Publish the Word
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Angelus -- Chapter 20

 

 The Lord gave the word: great was the company of those that published it. Psalms 68:11

                              Chapter 20

 

She sat on the bed, holding the diary as night seeped back into the room.  She was returning to the crisscross of light and shadow, the bedside table, Eastpak on the floor, her open suitcase with its spill of clothes, this room, this night now early morning.  The air about her faintly humming.  The outer darkness past the window.  Her legs.  Her hands.  The lamp's placenta of  saffron light.  She held the book to her chest.  The secret words inside her.  Impasto.  A flutter of breath.  Hers.  This, she said inside her mind, this is too unbelievable.

She sighed, as if to restart her breathing.  Return to her body.

Unbelievable, she thought.  Too unreal.  She raised the book to her lips.  Scent of leather.  She raised her eyes to the ceiling, its gravure of plaster flowers.  Its decades of silence.  I would be dreaming, she thought, if not for these pages, this ancient language.  I would be dreaming.  Perhaps it was another dream she had awakened into.   A dream which had been awaiting her return all these years.  A long, dark night of her soul dream.  Udo had cautioned her.  And now she understood his reluctance to give her the book.  She flipped through its pages.  Feminine script, delicate.  The final entry was ink splattered, as if, yes, as if tears had merged with the ink and paper.  A chemistry of grief.  She touched the page.  No relief of letters.  Just the smooth discoloration.


She saw the man's face, the old March of Time newsreels, fume and sputter, the angry, gesticulating hand, always spastic to her and over-dramatic, his Chaplinesque mustache and flop of black, greasy hair, the swastika over his heart.  She had never before thought of it as twisted cross, hakenkreuz the German word.  Maybe better translated as hooked cross.  To her it had always been emblematic of the most demonic evil, what her mother and she had grown up forgetting.  Which mother?  The thought was intangible.  She had no image of the woman like she did the man.  Only the right-flowing script in India ink.  She could not reconstruct even her mother's face -- Monika, her mother.  Like a fading Polaroid.  The thought murmured inside her.  Mother.  She was a mother who had lost a child.  Jeffrey.  His name surfaced, but not his face.

She watched the black drain from the window and the sky begin to appear.  The first bird sounds were tentative and distant.  Like piccolos.  She sighed again and felt her body about her now.  Anesthetized.  Her mind bruised.  Weary.  She closed her eyes, invisible, and slept.

Hours later Julie's soft voice at her ear nudged her awake.  Mom?  Mom?  Are you all right?  It's afternoon.

Ava rose up to her elbow.  It's that late?

We were getting worried, Julie said.  You seem flushed.

She did feel feverish, stuck to the bed, damp.  She sat upright, her legs to the floor for anchorage.  I was up late reading, she said.  Couldn't sleep.

Julie's hand came up and laid against her cheek.  You're perspiring, Mom.

I'll be fine in a minute.  Let me shower and dress, then I'll come downstairs.

After Julie left she sat listening to the sounds of the house and the bright world beyond the window.  Kitchen sounds.  Running water.  Pneumatic horn from the river.  Gradually tokens of the familiar reassembled her into the day.  She had upset her sleep cycle.  The diary lay beside her pillow.  She moved it to the table, next to a bottle of hand and body lotion.  Lavender.


Shower water returned more of her, beads of mercy sliding away, down her back, tepid, the lather fragrant and sensual as she smoothed it under her chin and scoop of neck where her clavicle joined her breastbone.  She washed her hair which seemed to disappear as she wetted it.  Three inches?  Six inches?  At least it was coming back even.  She thought of actresses with boycuts, with Parisian razor cuts, voguish in the fashion magazines, not unlike her brown spikes which she could now comb flat.  She soaped her stomach and hips, her legs down to her toes where the crimson nail polish from July was flaking off.  The water tasted of rust or iron.  They had boiled the life out of it when she was a child.  Their father had preferred the river for bathing, with its generative flow, he said.  He would stand knee deep in the backwash, working the lather from his head down to the waterline, then he would cry out in a Tarzan yodel and leap toward the deeper current and vanish for what seemed like too long for anyone to hold their breath, then he would emerge, gleaming and clean farther out in the river, almost to the shipping buoy.  She and Udo were forced to bathe in the marble tub, but once they had slipped out after dinner and chased each other across the lawn to the river where Udo quietly removed his clothes and flung himself into the shallows.  He submerged, then came up dripping mud and river moss.

She refused to go beyond ankle depth despite his urgings.  For her, their bath was sufficient.

As she toweled herself dry, she gazed out at the cloudless sky, its blue the blue of Monet at Giverny, an underwater, radiant blue.  The shower had refreshed her.  She rubbed her hair with the towel, then combed it straight back, leaving wet corn-rows under the floral scarf she tied loosely behind her head.  She spritzed vanilla cologne onto her wrists.  Then she dressed in plaid shorts and a matching teal tee-top.  She smoothed out her bed sheets, floated the comforter over them and went downstairs barefoot.

Julie and Evita were at the dining room table eating corn chips from a bowl and dipping them into salsa in a smaller bowl.  You out-slept me, Julie said, and that's hard to do.

Ava said, don't you know parents catch up on years of lost sleep when their children finally leave home. 


She found Carmela in the kitchen pressing what appeared to be corn gruel into thin pancakes which she further hammered flat with a wooden mallet.  A pan of oil sizzled behind her.  Carmela glanced up but did not stop.  What are you making? Ava asked.

For the girls who eat and eat.

They do, don't they, Ava said.  Next to sleeping,  I would say eating is what Julie does best.  She's a natural at it, just like Evita, I imagine.  She watched Carmela shape the patties then lay them into the cast iron pan without flinching.  My brother not home?

Carmela shook her head.  Business, she said.  In city.  She removed a covered plate from the refrigerator and placed it on her work table in front of Ava.

