Last Sunny Day
by Summer Brenner
On all sides of the old, refurbished house, neighbors had started to stir. Cars rolled out of driveways, pets were let into yards. As Mrs. Akinyemi shooed her dog onto the back porch, Julia slipped into the shadow of the door. She disliked Mrs. Akinyemi's sympathetic questions, "Did you sleep well, Julia?" True, Mrs. Akinyemi asked everyone the same question. "How did you sleep? How did your mother sleep? How did your brothers and sisters sleep?" It was Mrs. Akinyemi's custom to ask until she had gone through the entire family.
Julia answered Mrs. Akinyemi truthfully, "I don't sleep at all." Hoping it would discourage her neighbor; on the contrary, Mrs. Akinyemi now had a mission to hear Julia reply that her sleeping hours had passed well.
The bounding on the back stairs, two at a time, would be Betty, Julia's mother. Dressed in training shorts and shoes, her coarse, rust-colored hair twisted down her back, she cried, "I'm off," as she ran through the living room (stuffed with Victorian bibelots), the long wainscoted hall, and out the double front doors.
The weather was holding. Betty liked that. She would jog along the cliffs by the sea. Afterwards she would bake muffins for breakfast, change the house guests' sheets, iron their pillowcases, and replace the vases with fresh rose blooms from her garden. In the evening after supper, dishes washed and dried, she would sing Celtic songs while she knitted blankets for the poor. If she wasn't talking, she was singing. She said it was her people's custom.
While her mother hastened along the sun-drenched streets, a feeling of fright clawed at Julia's throat. She shut her eyes to the adjoining back gardens (their own and Mrs. Akinyemi's) and tried to engage the exercises the therapist had taught her: deep inhalations to the bottom of the abdomen followed by slow, sustained exhalations. Accompanying the breath she was supposed to bring a picture into her mind of a quiet scene: the sea, the countryside, the mountains. This morning she chose a small, sturdy rowboat on a calm blue inlet. She was rowing, she was in charge. But after five or so obligatory breaths, a squall rose shrieking like the ghosts of slaughter and rocking the boat so violently that Julia fell into the waves.
"That won't do," the therapist reprimanded. "You have to concentrate all your mental faculties on the boat and the calm sea. The safe place is inside your mind. You must not let it wander. No distractions." That was key.
Julia limped into the kitchen, switching on the burner for the kettle. With intense physical therapy, her leg had improved, but Julia liked limping. The limp validated the invisible things that were wrong with her. Terribly wrong.
Her father, Tom, was almost as habitually busy as Betty. He showed up in the kitchen in coveralls, smiling apologetically at Julia. It was hard to pretend theirs was a happy household. Betty was the pretender, but he felt his heart cramp whenever he looked at his damaged daughter.
"Remember the time?" He began each morning. He thought that recalling the good memories of childhood would restart Julia's life and pitch it onto another course.
"Of course," she told him. The visit to Queen Charlotte Islands, the family trip to Ireland, the time she won the city's contest for children's art, the day she left for graduate school.
At the front of the house, light traffic moved down Oswego Street towards the center of town. The ferry from Seattle was heard blowing the announcement of its arrival. The decorated horse-drawn buggies (driven by gregarious youth) clattered over the pavement, carrying tourists from the harbor and Empress Hotel around the massive Parliament building, the museum, the park of totem poles towards the house of Emily Carr and the seacoast. Occasionally, the candy smell of manure wafted in the air.
"What's on the agenda today?" Tom asked.
Julia turned to the wall of scoured pots and pans as if to find an answer. Agenda made life sound like its very own government. "Letters," she answered purposefully.
"Good," her father agreed. It pleased him to hear her respond. "Would you like the computer?"
Julia shook her head. She would write by hand.
By the time Betty returned from yoga class, Julia was enclosed with a tablet and pen in the upstairs bedroom overlooking the garden. She watched her father below distribute rose food to various specimens while Mrs. Akinyemi roused her dog from his morning nap. Apparently, animals preferred to spend as much time as possible napping, causing a minimum of damage to themselves and others. No other creature took on activity with the ferocity of humans, except the sages and monks who found that sitting, lost in repetitive chants, playing with beads, praying peacefully was the epitome of all human achievement. Such individuals even attained sainthood by never speaking a word.
