It wasn’t a good story. It was nothing Ötkár wanted to hear and one jarring image stuck in the depths of his mind. If he closed his eyes, he could feel a stark and merciless horror that Dunn described in calm and measured tones. He’d told the story in English: a bleak tale of seething genocidal hatred in an inhospitable, incomprehensible country.
They were two fags, just like us, hanging by their necks from the limbs of an old tree.
Two dead guys hanging by nooses. The men who’d murdered them had carved curses into their skins with razor blades and knives. Things hadn’t changed yet. It was common to see shit like that back then: guys stripped naked with violent slanders carved onto their bodies. It was always too late to help them, too late to bring them back.
And at the end of it, Dunn had told how blood settles, how it darkens and congeals, and that it had sunk into the hands and the feet of two different men. One, black like me…and the other was white, but nothing like you at all. Their hands and their feet had bloated and discolored. It had been too late to do anything for them: swollen fingers and toes, Dunn had said, could tell you how much time was left to do anything important, like tying a knot in a soul’s broken tether. But for those two men, hanging from a tree, there was nothing to do but ignore the cloud of flies buzzing around them and cut their ropes.
“I couldn’t have done it,” Ötkár said, quietly and in his best school-book English.
“You’re not a rope-cutter.”
And afterward, they finished their beers and said good-night: dobrou nóšt, like any two gentlemen in any civilized city. They left the cellar depths of the bar, holding hands on the street and as they crossed the ancient Bridge of Cats. Whole swarms of bats twittered overhead, hunting insects, as Ötkár and Dunn left the bridge and stepped in opposite directions along Rýil Street. There were policemen and taxis everywhere, and Gypsies at intersections, selling roses. Trams slithered along gleaming silver tracks. There weren’t many tourists out at this hour, not many Americans to stare at Dunn with gawking, sneering curiosity, but Ötkár felt the invisible presence of gossip-monger eyes and ears in the eaves of the antiquated stucco-faced buildings with their windows shuttered for the night. Dunn knew the city as well as any local. He knew how to blend in; he knew how to cloak himself, so no one saw a shuffling local nobody and a black American expatriate, holding hands and kissing each other good-night.
Belatedly, and far from the bridge, Ötkár kicked out of his sneakers, pulling off his socks; he shoved them down as far as the inside toe of his left shoe in a tardy acknowledgement of near-forgotten tradition. One crossed the Bridge of Cats with naked feet, throwing one’s shoes into the river from the midpoint of the span. Ötkár didn’t commit to the ritual. Instead, he ambled, barefoot, along Riýl Street and then the wider length of Novoskaya Prospekt, careful of glass-shards and piercing splinters of offal, pigeon drops and cigarette nubs. The discomfort underfoot gave him something to think about. In silence, he walked to his parents’ apartment. He left his shoes on the inside visitor’s mat as, without a word, his sister closed the door behind him.
“Nothing’s changed,” Márina said after more than three heartbeats. She threw a meaning-burdened glance at the bedroom, its door ajar. There were figures around the bed: family friends, uncles, aunts, and cousins, paying last respects, saying last words, and maybe confessing a guilty sentiment or two. “Do you need a moment before you go in?”
Ötkár nodded, stepping into the kitchen as if invited there. The parlor was crowded with too many relatives: strangers he’d only ever seen in Mother’s dusty scrapbooks. He slumped at the kitchen table, as Márina rummaged through the cupboard and stood two glasses on the table. Tension stiffened her shoulders as she pulled a bottle of škóy from the counter, and settled at the table, across from Ötkár. She poured two shots.
“I almost asked him,” Ötkár said, accepting his drink and throwing it back. It pushed the air from his lungs.
“What stopped you?”
“He did.” Ötkár reached for the bottle and poured another shot. “Dunn. He told me about these men he’d seen when he was younger; how he’d been called to—” but he couldn’t tell that part of the story, not now, and not to Márina. “He told me how it works: rope-cutting. That’s one part of it. Tying knots in a soul’s broken string, that’s the other part; the one I’d gone to ask him about.”
“You should go in,” Márina said, nodding toward the bedroom as dark and quiet figures stepped through the door, and vanished into soft and stoic murmurs in the parlor. She hadn’t touched her drink.
