At first she tried struggling with the locks, but they were obviously not in sync, because when she managed to turn the key in one of them, the other stayed locked—and vice versa. The wind came in gusts off the sea, winding her wool scarf around her face. Finally he set down both bags in the driveway and snatched the keys out of her hand. He managed to get the door open immediately.
The cottage they had always rented was right on the sea, among holiday cabins that all looked alike, that were bustling and noisy in the summers, open to let the air through, surrounded by parasols and plastic chairs, and little tables with radios and newspapers—now they were all boarded up, tight as a drum, sunk deep into a winter coma. This one was a little more opulent, though—it had a fireplace and a large deck that looked out over the beach. The deck was covered with sand, so as soon as they got inside she took up a broom and began to sweep it away.
“Why are you doing that?” he said. “It’s not like we’re going to be sitting out on the deck at this time of year.”
He unloaded the food from one of the bags and put it in the refrigerator. Then he turned on the TV. She protested.
“No, please, no television.”
She wanted to say something else, too, but she restrained herself.
There was a dog with them, a fox terrier—lively, restless, and unruly. As he was making a fire in the hearth, the dog dragged several pieces of wood out of the basket, tossed them into the air and caught them as they fell.
He yelled at her.
“She’s cold. She’s just doing it to warm up,” she said.
“Yeah, sure, and I get to clean it up.”
“She’s just a dog.”
“She gets on my nerves, ‘just a dog’ or not, I mean she never quits. She’s hyperactive. Maybe we ought to slip a little something into her food. Bromine, Luminal, something along those lines?”
“She didn’t used to get on your nerves.”
“Well, she does now.”
She carried her bag upstairs, to the small, icy bedroom. She sat down on the bed, which was covered with a blanket. Renata, “that dog,” bounded after her and leaped up on to the blanket. She looked into the dog’s gleaming brown eyes. She felt a lump come to her throat, and a sudden pain, all over her body—a momentary, piercing pain.
Something was happening with time, she thought, something not good. It was coming unglued, peeling apart. Two great tectonic plates of time were falling away from each other with a bleak rumble, casting a chasm between “then” and “now” for the next several million years. “Now” was silent, with jagged edges—deep sleep at night, and remnants of anger on waking, as if a war were being waged in that sleep. “Then” seemed constant and rhythmic from this vantage point, the light sound of a ping-pong ball striking a smooth table, a cloth of moments in which each thread was part of a larger pattern.
She realized that the easiest way to begin a conversation was with “Remember when . . . ” because there was something mechanical in this, like the movement of a hand soothing a baby, like turning on a radio station that plays only soothing music—all those sounds of songbirds, waterfalls, whales. “Remember when” took them back to one place, together. It was always an emotional moment, like when you ask someone to dance, and they answer with a gleam in their eye. Yes, let’s dance. It was clear they were telling each other long-established versions of the past, a very familiar narrative, already recalled many times before, absolutely safe. The past is established. It can’t be changed. The past is a mantra learned by heart, the foundations of memory that are tiled over with funny little stories of recollection. Like the one about how he used to shell nuts for her and set them out on leaves in the garden. Or when they both bought the same pair of white jeans—that was a long time ago, now they would be two or three sizes too small. Or her red hair, that layered cut that was fashionable then. Or when he used to have to run after his train when he was parting from her. The farther back you went the more stories there were—evidently with time they’d lost the ability to mythologize the little things in life, sentencing reality to the commonplace and the trivial.
Once the fire was burning, they started making dinner, like a well-synchronized duet, she dicing the garlic, he washing lettuce and making dressing. She set the table, he opened a bottle of wine—it was like a dance, a perfect dance in which your partner’s movements are so familiar that you cease to notice them, and then your partner disappears, and you’re left to dance with yourself.
Then Renata slept by the hearth, the orange glow of the fire drifting over her frizzy coat. The expanse of the evening ahead suddenly seemed unbearable, heavy as a filling meal just before bed. His gaze wandered involuntarily to the TV, and she had a sudden urge to take a long bath, but since this was a special night, their first, they still had untapped reserves of good will. But he was careless.