What's this, Ava said, as she uncovered a salad of lettuce, aragula, pixie orange tomatoes, avocado slices, artichokes and shredded cassava.  For me?

Carmela nodded.  She began turning the flatcakes amidst small explosions of grease.  She wore a white peasant blouse tucked into a knee-length, crinolined skirt.  Multi-colored toucans were embroidered into her blouse.

You make most of your clothes? Ava asked, as she took a fork from the silverware drawer.  She then settled onto a wooden stool, angled so she could watch Carmela while she ate.

Si, Carmela said over her shoulder.  I learn from mother and my aunts.  We teach tradition from old to young, but my daughter --- pffth!  She want to buy Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger.  Dull clothes.  No color.  No artistry.  For me, to sew is -- how you say?  The art of the hands, like music.

Art of the hands, Ava repeated.  Yes, you are an artist.  She paused with a speared tomato midair to consider the thought.  My Julie is the same as your daughter.  She wears what her friends wear, like sheep -- only what's in fashion, the brand names.  My mother sewed.  She taught me to cook.  Not that young women today want to be domesticated, as in the past, but they should learn basic life skills.  Ava realized she was talking to herself because Carmela seemed intent on removing and draining the corn cakes.  She ate slowly, savoring the vegetables.  Julie and Evita came through the kitchen on their way out to the courtyard.

Feeling better, Mom? Julie asked without waiting for an answer. 

Ava watched the two girls through the scalloped iron window.  Inseparable, she thought, as cousins should be.  Her own years of isolation in rural Wisconsin were spent without a close friend her age, though at the time she didn't feel different, a little withdrawn, perhaps, bashful to attend social events at school, but not deprived.  Not a pariah.  She was content in the miles and miles of winter landscape, days of whiteout, snow erasing the fields, the road, the sky.  They read books, she preferring stories about animals and nurse Clara Barton and Nancy Drew, a few classics, Little Women and Laura Ingalls Wilder whom she imagined herself to be in a log cabin snuggled in the Wisconsin woods.  They received four stations on their television, two from Kenosha, a Racine station and Milwaukee if the weather were clear.  She discovered art, a gift, her mother said, and American Bandstand, an affliction, in her mother's opinion.  With her bedroom door closed she would sketch for hours with the radio on WLG from Chicago, late night ballads of  the Everly Brothers, Frankie Vallee, the Ronnettes, Elvis, the music from her RCA console so American, a free gift from the sky as she hunched over her rough imitations of Erte, Miro and Max Ernst.  When she came across the sketchbook of Leonardo DaVinci in the Lake Geneva High School library, her art became an obsession, and when she entered the university at Madison, her life for the next four years was mapped with studio courses in design, painting, ceramics, sculpture, totally impractical subjects according to her mother.  Who will marry an art major?  She added German as her minor.


As she finished the salad, she fought to dismiss a stray thought: a young man, denied entrance to the Vienna Art Academy  because his drawings are immature, enlists in a ragged army for the promise of warm meals, a cot, a starched uniform, but who, all his life, will fantasize about the painter he might have become, if only--  And what different paths history might have taken, she wondered, if those professors had approved his application.

Try this, Carmela said, as she laid a sugar-sprinkled corn cake next to Ava's salad bowl.

Mmmmmm, she said in the universal Esperanto -- it has the texture of a honeycake.

You come to market with me? Carmela asked.

Yes, thank you for asking, Ava said.  She went upstairs to get her sandals, then got into Carmela's silver Peugeot and rode through the leafy tunnels beside the brown river to the market where the past receded and only the present existed after her first cordial Hola.  She trailed at Carmela's elbow and listened to each exchange.  She registered image after image on her mental sketchpad: tubs of guavas and striped melons,  banana carts, a fish stall, vegetables arrayed on makeshift, canopied wagons, rug merchants and cloth vendors, children and dogs and small burros, motorbikes coughing blue exhaust, aa voice like Julio Iglesias' warbling from someone's boombox, the raucous thrashing of imprisoned parrots and macaws, fresh breads stacked like cordwood, eviscerated chickens hanging upside down, an elderly Guarani with watches for sale on both his arms, bombillas with a sticky-sweet liquid held for their inspection by a teenaged girl who would not stop pestering them until Ava dug a couple coins from her purse.  She and Carmela sat in the shade on a low brick wall which enclosed a Conquistador canon and sipped from the gourds.

I shop at a supercenter back home, Ava said.

What is that? Carmela asked.

Everything is under one roof.  A huge market we call a supercenter.  Very convenient, especially in bad weather.  But I like this market, Ava said.  We have farmers' markets in the summer similar to this, but without the variety.  You come to Wisconsin and I'll take you shopping to a Wal-Mart supercenter.

Carmela smiled, then reached into her purse and withdrew a bag of shelled nuts which she offered to Ava.  It was a round nut and Ava mistook it for a filbert.  After she bit into it, Carmela said, macadamia.  You're right, Ava said.  I've eaten macadamias before, but always in the shell.  They sat sharing the nuts and watching the carnival of sellers and buyers haggle over the handmades and homegrowns and live or splayed animals.

When they returned home, Udo was in front of the house talking with the gardener, a wiry Guarani of about sixty.  The gardener's wife came early to the house each morning to clean, but she was usually gone before Ava was up.  Udo met them at the bottom of the steps.

I thought I would take us all out for dinner -- to celebrate my birthday, Udo said.

I'm sorry, Ava said.  I didn't know this was your birthday.  I guess I had forgotten you were born in September.  I didn't get you a birthday present.

Your being here is more than I could ask, he said.

We cannot go, Carmela said.  I buy specialties at the market for dinner.  We have party at home this night.

Well, Udo said, looking from Carmela to Ava and back to Carmela.  The Generalissimo has decreed we celebrate at home, if that is your pleasure?

Yes, why not, Ava replied.  I'll tell Julie.