“One more shot,” Ötkár said.
“Papa knows as much as I do, and I think he’ll understand when you leave. But go see him now. You won’t have this chance tomorrow, and you’re almost too late. He’s breathing like a guppy. You know what that means.”
Because he’d seen it twice before, with both of Mother’s parents. He swallowed his second shot, but couldn’t pour a third. Márina’s hand covered the glass and forbade the act.
“Másha,” he said. “Please…”
She shook her head. “I’ll cover for you when you go to your exotic American’s apartment and spend the night in his bed, but I can’t let you do this.” She moved his shot glass out of reach as if impounding expensive and gleaming contraband. “There’s no time.”
“One more shot. That’s all.”
“I’ll bring it in to you.” Her voice cradled an ingot of pure, emotional granite. “Go.”
And he felt them in the parlor, watching in quiet, familial judgment: a gaggle of uncles and aunts, cousins and his mother, already in her mourning dress. Her eyes were hollow, but she nodded when she saw him. He ducked his head in shallow, shy acknowledgement, reading a single word in the hazel eyes and green eyes and eyes as brown as his own; it was the word the family had always used, whenever his name staggered into one or another of their conversations.
And now, disheveled and barefoot, he stepped into the bedroom, making some haste in the way he raked through his unshorn hair with trembling fingers. It wasn’t as long as it could have been, but it rankled Mother’s prim-lady manners. His cheeks itched: sandpaper beneath his fingertips before his hand fell to the door-handle and rested there as pale and as inert as unleavened dough. His toes, blunt and stubby, mocked his downward gaze with hints of street-grime on their tips but there was nothing to do for it now: at least his nails were trimmed.
He pushed the half-open door wider.
There was lamp-light in the room, dim, and his father—so hollow and so thin—lay with his eyes closed. His breath filled the air with rasping, shallow gasps. There were bottles on the nightstand: medicines. One vial drew Ötkár’s gaze: morphine, he knew. An extrusion of eyedropper-rubber centered its cap. A few drops under the tongue every few hours. He cringed. Morphine in pink, sweet suspension; it smelled like bubblegum.
“Papa,” a whisper: the only sound he could squeeze past the pebble in his throat. “I’m sorry I came back so late tonight. I…um…I…—I’m not a good guy, am I? I mean…I’m not like you wanted me to be; I don’t know what to do when I have to do something right. But I came back, Papa…I would have stayed with you today, but…everyone was showing up and I needed air; I wasn’t strong enough to see them all standing around.” He approached the chair beside the bed and sat down as quietly as he could. His heart skipped a beat and caught itself when his father opened his eyes. A smile twitched the corners of the old man’s lips. There was so little of him left now: his skin was dry and papery and close to the bone. It would tear, Ötkár thought, if touched too roughly. Papa’s eyes were morphine-hazed, unfocused, and sunk deep in their sockets.
He bowed forward and reached for his father’s hand. He leaned close, to hear the weak whisper of his father’s voice.
“You were right there…” Papa said, as if muffled in the depths of some strange dream. “By the window, where your mother always sits, and watches her magpies in the morning. She’s always so beautiful there, with her tea and her bread with honey. I was listening to you and your dear American friend…I heard him telling you about those men hanging from that tree. Such a terrible world your dear American has lived in!” The words were stronger than the voice carrying them, and it all came back: sitting with Dunn in the depths of a cellar bar, listening to a grim story and watching the movement of his hands in describing the taut lines of rope, and the motion of a knife clenched in a steady fist. He’d felt something, then; a brush, a whisper…and now—
“Papa…” He couldn’t get the rest of it out, but touch alone might almost have said all that had locked itself in the hollow of his chest.
He watched as his father closed his eyes and exhaled.
There were shadows at the door: rubberneck relatives, hovering like vultures. The men stood in stoic resolve and the women leaned into their husbands and their sons and held handkerchiefs to their eyes and to their noses. A hand came to rest on his shoulder, and he caught a whiff of Márina’s scent: body-wash, conditioner, and just a touch of perfume. She handed him a shot-glass and stooped down beside him.
