you?’
He pauses on the stairs before answering, ‘Yes,’ then climbs the remaining steps; a day when she is alert, like this, is always more difficult.
‘Where have you been?’ she asks, turning her head on the pillow to follow him, as he crosses the room, ‘I’ve been calling and calling.’
He stops at the side of the bed.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you. Look, I brought you some oranges.’ He holds out the small blue plate, like a trophy. She pats the bed beside her.
‘Sit down, Joseph,’ she says, ‘sit down and talk to me, please.’
He places the plate of oranges on the table and sits. The bed sags beneath him.
‘When children go to heaven, do they still go to school?’ Her face takes on the look of a child as she asks the question.
‘I don’t know, my dear. Don’t think of such things now.’
‘But I must think of them Joseph, I think of nothing else, I think—what are they doing, what are they doing now?—I think it all the time. Don’t you think it Joseph, don’t you? I think of them at their lessons, and singing, of course, and all in white, always all in white.’
He tries to hush her, covering her hands with his but they move under his palms, like crabs. Her body has betrayed her, this body which was always so athletic, so invincible, more like a statue than a real woman, like making love to a golden idol, her eyes always open.
He thinks of the muscular tension of her limbs, even when seated beside him at the opera, the fine hairs on her arms lifting, the vein pulsing at her throat. Hers was a body which had demanded action, not thought. The passion, the words, the grandeur, had all of it been like a sort of glamorous fog, overwhelming and distorting everything, like an opera mistaken for a life? Maybe none of it had been real, except for the children; they had been flesh and blood, his flesh and blood. How would they have turned out— heavy, cow-eyed matrons, balding middle-aged bankers or petty officials in the new republic? At least they were spared that, the reward of failure. He sees his sons in the mirror every morning when he shaves, the blade to his throat a glinting reproach. Shaving is one of the few civilities left to him—what separates us from the beasts.
She shifts her thin limbs, like sticks under the blanket. Her fingers are blue-white and he wants to warm them but she winces. He stands up, seeking distraction, anything. ‘Look, look I think it might be snowing, look my dear, the clouds are threatening snow.’ He stands at the window. Great grey clouds like overstuffed parcels seem to be about to spill something from the trembling sky. As he watches, drops of moisture, more substantial than rain, begin to float outside the window, not quite falling yet but deciding whether to fall.
‘It’s beautiful,’ she agrees, her eyes following the blurred movement. Then: ‘You had all the power, you know.’
He turns from the window to stare at her. ‘What do you mean?’—careful now.
‘I mean that the power was yours, you could have stopped me, at any time.’ He shudders at her coolness. Sometimes, rarely, she has sudden moments of lucidity like this, he has to restrain himself, keep it vague, courteous; soon she will sink back into her elsewhere world. He eyes the medicine bottle, tries to calculate the next dose. She will need to eat something first. Perhaps the oranges. He steps forward, picks one up, rolling it in his hands, buying time.
‘None of us had the power, my dear, you know that, we were all serving under a higher power, myself as much as you. Anyway, we had decided—you had decided. It was not for me to change—anything.’ He stops, not intending to have said so much, startled by how much she seems to see into his thoughts. Her old powers of perception could be terrifying. The younger children, especially, could hide nothing from her.
‘But you could have, Joseph, do you acknowledge that? You could have prevented me.’
He shakes his head, trying to remain calm and rational, keeping a level tone to his voice, hoping to soothe her now with compliments. ‘Maybe physically, maybe in that way I was stronger, but not in any other way. You were so strong then too, in what you believed, in what you believed would happen, should happen…’ He can see he is already losing her, this is still the wrong approach, time to change tack: ‘But look, look it really is snowing now, we shall be surrounded by snow.’
She tries to look at the window, her oval eyes blinking. There had always been something equine about her beauty, her suntanned thighs, smooth as the flanks of a racehorse, her wide lips, painted with Max Factor red—something beyond the human, those long eyelashes, how she stared at him while he was preparing the children for bed, telling him, without words, to hurry. Now they have all the time in the world. Her eyes lose focus again, taking in neither the man nor the snowfall. Her head falls back on her pillow.
‘Tell me again, Joseph, tell me why I am still breathing.’