Julia took the pen and addressed several envelopes to old friends in Toronto, London, Berkeley, but when she tried to write a word, she found she could say nothing. She could neither lie nor embellish. She certainly could not tell the truth. Dear Stefan, she tried. He had always been able to understand. Dear Stefan, It's a sunny day in Victoria. The weather? Certainly she could do better. Dear Stefan, Mother and I went walking slowly (yes, my leg is better), thinking of the time....
Unfortunately, no time came to mind. All the memories, even the ones her father insistently mentioned she recalled like illustrations in a scrapbook or children's story. Everything had been crowded out by the accident, the prison, and trial. Dear Stefan, I've been through a terrible ordeal. Scratch. That would only encourage him to come on the next flight.
Julia limped to the full-length mirror. She was a woman now. From the care written into her face, that was obvious. Her nose and mouth looked out of focus, her feverish bright eyes more white than gray. Her hair was like the yarn of a rag doll. In prison they had covered her hair with a large dirty kerchief. When she was released, she washed her hair until the water ran out. She had never considered herself beautiful, but now she realized there had been something beautiful in her face and it was gone. "They stole it," she overheard her mother tell her aunt. Maybe that's what her mother meant.
She lifted each leg from beneath her robe. One was strong, youthful and the other shriveled and discolored ("like calf liver," Betty gasped when she first saw it). The physical therapist assured her she would walk normally again, but when the word "normally" catapulted Julia into hysterical laughter, her mother rushed her out the door and home.
Finally, she took a few sheets of lined tablet paper, scribbled her name with More to follow, tucked them into the envelopes, and stashed them in a drawer. She could never contact or compromise any friend as long as there remained a chance they were still looking for her.
Since she had come home, there were only two bedrooms available to let to visitors. The larger one took up half of the second floor with a separate bath and marble tub, California King, and private verandah. The other was small with a shared bath. Betty and Tom stayed on the third floor in the remodeled attic.
For the past week the small bedroom had been occupied by a German girl in training to manage a boutique of natural body-care products. She was gone all day and into the evening. Julia had determined she was not a spy.
The large bedroom had been vacant for a week causing Betty to go daily to the dock with flyers for the ferry passengers.
Beautiful sunny suite
in the heart of the city
Gourmet breakfast included
Except for doctors' appointments, Julia spent most of the time in her room. During the day she closed her eyes and let the light and warmth penetrate her lids. At night she kept them open. Once she crept down the stairs, out into the street in her nightgown where she stood letting the wind rush through her like a sieve. Her parents called it "sleepwalking," proof she was capable of sleeping. But Julia insisted she wasn't asleep.
"You weren't properly dressed," Betty reminded her. "You wouldn't go out in a skimpy thing if you were awake."
Julia was now capable of doing many things. The accident had opened up untold categories of behavior.
"Medicine here," Tom knocked on the door, trying to grin.
Julia thought the medicine made her sluggish, vague. She couldn't concentrate to read. Her father tried to interest her in a number puzzle. SUDOKU was a craze, nine numbers (1-9) put in a series of rows, columns, boxes without repeating any number. She had always been good at puzzles.
"It's a waste of time," she said.
"What else you got to do?" Tom asked. "Relaxing is what you need." He sat by her at the kitchen table showing her how to fill in the blanks with missing numbers.
At lunch Betty announced to her husband that there might be a customer for the big bedroom. "He could be Russian, I can't tell."
"Russian won't do."
"Maybe she won't notice," Betty said.
"She notices everything. That's the illness, isn't it? She even notices what isn't there."
"We can tell her German. She doesn't pay attention to the girl."
"How long he want to stay?" Tom asked.
"I told him $150 a night. He didn't blink."
When the doorbell rang, Julia hid in the closet. She plugged her ears, but the sound continued clanging like a fire engine. Betty had given her the task of answering the door if it rang. "I'll be right back. Just ask the gentleman to wait."
Gentleman meant an official stranger was expected. Gentleman meant a new doctor or government inspector or director of an international human rights team. Julia herself had been part of such a team, but now she had turned into a violator. They claimed it was her fault the car she was driving hit and killed a pedestrian, a respected mullah no less. She tried to find a mechanic in Almaty who would testify the brakes were at fault. She had been given a car with faulty brakes. But she couldn't find a mechanic. She couldn't even find the car. It had been impounded by the police, unavailable for inspection of any kind. That was "tampering with evidence," they told her. She laughed in their face. She knew what tampering was. She had been trained in such matters.