“Dunn explained it,” Ötkár said. “I just wanted to get drunk and he wouldn’t shut up! I wanted to be with him, but I didn’t want to talk. It’s okay that he didn’t stop speaking. I didn’t have to say anything. I just listened. And he explained it. He told me the soul doesn’t live in the body. It’s up there, somewhere, and we’re attached to it by a long, long thread. That’s how it guides us, but when we die, the strand breaks and the soul drifts away. A theurgist knows how to catch it if there’s time. That’s what Dunn is, a theurgist; he knows the old alchemies. He can grab any broken tether and tie a knot in it. He’s only done it once, though he’s cut two or three, he says. It works that way too…you can cut a strand and let the soul float away from a living person and even an animal.” He paused and swallowed fiery peppered alcohol: more than a single shot. “He asked to come,” Ötkár felt his voice drop into the depths of a near-whisper. “I wanted him to come…and tie a knot in Papa’s thread when it broke.”
“He offered to do it? He offered to catch Papa’s broken string and tie it?”
“No. But he knew.”
Silence. A shiver. And then: “No. I couldn’t. But he wanted to be here. For us. For me. I told him go home and let me return to him later.” He closed his eyes. “He sends his heart to us.”
“He’s smart,” Márina said softly. “If your American is as nice as you say, then maybe I’d like to meet him one day.”
Ötkár nodded as she reached for his hand and pried his fingers from Papa’s cold, slack clasp. She touched the old man’s neck, and checked for a pulse in his wrist, but from the slump in her shoulders and the way in which she exhaled, he knew that Papa’s tether was broken and that his soul was far, far away now.
“They’ll need to know,” Márina said, glancing at her watch and fumbling on the night-stand for the journal she kept there: her idea, her self-assigned responsibility as Papa’s caregiver. He watched as she flipped pages: past notes and instructions in her tight, slanted script. She found a pen and inked Time of Death on the page with today’s date. “I have calls to make, to the hospital,” she rose to her feet: her face a mask of stoic bravery.
“I know,” she said, stooping down and pulling him into a clenching hug. “Comb your hair. Wash your feet, and wear your shoes when you go back out; you’re not some sentimental tourist on the Bridge of Cats. There’s all kinds of shit out there and you don’t need to step in it tonight.”
“Kiss him for me. Tell him I send my heart to him.”
And maybe Márina had explained something, or maybe they’d heard enough from their clotted gaggle at the bedroom door, but no one threw strange looks in Ötkár’s direction; Mother accepted his strained and halting words to her and kissed him on each cheek. She touched the saltwater, leaking from his gaze and let him sob—for a moment—into the warmth of her hug. Afterward, the men—cousins and uncles—steered him into the kitchen and, included him in their haphazard circle. They opened a fresh bottle of expensive škóy: not the cut-rate stuff from earlier in the night. Its brand-name glared on the label in crisp, black lettering edged in gold. There were peppercorns in the bottom, and a sprig of the plant itself.
A young, reedy voice broke the pensive hush: Ötkár’s younger cousin. “I caught my first fish with Uncle Váshenka,” he said. “Just a little carp. Such an ugly little thing. I was ashamed and wanted to throw it back, but Uncle Vashenka’s pride wouldn’t let me!” The guy was a scarecrow with Ötkár’s doe-brown eyes and dark brown hair, but a hawkish nose, bent. Vásiliy. Papa’s lanky namesake and the only one to call him Váshenka, as any child might. He raised the bottle to his lips and stole a generous gulp, then passed the bottle to his right.
“Our Vashek talked me into marrying the girl I fell in love with,” Uncle Bógamir said. “And now she’s old and fat, just like me, and sitting in the parlor.” Papa’s youngest brother: Bógamir was already drunk but steady in the way he raised the bottle, swallowed a massive gulp, and passed it to his right. He crossed himself in Catholic fashion.
One quiet declaration after another, one gulp of peppered alcohol after another, one pass of the bottle after another: until it came to Ötkár, still barefoot and still unkempt, his jaw itching with stubble and his cheeks as hot as the breath of a dragon.
“When I was younger,” he said. “Papa would take me to Šeš, and we would go at night, into the currant fields. He would teach me the stars and the planets. I was going to be a good, Soviet kosmonaut, but along the way, everything changed and I fucked up. Now I work with servers in a basement and I’m just this dumb, second-rate songwriter after work. But the sky is still there; it will always be up there—”
If there was any more to say, it didn’t come out, or it drowned in the chest-warming swallow from the bottle in his hand. A second, large gulp followed.
