The last temptation of Odysseus. The last hope she had of complacency with her father and king came and went when the man who would be her husband fell back into the sea.
I guess I can’t tell you anything too specific, in case you get caught.
Today, I sat in a cathedral until nightfall because people will leave me alone and it’s quiet so I can think. Cathedrals remind me of my family’s priest, and his little church on my father’s island, where I was confirmed the day that I ran away from that life.
I can’t wrap my head around this world, or the people in it. I float among trains and hostels. I am at sea. That is where I am, and where I was when I was on father’s island. I wondered if I shouldn’t kill myself, because it’s hard out here. It’s so hard. I see why my father didn’t want this for me. I guess I’m glad I’m out here, though. I’ll stay out here until the end of the world.
I dreamed about this last night, and I was thinking about this in the cathedral. On this city block, where I am right now, I live with all these strangers in a hazy window of five or ten minutes where stores open and close and clocks aren’t all synchronized. That’s kind of how the end of the world will be, I think. When the end of the world comes, two eyes will bend shut. Ten fingers will curl closed. One tongue will wilt like a dead flower, and two ears will hear nothing. When someone dies, it’s the end of the world for them. It might as well be.
Dark dreams of death and ruin, my father’s island, and the man that washed ashore, and when I woke up from my dream, I was in a hostel room with forty other beds. People were snoring. I was alone in the dark until morning, listening to so many others’ dreams – hearing nothing.
Then, I went to the cathedral to think and try to wrap my head around this world.
By nightfall, I was in a bar in Little Istanbul, in Munich – a cluster of buildings packed with Turks – Turkish food, Ouzo, Grappa, corner stores, doeners, and cheap neon signs. I was right across the street from the Hauptbahnhof. I had everything I owned between my pockets and a single backpack, including about four-hundred thousand Euro left from your parting gift, hidden in a moneybelt under my clothes. In this bar, I met a young woman from Montana who was traveling alone across Europe. She was sleeping in a hostel room with forty other people. When she was drunk, she told me that she had a taser in her purse, and when she slept, she kept it under her pillow. She was afraid, every night, that she’d set it off and electrocute herself in the face, but she was afraid to sleep without it.
When she went to the restroom, she left her jacket in her seat, to tell all the people of the bar that she would return. By the time her body heat had worn off the wood, she’d be back. I never did that, with my jacket, even if it was the way things were done in Germany. I kept your .38 in my jacket, hand sewn into the seam. I may not be good for much in the real world, but I know how to sew. My mother made sure I learned how to sew, like a proper lady.
I stole Ms. Montana’s jacket. I bolted from the bar, tab unpaid. I didn’t need the jacket, but I also needed the jacket. I didn’t have enough clothes, and I needed my money to last for decades. I hopped onto the first train at the station, going anywhere.
My name’s still Nausicaa. That’s my real name. My ID, for now, says I’m someone else.
You weren’t there, Peter, so I guess I should tell you about my first communion. I think it started all of this, for me. You were out with father, doing whatever you did to make money and surround us with men with guns on an island.
When I was twelve, I had gone to the mainland with my mother because I needed a new dress – a nice dress – for my first communion. The island’s priest was with us in the limo, and he was the only man I had ever known until then that did not carry a gun.
The men on the street did not. I touched my mother’s arm and pointed this out to her and she told me that maybe more of them did than I thought. She held my hand and looked out at them. She was bored and her hand was cold. The men out there had no rifles over a shoulder like a woman carried a purse. They didn’t casually place guns on tables at their sidewalk restaurants.
And, the people didn’t look at us, nervously. They didn’t try not to speak. My mother sneered at them and remained quiet until the people rolled their eyes, threw up their hands and walked away.
Father Pietro said this was the way things were for most people in the world, and someday I would learn of it. My mother said I would never learn of it, and I was better than them because I was a princess on an island, like all of those women had dreamed of becoming.
Father Pietro smirked at that.
“What?” said my mother.
“It’s not important, and it has nothing to do with you.”
“Tell me, Father.”
“Only… My dream was to be a priest on an island, not a princess. I wanted my own perfect world, there, among friends and Christians.”
“We own the island. It is our perfect world.”
“I know. I have long ago grown beyond fantasies that were never truly mine. Like I said, it was not relevant, and not important.”
My mother took a long drink of vodka. She was bored. Her hands were shaking. She probably hadn’t had her medicine. At home, our father kept her medicine in a safe in the wall, and only he knew the combination. Only when he was around was she allowed to use the medicine.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Then, she put on a smile for me.
“Your father is supposed to meet us for lunch with Peter. I don’t know where they are. We won’t wait for them if they’re late. I hate bringing you here. This world is a pit of snakes, and they all want to do terrible things to you if only we weren’t here to stop them, with me and your father’s protection. You need to stay with us on the island, not be out here.”
