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Authors: Alan Cheuse

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BOOK: The Fires
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she asked him with her own eyes, suddenly obsessed with the notion that they could communicate in this fashion.

You are the one?
he said with his eyes so fiercely crossed that Gina expected that sparks might fly from them at any second.

Yes, I am.

You are eye?

Gina felt her body begin to tremble. She stood up, but found herself too weak to do anything but immediately sit down again.

Eye am sorry.

Eye am,
she said.

And he was yours?

We were together.

And he has gone?

Yes, I think,
she said.

But he will return,
he said.


Paul, dear Paul, goes back to the whirl from whence he came.

But don't you believe in reincarnation? Where to then? And will he be himself?

Eye don't know, who can say? But he will come back, whether as cricket or leafy palm or a drop of rain or a sunset, one way or another. Thus it is, always.

Everyone rose, and Gina discovered that with a little effort she could stand with them and then walk with them—they moved purposefully, though not at all in a hurry—outside to the courtyard. Atop a wooden platform surrounded with neatly arranged firewood, Paul's body—it had to be Paul's body, yes?—lay swathed in white, covered with flowers, the feet pointed toward the south.

A gong sounded behind her and bells tinkled. Gina turned to find the young man with the wild eyes at her elbow. The perfume of his hair and the spices he exhaled nearly bent her at the knees.

“Please, to begin,” he said. “And Mr. Stingold? He will be in the assisting of you?”

Gina nodded, recovering from the shock of finding herself so close to him. His head, his hands, his arms, seemed to give off great heat—she stepped back from him, feeling dizzy again. More bonging of gongs, more bells. Beneath the blue-white cupola of sky, a cloud of incense floated over them. Women in saris sat before the platform, breathing in unison, holding up their hands and making their fingers into signs, ornament-like, that Gina thought they might cast as shadows onto some screen not yet visible.

“Mr. Stingold?” Gina said as Goldstein came up alongside her. She felt the beginnings of a smile on her lips—unheard of! As quickly as it began, she erased it. “What happens next?”

“The priest or swami or leader, whatever he is, he's going to show me,” Goldstein said. “I have a few things I'm supposed to do in this. They won't let you, even though you're the wife. Until the end.”

“Some other time I might fight about this,” Gina said. “Right now, I don't care. Just do what you have to do.”

The man with the dancing dark eyes returned to her from wherever he had been.

“Now, please, Missus, you are sitting here.”

He gestured toward a set of pillows directly in front of the platform. Gina sat, while Goldstein ducked close to her ear and said, “He's been telling me the mantra.”

“The what?”

“What they're singing,” Goldstein said.

“Tell me,” Gina said.

“Something about letting your eye go to the sun and your life to the wind, the you being the deceased, your husband…Go to heaven and then to earth again…reincarnation, you know?”

“I know,” Gina said, feeling almost as though she might actually know, even though she did not.

“Or you are going to the water,” said the dancing-eyed man as he kneeled down in front of Gina. “He can be going anywhere, depending on his living in the past.”

“He was a good man,” Gina said, feeling her throat tighten.

“Then after his journey up to heaven, he will be going then to be returning to a better place.”

Better than me? Better than with me?

Gina felt a surge of heat in her chest. Dr. Betsy Cohen, where are you when I need you? And what would you say, seeing me praying to an elephant god? And burning my husband's body?

“And now,” said the swami, “we begin with the fire wherefrom he came here, wherefrom he was born…”

Two women moved through the crowd, holding wooden bowls before them. People reached into the bowls. When it was Gina's turn, she saw that the containers were filled with cooked rice steeped in milk.

“You are taking some,” the woman said to her, “and throwing half away.”

Gina plucked a sticky wet ball of rice from the bowl and, under the woman's steady scrutiny, touched her lips to the mass before tossing it onto the ground.

“And now to your husband,” the woman said, urging Gina forward to the platform where with the woman's guidance she took another ball of milk-soaked rice from the bowl and this time loosened the grains and sprinkled them before her.

Up close, the body, wrapped in swaddling, had a fragrance of its own, and not at all offensive, smelling of incense and something similar to sweet butter. Paul had had a hardier
odor, less sweet than rough, something that always reminded her of wood and tree-bark, of rocks baked in the sun. The memory of it nearly made her swoon again, and Gina stepped back from the platform, bumping right into Goldstein.

“Are you ready for this?” he said.

“What do I do now?” Gina said.

“Follow me,” he said. “Not that I know what I'm doing. I'm just following him.”

They walked around the platform three times slowly, led by the dark dancing-eyed man and accompanied by the now almost abrasive sound of the chanting.

“What are they saying?” Gina called to Goldstein over the droning of the devout.

