from Three Horses

I'm at Laila's door again with a bottle under my arm and a thought which I blurt out at the entrance. I tell her immediately that it's the end of February, and the apricot tree is already starting to bloom. The cold will dry its sap, and it won't give fruit.

As a joke, she asks whether the garden's owner will mind having no apricots. "No," I say, "but I can't stand my powerlessness to restrain the tree. I'm a gardener, and I don't know how to keep it from rushing into bloom when it's still winter. And then I feel responsible for the garden."

"You'd think you were Adam," she says, and closes the door.

I give her the bottle; she returns it with a corkscrew, and goes to the stove to stir the sauce. A narrow back, backbone curved like a whip, arms and shoulders sprouting from the trunk. "What a beautiful tree you are," I say, holding her between myself and the flame.

"You see branches everywhere," she says, but doesn't shake me off. "Are you falling in love, gardener?"

"No, I'm just going crazy."

"What's it like?"

"Nice."

The sauce and a handful of oregano summons the summer already. I hold a pinch and sniff it to notify my senses. Laila lands a cheerful kiss on my lips, with a quick smack. She's wearing an almond essence on her clothes.

With my nails, I mince a tiny red spice, sprinkle it over the plate, and ask whether she minds our age difference. "On the contrary, we're not far enough apart," she says. "You bring out the child in me, when I used to hug grown-ups just for the joy of squeezing."

"What about you?" she asks.

"I see the pain of miserly love in young people," I say. "You don't have that kind of melancholy in your face. But I'm careful not to step on your feet when I speak with you. It's not like dancing. It's like a stone walkway with a little grass growing through the cracks. It's strong, but I still try to tread carefully and not ruin it. At Muslim houses, you leave your shoes outside. That is how I behave with you."

We eat slowly, in silence.

Facing a plate of food, my gestures slow down. Laila keeps time, and I see her adagio become intense with grace. My desire to touch her solidifies.

Then I hear her voice breaking up, like the sounds on the threshold of sleep. I hear her asking me something, and my answering from somewhere inside. There's another part, where I am, that listens to my voice go off on its own.

I start with music, then sentences come to me from a distance, and I don't know how to do anything to stop them.

They're killing all of us, we members of the rebellion.

We race from one hiding place to another.

We're wearing the stench of fear on our backs. The dogs can smell it on the street, and chase after us.

In escape, we seek our revenge.

Argentina tears a whole generation from the world like a madwoman pulling at her hair. It kills its children, wants to be done with them. We're the last.

I've been here for years to love a woman, and now I'm caught up in a war.

At one roadblock, shots ring out. They stop us. We're armed. There are two of us. My partner wounds a policeman, and immediately, gunfire flies through his throat and he dies at my feet.

His face is torn open by a bullet. His face gives me energy. I smell the release of his bowels and the stench drives me out.

From behind the car, I come out into the open and take aim at the policemen's barrier. Their guns jam. I'm on top of them, shooting at a body that falls over the other one, who's wounded. I see the stunned face of a boy, not an enemy. I don't shoot at him, I flee.

So go the days, in rushes.

Money's grabbed from a bank to keep running.

Before I stop, I shoot a colonel, a single shot in a crowd on a Sunday sidewalk. Today I still don't know if he's alive or dead. Then I go south, where the land narrows, where it's stupid to flee.

They look for the last of us elsewhere.

I'm at a sailors' tavern, and learn to move in the perpetual chaos of the lower Atlantic wind. It covers, hides, deafens, and doesn't come to speak.

I'm in no rush. I wear the clothes of a sailor who waits for a berth and drinks.

The tavernkeeper has an Italian name, grandparents from Otranto, another kind of land's end surrounded by water. He asks when I'm going. There's a whaling ship on its way to the Malvinas Islands.

I'm at the bottom of the sack of my life. Any day, I could be shaken out of it.

The tavernkeeper wants me to go. Maybe he's helping me. He arranges a berth for me as a mate on an Irish steamer.

Before climbing aboard, I get rid of my guns.

For the first time in years, my clothes feel light, my hands absentminded. The wind blows so hard, it could take me in its arms. Without weapons, I weigh nothing.

