by Judson Hamilton
As the train approached the station it was the first thing she noticed. There through the window: a magenta pink haze of ground-level fog. It billowed up to engulf buildings and enshroud the people walking around in it like it was toxic, maybe it was something about the leisurely pace that it moved down the street or the festive color (one that called to mind L.A. sunsets and cotton candy) that allayed her fears.
The train had reached the end of the line. She knew this was where she got off, but little else about this place having never been here before in her life. The station was above ground and the other passengers –no doubt locals judging by their business attire and purposeful air– gathered around the automatic doors. The magenta pink fog rolled up to the doors, placing a heavy hazy filter over everything within sight. She sat apprehensively tightening the straps of her backpack, unsure of what to do. The fog seemed to be blindly sniffing at the train, operating with the minimal consciousness of an insect pressing up against the glass, idly curious.
The train slowed to a stop and words she couldn’t understand came over the P.A. as the doors hissed open and a rush of this curious, colored vapor filled the carriage with all the assuredness of nature’s dynamics – filling the empty space with ease.
Everyone disembarked, and left with no choice, she did the same. The fuchsia cloud was thick here and she lost sight of the other passengers after they’d gone only a few meters. It felt cool against her bare legs and as she walked through it while trying to follow directions on her phone she noticed it tasted like stale chemical bubblegum.
She walked down the platform and through a pair of open double doors as her phone instructed, to find herself on a small square with a taxi rink.
Several drivers approached her, but she waved them off. Her phone said it was close and she was determined to walk it and stretch her legs after her train journey. To the right were a couple of cafes and a long narrow steep street at the corner just behind them. She knew there was supposed to be a nautical museum opposite where she stood but because of the reduced visibility was only able to make out a classical sculpture of Neptune reclining on a rock, a trident held high on the roof of the building.
She wanted to get a bite to eat before going on, so she felt her way through the haze that was now shot through with sunlight and thinning fast. She walked into a café with a blue tattered awning. There was a long zinc counter, some dusty bottles of alcohol, and a display case with three or four kinds of pastries on offer. At the far end of the counter near the back of the shop were a group of men with dark features and olive skin talking.
The group stopped talking and looked her way. The guy in the apron made his way towards her slowly taking his leave of the three men who looked to be heading off to a day of physical labor. The man in the apron, who had about him an air of perpetual exhaustion, motioned with a movement of his head and a sharp command delivered as a query, that he was ready to take her order.
“Um. What’s this?” she asked, pointing to a pasty.
“Is like…a little cake.”
“Ok and this?” pointing at something shaped like a croissant.
“This? It has meat inside. And potatoes. Spicy, very good.”
“Ok I’ll take one of each please and, um, a coffee? Café?”
“Ok. Please,” He motioned to the bare metal tables and plastic chairs.
She wheeled her stuff over to one of the tables near the window and took a seat. The sun had come out in full now and the movement on the square, the taxi drivers milling around and people rushing off to work all took place in a thinned out light pink. It was beautiful, she thought, and was suddenly glad she’d come.
The man brought the order.
“Um, excuse me, can you tell me is this near here? The factory hotel?’ She said, pointing to her phone.
He mumbled the street address a few times before it rang a bell.
“Ah, yes, is…” he motioned around. ‘There are stairs and you go up up up.’
“Great thank you.”
She started with the meat croissant; it was fiercely spicy. She moved on to the custard pie with a top like crème brûlée. It was (as advertised) creamy and melted in her mouth. She’d had this before and remembered sitting in her grandmother’s kitchen watching her stoop in her housecoat to take it out of the oven on a tray. It was like heaven.
He wasn’t kidding about the stairs; they were insanely steep and wide enough for just one to walk abreast. Pulling her suitcase behind her was a chore since it was wider than the steps and blocked the stream of tourists, locals and kids, shopkeepers and businessmen who seemed to cascade down the side. She tried moving out into the street, but vehicles came barreling around the corner and down the slope at her.
The sun was beginning to make its presence known. What had started off as a pleasantly warm day had by now, at 9 a.m., become a scorcher. Unused to southern climes she could feel her shoulders and face burning and cursed herself for having forgotten to put on sunscreen. The stairs ended at an intersection of sorts at the top of the hill with one street going behind her down the hill the way she’d come, and the other going from right to left and further up the hill. She stopped to double-check her phone before turning left. The buildings here were tall and skinny about three stories each with greengrocers and other local shops on the bottom.
