Wrapped in the Arms of the Holy Land
There is sun coming slantwise through the window on the day I notice the dead woman outside. Her body is slumped over the grassy verge, her face obscured, her long dark hair fanning out like raven feathers which have fallen to the ground. The light plays with her hair and I wonder for a moment if I am wrong and she is, in fact, alive. Her fingers are curled in that way the dead have, unmoving, rigid, and from those fingers it is clear that her soul is gone. If she ever had one.
She is obese; rolls of fat billow up like pillows stuffed under her black clothes. Her healthy appetite is a cruel irony, heavy on her body in the whitening sun. Shaking my head in disgust, I wonder who starved in order for her to be able to eat. Her killer? Sophia calls me from the kitchen and I sigh and go to her, my disgust turning to pity as if I have somehow inhaled a tiny stone and it has become lodged in my lung.
"Eddie, there is bread," she says.
I look at her long face, her gaunt eyes, her thin, thin arms. She has placed a slice of bread on the centre of the table next to a white daisy. I do not ask her where she found a daisy. I do not kiss her as I sit down. I do not tell her about the dead woman outside the window. Instead, the tiny stone clatters as it slips from my lung into my heart and lands with all the other stones inside me.
"I've been painting," says Sophia.
I am thinking about my name, how it sounds like water, how the water floods and swirls and eddies along the river and does not stop to quench our thirst, how it does not stop to save us. The woman in the street has gotten to me, I cannot focus. Sophia has her worried eyes on me but I can't look back at her.
"What is it, darling?" she says. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
There is a rattle of machine-gun fire. It is like music to me now. I count the dum da da da dum dum in my head. The harmony reaches a crescendo and I can see madness like sunlight at the edge of my vision. I drag myself back. "I'm fine, I'm OK."
"You have to be," she says, so firmly that I concentrate on her more.
"I am. I am."
"Listen to me. I'm telling you about my painting. Don't think about what's out there."
I know from how she says this that she has seen the woman too. The woman who is no longer a woman. The woman who is a fat, wobbly shell. "Someone should move her," I say.
"No one will move her. It's too dangerous. Eddie, listen to me."
I nod abruptly. "Yes, I must," I say.
"I finished a painting today. I looked at it and I saw that it was finished. There was a final line, a final feather stroke of pale blue, a final signing of my name and that was it. I knew it was finished."
"What did you call it?"
"I haven't given it a name yet. I thought you'd like to help me."
The machine-gun fire stops and starts again and I hardly notice. I am looking at motes of dust, dancing in a sunbeam, and they are like billions of tiny lives—frenetic, purposeless, beautiful. Sophia is right. Her painting is what's important. Although I still feel like my body is weighed down, I remind myself that Sophia could be dead by tomorrow. This thought releases an atom of pain and, for a moment, my heart feels like it's beating.
As the evening collapses upon us and the machine-guns stop for the night, I watch the shape of the woman in the dark. Soon I cannot make out where she ends and the night begins. There is something beautiful in this and I admire the imagination of the world in the night. I duck when a last burst of gunfire cuts through my thoughts and shatters the window of our neighbours. Not that our neighbours live there anymore.
"Eddie," Sophia calls, her voice strained. "Come away from the window. I do not want to watch you fall into this room with a bullet in your skull." She speaks slowly, as if I'm a child. "I'm worried about you, love. I do not need something else to worry about."
We sit together on the floor and play our game. She describes the place she would most like to be. Tonight she's in the far north. She talks about the wide empty spaces, the aurora, the cold cutting though her bones like she was made of paper and the cold was a pair of scissors. I wonder at the dark side of her thoughts. Once she would never have thought like this. Or maybe she would and she never would have told me. I imagine her cut into little pieces by cold shiny scissors.