I climb up the ladder, thinking of no one. I'm the last leaf on a tree. I break away without a push.

I don't think of the girl that I loved, that I followed till I became part of her country.

Now I know that she's at the bottom of the ocean, thrown into the open sea from a helicopter with her hands tied. She lived for me, and died to give her eyes to the fish.

I climb aboard, and for two days before departing, I have a paintbrush, paint and wire brush to scrape away the briny rust.

I learn the ten men's names and their preference for onion. One guy eats them by the bite, like an apple.

At the harbor's outlet, the wind is sheer force, shattering waves and drenching beards.

I sleep in a hammock hanging from the beams in the hold, rocking over the engine room.

I'm forty, and sleep so heavily you'd have to kick me to make me stop.

They call me the dead man; no one can sleep where I can.

No one knows how many lives it's been since I slept.

The voyage is a tenacious storm, the engine on low just to correct the drift.

The fishing is no good: twice as hard. It's a struggle for the net to snatch the fish from the waves. It tears, depriving sailors of their sleep.

After the wind, the beer tastes sweet.

On Sundays they pray, they're Catholics. The captain has shrapnel wounds in his face. One of the guys must have fought back before setting out to sea.

They take me with them because I reek of war, too.

I pay for my passage by working, but they don't need me.

The unspoken agreement is that they're leaving me on the islands. The only book is the Bible. I read it in bad light, in an iron shell, in the open sea.

I grow fond of David, who lays a single stone before Goliath and a single book, the Psalms, in the mouth of the world.

"I don't believe in the writers, but I believe their stories." That's my answer to a freckle-faced sailor who asks if I have faith in God.

We work the fish, freeze it, and are at sea a month and a half.

When I disembark on Soledad Island in the Malvinas, I can't walk. Without the sea below me, I wobble and miss the wind that would fill my ears until I forgot. I am on English soil.

I stop at a tavern; the woman is a whaler's widow, Maria, Maria del Sol is her name.

I'm her cook. I fix her garden and tend her woolly sheep.

At night, we make noise. Maria's as strong as a sloop sailing against the sea, I'm standing up and pushing on the oars.

The fishermen laugh and drink a cloudy beer with me at night. Maria insults them, but plays along with their jokes. I switch from fish to cheese.

The island is humid, with ponds where coal and plants waste away.

No trees, though, the wind mows them down like a gardener. There's some short grass and scabs of lichen and moss on the mounds. Scratched earth.

The sheep's lips are strong enough to tear away the short, tough skin of the pastures.

The fishing birds find a point where they hover, motionless, then break away from the sky's stillness and jab at a wave.

I wait. I have nothing to ask of time.

There are more animals than men, more women than men, everything is more numerous than men.

And years go by. I work, satisfy Maria, don't touch a dime, don't think.

On the radio, I hear an Argentinean song again. The next day is the invasion.

Laila's voice interrupts me, ringing in both parts of my head.

I realize I've said a lot, so I drink a glass to slake my thirst and still my tongue.

"It was me," she says. "I made you speak."

"You're good at it," I say.

"Yes," she says in a voice, a second voice that comes loose.

"What do you think of my stories?" I ask.

"I love them," she says. "It's my job to make men talk, to tease information from their heads. With you I listen freely, I listen and learn to love the life that is written on your face."

"You've got men in the palm of your hand," I say.

"Yours is the hand I love," she replies.

"I won't slap you in the head, because I'm nuts about you," she laughs.

"Don't extract any more stories from me. If I can't hold onto them, I'd rather tell you when I'm awake."

"Tomorrow I have to go," she says.

"Tomorrow," I say, "what do I know? Here we've got all the today we need." I stand up, pick her up in my arms and lay her down.

"Hold me, gardener, hold me. It's everything I need. Hold me. And don't ask questions."

"I wouldn't know what to ask."

"Do like you did with Maria," she says.

"And you do like Laila does."

Now nothing is strong enough to break us apart.

From Three Horses, forthcoming from Other Press. By arrangement with Other Press. Translation copyright 2005 by Michael Moore. All rights reserved.