It was quiet here with next to no traffic. People milled about standing in doorways, sitting on curbs, leaning out of windows. She nodded at them out of nervous politeness and a few nodded back although they seemed to have only half-comprehend the gesture. They looked at her with blank faces; she responded by looking down at her phone.
It projected her moving up and to the right, following a gentle curve. She looked up and could see it; it bent around the corner of a shop and under a long clothesline secured on one end of a tree trunk and being added to, factory-line style, by a woman leaning from an upper-story window. By the looks of it she had fourteen boys with various underwear sizes. She passed under the clothesline and through an archway sloping up and up and up.
After climbing her way up several flights of stairs, and pausing to rest and take in the view at three city squares perched like nests along the way, she saw the facade of the factory. It was eggshell blue and towered up above the rest of the city’s architecture. She looked down at her phone which showed that she’d reached her destination, closed it, and put it in her pocket. She took a step back and shielded her eyes from the sun, looked up at the flat-surfaced monolithic blue structure with a line of small windows about halfway up. She squinted trying to make out the top and could just make out a faint puff of pink smoke.
Still unsure of whether or not this was the right place she decided to go in and ask. She was standing about 20 meters or so from the entrance; an automatic revolving glass door. Only fashionable young women in their late-20s to mid-30s, all in impeccably fashionable office wear, funneled out the door – one after another. They all had similar dark hair and bronzed skin and most wore dark sunglasses, and all of them carried the same blue silk shopping bag on the crook of their arm with celery, baguettes, and occasionally, with the tail end of a fish protruding out of the top. She looked down at herself and wondered if she could go in like this – in baggy cargo shorts, a gym-sock grey t-shirt with a yellow outline of Mount St. Helen’s on it, and hiking sneakers on. Having no other choice and getting hungrier with each passing fish tail she decided to try her luck. And besides the stream of young businesswomen took no notice of her anyway – busy as they were tapping away at their phones with long, freshly painted nails.
Once the door had spun her into the building she found herself in the fruit and vegetable section of a grocery store. More clones of the women she’d seen exiting wandered about fully engrossed in testing the ripeness of peaches, sounding out the quality of the melons, and scrutinizing the prices. The produce section gave way to the meat and cheese counter where a group of senior citizens had gathered round for a taste testing of cold cuts and deli cheese. She wandered past them as though in a trance, unable to bring herself to try some of the toothpicked delights that were being proffered by the ridiculously tall women dressed in colorful corporate ties, matching skirts, and slender flight caps. One of them bent down, her face from a glossy magazine, “Would you like try?” her face perfectly balanced between courtesy and temptation.
Her stomach grumbled loudly, and the woman looked as though a small animal had growled at her. This momentary distraction disturbed the placid surface of her face for only a moment before the measured smile was back and she turned and moved on holding the silver tray on the tips of her fingers.
She looked back at the revolving door and thought of leaving when she caught sight of a short balding man off to the side in a summer sports jacket and pastel t-shirt tanned as though he’d just returned from a yachting trip. Seated in an alcove with rows of keys behind him. On either side of the alcove were two steel elevators. She stumbled toward him as though he were an oracle.
“Hello!” she said somewhat overeagerly.
“Is this…” looking around she felt stupid asking and so just gestured at the seniors shoveling down freebies.
The man looked at her curiously, “May I help you?”
“Yes…is this the …factory hotel?”
“Yes, it is. Do you require a room?”
A wave of relief at being understood washed over her. “Yes. I mean I have a reservation. My name is Sarah Adams.”
“Ms. Adams. One moment.” He tapped in her name on a keyboard below her view.
“Yes. I have it. Two nights? A single room?”
“And do you require any assistance with your – ” He looked her up and down, at a loss for a moment. “Luggage?”
“Nope got it right here.” She tugged on her backpack straps.
“Ah. I see.” He leaned in motioning with one jaunt of his finger for her to do the same. “Travelling light.” He clicked the “t” on the end and winked at her, then grinned.
“Come let me just get your key and I will show you to your room. Please take the elevator on your left – just push the button and the doors will open.” He then turned his back to her in search of the key.
She did as instructed. The doors opened and he was standing there.