"I would like to be in the Holy Land," I say, "fallen on my knees in a church, listening to the muezzin call and watching an orthodox Jew walking down the street. I would like to feel the heat on my back as I come out the church and stroll past the jumbled fabrics and shoes and souvenirs stacked up in dark openings along the Via Dolorosa, imagining Jesus carrying his cross. I would like to drink orange juice, which has been freshly squeezed by an Arab and brought to my table by his eager son. I would like to press my face to the Western Wall and accidentally brush my face against those tiny pieces of paper prayers stuffed into the nooks and crannies and wonder at what they have asked God for. I would like to admire the Dome of the Rock, watching the glint of blue and gold in the blazing sun, then I would like to walk to Jaffa Gate where the tourists weep pilgrim's tears and clutch cameras and argue with taxi drivers and climb to stand on the walls and look over Jerusalem and wonder at the future," I say.
Sophia interrupts me. "I want to feel the vast empty sky like a weight upon me, the cold like a knife inside me, taste mukluk and sit by a fire shivering and listening to tales of how the world was made. As I fall asleep, I want to feel the raven's wings against my cheeks and be blanketed in blubber and fur. In the middle of the night, which could be the middle of the day, I'll awake and watch glorious green Northern Lights undulate across the sky."
"Why green?" I ask.
"First they'll be green," says Sophia, her face lit momentarily by the indirect pearl-glow of a searchlight, "then slowly the undulations will become blue and then purple and I will feel like I'm dancing with the sky."
I put my arm around her and she is so frail that I am afraid I will break her. "It will get better," I say.
I feel her eyes on me in the dark.
"Shut up, Eddie," she says and pulls roughly away.
By morning, I expect the body to be gone. But as I rub sleep from my eyes and yawn and stretch my limbs, I remember that nothing is as I expect anymore. Unless I expect everything to be the same. There she is, fat and wet, dew sticking to her hair and making her black clothes slick. Her fingers are blue and a large bird hops on the ground near her until it is shot. Its body flicks up into the air momentarily and thuds to the ground.
Those who wear black are those who live in the shadows. They live in this city and hope for the day when it will become what it once was. They live in the past, a place of half remembered truths and nostalgia, when this city was a place like any other, when the war that tears us into insignificant pieces was the fantasy of anarchists and dreamers. Now we flutter, these insignificant pieces of torn up lives, and the anarchists and dreamers live their reality and the rest of us wear black and struggle and wheeze and claw our way through every day, expecting a different tomorrow.
There is no reason that I remember for this war. The government wanted one thing, the citizens another. Money and greed, personal pride, race and religion, land, these reasons stripped our country of its dignity and left it rotting in the sun. And now, even though the sun warms my face as I stand at the window, it feels like the sun has left us too.
How can that be? How can the sun be on my face, yet so far away that I can't feel hope coming from it anymore? I want to ask Sophia but I don't dare. She is angry with me. Her anger freezes her shoulders and stiffens her face. Although she slept wrapped in my arms, no matter how angry we are with each other we are careful always to hold each other at night—it might be the last time—as soon as we awoke she retreated to the kitchen and closed the door.
I chide myself for letting the fat, wet woman get to me like this. I open the door to the kitchen and find Sophia weeping with her head on the table, cosseted by her arms. I go to her. I am a fool. What do the dead have over the tears of the living? She puts her face against mine and I feel her tears. She says, "Don't make this harder."
I ask to look at her painting and together we go to the only other room. Our bathroom has become a shrine to Sophia's artwork. Piled up in the bath are paintings, and sculptures lurk under the cupboards and from behind the toilet. The new painting lies like a recently birthed child, glistening and vulnerable, on top of the others. It is a painting of a window and a man stares from the other side of the window back at me. It is my own face and the sun is upon it. The man, me, he is looking at something but you cannot tell what he is looking at from his expression. He could be terrified or ecstatic. The fact that you cannot tell is beautiful. There are gunshot wounds in the wood of the window, so that the frame is pockmarked and fragmented.
"Call it, There is a Dead Woman Lying in the Street," I say, before I can stop myself.
"Don't do this, Eddie," Sophia says.
"Put the subtitle as She's been there for two days and she'll be there until she rots." My voice rises.
"What is wrong with you? Nothing's changed," yells Sophia.