She went with Evita to the university, Udo said.  A late class.  They promised they would be back at seven, and I insisted, or they would have gone off with friends.  Our daughters are at a most sociable age.

Yes.  Friends seem more important than family, Ava said.  Maybe I can help Carmela in the kitchen.

No, no, Carmela said, lightly pushing Ava toward Udo.  You talk, play music, I prepare dinner.  Go now.

Udo led Ava into the living room to show her something else he had remembered.  He said, I discovered this letter among father's papers.  I don't know why he was in possession of it.  As you can see, it was addressed to mother and sent in January of 1945.  She should have taken it to the United States when you left, but she didn't.  I can hardly think that she forgot it.

Ava took the envelop from Udo and turned it over in her hand.  The paper was soft and aged.  It bore stamps of a helmeted German soldier.  The address was written in the same handwriting as the diary, Eva Braun's.  She removed a folded sheet to which was glued under several lines of text a key and a black and white photo of a woman holding an infant.  That's me, isn't it? Ava said.

Yes, I believe so, Udo answered.

 Is that Eva Braun?  I don't recall ever seeing a picture of her, Ava said.  She was pretty.  And thinner than I would have imagined.  I still can't think of her as my mother.  When do you suppose this was taken?

Udo shrugged.  Christmas, perhaps?  You would know babies better than I.

She doesn't say much in her letter.  I hope to return from Berlin soon, she says.  The WVHA will contact you.  What is that? Ava asked.

I believe the WVHA was the Wirschafts und Verwaltungshauptamt, the main administration for the SS.  They controlled the money.  That is where father worked.  I don't know what she means.

And this key? 

That too, I don't know, Udo said.

Too small for a house key, Ava said.   On one side were the initials BB in Fraktur letters, and on the other side was engraved the number 203.  A bank key? she asked aloud.  Bundesbank?  No, not in 1945.  Bavarian Bank?  A Munich bank, perhaps.  The letter is to a Munich address.  Eva Braun lived in Munich.  There was nothing else?

That's all, Udo said. 

The diary ends in November of 1944.

Yes, he said.

Tell me again, when did father receive it?

Udo shifted his gaze off into the distance, as if he were reconstructing long ago events.  He said it came in the mid-1950s, I think.  You and mother were gone by then.  Liesl, Eva Braun's maid, said it was among the possessions she was to distribute to Eva's family and friends.  For whatever reason, she kept the diary and later obtained our address through Herta Ostemeyer.  Why she sent it ten years after the war is a puzzle to me.  Why father did not send it on to our mother is also a puzzle.  He never said. 

May I keep this? Ava asked.

I saved it for you, he said.  How about a drink?

No thank you.  I may go rest a bit.  Between the heat and not sleeping well--

Did my music disturb you?

No, Ava said.  I was up late reading.  A quick nap and I'll perk right up.  I have a party to attend.  I just wish I had a gift to bring.  Do you like original art work?

Yes.  Especially the American painters, the moderns.

Thank you for not calling me an old master, she said.  Then she turned and went up to her room.  

The dwindling sunglow filled her room with a tangerine light.  She sat on the bed to remove her sandals and when she laid back, a tango of thoughts began to still as she concentrated her breathing, then gentled her forehead and cheek against the feather pillow.  She thought of the photo, of the woman's half-smile, and the baby, like a bald monk wrapped in a dark cowl.  The light was harsh, as if thrown from a flash bulb.  Blackness swallowed the background.  Where had they been at the time?  Who had aimed the camera at them and squeezed off the shot?  The woman suffered an instant of blindness.  The baby, she, the baby seemed asleep, held awkwardly up for the camera's brief click.

She searched for herself in the photo, not in the baby, but in the woman's face, as if some physical feature would validate the three people present -- mother, child and photographer -- joined to that moment.  The woman seemed about to speak, her mouth opening, her eyes reacting to the burst of light, her brown hair permed, swept to the sides and back from a middle part, her cheeks too white from overexposure or too close to the exploding bulb, the baby oblivious.  Until now, half a century later. 

If  she superimposed Julie's face onto the woman's, she found the resemblance she sought.  In the shape of her face and jawline, the nose, the deep set eyes with reflected twin- glitter of light.  Yes.  Yes, she thought.  Not in the baby, but in the woman and her own daughter who carried the chromosomal match, Julie, who never contemplated why she looked the way she did.  Or if she had thought about her features and skin coloration, had never expressed her feelings to her mother.


What was the baby dreaming, if baby's dream?  Of  warm, milky lacteal?  The white globe of breast pressed against her face?  Of the freezing armies in the Ardenne mountains?  Stille Nacht. Helige Nacht?  Dreaming the future as it unspooled day by day by day?  Maybe it was only a dreamless sleep, soundless and dreamless and deep.

Later, she put on a cotton skirt, a mauve top, earrings David had given her one anniversary.  She brushed her hair back, then to the side.  She started to take a silk scarf from her suitcase, but decided not to.  She had seen hair as short in a Mademoiselle magazine on the airplane.  She pointed out the model in the layout to Julie.  See, Julie had said.  You're in style and you don't even know it.  Until now she had been too self-conscious.  But she didn't feel like wearing the scarf, as simple as that.  No scarf.  Let Udo see her as she was.  Her hair was coming back.  She stared in the mirror.  Her ears were more prominent, but she was attractive, of course she was,  in a spare, punkish sort of way.  Like Joan of Arc in the da Vinci painting.

She removed a small watercolor from between the pages of her daybook where she had been pressing it flat.  It was of the courtyard from the balcony.  Early morning light illuminated the pool, the table and chairs, a vase of white orchids.  The color was warm and ambient.  Not bad, she thought.  She signed the front and wrote on the backside, To my brother Udo, on his birthday, love (no matter what), Ava.  She would ask Carmela for wrapping paper, tape and ribbon.  It was not much, but next time she went shopping she would find a suitable gift.

