David Burnett is the recipient of a 2014 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for his translation of The American Stories by Johannes Urzidil. In a major rediscovery, Burnett brings us the work of Urzidil, a writer from the Prague Circle together with literary greats such as Franz Werfel, Max Brod and, of course, Franz Kafka. Urzidil’s fiction only blossomed later in life, in the United States, as a writer-in-exile. Burnett captures both the humanity and the erudite yet humble charm of these stories. Read Burnett’s essay on translating The American Stories here.

Fortune-telling may be prohibited in New York City, but Athalia Montez uses neither a crystal ball nor tea leaves or coffee grounds to read her clients’ futures, no Chaldean tarot cards either, not even the lines in their palms or their handwriting. Magic tricks are foreign to her, and she likewise isn’t concerned with the planets, active somewhere in outer space the moment her advice-seeking clients were born. She doesn’t sell love potions. Not because she’s a stickler for the rules, but because Athalia doesn’t need all the hocus-pocus of occultism. Her suggestions are as strong as muscatel wine. Even a wordless encounter, a person’s posture, one look, two or three minor movements, the way someone breathes or pulsates, betray enough to her of what’s in store for him; and when the sound and tenor of his voice are added to the equation, the picture of his fate is complete.

Her fee is only three dollars, sometimes more, sometimes less, except for policemen’s wives. For them she works free of charge. This is not a form of bribery, just an understanding of the dire and helpless dependency of these female creatures on the sudden calamities that imperil their husbands day and night. Three dollars are a mere tenth of what professional charlatans of the soul often demand for a single session, people who understand much less about human beings and their problems, about the world and what happens in it than this woman, neither too old nor too young, whose own existence has exposed her to most of life’s myriad possibilities and whose mind and soul can trace out the rest, a woman who shuts herself off from no one and in no way puts on airs, and whose door bears a sign with the modest announcement: “Athalia Montez, Advice.”

Athalia is of southern extraction, almond-eyed with big, dark pupils and genuine, long curvy eyelashes above them, two naturally slender, vigorously arched eyebrows even higher, and at the very top, above a domed forehead with a light olive tint, her darkly resplendent jet-black crown of hair. Her visage is a landscape with all of the attendant features—in a word, with thunderstorms, lustrous calm, bright morning light, hovering melancholy, and a realistic severity. She was conceived in Acapulco but saw the light of day in San Francisco, the glint of a checkered past discernible in her very first gaze. Indian, Creole, and Hispanic blood are mixed inside her. Her name is Athalia only because of its melodiousness, and not because someone at her baptism had thought of the biblical Jewish queen, whose fate and character would be dubious omens for a child indeed. The Church knew her only as Maria, yet this acquaintance was neither long-lasting nor profound. As a child they called her Lia, but later, as an adolescent, she resisted the coddling, cozy short form and, wanting to be taken seriously, insisted on being addressed with each and every syllable of her weighty name.

Athalia’s mother was soon abandoned by the father of her child who, following a series of shady but daring escapades that cost the life of a policeman among others, was given permanent residency on Alcatraz, the picturesque prison island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. He swore he’d been an unwitting accomplice, but accomplices, when a policeman is killed, are no less guilty in the eyes of the court, even if he later claimed he was framed. So it was that he lived on Alcatraz—that is to say, both close and far to mother and child: close enough to feel they were living in the same city or vicinity at least, and far enough not to further complicate the already complicated life of Athalia’s mother. Her mother, Veronica Montez, had been authorized to set up a vendor’s booth on Fisherman’s Wharf—the waterfront district and popular amusement area of San Francisco—selling seashells of all shapes and sizes, which the munificent Pacific Ocean disgorges for the benefit of the souvenir and tourist industries. No visitor to this city with some money to burn fails to eat the crabs, shrimps, lobster, and other crustaceans or fish on offer in the bars, eateries, and rip-off joints here at the world-famous “Golden Gate.” They also use the opportunity to buy colorful souvenir seashells or, for ten cents more, to glance through a mounted telescope at the grim fortress walls of Alcatraz off in the distance. With a little bit of luck, they can even make out some prisoners or guards, but this is surely a delusion. Some years after the events in this story, Alcatraz Prison was shut down entirely, robbing the telescope of its spine-chilling appeal. Veronica Montez could have peered through it, perhaps catching a glimpse of the father of her child. But the remoteness of this possibility was precisely what kept her from doing so.

Athalia grew up alongside shells, starfish, and corals, in the celebrated balmy climate of that romantic city in which all the world carries on an interminable dialogue. She ran up and down the many steep streets, hung around in Chinese neighborhoods, played with Malayan, Japanese, Armenian, Irish, Korean, and other street urchins (each of whom was American, too) under the mighty palms of the Civic Center—a better school of the human soul than attending psychology classes in college; or she carefully inspected the unending array of goods on Market Street, a permanent sample fair of everything the heart could desire. Later on, as part of a gang of boys and girls, she went on excursions to the gigantic redwood forests beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, though not primarily for botanical reasons. The rest of her upbringing was limited to a measured dose of maternal cries of despair, which every now and then, at least once a day, were accentuated by a smack on the ear. Apart from that she had to discipline herself, and this she did rather thoroughly. After school and on weekends she helped her mother hawk her varied maritime treasures. She did this of her own accord, never, however, when encouraged to do so. Whatever the case, there was no denying that more people bought from Athalia than her mother.

“How come you always know what to expect from a customer?”

“You can tell by their earlobes if someone is greedy or willing to spend.”

“And why did you shoo away the boy who wanted to buy a starfish?”

“He had thievish jaws.”

Thus, her mother and the neighboring vendor at least had something to laugh about when there was normally little reason to otherwise. Athalia could sense with certainty what to expect from people. This is something you don’t learn in big mansions or elegant apartment buildings. She disliked neighborhoods with no hanging laundry. Unknown peoples and exotic beings lived there, even though the same language was spoken.

At the age of fourteen Athalia lost what is vaguely referred to as her innocence—to a Greek sailor who, after a few brief encounters, turned to the Far East instead, and from whom nothing remained for the time being except a nameless and incidentally none too unpleasant memory, which nevertheless soon disappeared behind newly approaching emotional horizons. Fortunately she dodged a bullet in learning how not to comport herself, an experience that surely could have caused her much grief a few years down the road. She felt grateful to the sailor without suffering from his disappearance, a quite natural concomitant of his occupation. Her mother, who immediately noticed the profound change in Athalia, said nothing at first. After several weeks of anxious waiting, she could rest assured that an angry outburst would be unwarranted, not to mention too late, and that, anyway, it scarcely befit her, having fared much worse herself when she was about the same age.