“Secret side door.” He then put a finger to his lips, grinned and winked.
She stepped in.
“Ready? Going up!”
He pressed 14 and the elevator did its thing. It was like a freight elevator – slow, windowless, and spacious.
“Is it your first time in our city?”
“Yes. It’s very beautiful.”
He half-nodded a little bashfully.
“Yes, she is. We love her. She has seen hard times,” he pulled a mock frown. “But we’re on our way…up!” He laughed, and it rang out like gold coins on the walls.
“I…I didn’t expect the, uh, grocery store.”
He shrugged with his whole upper body, “The workers have to eat.”
“You mean it’s still a factory?”
He looked at her blankly.
“Why, yes, of course. You must have seen our chimney, the –” He moved his hands like smoke, “Pink.”
Her face opened up like a solved puzzle.
“Yes. In the morning is very much but later,” he made a whistling noise through his teeth, “Finito. No more.”
They stepped off the elevator into a dimly lit hallway and he walked her to her door, opening it. Motioning with his hands he said, “Toilet on the right…bed on the left. Table.”
She looked around taking in everything he said. There was no window, just a large painting in the center of the far wall.
There was a large welcoming basket wrapped in cellophane on the table.
“Ok?” she heard from behind her.
“Perfect.” She said pretending to look anywhere but the gift basket.
The concierge cleared his throat and she turned around to find him rocking on his heels, a tight smile on his face.
“Oh. Oh, of course.” She shrugged off her backpack and quickly unzipped the front pocket, riffling through it for small change. She had only big bills, so she grabbed a few coins and handed them to him, “Thank you.”
He looked down at what she’d handed him. Then back at her, then mumbled, “Yes. You’re welcome.”
As soon as he shut the door she fell on the gift basket like a prisoner on a key.
After she had made her way through the mangos, some sort of honeydew melon (insanely sweet), a green cantaloupe, peaches, nectarines, plums, figs and a package of ham simply and straight-forwardly labelled “black pig” (delicious) she felt compelled to lay down. She flopped on top of the jungle print bedspread in a crucifixion pose, hands and mouth sticky with fructose. Her phone was low on power and having no television to keep her transfixed she gazed lazily at the painting on the wall, taking in its details for the first time. In the center of the painting, set in a dark wallpaper of stylized tendrils, was a set of half-glazed French doors. They were painted pistachio green and one side was ajar. Through their top halves you could see down a corridor of successive, pistachio green door frames. One, after the other, after the other, after the other… Ten minutes later she was asleep.
When she came to it was night out and she cursed herself for having wasted most of her first day. The jet lag must be getting to me, she thought. She got up, went to the bathroom and washed her face and hands before resettling in bed with a two-pillow prop job behind her. She pulled her rucksack over and rummaged way down in it, sticking her arm all the way to the bottom, emerging with an old cigar box that had been taped shut. She untaped it carefully and opened the box. It still smelt faintly of cigars. Inside there were some old photos, a hand-drawn map, and a set of keys.
She took everything from the box and unfolded the map, smoothing it out with her hands. It had been taped up in places and she was always apprehensive when consulting it lest it tear or smudge irrevocably, taking its secrets with it. The map showed a blue structure. at the bottom center there were several red arrows going up and up from there through other neighborhoods until it winnowed sharply, reaching an “X” in front of a house. She sighed. So far, her trip had shed little light on the map’s endpoint, and the west coast time zone had put the lights out on today being of any help. She peered at it a moment more before putting it away. Next, she picked up the photos. One looked to be from the 40s or 50s and showed a woman not unlike those she’d seen shopping downstairs in terms of skin tone and a man of lighter complexion. They are seated at a table at a formal social function of some sort judging from their attire.
The second photo was a little blurry. It had been taken outdoors and featured the house from the map in the background. The same woman is standing in front of it, squinting at the camera with the same man off to the left in the foreground likewise squinting with a toddler on his shoulders. The toddler has pigtails and looks grumpy. The last was a picture from the early 80s. She knew this one the best. She is seated on her childhood couch in a onesie with the same couple, grey now, framing her. They’re smiling; full of joy. She ran her fingers over the picture for a few moments and then put everything back in the box, took a shower, and went to bed.
