Gun Dealers’ Daughter
Uncle Gianni met the girl at Nice Airport. He held her by the hand as lightbulbs flashed. Revise that: not hand. By the sleeve. He held me by the sleeve, gently. There was something awkward about my arrival.
My stooped, discordant figure—my bandaged, gauzed lump of hands.
A cordon held curious onlookers at bay, and a film crew, Gallic and impervious, skinny, tilting men in black, strode about my cleared path. I moved along the cleared-up space of an orchestrated welcome, following the straight line of a utility rope. I stumbled. I kicked the shin of a blond gaffer on bent knee, a gofer pulling tape from the floor. “A commercial,” Uncle Gianni muttered. I shivered as a door blew open. A lightbulb blinded me. I felt someone rushing behind me—a lady walking a dog? A cripple with a parasol. My suddenly myopic eyes distinguished a lame man’s fleshy elbows, or was it a leash? Uncle Gianni tightened his grip and, almost dragging me by an armpit, moved me quickly along.
And in a cutting room somewhere, freeze-framed, on the margins of that black-clad crowd posing to sell condoms or perfume, a girl’s stricken face—my gaze—looks down, denying evidence of its arrival, gaunt-cheeked and hollow-eyed.
No questions asked, no thoughts pursued. The days in a winter town, in the south of France, were a blur of boats. Medicated recall. My bandaged hands held me back, a drugged drag. I watched the gauze on my wrists fray, a gray, wispy itch.
By the look of our lodgings, it had not been planned: the place was not worthy of Uncle Gianni. Uncovered beams, rough wood. This cramped place by the water in a narrow street overlooking a threaded sea was, I thought, pretty. But Uncle Gianni raised an eyebrow at its crude renovation. The room was whitewashed: brown timber framed the paint. Sometimes, the white walls seemed to reflect the silver sea, its glints, its undulating glare. You could see the boats from a window, cutouts in a livid blue.
Uncle Gianni ordered lunch at the square, near the carousel. I gave the man the merry-go-round ticket, a neon-colored heart, and rode the horse, a slow reverie of motion. Up the rue du Haut Castelet, a writer had pursued a novel in exile, and now it contained a memory of his name, hidden in bougainvillea. A one-eyed dog, its absurd body stunted by heedless breeding, shat on the cobbles as its patient owner watched, while the French diners drank their anise, and I wished to retch.
I watched the angled play of masts, the modest geometries of massive hulls waiting for domestic ghosts. Winter boats moored for pleasure. Wrinkled caretakers appeared amidship, smoking joints and dragging rope. I noted names and origins, boats from Guernsey and Oporto. None of the names struck my fancy, though one was a namesake: blue and sunless Sol,a gloomy sloop, dingy dinghy. Unappetizing clothes—denims, a hat, underwear—flapped, drying, on her deck.
When Uncle Gianni learned from one of the caretakers, a youngish sailor with receding hair, that I wished to know, in broken French, how my services could be of use, laundering or scrubbing, not for pay, just for board, once the yacht left the marina, Uncle Gianni took me away. First we had that scene, the drama on the jetty.
Uncle Gianni had been walking along the stones, the lank seaweeds, and there I walked beyond him. He couldn’t see; he was looking at the horizon, at the green, jutting rocks. I walked until I reached the end. And in a muddled move—I made this leap. A deep, chilling immersion.
I tried to sink in the Mediterranean, which was hard to do.
I am no Ophelia.
I’m a floater.
It was my second escape.
I had tried it in Manila. With broad, stupid knives. Big, messy gashes, a knotted misery in my wrists. Hullaballoo in the hallway. It was the maids who saved me, a stampede from the kitchen. Hard to die in a house of servants. All I have to show for my remorse, my dead feelings—this shallow well of scars.
I tried to sink.
But the calm ice waters of the Mediterranean buoyed me up, as if I were light-born. The sea kept lifting me toward the light. The chilly waves gently lofted me.
And then I froze.
I panicked. Awash in that chilly, wide, engulfing sea, I felt myself sinking. The ice-waves rolled over me, a heavy rush thrusting me underwater. My legs locked, my limbs froze. I couldn’t move.
Once more the sea rolled over me.
I wished to live.
I struggled. I gasped for air. As I did, I saw my final images: a green-veined hand, a rock in the distance, a stern, unforgettable sky. I saw two goons in starched blue Makati security guard uniforms, smiling and interrogating me, one holding a stuffed animal, “Ali Babar? Ali Babar?” Then they were holding on to my shins, dragging me down. In incoherent, sputtering flashes.
Brown-dotted seashells, like turtle’s backs. Scuttling across the floors of silent seas. An infinite array of books.
Jed holding a banner, a look in his eye that was not comfort or appeasement. A strange absent tenderness—a hand against barnacled rock.
A wave spun me. I reached for the rock. Visions rolled as I met the sky. Rain, sleet and snow, heavy, fat and diabolical. The weight of sand and rocks and that volumed, fickle water, and I sank, losing ground, losing the features of my dull face; the pull of my heavy, tenacious hair; and Manong Babe, his belly slack and his shoes shined, holding a baseball bat in my old garden, smiling at me while I drowned.
A stick figure on the stones: Uncle Gianni. A quick splash. As he swam closer, he seemed to slow to an excruciating, meditative, languorous crawl, then to a towering grin as he held me, my thrashing legs against the rock, my floating, freezing tears.