The affair was far from over, though, because not long afterwards Athalia began to pester her mother with questions about her father. True, she had asked such questions many times before, but she’d always made do with the sketchiest of replies. This time her mother had trouble fending off Athalia’s stubborn “who” and “where,” and since she couldn’t bring herself to just declare the girl’s father dead, she finally came up with a one-word answer which, uttered in a tone of agony, was terrible and beautiful-sounding at once: Alcatraz. The column-like order of triple a’s, linked and concluded by a varied consonant structure, sounds like Alhambra or Granada, but is hard and unyielding like rattling iron chains, or cold as a steel safe whose combination has long since fallen into obscurity. That which is locked away inside it never comes to light again. Athalia, whose own name sounded to her like a more endearing version of “Alcatraz,” began to brood over the difficulties and drawbacks that the life of a girl, in particular, entailed. As a boy she could have pulled a capital stunt one day that would have gotten her into Alcatraz. There she would have lived with her father before eventually escaping to freedom with him, because it was certainly just a legend that Alactraz was utterly escape-proof. Athalia was very careful, however, to keep daydreams like this to herself. She didn’t even know the name of her father. Her mother, like her, was called Montez. And her mother’s mother, mentioned from time to time, was also Montez. Her father was never called by name. When her mother brought him up at all she referred to him simply as Acapulco, as if he weren’t an individual but the entire place he came from. She never complained about him.

“What’s he like?” asked Athalia.

“His life thrives on disorder, his only rule is chaos. He was born into it. What could he do about it? No man is made entirely of virtues. Not even Saint Francis and Saint Augustine were virtuous all the time. Being respectable means avoiding sin the best you can. You might not succeed all the time, and that’s bad enough. Irredeemable is the man who seeks out sin.”

Athalia occasionally heard talks like these, one just like the other. In the meantime her young life took its own course, realistic and with an eye to hard and objective facts, though not without wistful inklings of sneaky subjectivities, which she sometimes suspected were the actual controllers of events. Childhood and youth could no longer keep up with Athalia’s rapid tempo, they fell behind and never caught up again, and there were plenty of days when she felt the full weight of life bearing down upon her. These were the days when nothing out of the ordinary happened and the burden could work with all of its gravity. In the end the name Montez was all that Athalia had left of her mother, because one day she suddenly passed away, Death simply came to claim her, a woman in her mid-thirties, without the least bit of warning or any sign of illness, an inexplicable death for Doctor Gonzales, but—the way he put it—a neat and respectable one, hassle-free. Athalia, who was in her late teens when all of this happened, took it the way she took everything: with precocious composure and without revolt.

And so she was fit for the vicissitudes of life and capable of a great many occupations, which she took on over the years with unhesitant female daring: waitress, saleswoman, chambermaid, factory worker, gas-station attendant—all the while remaining true to her womanhood, whether in a black dress with a white lace cap, in gray overalls, in a colorfully printed cotton dress with a cascade of artificial flowers pinned to the front and a hand-sized paper-gold sign with the jubilant message “Thirty Years of Woolworth’s,” or in a gypsylike femininity of her own invention.

The States, to her, were a school of the world and humanity, you were always learning something, waking or sleeping, especially sleeping, and in the end it was you who taught others. The thing you learned best was how to use life to defend yourself against life. Athalia passed on her tricks to the needy. Holla! Live and spread life! Life is contagious but also life-threatening. You have to learn how to parry—with truth, sincerity, and your own opinion, if not you’ll fall flat on your face. Learning hurts. Woolworth’s gave you the sack, Athalia. You told a customer who mixed up all the sewing silks, dumped out the pin tins, put the yellow snap fasteners together with the black ones, and finally knocked over your beautiful stocking-box pyramid: “Fingers off the merchandise, you klutz!” Who is Woolworth? A mysterious power that no one has seen in real life, residing in inaccessible palaces, on luxury yachts in distant seas, or dining with the other immortal gods: Standard Oil, Coca-Cola, DuPont, General Motors, or whatever they’re called, who live up high on Mount Olympus, about which the Greek sailor once told you, Athalia, before your first embrace. “I’m a special man,” he explained to her, “I hail from Kokkinoplos, at the foot of Mount Olympus, where the gods live.” That’s all you know about him now. But you shouldn’t have said “you klutz,” because for years this particular customer had been paying a psychoanalyst a lot of money to find out why she always turned everything upside down, not only at Woolworth’s but also at the fancier stores; Woolworth’s, though, with so many odds and ends arrayed on countless tables, was the perfect place to create a royal chaos.

After her defeat at Woolworth’s, Athalia took the opposite route of the former pioneers, heading eastwards through so many cities, jobs, and job substitutes that even the most cunning academy sociologist would appear an innocent fledgling by comparison. New York, at the very end, was the sum total of all she had seen in the rest of the States, a Super-America where it was no longer necessary to live the life of a nomad. This was a place she could stay. ‘What do I have to offer?’  she asked herself one morning while putting on her stockings and reflecting on her situation. ‘What can I do for others? What do I have the most and best of? I’m skilled in a dozen professions. Should I start a thirteenth? Or should I take up an older one and bore myself into stagnation? Of course, I’m a woman on top of it all, with everything that goes along with it. But there are millions of those running around here.’

Her purse that morning contained some change and a twenty-dollar bill. The bill was from a chance acquaintance she hadn’t expected anything from. The man had taken her fancy, and the money she found after he had left was actually pretty aggravating. She took a good long look at herself, from head to toe, in the wall mirror of the shabby hotel room, and became pensive. Then she had the sentimental notion of treating the twenty-dollar bill as a keepsake, not so much as a reminder of its donor but of a period in her life she was now intent on leaving behind her. In the end, however, her realism triumphed, and she thought it more prudent to convert the symbol of an earlier era into a future one.

Brooklyn has some very quiet streets, branching right off of the noisy, congested ones. Just around the corner from the most frenzied big-city hustle and bustle you can suddenly wind up in the sleepiest backwater. In such a street Athalia rented a dwelling and killed the twenty-dollar bill as a deposit. Then she asked her way to a painter who made her a little signboard with the inscription: “Athalia Montez, Advice.”