She woke up covered in sweat to the sound of wailing. Startled she quickly rolled over to check the time – 4 a.m. The wailing started up again. In her semi-conscious, jet-lagged state she’d half heard it as a cat fight but could now hear a distinctly human tenor to it. She sat up straight, listening more alertly now and yes – there were multiple voices in fact. The desperation was so intense, the anguish so genuine, that the first thing that sprang to her mind was a terrorist attack or a fire. She turned on the lamp and searched the room for clues, but, having no windows, there was no way to look outside and with the intense sounds if suddenly felt oppressive, like a prison cell. She hurriedly got dressed and opened the door to the hallway half-expecting to see people running for the exits but there was no one, just an ugly garish carpet and the faint hum of some overworked wall units. The wailing started up again, more intense this time, and she could hear a story-like cadence, sped up to a ramble in it this time, the rantings of someone distraught with grief. Driven verbally mad by the capriciousness of the universe. There was a small, high window the top of which was cracked open at the far end of the hall. She made her way over to it and once under it she could see only the rooftop ledge of the neighboring building, the hem of a black dress, and the two thick ankles of an older woman. Another batch of singing was raised up to the heavens and grief came wafting through the window and although she didn’t understand the words she could feel the heavy tone in her chest and understood that it was a performance of sorts. There were other, more distant voices, singing their own laments to the sea and sky.
Wanting to get a closer look she looked around for something to stand on. In the left corner, under the window stood a small round table with three legs and a vase of flowers on it. She carefully placed the vase on the floor, positioned the stool under the window and got on it. It didn’t improve her vantage point much but she could now see the profile of the woman and beyond that a big full silver moon that shone in the sky like a medallion. The woman wore a black lace shroud and gestured animatedly with her hands, palms up in supplication. Her small body jerked back and forth in sorrow and was punctuated by moments where she threw back her head and, from deep within, from the very basis of her being, pulled forth a groan like a wounded and trapped animal. She was singing of the death or loss of her father. Of this she was certain, hints from her childhood spent with her grandparents swam up to her from the grammar the sparkle of the syntax with its jewels of nouns and verbs twinkling sense at her; as though certain words and structures hung there in the night sky like gems that when pressed, opened up vistas of feelings within her, revealing herself to herself. She shivered all over suddenly covered in goosebumps and these called-forth memories. She heard a door slam behind her. Startled she whipped around, saw a man staring at her, keys in hand, and losing her footing she came crashing down on the floor with a thud. She looked up embarrassed, but he just shook his head slightly and walked away.
Heart still hammering from the experience and feeling guilty she righted the table, replaced the vase, and returned to her room…where she lay without sleeping until the wailing stopped with the first light.
Having slept fitfully for a couple of hours she awoke still groggy from the night’s morbid acapella concert.
She threw the covers off in a huff and started to quickly gather up her things. She had no way of knowing what time it was, but she didn’t want to waste any more of it. She showered, combed out her wet hair, and with the door propped open with her foot and the backpack on her back surveyed the room one last time for anything she might have missed. She glanced once more at the empty fruit basket and the infinity of pistachio green half-glazed French doors and left.
As the elevator doors opened she blinked several times to fully take in what she was seeing. Without the aid of coffee, it was hard to believe. The grocery store aisles straight ahead of her had been made over into a studio audience of senior citizens on folding chairs. To the left, a makeshift stage had been set up with a countertop and cutting boards. A handsome chef with dark, slicked back hair in a white cooking smock was beaming with self-satisfaction, his hands busy prepping while a man in a white suit and prim and proper mustache was talking into a head mic, with two cameramen buzzed around him them like flies. She stood in front of the elevator unsure of what to do.
She turned to see the concierge standing with arms crossed, clearly enjoying himself.
“It is great, no? Do you know him?” He said in a stage whisper gesturing at the chef.
“No I –”
“He’s very famous here. And in our factory!” He shook his head in disbelief at his good fortune.
“Oh, I see. That’s cool. Listen could I settle my bill I’d like to get going.”
“Shhhh!” He gestured at the show.
She sighed and turned towards it.
The chef had something frying in a pan that smelt of brine and butter. He was interacting with the audience now posing a question and then putting a hand behind his ear waiting for their response. The seniors were growing more and more animated with some of them shouting their responses as though the host were truly hard of hearing. Each time they shouted a response he pretended he didn’t hear which only riled them up further with one old man in particular growing irate enough to stand and shout from the back. The cameramen lapped it up.
