There was, briefly, a husband, but I was not in love with him. I was in love with belief. So simple, I imagined: you do believe or you don’t. Say it: I do.

    I am a translator by occupation, though I am now an old woman. I have spoken a great deal about my work over the years, but what I never say to anyone is this: I have always felt a desire to have no voice at all, to say nothing, to keep the words to myself. And isn’t it true that translation is about privacy and secrecy? And which of these is the origin of the career? Is a young woman secretive by nature, and so she takes up the work of translation, or does the profession dispose a woman to be secretive? I wanted to be everywhere and nowhere, to elude capture. I wanted silence. And order. What the translator has power over is order. Words in the sentence. Events in sequence.

    So: in the beginning was Raymond Alexander, his brother, and God.

    Raymond Alexander was a painter and a student in art history. His paintings were representational, out of fashion then, delicate oils, windowscapes, he called them, the view from a small room. When I saw four or five of his canvases, I thought, the light is strange, too much of it, coming out of nowhere. You felt as if you would not want to be in such a room, or else you would never want to leave it. He lived in a studio apartment, almost directly behind the Columbia University library, in a building between two fraternities.

    “But it’s deceptive,” Raymond said when he’d let me in. “I have this extra space.” He led me through the main room, where there was a mantle and a fireplace, two metal bookshelves—the kind people who live in the suburbs have in their garages for tools and cans of vegetables—a red butterfly chair, and a frameless futon closed up like a couch. The kitchen was big enough for a table and two chairs. A cookbook was open on the table, the Moosewood Cookbook, I knew from the small, careful handwriting of the author, which has made it untranslatable. Green peppers, tomatoes, onions and parsley were piled on a cutting board. “But this is the best part.” He stepped into the bathroom and unbolted a door on the other side, then propped it open with a kitchen chair. “Look at my back yard,” he said.

    Five wooden steps led down into a wide alley stretching a quarter of a block in length, one of those usually empty echoing spaces made by the backs of tall apartment buildings in New York City. But this one had been transformed into a garden, bordered by middle-sized shade trees, a vegetable bed, shrubs, rose bushes, and two circular, groomed grassy lawns, the whole space wound with paths filled with small luminous stones. On each end, there was a wooden bench set against a high trellis. I did not recognize the vines on the trellises, but each one was just coming into leaf, so it would be possible to sit facing east or west, and with a certain sort of strict vision, see nothing but green. Each of the round lawns was about six feet in diameter, the size of a bed. I wanted to lie down on one of them. I wondered if Raymond ever had.

    “This is gorgeous,” I said. “Did you do it?”

    “No, no,” Raymond said. “I haven’t been here that long. A woman who lives on the ground floor in the next building—she’s been there for years. The widow of a professor. She did it. I’m just lucky.”

    “Does she let you sit out here?”

    “She used to let me paint out here. As long as I’m quiet. And I do a little pruning for her. I cut the grass. She has a push mower by the back door. It’s a funny thing to see in the city.” He pointed to the mower, and it was surreal, like Magritte’s pipe. “Do you want something to drink, Nora? I was just about to start cooking.”

    We climbed the stairs and passed back into the kitchen. Raymond opened two beers and handed me one. He pointed to a small knife and the peppers. The cookbook was open to a recipe for Scheherazade casserole. Two medium green peppers, chopped.

    “I’m not a vegetarian,” Raymond said, “But I play one on TV. I hope this is okay.”

    “It’s great,” I said, not quite getting the joke, not then. “Anything is great.”

    There was a silence in our working together that was a kind of presence, but comfortable. Two people standing next to each other, with jobs to do. When we met at school, there had been noise and so much talk. We never had enough time to finish the conversation. Now there seemed to be so much time, hours in which to wash the tomatoes and peppers, rinse the bundle of parsley, really look at Raymond as he moved around the kitchen. I thought for the first time that he resembled certain pictures of Jesus, though he was tall and muscled: the light brown hair that hung to his shoulders, the neat beard, a softness in his eyes. It was a troubling notion, and as if in response, the floor began to tremble, utensils hung on pegboard rattled against each other. In the other room, books fell off a shelf. Water from the parsley flew into Raymond’s face, and he laughed. He opened two more beers, patted my back.

    “It’s all right, Nora. Don’t worry.”

    “What is that?”