⨳ ⨳ ⨳

By observing herself and others, she already knew that people don’t need advice to follow it, but in order to listen—first to themselves, carefully, then with half an ear cocked to the counselor—before carrying on with their lives according to their own lights. Only when they’ve failed, do they maybe prescribe to themselves the advice they picked up fleetingly and have long since forgotten, celebrating it now as their own discovery. Advice, then, was not directly doled out or sold from the counselor’s storeroom, however experienced or knowing this person may be, but merely served to dig up counsel from the inner depths of the questioner. That’s why it mainly depended on what Athalia could divine from the inner Stations of the Cross of her clients. The usual question “What should I do?” or “What’ll happen to me?” has to be referred back to the heart and soul of the questioner, and when there they’ve worked through or kneeled at all the Stations of the Cross in reverse, it normally appears, quite plainly, as the natural answer to itself. Athalia had often conducted experiments like these, as a hobby not a profession, and was astonishingly successful at it. The techniques she used were extremely varied. One of these she called the “Niagara Method.” Even before, when a lovesick girlfriend would stop by, or someone who’d committed some kind of mischief or foolishness, she would begin to spout, as if in trance, a whole string of sensible and nonsensical, of utterly contradictory observations, until one of her gushings, like a lucky bullet, would enter the gaping emotional void of the helpless individual, who then walked off exultantly, soon forgetting the torrent of other, less pertinent visions. People were different, but not as different as they themselves presumed. Their fates were also different, but likewise not as different as their owners would flatter themselves into believing. Anyway, those who seek advice from others in the first place belong to a large community of people who are bound by something fundamental. Athalia sat on this hard-earned wisdom like Pythia long ago on her tripod, and just like Pythia her head was shrouded in the magic clouds of prognostication. And if her client was even prepared—as all of them were—to offer up a chunk of his past the way he saw it, then Athalia was bound to have some success in her sibylline profession.

There was nothing artificial at all about her decision to adopt this profession, the same as with all her other occupations. Indeed, it was the very organic response of an unaffected nature, an activity practiced throughout history by women, one just as ancient as surrendering the body. Amidst an expansive America of freeways, towering skyscrapers, gigantic bridges, and monstrous dams, under a technologically perforated sky filled with roaring jets, satellites, and cosmic rockets sits Athalia, fully present in the here and now and yet no less ancient than the Cuman, Thracian, or even Delphic prophetesses whose pronouncements were once characterized by an ancient soul explorer as neither revealing nor concealing but suggestive.

What many people find menacing Athalia can regard as auspicious, and end up being right about it. Thirteen is a good number to her, whereas everyone else thinks it brings bad luck. Yet only because of the prejudices people hold does the number thirteen have a grudge against them now and then. If someone puts his trust in thirteen, he might be granted good things from it. Numbers are living beings like everything else. You don’t believe it? They’re created by God like mankind and the Commandments, and are procreated by man like his offspring. The Lord had much to count from the beginning of time, not only from one to seven. Why shouldn’t numbers be living beings like children, with good and bad, sincere and shifty dispositions? Like children they have to be reared and nurtured for the purposes of life.

Take Mrs. Goldenrod, for example. In her street she found an unaddressed envelope with thirteen two-dollar bills inside it. A two-dollar bill was bad luck enough, but thirteen of them!

“You’re in luck,” says Athalia. “Go to the police. If the loser doesn’t show up within a year, and you’re still alive, you can march right back and the money is yours. If he does come claim it, at least you can say: I’m still alive. That’s also something to be happy about. Maybe the loser is generous and will leave two or three dollars as a reward for you, or maybe he won’t, because finder’s rewards aren’t prescribed by law in a country as honest as ours. Or if you want, you can take the money to Boston. There they take two-dollar bills. In New York they’re not so welcome. Whenever a two-dollar bill turns up somewhere, there’s always a piece torn off on each corner, to ward off evil spirits. So you have to go to Boston. Of course, the trip would cost you more than the money’s worth. Wait, I have another idea. You can use the bills for racing bets. The minimum wager is two dollars.”

“I certainly won’t be going to the police,” explained Mrs. Goldenrod, “I know those fellows. They keep you there once they’ve got you.”

“Did you do something wrong?”

“Everyone’s done something wrong as far as they’re concerned, and they’re just waiting for you to fall into their clutches. Go to Boston? I’m not crazy, you know. I don’t know the least thing about horse racing. And I don’t want to keep the blasted bills either.”

“Fine,” says Athalia, “then I have no choice but to have mercy on you and relieve you of the bills. I’ll give you twenty regular dollar bills for them. That’s quite a steal for you. As for me, I couldn’t care less where the bills come from. You said you found them. All right. Hand them over.”

All the parties to the transaction profited from it. Mrs. Goldenrod was twenty, Athalia six dollars richer, and the loser had gotten rid of the baleful bills, which had proven their ominous repute by dint of their being mislaid. The whole affair, incidentally, was just one of Mrs. Goldenrod’s more minor problems. She was more preoccupied with her nephew Morris, who was going out with a girl whose affections he’d seemed to have won on a Sunday swim at Coney Island. Ever since that Sunday, small sums were perpetually missing from Mrs. Goldenrod’s cash-box, a porcelain vase in the form of a spurred boot. The spur, of course, was broken off, but the vase had sentimental value, Mrs. Goldenrod’s grandfather having brought it home as a trophy from the South at the end of the Civil War. Its sentimental value was apparently so strong that the money she kept inside it in some way became sacred too. Her nephew Morris, however, felt entitled to dip into the boot now and then. Because didn’t his aunt tell everyone: “He’s an orphan, and I’m the one who brought him up, he’s attached to me like I was his mother.” Well, a mother wouldn’t deny her child anything, would she.

Mrs. Goldenrod, having carefully placed the twentydollar bills in the porcelain boot, was missing the money the following Saturday. ‘Easy come, easy go,’ she tried to console herself, but of course she wasn’t satisfied. She put two and two together and came to the conclusion that only Parthenia could be to blame, the girl Morris was going out with, fake blond, poodle curls, and bronze finger nails, daughter of a longshoreman who named her after a ship, because once, when loading it, he’d managed to filch a crate with a dozen bottles of gin. The next two weeks he spent in a permanent state of intoxication, with the help of a certain hussy. The consequence of this state of intoxication later received the name Parthenia. Indeed, the marvels never cease if you consider which twists of fate people owe their lives and names to.