Father Pietro looked out the window. He said, “Nausicaa, did you study the letters of Saint Paul to the Corinthians?”
“I think so, Father.”
“What was your favorite part?”
“I didn’t like any of it,” I said.
My mother laughed hard at that. She poured herself another vodka from the limousine bar.
I spoke English, and a little German because my mother was American and my father was German and they both taught me their languages. They demanded it of everyone in the house, too. Spanish was the language of dirty, brown animals- the help, the people of the island who were not us, and these brown people on the mainland. Father Pietro did not speak any German. When we wanted to talk just to each other, my mother and me, we spoke German.
“Are you ready to buy a dress”
“Yes, very much. Mother, please don’t get angry if father doesn’t come. His work is very important.”
“Is it? Do you know what your father does?”
“He is a very important man.”
“He tells people what to do.”
“Yes. People are very stupid. Without your father those mongrel monkeys would all get led around by the nose by a bunch of dirty American corporations.”
My mother drank her martini, and didn’t want to speak anymore. If I tried to say something, she shushed me. She had a headache. She needed her medicine.
We bought a dress from a woman who touched my mother’s shoulder like a friend. She let it happen, too. She even feigned a smile. Then, when the lady turned her back, my mother scowled at her. We went to a restaurant. I had never been in a restaurant before. I got in trouble for staring at all the other people in the room, all of us eating different things. My mother explained the check, to me, and said we had to leave a tip, even if service was terrible, which she said it was. I had never been in a restaurant before, and I didn’t know about these things. She said that father is running late at an important meeting or he’d be joining us.
Then, my mother, Father Pietro, and I brought back our dress to the island for my first communion in the village church. I stood at the altar in my dress and ate the bread, drank the wine. I marveled at the world I had seen. I wore my communion dress for the rest of the day.
It was my last day on the island.
We lived, surrounded on all sides by water like a blue jewel. My father came and went on a boat with Peter, his oldest friend and pilot. I had only ridden in your boat twice. Once when I had gone to shore to buy a communion dress, and again when I left the island in the night.
We were surrounded by reefs – coral trees and tropical fish, blurs of color in the warm blue water. I had never known winter or autumn. I knew only summer, every single day.
I walked along the beach, and held my sandals in my hand and the men that worked there, with AK-47s slung over their backs, mostly ignored me. I was still wearing my communion dress. I had just gotten out of the church, and eaten the communion lunch. My mother was angry because my father hadn’t been there. She had a cellphone that she could call him on. She kept dialing his number, but he wouldn’t answer. He sent her a text, and she threw the phone across the room.
I ate watermelon. I was not thinking about death or dead men. I was thinking about the world beyond the horizon, and all the marvels that must be out there, on the mainland.
After lunch, I walked along the beach, in my new dress, feeling beautiful.
Not far from shore in the surf, I saw a thing floating, clumped in kelp and rags and floating plastics. I squinted. Then, I knew I wasn’t seeing just trash and kelp. I knew exactly what that shape was: a man’s body, floating among trash.
None of the men who watched the beach worried that there was a man in the water, and who could blame them? The man in the water was not one of us, on the island, and he had no business here in death. I looked at that bloated body, floating upon trash, and I did not know him.
I walked closer to him. The waves pushed his floating heap of empty milk jugs and vines to the edge of the water. I walked out into the waves. I hiked my hem to keep the edges dry, and picked my path carefully around the small jagged red and purple trees of coral. I bent over. I reached out my hand, and could not get the man in from the water. I dropped my skirt into the waves and jumped out and in. I swam out into the waves. I grabbed at the man. I snagged the tip of a milk bottle with my finger. I pulled the vine. Trash slid free, spilling away into the water. The body tried to sink. I caught at him. His skin was so cold. I pulled him up towards the shore. I pulled hard on it. I got the body up to the shore by myself.
The men there – my bodyguards, I guess – did nothing to either stop me or help me.
Once upon the beach I got a good look at the dead body. The man – though dead – had a vise grip on the vines. He must have been trying to pull himself out of the water by pulling on vines. He must have come from the mainland. He must have been in one of those jungle villages my mother ranted about, that are all pushed up against the water because the people are ignorant monkeys and don’t know any better, and the new maids had better not come from one of those villages because they couldn’t even keep their hands clean.
Rigor mortis had settled in. His arms were out to his side like a crucifix. His head leaned always back and to the right a little. His eyes were bloodshot. I imagine they’d turn yellow in another few hours, or shrivel into raisins as the sun and sea salt dried him out. I could see his tongue because it had wedged open his mouth. His skin was bruised and discolored. His tongue had stiffened into a pale pink tree root.