He handed the bottle off, to begin another circuit. He made his way from the kitchen. The whole night swirled into a murky, muddled blur, until he stood—with clean feet and clean socks, tucked into his sneakers—with the sound of Znín street, droning around him. Dunn lived in an apartment in the Hlítov district, where expatriate Americans filled the small, cheap cafes and expensive, cellar bars. He could see the lights on in Dunn’s apartment, but—as a safety precaution among Americans—there was no name on the weathered front-entrance buzzer. It didn’t matter: Ötkár knew which button to push. It didn’t take long for Dunn to answer with a buzz and the click of the lock, disengaged. Reeling from the beer he’d consumed with Dunn— and from mourner’s shots of hard, peppery alcohol—he’d missed his journey across the city, into the vestibule of Dunn’s building, and up the squared spiral of broad, marble stairs; but something shifted inside of him and his awareness came back as Dunn’s door opened before his first knock.
He kicked his shoes off on Dunn’s welcome mat, and pulled off his socks. He thought of pecans, seeing them in the color of Dunn’s hands, though a wily, elegant cat lived in the way Dunn moved. There were more than a few black guys in this part of the world, but most were Africans: Nigerians and code-wranglers and mechanics from Ghana and from Benin; there were Afro-Cubans with Spanish heavy on their tongues. Dunn was the only localized American Ötkár knew, with skin as brown as the husk of any pecan, as brown as aged oak steeped in a vague, nutmeg varnish. He moved like a dancer, like a cheetah. Ötkár never understood Dunn’s attraction to someone as pale and as blunt as himself, someone curvy in all of the wrong ways. Now, with the taste of peppery alcohol on his breath, Ötkár felt the warmth of Dunn’s hand on his shoulder. Warm fingers drew a caress along the back of his neck.
“A drink’s the last thing in the world you need right now,” Dunn said with a bittersweet smirk. “But there’s škóy if you want it…or coffee if you can stomach a cup.”
“Do you have a cigarette?”
Still at the front door, he placed his hands on Dunn’s shoulders, and leaned forward, pressing a kiss into the warmth of his lips. “Márina,” he said. “It’s from her. She sends her heart.” And leaning forward again—
“And this is from me.”
—he prodded his own sustained, deep and hungry kiss into Dunn’s mouth, accepting Dunn’s long, sensual, and arousing response. He rested in the warmth of Dunn’s embrace before feeling himself led into the depths of the apartment. On Dunn’s sofa, he smoked an expensive, American Marlboro with his legs across Dunn’s lap as Dunn traced the blunt, pale contours of his toes with a slow and gentle caress.
For a long while, neither of them spoke.
And then, when the cigarette was nothing more than a dead filter, crumpled in the ashtray:
“I will help carry his coffin,” Ötkár said.
“I know.” So much better and so much more welcome than I’m sorry.
“Will you be there? With me?”
“Of course,” Dunn said. “I’ll be there.”
“And every day after?”
A smile. “Every day. Every night,” Dunn said, shifting and stretching out. The sofa was narrow, but Dunn moved with serpentine grace, pressing himself back against the back of the couch, and pulling Ötkár against him, hugging him firmly and kissing the nape of Ötkár’s neck. “You’re pretty wasted,” he said, as the kiss ended. “So just lay here. Let me hold you for a while. We’ll go to bed once you’ve sobered up, at least a little.”
“I’m not so drunk.”
“Yes you are,” Dunn said, a quiet note in his voice telling Ötkár that he knew what it meant to take mourner’s drinks in a circle of uncles and cousins in a dingy, cramped kitchen after listening his way through a three-beer chat in a cellar bar in Old Town. He pulled Ötkár closer as Ötkár burrowed deeper into the warmth of his spooning hug, closing his eyes, and stroking Dunn’s arms with his fingertips. He rubbed Dunn’s shins with the soles of his toes and listened to silence in the apartment and the drone of distant traffic outside. A breeze wafted through the open window. He closed his eyes, losing himself in the comfort of Dunn’s embrace.