Mrs. Goldenrod, who always insisted on absolute honesty whenever it came to money, rushes to Athalia the following Sunday. “Morris is a good boy,” she says. “It’s obvious the girl put him under a spell.”

“You have to look at it from two angles,” answered Athalia. “Of course some women are witches. But some men are devils and make witches out of women. So it goes. You say this Parthenia has cast a spell on Morris. What does she do? What does he do? She wants to go to the movies, dance in a club, ride in a car, eat lobster, buy clothing and perfume, etc. That’s what they all want. And he wants to be the one to fulfill her wishes. If she didn’t have any, he would dump her in a minute. She wraps herself up in wishes, that’s why he finds her so bewitching. Imagine a girl without wishes. She’d smell like mashed potatoes and carrots. You expect him to go out with a girl like that?”

“No. But that’s no reason for him to steal.”

“Wrong. What else can he do? Wait till he’s earned enough at the soda fountain? How? From his tips for serving icecream in thirty-five different colors and combinations that tantalize him with all those nuts on top, sliced banana, raspberry syrup, whipped cream, and chocolate sauce? Who wouldn’t have indecent thoughts? If he don’t grab the girl while he can, she’ll vanish like quicksilver to greener pastures.”

“So I should let it slide?”

“Confront him and he’ll either lie and deny everything, or he’ll be contrite and end up stealing somewhere else.”

“Heaven forbid! I think you should talk to him,” proposes Mrs. Goldenrod.

“Me? There’s no relying on me. He might end up stealing twice as much.”

Mrs. Goldenrod sends Morris to Athalia anyway. The boy can’t be older than twenty. He looks quite handsome. ‘He has no idea that he doesn’t need to steal to get a girl,’ she thinks, instinctively pressing her shoulder blades together. She’s powerful and far from passé.

He regards her for a while then says: “What do you want? Are you a witch?”

“Maybe,” she says, smiling, “but you’re a devil.”

“No one’s told me that before.”

“How many have you asked?”

He doesn’t say a word but looks at her in such a way that she says: “Watch out! I could be your mother, you know.”

“What of it,” he says.

They then continue to speak without words. Athalia is proud of her strength. ‘That was fast,’ she thinks. She’s thirty-five. “Don’t come back,” she calls out after him. “Come back,” he understands.

The next time he brings a present. She doesn’t even unpack it. “Take it back to where you took it.”

“You don’t even know what it is.”

“Doesn’t matter,” she orders, “take it back.”

“Right now?”

“This instant. I don’t take gifts from anyone. I give them.”

“There’s nothing you want or need?”

She laughs sublimely, her whole body laughs. “Just wait and see what I want. You’ll be surprised.”

He trots back to the soda fountain. It’s his night off. “What’s wrong?” his aging boss asks him.

“Oh, I just thought you shouldn’t be working so late. I wanted to take a load off your shoulders.” While old Sam Liebowitz heads to his apartment behind the store, Morris slips the stolen candy box back into the storeroom. He does so with his head held high, as if it were a gift to his employer. Liebowitz turns around in the doorway and shouts into the storeroom: “You’re a good boy, Morris. I’m giving you a raise, starting next Friday.”

“You see how decency pays,” laughs Athalia, kisses the young man and presses him close, thinking: ‘I’ll have to teach him some common sense.’ Women always have something on their minds when they embrace a younger man, and there’s something exquisite about it.

“It wouldn’t have been a tragedy,” he says, half asleep.

“What do you take me for?” she asks, offended. “Don’t come to me with your shenanigans.”

⨳ ⨳ ⨳

Sam Liebowitz was over seventy. He had a wife, Deborah, who was almost the same age. Both of them had shaky hands. They could have retired long ago, lived off their savings. But they didn’t want to part from their store. The store—a combination drugstore, ice-cream parlor, newsstand, and bookstore—was their world, and a world unto itself. Adolescents of every stripe slurped their sodas, shoveled down icecream or sherbet, and bragged about their escapades; young mothers aware of nothing but themselves pushed their strollers like tanks into the narrow store, chewing almond-chocolate bars and smoking cigarettes into the bargain, all the while strutting their once again swollen bellies over tight-fitting colorful pants, a shameless vindication of their nights. The men came starting at seven in the morning, to pick up their papers on the way to work. Traveling salesmen stopped to ply their wares: ever new pens, notebooks, cowboy costumes for children, water pistols, hair nets, and the latest paperbacks, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, The Life of Eisenhower, Lolita, The Rothschilds, the Birds of North America. The store was full of people and goods. Sam and Deborah Liebowitz did their bookkeeping by memory, however patchy, and balanced it once a week with the suppliers’ invoices, piled up in a big box, and the cash-register receipts. Sometimes there was too little money, sometimes too much, but they never lost track of bigger sums, and, anyway, there was always a profit margin. They didn’t even notice that Morris stole from them, cheating at the decrepit cash register or simply pilfering goods, when he began to date Parthenia. It was also Morris who took stock every now and then, presenting in black and white, and much to the old couple’s satisfaction, how everything added up. But Morris had other things on his mind now, not Parthenia’s big dumb cow eyes and her baby smell. The faint scent of patchouli lingered in his nostrils, and while passing a Coca-Cola over the counter his daydream caressed two powerful shoulders, which she drew back when he approached, offering him what was priceless.

“Your Aunt Goldenrod knows a woman who gives advice, doesn’t she?” asked Mrs. Liebowitz one day. “You could take us there some Monday afternoon.” The store was closed on Monday afternoons but stayed open till evening on Sundays. Morris felt kind of awkward setting up such a meeting, but it couldn’t be helped, and, after all, he thought he’d be doing Athalia a favor. She needed customers. And so he made arrangements. He would have preferred to sit in on the session. But that was out of the question. He didn’t even actually know how Athalia practiced her profession. Why should he need to know? He didn’t know much about her at all. He was overwhelmed by what she gave. Other than that she was sparing like an Indian in revealing things about herself, chatty like a Creole in her use of body language, yet proud as a Spanish señora.