“Shall I open another bottle?” he asked, but he realized immediately that more wine could ruin the order of things that had gradually been falling into place, that after drinking more wine there would be the familiar sense of discouragement, the feeling of being weighed down, the oppressive atmosphere, the senselessness of human speech, the desire to escape. The need for a conversation that would stop making sense after a few sentences, since they would have to then define all the words they had used over again. As if even their languages diverged.
“I think I’m OK for now,” she answered in an artificially cheery tone.
So he took out the chessboard. He felt relieved to find it, among some old books standing on a shelf by the TV. Chess, too, belonged to their collection of “Remember when”s.
They always played in silence, in cold blood, unhurriedly, making the games last several days. He took black—he always took black—and she lit a cigarette. He felt a needle-sharp pang of anger: he hated it when she smoked indoors. He said nothing. There was nothing wrong.
Opening; the first game out of habit, automatic, both of them knowing what every next move would be. It occurred to her that she knew how he thought, and this shocked her. She felt faintly nauseous—the wine had been very dry, bitter. She let him win, and he knew she had let him win. He yawned.
“Let’s play again,” she said, arranging the pawns. “But this time we have to really try, really focus. Remember the time we played for a week?”
“That first Christmas, at your parents’. We couldn’t leave because of all that snow that’d fallen, everything was just covered in it.”
She remembered the smell of the cold room where her mother kept all the things she baked every holiday, covered in dishtowels.
They made two moves, and the game stopped. It was his move, so she went out onto the deck to smoke. Through the glass he could see her petite shoulders, draped in a wool scarf. He hadn’t made his move by the time she came back.
“Shall we give it a rest for today?” she asked.
“Are you ready for bed?”
He felt again all the artificiality of this question, as if it really mattered to her that she didn’t sound indifferent.
“I’m just going to check the forecast, and then I’ll make the bed.”
He turned on the TV, and things became more ordinary, somehow. The tension between them diminished when each of them went about their own lives. He opened another can of beer. He flipped through the channels, and he was gone.
She went to wash up.
The electric heater warmed up the little bathroom quickly. She set a few toiletries on the shelf below the mirror. She leaned toward the shaving mirror and examined the faint red veins on her cheeks. Then she made a thorough inspection of the skin on her neck and chest. Looking herself in the eye, she removed her makeup with a cotton pad. Only once she had undressed did she remember that there was no bathtub here, the bathtub was back in town, here there was just that unpleasant shower separated from the rest of the bathroom by a plastic shell-print curtain. She felt like crying, and she was furious with herself when she realized she was clearly overreacting, that you simply do not cry for lack of a bathtub.
When she crept into the bedroom, she saw that the bed had not been made, and that the linens were lying on the chair, neatly folded, cold and slick. There was a hum from the TV downstairs. Her rage gathering strength like an avalanche, she began to make the bed, struggling with the corners of the sheets, her physical exertion matching her anger—it was like they were singing a round. It seemed to her that this anger was a general one, an aimless fury, but then, out of the blue and to her great surprise, all at once it became a blade—like in a cartoon—pointed downstairs toward the sofa where there was a man sitting with a can of beer, and like a swarm of enraged bees it plummeted down the wooden steps and into the living room. She stood at the doorway and saw the man’s head—he was sitting in profile—and for a moment she thought that materialized malice would pierce him through at the temple, at full speed, and the man would just stop moving and then slump slackly against the back of his chair. Dead.
“Hey, could you give me a hand?” she shouted from upstairs.
“Coming,” he said and stood reluctantly, still gazing at the TV screen.
By the time he made it upstairs, she’d already calmed down. She took a deep breath.
“Aren’t you going to wash up?” she asked calmly.
“I took a bath before we left,” he said.
She lay on her back between the unpleasant, cold sheets, which felt damp. He went to turn out the lights. She heard him shut the door to the deck and put a trash bag in the bin. Then he got undressed and lay down on his side of the bed. They stayed like that for a while, next to each other, but then she drew closer to him and laid her head on his chest. He ran his hand along her bare arm with paternal tenderness, but by the next time he touched her, that tenderness had completely vanished—it was just touching, nothing more. He rolled over onto his stomach, and she put her hand on his back as if to restrain him. They’d been falling asleep that way for years. Whimpering, Renata settled at their feet.
