fiction by Charles Baxter
Whenever Amelia gazed at the olive trees in the yard, she could momentarily distract herself from the murderous poetry on the page in front of her.
Esto lavá çaso, metlichose çantolet íbsefelt sed syrt
Int çantolet ya élosete stnyt en, alardóowet arenti myrt.
Getting these lines into English was like trying to paint the sun blue. In several years as a translator, she’d never found another text so unmanageable. The poem was titled “Impossibility,” and that’s what it was. Each time she looked at the words, she felt as if she were having a stroke; she could feel her face getting numb and sagging on one side. Meanwhile, the ironic ticking of the wall clock marked the unproductive seconds as they shuffled past. The clock loved its job, even though the time it told was wildly inaccurate. The owner of this villa, a charming old Italian woman, had informed Amelia that the clock was senile and delusional like everyone else in the village and must never be adjusted. Adjusting it would hurt its feelings.
“That clock thinks it’s on Mars,” the old woman told Amelia in a conspiratorial whisper. “It tells you what time it is there. And you, an American, want to argue with it?”
The poem in front of Amelia on the desk had been written near the beginning of the nineteenth century, in an obscure Eastern European dialect combining the language of courtly love with warfare, with an additional admixture of Liebestod, called mordmutt in this dialect. The idioms of love and war should have blended together but didn’t. In some not-so-subtle manner, the poet seemed to be threatening his beloved with mayhem if she refused to knuckle under to him. The language of these threats (“Int cantolet ya célosete,” for example: “I could murder you with longing,” or, more accurately, “My longing longs to murder”), inflated with metaphors and similes of baroque complication, was as gorgeous as an operatic aria sung by a charming baritone addressing a woman who was being flung around onstage and who wasn’t allowed to open her mouth. And it was all untranslatable! You couldn’t heat up soggy English verbs and nouns to a boil the way you could in this dialect, which actually had a word for love bites, muttklizen.
Amelia put down her pen and tapped her fingers. The decorative clock, painted green, was amused by her troubles. There’s a second of your life you’ll never get back! And there: there’s another one! Too bad you’re not on Mars like me. There’s lots of time on Mars. We’ve got nothing but time here! Today is like yesterday! Always was!
With a tiny advance from a publisher and a six-week deadline, she felt like a caged animal hopping on electrified grates for the occasional food pellet. Her professional reputation was at stake: after this volume was published, she would probably be held up to ridicule in the New York Review of Books for her translation of this very poem. She could already see the adverb-adjective clusters: “discouragingly inept,” “sadly inappropriate,” “amusingly tin-eared.” One of the few Americans who had any command of this dialect, she belonged to a tight little society full of backbiters. The other poems hadn’t been terribly hard to translate, but so far this one had defeated her. Let me murder you, the poet demanded, and we’ll descend to the depths together/where darkness enfolds us in—what?—the richest watery silks./Down, down, to the obscurest nethermost regions,/where sea creatures writhe in amorous clutchings . . .
Awful. The olive trees didn’t care what she was doing, so she looked at them gratefully. Downstairs, her twenty-year-old son and his girlfriend were cooing endearments. Chirps. Impossible! Everything was impossible.
This particular afternoon, in the little Tuscan villa she had rented a month ago, Jack, her son, and Gwyneth, the girlfriend, were cooking up sausage lasagna. They cooed at each other after coaxing the pan into the oven. Over the noise of the clock, Amelia listened to their love noises. Here she was, enjoying the voyeurism of the middle-aged parent. After several minutes, she could hear them washing the ingredients for salad, speaking lovely birdsong Italian to each other. Through the years, Jack had spent so much time over here in boarding school that his Italian was better than his mother’s. He didn’t even have the trace of an American accent that Amelia had. Gwyneth, like Jack, was bilingual (her father was English and had married a local Italian), but she and Jack preferred Italian for their intimacies, as who would not?
The hour: too early for preparing dinner! What did those two scamps think they were up to? Gwyneth, beautiful and bossy in the Italian manner, though she was a blonde, held Amelia’s lovesick son tightly in her grip; she gave orders to him followed by gropes and love rewards. They had met a mere three weeks ago. Love happened fast in this region, like a door slammed open. Amelia had seen those two trying to prepare dishes together while holding hands. Very touching, but comical.