Julie and Evita did not arrive home until nearly 8 p.m., but she and Udo, who had been sipping wine in the kitchen and watching Carmela's redolent artistry over steaming pans and oven trays, did not even notice the girls were late until both apologized effusively.

We were birthday shopping, Julie said.  Here, Uncle Udo, she said, handing him a flat box.  We hope it's your size. 

And we hope you like the color, Evita added.  We liked it.


The shirt was combed Peruvian pima -- the softest cotton there is, Evita said.  Suave comoel respiro de un angel.  Soft as the breath of an angel. 

What color is this? Udo said, holding the shirt up to his chest.

Apricot, Julie said. 

Thank you, Udo said.  I don't have a shirt this color.  It's very soft.  He offered it for Ava and Carmela's inspection.  Thank you, he said again.  He opened Ava's watercolor, and after passing it around for everyone's requisite ooohs, he promised to frame and hang it in his studio.

 As they went into the dining room Ava realized that no one had remarked about her hair.

During dinner the daughters asked if they could fly to the resort coast of Uruguay for the weekend.  They could fly roundtrip to Montevideo for 99 dollars, Julie said.  They could stay with a friend from the university, Evita said.  The beaches are white, like sugar, Evita said, the surf  warm as bathwater.  Can we, please? Julie said, imploring her mother and Udo at the same time.  It would be a great cultural experience for me. 

Ava was easy to convince.  And after Udo finally assented, Julie and Evita went upstairs to watch a video Evita had made a year ago at the Santa Vitoria do Palmar beaches they planned to visit.  Carmela, who had been silent throughout the discussion said, maybe I go on holiday with them.

They would love that, Udo said sarcastically.  You to chaperon them.

Carmela rose and began clearing the table.  Ava also got up to help.  In the kitchen, as she placed several dinner plates onto the counter, she said to Carmela that perhaps they should all go to the ocean.  Carmela said, your brother will never travel.  He cannot leave his mistress for one day.


Ava reacted startled, until she realized Carmela had meant his music.  His music is brilliant, she said to Carmela.  It is so impassioned and unlike anything I've ever heard before.  You shouldn't be jealous of his music.  Be glad his mistress is not another woman.  I know from personal experience.

When she returned to the dining room, Udo asked,  you have read the diary?

It kept me awake last night.

It upset you?  I'm sorry.  Perhaps I should have destroyed it long ago.

No,  she said.  No.  She leaned forward into her hands to massage the gentle throb at her temples.  As I began to read, she said, I thought, this is fiction.  Someone made this up.  She sighed, eyes shut against Udo wavering in the candleflicker.  These people, I thought,  the whole world knows them.  Him -- Hitler.  Eva Braun.  History happens in thick books, on television, somewhere else.  I can't be in this.  It's too unreal.  How could the child she writes to be me?  His daughter?  Udo, please.  Tell me this is a joke.

The candle fluttered, alive, consuming itself between them.  At last Udo said, I asked father, when he was dying, why he kept the diary.

She studied his face:  eyes preternaturally bright and watery, contour of nose, his mouth alternately in shadow and in light as he spoke.  She suppressed the impulse to reach across the table and stroke his cheek. 


He told me, Udo continued, that he was afraid to destroy it.  Afraid of whom, I asked.  He didn't know.  Bormann?  He knew nothing of the diary, nor would he care.  Was it paranoia?  Maybe.  I think he kept it to remind himself he committed this humanitarian act of  preserving life -- yours and mine -- while the war remained for the rest of the world unimaginable horror and death..  The secrets he carried made him fearful.  I was an accountant, he said.  I did what I was told.  I tried to convince him we should send it to you, rightfully yours by inheritance.  No, he said.  Promise me.  This past must die when I die.  Until I read the diary myself, I had planned  to send it after father was gone.  But you had a family, a life far away from here.  I could not intrude, could I?

No, she said.  I'm not angry with you.  But mother knew.

She knew, he said.  But not about the diary.  Once you were in her arms, a bundle of pink flesh she nursed and diapered and burped in the middle-of-the-night or whenever, she erased the details of your birth.  You were her baby.  Eva Braun no longer existed.  Neither she nor father ever met Adolf Hitler.  Why would she tell you this outrageous story?  She wouldn't. 

Oh Udo, Udo, she said, her voice pained.  My life is so ordinary and unremarkable. 

If you had not come here your life would have sailed on, a pleasant voyage.

No, she said.  She shook her head slowly for emphasis.  My life was not pleasant. 

Carmela returned to the room, a blur at the periphery of candlelight.  Coffee? she asked. 

Thank you, Udo said. 

Yes, please, Ava said.

They talked on into the night, the breath of their words shifting the candle flame toward her, toward him, upward in their silence.  Carmela listened quietly.  Udo, over the years, had found a rationale for every question, so as to bear away the guilt from anyone and thus, he comforted her now.  She realized this, at some interval of their conversation.  His voice went softly on.  It filled the buttery light between them.  His voice, she thought, like a recitative, now diminuendo, revealing the father, flawed with greed; the quixotic mother and her exiled child,  the bastard child in the words of Ricardo Bormann -- how is Hitler's bastard child?  The words jarring at her ears.


Udo explained, according to their father, how Eva Braun's heart was torn between her daughter, whom she planned to rejoin in Argentina, and the spell cast by the demented Fuhrer.  At the end, a drunken Bormann told their father years ago, Hitler could not even die a soldier's death.  She had to shoot him in the head.  His hand trembled so, he could not aim or fire the gun.  Bormann resettled them out of respect to Fraulein Braun, her desperate final wishes, the "loan" from der Spinne also because he always felt sorry for her, poor, neglected Eva, more loyal than any general, and she never cruel to him in public, unlike so many others.