Sam and Deborah now sit at Athalia’s. Athalia doesn’t ask about age, marital status, or children. What kind of a counselor would she be if she couldn’t pick up almost seismographically the subtle differences in people’s behavior? She works with all of her senses. She smells happiness, unhappiness, and the shades in between. Her own experiences and occupations, her migrations and transformations might help her with smaller problems sometimes. Big problems, though, require more leverage, she has to forget herself, even disengage herself from thinking, let the aura of her questioners sink in, harmonize her pulse with theirs. Sometimes she almost falls into a swoon, but from this swoon arise her most reliable pronouncements. Fastening her business sign to the door, she’d thought she would merely be selling experience. But before too long she felt beyond the bounds of mere knowledge, suddenly found herself in deeper realms, confronted with the hidden prime motive of some behavior or condition which couldn’t be put into words. The magic substance of the fates that approached her caused this to happen within her. Her craft consisted of forcing into words the image of the prime motive or, failing that, to create a word for it, if not a language. Because language has too few words for the soul, and it sometimes happens that Athalia falls into an incomprehensible murmur or moaning before what she says is intelligible again.

“Why do you come to me when you could be my parents?” Athalia is shocked by the question she asks, as if a snake has slipped from her mouth. Ever since childhood, parents were a fond and fearful dream of hers. Her mother was dead and gone. The smell of the room she died in still lingers in her nostrils. She was there when they lowered her into the earth. Since then her dream has been fractured. Parents, something most people want to be their cushy refuge, are dreadful if only a vague idea.

“That’s why,” say Sam and Deborah in unison, “because we’re old ourselves.”

“Then let your question work in me.”

“We haven’t asked one yet.”

“Don’t even ask it.” Athalia stares into space for a while. She stares through time. It’s as if her smooth, firm face would transform into wrinkly bark. The two old people become frightened. Like everyone of their kind—and their kind numbers into the hundreds, even thousands of millions—they’re used to the fact that reality never stands naked, that it’s always disguised or veiled; the wrapping determines their outer and inner worldview. Being, even one’s own innermost being, is only bearable when hidden.

“I know what it is,” they hear from a mouth turned ancient, “you’ve perceived the signs. For example, you suddenly gaze into unfathomable expanses. You’ve anticipated ships before they appear on the horizon. A sweet food suddenly tastes bitter for one second. It wasn’t a second, it was a lifetime. It always seemed sweet, since the days of old, a sweet and mild Indian pudding, but now you realize it’s bitter. Don’t you feel that smooth glass is suddenly rough like sandpaper and that smoothness doesn’t exist, never existed even, that it was all a sleight-of-hand? But that’s the least of it. You’re thinking about what will be left behind, the mirror that sometimes hangs crooked, but not for you anymore, it no longer demands that you straighten it. The philodendron that rolls up a leaf, but your eye is not there to see it. And that which unfolds before your eyes is like a recollection of long, long ago. Those are the signs.”

“Yes, that’s why we came,” say the two of them, again with one voice, with one loneliness only deepened by the store and its many things, the patrons, the teenagers, the mothers, the babies, and the men, as well as by the mutual transparency and simultaneity of their every thought, so that secrets can no longer exist between them. “Today is also our golden anniversary.”

“That’s why you came to me?”

“Yes, because neither of us wants to leave the other behind, neither of us wants to betray the other.” Again it is spoken in unison. “We sustain one another.”

“You float on air.”

“Yes, but not forever. Because like you said, the signs have appeared. One of us will suddenly no longer float. The earth will demand it. What will become of the other then? Each of us wants the other not to feel betrayed. Each of us wants to bear the burden of pain and abandonment for the other. There’s something terrible inside us, isn’t there.”

“You’re asking me? Why don’t you go to your spiritual advisor?”

“We just came from him. He said what we knew he would say. That’s why we asked about coming to you first. He talked about humble devotion to God, about quiet acceptance of what the Almighty sends us. Then he said: whoever survives need not despair, not if he lives in the spirit of God. That’s why each of us can die in good hope and abandon the other to life.”

“Well then?”

“Each of us still wants to survive the other, not because of a craving for life but to bear the other’s burden.”

“Why do you think about this now? You might have many more years together. The signs often come well in advance. They love to live alongside us sometimes, to stubbornly mingle with our comings and goings, our language and our senses, without the least bit of spitefulness, out of love for us, so to say.”

“You use the word ‘might,’ which means both yes and no. Isn’t it written: set thy house in order?”

“I know. But why are you trying to insure yourself by scheming against the simple course of nature? Why not invest in the usual security against loneliness later in life, the one most people like to think they have?”

“It wasn’t our lot,” the two of them say, for the first time their voices trembling at a different pitch.

“Or it wasn’t your punishment. Give me your hands.”

She studies the lines of their hands intently, but not because she thinks she can read them. In each of her hands she holds one of theirs, flat like leaves, with veins reflecting the tree’s many branches. She lifts both hands to her face and covers up her eyes with them, and Sam and Deborah feel her weep, their hands are bathed in her streaming tears. And through their tearstained hands she sobs: “Your fear is evil and vile. Those who love each other are never forsaken, not even by Death. For that their love would have to end. Where there’s love there is no loneliness. You came to me for the simple reason that you don’t know if your love is sufficient. It’s not a good sign for the two of you if each of you fears the other will be abandoned.”

Athalia removes the old people’s hands from her eyes and stops sobbing. Her face relaxes and she comes to again. She unties the scarf around her neck, dries the tears off their hands, and gives them back with lofty grandeur as if they were a great and wholly unexpected gift. The two of them stand up in silence, and Deborah places three two-dollar bills with the corners torn off on the table.

“Where did you get those?” asks Athalia.

“I’ve got more where that came from,” Deborah answers, “but have lost quite a few of them.”

“I haven’t actually given you any advice yet,” says Athalia, adding: “Find yourself a son.”

“Sam isn’t Abraham,” the old woman answers, “but I can’t help laughing anyway.”

“I told you: find him,” and Athalia shows the two of them out.

⨳ ⨳ ⨳

Morris now works more than eight hours in the store. Soon he’s working twelve or more. He doesn’t even keep track. Mr. Liebowitz has given him a share in the profits and business is booming. One day Parthenia stops in, swaying her hips, with a painted face and cobalt-blue eyelids. “What can I get you, miss?” asks Morris. Parthenia spits and toddles off, leaving behind an overpowering lily-of-the-valley fragrance that Morris had swiped for her once from Mr. Liebowitz’s store. ‘It makes no difference if you steal or not, there’s always someone spitting at you,’ thinks Morris.