    “It’s the subway. I hardly notice it anymore. Except when the books fall down.”

    “Does it happen every time a train goes under?”

    “Only the express trains. The trains that stop at 110th Street haven’t gotten up enough speed yet.”

    I walked into the other room intending to pick up the books. I could see the bare bones of how he lived. There are only a few years in most people’s lives when that’s possible, before meaning is obscured, before they move to bigger apartments, then houses, then into marriages, children, back into their old hobbies. But for a little while, it’s right there, out in the open, the truth of what somebody is and wants. Raymond’s typewriter sat on a black board he’d balanced over the top of the radiator. There were several large books piled to one side, and I went to look at them. The one on top was in French, Ecole de Barbizon. The cover was Jean Francois Millet’s Angelus. I picked up the book and took it into the kitchen.

    “Are you studying this?”

    “Well,” he said, “I’m teaching it, but also studying, yes, the period really. The place.”

    We stood for a moment just outside something. “It’s pretty. It’s so familiar.”

    “The light,” he said. “He got it just right. It’s genius.”

    And it was. But it was almost too much for me, the way the light shone so hard on the frailties of the people, how fallen it made them, and I took it back to the desk.

    We ate at the little table in the kitchen, talking about our work and holding hands awkwardly around the plates and bottles. I felt elated and afraid. A garden in the middle of an alleyway in New York City, the end of my schooling. I’d been very good at learning languages. I told Raymond the family history: my father’s early death, my mother’s grief, and mine, which had always felt like making a speech into one end of a long tube, but less so this time. I told him I loved the soothing silence of translating poetry. The process is slow, internal. I find I must take the whole poem into my body. Sometimes I imagined joining a convent, that there was some stillness and quiet I needed to find out what to do with my life. He nodded and ate—what reply was there to such statements? The casserole tasted very good, substantial was the word I used—I remember this because Raymond laughed and repeated it as if he wasn’t quite sure he was being complemented. But I meant it was the first food I had really tasted in a long time.

    We finished the meal, took our beers and sat outside, on the east-facing bench of the garden so we could see the quarter moon. It was wonderfully dark. There was a long rectangle of light shining out the back door of Raymond’s apartment, illuminating what I thought must be a rose bush, maybe a camellia, but a red flower, in bloom and round like an apple. It was like being outside one of his paintings and looking in, and I said so. Beyond us, the sounds of cars, car horns, voices, the trickling of music from open windows, all of this seemed to quiet and then fade. Raymond’s arm was around my shoulders, but I couldn’t see him. We weren’t talking.

    “I thought this feeling might go away,” he said suddenly. “But it hasn’t.” I must have stiffened a little because he held me more tightly. “No, no. Not about you. I mean about painting. There’s something about what Millet’s seeing. What I’m seeing—”

    “Your work is so different from his.”

    “I know. If I could only really see like that. But I think all I can do is copy. I can’t do anything useful. I haven’t even wanted to paint in months.”

    “You’ll get back to it.” I patted his knee, motherly.

    “No. I don’t feel that way. I feel relieved. It’s fine that I’m not going to be another second or third rate American painter. I’ll finish school in two years. I love the teaching.”

    “Art in the dark,” I said. “That’s what they called it when I was in college. We called it that. The students did.”

    I didn’t want to leave that garden, but we did. We went inside and unrolled the futon and got down to solving other kinds of mysteries. I loved Raymond Alexander then, but I knew I did not love him enough. We lay in the dark in the middle of the night, with the windows open, listening to the fraternity boys next door, the anguished, endless barking of a dog, and shouting between men and women, all the ways New York City talks in its sleep. Once or twice, I thought there was a rumbling underneath us as the express train ran north or south, and then the echo of it traveled across the room and into the kitchen.

    “Do the trains run all night, Raymond?”

    For a while he didn’t answer. For a long time.

    “I don’t think you’re convent material,” he said much later. His lips moved against my neck as if he were trying to tell me something.

Raymond and I spent the summer this way. And in the fall I took part time teaching jobs at the Fashion Institute and Hunter College and The New School, and my life became a blur of train rides and vocabulary tests. Raymond had nearly finished his course work, began to think about a dissertation. He never touched his paints.