Olive groves are medicinal. That was the verdict of the new place’s founders, who lined the path to the clinic with spare, gray-green trees, a view that was not optional. Stiff white sheets in an austere room, padded with those strange, sausage French pillows, uncomfortable and almost demeaning, as if I were not some human but a creature who thrashed against a cage. There was a crucifix on the whitewashed wall. That, too, was implacable: the corners of the cross were nailed fast, in anticipation of heretical moves. Trim French nurses guarded me, mild-faced orderlies with bronzed skins. In the chapel, Baroque music played from invisible speakers, and the haunting tones of a sourceless cantata convinced me momentarily of the presence of God. He was there in the screen. I cowered miserably before it. God spoke English with an accent. I didn’t speak. I looked God wanly in the eye and didn’t blink. My sobs echoed in the chapel, and God in hiding had nothing to say.
I planted tulip bulbs in a shady part of the garden, moving timidly with other patients, all of us passive and not meeting other eyes, afraid to be caught in each other’s company, wearing our white uniforms with blue sashes. As I knelt, I tucked the skirt’s folds through my knees in a perverse, modest way: as if the skirt were fastened in my crotch, in tune with ancient convent-bred women, Lola Felma, for instance, my grandmother frozen in childhood, squatting just so, folding her skirt between her thighs, so that her underwear did not peep through.
Vague things came back as I smoothed the earth, distant, trivial things: this same white and blue outfit, worn in Manila a long time ago (the uniform of Our Lady of Lourdes); a little girl with desperate eyes and sausage curls; a refrigerator magnet I once bought in Boston. The white poster of a headless woman. An orphan and a giant peach, maybe a guava. And then I thought of a body in the dirt, a head buried like this tulip, just so.
A cry like a relapse. Turning earth. I am pounding my fist into the soil, pounding the tulip bulb into a pulp. I am drumming earth against unyielding ground.
I am carried, kicking, away. I am not allowed out of my room. Once again. I watch the other patients from the window, walking obediently, sedately amid the olive trees. It was good to handle the earth, to be outside. A good thing: it was material things that I recalled, neutral matters: the soft fist of the fetal flower that I buried in the cold ground was the damp skin of a doll I once owned, a dimply marvel with a digestive tract. The wet smell of the earth revived, strangely, the smell of a book: what was its title? I sifted through the black film of earth, patting the tender tulip in, a fuzzy top, a creature burrowing softly in the ground. Though I could recall that I had read that book first in Brussels, or maybe Boston, then continued it on a train into Amherst, or maybe Antwerp, and finished it in Manila, or maybe Maryland—I couldn’t remember the book’s title. It had smelled always, whenever I opened it, of some kind of dankness, a mixture of pulp, offal and enclosed air—the mixed smells of the smooth, black soil. Then it came to me. Evelyn, Edward, William, Waugh. A book in green binding.
Insipid, detail-filled days like this. Life was this multiplication of things, actions, trivial gestures. That had always been the case, and one is meant to accept this, the successive production of wasteful days. To seek this replication, to fertilize and shelter it. One is meant to prolong.
At the clinic, my problem was finding the right angularity of things.
The efforts I made so as not to bump against swollen objects were tiring. At first, merely moving an inch or two required supreme lucidity. The wingbacks of armchairs swelled into unnecessary flight. It took time for things to discover their integrity, turn into matters I could grasp.
Worse was my recurring, miserable dysgraphia, a slip-sliding dementia of letters, an almost untenable mental pit. I could write, if I wished, bleak, simple sentences, many of them at a time, and it became my hobby, my way of staring at things, trying to get them right. But then I would unravel like a wobbly top, a reeling, slow yo-yo: my brain was a clumsy, badly made toy.
Sometimes, I was fine, as in that morning looking at the Alpilles, when I wrote a letter to a person named Vita, though I couldn’t place her face; I told her about the hesitant, nail-shaving-like sprouts of herbs: thyme, rosemary and mint. Their smells developed before their bodies did. The nurse, on reading it, said that was because the earth remembered its old souls. “Good girl,” she said, perhaps. She spoke French without apology. Humbly, joyfully, I acknowledged her praise, without language of my own.
It was troubling that, while at times offhand words recalled subtle sensations, banal facts resisted my net. Before the moose-like overbite of the gentle doctor, I called back the layout of my rooms in Manila, a mental furbishing: the book-lined wall left of my bed, the connecting door, and somewhere a poet’s floating ghost, her kerchief dress. I put the intercom in the wrong place, by the left side with all the books; but what was on the right side of the room? The doctor waited. It was blank, a terrifying, effaced, empty portion of my brain; and it began to fill with the same old demons, the little girl with the sausage curls staring at me in despair, her guts impaled—in ludicrous, steady motions—by tridents, which my father himself held, like a serene scepter in his hand, but it was only his cigarette holder, a shining, ephemeral piece of ivory, and then, like a fast shuffle of cards, Jed, looking at me with a cigarette; together, in a haze, we soothed an inert creature, a fire ant, a spider, with a lighter made of ebony. The spider turned its face to look at me—
And then it occurred to me: Yes. The connecting door to a gym, my spoliarium. A sunroom. That had been to the right of my bed.
The doctor nodded approvingly, Bon, and snapped his notebook shut.
Excerpted from Gun Dealers’ Daughter by Gina Apostol. © 2012 by Gina Apostol. © 2010 by Anvil Publishing, Inc., and Gina Apostol. Published by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.