“Listen I don’t mean to be rude, but I’d like to pay for my room. I have some things to do today and –”
“Ok ok” said the concierge, clearly annoyed at having to break away from the entertainment. “But wait this is the best part.”
She sighed and again turned around, this time to find the chef with a live octopus squirming in his hands, ink pouring down his forearm as it roiled and coiled trying to escape.
He called out to the crowd and they screamed in the affirmative. He called out another question and fully half of them were up and shouting back at him. He slammed the octopus down on a cutting board and, taking a meat cleaver in his other hand, deftly chopped off the arms and diced them. The crowd went nuts. He started tossing them into the crowd and people were trying to catch them with geriatric hands that have long ago lost their fine motor skills. Most of the pieces ended up on the floor and the nimbler in the crowd were pushing folding chairs out of the way grasping at them, elbowing others out of the way.
The concierge laughs “I know! I love this part too.” He shakes his head in amusement. “Crazy. Come let’s settle your bill.”
He went back behind the counter as she watched the chef wrap up the show and sign off to the cameras. The seniors were still scavenging for the tossed pieces. She saw one severed arm still writhing.
“So. Just one night?” He stares at the ticket in his hand with disbelief. “Why so short?”
“Just a short trip. I’m actually going to visit my grandparents’ house.”
“Yes they were from here.”
He opens his arms as if to say, ‘Welcome home.’
“But could you look at something for me?” She pulled up a map on her phone and showed it to him, pointing. “You see here? This is where my grandparents’ house is supposed to be. Is it very far from here?”
Suddenly curiosity was stamped on his face like a question mark. “They lived here? Are you sure?”
Bewildered at this change in tone she quickly glanced at the map to make sense of it but found nothing had changed there. “Yes. Why?”
“No. Nothing. It’s just that it is not around here. Maybe twenty minutes on the tram?”
“Oh, that’s alright don’t worry about that. Maybe I’ll just try and walk it.”
He shrugged as if to say, ‘suit yourself’ and turned away from her.
Outside she couldn’t see anything for the fog. It was thickest at waist level but still enough to obscure her vision. Moving through it, the scent of bubblegum was nauseating and had her taking breaths in little gasps. But it gave everything an undeniable dreamy effect and seemed to provide a coolness in contrast to the sweltering heat that would certainly be building up by noon.
Having arrived and gone straight to the hotel she hadn’t had a chance to see much of the city yet and now that she’d secured a seductively dark double espresso she grabbed a table outside and, through a rapidly thinning pink mist, took in her surroundings. It was the verticalness that first assailed her. She was seated on an extremely narrow cobblestone street that sloped at nearly a 45-degree angle. There were stairs everywhere.
The walls of the buildings around her were each covered in their own individual tile work. The variety was stunning with most depicting a geometric pattern or fractal of some sort. The craftsmanship was exquisite. She stopped and inspected a blue and white one that looked very much like a mandala. It seemed to waver in the heat – its exterior lines throbbing. She climbed staircase after staircase and went down alleys where colorful doors stood open with older women shaking out rugs and wet clothes and kids running around playing. Often she received idle stares. Just another tourist wandering through a domestic scene. The fog had lifted and it was beginning to get hot.
She stopped off for a bottle of water in a shop and when she was coming out something came crashing down next to her causing her to cry out. She looked down more closely at it. It looked like a plaster bust of an old woman in a veil (her face broken crudely in half by the fall). The creases in her face were incredibly lifelike. She knew little of sculpture but had spent a semester in Paris and the craftmanship (the folds in the skin, the folds in the veil, the anguish in her eyes) was on par with what she remembered seeing in the Louvre or the Musee d’Orsay. Just then a few loose and broken tiles came tumbling down followed by another bust that crashed a few feet from her. “Hey!” she looked up squinting into the sun, bewildered. A man on the roof opposite was waving her away with his arms and then she could hear the voices from above her on the roof of the coffeeshop. Annoyance at her stupidity. She grabbed her things and moved out from under the building and into the middle of the street. On either side men were walking along kicking the plastered busts of veiled older women, frozen in various poses of anguish, over the side and into the street. She looked around pained and at a loss. Behind her a team was following up with a street cleaning machine and brooms sweeping up the remains. She watched as one of the faces was pulverized beneath its bristles.