    Most nights that summer we slept out in the garden, in a sleeping bag when the weather turned colder. Raymond explained to the old widow that we were doing this, and she smiled approvingly, he said, and nodded her head, and she told him it was like having an all-night security guard. Sometimes in the morning, we would wake up to find her a few feet away, pruning, fertilizing, gathering blossoms or late tomatoes. It was hard to say, at those moments, who was guarding whom. She seemed to me an angel, a vision, a message I could not quite read, but didn’t have to yet. When I opened my eyes, she was looking at me. Not at us. It appeared that she smiled and shook her head, just once. The sun rose behind her, and her smile brightened when she saw I was awake. Then she turned back to her work.

In December, Raymond’s brother David was on the plane that blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland. His parents went over to Lockerbie, but Raymond didn’t think he could stand it. In New York, we went to church together for days, staying long after Mass had ended. Raymond was trying to understand, to make a thousand deals with God. He told me in the coffee shops along Broadway those first weeks of January, the litany: If I could be sure he felt no pain, if I could be sure he wasn’t scared, if I could be sure he had no knowledge whatsoever. If someone could promise me these things. If I could be sure he died immediately. If I could be sure what we buried was really him and no other, that he’s not alive somewhere. If I could be sure he’s gone to heaven. If I could be sure there is a heaven.

    “What’s the then,” I said.

    “The then?”

    “If, then. If you could know these things, what would you give? You have to give something back.”

    “Then I could be happy. Why should I have to give anything back?”

    We drank another cup of coffee. We tried to talk about our lives at school, the city, books, but his desolation was too great, and it became mine, too. We couldn’t stop talking about it, or reading the newspaper accounts. We held hands constantly. We sat close to each other in the booth and held on.

    Finally, Raymond came to believe he had to see the place where the sky let go of his brother. Many of the families felt this way. Raymond wrote to some of them, talked on the phone. His own parents had gone in December, and now, they said they were too old to make the trip again, too broken. And so I agreed to go with him, we made plans all summer, and then left in August. We flew to London, then to Edinburgh, rented a car and drove the rest of the way, through beautiful weather, really more like the end of spring that far north. We were in farm country, where the land had unfolded itself, opened fully for a brief time to admit us. Everywhere we were told we couldn’t have come at a better moment, it was the season of life, the season, a priest said, when every tear shall be wiped away. The families stared dumbly at this. We were traveling with two others, two sets of parents and a sister. One of the mothers whispered I can’t bear it, over and over. Her husband shook his head. Sure, tears could be wiped away, he said, but there was no end to them, would never be.

    And then we got to the place in the road, behind a man’s house, a place where suddenly eight months before there had been chaos, metal raining from the sky, and flesh, and a child’s doll, the sleeve of a sweater, sugar packets, miniature bottles of liquor. We lived through it all again, the crater, the woman on the roof, the other still half-buckled into her seat, the flight attendant whose pulse could be detected for ten minutes, the others who lay in fields, on roads, who looked like they were sleeping.

    We went to a house to ask about it: a woman who said Raymond’s brother had fallen into her kitchen. Smashed through the ceiling. She opened the door after the explosion and the fireball, and there he was, curled into himself as if he’d dropped there for a bit of rest. The police told them not to touch the bodies, not to move them until there could be an investigation. He lay there, the sleeping laddie, she called him, through the night and all the next day. It was bitterly cold. When evening came on, I couldna stand it, she said, and she covered him with a blanket, even though she knew he felt nothing.

    “I talked to him,” she said, tears filling her eyes, “I told him he was a good lad, and I knew he was with God, and I promised I would take care of the flesh until—” She stopped.

    “His mother came for him,” I said.

    “Did she?” the woman said. “I didn’t know that. We weren’t told anything.”

    But she petted him, she said, and closed his eyes, even though she wasn’t supposed to touch. She wanted us to know that, that he wasn’t alone.

    It was not survivable, they told us again and again, until the word lost its meaning. The sets of parents nodded, their eyes empty. I could see they were thinking something: And neither is this. We looked up into the open spaces of the church, the meeting hall. There were three separate memorial services while we were there, the drone of a voice trying to explain. I remembered the sound from the weeks after my father’s death, the noise a heart would make were it a machine and not living tissue. God is building a house, one of them said, and he was exactly right. It was the sound of an adze or a saw, a carpenter’s tool that has to repeat its sorry work over and over.