Julia rather liked the closet. She had never given it a chance before now. The few clothes smelled like her. The shoes smelled like her. On the upper shelves were boxes filled with her papers from college, books and letters. It was small and closed. But it wasn't prison. It wasn't a filthy hole with a urine-soaked mattress and metal door. The sides and ceiling of the closet were plaster and lathe, cool in summer, warm in winter, painted light blue like her room. The closet door was varnished oak with a brass knob. There was no wall where she heard other women sobbing all night. She still heard them sobbing, but in the closet it was quiet and dark like the way she imagined space and death.
The bell and knocking stopped. Soon her mother's voice and the voice of a stranger, the gentleman no doubt, were in the hall. Betty was apologizing over and over. That's what everyone did now, apologized for her behavior.
"Didn't you hear?" Betty asked, violently shaking her head, her red hair flying in all directions. "You've got to come out of it."
"He's Russian," Julia stated.
"I wouldn't know."
"Didn't he show you his passport?"
"He's a writer."
"That's generally what they say," Julia twisted the loose skin around her fingers. She had grown extremely thin in prison. "Writer is code."
Betty didn't respond. At times in desperation, she thought her daughter must be joking.
"I recognize the accent." Julia said. The guards had all been ex-Soviets, some Russian, especially the ones trained in mental rehabilitation. When Julia explained to the Canadian authorities that she had been tortured, they wanted to know how. "To be disbelieved is torture," Julia reported. "To have lies told about you is torture." She could tell they weren't sure if these offenses officially counted as torture. "They said I was drunk and reckless. That I swerved at him rather than away."
"The man is perfectly harmless," Betty attested. "Here and gone in no time. Nothing to fret over, nothing to worry about. You got your whole life ahead of you," her mother added hopefully.
Julia counted several lifetimes behind her: Bosnia, Indonesia, Kazakstan. Berkeley didn't count. Berkeley provided two generous years of study and sexual experimentation. Twenty years in Victoria didn't count either. Victoria was a fantasy. The sound of horse carriages only proved it.
If she didn't take her medicine, Julia thought only about the accident and prison, the noises in her head building like the squeals of an electric train. They said she suffered from PTSD. Tom said they should call a spade a spade. What he meant was his daughter had had a nervous breakdown. He said an acronym was not the same as a spade. He expected honesty in all matters and wasn't going to pretend Julia was better until she smiled at one of his jokes.
In the evening Julia heard the Russian go out and the German girl come in. Through the blinds she watched Mrs. Akinyemi. Sometimes at night her neighbor came out of her house with her black hairy dog and sat in her garden. She walked barefoot and wore a cotton wrapper. Sometimes she went down on her knees, but it was impossible to tell if she was praying or smelling the earth.
In the secret of that darkness Julia felt a connection to Mrs. Akinyemi so far from her homeland. Mrs. Akinyemi would never return to Nigeria. She was a refugee. Julia had met and spoken with hundreds in her travels, visited thousands in the camps across the world. Now she too was a refugee in her parents' home.
The next morning the houseguest lingered at the breakfast table. It was Tom's turn to make breakfast, and he fixed a zucchini frittata. For Julia he made a tray with toast, juice, and her medications.
"My daughter," he explained. Like his honesty, he tried not to confuse anyone. "Recovering from an accident."
The stranger's eyes empathized, "Accidents," he said, "are our fate."
Tom smiled gratefully. He believed there was truth to that. He himself had slipped off a cliff in a storm when he was thirteen. He almost froze to death but during the night an angel, the size of his hand, visited him to tell him he was a gift from God. He had never shared that visitation with anyone, but since then he had never once felt alone. It was Julia's sense of her own loneliness that pained him most.
"Thank you, sir," Tom bowed slightly to the guest and used the back stairs to carry up the tray to Julia's room.
"It's a beauty out today," he beamed at his girl. She was dressed. That he took for a positive sign. Also there was a book by the bed. Another sign.
"Reading, eh? Always were a reader, my Julia."
"I may walk to the sea," she said. All summer she had stayed inside to avoid agents, posed as tourists, sent to bring her back to Almaty. But it was late September. It was time to go out. These would be the last sunny days.
"Excellent," Tom said, and the swelling in his chest lifted his shoulders. Always loved the sea, his Julia.
In the early afternoon when the sun was full and hot, Julia took the cane from the corner of the hall and hobbled through the backdoor and down the stairs. The garden smelled like heat mixed with rose attar. She closed her eyes, inhaled. This fairy odor permeated the James Bay section of Victoria. Up in the Rockland section, the air was cooler and crisp, the yards of the big houses filled with the scent of crushed cedar. But adjacent to downtown, the air was perfumed with roses.