I thought of how handsome he must have been. This poor man had drowned, clutching at vines wrapped in trash. He hadn’t wanted to drown. He had wanted to climb back onto the shore – wherever he was – and return to his life as if nothing had happened.
Also, he was naked. Bits of cloth had fallen away from the vines with the trash when I pulled the viney keystone loose that could have been his clothes, or could have just been trash.
I had never seen a naked man before – never. I had seen a few of the young toddlers in the village running naked and screaming until their mothers caught them – but I had never seen this. Never this, bruised all over the body, discolored and every joint swollen from the seawater.
I looked up at the men with guns. They were shuffling from foot to foot, nervously. I told one of the men that I needed his shirt. He looked at me uncomfortably.
I told him again. “Give it to me, now.”
He nodded. He took the rifle off his shoulder. He pulled his shirt off and gave it to me. I made the shirtless man help me lift the dead body so I could wrap the man’s waist like a towel. “Help me,” I said. I picked up one of the dead man’s arms. “Let’s get him back to the house.” The mustached man balked. His buddy, did, too. I was insistent. They obeyed.
Into my bedroom, we carried him. I made them put the drowned man in my bed. I told the men to leave. They did not hesitate to flee from the drowned man and me. The vines had dragged along the ground and accumulated beach sand on my carpet. They were stuck in his hands, and I knew I’d never be able to pull them out. I had a pair of paper scissors among my arts and craft supplies and I clipped away at everything I could to neaten his appearance. I started by clipping away the vines. The vines fell about the floor. Then, I tentatively gave him a haircut. At first, I was unconcerned about messing up, but then I realized that this man wasn’t like the little boys of the village. Any mistake I made would not grow back.
My mother turned up, eventually. She had a white sheet over an arm. She touched my back. “Why did you bring it to the house?”
I took the sheet from my mother and I tucked in the man on my bed as if he were a patient. “I don’t think he’s dead,” I said. “Not completely. He will come back to life.”
“No,” She took my hand. She pulled me away from the man in my bed. “Come,” she said. “Come away from this, baby.”
I pulled my mother’s hand from me. I touched the dead body’s naked leg.
The body’s arms descended gently from their rigor mortis. The palms relaxed.
“He’s dead. He’s not breathing.”
I pulled my hand away. “Get out of my room!” I said. “If you aren’t going to help me, get out!”
She sat down in a chair by the window. She crossed her arms, and folded her legs in the big chair. She looked out the window.
My father would come, with you Peter, hungry and tired and bearing gifts. Before you both came home, I wanted the dead man to come back to life. I wanted him to stand up and dance and wrestle with you and father and carry me away. I wanted him to teach me all about the rest of the world, that I had only seen once from a limousine window, a restaurant, and a dress shop.
The priest came next. He must be nearly ninety, by now. A maid helped him enter the room. He smelled like he hadn’t washed his clothes in soap. He had hands like wilted fruit, molded mangoes left too long to ripen. His skin reeked of sugarcane. I think his teeth were rotted out. A maid held the priest’s hand, and guided him to a chair in the room. She helped him ease down into a seat. She crossed herself and fled my room.
I folded my arms.
“No, child,” he said, though I had asked him no question.
“Bring this man back to life,” I said. “Pray for a miracle like the Acts of the Apostles.”
“Why would you do such a terrible thing to a man? Let him rest. Look at him! He’s exhausted!”
“I want him to live,” I said. “I want to talk to him.”
“Men are not dolls, Nausicaa,” said the priest. “Do not be so averse to death. We all die. It’s perfectly natural. When I die, I will enter the light of Christ’s love, and all my worldly concerns will be washed away, left behind in a husk that contorts in a pain I do not feel. Is there tea? Have someone bring me tea. The walk here was strenuous.” He looked up at the servant. “Tea? These old bones need something.” The servant left the room for his comfort.
My found man was clinging to vines. He was fighting. He didn’t want to die.
“I want to keep this man,” I said. “Do you have holy water?”
“Do you have the Eucharist?”
“No. It wouldn’t work.”
“Go get it, Father Pietro.”
“It wouldn’t work. Nausicaa, you are being stubborn. Your own personal Lazarus? You remember the story of Lazarus, don’t you? Do you know what happened to him after he was risen from the grave?”
“He lived. He was happy and he lived.”
“Yes, for a time. Then, his death came again, and he passed on. There is no permanence in miracles. All the blind who were granted sight, died in darkness, eyes closed forever. All the lame that danced the mazurka, returned to sickbeds and passed away, weeping in agony. The lepers fell prey to cancer, accidents, old age, though their leprosy was healed. You want a miracle. How long would it be until death returned to take this man? The true miracle is heavenly glory and the light of Christ, which we only truly join in death.”