He got up first, to let the dog out. A gust of icy wind tore into the small living room. He watched the dog run off toward the sea, chase away two seagulls, relieve herself, and return. Gusts of wind were surging in from the sea. He put the water on for coffee and waited for it to boil. He cast a glance at the open chessboard and checked to see if there were still any live embers in the hearth, but the fire had gone out completely. He poured the coffee, added milk and sugar—for her. He went back upstairs with the mugs and slipped back in between the warm sheets. He sat up as he drank, leaning against the headboard.
“I had a dream about a plane full of napoleon cakes,” she said, her voice hoarse from sleep. “There was already snow on the ground, but it was sort of pink.”
He didn’t know how to respond. He rarely had dreams, and when he did, it was never anything he could describe. He could never find the right words.
After breakfast he took out his camera and wiped off both lenses—they were supposed to be going for a walk.
They put on all the warm things they had with them—fleeces, boots, scarves, and gloves. They headed down along the beach, toward the dunes, to the point where the wooden cottages disappeared, and there began the kingdom of grasses quivering in the wind. He crouched down and took a picture of a heap of driftwood tossed up by the sea—it looked like the bones of an animal. Then he looked through the lens, turning around and around. She left him behind and walked right along the edge of the sea, her footprints leaving slight indentations in the sand that were instantly destroyed by the water. Renata kept bringing her sticks and nudging her legs with them, but whenever she reached for one, Renata would growl and refuse to give it up.
“How am I supposed to throw it for you if you won’t let go, you stupid dog?” she said.
Renata gave up the stick she’d plundered—it soared high and came right back to its spot between her teeth.
The woman realized she was under observation, that the round eye of the lens was trained on her. Briefly she saw herself as the man saw her—a small, dark figure against a background of shades of white and gray, an angular shape with clear contours. He’d caught her red-handed. Had she done something wrong? He was hiding his face behind the camera and aiming at her—like he was holding a gun. She should have been used to it by now—he had always taken pictures of her, but again she felt that same infuriation that had taken hold of her the day before, over the bed. She turned away. He caught up with her, and they walked on in silence. The wind absolved them of this silence, breached their lips and forced them to squint. The longer they were silent the less there was to say, and the more relief there was in that silence. His thoughts wandered off to the left somewhere, toward the sea, flew above the hulls of the fishing boats, and alighted on islands, in foreign countries, wherever. Hers went home again, into drawers and inside handbags, cast a glance at the calendar, and figured up bills. It wasn’t a painful silence. It was nice to have someone to be silent with. With a kind of elation she thought, “This sort of silence is an art,” and she repeated this sentence to herself several times. She liked it.
“Look,” he said to her, pointing out a dark cloud that was racing along the land so low that the tips of the pine trees nearly snared it. He suddenly felt the urge to take this picture, this cloud and woman, both sullen, both swollen with a thunder that would never sound, lightning bolts that would never strike.
“Stay there,” he shouted, stepping back to the waterline and looking through the lens from too close.
All he could see was the woman’s face, distorted by the wind, a wrinkle down her forehead, lips livid from the cold. The wind fixed her hair to her face; she made maladroit stabs at brushing it aside, at doing something with her face, but it was all in vain. The shutter clicked. She turned away displeased.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “Everything looks great now.” He stepped a little farther back, until the water was squishing in his boots.
She was infuriated with herself for trying to pose, for caring whether or not it turned out well. With a camera held to his face he gained a kind of unjust advantage over her, and it seemed to her that he was sizing her up, evaluating her, reducing and objectifying. She’d never really liked him taking pictures of her—she was defenseless against that glass eye he donned like a mask; she sometimes got the impression he could see right through her, that he was promising her something along the lines of eternity, that he was immortalizing her, but that for all that he was sapping her strength. She surrendered more and more to him. She was always astonished by those women who worked as models, by all those young girls who would pout as he photographed them, throw back their heads, fully aware that they were putting something up for sale, not that they were someone, but that they had something to sell, like eager little saleswomen. Just merchandise. No wonder he slept with them. Did he know how much power he had thanks to that camera? His face was full of life then, but only then. She saw him again in her mind’s eye, with a beer, in front of the TV—and then his face was a blank, as if there were simply nothing there.