He relaxes, placing the orange back in the blue dish. ‘The involuntary muscles, the involuntary muscles keep you breathing.’
‘Tell me about the involuntary muscles, I know you’ve told me before but I like to hear it.’
He is on surer ground now.
‘Well, the human body has voluntary muscles and involuntary muscles and these involuntary muscles, they expand and contract and do their work whether we instruct them to or not.’
‘And where are they, Joseph, where are these muscles?’
‘Well, they are in the stomach and the lungs and of course the heart.’
‘Ah yes, the heart… and tell me, Doctor, are there any muscles in the brain?’ He looks at her quickly but can detect no irony in her face. Her sharpness seems unintentional this time.
‘No, my dear, I don’t think so, not like that at any rate. Not like the muscles that help you to breathe.’ Life, it’s relentless and then—nothing. He never saw them, then, or later, stretched out on the cold earth, on the brittle Berlin snow, like frozen angels, but he heard how they had laid them in a row in their nightclothes, before making sure they were already dead, identifying them, photographing them, finally flinging the small corpses in the sewer that runs beneath the city, swirling forever, a liquid catacomb.
She is very still in the bed; even her breathing seems to have shrunk, as if a much smaller creature is breathing for her, inside the birdcage that is her chest. Livid red spots have reappeared on her neck, the marks of whatever is eating her from the inside out. The room is silent for a long time, muffled by the falling snow, which is sifting steadily against the window panes, then she questions him again, more weakly now.
‘Why do they keep us here so long, why do they never come? Has everyone gone away?’
He pauses before answering, she has not asked him this for a long time.
‘No, no, they are still here but they no longer need to see us. It’s all a long, long time ago now and we are almost forgotten. Almost.’
‘But they bring us food, Joseph, they gave you oranges today?’
He thinks about their eyes, never meeting his, as if death might seep out of him and into them, just by the act of looking. He understands this fear; when the time came, he also failed to look.
‘Yes, they gave me oranges; sometimes they are kind. Shall I peel you one now?’ When he turns around again she seems to be sleeping; her eyes are fully closed but she asks, ‘What shall you do, what shall you do, Joseph, when I am dead?’
‘Oh, my dear, you must not speak of such things.’
‘Why not? I want to know, you must tell me. Tell me and then I will sleep again, I promise, tell me.’
He sighs: ‘Very well.’
This is something new from her but he feels he must comply. He must appear unmoved. Then she will rest and he can watch the snow and the day will pass, as the day always passes. What matter, perhaps they are already dead and this is hell.
‘I will close your eyes as they are now and I will place coins upon them—’
‘Do it, Joseph, come here and do it as you will do it then, please. I want to know how it will be for me, please.’
This is very hard for him but he does as she asks. He cannot be rude. It is too late now to back down and he cannot offend her. There have been too many small offences in the past, faceless women whose names he cannot remember, actresses, nobodies, just as she had once predicted. Compliance, this is all he has left to give.
‘I will place the pennies like this,’ and he takes them from his pocket and leans over to place them carefully on her shut eyelids.
‘Oh, but they are warm, Joseph, I thought they would be cold, but they are lovely and warm, go on.’
The dead eyes of the coins look back at him. And the black hole of her mouth. For a moment, pity overwhelms him and makes the next step possible.
‘Then I will pull the sheet over your face, like this, and I will go and turn the mirror to the wall.’
When he has done all this he turns back to look at her, lying like a corpse, her bare feet exposed. Quickly, frantically, he tears the sheet and the coins from her face. She opens her eyes, startled, there seems to be some recognition there again, some spark. He has held a question inside himself all this time.
Now it makes a fist, deep in his stomach.
‘Did they… did any of them… wake up, as you… at the end, did they make—a noise?’ Even now, he cannot ask if they called out, if they called out for him.
She smiles at such innocence and speaks to him gently, tenderly, in the tones she would use for a troubled child.
‘Oh no, Joseph dear, they were all quite asleep, it was very quick, they took in life and death in the same breath, the same sweet breath; they dreamed themselves to death, like a sweet dream. You should have been there; you should have come in; you should have seen; it was beautiful, beautiful, like in a dream.
‘Oh look at the snow now, Joseph, just look at the snow…’
He turns and sees the window, filling up with a whiteness so bright, it’s suffocating.