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Authors: Michael Ondaatje

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BOOK: Divisadero
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that day Anna had come behind him and slid the earphones of a CD player gently
over his ears.
He was, he remembers, skinning
kidneys, and the music was almost skeletal, a bare list, a sketch. He knew who
it was by, but not what the piece of music was. ‘Bach,’ she said, ‘later Bach.’
He listened, watching the blade slow its movement, now slicing the innards,
then the mushrooms, a sleepwalking knife, his hand pouring a splash of brandy
and dry mustard into a pan, while he was in this spare thicket of music. As if
the half-uttered gestures and emotion of the musician were the desultory
conversations of a wood pigeon.

Now he brushed the strings
of his guitar into life with the calluses of his palm, and listened to what it
was. What was adjacent to music was music. The night air held everything and
pressed into his coat and his face.

Tell me about your father,
Anna said.
Is he a big shadow in your life? Did you tell me he met your

while he was robbing a police

He wasn’t quite robbing
the police
he was trying to take something
off a man who was being held prisoner there. It was more dif

He wanted to rob a
prisoner? So the prisoner was not a friend?
The prisoner had something that was important to a friend of my father’s. I
don’t know why.
And where was this friend of his? Why couldn’t he do it?
It was a woman. And she was another prisoner.
In the same
It usually held men.
Sometimes there were more women than men. Not this time.
And your mother worked in the police station.
Yes, she came in for an hour or so while the jailer went on his lunch break.
She was not supposed to go anywhere near the prisoners, but she had been given
the keys, in case there was a
re. This was in a small town near the Belgian border. These were not
major criminals in there. My father just needed to rob one of them. But it was
going to be challenging.
He came into the police station, in a sort of out

an invented
uniform, really

with a hose and a tank attached to his
back, saying he was sorry he was late.

I was supposed
to be here earlier,

he said.

have to do this quickly, because I have three other jails today.

My mother, at the desk, had no idea what he was talking about. No
one had said anything to her about his visit. He said, ‘You will have to sign
this when I

He brought out some forms with carbon
paper between them. This was shortly after the war, and you could hardly move with
the red tape then. ‘All
are they?’ he asked, and
was told there was one woman, and he pretended to worry about that. ‘Then you
might have to help.’
What he needed to do, he told her, was DDT the cells, hose them down, and hose
the prisoners too, which meant they had to push all their belongings and
clothes out of the cells so they wouldn’t get sodden. ‘Sodden?’ She asked him
what that meant. ‘Damp. Damp. Wet. Like

‘Ah. Je comprends.’
Je comprends,
Anna said, lying beside him in the
So my father explained all this to the male prisoners while my future mother
explained it to the woman. The men had to undress completely and push their
clothes forward, through the bars. My father (not yet a father) took the
clothes and carried them into the front of
ce, then went and sprayed the DDT, essentially for lice and ticks

there had been a serious outbreak, he told them, that was tumbling
through the region, two prisoners in another jail had even died. After spraying
the cells, now devoid of sheets and books and papers, he sprayed the men’s
bodies, front and back. He then told them to stand still for ten minutes before
they got dressed.
Meanwhile my mother had to get the woman prisoner to disrobe, and bring her
clothes to the front of

as my father would have to check them for
ticks and lice, and sprinkle DDT powder on them. The woman did not have to be
hosed down, because, my father said, strangely the creatures never settled on
women—a fact that my mother found peculiar, but if the man knew, the man knew.
So my father sorted out the clothes, got the crucial piece of paper or whatever
it was from the male prisoner’s pocket and put it in the female prisoner’s
shoe, and everyone got settled back into their cells. He thanked the prisoners,
he told the woman there had been three ticks in her clothes, he shook the hand
of my mother and left.
He had made my mother sign the papers. She’d apparently needed to put down her
age, other professions, and where she lived. She was a ‘traveller,’ she had
told him then, what they used to call
Gypsies. She was a ‘

Of course, the guards at the police station did not know this—she would hardly
have been allowed to work there if they had known. She didn’t really have an
address, just a location she’d pointed towards, near the southwest edge of the
town. Her family lived in a caravan. In this way my father met the enigma that
was Aria.
No one was aware of what had taken place. The returning jailer held his nose at
the smell of what seemed to be disinfectant. Maybe twenty-four hours later
there was a cry of complaint from one of the prisoners. But by then my father
had come courting, and had asked for ‘Aria,’ whose name he knew from the
lled-out forms. He had been journeying up
from Italy after the war ended, and had found himself in Belgium, where it was
easier to obtain money the way he usually did. He’d been injured but now seemed
to be back at his old criminal activities.
So he stayed with her and married her?
They never married, but she was his wife, yes. He stayed and lived in the
caravan with her. My mother told me he had had another wife, before the war,
but she referred to it only once. The war was a chasm for most. There was one
life before and one life afterwards. Many decided not to go back to what they
had been.
It’s a good excuse.
The war.
Yes. In this case it was because my father was besotted with my mother. She was
quite a bit younger. He had never been a jealous person—after all, he was a
thief who believed property was ‘communal’—but he gave up everything he was and
began living with her in the way she wanted to live. There was a strict moral
code around her group.
So Aria...
And my father.
Turn around and face me.... Is that all true?
It’s probably been aged a bit. But that was how my father, the DDT inspector,
met her.
I suppose there are a lot more stories about him.
Oh, yes. For one whole month, when the police were suspicious of that community
of caravans, he dressed as a woman. He was a woman for all that time, until the
police gave up. He had been in jail during his youth, and he was never going
Then you can’t blame him.
No. But the real reason he feared going to jail was that he became jealous of
other men’s interest in my mother. Though she was consistently faithful, as far
as I know, but then, who knows...
Aria, she said again. As if it was some taste on her tongue.