She glanced at her watch: actually, the day was almost over, and the day’s work was kaput, obliterated. She had struggled all afternoon on those stupidly impossible poetic lines full of masculine posturing, and now she had nothing. She felt word nausea coming on. The fraud police would be arriving at any minute.
The poet she was translating fancied himself a warrior type—aristocratic, arrogant and proud. In one tiny corner of the world, mentioning his name—Imyar Sorovinct—would open doors and get you a free meal. But elsewhere, here in Italy and in the States, he was mostly unknown, except for the often-anthologized “I Give It All Up,” his uncharacteristically detached and Zenlike deathbed poem. In midlife he’d presented himself in verse as a man supremely confident of his weapons, arrogantly imploring his beloved to join him in what he called “The Long Night.” The particular line on which she had spent the last two hours contained consonant clusters that sounded like distant nocturnal battlefield explosions.
In real life, however, Sorovinct hadn’t been a military man at all but a humble tailor of army uniforms, a maker of costumes, driven to poetic fantasies about the men who inhabited them. He cut and stitched, bent over, ruining his eyesight in the bad light and dreaming of heroism. To no one’s surprise then or now, the poet had been unhappily married. Together, he and his wife had had a child who, as they said in those days, “never grew up.” Cognitively, the son remained a child for all of his twenty-three years before his death, by drowning.
Armored for sorrow, steeling my resolve, I sing/cry/proclaim (to) you our love-glue
In English, the vulgarity was shockingly nonsensical, and it missed the force of the verb in the original and suggested nothing of the poet’s menace. “Love-glue”! “Muttplitz” in the dialect. What Walt Whitman meant when he used the word “adhesiveness.” No real English word existed for it, thank God.
Downstairs, a cork came out of a wine bottle.
They were going to fall into bed and make love any minute now, those two kids. At least someone was having a good time. No point whatever in trying to stop them, unless Amelia could appeal to Gwyneth’s probably nonexistent Catholic morality. Should she mention the necessity of contraception? They’d just laugh. She came downstairs to see them pouring two glasses of the cheap blood-dark Chianti you could buy for almost nothing in this region. Just as if she weren’t standing there, they raised the glasses to each others’ lips.
Gwyneth’s hard little face, bravely glassy-eyed, turned toward Amelia, and she smiled in the way that young people do when they know they’ve been dealt a good hand.
“Going out, darlings,” Amelia said. “Just for a minute. Have to buy cigarettes. Be back soon.”
“Well, don’t be long,” Gwyneth commanded with her charming Brit-Euro accent, putting the wine glass down on the counter and raising her finger in a comic admonitory fashion. “Food’ll get cold. Hurry back.” She leaned away from Jack for a moment so that he could admire her gaze upon him and her bella figura.
Jack, handsome in his khakis and soft blue shirt, turned toward his mother.
“Momma,” he said, “what’s this about cigarettes? You don’t smoke.”
“Well, guess what? It’s a perfectly good time to start.” She tried to straighten her hair, which probably looked witchy after so much futile desk work. “After a day like this one, I need a new affectation. I need to be bad. I need to be bad right now. If they’re selling cigarettes, I’m buying them.”
“Then you better buy a lighter and an ashtray too,” her son reminded her.
She had leased an old Fiat from a man the villagers claimed was a part-time burglar. It was probably a stolen car. After starting the engine, she turned on the radio, hoping to hear Donizetti or Bellini, or at least somebody. Instead, they were playing Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time,” a mean-spirited irony considering how the day had gone. The gods laughed easily in the late afternoon, watching human futility fold up for the day. All poetry, good or bad, made the gods laugh. To the gods, poems were sour useless editorials, like bitchy letters to Santa. The Fiat coughed and hesitated as Amelia first passed by a vineyard, then, on the other side of the road, a painterly haystack. One old bespectacled man, holding a walking stick, ambled along the road, going in the opposite direction. He doffed his cap at her, and she waved at him. A single blue-flecked bird, chirping in Italian, flew overhead. But nature was unforgiving. The sun, lowering toward the west, recited one of the lines that Amelia couldn’t translate:
Féyitçate fyr tristo, eertch tye mne muttplitz.