Julia had grown up with botanical wonders, her parents' love, music and books in the home, safety. At an early age, she suspected what she came to learn was true. Their lie hid reality. Their fairyland existed nowhere else. In fact, the world she now called hers smelled only of diesel, rotten meat, sewage, fire, and savagery.
"Julia, how did you sleep last night?" Mrs. Akinyemi asked cheerfully across the fence.
Julia jumped, retreating from the high, lilting voice. Hadn't Mrs. Akinyemi fled the war? Hadn't her husband been murdered, her daughter raped?
"I didn't see you there, Mrs. Akinyemi."
"You look better. Did you sleep well?"
"Not so well," Julia conceded.
"I am sorry," Mrs. Akinyemi said. It wasn't long after she arrived in Canada that she discovered people did not like to speak routinely about their sleeping habits. They considered it too intimate. They associated sleep with dreams or even death. They did not recognize it as a time to travel. Even as a Christian, Mrs. Akinyemi allowed herself to travel. Despite the embarrassment it caused her neighbors, she continued to ask. It was a custom she did not want to lose. To ask reminded her of the things she loved about Africa.
Julia walked slowly through Beacon Hill Park. The sun gleamed through the limbs of the large trees, and a fresh breeze blew from the sea. Her leg did not throb at its customary rate. The throb had lessened. She didn't have to lean so heavily on one side.
Julia stood on an embankment above the channel that led to wider waters - the Straits of Juan de Fuca and the violet mountains of the Olympic peninsula. The rains had not started, and the warm sunny days lingered. She stood as they had once stood, her vista uninterrupted except for the bobbing of seals and sea lions and the occasional arrival of a Nootka canoe. She pretended her mother was not Betty but a weaver from the Raven side who wove the raven into robes made of bark, wool, dog hair, down, and reeds. She pretended her father was the color of cashews and fished for salmon. He came from the Eagle side and carved the great poles. When it rained her people wore capes made of cedar bark. Someday she would go with her father out to sea to hunt. She would be the first girl to travel from the islands to the far mountains and bring back the white deer.
"I wish I was First Peoples," she told her parents.
"Julia is a first," Betty assured her.
"I wish I was around when the world was new," the girl complained.
"Everyday it's a new morning," her father commented.
"Every baby is brand new," Betty chimed.
Julia tried again, "I wish I could change into water or sky or an animal." When her parents didn't respond, she ran to her room and cried.
"I see First Peoples," she told her friend Ethan, describing to him the salmon racks and canoes with huge birds perched on their prow.
Ethan and Julia played their games below the cliffs at Holland Point. They dug in the sand and explored the rocky beaches. Ethan was a Boy Scout. He knew how to tie different kinds of knots. He knew how to clean fish. He would teach Julia. He told her he was going to win the Queen Venturer Award when he was older and join the Mounties.
One night Betty found Julia in the yard. "What you think you doing here?" she shouted. "Tom, she's making a fire."
"You trying to burn us down?"
"You better answer," Tom demanded.
"She'll burn us down if we don't watch her day and night."
"Julia," her father coaxed. "You're a child after midnight in the yard making a fire."
"It's in a pit," Julia said.
"What do we do with her?" Betty wondered.
Julia stared overhead at the stars in the night sky. They spelled out T - U - P - K - U - K, the Nootka word for "black." The same stars the First Peoples saw when they caught their fish and carved their posts.
"Are you cold?" Tom searched for a reasonable explanation for fire.
Julia wrapped her arms around herself. As a matter of fact, she was cold. "I needed to heat something," she stuttered.
"There's stove inside."
"I didn't want to mess up," the girl tried.
"Cooking?" her father struggled.
"Rocks," Julia blurted.
"She's touched in the head," Betty whispered. "First People thing has touched her."
Tom hushed his wife.
"If you put water in a box with hot rocks, it boils," she explained.
Tom tried to figure out the process: box, rocks, water.
"I see," he said, inspecting the barbeque pit. There were three potato-shaped rocks, a few sticks, and ashy newspaper. "But don't you need a special box?"
This was Julia's dilemma, too. She possessed no properly steamed, softened, bent, and fitted cedar box.
Betty spied the intended container, a mahogany jewelry box she had bought in Dublin before she married.
"My box," she shrieked. "The child intended to burn my box."
"No, no," Julia wept. "Not burn."
"Not burn," Tom observed. "But damage."