    There is a famous golf course at Lockerbie, and some of the wreckage fell there. We came to it quite by accident, driving aimlessly, having seen what we thought was the worst. It was closed, but the guard seemed to recognize the seven of us before anyone spoke or explained. There was something about the open space, the groomed quality of it, that made us separate from one another, fan out, the relatives each seeking some quiet place apart. Husband drifted from wife, father from mother. Raymond let go of my hand and wandered down the first fairway. The sister fell to her knees at the edge of a green and then lay down.

    There is the notion, I think, that you can hear God’s voice in an open space like that. But what Raymond said was that the silence on the golf course, over all of Lockerbie, was terrible, unbearable, not survivable. There was no comfort, no voice of God to explain, to soothe him.

    “The rest of the world is so loud,” I said, and just then an airplane roared overhead. We stood perfectly still and did not look up. As the sound grew louder, one of the mothers bent her head, folded her hands, became the woman in Millet’s Angelus. She and her husband had been digging for something, the basket at their feet mostly empty.

    We were married in a town just outside Edinburgh, on the way home. We didn’t plan it. We had two days’ layover—though that isn’t the right way to explain it—we came away from Lockerbie two days earlier than planned, gave up the rented car and rode the train, because we couldn’t stand it. Not the sorrow, not our sorrow, or the local people and the strangeness of theirs, inside of which there was a thin line of accusation, like strata in rock. Not even the ghostly immanence of the place, the sense that all these American students would suddenly reappear, walk out from the meadows and lanes, clouds of them drifting into the pubs and the chemists’ shops, fanning out across the golf course, sweet smiles on their faces, the joy of homecoming. It was that, in the end, at the end, we didn’t know why we’d come. Raymond didn’t know. I knew. I had come to try to resolve my old quarrel, to face one of the most inexplicable of God’s oversights and see if it shook my faith. It didn’t. But David wasn’t my brother.

    We stepped off the train in Edinburgh station, and there was the famous music festival. We had forgotten about it, not noticed at all maybe. So there were no rooms. No rooms at the inn. We got back on the train and went to the next town out, really a suburb, South Edinburgh. The weather was warm, the sky a brilliant blue. Everywhere we saw posters advertising the International Music Festival, and even here people on the street had the same joyous, drunken look we’d seen in the city proper. It seemed as though many of them were in costume—we told each other this, but now I don’t know how that could have been true. I was reminded of Mardi Gras, all that frenzied pleasure before the solemnity and self-denial of Lent. We walked along the road that ran from the train station until we came to a small place, the Glenora Hotel, and went in. An old woman led us upstairs, where we saw the room was spare, but very white and clean. The bed was soft, which ordinarily would have been a nuisance. But the events of the previous days, all the attention they required, made us both feel that we wanted to fall backward into something deep, bottomless, a pool of feathers.

    “A cave made out of bodies,” Raymond said as he was falling asleep. I didn’t know what he meant.

    When we woke up, light poured through the window, and music rang in the street, hum and laughter even at this far edge of the Festival. We held each other close for a long time.

    “I’m afraid the world might end right now,” he said. “But I’m not afraid, too. It would be all right.” He touched the side of my face. “David missed out on this.”

    “How do you know?”

    “He told me. He wrote it in a letter. He said he’d gone to bed with a woman, for the first time, but they both knew it was nothing, that they didn’t want it to happen again. He said he was waiting for somebody he could just hold in his arms.”

    Raymond had closed his eyes, but now he opened them, looked at my face. “Let’s get married, Nora,” he said. “Right now. Here. For David.”

    I didn’t know what to say. I gazed at the details of our little room. The roses on the wall paper, the white washbasin and pitcher—I tried to get some meaning from them.

    I reminded Raymond that we weren’t citizens.

    “Are you saying yes or no?”

    I thought about that. I loved this man, but there was this other loneliness, this voice I wanted more of. Still, he’d suffered so much. I knew what I was saying was right, that back in the United States, the marriage would be—what? The words seemed strange to apply to marriage: null and void. No good. The marriage would be no good.

    “Yes. I’m saying yes.”

    We got out of bed then, dressed—a kind of fury had seized both of us, though not a kind, different furies, bound by the same knowledge that right then, in or near Edinburgh, there would be someone crazy enough, happy enough, song-filled enough to marry us. We laughed and kissed and brushed our teeth, looked at ourselves in the mirror, mugged it up like a couple in a photo booth. This seemed significant later, this lack of evidence: how we didn’t have any pictures of ourselves that day, only the memory of the tiny hotel bathroom, the cloudy mirror over the sink.