Bormann seemed pathetic, to me, Udo said.  But I was never witness to his visits with father.  What he said I heard from father later, as he shriveled away.  By then, no matter how he unburdened himself, I could not absolve him. Burn everything, he instructed me.  I agonized over burning the diary, I did.  But once father was gone, it was, I thought, the only proof of our existence.  It was our Dead Sea Scrolls.  You, my lost sister, may have been merely a phantom, I thought.  I didn't know.  We had no contact for years, my fault, not yours.  And, like you, I didn't know what to do with this Nazi past.  It was a black, evil fable with no moral.  So I did nothing.  I forgot about the documents.  I composed my music.  I managed father's investments.  I lived the life I have lived.

Carmela gathered Udo's hand into both of hers.  She said, Quieres que salga?

You may stay or leave as you choose, Udo said.

They all stared at the table before them with its cups of half-shadow, re-folded napkins and stray silverware left untouched, the flickers casting a frail light, like gauze in front of their eyes.  Carmela held Udo's hand, the silence intermezzo.  Ava said, I think I'd like a glass of wine.

After Udo had left for a fresh bottle, Ava asked, have you seen the diary?

He show me, Carmela said.  Many years ago.  Is a great sadness for you now?

I don't know, Ava said.  I am numb inside.  I don't know how I feel. 


Udo returned with a wine bottle and three glasses, the crimson wine a merlot, he said as he filled each glass.  An aromatic wine, he said, spiced, with a hint of melancholy.

When the doctor told me I had cancer, Ava said, my first reaction was, no, he must have made a mistake.  Some other woman's CA 125 blood tests came back positive.  Not mine.  I didn't feel cancerous.  In fact, I have felt worse from surgery and chemo than any cancer.  Denial does not make it go away, however.  You've got to deal with it, David said.  An easy cliché to spout.  He didn't have the cancer.  So I'm "dealing" with it.  And you know what?  It's still unreal to me.  Like a 19th century novel about a woman dying of consumption, I'll close the book and say, poor woman.  But now I seemed to have stepped into another book.  Only this time I'm the lost daughter of the most evil man in history who is responsible for the deaths of how many?  Fifty million people?  Forgive me if I seem disturbed.  But this is too bizarre.

Yes, I know, Udo said.  Over time I accepted father's past.  I saw the records and the aging Germans who came.  But if  the pain had not made him so lucid near the end, even I would doubt this tale.  He hated his life.  So much regret, he said.  We were all victims.  And now this legacy continues.  I should have burned it long ago.

I honestly thought we were Jewish --  how fortunate to have escaped the holocaust.  The truth could not be more monstrous.  Ava leaned back her head and inhaled the darkness.  She sighed deeply.  The wine had begun to soften the edges.  She stared across at Udo.  Whoever said the truth will make you free, she said.

Father was a tormented man, Udo said.

I'm sure he was.


Udo refilled his glass, then Ava's.  A flutter of  faint sounds drifted about them: the upstairs television? acacias outside the window stirred by wind, the blood-red wine settling in her glass.

And our mother, Udo said.  She erased this from her consciousness.

Ava said, I don't know. 

She never said a word?

Ava yearned to recall one single moment when their mother might have divulged her complicity.  But no image materialized, no enigmatic words, nothing, a blank wall of memory.  He sent her money every month, she said.

Yes, Udo said.  We were not wealthy, not like the first Spaniards who raped the continent.  We Germans were late to come.  But you are right.  The money that sent you through university may have been blood money, if you think about it too hard.  I, personally, choose not to dwell on such thoughts.  Our fate as children, you and I, was determined for us.  You and mother left.  Father and I remained.  You grew up.  So did I.  And now, what has been done in darkness is exposed to light.  What do we do?

I don't know, Ava said.  I told Carmela that I am numb inside.

You will forever be my sister, Udo said, if you let this possess you -- no matter what our parentage.  You couldn't chose who would bear you or raise you.

I feel the same, she said.

And do you feel betrayed by the mother who raised you?

She paused to follow the question.  It seemed to penetrate like a dagger flung into the soft flesh of her psyche.  A lifetime of deception.  Even when Ava reached adulthood, married, rejoiced when her children were born, grieved at Jeffrey's death but went on, even as her mother began to shrink with age and relinquish this world, still the pretense, no revelatory letter left with her effects, nothing but lies until the end.  Did she feel betrayed?  I don't know, she said.


Maybe, she said. 

The wine began to nudge her out of herself, with its mellow haze and behind-the-eyes slurry, her words pensive and clarified as if her voice were coming from someone else, she thought, as she and Udo went on, the bloom of candlelight encompassing the three of them, Carmela attentive, but silent.  Udo broke in when she paused and she listened to his voice rise and fall as if he were singing an aria in a lost Wagnerian tragedy, as if they searched for some elusive truth.  Don't we all reinvent the past, she remembered him saying.  Don't we all believe the lies we tell?  Don't we all? he said.  Don't we?  Don't we?

And then somehow she was pulling the blanket up to her chin in bed just before she felt sleep rushing toward her in a head-on collision.  She went spinning spinning spinning, her thoughts compressed into a BB of flight.

 

She arose the next morning with no aftershocks from the wine, not the usual fuzzy-head, no nausea or cottonmouth.  She stood in the shower, bent at the waist, leaning into the warm steam rising from the tiles.  They had talked for hours and resolved nothing, she thought.  He was a fatalist, he had said.  Only in music could one approach perfection.  We are all Nazis at heart, he told them.  She recalled little of what she had said.  Random words.


She sat on her bed in terrycloth and soapscent.  What was the day?  A Thursday?  Friday?  They had come a week ago if today was Friday, she thought.  They had planned on ten days, but the airlines allowed them a window of two weeks if they wanted to keep the excursion rate.  Julie and Evita were leaving for the weekend, for the beach -- that much she recalled.  The green leather diary of Eva Braun was on the bedside table.  Her suitcase open on the floor was in disarray.  She could taste the air.  Frangipani.  The river.  What time was it?  She had misplaced her watch.  She felt her hair to test its length..  Damp and spongy, but no longer bristled.  It was growing.  She toweled her neck, her chest and abdomen, lightly touching her ribs to measure how much more weight she had lost.

