By Blood We Live Page 88

Justine was asleep, curled up on a comforter in the corridor. She looked beautiful. I put my hand out to wake her—then didn’t. There was the loveliness of her, just now, the sweetness of her unconsciousness, but there was, too, my reluctance to disturb my own state of quiet benevolence, my feeling of privileged watch-keeping. If I woke her now there would be questions, her ravenous intelligence and fiery heart; there would be the (albeit joyful) clatter of narrative, of talk, of connecting and making sense. Her energies would wake the others, and the happy problem would be compounded.

Suddenly my own heart hurt. Not cardiologically, but with the need—in spite of everything I’d just thought—to hear her voice, see her awake and animated, in full flight, my little Justine with her smart mouth and her courage and her sometimes terrifying silence. It was a bizarre, urgent upwelling of love for her, for all the ways in which she was precious to me, from the shy, secret way she sometimes took a book from the library to read without wanting me to know, without wanting me to start asking her about it, to the speed and obliviousness with which she habitually tucked her hair behind her ear. Her particularity—the uniqueness cashed-out in fingernails, daydreams, coughs, memories, glances, regrets—brought such a surge of need for her that I reached out again to wake her.

But again, didn’t.

There was time. There would be plenty of time.

At the top of the stairs a door led into the pleasantly underfurnished hall of what, it was becoming increasingly obvious, was a large and wealthily looked-after house. A memory-bell tanged, faintly … But no. I knew this place, I really did, but it wasn’t quite ready to come clean. There was a last sliver of low blood-orange sunlight running across the oak floor between me and the stairs. It was the flamy centrepiece of the hall’s stillness and beauty. And (Berkeleyan idealism notwithstanding) had been here, gradually narrowing and deepening its gash of colour on the oak’s golden grain even though no one had been there to see it. I remember thinking a long time ago—perhaps the first time I ever observed the growth rings in a tree-stump—that if there was a Creator then he was a compulsive and promiscuous artist: not content with filling the big canvases of skies and oceans (a different one every day, every millisecond), he must doodle rings in the secret bodies of trees that no one by natural rights should ever even see.

For all its beauty the sliver of light cut off my route to the stairs, but three other doors were accessible without roasting myself, so I went to them and peeked into the rooms beyond, one by one. A kitchen with a big window giving onto a lush—and manifestly not Western—back garden. A lounge, with three huge couches and a wall-mounted flatscreen plus a small walnut coffee table bearing a half-finished game of chess. A Persian rug–strewn library with one boarded-up window and several books scattered on the floor. The books, naturally, called to me. There was an early edition of Swann’s Way. A Don Quixote. A Northanger Abbey. An Arden paperback King Lear—O, let me not be mad, not mad sweet heaven—and (the ether winked) an early hardback—If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me—of Bellow’s Herzog.

The delighted contraries called to me, but I didn’t go. As with Justine, there would be time. There would always be time. The upset volumes reminded me of the night we were attacked at Las Rosas. Browning’s Collected Works would still be lying face-down where it had fallen. It would be a small, distinct pleasure, when we got back there, to replace it on the shelf. I hadn’t read Browning in years. But there would be time.

I thought I’d only been standing there a few seconds, but when I went back into the hall the last of the light had vanished from the floor, liberating my passage to the stairs. Time—why not?—to have a poke around the upper storeys. Let the others sleep. I felt such love for them I sent it as an imperative: Sleep. Sleep, my darlings. The world—so various, so beautiful, so new—will still be here when you awake. I was deeply happy. Happy in the blood. Happier than … than I could remember being for a long time. An unaccountably long time. Not since I was very young.

Not since Vali.

Whose scent I caught, three steps up.

82

I WILL COME BACK to you. And you will come back to me.

I stopped. Held on to the bannister. Felt the world dip and momentarily fall away. Was it …? Was I dreaming? It wasn’t …

The years imploded and the blood in my cock stirred. Oh God. (Only with her. Only with her …) Oh, you forgot, you forgot how good it was, the sweetness and urgency, the monolithic need … Two years since the tug on this leash. Two years for the blood-fish to thaw and flash into life. Two years since the night I’d seen her in the woods at Big Sur—but before that, how many thousands? How many millennia (that epic comedy of impotence) of having to find the sad, forced sufficiency in Everything Else? It comes back and makes a joyful mockery of the supposed enoughness of Everything Else, of the sexless, the unfuckable world. It comes back and the thought of death is terrible. It comes back.

I still didn’t know where I was. But what (I could feel my own smile, the warmth spreading in my face and hands and chest and legs) what could it matter where I was, since she was here, since every subatomic particle affirmed in silent song the absolute inevitability of the place? This place, this moment, this joy.

The miles and days fell away from me like a rotten harness as I leaped up the stairs to her room.

I knocked, heart bobbing in my chest like a trapped helium balloon. (I knocked. There are doors to be knocked on, no matter your heights. Drinks to spill. Ringing phones to ignore. Keys in a pocket to be fished out and fumbled with. The world grants you the heights, but only to remind you you’re never too high for the intractable mundane.)

No reply.

I knocked a little louder. I will come back to you. And you will come back to me. Wait for me.

The sound of her getting out of bed. Barefoot footsteps that testified to her exact weight. Vali’s weight.

She opened the door.

“I’m not who you think I am,” she said.

83

Talulla

“I’M NOT WHO you think I am,” I said.

But that was the last thing I said for a little while.

I knew it would be. The words leaving my mouth were like a magical formula that let the spell of heavy, alive silence loose. It was as if the rushing mob of questions got to me just as my own doors closed to keep them out. They got so close. Details and specifics (individual faces in the crowd): Are you better? Are you really that old? I’ve been dreaming about you. What is this between us? How is any of this possible? But the doors, in slow-motion, closed, and the floor seemed to soften and tilt under me, and I was overcome by a great willingness to not speak, to let whatever happened happen.

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