“Don’t take pictures of me,” she said, dourly. Without a word he redirected the camera at Renata and ran after her for a while; the dog kept slipping out of the frame, zigzagging, trying to throw him off the scent.
He felt wounded. Sometimes she could utter the most neutral words, and it would feel like she had just punched him in the face. How did she do it? He felt like a little boy around her, like a child. He never knew when she was going to hurt him. He had mastered only one effective counterattack: hiding his king behind the other pawns, and when it came to her, that incalculable woman, he would simply ignore her, sidestep her, actively not notice her, not respond, not look, disregard, evade, keep her at a distance like in a photograph, and in so doing keep her in check—an angular figure against a background of shades of gray. There would follow, then, an incomprehensible turnaround on her side—she would fall into his arms, shrink and become a lonely, helpless little girl with graying hair, she would weaken, subside, surrender. She would grovel, just like Renata.
He ran after the dog. Renata had found a good-sized stick, clenched it in her teeth, and was now begging. He seized one end of the stick and lifted up the dog, who was hanging onto it. Renata knew this game. This was the lockjaw game. The resistance game. He began to spin around and around with the dog hanging from the stick, flying at waist-level. Then he heard a shout and saw her running toward him. He slowed down, and Renata landed safely in the sand. The woman ran up to him, her face distorted by rage.
“What do you think you’re doing? Are you insane? You’re going to hurt her! Do you just have no idea? Why are you so stupid, stupid?” she shouted. “Have you just completely lost it, you fucking asshole?”
He was thunderstruck. He thought she was going to hit him. Renata—stick still in her mouth—was swaying slightly.
“Fuck off, you crazy bitch,” he said quietly and started walking home.
He felt like crying. A sort of outraged sob was welling up in his insides like something you had to cough up. He’d go home, he thought, pack up and take off. Or not pack up, just leave everything there. He’d take the car and take off. Go back to town. That was it, it was over. She could manage just find without him. She was still young, let her find somebody else, let her do whatever she wanted. He thought how he had tried his best, and this he found moving. He had tried his best.
When she got home, he was sitting in front of the TV drinking beer. She took off her coat and put the water on.
“Tea?” she asked.
“No,” he muttered.
“I’m sorry,” she said and suddenly felt very weak as if she were walking in the sand, as if she were getting bogged down, feet sinking. Never, never did he apologize to her first. She lit a cigarette.
“Could you not smoke in here?” he said.
She went out onto the deck. The kettle whistled; she didn’t hear it. He got up and turned off the stove. There was a program on TV about farming. Renata kept dragging the tinder out of the basket, tossing it up and catching it in the air.
“What do you think, how’s it going to end?” she asked and sat down in the armchair next to his.
“What’s going to end?”
“All this, us.”
He shrugged. He looked up at her, but he couldn’t bear the sight of her insistent, searching eyes.
“I’ll get a fire started,” he said.
He crumpled some newspaper and set it in a pile, and then he laid down some twigs. She handed him the matches. He could sense that she wanted to tell him something, but he didn’t make a sound. He wanted her to say something, but at the same time he was afraid that her words would slip out of control again. He knew how to penalize her, and he did—he went upstairs and lay down on the unmade bed, trying to read some old magazine. He was relieved to find an article on computers, but he didn’t understand very much of it. Then he noticed an ad for a vacation in Turkey, which reminded him of their last trip together, to Greece—everything blurred, overexposed, like pictures that hadn’t turned out. Her tanned, almost naked body. Making love in the hotel room—their last time. The shock of his own embarrassment. He realized he couldn’t remember her any other way, and that this vacation several months ago was his earliest memory of her. That in the repeated “Remember when”s the people he saw were complete strangers. He fell asleep in astonishment.
When he woke up, she was gone. The dog was gone, too, so he thought she must have taken her to the dunes. Still, he checked to see if the car was still there. It was. He turned on the TV and half listened to the news. It was getting dark out. He made himself some scrambled eggs and ate them straight from the pan in front of the TV. Then he opened a beer and listened to the messages on his cell phone. Nothing interesting. He saw her come in, face flushed from the wind. Renata rushed at him in greeting, as if it had been years since they’d seen each other. The woman looked at the empty pan.