"That's exactly what's wrong. Nothing's changed. She's dead and she's just lying there in the street and nobody gives a damn—"
"You do. You can't stop yourself and I don't know what's wrong with you. I'm alive and I'm here and I'm in this room and I need you to get it together."
"She must have had friends, a family, people who cared about her, passions, dreams, hopes."
"She must have had more to eat that the rest of us," yells Sophia, and she's hysterical.
"She deserved to die: she's been feeding herself while the rest of us starve."
"How can you say that?"
Sophia looks at me and her eyes are black like the raven's wings. "She deserved it and we have to get on with our lives and get over it."
"What's happened to you? Where's your compassion? How can you look out the window at a dead woman and tell me that she deserved it? You never met her." I feel alive as I'm shouting and relief breaks through me. My heart is beating hard.
"I'm still here," Sophia screams. She's sobbing and her tiny body shakes with effort.
I look at my wife. "You cannot lose your compassion, Sophia." I am calmer and I patronise her with the voice of someone who knows he is in the right.
"You cannot keep yours," she replies and pushes her way out of the room.
I am left looking at the painting and feeling like a jerk. But at least I am feeling something and I am not numb.
While Sophie is sleeping, I steal toward the apartment door. If she woke now, I would tell her I was going for bread. She would look at me with her heart breaking in her eyes, like two tiny windows shattering. Outside it is cool, moonless, and I feel the breeze playing against the fine hairs on my arms. I stay crouched and look constantly around. As I get closer to the woman, I can smell her, and I put one hand to my nose to stop myself from gagging. There is no one around. I take a deep breath and push against the woman's body. She is cold and heavy, like meat from the freezer, and within seconds I am coated in sweat. I push and shove with both hands, rolling her first to her side, then to her front, to her side, onto her back. After a while, I put both my arms under hers, and try dragging her. Her head lolls against my chest. Now her face is bloated and bruised, as if she drowned and was not shot. But there, at her forehead, is the dark hole of someone's flippant moment with a gun.
The sound she makes being pulled across the grass is a dull swishing. I wonder for how many nights it will haunt me. Then I begin to feel strong, my steps are less unsteady, and the dead woman and I get into a motion. We are moving forward, whilst both of us moving backward. I get to the edge of the grass and collapse suddenly underneath her. She falls on my legs and I shudder, wanting to push her off but unable to. All my strength is gone.
A shot breaks the night and I hear the bullet ricochet close by. I put my hand briefly to the woman's cheek. I want to tell her I am sorry, but I do not have time. I fight her dead weight off and slope into the shadows. There is another shot. I have been seen and I must now stand still. I must wait until the sniper gives up. The woman is slumped now, half seated. I wonder what she used to do, what she wanted with her life, who she was. Many minutes go by before I take cautious steps back to where Sophie sleeps. She will be angry if she knows I have done this. She will not understand.
As I reach the stairway, I look back. I cannot make out the woman in the darkness. There is another shot, not so close by. I am inside before the sniper gets another chance.
I look out the window the next morning. There is a slight flattening of the grass where she lay and a curving trail in the grass where I dragged her, but other than that no sign that someone dead was once there. I hope that one day there will be no signs that our city was ravaged by war other than a slight flattening of the grass and a beautiful painting in a gallery on the other side of the world. The war will be over and it will be a dust mote in the memory of the future.
Sophia conceded and told me that she would call the painting by the title I suggested. I call out to her. "I was wrong," I say. "She didn't rot."
"Someone took her away," says Sophia, coming up behind me to the window.
"Sometimes this is the place I most want to be in the world," I say, softly.
"That's why I painted you here," says Sophia.
I think of our city in the future. A slick, shiny place with mobile phones and neon advertisements. Shops and shoppers, theatres and restaurants, clubs and bars and people drinking and tiny pockmarks on the frames of the windows, like the scars on a person's face from adolescence. "Nothing has changed, yet," I say.
And Sophia says something so beautiful that one day I'll have to ask her to paint it for me, one day when all this is over.
"Specks of dust in a sunbeam," she says, "when there is no wind."