By the time she reached the village, after negotiating three hairpin turns and avoiding death by collision from a errant truck out of whose way she had swerved in a last-minute effort to save her own life, she could feel the sweat in her palms oozing out onto the steering wheel. No water came from the fountain in the town square: the pump had been broken for weeks, and there was no money to fix it. The air smelled of burnt rope. A brownish liquid flowed in the gutter. She parked her car, turned off the ignition, and waited until the motor coughed and sputtered and dieseled its way into silence. An American couple sitting in the square’s sidewalk café gazed at her with tourist interest, as if she were a quaint item of local color. Amelia hurried into the general store, where she was greeted by the owner, Sr. Travatini, a timid man who had a tendency to avoid her gaze; he was probably in love with her, or maybe he was planning on hiring someone to rob her.
“My dear Carlo,” she said. “How are you? It’s been a terrible day.” Italian, with its languorous vowels, was sheer pleasure after a day’s struggle with the Eastern European dialect.
“Yes,” he said, looking out toward the village square and her car. “Yes, and the sun has passed its way through the sky once again. Things are not translating? Sometimes they do not. Sometimes they stubbornly stay what they are. I am sorry.”
“No. Things are not translating. I need some cigarettes,” she said.
“Ah, but you do not smoke.” Everyone here kept track of everyone else’s habits, and the villagers all knew her by now.
“After such a day as I have had, I think it would be a good time to learn.”
He shrugged. “You are correct. As we get old, we need to acquire new vices. God will not be interested in us otherwise. We must wave our arms at Him to get his attention. It is the end of the day, so I will speak to you in confidence. I myself have attracted God’s attention by acquiring a new . . . how do you say this in English? Ragazza.”
“Yes. I have acquired a new girlfriend. Perhaps I am being too bold in saying so.” He stared at the cash register, harmlessly confabulating. The man was in his midfifties, and his pudgy wife, Claudia, dressed in black, sometimes lumbered into the store to do the accounts, and was known everywhere in the village for her terrible tongue lashings. Like Imyar Sorovinct, Carlo Travatini had earned a right to his fantasies. “My girlfriend loves me. And of course I adore her. She tells me that she admires my patience and my skill at lovemaking, despite my advanced years. The years give us older men a certain . . . technical skill. Forgive me for being so crude.” Amelia shook her head, disclaiming any possible shock. “Why do I tell you this? I do so because our love, hers and mine, is an open secret. I will not, however, give you the young lady’s name, because I should not wish to appear to be indiscreet. We Italians, you know, unlike the French, are not noted for our subtlety or discretion. We are announcers and are combustible. We announce first this, then that. In this announcing manner I have written poems for her, my beloved. Would you like to see my poems? They are of course not at the level of Montale, but . . .” He began to fumble into his pocket. Amelia stopped him in the midst of his harmless comic charade.
“No, thank you.” More love poems! They came out of the woodwork everywhere and should be outlawed. There was far too much love, a worldwide glut of it. What the world needs now, she thought, is much less love. “How wonderful for you. But, please, no.”
“All right. But I beg of you, do not mention the beautiful young woman to my wife, in case you should see her.”
“I shall say nothing,” Amelia told him. “What cigarettes do you have? I would like an Italian brand.”
“Well, we have Marlboros. Sturdy cigarettes in a crushproof box. And L&M. That is a good brand also.”
“Both American. No, I want an Italian cigarette.”
“Well, let me see. I also have MS.”
“MS?” She felt a moment of pity.
“Yes. MS. Of course. It is a brand of cigarette we have here. Monopoli di Stato. You should know that by now. Filtro? De Luxe? Or Blu?”
“Blu, please.” He brought down a pack on which appeared, in rather large letters, the Italian phrase for Smoking Kills.
“You should not do this,” he said, putting the cigarette pack into her hand with a tender gesture, brushing her fingers as he did so. “It is no way to get God’s attention. You should get a boyfriend, perhaps?”
“Also, I need some matches, please.”