She climbed and climbed. It was past mid-day now and the heat was becoming unbearable. She scarfed down a sandwich and guzzled yet another bottle of water then mounted the steps again. Many of the buildings she passed were in poor shape. Run down with graffiti and grime, laundry hung from nearly every window and she idly found herself wondering if it was washing day or something. A bunch of men were hanging out in front of a café playing backgammon and drinking tea and coffee and staring at her. Quickening her step, she noticed older women staring at her from windows where they stood smoking. There were the requisite small satellite dishes and iron wrought decorative railing on the balconies.
Tired of walking she decided to take a tram. She consulted with passersby and tried to orient her map to the one at the tram stop. As it turned out she first had to walk several blocks over to get to where she needed to be and stood in the baking heat of a very narrow street.
Several sleek modern trams passed by her, but they were all the wrong number. She started to think she’d made a mistake when a rickety old metal tram that looked to be half a century or more old trundled up and ground to a stop before her. She boarded and sat in its wooden interior. She tried to count the stops to her destination but thought she must have counted wrong when she ended up disembarking in an especially derelict neighborhood near the top of a hill.
She consulted her phone, but they hadn’t managed to map this far apparently, and she was left looking at a blank spot. Desperate for information, she found a shop that apparently dealt only in domestic birds. The owners, a husband and wife duo (he in sleeveless undershirt and her in a housecoat – comically stereotypical if it hadn’t been for their sincerity) talked over one another trying to explain in broken English the best route she should take up the hill. The parakeets and budgies chirped and sang on oblivious to these domestic squabbles. She gathered the information she needed and tried to say goodbye but was waved off by the wife who, back turned to her, was laying into her husband about something else.
Finally, at the top of a steep incline she found the house. It sat in the middle of what once had been private land but had since morphed into a small square. She looked around at the sad squat apartment buildings and at the tattered awnings of the small shops surrounding it. It was a narrow two-story house, architecturally speaking a bit out of place with its short porch, private lawn, and pitched roof but not garishly so. The front gate was open and as she approached the house she could see that the bottom windows had been smashed out and long since boarded up along with the front door. There was the typical sort of trash for an abandoned area out of plain view: bottles, plastic packaging, needles. She walked around back looking for another way in and found a door that was only partially attached to the frame. She pried it open and squeezed in. There weren’t exactly plants growing through the floorboards, but it was far from fresh inside, (some cats had apparently marked the place) and she heard what she thought could only be the squeaking of mice. The furniture had been left eerily in place and aside from the dust and mildew it was not inconceivable that someone could just walk around the corner. She found this idea unsettling and set about exploring the rest of the rooms trying to visualize them in the past. She passed from the living room (tattered armchair, a regal high-backed couch, a dining table and china cabinet); to the kitchen (rustic and simple with a wooden countertop and metal cookware hanging from a ceiling with a leak). Some stairs ran up the side of the house and she wandered up them in a daze. At the top were just two bedrooms (one empty) and a bathroom (cracked tiles, but the toilet still flushed, no shower curtain). The master bedroom hardly deserved the name, it was small with a window facing east and a mattress taking up most of the room. As far as she knew no one had lived here in fifty years but knew her grandparents had come back here occasionally as recently as 15 or 20 years ago. There was less damage to this room: the bed was under a plastic sheet and going through the rack in the wardrobe she found some vintage threads that would fetch a high price back home in San Francisco. The sun was setting and having failed to bring a flashlight she hastened her idle search. In the back of the wardrobe, on the top shelf in a box she found what she’s hoped she might – a photo album. She flopped on the bed exhausted with the day’s efforts and taking a bottle of iced tea from her bag, slowly perused the album. With the rest of the dying light, and later by the light of her phone, she lay enchanted by this record of her family’s life. There was page after page of black and white photos of her grandmother who’d raised her (after Sarah’s mom had died of a drug overdose) and her grandfather. She’d never seen them like this; lively, spirited, full of life in a word – young. She recognized her grandmother’s sister but most of the people in the pictures were unknown to her. Friends of her grandparents, she guessed. A time when everyone wore suits. Pictures from just after the war at social engagements, dances, and fancy dinner parties; in furs and pearls, with cigarette cases, and fedoras. This was a real treasure; she was glad she’d found it, glad she’d come.