She took up her daybook to write, but after a few minutes she scribbled out the date, dressed and went down the balcony stairs to the courtyard.  No one else seemed to be up.  She went out the gate to the wide lawn, squinching against the sun.  She needed a hat, perhaps the next time she went to the market, she thought.  Drawn toward the shade of the palms and cedrela along the river, she ambled the familiar route through ferns and bromeliads, past the sunken, dry pool where carp once grazed.  A flash of greensnake, sunning, nearly translucent in the grass, shimmied off at her approach.  She paused to be sure it was gone.  She could hear the purl and slap of water beyond the trees.

The river was metallic, more of a sludge color until the perpendicular sun drew down the sky and changed as the sky changed.  It would absorb the hues and tints unless a freighter plowed up a roil of backwash and froth that followed in ever widening V's out of sight as the boat chugged steadily south toward Argentina or north to Brazil.  She was still terrified of the river, of water in general, if it was deeper than she was tall, five feet, four inches.  So she stood back, in case the soft bank might collapse underneath.


She had tried long ago to imagine drowning, how it would be to breathe in water and not air and how she would gag, her lungs shuddering to expel the inrush of liquid, a gasp, another gasp, the air displaced by weight and volume, a chill, even as her chest felt aflame, the eyes vanishing upwards into their whites.  To choke, to suffocate.  Cancer, in her opinion, was preferable, unless one lingered.  She didn't want to be a lingerer.  But to think of her son's death no longer troubled her.  The ache remained, forever and always.  But if she tried to reconstruct that summer day-- no.  She wasn't going to indulge the memory.  She stepped back and turned toward the house, now hungry, all too human and subject to her immediate needs.

They ordered the day together, groupthink so unlike how she and Julie went here, went there in parallel lives.  By noon they had to deposit the girls at Aero Carnival's reservation desk, then Udo would take Ava and Carmela to lunch at LunaVista near the Embarcadero, then, perhaps a stroll through the Botanical Gardens and finally Il Trovatore in Italian at the Presidential Theater. 

Too much like a normal vacation, Ava said, feigning exhaustion.

You could stay longer, Evita said.

Julie will already be a week late into her semester, Ava said.  She nibbled a fried plantain.  Udo sipped a greenish, chicory-scented tea.  Ice cubes tinkled like wind chimes in his glass.  Julie, with wet seaweed hair, spread cream cheese across a bagel while Evita painted her nails.  Carmela was percussive in the kitchen until she appeared in the doorway to offer chipolatas, sausage, she said, hot spice like fire.  Wake up your mouth, she added, fanning her hand in front of her face for emphasis.

Later, just like a family, Ava thought, pressed into the rear seat of Udo's BMW between her daughter and Evita who volleyed their mix of English and Spanish past her, barreling along the narrow streets, midday heat leaking in, the sky filling all at once with aircraft, turn here, someone saying, what time, someone asking, Carmela scolding over her shoulder from the front for indecencies the girls might commit, but better not, unintelligible to Ava, except for the tone.

Do you have enough money? Ava called ahead to Julie as they strode into the terminal.

I don't have any money, Julie said.  I have Daddy's credit card.


Sent forth with hugs, the girls did not glance back as Ava watched until the umbilical tube swallowed them into the plane. 

Do you want to watch it take off? Udo asked.

Why not? Ava said.  A mother's prerogative.  I always relax once the plane is in the air, unless I'm on it.

They  went out to the observation deck and shaded their faces with their hands held in identical salutes until the plane rolled forward, revved, charged the long runway and finally lifted into the blue glare above the boulevard, banking left as it rose.

Goes up, up for ten minutes, Udo said, then angles downward for ten and they're in Montevideo.  Easy.  I have made the flight many times. 

I hope they have a good time, Ava said.

Evita always has a good time, Udo said, adding something in Spanish to Carmela.

They lunched in cool shade.  A musician serenaded the diners with Bartok, Udo told them, half-listening, the mandolin a pleasant, feminine shape, Ava thought, soothing, until the man began to sing.  He sang a few notes and then, in her estimation, warbled in what she assumed was the Latin version of a yodel until he resumed the lyrics, his eyes flashing hers for approval.  How irritating, she said.

An old gaucho ballad, Udo said, nodding toward the man to get his attention, then waving him away so they could dine in peace.


Once served, they sampled each other's dishes.  Ava was presented with herbed mushrooms and chicken over Spanish rice and garnished with quelites -- greens, Udo explained.  Carmela ordered calabasita, a zucchini casserole, and Udo had the day's especial, white fish from the Amazon with sliced limes.  They toasted each other, discussed childrearing, told daughter stories -- light conversation to accompany a heavy lunch.  Ava surrendered rather than overeat.  I'll need a walk after all this, she said, laughing, then patting Carmela's shoulder as relaxed and intimate as she had felt since arriving..

After lunch Udo drove them along tree-lined avenues, past red-walled haciendas, bleached adobe blockhouses with plywood lean-tos, past donkeycarts hauling produce and mongrel, scavenging dogs,  past a group of boys battering a soccer ball in the street and young women waiting for buses and old men standing or sitting curbside smoking, past a forlorn girl of four or five dragging a laundry basket, past shrubs speckled with wildflowers in profusion along the roadway and diesel clouds, billows of flies, pigeons fluttering up or down before or after them.  Udo turned onto a cobbled drive and stopped at a cast-iron gate.

You will not mind visiting a cemetery, I hope, Udo said.  Father's grave is here..

It was an unremarkable headstone, Ava thought, rough marble, a little larger than a mailbox.  Franz Georg Herman, she read aloud.  28 May 1917 to 16 June 1969.  Fifty-two, she said.  Why so young?