He reached under the counter and brought some out. He shook his head as she paid him for the cigarettes. “After all these years,” he said, “I do not understand you Americans. Forgive me. I have been listening to the news on the radio just now. Iraq, Afghanistan. You are unexplainable, indefinable. So friendly and yet so warlike. This contradiction . . . I cannot understand it.”
“Yes,” Amelia said. “You are right. We are puzzling and incomprehensible. Thank you, my friend. Ciao.”
“Ciao, Signora,” he said, looking away from her again, down at his hands. “Grazie.” What a sorrowful man, she thought, with his sorrow painstakingly narrated every day. You would never see such a man in the States. She had almost returned to the stolen Fiat when her Italian cell phone rang. When she answered, there was silence. She hung up.
The American couple waved her over. They were drinking wine.
“Hey there. Good afternoon,” the man said in English with a slight Texas accent. “You care to join us?” He wore a Tyrolean hat, a blue shirt, a tan-colored sport coat, a string tie, and cowboy boots. His wife, deeply tanned, wearing a plain gray dress and a collection of thin gold bracelets that rattled like jail keys, smiled nervously upward at the sky, avoiding eye contact. She had very expensive hair, Amelia noted, highlighted with blond streaks.
“How did you know I was an American?” Amelia asked.
“Aw, you look like one of us,” the man told her. “It’s a duck recognizing another duck.” The wife nodded at the sky. Amelia felt all her strength leaving her body: she was heavily invested in appearing to be Italian or French, with a trace of beautiful haughtiness, or at least generically European, and if she could be exposed this easily by lunkheads, then her nationality might indeed be an essence that no role-playing could disguise. Being an American was a curse—you were so recognizable everywhere that your nationality was like a clown suit. Maybe Jack would escape it. She had come to think of her own countrymen as them. She shivered. After all her efforts, she was instantly identifiable and still looked like one of them. Fucking hell.
“Sorry,” she said. “I have to get back. They’ve prepared lasagna,” she said. “The kids.”
“We’re gonna be here in town for a few days,” the man said, before gulping down half his glass of wine. “You just drop in on us any old time. We got ourselves that villa up the hill. There for the whole week.”
“Okay,” she said, before waving goodbye to them.
On one of the hairpin turns on the way back, her phone rang again, and this time, when she answered it, the voice that came out—the connection was poor—sounded like her brother.
“Yes?” She held the cell phone in her left hand as she downshifted with her right. The steering wheel wobbled. “Jerry? Is that you, Jerry?”
“Yeah. Of course it’s Jerry. Who’d you think it was?” Amelia let her foot off the clutch, and the car lurched into the lower gear. “Sorry. That was rude. I’m really sorry. I mean, we’re on pins and needles here. I’m a damn mess, is what it is. Yvonne’s a mess, too.”
“What is it? What’s going on?” There was another pause for the trans-Atlantic long distance or for her brother’s hesitation. “Is it Catherine?”
“Yes, of course it’s Catherine. She’s taken a bad turn. The doctors have been saying that . . . actually, I don’t really know what they’ve been saying. It’s all a jumble to me. But like I say, she’s worse. Now her kidneys aren’t working. And that’s on top of everything else. The pneumonia. But I’m not saying you should come here. I’m not saying that.”
“Of course I’ll come,” Amelia said to her brother. “I’ll be there as soon as possible.”
“Thanks,” he said. “We could use some bucking up.” Amelia heard another voice in the background, and then her brother said goodbye and broke off the connection.
As soon as she had parked outside of the villa, she got out of the car, looked at the package of cigarettes in her hand, and went inside. The table had been set, and Gwyneth and Jack were waiting for her on the sofa, both of them beautiful and radiant. This world was paradise, after all, when your son and his girlfriend, healthy and in love with each other, cooked dinner for you inside a cool dark Italian villa, and you could worry all day about a line of poetry that you couldn’t translate properly, and you could be annoyed by simpleton American tourists. To be bothered by trivialities was sheer heaven.
“Momma,” Jack said. “What happened to you?”
“Your cousin Catherine’s worse,” Amelia said, tossing the cigarettes onto a side table, as if she’d never bought them. “I’m going to have to fly to Minneapolis. You two will have to hold down the fort here for a few days. Can you do that? I’ll even leave you the Fiat if you drive me to the airport.”