“You’ve already eaten?” she asked with some dismay. “You ate?”
He realized he ought to have waited for her.
“Just a snack,” he said. “We could go to the Chinese place in town.”
“I’m not hungry,” she said and hung up her jacket.
Then why are you asking, he thought furiously. He knew why. So that she would have a reason to get upset. “Temper tantrum next. Don’t eat anything if you don’t want to. I don’t give a shit,” he told her in his head. He took pleasure in this kind of imagined conversation. He changed the channel, but the next one was fuzzy, so he tried to find something else, but there were only two. There was no escape.
She came back from the bathroom after a little while, hair combed, makeup probably retouched. He could smell fresh cigarette smoke on her—she had obviously been smoking in the bathroom like a schoolgirl.
“Shall we finish the game?” she asked.
He agreed. Seeing the perfect symmetry of the chessboard was soothing. The joy of the existence of rules. The sweet possibility of thinking over every move. The predictability of surprises. The feeling of control like a gentle, cerebral caress. He was adding wood to the fire when she said, “Hey, the white knight’s gone.”
They leaned under the table, pushed back the chairs, and searched the cracks between the cushions. He peered into the basket of wood.
“Renata. She must have run off with it,” she said. “Look in her bed.”
She shook out the dog’s blanket—several pieces of kindling and the plastic stopper from the sink fell out, but there was no chess piece.
“Maybe she took it out into the hall?” he asked hopefully.
They started a systematic search. He went through the trash; she went out onto the deck. They pushed back the table.
“Was it still there when you went out?”
She couldn’t remember.
“What did you do with the knight, you stupid dog?” she said, leaning over her.
“She probably chewed it up,” he said.
He poured two glasses of beer. They sat down at the useless chessboard. Then he came up with the idea of using a small piece of wood as a playing piece—he broke off a piece and laid it on the vacant black square. She hesitated.
“I’m not playing with kindling,” she said.
“Then I’ll take white.”
“But we’ll have to start all over again. Won’t we?”
“No,” he said. “I don’t want to play anymore.”
She thought it would be best if they got up right now, got their things together, and went home, but she didn’t have the courage to say so. It also occurred to her that he was the one who had taken the chesspiece. Or that he had somehow knocked it off. She didn’t say anything—she just slumped back into the couch cushions.
She knew he would go away now, abandon her—be absorbed by the TV or go upstairs and sleep again, or start to fiddle with his camera (thank God it was too dark now to take pictures) or start to read, or call people, or send them all text messages—and she knew that this was inevitable. She wanted to cuddle up to his blue-checked shirt, but she didn’t have the strength to get off the couch. His hands were busy putting the chesspieces back into the box. Fine dark hairs.
He glanced at her.
“Why are you crying?” he said. “Over chess, over that knight?”
He sat down next to her and put one arm around her. The other arm hesitated for a moment, staying in the end where it was, on the armrest of the sofa.
“It’s better to be left than to leave someone,” she said suddenly. “Being left gives you strength.”
“I’d say the opposite,” he said.
“You don’t understand.”
“I never understand anything.”
He got up and went into the kitchen. He asked about wine—shouldn’t they have a little drop? She said yes.
She had everything she’d say now already in her head. Sentence by sentence, and the justification for every sentence. And notes on every sentence. He would have to respond somehow. It would be impossible to sink back into silence. When he came back he handed her a glass and sat down on the sofa. He must have known what she was thinking. That they would talk, and it would end, as usual, in a fight. Then Renata, that providential dog, began to whine at the door. He got up to let her out.
“Go on, you stupid dog,” he said. “What did you do with the knight?”
Renata leaped out into the darkness with a yelp. A sharp gust of wind blew a thin trail of sand through the open door. He heard the voice of the television behind his back and felt relieved. So she’d turned on the TV.
“It’s too bad we don’t have the guide. There might be a movie,” he said.
She refilled their glasses, although they weren’t empty yet. She was suddenly overwhelmed by exhaustion.