“You talk too much.” I pulled dolls down from the shelf – a teddy bear, a monkey. I held them close to my heart. “You only say it because you’re powerless.”
“Child, it is a beatitude to bury the dead. It is a holy act. You’ll get sick, with this filthy thing in your bedroom. It already stinks of the rot and seawater. Best put him in the ground. Let the men take him away, and bury him deep enough to contain the stench.”
This was my father’s house – my house – not Pietro’s church. My father wanted me to have anything I wanted, always. He had never denied me, and never would. Even my mother knew that. I put my dolls with the man on the bed. I took a book from the shelf and sat in the window. I pretended to read.
Tea came, though I didn’t want any. I thought of making the servant pour it into the mouth of the drowned man, but he had had plenty of liquid already. What he needed was electricity, and heat to boil away the water.
We three sat alone together, in silence, a long time – the body, the priest, and me. The servant came to tell us it was time for my communion day’s special dinner. I thought of bringing the drowned man with me, but I could not imagine asking the old priest to help me carry the body, and there were no staff around. I’d have to abandon the body to go to dinner.
I’m running out of time at this internet cafe, I’ll tell you more later. I slept in the woods the last two nights because I was in between cities. I slept under a tree and I was wet and cold. There wasn’t a hotel, even if I wanted one. There wasn’t a car or a hostel or a motel or a bar or a store of any kind. There was just a long, empty road, and a sidewalk beside it, leading to some distant city. Tonight, I need a hostel, decent food, and a shower. I can probably steal the food.
Sometimes people die; other times, they are killed.
The staff at the house changed from time-to-time, Peter, and I noticed it. How could I not notice it, even if I was young? I was urged not to ask about such things. On an island, one would think that anyone who left the house would go to the village and remain in the village and I would see them again and again, all the days of my life. Instead, people were brought in from the shore, and placed in an empty house.
This is the land of the living, not of the dead. Men who are afraid to speak to the boss’ daughter drink hard at night, shoot their guns off into the stars. There is music and dancing and laughter. Sunday morning, they are in church or they are not, and the reverend father says his mass for the family of the man who rules this island, and all the other children here whom I am advised to avoid as much as possible, because I am better than them, but I did help out with the littlest ones, with my mother, cutting their hair – no lice, she had said – and scrubbing the dirtiest ones down before they can go away to the mainland.
I walk along the beach and witness the remains of the living. Condoms and spent oystershells, broken bottles and bonfire ash. Empty bullet casings. Bits of bone and blood. Never bodies. Never the dead.
Sometimes, people go away and they never come back.
All these years later, I am alone in Europe. Peter, I barely remember you, at all
I have no home, but I have money. It’s freezing cold. It’s February and I’m so cold. I stole warmer jackets, and a hat and mittens. I looked on the ground for anything I could use as a scarf. Dry newspaper. Dry anything.
I walked from Erbenheim to the Wiesbaden marketplace, where I could buy a scarf, because I could see the cities were close enough to walk, and I didn’t want to spend money on a bus if I could avoid it. German buses are expensive, and if you try to ride without a ticket, they demand to see your ID to write you a ticket. I stopped in this webcafe to warm up for a minute before traveling on.
I saw things on the ground, adrift, as if blown upon a shore.
Bloated worms, a rusty bicycle chain, paper, paper, paper, fallen berries from a strange bush that grows clusters of blue berries in bleak February, living worms struggling on the tar for the soft ground that had recently vomited them up in a rainstorm – I was cold and damp from the rain – paper, paper, little pink berries from a barren bush that still seemed to grow tiny pink berries on leafless stems, bottle caps, bottles – more bottle caps than bottles – dogshit that had not been stepped on, dogshit that had been stepped on, dogshit with the straight boundary through it from a bicycle wheel, abandoned bits of soggy pastries, a broken umbrella, lost parking tickets, a thousand cigarette butts, a thousand cigarette butts, a million soaked-through cigarette butts, my shoes (only one shoe at a time on the ground. I picked one up and put the other down and picked one up).
Also my eyes were on the ground because the rain picked up again, freezing cold, and I didn’t want to look up into the little flecks of ice.
I’m glad I stole that jacket.
I wish I wasn’t alone all the time.
I miss you, Peter. You were always a good friend to me.
Communion dinner was served after my first Communion on my father’s island. It was the last dinner I’d eat there. We ate duck a’l’orange. I didn’t know it was a luxury. I had grown up with it. I couldn’t imagine eating it now.