Her question hung, unanswered, in the hushed air common to cemeteries.  Manicured geometry, she thought:  this housing grid of  lateral plots with their bouquets and bronze urns and statuary, hovering cherubs, Madonnas, scrollwork.  A kingdom of bones.  The man who carried her across the Atlantic.  Her father and not her father.  This moment, she thought, when I should remember everything about him, I can think of nothing, not his face, not his voice, no gesture, nothing but this carved name, this day in May and day in June which pass by every year.

She felt subdued when they left the cemetery, as if something vital had been drained off by the humid air or the overarching, stately trees or the anguish left from past mourners.

I have not come here in years, Udo said. 


Ava said, for all his faults, he was still our father -- more so than someone who donates  sperm but never raises his child.  I wish I had known him better.

A motif of great literature, Udo said.  The child in search of lost parents -- Oedipus, Telemachus seeking Odysseus, Moses, Shakespeare's Cymbeline, even tonight's opera of a young man stolen at birth by gypsies.  We are in memorable company, my sister.

They drove to the National Botanical Park which contained every species of flora native to Paraguay.   Crushed stone walkways led into tended groves of borracho and acacia trees, slender date palms.  They sat beside a lagoon of floating hyacinth, russet colored ferns, lilacs, lapacho, the forest canopy animated with birds, their voices less solemn as they conversed.

Back in the car they meandered through more of the city Ava had not seen, islands of wealth among seas of poverty.  Thank you, she said as they arrived home.  You've made me feel like a tourist.

Hours later and midway through the first act of the opera, a warm flush began to rise from Ava's chest into her throat, then jewels of perspiration across her forehead.  She struggled to focus on the music.  Il Trovatore, the troubadour, Udo had said, his voice at her ear, her hands on the armrest to still herself.  Passion to tear your soul, he said.

Of her smile the radiant gleaming pales the brightest starlight, he whispered, interpreting for her Count Ferrando's song outside the cloister, he, antagonist to Manrico, who does not know the Count is his brother by birth.  Ava stared down from the first balcony as the actors moved among the stage sets.  Magenta light fell upon them.  Twenty-two in the orchestra, she counted, concealed by darkness except for the motion of hands, violin bows, an arm striking the kettle drum,  heads in silhouette. She tried to concentrate on the Renaissance costumes, the rich, textured fabric and brocade of the women's gowns, the men's tunics, the swords, real metal, she realized when one clattered to the floor.


Too warm in here, Ava said.

I prefer Puccini's lyricism, Udo said.

Crescendoing blasts of music jarred her upright.  I need some air, she said.

Manrico's tenor lifted above the orchestra in painful, weeping emotion.

He's displaying his range, Udo said.  Bel Canto.

How long until intermission?  Finally she leaned in the other direction and asked if Carmela would help her outside to the lobby.  Carmela grasped her upper arm and steadied her past Udo, who half-rose in his seat, then across several other patrons to the aisle, ascending blind toward the door and its sudden coolness beyond.  They went through the carpeted vestibule to the outer doors and the nighttime neon street.

Are you sick?  Carmela laid her palm against Ava's cheek.  You faint?

Ava said, I'll be all right.  Fresh air helps --  so stuffy and warm in there.  The music was giving me claustrophobia.  I'm better.  She bent over and inhaled.

I don't like high balcony, Carmela said. 

I'm not much of an opera fan, Ava admitted.

And so they confessed to each what they did for men, first Ava, how she tried to expunge  infidelities from her mind, but failed, then Carmela, who, though she loved Udo more than her life, had discovered she could short out fuses in the powerbox so Udo would come to bed.  He forget to eat if I don't feed him, she said.

David prefers eating out to my cooking.

I wanted more children, Carmela said.  But Udo didn't.

I wanted more children, Ava said.   But God didn't.


They walked to the intersection of Calle Estrella, turned and strolled back toward the theater.  Ava felt recovered the more they walked, an episode of no consequence, she thought, a weariness from the day, a slight anxiety over Julie's departure.  The music had seemed to dispossess her.  She never liked stories that depended on irony or mistaken identity.  Perhaps she would have enjoyed the opera if she had understood the language.  They would insist Udo drive them home, they agreed. 

We'll have him summarize the rest of the story, Ava said. With commentary, of course.

 

She felt submerged by the music swirling about her, not Verdi but that of her brother, an inundation of black shattering surf, sweeping her under.  She was tumbling downward, descending the melody's invisible currents, drawing her down, twenty fathoms, fifty, sinking in warm, oceanic sound, each breath self-limiting.   The notes swam past her in the dark air, an exotic polyphony :  solitary bassoon, a school of bright-striped flutes, trumpets, a flash of french horns, the cellos and violas farther down like bluefin sharks.

She drifted then, neither asleep nor awake, each shallow intake of breath tortuous, as if she could not clear her lungs.  At last she sat up.  Udo's music was louder than normal, she realized.  What time?  They had returned from the opera at ten, had eaten eggs scrambled with tomatoes, talked until almost midnight.

She could hear him singing, his voice alcoholic and off-key, sad Spanish in the swampy air.  She went onto the balcony to listen.   The music was somber, a lamentation.  She thought of women in black shawls wailing for the dead.  


There were no neighbors close enough to disturb, only she and Carmela with the girls gone.  But she would not ask him to turn it down.  No, she had already disappointed him, she thought, by their leaving the opera early.  She went back inside her room and clicked on the lamp.  She flipped through Eva Braun's diary.  Writing was music, too, she thought.  Anne Frank's diary was chamber music.  The duets of John and Abigail Adams, and Anais Nin's etudes were music.  And painting, as well, she heard with her eyes -- the expressive symphonies of Michelangelo, Watteau's pastorals, the jazzy improv of Renoir, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec.  Her body was music with its aortic rhythms, her pulse in constant syncopation.