“I don't know,” Goldstein said, “but as I told you it's not entirely unfamiliar to me.”

“I think I'm on another planet,” Gina said, smiling at the man with the lively eyes as he approached them after their third time around the platform.

Gina felt the breath rush out of her when she saw the smoking torch in his hand.

“We say these things,” the man said, holding up the torch. Gina inhaled the hot raw air around it. “Mr. Stingold would supposed to be saying, but I am saying it for him this time. Now I am applying fire to all the limbs of this person, who willingly or unwillingly might have committed lapses in this life and is now under the clutching of death, this person being someone attended with virtue and vice, greed, and ignorance. But in spite of all these flaws, very human imperfections if I must add these words myself, we are hoping he is to be attaining the shining regions up above…”

He held out the torch.

“Here then for you, Mr. Stingold.”

“I'll do it,” Gina said.

“The wife,” said Goldstein.

The dancing-eyed man stepped back.

“Most important is the fire, rather than the person who ignites it.”

Gina stared at the torch, the harsh odor of tar and fire rushing fiercely into her nose.

“Would you like me to do it?” Goldstein held out a hand.

Gina shook her head.

“Mr. Stingold,” said the dancing-eyed man, “it is better for the wife.”

“Better?” Gina stared at the smoky torch, breathing hard. The fumes both repulsed and attracted her, but at this distance she couldn't escape them.

“Better than not,” the man said.

“I don't know if I can,” Gina said.

Goldstein stepped up to her.

“Really,” he said, “I'll be happy—”

“Get away!” she said to him in a nasty voice she scarcely recognized as her own. Turning to the dancing-eyed man, she said, “I'll do it.”

“Very good,” the man said, handing her the torch. “Touch the fire now to this place.” He pointed to a make-shift wick made of rags at the base of the platform.

Gina's hand trembled as she ignited the pyre, and it took a moment before she could tear her eyes away from the flames and gaze up at the white cocoon at the top of the wooden mound.

Paul? she said. Paul?

She heard nothing. She felt nothing but a certain lightheadedness.

Flames exploded at her feet and she danced away from the platform.

“Oh, Missus!” the dancing-eyed man cried out as he leaped toward her and began beating on her skirt.

“Jesus,” Goldstein said, “you're on fire!” He too began flailing at her skirt.

Gina stared in amazement at her smoldering hem as the dancing-eyed man led her to a place on the ground some distance back from the now blazing pyre.

Suddenly she felt an enormous thirst. As if they could read her mind, several women approached her with bowls of rice and milk, and water.

“Can I drink the water?” she said to Goldstein as he sat down beside her.

“I wouldn't,” he said.

“Maybe we should go now,” Gina said, staring over at the small conflagration atop the platform.

“We're supposed to wait until sunset,” Goldstein said.

“I guess we'll wait then,” Gina said. She felt so odd, chilled again, despite her proximity to the flames and the smoky odor of her clothing. And then, after a few minutes, feverish again. Maybe I should climb up there and go with him, she was saying to herself. But she knew it was too late for that, even if she were crazy enough to try.

“And there is the matter of the cow,” Goldstein said.

“The cow?”

“We're supposed to pay them with a cow. The soul of the departed, your husband's soul, rides it to the next world.”

Gina said nothing, watching the flames flutter against the darkening eastern sky. She felt heat in her heart, but her head and limbs felt cold, nearly numb.

“But they'll take dollars instead,” Goldstein said. There was a catch to his voice as if he were trying to somehow lighten things up. What a fool! But Gina instantly forgave him, she felt so sorry for herself.

The two of them sat there as the flames flickered and settled. Had that much time gone by? Gina was beginning to get hungry and hating herself for it. She looked over at Goldstein, who was pretending to be so grim and sympathetic. After a while she said, “What do I do about the ashes? Aren't I supposed to do something with them? I've never thought about such things. One day Paul and I are talking on the telephone and the next, I'm watching his body consumed by flames. And I'm asking myself why I am not completely overcome, seeing what's happening. And then I tell myself, it's because I'm dead, too—”

“No, please, Mrs. Morgan, don't—” He reached for her.

She pulled away.

“Oh, stop! Let me talk! About the ashes. I don't know. I suppose I should, shouldn't I? What do they usually do with them?”

“They scatter them in the sacred Ganges,” Goldstein said, looking rather perplexed, hands at his sides, head lowered slightly. “But I don't know about here. There's no sacred river. I'll ask them, if you like.”

“No, no, don't. I'll take them. I'll scatter them myself when I get home. Though I don't know where. Paul and I only talked about this once. You never expect this to happen, even if you've talked about it. I don't know where to scatter them. Or should I keep them? I just don't know. I don't know.” She took a deep breath, inhaling the odor of smoke,
and listening, over the sound of renewed chanting, to the crack and snap and bark of the lively flames.