The reverend father joined us for dinner. He led us in grace. We ate in silence. I listened for the sounds of anyone in my room, moving the body. I heard none. I chewed. I looked at my mother. She hid her gaze in her food. She was furious, I could tell. Father wasn’t here for my communion. I had dragged a body on shore. The good, reverend father ate slowly, savoring every bite. He often dined with us.
My mother picked up her plate, halfway through her meal. She threw it at the wall. She picked up her glass and threw that, too. She stormed off, into her bedroom, for the timed safe. She had to wait for the timer to open, and I was never to bother her when it did. She kept her needles in the bedroom safe, with her special medicines.
The reverend father didn’t stop eating when mother left the table. He leaned forward and smiled. “You are growing up to be such a strange girl,” he said, to me. He didn’t say anything about mother’s absence.
“Do you think he might want some food?” I said.
The priest looked down at his meal. “Perhaps,” he said. “It might be worth a try.”
I returned to my room, and my bed was empty. There were new sheets on the bed, and a new blanket. The mess on the carpet of sand and vines hadn’t been cleared away, yet. There was still a beach on my floor, even if my bed had been wiped clean of all signs of what washed ashore. A vacuum makes too much noise. They’d have to run the generator, too, which makes too much noise. I’d have run screaming to stop them before it was too late.
They had tricked me.
I walked out of the house. I looked around for signs in the grass or the sand where a body might have been carried.
I saw my father, then. He wore a black suit, and carried a cane with a sword inside of it, that he likes to show off when he’s drunk. He used to be a fencer. He had just come in from your boat, Peter.
“Father,” I said.
“What is it?”
“Can I have a gun?”
“Don’t be absurd, Nausicaa,” he said. “What would you use a gun for?”
“I want to shoot someone.”
“I don’t know who, yet.”
“Go to your room,” he said. “I need to give your mother her medicine. She’s probably a devil from hell as long as she’s had to wait.”
“No. How was your first communion?”
“Okay, I guess. Were you on the mainland? Were you shopping and eating at restaurants?”
“No, Nausicaa,” he said. He stopped to pluck a flower from the garden near the house.
“I want to go back to the mainland,” I said. “Can I go tomorrow?”
“Anything for you, baby,” he said. He wasn’t listening to me. He placed the flower on his lapel. “I will look around for a gun for you. They make pellet guns you could use to shoot seagulls, if you like. Go play. Be home before dark.”
I walked down to the ship. Peter, that’s where you were, dressed like my father, but you have that big, shaggy white beard that makes me think of Santa Claus. You had a small radio playing Spanish music. You ate hamburgers one at a time from a brown paper bag. You looked up.
“Oh, hey,” you said. “Your dad was just talking about you.”
“Best stay out of the house a bit. Your mom was pissed.”
“What did dad say?”
“Yeah. Father says I’m all grown up now. I’m ready for the world.”
“I had it younger. Back in America, we have it when we’re seven or eight.”
“You are. I remember when you were a baby. You get bigger every day. When I was your age, I was on a street corner in. I was trouble. Big world out there, you’ve never seen. Glad you made it to shore.”
“Can I have your gun for a minute?” I said.
You smiled. You pulled it out of your shoulder holster. You had this small revolver – a .38, with your name engraved in the bone handle which is how I can remember your name so good after all this time wandering. You flipped it open and spilled the bullets out onto the bottom of the boat. They sounded like marbles. You sighted down the empty barrel.
“Don’t tell your dad,” he said. He held it out to me.
I took it. I flipped the chambers back in. It was heavy.
I sat down with you, Peter. I told you about the dead body I found. I remember what you said. “Crazy, girl. You think the world is just a game? You’ve never been so close to death as him, and your dad doesn’t want that for you. Nobody does.”
Then, we played some cards for a while – go fish, and a litle blackjack. I kept the gun in my hand the whole time. Then, you looked up. You were quick to snatch the gun from me. You slipped it back into your holster.
My father walked over, into the boat.
He grabbed me by my wrist. He squeezed it hard. He dragged me, and walked fast. I fell on the ground, but he didn’t stop dragging me. I cut my knee, and there was blood, and it didn’t matter. He kept pulling me. I crawled up to my knees.
“There you are, misbehaving child, home after dark. To your room,” he said. “You have been very bad, today.”
And then, I was in my room. I heard the lock click from the outside. I punched the door. I turned, and leaned against it and slid down to the clean, vacuumed floor. I pressed my hand against my knee.
He spoke through the door. “Do not frighten your mother again. It is disgusting, this thing you did, today.”
Then, he was gone.
My bed was cold and empty and clean. My communion dress was ruined, smeared with sand and mud and blood where my father had made me bleed.
I didn’t bother to change. I climbed out the window.
Things left on the floor of a hostel dorm.