Jack nodded. Gwyneth rose and walked over to Amelia, taking her hand as if she were offering preliminary condolences. “Do you still want dinner?” she asked. The girl gave off a musky odor, and her face was slightly flushed and sleepy; naturally they’d had quick sex in Amelia’s absence, and now they’d be soft and cuddly and compliant.
“Of course,” Amelia said. “Of course, of course. And let’s get drunk. Okay? Are you willing to do that?”
They all laughed. Laughing, Jack asked, “So what’s Catherine worse with?”
“She’s dying,” Amelia said. “She can’t breathe. That’s what she’s worse with.”
Although she loved him, of course, Amelia didn’t like her brother very much, mostly because of his employment situation. He worked for a Minneapolis real-estate tycoon, Ben Schneiderman, a feral-looking man barely over five feet tall, whose customary expression—Amelia had met him once—was one of super-predatory avarice that mingled from time to time with his one other singular expression, massive sleepy indifference whenever matters of common human experience, those that were not for sale, were exposed to him. Schneiderman had run several newspapers into the ground, bought and sold a few major league teams, and built multiple granite-and-glass high rises and shopping malls. His wife, Bitsy Christianson, was a patron of the arts. Their personal website (and editorial sounding-board) was www.whatsittoyou.com. They owned eight or nine homes. Schneiderman had said many times that his motto was, “I never suffer. And neither should you.” Jerry served as the primary consigliore for Schneiderman’s various enterprises and spent much of his life in a private jet, scurrying from one financial brushfire to another. He negotiated, threatened, and placated. Amelia’s brother was balding from all the stress and had taken to brushing his remaining hair, like tendrils or water weeds, across the top of his scalp.
And of course there was the other thing: Jerry supported his sister financially. Some of Schneiderman’s money trickled down to her. He had paid for Jack’s private schools in Switzerland and Italy. Her brother’s charity was Amelia’s safety net, along with alimony from Jack’s father, and some part-time teaching. Well, no one’s hands were clean.
But now, in the Saint Mary’s Hospital’s ICU, while Yvonne sat next to the bed holding her daughter’s hand, Jerry leaned back against the window, and the blank stare on his face showed Amelia exactly how inwardly broken her brother actually was. She went up to him and hugged him and pecked him on the cheek and quickly did the same to Yvonne, whose eyes were tear-streaked. In the bed, her niece seemed to be gasping for breath. Another man was in the room, introduced to Amelia as the child’s pediatrician, Dr. Elijah Jones, who wore rainbow suspenders with comic-book cartoon faces on them. Everybody thanked Amelia for coming.
“Anyone would have done it,” she said. “You would have done it for me, if Jack, god forbid, got sick. Where’s Gerald?” Gerald was Catherine’s little brother.
“He’s home with the babysitter,” Jerry said, with a sigh. “The poor kid. We’ve been neglecting him. Can’t be helped.”
The pediatrician, after a few pleasantries, took Amelia aside down the hall and told her that her brother needed as much comfort and solace as she could give him, and that it was a good thing that she was there. He pulled off his glasses and cleaned the lenses with his Donald Duck necktie. He explained about the gradual impairment of Catherine’s muscular control. She nodded. “You have to try to love everybody,” the doctor said, embarrassed but also in earnest, as he smiled with deep sadness. “They all need it. All of them.” When Amelia asked about the prognosis, the doctor shrugged. “Your brother and sister-in-law have been holding on. They’re the ones I’m worried about. Your niece . . . well, we’re doing everything we can.”
She left the hospital with her heart pounding.
So bleary with jet lag that she could not sleep or make any sense in conversation, and feeling that her brain was a haunted house in which bats flew randomly from one attic beam to another, Amelia found herself at 2:00 a.m. walking outside her hotel and then along the Mississippi River. Was there anything, anything at all, worse than the suffering of a child? Catherine had been a beautiful baby but had been sickly, and like Sorovinct’s son, she had multiple afflictions that had prevented her from growing into adolescence. She had remained a child for her entire life. One time when Amelia had been visiting, Catherine had approached her with a calendar she’d made herself with a ruler and colored crayons. Two pages: the months of April and May. Her niece had listed a price for the calendars at the top: fifty cents for each page. Amelia had bought the two calendar months and taken them home and put them up on the refrigerator, only to discover that they were inaccurate and in some sense imaginary. Her niece had filled in the date boxes any way she wanted to. They were surrealist calendars, with dates that would never exist: Tuesday, May 14, 2011, for example. Wednesday, May 15. There would never be such days.
