In the days to follow the hacendado would come up to the corral where they’d shaped the manada and he and John Grady would walk among the mares and John Grady would argue their points and the hacendado would muse and walk away a fixed distance and stand looking back and nod and muse again and walk off with his eyes to the ground to a fresh vantage point and then look up to see the mare anew, willing to see a new mare should one present itself. Where he could find no gifts of either stance or conformation to warrant his young breeder’s confidence John Grady would likely defer to his judgment. Yet every mare could be pled for on the basis of what they came to call la unica cosa and that one thing which could absolve them of any but the grossest defect was an interest in cattle. For he’d broken the more promising mares to ride and he’d take them upcountry through the cienaga pasture where the cows and calves stood in the lush grass along the edge of the marshlands and he would show them the cows and let them move among them. And in the manada were mares who took a great interest in what they saw and some would look back at the cows as they were ridden from the pasture. He claimed that cowsense could be bred for. The hacendado was less sure. But there were two things they agreed upon wholly and that were never spoken and that was that God had put horses on earth to work cattle and that other than cattle there was no wealth proper to a man.
When they leave the church, the last light is vanishing into the sky, and a stray snowflake drifts along towards the south. They remount; it has been a long day; his clothes feel heavy on his back. He doesn’t believe the dead need our prayers, nor can they use them. But anyone who knows the Bible as he does, knows that our God is a capricious God, and there’s no harm in hedging your bets. When the woodcock flew up in its flash of reddish brown, his heart had knocked hard. As they rode he was aware of it, each beat a heavy wing-beat; as the bird found the concealment of trees, its tracing of feathers inked out to black.
He let the phone slip from his hand and lay crying for a while, silently, shaking the cheap bed. He didn’t know what to do, he didn’t know how to live. Each new thing he encountered in life impelled him in a direction that fully convinced him of its rightness, but then the next new thing loomed up and impelled him in the opposite direction, which also felt right. There was no controlling narrative: he seemed to himself a purely reactive pinball in a game whose only object was to stay alive for staying alive’s sake. To throw away his marriage and follow Lalitha had felt irresistible until the moment he saw himself, in the person of Jessica’s older colleague, as another overconsuming white American male who felt entitled to more and more and more: saw the romantic imperialism of his falling for someone fresh and Asian, having exhausted domestic supplies. Likewise the course he’d chartered for two and a half years with the Trust, convinced of the soundness of his arguments and the rightness of his mission, only to feel, this morning in Charleston, that he’d made nothing but horrible mistakes. And likewise the overpopulation initiative: what better way to live could there be than to throw himself into the most critical challenge of his time? A challenge that then seemed trumped-up and barren when he thought of his Lalitha with her tubes tied. How to live?
The ship rolls and her timbers creak like a barn in a gale.
‘Have you considered turning apothecary ashore, Mr Nash?’
‘Not I, sir.’ Nash does not smile at the pleasantry.
‘I can see Nash’s Patented Elixir arrayed in a row of china bottles.’
‘Men of commerce, sir…’ Nash counts out laudanum drops into the pewter beaker ‘… for the most part, had their consciences cut out at birth. Better an honest drowning than slow death by hypocrisy, law or debt.’
Act, implores the Ghost of Future Regret. I shan’t give you another chance.
Jacob hurries past the tomatoes and catches her up near the gate.
‘Miss Abigawa? Miss Aibagawa. I must ask you to forgive me.’
She has turned around and has one hand on the gate. ‘Why forgive?’
‘For what I now say.’ The marigolds are molten. ‘You are beautiful.’
She understands. Her mouth opens and closes. She takes a step back…
… into the wicket gate. Still shut, it rattles. The guard swings it open.
Damn fool, groans the Demon of Present Regret. What have you done?
Crumpling, burning and freezing, Jacob retreats, but the garden has quadrupled in length, and it may take a Wandering Jew’s eternity before he reaches the cucumbers, where he kneels behind a screen of dock leaves; where the snail on the pail flexes its stumpy horns; where ants carry patches of rhubarb leaf along the shaft of the how; and he wishes the Earth might spin backwards to a time she appeared, asking for rosemary, and he would do it all again, and he would do it all differently.
The embassy’s door was of bulletproof steel lined with a veneer of English oak. You attained it by touching a button in a silent lift. The royal crest, in this air-conditioned stillness, suggested silicone and funeral parlours. The windows, like the doors, had been toughened to frustrate the Irish and tinted to frustrate the sun. Not a whisper of the real world penetrated. The silent traffic, cranes, shipping, old town and new town, the brigade of women in orange tunics gathering leaves along the central reservation of the Avenida Balboa, were mere specimens in Her Majesty’s inspection chamber. From the moment you set foot in British extraterritorial airspace, you were looking in, not out.
How vulgar, this hankering after immortality, how vain, how false. Composers are merely scribblers of cave paintings. One writes music because winter is eternal and because, if one didn’t, the wolves and blizzards would be at one’s throat all the sooner.
He ran as he’d never run before, with neither hope nor despair. He ran because the world was divided into opposites and his side had already been chosen for him, his only choice being whether or not to play his part with heart and courage. He ran because fate had placed him in a position of responsibility and he had accepted the burden. He ran because his self-respect required it. He ran because he loved his friends and this was the only thing he could do to end the madness that was killing and maiming them. He ran directly at the bunker where the grenades from Jake’s M-79 were exploding. The bullets from the M-60 machine gun slammed through the air on his right, slashing past him, whining like tortured cats, cracking like the bullwhip of death. He ran, having never felt so alone and frightened in his life.
She would never know, because he would never tell her. Somehow if she’d known the worst parts, she couldn’t have gone on being a haven for him. He was groping for an idea that he couldn’t quite grasp. Men said they didn’t tell their women about France because they didn’t want to worry them. But it was more than that. He needed her ignorance to hide in. Yet, at the same time, he wanted to know and be known as deeply as possible. And the two desires were irreconcilable.
Sometimes… Come on, how often exactly, Bert? Can you recall four, five, more such occasions? Or would no human heart have survived two or three? Sometimes (I have nothing to say in reply to your question), while Lolita would be haphazardly preparing her homework, sucking a pencil, lolling sideways in an easy chair with both legs over its arm, I would shed all my pedagogic restraint, dismiss all our quarrels, forget all my masculine pride – and literally crawl on my knees to your chair, my Lolita! You would give me one look – a gray furry question mark of a look: “Oh no, not again” (incredulity, exasperation); for you never deigned to believe that I could, without any specific designs, ever crave to bury my face in your plaid skirt, my darling! The fragility of those bare arms of yours – how I longed to enfold them, all your four limpid lovely limbs, a folded colt, and take your head between my unworthy hands, and pull the temple skin back on both sides, and kiss your chinesed eyes, and – “Pulease, leave me alone, will you” you would say, “for Christ’s sake leave me alone.” And I would get up from the floor while you looked on, your face deliberately twitching in imitation of my tic nerveux. But never mind, never mind, I am only a brute, never mind, let us go on with my miserable story.