Betty hugged her box. "Papa would have sent me to the woodshed," she said shaking her head. "You go too soft, Tom."
On United Nations Day, instead of dressing like a Celtic princess, Julia wore a cape, shell necklace, Hawaiian grass skirt. She made a conical hat from paper and drew black oblong eyes enclosed by rectangles.
"The Irish had a rough time too, dear," her father told her. It was Ethan's idea to run away. He told Julia he wasn't happy at home. His teacher's report said he wasn't trying at school. He had spoken back when she reprimanded him. His father threatened to make him quit Scouts.
"I'm good enough to run away. I got seven nature badges and can kill a blue jay with a slingshot. I'm good as Natka."
"Nootka," Julia corrected.
"I don't need their bloody home no more."
They made a list: a blanket roll, matches, extra socks, toothbrush, shirts, and shorts because the days were still warm. "No suitcases," Ethan insisted.
"What will we eat?" Julia asked.
"Crackers and apples."
"And a thermos," she suggested.
"I can fish, and we can work for food."
Confident, they set out on Monday so not to call attention. On Monday no one would miss them for hours.
"Where shall we go first?" Julia asked excitedly.
"I don't know," Ethan replied. He had brought a compass but forgotten his map.
"Let's try Clover Point," she said, thinking they might find salmon or herring or whales. She would claim descent from Raven and Ethan from Eagle. That way they could marry.
It was a long walk out Dallas Street, and by the time they arrived, it was late afternoon. They raced past the cars and trailers on the grassy bluffs, down the ramp to the sand. Julia suggested they dig for clams but the smell from the sewer water in the surf made them gag.
Back on the bluff the light around the mountains glowed like the iridescence of abalone. Happy, Julia brought out the apples and crackers and placed them on a bench.
"Haw'a," she said the Nootka word for "eat."
"Haw'a," Ethan repeated, smiling at their accomplishment.
They ate slowly. When the sunlight was completely gone, Julia asked Ethan if he was scared.
"No," he answered honestly. "Are you?"
"I'm scared all the time," she admitted.
"There's nothing to be scared of here."
Julia knew that. But sometimes life itself scared her. When she was grown, she would put herself in danger as the only way to control her fear.
They unrolled their blankets on a bench like the First Peoples in their winter houses. They lay down toe to head, but the lamps in the parking area kept them awake until very late. They rambled on about many subjects, everything they liked and disliked, what they would to do and not do. Julia thought she would find a family of First Peoples to adopt her. After he joined the Mounties, Ethan intended to ride a horse from one end of Canada to the other. Julia decided it was natural to want to sleep outside when it wasn't raining. If she ever had to go home, she would make a place next to the barbeque pit where she could sleep.
In the early morning, two policemen stood above them, peering down.
"Ain't you a pair," one frowned.
"Given up for drowned," the other muttered.
"Coast Guard patrolling all night."
They used a radio to notify headquarters that the two missing children had been found.
After a restless night in a dreary room (by any Western standard), David Lopez walked to the ferry dock to inquire about the hotels that overlooked the yachts, the bay, and the grand facade of the Empress Hotel that dominated the entry to Victoria like a castle in an European village.
"Looking for a room, sir?" Betty asked, handing him a flyer for her Victorian on Oswego Street.
David glanced at the sketch of columns, gables, porch, and lawn. Bed-and-breakfast never appealed to him unless a romantic companion insisted. He found the decor oppressive and his privacy compromised.
However, Betty steered him to the fine print. "Separate bath, marble tub, California King, private verandah. "In high season," she gloated, "it goes for $250, but you see it's September, sir."
"Irish, are you?" David smiled broadly.
Betty nodded. She found the handsome young man's teeth irresistible. For generations her family had passed along crooked, discolored ones. Beautiful teeth in Ireland were rarer than lucky clovers.
"I can show you," she pointed. "It's only down the road here."
David checked his watch. He had a call to make, but he was inclined. "May I come in an hour?"
Betty had an appointment that could not be postponed. "If I'm out, simply ring the bell. My daughter will answer."
It was a reasonable assumption, but Betty could no longer count on Julia. The doctors had said she shouldn't be pressured do anything.
"Right three blocks, you can't miss it. It's mauve."
Mauve was one of the reasons David Lopez avoided bed-and-breakfast arrangements, but the house was actually very handsome. The mauve ranged towards gray rather than purple, the trim cream and gold. A climbing yellow rose framed the front gate. David set his suitcase and laptop on the front porch. Behind the lace curtain he glimpsed carpeted stairs, floral prints, a velveteen settee, and a handsome antique secretary.