She had loved Catherine, and Catherine had been stalwart and seemingly brave in the face of all her physical and mental afflictions. Why should such a child suffer? Or any child? Sitting on a bench that looked out at the Stone Arch Bridge, Amelia thought of Ivan Karamazov speaking of the suffering of children and saying, “I don’t understand anything, and I don’t want to understand anything,” and as the river flowed past her on its journey to the Gulf of Mexico, she leaned forward and put her head in her hands before straightening up again to wipe her face free of the tears that had accumulated there. Lucky me with my son Jack; lucky Jack with his girlfriend; lucky me, she thought, and if I could only share my luck with everybody, every living soul, I would.
She walked back to her hotel, trudged up to her room, undressed again and put on her nightgown. Maybe this time she’d find a hour or two of sleep. Almost as soon as her head touched the pillow, she entered a dream of astounding specificity: she was sitting in a slightly dingy living room in Eastern Europe, lit with four candles in pewter candleholders. To her left was a small sturdy wooden dinner table set for two, and in front of her was a fireplace in which the coals appeared to be dying. The room had a smoky and unclean smell. A mongrel dog sat to her right and barked once at her, as if the dream could now commence. It was like a film director shouting, “Action!” Amelia knew, without knowing how she knew, that she had found herself in Imyar Sorovinct’s home and that the poet’s wife stood off to her right, just out of sight, preparing a meal. In front of her, sitting in another chair, was Imyar Sorovinct.
The poet held himself up with straight soldierly posture, like a veteran in a wheelchair, but his face betrayed him: his left eye, lower than his right, looked at Amelia with patient compassion, while his right eye gazed on indifferently, as if two separate selves were housed within him. His uncombed hair rose wildly from the back of his scalp, and his large ears stuck out from his head like jug handles. He was a very homely man, after all. His hands trembled as they rested on his thighs. The expression on Sorovinct’s face was one of scrupulous interest dimmed by time distance and dream distance, both of which were causing him to disintegrate. He had the weary expression of a old battlefield commander, even though he had never gone off to any war; his imagination had gone there instead.
Amelia waited for him to speak. When he said nothing, she told him, in his native dialect, “My name is Amelia, and I . . .”
“I know who you are,” Sorovinct told her in perfect English. “You’ve been trying to translate ‘Impossibility.’ I know who you are very well.”
“You do? Well. Then you know that I can’t get anywhere with that poem.”
“And you never will,” Sorovinct told her. “You’ll never get that one right. You’ll just have to give it up.”
“I hate to. I’ve spent so long on it.”
“Well,” Sorovinct said, rubbing his chin. “That’s too bad. Just forget it.” He picked up his book of poems from the floor and opened it in front of her. “There’s something I want you to do,” he said. He pointed at a page, where a poem entitled “Forbearance” appeared. “This is the poem you should be translating, not that other one. You’ll translate this one in no time, believe me. Please just do what I ask. Also, and I don’t mean to be rude, but it would be better if you did it right now.”
The dog to Amelia’s right barked twice, as if saying, “Cut! Print!”
She awoke and turned on the bedside light. It was 4:00 a.m. She went over to her suitcase, took out the volume of Sorovinct’s poetry, and turned to the poem he had pointed to. After sitting down at the hotel room desk, she reached for her pen and translated the poem line by line, each line almost instantly suggesting its equivalent in English. She wrote out the translation on the hotel’s stationery. The entire process took less than thirty minutes. The poem didn’t really sound Sorovinct’s characteristic note, but so what? She was under orders. When she returned to bed, the time was five minutes past five o’clock.
She had never seen a dog in a dream before. And the dream hadn’t allowed her to say goodbye. Why was that?