“Oh, I am so glad that I caught you. All these time zones…”


“Yes, it's me.”

“Where are you? I had those messages…My God, I'm so sorry…”

“Thank you, thank you. I know. It's…beyond terrible. I'm…I don't know. I can hardly talk. But I need to talk. Do you have time?”

“I have time. Are you still there in…?”

“I'm in Rome,” Gina said. “Don't ask me why. I don't know. I was coming back from Uzbekistan…”

“Are you sure you're all right?”

“Do I sound strange? I'm not surprised. I've seen some very strange things these past two days. Paul…his body…the flames…”

“You had him cremated?”

“That's what he wanted. And In Tashkent, it's mostly Muslim. They don't cremate. We had to find Hindus.”

“Was that difficult?”

“I had help from the embassy. A man named Goldstein. The swami was very funny. He called him Stingold.”

“The swami?”

“One of the Hindus. He led us in the ceremony. Three times around the pyre…I should have jumped on it myself. As it was, I caught my dress on fire.”


“Not bad enough.”

“No, no, no, Gina…”

“Oh, don't worry. I'm alive, but only barely,” Gina said. “Oh, God, Betsy, it's so comical, it's grotesque. I was taking a urine sample for those tests when I got the telephone call. But I don't need to take any tests anymore. I don't need to think about taking hormones, do I? And on top of it all, I had a period. What is the point of it? Can you tell me?”

“Oh, my God. Gina, oh, it's all so…”

“Absurd? I've thought of that. But what do I do now? I don't know what to do now.” A pause at the other end of the line. Here she was, on long, long distance, staring at her suitcase on the floor in the far corner of the room. A small package, containing the sealed jar, lay within, under her underwear. Gina began to count. One, one thousand. Two, one thousand. Three, one thousand. Betsy Cohen spoke again.

“How long will you stay in Rome?”

“I wish I knew. I told you, I don't know why I came here. I just saw the flight posted at the Frankfurt airport while I was waiting for my plane home. I remember saying to myself, you can go anywhere now. Without Paul you can go anywhere, you can do anything. It's a bizarre feeling. I hope you never feel it. It's not that I was a prisoner of our life
together or anything like that. You know that. You know I was happy with him.”


“But now that's over. And I'm free. Almost like I'm the one who's ridden the cow into the next realm, not Paul.”

“The cow? You'd better explain that to me. I'm not sure I understand.”

“Oh, I'll talk to you about it when I get back, so much you'll want to throw up.”

“No, I'll listen. I want to hear.”

“That's part of your job, isn't it? Meanwhile, what do I do?”

“What do you do? In Rome?”

“In my life.”

“Gina, come home and we'll talk. It's much too early in this for you to have any answers. It's all still too fresh.”

“I'll try to get a flight back tomorrow,” Gina said. “I really don't know why I'm here, anyway.”

“Let me know what you decide.”

“I will.”

“And Gina?”


“We still should run those tests.”


She was terribly hungry and had some food sent up to the room, a sandwich, prosciutto, olives, a beer. It tasted so delicious she wished she had ordered another one. She could, she could. But she was so tired that she got quickly undressed and climbed into bed and turned out the light.

What time was it?

Only ten in the evening when she awoke suddenly and sat up in the dark room, trying to remember where she was.

She got out of bed and used the bathroom. Her bleeding had stopped, almost as if it had never been. Yet she still felt that same odd feeling that she had felt for weeks and weeks, logy, weak, tired but not sleepy, bloated and yet hungry. So strange, she thought as she climbed into the shower. While the hot water pounded on her back, she was content. But then she had to turn the water off and do something other than stand there dripping before the steamy bathroom mirror. She cleared a space in the glass and stared at herself. Dark circles under her eyes, matching almost the dark nipples of her sloping breasts. She turned to one side, then the other. What a thing to think about! She hated herself. But her hair needed cutting.

Gina got dressed and took the elevator to the main floor. The lobby was quiet, with noises filtering out from the bar. Voices. Music. She went straight to the front door and stepped out onto the street. The night was warm, the air a lovely mix of smoke and perfume. I would ride an elephant here, she said to herself, but then I already am here. In the distance, a claxon sounded. Across the street a group of teenagers walked along, smoking, laughing, girls holding hands with girls. A pair of men—on the prowl?—strolled along behind them, just far enough back so that you could tell that the two groups were not together. Which one am I rooting for? Gina sighed, unsure as to why, except that it was not fatigue, and stepped back inside the hotel lobby.