She stretched her legs out just like him and propped her feet on the low coffee table. There they sat, side by side, sipping wine until the movie ended, an amusing old mystery about an older lady who killed off her enemies with arsenic. She was reeling a little as she went up the stairs.
“I’ll be there in a second,” he said, but she knew he wouldn’t be. He would sit there, as he often did, until morning. Plunged into the ghostly light of the screen, absent, glued to those flashing pictures like a cat—he always turned off the sound. She knew what would happen, and it was good to know. Soothing. Perfect, fully rounded certainty. A smooth glass ball in her palm. She sank heavily into sleep.
He lay down on top of her as if on grass, with his whole body, his whole weight. There was her familiar smell, her special softness. She sighed. His body responded by habit, with desire. She embraced him, as if she were holding on to him. She said something, but he couldn’t understand her. He slid a hand across her hips.
“I can’t breathe,” she whispered.
He hesitated. He stopped. He realized that underneath him was not a woman, not a wife, not a woman’s body, but a person, that he wasn’t lying on top of a woman, but on top of another human being, another someone, specific, individual, inviolable. Someone with clearly defined boundaries but who beyond these was fragile and prone to ruin, delicate as watercress, like the thinnest wafer. Her sex had vanished—it had ceased to be important to him that she was a woman and his wife—she was like a brother, a comrade in suffering, a companion in pain, a neighbor facing the same looming, unidentified threat. A stranger who was at the same time extremely close to him. Someone who is nearby, who stands there and looks across the fence, someone you wave to on your way home.
This discovery was so unexpected that he felt ashamed. The sense of desire that had welled up within him now ebbed away. He rolled off her and lay down beside her. He drew her toward him, by the arm, and pulled the blanket over her. She was crying. She said something about the knight, about the knight having been lost. It occurred to him that she’d had too much to drink.
Her head was hurting. She got up quietly and went downstairs to let Renata out. He was curled up asleep, cocooned in the blanket, far from her, at the very edge of the bed. She took a handful of vitamins and aspirin. She felt worn out, wrung out. First she spent a long time brushing her teeth; her hair was mussed up from the night before and sticking out all over the place. Eyes swollen. Had she been crying? Yes. Overreacting. She gave the skin on her stomach a hard pinch. This pain was a relief, it opened the floodgates of a mollifying self-hatred. As a child she’d heard that you could catch cancer from pinching. Some adult had told her that, she didn’t remember who, when boys were pinching girls’ breasts.
When she came down, he was sitting on the sofa, in just a shirt and no pants, reading the paper. He’d made her coffee.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” he said back.
“What are we going to do today?”
“Is there anything we have to do?”
“We’ll have to get our stuff together this afternoon.”
He turned the page.
“How do you feel?”
“Fine,” he said.
After a pause he added, “You?”
She didn’t feel like talking anymore. She started to leaf through a magazine. Suddenly the clouds parted, and a whole sea of blinding light flooded the room. She took a cigarette and went out onto the deck, although the very idea of smoking made her feel sick. She forced herself. She saw Renata at a distance. The crazy dog was throwing herself into the water, trying to bite the waves. Stupid animal, she thought. She was shivering with cold.
He went upstairs to put on his pants. He would have been very happy to start packing now. He had so many urgent things to do. He felt reinvigorated. As he passed the bed he saw her pajamas with the teddy bear on the front and for an instant, an instant finer than the layer of November ice on a puddle, he found the same tenderness in himself that he had felt sleeping with her nightshirt while she’d been away. This tenderness, like the desire he’d felt that night, was a habit. He shook his head. After all, she had cheated on him. Anger, a wave of anger he knew well by now, arrested his movements. He became an animal ready for battle, tense, attentive. He put on his pants and tightened his belt. It wasn’t even about her anymore—let her do whatever she wants—it was about him: never, ever again would he let himself get hurt like that. He remembered that agony, but thanks to it he felt stronger now somehow, as if he had gone to war and come home safely. On his way down he saw her from the stairs huddled on the sofa, no makeup, eyes swollen. A strange thought occurred to him. I wanted her to die, he thought, and that’s why she’s gotten so ugly.
“I’m going to go take a couple of pictures,” he said.
She said she’d go with him. He waited on the deck for her to get dressed. They went in the direction opposite that they’d gone the day before.