Old orange peel, grocery bags with dirty clothes, shoes piled onto each other like sleeping puppies, an empty bottle of juice, flecks of scrap paper torn away from notebooks by artists and poets and journalists of all times and ages, bread crumbs, large plastic bins that slid under the beds like giant flotation devices under giant airplane seats, the light that spills from the open bathroom door, the dust of a hundred nations slipping into the corners like the shoe pollen.
Also, cigarette butts, dozens of them, on the landing out a window. Smokers snuck out to smoke alone, each broken cigarette was a moment alone left behind on the ground.
I tried my first cigarette there, from a Turkish man. He didn’t speak German or English, and I didn’t speak Turkish or French. We sat together on the balcony. He handed me a cigarette. I looked him in the face.
“Where are you from?” I said. “Wo von?”
He shook his head. He said something in French. He pointed at his ears. He offered me a light from an expensive looking Zippo and I took the flame, and coughed and coughed and we laughed together. He taught me how to smoke so I wouldn’t cough, to just pull the smoke into my mouth, and taste it, then let it go. Then, I had to go.
Berlin was next. I took the train.
There wasn’t a reason, or a place, or anything that I was looking for. I went because the people in the hostels told each other all these stories about the place. I had only the vaguest grasp of history, picked up in conversations with tourists and bus drivers. Everyone had to go there. Maybe I was looking for the man that washed ashore, came back to life, and walked out when I wasn’t looking. He changed the sheets in silence. He raided my father’s closet for clothes. He looked sadly at the floor, because he knew it would be too loud, and he didn’t know where the generator was. He climbed out the window, like I did, and escaped in a hidden boat like the ones the men use to bring supplies to the island. He had decided to go somewhere without violence, without boats and oceans. Berlin was an entire city that had become a monument to peace, and the way love defeats all the evil in the world. Where else would he go?
Maybe I was looking for you, Peter.
The name of a train station between Munich and Berlin on the ICE line: “Jena Paradies”. Everyone pronounced it like it was “Henna Paradise”, and I knew there’d be spray paint all over the walls and roofs like Henna tattoos.
Before we got to the station, I saw bombed-out, crumbling farm houses overgrown with moss and damp ferns, mist-covered mountains laced with late snow huddle around the city like voyeurs leering over a bathtub.
Vivid graffiti – a rainbow of messy teenage love – smothered every inch of industry building. Clean, small cars curved through the clean streets and disappeared into the mist around the bend.
There was a world outside the island. There were people and places and things.
Leaving town, a long, low wooden fence by the train tracks repeats the same block letters like prayer beads in black spray paint: “stowstowstowstowstowstowstowstowstowstowstow…”
In Berlin – in East Berlin – I bought a bicycle.
I was alone all the time. I didn’t know what to say to people. I looked out at a marvelous world, and I was locked inside my head, like a ship in a sea.
I think about the past a lot. I think that’s why I still write to you, after these years traveling.
I think about Father Pietro, and First Communion, and how patient Father Pietro must have been to finally get revenge on my father for coming to the island, taking over, and killing people, having people killed, replacing anyone my father wanted to replace. Father Pietro took me to shore one time, for a communion dress. A willful girl, spoiled all my life, I had seen a world of wonder and mystery and I never thought it wouldn’t be safe. I fell into it like a fool.
The church was in the middle of the village. The village was full of houses with tin roofs, and wooden walls where magazine pages are used to cover over the holes and cracks. People slept in hammocks, there. Children slept in piles of clothes on the floor.
The church was painted white, with stained-glass windows that told a story of Noah’s ark. The church was smaller than a living room. The cross was embossed with real gold, and covered in jewels. The altar was made from stone. There was a relic of a saint in the altar. I had heard it was a fingerbone. My mother said it was just a rumor, but I had heard it from my father, who never needed to lock himself up in the bedroom for medicine like my mother.
We sat in folding chairs, at my first communion. I wore a white dress, like a wedding. Then, after the luncheon in the churchyard, I walked across the beach in my communion dress, and found a body.
Then, I climbed out a window and fled to you, Peter, and your boat.
You looked at me with a scared face.
“Your father won’t allow it. Sorry, Nausicaa. Sorry.”
“Give me your gun,” I said. “If I can’t go to shore, I’m going to shoot at coral. I promise I won’t hurt anybody.”
He looked at my hand. He looked at me.
“Come on,” I said. “I just want to shoot at coral, nothing else. I’m bored. I’m so bored.”
“Go read a book,” he said. “Go fly a kite, or read a book. Go walk on the beach. Collect shells. Make a necklace of shells to give to your mother.”
“I want the gun,” I said. “I want to learn to shoot with bullets, for real.”