After closing he usually goes to Athalia. It’s become his habit to do so. He tells her about the marvels of the stainless-steel counter he invested in, the magnificent soda-water fountains, the ice-cream tubs made of polished steel, the glazed showcases, the six rotating display racks with paperbacks, about people from inside and out, about everything in the whole wide world and all the creatures under the sun from Mars to the center of the Earth. The woman he’s lying next to is sometimes overlooked in the midst of his storytelling. Athalia smiles at the enterprising young businessman who spends his Sundays with his boss. His aunt, Mrs. Goldenrod, is angry with her. She says Athalia has estranged her nephew from her. She tells everyone Athalia’s a witch, and even worse than that. She’s leading her innocent young nephew astray. Why has Mrs. Goldenrod become so full of hatred? Athalia connects the dots. Morris has big ideas; he doesn’t steal small change anymore, neither from the till nor from his aunt’s boot-shaped vase; he no longer dallies around with a cheap-smelling peroxide blonde anymore; he’s moved up to Sunday canasta at the Liebowitz’s; and even in Athalia’s bed all he talks about anymore is money, the kind of “easy money” to be had, compared to the money you have to break your back for, and how he’s making the best connections. Athalia senses that his mind is never far from these things, even in moments when thought should abandon us.

“The following occurred to me,” he says, while raising a glass of gin to his mouth: “If Judas had invested his thirty pieces of silver at a mere four percent interest, today it would be worth a million times more than all the money in the world.”

“And who’s to say he didn’t?” says Athalia. “Maybe there’s nothing but blood money left.”

“That’s a good one,” Morris laughs. He doesn’t notice how gravely she eyes him. He calculates when the Liebowitz store will finally be his own. “The old folks may be doddery, but they could be around for a while still,” he notes, “they’ve even perked up lately. They even bought a TV set, and they no longer talk about progress as if it were a four-letter word. Something’s happened to them. Suddenly nothing is modern enough for them.”

“Yes, something must have happened to them,” says Athalia, who lights a cigarette and begins to sing her favorite tune: “California, Here I Come.”

No matter how early Morris gets to the store, the two of them are already there, beaming at him contentedly. They even got flu shots, and the doctor said they were fine specimens of an enviable age. He’d give them another thirty years. That was surely stretching it, but even five, no, even one or two years, seemed intolerably long, an infinity to Morris. “Morris boy,” they’d told him the Sunday before at canasta, “when the time comes, everything will belong to you.” When will the time come? I’m not getting any younger, you know, I’m almost twenty-two already. It’s normal to want to know where you stand.

In the daytime Athalia saw nothing but women, all of whom seemed to ask the same questions. Faithfulness, unfaithfulness, futures, lovers, children, inheritances from distant and elderly relations, sickness and death. What else was there? All of them hoped for extraneous relief while in reality keeping their innermost fortress firmly beleaguered. What’s the use in saying: “Be careful! Love is no less fragile than a porcelain vase. The irretrievable is always inconceivable. Don’t cry like a child and claim you’re being wronged. What happened is typical of a love affair, or even real love, so why not in a marriage? Your husband gets home late from work and has no appetite? You’re probably a stingy cook, feeding him leftovers and scraps, a jumbled hash of phony baloney. The world can go to rack and ruin this way, and you think you can get away with it?” One can tell them all of these things—by the time it sinks in, it’s always too late.

Nothing but women. Seldom did a man appear, and then it was the women who needed defending. “Don’t argue with her, because her real concern is something completely different from what she’s talking about. A single nasty word can cancel a hundred good deeds. How come? Because the nasty word comes from a deeper, more authentic part of the soul than everything you do. You’re irritated by something that was probably intended to please you. Come on, stop spying on her. Doesn’t she have the right to at least one secret, and don’t you have any? You say that everything you do goes wrong. First of all, it’s probably not everything but just a few things. Just think about it. Mr. Sackville, the upholsterer around the corner, is all thumbs and manages to get through life just fine. Why’s that? It’s Mr. Sackville, that’s why. He takes things as they come, but always remains Mr. Sackville. Oddly enough he keeps getting orders, and even has regular customers. You’d think they’d be dissatisfied by now. Far from it. They keep going back to him. How can I explain it to you? There is no explaining it, honey, except for the fact that sometimes things happen for no apparently useful purpose.”

She poured suggestions on her advice-seekers as if from a tilted barrel, and so her day would go by. Sometimes as many as five or six clients would come and sit there for up to an hour and a half, intent on getting their three dollars’ worth, would drink Athalia’s coffee on top of it, and some didn’t even pay. “Fine, you don’t have to pay right now, but if suddenly you have an urgent question, you won’t dare come back. Now, is that being wise?” But despite her many unpaying customers, Athalia still made a decent living. What did she need to get by, after all? Her inner livelihood was another matter. Her constant desire to experience through her profession the rich and inexhaustible variety of life failed to materialize. The yearnings and disappointments, happiness and unhappiness of most clients were utterly predictable. If her own existence and destiny hadn’t been completely different, she’d have nearly become a machine by now, a computer, which is fed with certain information and, after all kinds of buttonpressing, switchpulling, rattle, and clatter, spits out a card with stereotyped data, not unlike the scales in subway stations, which for five cents not only tell you your weight but also predict the future. Which is not as silly as it seems, either, because the majority of these predictions are true, the majority being stereotypes. Athalia wasn’t a computer, that’s why you went to her.

Morris shows up late in the evening. She’s proud of him, because she thinks she’s steered him back on track, away from the questionable path he was on. And he gives her enough to worry about. But things might turn out all right. She needs him for both of these reasons, but also because he’s still young and strong. And although their physical union almost always follows an established law, for Athalia at least, if only for seconds, it still contains a hint of that initial ferment she desires with increasing intensity, whereas Morris is happy just to have her when he pleases, effortlessly, hazard-free and—not to be underestimated—free of cost. How should this clever woman not sense it? And how should this passionate woman not nonetheless choose to ignore it? What of it! It’ll last as long as it lasts! She’s much too experienced to take any risks with a partner his age in the long run.

⨳ ⨳ ⨳

For young people, death of any kind—even a so-called natural one—is an act of violence, a cruelty nature commits against itself. For old people, on the other hand, it is only unusual if violence makes it premature. Thanks to Athalia, Sam and Deborah had all but forgotten their scruples about who would survive the other and thereby be guilty of betrayal. But even if it had continued to plague them, their problem would have been resolved in an altogether different way. For Sam and Deborah lay dead in their beds, in the room behind their store. Death did not descend on them, gently and irresistibly, the way it should in their ripe old age; it didn’t attract them like a magnet, reining in those things that by their nature belong to it and which therefore yearn with increasing intensity to be united with it. There they lie, half in their beds, but in their blood as well, which has seeped into the pillows and mattresses, forming little pools underneath the bedframes. You would hardly believe that such old people could still have so much blood in them. They lie halfway in their beds, evidently having tried to fend off the fatal blows and stabs, legs still under the covers, torsos hanging over the edge. Everyone should know the details, and the papers should be entitled to show it. Because how else can society protect itself from such heinous crimes?