He hammered the brass dolphin against the backplate. "What about the daughter?" He grumbled after a few hard blows. "No damn daughter" his refrain.
Betty drove up just as he turned to go. "Been waiting long?" She could barely hide the fury ignited daily by a grown daughter who did nothing to support the household while she and Tom toiled day and night.
The room was to David's liking. He was relieved to find a dearth of bows and chintz. Instead, the walls and bed linens were biscuit cream, the highboy and desk decent quality imitation.
"The telly's downstairs, if you like. We don't watch so make yourself at home," Betty smiled hospitably. "How long you plan to stay?"
He wasn't sure.
"We make breakfast to order."
"I don't eat much," he replied. He was not a morning person although his work required him to suppress most natural inclinations. He managed his bladder like a camel.
"Suppose you want to stay trim," Betty hummed approvingly. She herself had turned nearly mad with fitness.
In the early afternoon David took a bus from downtown Victoria to the Butchart Gardens, a thirty-minute ride beyond the suburban outposts of shopping centers and track homes. He consulted the Butchart brochure and chose a path under the conifers that led to the Sunken Garden. He stood above the wonders of Eden: Lombard poplars, bright flowering shrubs, countless annuals carpeting the deep floor, quarry walls draped with ivy and Virginia creeper, a winding rock staircase, and a pond in the distance covered in a baize of lily pads. This was the first section of garden commissioned by Jennie Butchart in the early 1900s to beautify the exhausted limestone quarry her husband had dug to make his fortune.
David ate his lunch in the solarium of the Butchart's former home and afterwards in memory of his grandfather, Moises Kupchik, he strolled through the Rose Garden.
September was not the season. Still, many of the 2,500 specimens, some climbing over arbors, others pruned as trees, most closely packed in beds, were in bloom. Their fragrances streamed into his nostrils.
Moises Kupchik's passion for roses had turned him into something of an eccentric. His hotel in Buenos Aires was renowned for its interior courtyard gardens. There, he nursed his plants like babies. He sang and prayed to them. He brushed away the mold. He drowned the aphids. He plucked off the black spot. While most of his family and clientele were simply amused, his grandson was enlisted to help. As they watered and pruned, Moises told David about his former life in Poland, the country house, the elegant apartment in Warsaw, his father's collection of art, the climbing trips to the Alps, and the courtship of Reba whom he eventually married.
"It was another world," he would say. "Although we were Jews, life was filled with sweetness. Then it vanished like smoke."
The extinction of their families in Poland affected Moises Kupchik and his wife in opposite ways. Mosies awoke every morning celebrating another day of life. Reba waited eternally for someone to take them away.
"May you be blessed," his grandfather once said to David, pressing the boy's hand to his mouth, "with love for all living things."
David flushed at the memory, as if caught in a shameful act. He hurried to the parking lot to catch the bus back to the city.
As he entered the old impeccable house, he found Tom, its tall, shaggy Irish proprietor, on top of a ladder
"Russian, are you?" Tom called down from overhead.
"I apologize for my English," David Lopez explained. "I learned from a Russian. It gets me confusion all the time."
"It's becoming," Betty piped.
"I grew up in Argentina," David said cordially.
"What sort of work you do?" Tom asked.
"I'm a travel writer," David replied, less cordial. That was enough personal information.
"We have our share of writers," Tom said, recalling that when probed, their actual professions were more mundane. He suspected the dark, handsome man was a steward on an airline who liked to give himself romantic airs.
Upstairs Julia heard the Russian go out, the German girl come in. She sat beside the open window, waiting for Mrs. Akinyemi to step into the yard and perform her nighttime ritual. Her earlier walk to the shoreline, the warm sun, the snow-capped mountains, the calm water, had filled her with compassionate feelings for all humanity, Mrs. Akinyemi included.
By ten the Russian had reentered the house, climbed the carpeted stairs, unlocked the door to his room, closed and locked it behind him. When only she and the German girl shared the second storey, Julia was protected, but now there was a Russian in the front suite. She felt the entire house tilt in his direction. Soon the floors and ceilings would tumble down. To insure that didn't happen, she had to stand guard all night.
By midnight, Julia had fallen asleep along with the other occupants of the house, their neighbors, and practically the entire population of Victoria.