He frowned. He pulled it from his holster. He checked the safety, and handed it to me, handle out. I pointed the gun across the bow and pulled the trigger. The safety was still on, and I played with the gun, a moment, just for show. Then, I undid the safety. I fired across the prow, into the water. The gun jumped in my hand like a living thing. I nearly dropped it into the sea. I had to struggle to get it back into my hand the right way. I cocked the gun and pointed it at Peter’s body.
“Start the engine,” I said.
“No, and don’t point that at me. Nausicaa, guns are dangerous. You could really hurt someone.”
I pressed the gun against his knee. “I’ll shoot.”
He looked me in the eye. “If I take you to shore and something happens to you, I’m dead. Do you understand that? Your father will kill me, and it will be a long, slow, painful death. If you make anyone do this for you, they’re dead. He’d kill your mother if she did this without his permission.”
“Take me to shore,” I said. “I’m running away.”
“You don’t know how to live out there,” he said, sadly. “Away from the island, you wouldn’t even know how to buy food, find a place to sleep that’s safe.”
“I’m running away,” I said. “I mean it. I’m never coming back.”
He looked at me. He looked at me hard. I did not flinch.
“Are you, now?”
I lifted the gun to Peter’s chest, right over his heart where the surgery scars from his pacemaker push up like a mountain range on a globe. “I don’t want to shoot you, Peter. I like you. We play cards together. But, I will if I have to. Then, I’ll figure the boat out myself, and I might die at sea before I ever get to shore because it’s harder to guide a boat than it is to shoot you. You don’t want me to die, do you?”
He nodded at me. “Brat,” he said. His hands were shaking. He looked around. “Watched you growing up out here. They’re really fucking you up, kid.” He looked around some more. We were alone, in the dark, at the island’s pier. He took a deep breath. He nodded. “You know what? Fuck your dad. He’s the one who made you like this. This is his own fucking fault.” He pushed the button to start the engine. “I keep a money belt under my shirt. Don’t let anyone see it. People will try to take it from you. We’re only a couple miles out. Once we get to sea, I’ll give you the money. You’re going to need it. If you really want to run away, see the world, learn how things work out there, find a coyote. If you stay in the city, your father’ll find you. Find a coyote and buy a passport. Go somewhere big. Europe, or China, or America. Better for you, in the long run. They chose this island. You were just born here.”
“Where do I find a coyote?”
You told me. You told me everything you could. You told me where to find a good, reputable coyote that wouldn’t murder me in my sleep. You told me to tell everyone I had HIV, but I didn’t know what that was at the time. You just said saying it would keep me safe. You told me to keep a little money in my pocket in case I got mugged. Never fight a mugger until after he’s got the money and he’s not paying attention to me. Then, shoot him, if I’ve got the guts for it and I’m ready to run. I listened close, Peter. I don’t know if you know it, but I was listening close to you. I stayed safe, mostly.
You gave me your business card, and told me to e-mail when I had a chance, if someone could explain it to me. It took too long to explain for now. I could find a webcafe, and they’d explain everything. You wanted me to let you know how I was doing in the world. You said that you were going to have to bolt, too, and you were ready for that. My father would kill anyone that helped me escape. Fuck my father.
When we landed, you grabbed me. You held me close. You kissed my forehead. I never realized you loved me like a daughter until right then. You wanted me to have an amazing, incredible, wonderful life where I could have my own destiny and I wasn’t beholden to someone else’s dreams. It was a lot to realize in one kiss, but it all came together for me, like that. Things do that sometimes.
I did what I could with your money, Peter. I was quick to buy new clothes. I had seen how to do it downtown when I was with my mother, buying a communion dress. I was quick to ride a bus to a harbor. I wanted to go where my father knew no one – had no men, no friends, no anything.
I found a coyote who could take me to Europe for eight thousand dollars, American. He put me in a cargo bin, and sold me fake IDs I could use to get around, but he told me they’d never work at airports, only buses and trains. Now, my name was Maria Garcia, and I was eighteen years old. I told everyone in the cabin that I had HIV, and they wouldn’t touch me to shake my hand because of those letters I spoke. I didn’t even know what they meant.
Ten days at sea, I shared a cargo hold with a dozen men and five women. We ate beans from cans every day. We shit in the empty cans and piled them up on one side of our little space, near the door. Once a day, the coyote came by to empty the cans and give us more beans. Men peed out the airholes. Women used cans.
I thought I was going to die. I got sick, and I thought I was going to die.
We landed. We were moved to shore. We had to wait until night to escape. I walked from the boat. I crossed a chainlink fence. I walked along a road into a city, where I could find a hostel and sleep the night. They wouldn’t take my money, and told me I had to get my currency exchanged at a bank. I had to wait until morning, when the banks opened. I waited until morning. I got five-hundred Euro, and went back to the hostel and borrowed soap and shampoo and found new clothes, a bag. I was in Portugal.