“Look,” she shouted to him over the wind and pointed to something he’d already seen: a white band of sky over a navy-blue sea and whitecaps that looked like they’d been painted there by a Chinese artist. Then a flash of sunshine like lightning.
“There must have been a storm last night,” she said.
There was a lot of trash on the beach: strips of algae, tree branches, sticks, interspersed now and then with unexpectedly colorful plastic things. She walked behind him and thought that from behind he looked the same as he had looked back then, but she knew it was just an illusion. Nothing could be restored. What’s happened once can never happen again. Never. Lightning never strikes twice. She was suddenly struck by the significance of that cliché. There was nothing to be done about it. For a moment she wanted to bound after him and tug on his jacket, turn him around to face her, and then it would turn out that—what? What would it turn out? She slowed down, while he walked quickly up ahead, he and the dog and the camera getting farther and farther away, so she didn’t try to catch up with him now, she just sat down on the sand. With some effort, turning her back to the wind, she managed to light a cigarette, and then she sat there in despair, thinking systematically of everything that would never happen again: their hands touching, that spark, sometimes accidental and sometimes greedy, eagerly awaited; the excitement of his scent, and of nestling into that scent; the knowing glances, each reading the other’s mind; the same thoughts at the same moment; the calm, confident closeness; hand in hand, as if this were their natural and only position; delight in the shape of an ear; the nightly vine-like clinging to each other’s body, treating it as a kind of case for one’s own. A long morning. Drinking beetroot soup from the same bowl. The surge of desire on a walk in the park… The suitcase you take into the world with you contains things you can only use once, like those magic charms in fairy tales, like fireworks. Once they go off, once they go out, there’s nothing you can scrape back up out of the ashes. That’s it.
She thought she would tell him all this when he got back, but as they were walking home she realized that it was banal, that she would be ashamed to share something like this. He would just smile, because it would be as if she had sung him the words of some popular song. Nothing more. Yes, all her despair was simply banal—evidently despair was another thing you could only experience once. All subsequent despair would just be a Xerox copy. And maybe there is some mysterious line in life that you cross unknowingly, unintentionally, and from then on everything is just a lousy replay of what’s come before it, which once had come into being fresh and new, but which can now only occur as pastiche, a second-rate paraphrase. Maybe that dividing line from which life only flows downhill was actually right here, today, on this beach, and from here on out, from this day forward, there would be blurred copies of them taking part in their lives, fuzzy reproductions, ordinary forgeries, poor-quality fakes.
They went home in silence, and the wind absolved them of it just as it had done the day before. He walked ahead with Renata and she behind, her face flushed from the wind.
Renata tried to go inside with something in her mouth. He blocked her path with his foot.
“What do you have, you rotten dog? What’d you find? A smelly old bone? A dead fish?”
He forced her mouth open and took out a piece of pale, polished wood. It took him a minute to realize what it was.
“Look what she’s found!” he cried out in surprise.
She walked up, took the saliva-wet figurine from his hand and wiped it off on the mat. It was a chess horse, a white knight, but not the one from their set. This one was smaller, nobler, stouter, probably hand-carved. Its little open mouth was turned up, and a crack ran along the whole length of it.
“I don’t believe it!” he said. “Renata, where did you get this?”
“It’s from the sea,” she said. “That washed up from the sea.”
“I can’t believe it,” he repeated and glanced at her quickly, timidly, to avoid keeping his eyes on her. “How could a little horse like that have ended up in the water? And white, just like the one we lost? What are the odds?”
They both went up to the kitchen sink. She washed it off carefully and then dried it with a tea towel.
They set it on the table and examined it as if it were a rare insect. Renata too—she seemed pleased with herself. Then he put it on the empty square where the little unwanted piece of wood was still lying. The knight looked out of place amongst the other pieces, like a mutant.
“Shall we play?” he asked.
“Now? We have to go now,” she replied, but she took off her jacket and sat down uncertainly.
“Whose move was it?”
She didn’t know. They sat for a moment longer over the open chessboard, and then he said, without looking at her, “I was just kidding.”
© Olga Tokarczuk. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2008 by Jennifer Croft. All rights reserved.