A man passed her on his way out—dark-haired, broad-shouldered. She hadn't been looking, she barely caught a glimpse of his face. Was he wearing eyeglasses? At the bar, she looked at the men, beginning with the elderly barman, polishing glasses. He was kind, he understood that she was going through something. He brought her a Campari and soda. After
that she asked for champagne. After a second glass, she allowed herself to think about what she feared to think about—the flaming pyre, the walk around it, the way her dress had smoldered.

When she looked up from her bubbling drink, she noticed that at least three men were staring at her. Two of them instantly looked away. She toyed with a stirrer, a dried lemon rind, a book of matches someone had left on the bar. One more swallow of champagne, she told herself. One more only.


Back in the room, she is lying naked on top of the covers, feeling a little tipsy, her eyes fixed on the jar that she has placed on the night table next to the bed, when someone knocks on the door.


A man's voice on the other side.


Need to see you, he says in a strange rough accent.

Just a moment, she says, and gets up and goes to the other side of the room and digs in her bag for her nightgown and pulls it on.

Yes? She opens the door a crack and peers out at him.

It is a man, eyeglasses, dark hair.

I could not help but think of you, he says.

I…can't hear you very well. You have such a thick accent, she says. You'd better come in.

Only for moment, he says as she opens the door. (She's thinking, why do I give him a Russian or some kind of Slavic accent? What do I want with that?)

He's slightly taller than her, thick neck, but a tender smile. From those eyes you can tell that he has suffered himself, lost loved ones, perhaps in some terrible invasion of his hometown.

She grasps his hands—they don't feel as rough as they look—and pulls him down to her on the bed.

You don't have to explain, she says.

Thank you, he says. In your eyes I see the same.

Do you?

I do.

It's so hard to talk about, she says. You say something simple, like, My husband has died, and yet there is so much complication behind those words.

I had a wife, the man says, his breath warm on her face.

Is she…?

She is gone, he says. Along with my children. Three daughters.

A war? In a war?

He sighs, and she feels herself roll toward him.

Life is a war, he says, and takes her in his arms.

From this point on, things go quickly, and it is difficult for her to slow them down as he pulls her nightgown over her head. Almost as though she were assuming a posture in that yoga class she took years ago when Paul first began his long travels, she opens her legs to him in a wide vee.

The bearded man she met years ago in the Moscow zoo, though aged not at all, kneels before her on the bed, dips his head toward her.

Please, she says, you must be kind to me.

With a woman like you, he says, I can be no other way.

His lips meet her lips, his tongue works at her like a wild mollusk loosed from its shell.

Oh, my God, she says, writhing beneath him. I feel it? Do you feel it? Oh, it's so…I can't say. Oh, God, oh, oh, oh…

And she looks up to see Goldstein, his shirt undone, his chin tucked up, his thin chest almost devoid of hair, leading a large brindled cow into the room.

You, she says, where did you come from?

He shrugs, and turns to the cow as if to ask it this question while the cow lets flop a huge stinking pot of dung onto the rug.

And only then does she notice the elephant trunk waving over her, tracing out some mystical symmetry in air.

Ganesh, my Ganesh, she says in a whisper.

Eye am here, he says. But his voice is different, almost as if he were speaking over a telephone on a long-distance connection…

Oh, she says in a little moan as the slender naked Hindu hops on top of her, smiling, laughing at her with his dancing darting eyes before the undulant trunk swaying between his legs begins to probe her.

Oh, my God, the pain! The friction! Terrible singeing heat! The smell of burning hair, coppery stink of burning blood…

clothes burning

sheets on fire

volumes of smoke and heat rising all around her as the bed is consumed and she floats on the flame as though it were a boiling yellow-hot sea…

pubic hair and lips hissing flesh navel searing along with her buttocks bubbling with hot puckering fat her stomach wrenched open by fire intestines cooking now her breasts oh each breast roasted and fire traveling quickly up her throat to her face, skin pulled back by the flames as though fire were a surgeon and eyes pop in the heat and her head next, last, the end…

her spirit tears loose from her charred and smoking body resting on its bed of flames in a room consumed with smoke

her spirit ready now to mount the flatulent cow and ride…

Oh, Ganesh…

Suddenly she feels Paul's spirit hovering next to her, his soul arisen from the ashes and spinning vortex-like in air…

I'm sorry,
she says to him, and even before she can explain, about the man with the eyeglasses, the man at the zoo, about the dancing-eyed swami, he motions in her mind for her to hush…

We're together now,
he says, speaking in rhythms she never knew he was capable of while alive,
all else behind us, and that is what matters…

Darling, my love,
she says in a way that she never could seem to conjure when they were alive together on earth…

Oh, yes, here we go traveling, traveling to the light…


Light, yes light…

—Morning comes, as she awakens, throat raw, eyes sore, head throbbing, to the remainder of her days.

BOOK: The Fires
8.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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