Not wanting to venture out and vowing to dig around further tomorrow, she used the last of her phone’s dying battery power to find a large comforter that smelled just faintly of mildew. She fell into a black, black sleep.
In spite of her very literal exhaustion, jet lag again woke her a few hours before daylight. There was a moment of cognitive dissonance in which she tried to match up her surroundings with what she remembered of yesterday. Faintly, strains of grief and despair could be heard sung from the rooftops. She lay listening to them for several minutes a gentle melancholy came over her at having to leave this place and return home so soon when she’d just reached her goal.
A window shattered on the ground floor. She impulse shouted and quickly covered her mouth with her hand. She heard brusque voices. Her pulse raced as she tried to think of what to do. Another window was smashed and then another. There was a dull thud at the front of the house. She slowly edged to the window. Visibility was limited but the sun was coming up and she could make out people gathered around the house. She jumped back from the window unsure of what to do. She heard more shouting and descended the stairs to find people throwing things through the windows into the house: old bannisters, chairs, clothes, crockery and silverware, litter boxes and dishes smashed broken across the floor. People were slamming into the door and it began to buckle. She screamed and ran back to the bedroom, barricading herself in with an old dresser and arming herself with a cane she found in the closet. She sat there staring hard at the door and trying to control her breathing and slow her heart rate. She was so wrapped up in this that she didn’t notice that the sounds from downstairs had stopped and the voices faded. After a few hours the sun rose, the faint wailing stopped, and there was an odd peace that descended. Afraid to get up and unsure of what was going on or whether or not to believe her luck she sat rooted to the spot until there was sunlight streaming through the window. Up all night at that point and exhausted, she cautiously looked out one of the windows but could only see the edge of the property where people had now retreated to, having encircled and had turned to face the house. She watched them unsure of whether to feel relieved or not. She wasn’t even sure these were the same people. Perhaps they were just curious? Whole families stood talking calmly among themselves. From the house’s vantage point on the hill she could see a sliver of the sea beyond and, feeling exhausted now, she watched as the pink fog rose up from the warren of narrow alleys below until it peacefully surrounded the families standing outside in a pink blanket. They stood motionless now, except for the children who are made energetic by it. Then they started cheering but she couldn’t make out what for. She became bolder about looking out the window now that the fog covered most everything, and it was then that she saw and smelt the smoke. There was the sound of wood shifting and giving way to flame downstairs. She picked up the photo album and ran down the stairs hoping to reach the front door in time. But the smoke seared her lungs and the intense heat turned her back. Coughing and panicking now she tried to open the window in the master bedroom, but it was stuck. She smashed at it with the bedside lamp and cane until she’d cleared enough glass to squeeze her body through. She felt the heat burning up the stairs, climbing up the walls, when she jumped from the window to the crowd waiting below. Although she broke her ankle with the fall, she turned to run but one of them grabbed her leg and she fell sprawled on the ground and that’s when she screamed, she screamed and screamed and they pulled at her from all sides at her arms and legs pinning her down, grabbing her by the wrists, tearing at her gym shirt and ripping out her hair from the roots. They piled on her until there was nothing left only a writhing, flailing mass of limbs and teeth. Consuming all traces.
She shot straight up in bed, drenched in sweat. It took her several minutes to calm herself down and get her bearings. She wasn’t given to nightmares and especially ones this intense. After her pulse slowed down a bit she got up to splash water over her face and neck and while toweling off she noticed that sun up had come and was lighting up the yard and, increasingly, the white walled rooms of the house. She looked out at the thick pink fog several feet of it piled up and misting along the ground in movements that were semi-animate. Failing to get back to sleep she waited until 7 a.m. then got dressed and went wandering the neighborhood in search of coffee and cleaning supplies. Why it had suddenly occurred to her to clean the old house she couldn’t say but the need seemed urgent and helped her push away the remnants of the nightmare from the night before.
There was a small grocery store nearby and she bought several bags of cleaning supplies and some food. This neighborhood had seen better days and was off the tourist track, so she got a lot of curious looks. To be expected she supposed.