At Catherine’s memorial service, midway through, Amelia rose to speak, with the hotel stationery in her hand. Looking out at her family, she said, “I want to read a poem by Imyar Sorovinct. I’ve just translated it. It’s called ‘Forbearance.’ I’m reading it in memory of Catherine.” She lowered her head to recite, her voice trembling. “Forbearance,” she began.
“Who is the child who stands beside this sea, wind-broken, wracked
With spray that seems to paint his skin with heaven’s tears?
And who might be this man but the father of the boy, standing there
In wrinkled clothes, holding a halo above the child to keep him dry
Out of sorrow, out of love, at this abrupt and stony seashore
Visited in autumnal days? This is the child who clutches at his father
Who intercedes for him, this quiet, vested man guarding the boy
From rain and spray. This is the child who does not speak,
Who never speaks, who must be blessed. The gulls are circling.
There is something patient in the waves that they both imitate,
And it is in the rain and spray that one feels the power
Of forbearance, in this autumnal drizzle
Soaking the parent and his child, loving what is damaged
And wholly theirs, held like a precious jewel
Tightly, tightly, in their hands together.”
At the cemetery, in broad daylight, when it was her turn, she stabbed the shovel that had been handed to her into the pile of dirt, and, forcing the blade downward, scooped out a measure of clay and sand and soil. She carried the shovelful over to the gravesite and dropped it over Catherine’s casket, on whose surface it made a hollow sound—like a groan from another world, mixed with the sound of her own grief. Then she seemed to wake up and heard the sounds of the others, and someone took her hand, and someone else took the shovel.
Twenty-four months later, Amelia found herself in Baltimore, sitting in a hotel lobby at a conference of translators. From the cocktail lounge came peals of alcoholic laughter, followed by jokes told in Polish, Russian, French. It was a habit of translators to speak in collage expressions in which three or four languages were mixed together. Ostentatious polyglots! As she waited for her friend to meet her—they had reservations at Baltimore’s best seafood restaurant—she spied, across the lobby, Robert McGonigal, whom she thought of as the Old Translator. He sat slumped there in an ill-fitting suit, focused on the distance, rubbing his forehead above his massively overgrown eyebrows. He wore the thickest eyeglasses Amelia had ever seen, with lenses that made his eyes seem tiny. McGonigal’s versions of The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid were still being taught in colleges and universities everywhere, as were his translations of Pasternak, whom he had known personally. He had known everybody. But now he was sitting in a hotel lobby alone, wearing a facial expression that said, “I have seen it. You cannot surprise me.”
She rose and walked over to where he was sitting. She wanted a blessing from the old man. Jack and Gwyneth were to be married in two months, in Italy. What would the future bring them? There had to be a blessing. McGonigal seemed to be gazing through space-time. Standing in front of him, Amelia introduced herself, and McGonigal nodded at her, as if she were a speck on eternity’s wall. Nervously she prattled on, and as she heard more polyglot joking from the bar, she thought, Well, I might as well tell him, and somewhat against her better judgment, she related the story of her efforts to translate Sorovinct’s “Impossibility.”
“I couldn’t do it,” she said, and McGonigal gave an imperceptible nod. “It just wouldn’t go. And then I went to bed, and Sorovinct appeared to me in a dream.” McGonigal, startled, suddenly began to look at her closely. “I was in his house,” she said. “His wife and dog were there too.”
“What happened then?” McGonigal asked, his voice ancient and whispery.
“Well, he told me that I’d never get that poem right. He brought out his book of poems and pointed at another poem.”
McGonigal’s face took on an air of astonishment.
“And he said, ‘This is the poem you must translate. This one you’ll get in no time.’”
“So I woke up,” Amelia said, “and I translated the poem in half an hour.”
“I am astonished,” McGonigal said, struggling to get to his feet.
“Well, I . . .”
“I am astonished,” McGonigal repeated. By now he was standing in front of her unsteadily, studying her carefully. He had taken Amelia’s hand. “Are you seriously telling me . . .” He seemed momentarily incapable of speech. “Are you seriously telling me that that’s the first time that such a thing has ever happened to you?”
“My dear,” he said, his voice coming out of eternity. “Oh, my dear.” He opened his mouth and exhaled, and his breath smelled of Catherine’s grave, and then, as Amelia drew back, the grave started to laugh at her.
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