She awoke in the morning surprised. Everything was intact. Nor did her thoughts rush to the accident or prison or the Russian down the hall. She thought about the weather and if the day would prove as lovely as the day before. One of the last sunny days before the rains fell like a veil.
She limped to the window and opened the blinds. She was heartened by the sight of the blue sky and the garden. Today she would walk again to the sea and watch the water and boats.
Her father was surprised to see her at the breakfast table. For the past six months he had carried a tray to her. Half the time she didn't eat. He was sympathetic, more so than Betty. He had seen a bit of war in Belfast. He knew how it turned a man's stomach, or burned a picture in the mind, or changed a person forever.
"Pancakes," he practically sang. "Can I make you a couple? Or do you fancy oatmeal?"
"Pancakes are fine," Julia replied.
"I remember how you could eat them fast as I make them." Tom turned to the griddle. "Warm syrup and jam on the table."
"I see, daddy."
"I didn't say you couldn't," he pouted.
It pained her to be unkind, but his unending kindnesses tired her. She wanted to tell him he wasn't living in the real world.
"Up and at it."
It was a joke she and her dad shared. "And the guests?"
"The girl left a bit ago and the other one, he's not a Russian, Julia. I asked him. I came out and asked him to his face."
"And you expect him to say, 'I'm Russian from Kazakstan stopping here on unfinished business with your daughter?'"
Tom shook his head. This was the part of the sickness he couldn't understand. As a child, Julia had always shown such good sense.
Julia savored her strong morning tea. In prison she had missed it most. Now she drank tea all day and took two or three baths. Whenever she wanted. Betty said it was tea that made her sleepless and sickly. Betty wanted her to try a fruit-juice fast and enemas.
David Lopez's sudden appearance startled them.
"Don't let me disturb you," he said with his unnerving accent.
"Too late," Julia retorted.
David was confused. Betty had said the daughter was confined to bed and could not always get up to answer the door.
"What she means," Tom wanted to explain but saw it would only muddle the picture.
"Russian, are you?" Julia asked, hearing the open gurgle in his vowels.
"Everyone here apparently thinks so," he said.
"Well?" she waited, sipping her tea.
"I speak five languages," he confessed as a boast. "As long as I'm understood, isn't that the point?"
Julia never understood what people meant when they said something was the point. There were always so many points fighting for ascendency.
"Mr. Lopez is a writer. Travels around and writes. What is it, Mr. Lopez? Restaurant guides, that sort of thing?"
David glanced at the woman across the table. He found her almost beautiful. Her hair was heavy and rust-colored like her mother's but instead of a round bun face, hers was long with large lips and thoughtful gray eyes at each pole. A Modigliani face.
"I travel where I'm needed," he said casually.
"Like a mercenary," she commented, staring into her tea. There was no doubt he was one of the enemy.
"Not exactly," David defended himself.
"Have you been to Kazakstan recently?" she asked, trying to sound neutral.
Tom slapped a plate of pancakes on the table. "Syrup and jam," he nodded. "And was that coffee or tea?"
Julia pushed her chair back, lifted her mug, and limped up the stairs.
"She's already given so much," Tom tried to clarify. "Wants to go to Paraguay as soon as the leg is right. I tell her she needs to stay home, but she's not having none of that. Says she'll go where she's needed. I guess a bit like you. Even when the UN team dumped her. Had to fend on her own, Julia did. She's a good girl. Too good if you ask me."
"What sort of accident?" David wondered.
"In some barbaric place nobody can find on a map. You know, the kind of place where laws don't work. They almost put her away. We had to bring in the ambassador. Nobody wanted to touch it. You hear of these things, right? But only after somebody gets killed."
Julia set the mug on the windowsill. She closed her eyes and let the sun heat her eyelids. As soon as the Russian left the house, she too would leave and repeat the joyous exercises of yesterday. The walk to the sea, the view of the mountains. Soon, she heard him padding by her door. Quiet as a spy, she thought. And even if what he said was true, there was something inimical in him she recognized. Superiority, that was the sign.
"They are not the enemy," she murmured the mantra. "There is no enemy." She had gone to help, and when she needed help, they turned their backs. It wasn't her prejudice. It was theirs. "Love the enemy," she repeated the injunction. She had said it countless times in jail, trying to reduce the distance between her and the jailers, the judge. Now she hated them. They had wanted to put her in prison for seven years, not because of a law but because of their hate. "I'm not a fucking saint," she said aloud, no matter what her father thought.