Morris was the last to see the two of them alive that night, and the first to discover them early in the morning. They interrogate him with reserve and suspicion. He says he left the elderly couple at around ten o’clock, then he went to see Miss Montez.

“Pretty late for a visit,” notes the police officer dryly, “and when did you leave Miss Montez?”

“I guess around midnight.”

“And where did you go then?”

“Home, obviously.”

“Nothing is obvious in a case like this, not a single detail, please. You were saying, then, you went home. Straight home?”

“Yes. Why would I go a different way?”

“We don’t know, for the time being. Do you have any witnesses that you went straight home?”

“Witnesses? After midnight, here in Brooklyn, in our neighborhood? I would’ve had to arrange them.”

“A shame you didn’t. It would have been a good thing,” says the inspector sarcastically. “The coroner determined that Mr. and Mrs. Liebowitz died between twelve and three in the morning. Your fingerprints, Morris, are all over the room, on almost every object, on the doorknob, the window panes, on the box opener, the hammer, and the kitchen knife.”

“Obviously. I’m upstairs all the time, I open boxes, I make sandwiches, I do all kinds of odd jobs for them, in their apartment, too,” says a frightened Morris in his defense. “I’m like a son, a child to them.”

“And you’re also the heir, we’ve learned. It would really be to your advantage if you could prove where you were between twelve and three.”

Morris isn’t able to. He moved out of his aunt’s not long ago and now rents a room in a modern building, without a doorman and with an automatic elevator; only by chance do you meet someone when entering or exiting the building, especially at nighttime. This chance encounter didn’t happen. “Why don’t you ask how many of New York’s eight million people can prove where they were between twelve and three in the morning,” he said.

“A nice suggestion,” the inspector answered. “We’re just getting started with you, Mr. Goldenrod, and let me tell you, you’re in one heck of a shemozzle.”

Morris knows he’s right. The heir is a real schlimazl, he really has “rotten luck,” as the Yiddish expression so aptly puts it. Athalia, who is questioned shortly afterwards, confirms his nocturnal visit, but it doesn’t do him much good. The times she gives are different than his. She says he left her place at about eleven thirty.

“What did the two of you talk about?”

“We didn’t talk at all.”

“And how did Mr. Morris look?”

“I don’t know. There was hardly any light.”

“Are you sure it was even him?”

“I won’t stand for that,” says Athalia. “Mr. Morris is an intimate friend of mine.” She doesn’t hesitate to say so, because she knows it’s no news for the inspector anyway.

“Very interesting,” he says. “You spent an hour and a half with Morris and didn’t even talk to him.”

“That may be interesting to you,” answers Athalia, sizing up the inspector—a man getting on in years—sympathetically. “I probably would have talked to you. I spend all day talking. Your wife knows how much I talk. In the evening I’m tired of talking. Sometimes you talk, sometimes you don’t.”

Morris really is the heir. But where is he, and where’s the inheritance? When, if ever, will he be able to take possession of it? He’s losing his nerves. They didn’t take him into custody, didn’t bring any charges against him, but they’re bound to do so. There’s no incriminating evidence yet. But he did have a motive. And a dozen weighty details can surely be found to back it up. The police can be very creative when they want to be. Anyone who’s had a brush with the law is better off running away from it. Is it a good idea? Maybe not. But most people try it anyway.

Not even he knows how he slipped through their fingers. If he knew, he probably would have failed. They were surely having him shadowed. But shadowcasters are people too. They sometimes succumb to their urges. They have an immortal soul. The more immortal the soul, the less it pays attention to details. Effugit, evadit, erupit! He escaped, he fled, he up and left. The shadowcaster studied Latin. “He thinks too much,” the inspector says, “people like him are a hazard to the police.” A hunt begins, the authorities in ten different states are alerted. They should be able to nab him in no time, especially considering that he’s not a trained criminal and doesn’t know the rules of the game. But that’s what amateurs think, it’s the kind of logic that lulls bourgeois newspaper readers into a false sense of security. For the methods of crafty criminals are wellknown to the police, whereas the sudden inspirations of a fugitive making his debut performance are incalculable in number and kind.

Morris looks like millions of young American males. The same face, the same manners, the same behaviors and habits. A pity he doesn’t look like Gandhi or Albert Schweitzer. Because how are you supposed to track him down in the endless United States, where there’s no compulsory police registration and the big cities are akin to anthills, teeming with identical characters? Granted, if he’s innocent, then fleeing’s the stupidest thing he could do, because in the long run he’s fleeing from his inheritance. Morris curses his fate. What was the point of becoming respectable? What had he really been working for, why did he invest so much in the store, sparkling soda-water fountains, a new doorway made of the finest Vermont marble, a veritable St. Patrick’s Cathedral. What for? True, the old folks were too slow for him, had rejuvenated even, and bloomed like roses, had made him sick with their “Morris darling this” and “Morris darling that,” a sickening syrup and Sunday terror with canasta. And it did often cross his mind that they could stop taking their good old time. He’d imagined how nice it would be to come to the store one morning and not have to deal with the two of them anymore. That was almost half a murder, but only in his mind. And anything that happens in your mind you don’t really need to take too seriously.

Parthenia spat at him. True! But Athalia, who had only run into him once after the incident, in the hallway of the police station, had kept her gaze fixed to the floor. He knew she wasn’t looking away from him but was looking away from herself. If, for Parthenia’s sake, he’d continued to raid the cash register, the storeroom, and his aunt’s porcelain boot, he would have had a peaceful life, the way it should be. One shouldn’t try to save people. It’s an infringement of their vested privileges. Everyone has the right to ruin himself any way he chooses, on an upward or a downward path. Such thoughts have hounded Morris through half a dozen big cities. He naturally avoids smaller towns. Now he’s in San Francisco, working as a temp at all kinds of places. The more kaleidoscopic, the safer. In Berkeley you tell them you come from Oakland, in Oakland you say you come from Frisco, in Frisco you’re from Berkeley. You also learn a lot, but who’s really even interested? Mind your own business, that’s all that counts. Then one night in Sausalito he found a man on the verge of drowning and pulled him out of the bay with a plank. Big mistake! In return the guy whacked him on the head with the plank, so hard that Morris conked out. When he came to later his money was gone, everything he owned. Of course he had to be careful not to breathe a word about it. All he needed was another brush with the law. Big mistake! One shouldn’t try to save people, at least if they’re strangers.