And then, unexpectedly, silence flowed in, filling her ears, filling the room.  She felt miles down, where the fish swam eyeless, mouths agape.  She listened for Udo to resume.  She listened for some sound in the darkness.  No nightbird.  No wind.  Udo, perhaps, had finally gone to bed.  A profound silence, she thought.  The absence of all life could not be more still.  And she, now, was wide awake.

In recent months she had become an exile from normal sleep.  Naps, fitful interludes of dream and waking, four or five hours of tossing and dozing, none of it restful and how long before sunrise, she wondered.  She shut off the light.  She lay back.  Thoughts of her father began to rise, thoughts of the cemetery, burial thoughts, her mother's funeral, predator thoughts, nightfeeders.


She held an image of Hitler momentarily, but dismissed it.  It returned, his unfocused eyes, black stamp of mustache.  He could never be her father.  The very thought seemed to make her giddy inside, too ludicrous to even imagine, alien beyond belief, humorless, a sick vile obscene joke.  And she was the punch line.  Impossible.  If there was a God in the universe, surely he was not a jester.  But one thought kept recurring: what if it was true? How could her mind erase the diary?  The baby in the photograph was her, she knew, she knew, she knew.  It was.  Why would Udo invent an elaborate web of lies?  Her brother was complex, but  sympathetic, as reluctant to tell her as she was to hear.  Her mind rebelled.  She tried to obliterate such thoughts.  If she carried that man's DNA -- no no no no no

Good God, she thought, and now why am I beginning to cry?

Deep heaves of emotion surged up, but she did not cry aloud for fear of waking Udo or Carmela.   She could not stop the implosions, though.  Wave after wave of anguish.  Pain like tympanies, shuddering inside her.  She felt her chest split open, fracturing her into pieces.   A coughing jag, as if her soul could expel the unassailable truth of who she was, and yes, now she did deserve this cancer and David's scorn and all the misery and cancer of the world.  She smeared her hand across her face.  Damn me to hell forever, she thought.  I deserve it.  She hammered at the mattress with her right hand until it bruised.

She lay on her side, gasping, trying to calm herself so she wouldn't hyperventilate.

At last, she thought, panting for air, the blackness of the room cascading over her, at last she had a clear reason for despising the life she pretended to live.  Evil begets evil.  From alpha to omega she was a failure, a poor mother, lousy wife and resentful that everyone kept pretending along with her.  She deserved the lowest pit of hell.  A bag of toxins and bile, that's all she was.  From nothing to nothing.  No more lies, she thought.  I hate because I am.  Myself.  This life.  Fifty-five wasted, worthless years.  I should kill myself, she thought, sniffling.  Stop tormenting everyone.  Set them free of me.  But, she realized with self-loathing, I'm too afraid to even die.

She gazed at the opaque wall before her.  Her eyes were pools of fog.  Pinpricks began in her hands, then tingled up her arms.  Her ears popped.  All at once she felt decompressed.  Outside herself.  Her breathing suspended.  A humming about her head.  Sweetness entered her nostrils, lily of the valley, a fragrant talc. 


And then a ripple of light.  As if the air burst open, he was suddenly there, a halogen glow, his arms crossed casually at the chest, his eyes penetrating hers.

I'm closer than you think, he said, his voice all at once dissipating her fears.

She sat up to her elbow, started to speak.  I'm upset.  Distraught--

I'm here to bring you comfort, he said.

He held his hand out to her.

Her eyes left his, glanced down, saw the offered cloth, the size and shape of a handkerchief.  Her own hand rose up, touched, took the soft cotton, dabbed her eyes.

Go on, he said.

She blew her nose, aware she sounded coarse, still undone.  I'm sorry, she said.

Sorry for what? he asked.

For everything, she said.

He smiled.  She saw it distinctly, his face fluid, his eyes unblinking, never leaving hers.  But the smile, she thought.  He smiled, distinct and so fraught with meaning, such a small change in his face, but so reassuring.  Her words seemed to materialize between them, her voice resonant in her ears, for everything, and she knew and smiled too.

You've traveled far, he said.

She began to say something about Paraguay or Wisconsin, she wasn't sure, but then the layered meaning of his words seemed to reverberate inside her.  Traveled far -- a metaphoric subtext. I never thought, she began again, but her subsequent words evaporated.

I never thought, he repeated, identical in intonation and emphasis, waiting for her to resume, his gaze slightly unnerving.


She glanced down as she spoke.  I never thought -- I'm not sure what I thought.  I don't even know what I'm thinking now.  An angel.  I'm having a conversation with an angel.  What can I think?  My life used to be so ordinary.

He came to the end of her bed, the smile now bemused, she realized, clearly she recognized he found humor in her words and demeanor.  Her own impulse was to draw her legs up to her chest, to blink him away.

Dis-traught, he said.  From the Latinate, distractus. An interesting word.  Linguistics fascinate me.  All the tongues of men and angels.  Distraught you are.  These revelations upset you -- am I right?

Yes, she said, stammering the s into extra syllables.

You may think I'm telepathic, but I'm not, he said.  I'm limited in my capabilities.

She stared at him as he spoke, his aura the only light in the room.  He wore the same linen shirt and pants, but now that he was closer she could see gold weave in the fabric, shimmers of silky light so bright she had to shift her eyes to his face.  He looks just like a man, she thought, masculine in every way, nothing cherubic nor androgynous.  His skin was flawless, no beard, barely perceptible eyebrows.  His auburn hair was thick and swept back from his face, windblown, she thought, as if from flying.  But he had no wings.  That detail latched on to her consciousness as his words sank inside her.

She tried to memorize his eyes, his mouth, the luminescence of his skin, so human and so beyond human.  What was he saying?  She could not focus, so fixated was she on his glistening and beautiful face.


 
 

 

 

   

 

 
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