Julia sat for a long time on a bluff overlooking the sea. She squinted as she used to as a child, blocking out the periphery of buildings. She thought about the First Peoples and the night she and Ethan slept at Clover Point. Afterwards, they were forbidden to go together to the beach. In high school Ethan moved to Vancouver, and later, she heard he was a junkie, living on the street.
The sun enveloped her, and when she dozed, she saw again the busy intersection in Almaty. The trucks, the buses and cars. She smelled the overwhelming smell of exhaust, thick enough to see. Then from the corner of her eye, the mullah appeared, jumping off the sidewalk into the street. Her car struck him on his side, the force throwing him to the ground. The car rolled over him. That, she would never forget. The sound of the bump and the tire marks on his spotless white robe. Then she crashed into a lamppost. Her shin was severely cut, and the pain wiped out all other sensations. But now, she remembered. Behind the mullah there were two men running too. They were chasing him. They chased him into the traffic. Then they disappeared. She pictured it again and again. She could almost see their grim faces, their black leather jackets, their caps. They were the murderers, she wanted to shout to the jailers and judge. They killed the mullah.
This was David Lopez's last day in Victoria. In the morning he had received a call about his flight from Vancouver. He would not stop in Tel Aviv but travel directly to Beirut from Seattle. The Bechtel team would pick him up there. Now that the order had come in, he was eager to start. The hours loitering in a pretty provincial town were a waste of time.
David walked into downtown past the carved poles in Thunderbird Park. Their grotesque mouths towered over him, in grin or grimace it was impossible to tell. He hurried on. "Silly boy," his father would have said, but Moises might have understood. His grandfather lived with one foot in another world.
He entered the museum gallery that housed the art and artifacts of the First Peoples. Standing behind a class of children by the kekul, he listened to the teacher instructing her pupils. The children marveled over every detail of the pit house, wanting to know if humans really lived there.
Evidence of ancient life always filled David with relief that he hadn't been alive then. In the classrooms of his youth, the pre-Columbia masterpieces revolted him.
"The eyes," he mumbled to one of the children. "Is there anything human in those eyes?" The boy moved away from the stranger.
For a moment longer David stared at the carved bulging sockets. Then with his own living eyes, he pushed them back into their deadness. He hurried from the museum grateful to be in daylight again. He shopped for a gift for his mother on Government Street, deerskin slippers that he arranged to ship to Buenos Aires. In late afternoon, he returned to the house on Oswego Street.
"Did you find the museum?" Tom asked, handing David a cup of tea.
"That's a pity," Tom nodded. "You'll have to come back and spend more time. The First Peoples exhibit, it's an impressive thing."
"Impressively strange," David remarked.
"Don't let Julia hear you," Tom warned. "That's what you call a sacred place for Julia. When she was a little thing, she wanted to live in the yard."
Julia heard the Russian on the stairs, going to his room, leaving presumably for dinner, returning in the evening. She waited, awake and alert. Minutes passed, then hours. She stared at the stars, Mrs. Akinyemi's dog, the moon and illuminated clouds. Serene thoughts passed through her, thoughts about humanity and love. She would soon walk normally. She would again think normally. She would leave this unreal place and return to her work.
When it was late enough, she lit a storm candle and crept downstairs to the office. Behind the door she lifted the extra set of keys from a hook, walked back up the steps and down the hall. The largest key turned quietly in the lock, and because her father kept the hinges well-oiled, the door didn't creak.
Like Psyche, Julia cautiously approached the bed and cast the faint aureole of light on the man's face. His dark, luxurious hair sprang across the pillow, and one hand lay on his chest. She found him beautiful, but even if he had been an ogre, she would have loved him. She would have made herself.
"David Lopez," she whispered softly.
He was startled. From underneath the pillow he grabbed a pepper-mace baton. "What fuck you want?" he asked hoarsely, raising the stick to strike her.
Julia backed away. "I am unarmed," she said.
He glared at her composed face and serious eyes, scanning the diaphanous gown and the naked body beneath. He watched her glide closer to the bed.
"May I?" she whispered.
He was surprised but no longer angry.
She pointed above them to the attic where her parents slept. "We will be very quiet."
She slipped between the sheets beside him. She raised her arms and embraced him. David sighed with wonder. It had been many months since a woman had touched him. He lifted his legs to take off his shoes.
"A habit," he apologized.
Julia watched him rip back the Velcro fastenings. She knew what sort of men slept in shoes.
He held her close to him. She held him inside her. And in the early
morning when she rose to leave, the sky was overcast and rain was falling.