Once back at the house she made a large breakfast and gulped down two large mugs of coffee, threw open the windows and set to work. Cleaning had never felt so freeing to her, nor could she remember ever having done such a thorough job at any place she’d lived. She wiped out all of the cupboards and their fronts; swept and mopped the hardwood floors; made the bed and shook out all the blankets and sheets she could find; she even cleaned the bathroom (a task she’d always found distasteful/avoided at all costs much to her roommates’ annoyance).
She was rinsing out the rags in the tub when she heard something. She turned off the water and froze. Again, a knock at the door. No one knew she was here, and she knew no one here. With a broom in hand she approached the door with trepidation and opened it a crack. There was a short squat woman with curly hair and a big grin. Hiding behind her were two little girls with dark hair and big eyes looking up at Sarah in wonder.
The woman carried on grinning and proffered a glass casserole dish covered in foil. When Sarah made no move to take it she set it on the ground in supplication and back away as though from an idol or celebrity. The two little girls took one last look before running up ahead of their mother.
Sarah shut the door but stood in place. When she was sure they were gone she opened it again and retrieved the dish. It was still warm and smelled delicious. She took it into the kitchen and placed it on the countertop eyeing it suspiciously. Having been so active all morning she resented this unexpected break in the middle of her day of bustle and, throwing caution to the wind, took a bite. Followed by another and another. It was some sort of fish casserole and it was divine. She’d just about polished off the tray when she heard another knock at the door. This time is was a couple of men who took off their caps at the sight of her and laid down a bottle of red wine and a loaf of bread before scampering off. This continued throughout the day. Old people, young people, children; builders, shopkeepers, office workers: they all came and left something and hurried off. Halfway through she became curious and tried to find out what all of this bizarre behavior was about, but no one would answer her questions. And while it was clear these people meant her no harm she did find it alarming when they began, late in the day, and on into the early evening, to keep vigil – candles and all. Given the nature of her nightmare the day before she found it hard to get to sleep and relied on two bottles of wine to get her to the promise land.
Jet lag once again jerked her awake to a headache and dry mouth. Remembering the events of the day before she peeked out a window and saw that the crowd had swelled overnight. There were several heads underlit by candlelight just visible above the roiling pillows of the pink fog that seemed to really have built up over night. She sighed anxiously at this, looking around at the sparkling clean house. She needed to leave for the airport soon and wasn’t sure how to handle getting past the crowd and out of here.
She put on a pot of coffee and was working her way through a baguette and a soft cheese when she heard the sound of an accordion and bass drum. She rushed over to the window in time to see a band (now with the addition of a triangle and tambourine) strike up a tune, a traditional song of sorts from another time full of joy and the simple seasonal rhythms of village life. There were men, women, and children now proceeding in a line; arms raised above their heads half twisting to one side and then back the other way, the women she recognized from the grocery store the model brunettes with lustrous dark hair and pearls now in large pleated fashionable skirts that twirled and billowed out as they turned and moved. Then the men and women paired off. Arms still aloft they danced nimbly on their feet first closer then away from one another spinning and smiling. The surrounding crowd clapped and kept time with a section singing in the local language. She imagined that it was a love song. One perhaps that her grandparents might have listened to or, who knows, even danced to in this very house. Sarah imagined sitting somewhere in San Francisco and trying to explain this scene. She laughed to herself at this bizarre turn of events and was turning back to fill up her coffee cup when she felt the house suddenly violently jerk to her left. She managed to maintain her balance but a lost a bit of coffee. The band played on as though nothing had happened, and it wasn’t until she made her way to the window again that she realized that her vantage point had changed, as though she were sitting up higher now. She confirmed this from other windows and, following another succession of jerks, she realized that she was floating. The house had been somehow lifted off of its foundations and was now floating free, on a cloud of pink, up above all of the crowd below. When she opened the front door to find herself some 10 meters off the ground the crowd erupted in a joyous roar at the sight of her face, laughing hysterically and streaked with tears – they serenaded her, threw flowers up after her, cried in happiness, and most of all – wished her a jubilant and safe trip home.
About the Author
Judson Hamilton lives in Wrocław, Poland. His most recent work includes a book of short stories Gross in Feather, Loud in Voice and a book of poems The New Make-Believe both with Dostoevsky Wannabe. “Pessoa’s hat” is from an unpublished manuscript of short stories called Got Ace. Need Queen.
Detail from Ryan Ancill: Horse Rides in Malibu, 2021 (Unsplash)