Tourists with backpacks talked with big, wide, smiling faces about train stations, and I asked them how to get anywhere in Europe. I wanted to see the world.
Peter, I think I’m doing all right. I hope you are.
In Berlin, I liked it. The land was flat, and the roads were wide. The people didn’t look me in the face. The East and West were like night and day after the wall, even though so many years have passed. The west was shopping malls and foreign restaurants and so expensive, and in the East it was easy to find a cheap room with a view of the street in case my father bangs on my door. There’s an escape route, too, but I won’t tell you about that. I’m always ready to run. The flat land was like a big, huge sprawl, and there was no water to hem anybody in and no mountain to stop the eye on the horizon, only beautiful skyscrapers and rivers and roads and trees and grasslands. I bought a bicycle to get around.
I found the square where all the books were burned just before the Jews and gypsies and queers got burned. I didn’t know anything about it until I saw the memorial. I had to ask people about it, because I didn’t really know anything about history, there, and I was told about the books, the Jews, the gypsies and the queers. I followed the directions I got from the people there, to an apartment building with a playground in the yard. There wasn’t a plaque there, because no one wanted the neo-nazis coming to the place and trying to bring back the past.
There’s a playground built over the bunker where Eva Braun agreed to marry the dying dictator, just before she agreed to die with him. I looked down on the ground where the bodies were burned on the ground, and left as ashy dust on the ground, an evil man and his elegant bride. I guess a part of me still misses my mother and father, but I’m never going back.
Bits of food wrappers, papers, and dead leaves are on the ground here. The trash melds with graffiti seamlessly. The dirty, jagged spray paint looks like trash rising up upon the walls. Everywhere I look, I see things left on the ground, things left on the ground, things left on the ground.
I encountered these things on the ground: two dead birds in a parking lot, smashed flat like feathered crucifixions; a single worm flailing on the sidewalk, eyeless and ignorant of how come the soft, dark earth has suddenly become hard and dry and hot concrete. I gently nudged the worm with my shoe back to the edge of the sidewalk to help the creature slip into the grass – poor, frightened thing.
Berlin – dirty, pretty thing – someday the street sweepers will come for us, and wipe away everything that makes us beautiful. The men will come with brooms and scrub the spontaneous spray paint love-letters off the brick walls, and hoses will blast away the left behind pieces of life splattered onto the ground until a clean, brick and concrete city remains like a naked rock. There’s so much spray paint here, I don’t know what to think of my quiet island.
And here I am, Peter, and I think I’m home at last. I think this is where I’ll stay. Don’t ever tell my father. I smell like stale bread, crumpled bits of greasy paper, empty juice bottles, concrete dust, sweaty train seats, mostly-clean urinals, hand soap, toothpaste, coffee, stinky boots, sweat socks, mud, pine sap, iron, and money that has changed a thousand hands and will change a thousand more.
Used up things.
Cars left in parking lots where the buildings are all quiet, all dark, all empty.
Also, my new friends.
I got a job in a giant shopping complex two buses out from my apartment, working the cash register. I short-change customers coins most of the time, if I think I can get away with it. At the end of the week, I get enough coins to buy my own new clothes at a discount store around the corner from my rented flat. I still wear my money belt all the time, under my clothes.
Today, in the shopping complex, birds flew overhead. They had slipped into the cracks of the open doors, open windows, open garages. They got lost in the rafters. They swooped down to the floor to sift through the food court trash and the flies and mosquitoes that had made the same mistake as the birds.
In the springtime, they will make nests from shoelaces and discarded clothes piled up in the dressing rooms.
I’m starting to understand my own life.
I guess it’s time to get a better job, where I don’t have to steal. I guess I’ll do something to make more friends – go to bars and clubs and churches and try to meet people. I guess I’ll fall in love, and get married, and have children. That’s what I’ll do, now.
I guess you would have e-mailed me back if you had gotten away. You never write back, and I think it might be because you didn’t make it to a coyote, like I did. I guess I’ve been writing to my father all this time, or maybe nobody, but probably my father.
Probably my father. I’ve been careful, and you’ve never found me, papa. If you do, I’ll run so fast. I’m ready to escape, again.
You will never find me.
I miss you, though. I think about you and mom a lot.
I hope you’re Peter. I hope you found a home, and people to care about you. I hope you and the man that washed ashore are alive, and laughing, and in love with new people.
I think I’m getting married, soon, and I’ve never been so scared before – and so happy. I don’t think I’m going to keep writing to you much, anymore.
I wish I could remember you better than I do, Peter.
Thank you, for this life. For listening.
My name is still Nausicaa. That’s my real name.