The last thing he wanted right now was a medal for saving someone’s life. Mind your own business! The next morning he read in the paper about three prisoners who escaped from Alcatraz. Well what do you know, it suddenly turns out that the famous island fortress is not as secure as it used to be, the walls are crumbling and full of cracks, the bars are rusted through, the locks outdated, the electronic alarm system unreliable, and the guards shortsighted. The three jail breakers apparently swam around in the bay, and the papers took comfort in the fact that they couldn’t have escaped the Coast Guard boats, if the sharks didn’t get them first, that is. You could certainly count on one of the two. Sharks, no doubt, are usually more reliable than motorboats. But it’s conceivable that the sharks were busy somewhere else, or maybe they just didn’t feel like acting as emergency harbor police for the State of California. No one, of course, had even considered such a serious breach of duty. Morris kept his mouth shut and took a new job, this time as a busboy at a shrimp bar on Fisherman’s Wharf, with an adjacent souvenir stand full of starfish, conch and scallop shells, Japanese back-scratchers, and little model boats made of plastic, emblazoned with the words “Greetings from the Golden Gate.”

Three thousand miles to the east, Athalia struggles through primeval forests, jungles, and quagmires of reproach and self-accusation. The metropolis, this technological wonder with a grid of parallel streets and avenues, glass, steel, cement, traffic rules, and crosswalk lights, is at the same time a wilderness of fear and desperation, a wild hunting ground for black panthers of the conscience. One shouldn’t try to save people. She resumes her business perfunctorily, like someone who is only still sure of one thing: futility.

“It’s you who ruined him,” bickers Mrs. Goldenrod.

“Nothing’s been proven, and he didn’t do it,” protests Athalia.

“You’re to blame for the way he is.”

“And who brought him to see me?”

“Not with that in mind.”

Mrs. Goldenrod just wants to bitch and bicker. That’s all she’s wanted her whole life long. Athalia holds her ears shut. One shouldn’t try to guide people. People are trapped in their freedom; it’s their most cherished right to be as idiotic as they please. You, Athalia, asserted your mature and experienced body against the stupid flesh of Parthenia; how could you think you would win in the long run? Your own desire defeated you, your loneliness defeated you, the relentless march of time defeated you.

“Fine, Mrs. Goldenrod. If he’s guilty then I am too. If he’s innocent, then I’m still guilty. But you wouldn’t understand that.”

Awareness of guilt is a sign of God’s proximity. Athalia had tried to live without Him. He was there for the children. Didn’t He say so Himself? But who is ever grown-up entirely? You think you are for a while. Then, after the seventh heartbreak, suddenly He’s there, like the fortissimo in the grand finale of an opera, or shouting with a vengeance like Poseidon over the walls of Troy, or booming like the drumbeat of spring on the Sun Stone of Stonehenge. Athalia isn’t familiar with opera, she knows nothing of Greek gods or Druid stones, whether they like it or not. A profound heart has all the wisdom and folly of human history amassed inside it, and the man who approaches her in her greatest hour is one who bears no comparison.

His clothing is indistinct, his head is bald, his fingers are restless, his gaze wanders. How old has he become? What age might he eventually reach? He stares at her in silence and waits. What is he being silent about? What is he waiting for?

“What do you wanna know?” she asks.

“What do you wanna know,” he answers.

“The thing that you wanna know. It might be useful to me.”

“I was just passing by,” he says, “and I saw your name.”

God, Athalia is startled, comes in every imaginable guise. I wasn’t able to love. How could I have ever loved? I had no father. The love you have inside you is only possible through father and mother. Shrewdness, wisdom, success, and gratification, all this can be achieved on your own, but love is only possible with father and mother in one, inside you. Love is uprooted if one of them has vanished.

“I saw your name,” he says once more, “and remembered something.”

He sits down across from Athalia, at the table in the middle of the room. “I remembered something. Please say yes,” he mumbled now.

She examined his face, and behind him in the mirror her own. “I knew you’d be one of the three that got out. I was afraid you wouldn’t make it.”

“I don’t know how I made it here. I thought I was running in circles, like down in the courtyard. No matter how straight I ran, I was always running in circles.”

“Aren’t you hungry?” she asked.

“Hungry, sure. But I’m in a hurry. I have a long walk back, through many states.”


“That’s right, back. And I have to watch out they don’t bust me along the way.”

She lays the table and they eat in silence. He turns to go without even touching her. Before he goes he says offhandedly: “Do me a favor. I’ve got a wad of funny money. Give me some other money for it.”

She goes to her drawer and gives him what she has.

“Everyone is hunted,” he adds, “guilty or innocent. I even stuck it to a guy who pulled me out of the water.”

“The ones who save us are the first to betray us,” remarks Athalia.

“I see you’ve become a clever woman,” he says.

“Clever, maybe. But it hasn’t helped me.”

“Nothing helps,” he says, “the guy who pulled me out of the water helped me, but I couldn’t help him.”

With that he left, closing the door with the sign reading “Athalia Montez, Advice.” He took just a couple of steps. The police had been watching the building for weeks; they let him in, but nabbed him on the way out.

⨳ ⨳ ⨳

“You knew the man?” asks the District Attorney later.

“No, I didn’t know him,” says Athalia, “I never saw or spoke to him before.”

“I believe you. My question was just a formality. We know, of course, who the man was and where he came from, and that you couldn’t possibly have met him before.”

“I seem to have met him before. But I never saw him.”

“Would you mind explaining that a little more clearly?”

“Sure. A heron gets caught in an airplane turbine, its mangled body causes a malfunction. Sixty passengers perish. Who’s guilty? The heron or the airplane?”

“You’re delirious.”

“I might add,” interjects the lawyer, “that it’s in Miss Montez’s nature to answer suggestively rather than directly!”

“That’s contempt of court! All that concerns us here is a simple yes or no.”

“Of course,” says Athalia, “in the easy cases. But both are true when life gets tough.”


This translation is available for publication.

This piece is part of PEN’s 2014 translation series, which features essays and excerpts from the recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.