After the disinfecting,
his father noticed that there was still about
fteen minutes before the jailer was
scheduled to return, so he sat down opposite the young woman and wondered aloud
whether they would, and could, meet again. She was looking down at some cards.
He watched her hands scoop them this way and that. Her dark hair was tied back
with a few inches of green ribbon. Without a word she
the Tarot pack across the table in front of him. He cut it, pulled a card out,
and let it lie there. He knew nothing about what the cards meant, and he
watched as she moved the other cards around it. She made him select another. He
glanced at the clock above her beautiful head. ‘I do not wish to be rude, but I
must leave now.’ She said nothing, continuing to move the cards from side to
side, as if evidence, acknowledging him with a slight nod as he opened the door
and slipped out.

She knew she

d see him again, and what she had on the table in front of
her was considerably more signi
cant than the need to look up and see his face or his strange dark
hands again. When he passed the window, he glanced inside and saw her profile
bent even closer to the table, studying the cards.

The next night he visited
her caravan. She looked him up and
certain this was what she wanted. She’d seen a possible jealousy in his nature;
perhaps the war had made him desire too much security.

So in the moment he was
abandoning his wife and betraying her with Aria, he began insisting on no
betrayal on Aria’s part. As at the jailer’s desk, she remained silent and
uncommitted to this insistence. She refused to deny chance and fate with a
permanent agreement, there was no such thing, and he himself was on no moral
pinnacle to be able to negotiate. Through all their years together, she refused
to give the needed comfort about her faithfulness to this man who was suddenly
conscious of the sacredness of property.

Rafael did not recount
their entire story to Anna. Even as a seven-year-old, lying beside his mother,
he had been aware of Aria as the central being, his arms enclosing her, the way
a boy embraced a dog with all the right in the world. When he was twenty he’d
still undress and swim in rivers with her. So that nakedness was natural to
him, as when Anna watched him standing by the north window, focused only on the
smoking of his cigarette, listening to the sound of doves that had found
harbour in the damaged wall of the house. If she had asked him, he might or
might not have explained how his mother protected this mystery of her
faithfulness, which was like a moat that no one could cross with
certainty—there was always the mixture of carefulness and open desire in her.
She would whisper something into his ear and then kiss it, to seal it there, so
he could never give it away to another.

You’re lucky you had a
mother, such a mother.
I know.
It felt to Rafael that he had just turned from resting his face

Aria years earlier and placed
it against the warmth of Anna.

Anna wakes early in the
morning to begin translating the sparse texts by Lucien Segura that she has on
her desk. For much of his life the man was unknown, save that he was a poet and
later the author of a jeremiad about the Great War. And in the years since his
death, knowledge of him has sunk into the fabric and soil of this region, so he
is almost forgotten by his countrymen. Anna loves such strangers to history;
for her they are essential as underground rivers. She wakes in this last house
that Lucien Segura lived in, solitary in her bed, makes coffee, and is at work
by eight. Rafael is absent from her thoughts until early afternoon, when he
crosses the
elds with a plan for lunch. He is her ‘extravagant and wheeling
stranger,’ or perhaps she is his. In the afternoon, they nestle together in her
small bedroom, and later, half dressed, still curious about the interior of the
house, he will enter other rooms and glance at paintings, open what were once
linen cupboards, and look down at the avenue of trees from an upstairs window.

During one of these
reconnaissances he hears what sounds like a river’s whispering in the corridor.
He realizes the noise comes from above, from a closed-off section above the
ceiling. He wanders off, returns with a ladder, and ascends through a trapdoor
into a room where the air is thick with bird heat. As he rolls in shirtless,
feathers paste themselves onto his back. When Rafael was a boy, he knew there
was a
attached to the house. But over the years the wall
separating the dovecote from the attic must have partially collapsed, and now
birds swoop in, assemble, pause in the portal for a moment, and
y out. It is a room busy with entrances
and escapes. He has never desired to be a pigeon, but many times has wished to
be a bird in flight over the landscape, moving in a long slide towards a copse,
where its high secret entrance, invisible to humans, reveals at the last moment
a path into the forest. What you experience in the high air is the petite life
on earth, a drifting of voices, the creak of a wagon, the retort and smoke from
a gun among the almond trees, somewhat like the music Anna has played for him
in the kitchen, with only the essential notes of life reaching you through that
distance of air.

Rafael stands quietly in
the middle of the room. He knows what he will be able to see from the portal,
from this breadbox-sized opening. He could look towards the wooded valley east
of Dému, the Bois de Mazères, where the silent burial of his mother took place
many years ago...he and his father digging and four others watching, and then,
at the end of his mother’s commitment to the earth, all of them stepped away
from the grave and went their own ways like the spokes of a cart wheel, all of
them carrying their own version of Aria, none of them wishing to share it, or
dilute it within a group. No words were spoken. He was asked to play but did
not; he would play later, when she inhabited him more, when she abided in him.
Then he could represent her, just as he knew his father would take into himself
the qualities of Aria he might unconsciously have fought against in the past.
In this way she would remain with them. He can almost see the clearing in the
forest where they took her that morning. They slipped her into the ground
within three hours, so she lived the briefest death on the earth, as if earth
were a boat that forced a quick embarkation. They had brought her back to the
landscape she was most fond of. It was about
ve in the morning, and bird life was wild
around them, as if it was his mother

s leaving.

BOOK: Divisadero
13.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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