    Downstairs, a young man stood behind the reception desk, wearing earphones. His eyes were closed. There’s music everywhere near Edinburgh, I thought, even places you can’t hear it. Somebody is hearing it, though, and that’s what’s important. This man was so completely still and pale that he looked not alive. The woman who found Raymond’s brother at her back steps had said he was wearing earphones, and I must have recalled her words a millisecond before Raymond did, because he stopped as if I had noted this resemblance outloud. He clutched my hand, then released it, like pulsing. I could almost feel it myself, his taking note, the way his body seemed to move from this world to a kind of shadowy universe that ran beside it, and then back. He sighed out a tiny rasp and took hold of my hand again. The man had already heard us or seen us and pulled the soft discs from his ears, one at a time.

    “I have a crazy question for you,” Raymond began.

    “This is just the place,” the man said, smiling.

    “We want to get married.”

    “That’s nice.”

    “Where can we find a magistrate?”

    “You’re Americans, right? I think you need to go to your embassy.”

    “Do you know of anyone who might just do it anyway, just for the money?”

    “I think there’s some waiting period before you can get a license.”

    “Who could we talk to, do you think?”

    “Go over to the Catholic church, St. Anne. And ask for Father Percy. He’s visiting from America, and my sister says he’s quite mad.”

    We did as we were told, and the woman who answered the door at the rectory said Father Percy would be right with us. He appeared, as if from nowhere, and stood behind her.

    “Come in,” he said. “It’s me you’re looking for. What can I do for you?”

    We told him, and told him what the young man’s sister had said, and he laughed, then invited us to sit down.

    “I probably am quite mad. But not mad enough apparently because I feel compelled to tell you the marriage wouldn’t be legal once you got home. Also, I don’t know you, to put it bluntly. I would need to ask a few questions.”

    “All right,” Raymond said.

    Father Percy turned to me. “You’re awfully quiet and solemn, for one thing. For a woman about to be married. Are you here of your own free will?”

    I told him I was.

    “What are you doing in Edinburgh then?”

    “We’ve just been up to Lockerbie,” Raymond said, and from his tone the priest understood at once.

    “A family member?” he said.

    “My brother,” Raymond told him.

    “And it’s made you want to marry each other?” Father Percy looked from Raymond to me. His voice was gentle and full of sorrow, but there was another note in it too. Approval, I thought. Understanding, an appreciation of how it could happen that senseless, violent death might cause two people to want to cleave together. That it might be a way to mourn. That the one might translate the other.

    “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “You’ll have to do it all again when you go home because no one will issue you any paper, any license. There’s a waiting period here, several months, I think. But I’ll say the words. It will be like a rehearsal. I’ll say the words and I’ll mean them. God will understand.” He looked heavenward. “A rehearsal. Let’s go into the chapel.”

    He led us out a side door, through a small courtyard and into the lady chapel, left us alone for a moment, and came back wearing a stole, holding a prayer book.

    “Let me read a gospel first,” he said. “I like this one for marriages.” He grinned at us. “It’s short.”

    You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel.

    “Salt,” he said, “for you right now comes from your tears. But someday, it will come to have once again the old meaning, flavor—all that makes your lives good and interesting. You will be salt for each other in that way. About the rest of it, the light for the world, I don’t know. Show each other the way. Don’t let each other down. Light is a tricky thing.”

    And then the familiar part: do you take this woman, do you take this man. We did. We took. We promised. We kissed each other, there in the Scottish Catholic chapel, in front of the American priest. Afterwards, we walked back to the rectory and had a glass of whiskey and a piece of apple pie. Father Percy told us he was from California, but he had become tired of the west, it was so corporeal, so unreflective.

    “The chapel was on a college campus,” he said, “across the street from the football stadium. Sometimes games were played at the same time as Mass on Saturday evenings, and I don’t know the electronics of it, but the sound systems would get crossed over, and the game announcer’s voice would come booming through the speakers in the church. Or else there would be this terrible feedback. One day, it just wouldn’t stop, and I had to end the Mass. I walked across the street to the announcer’s booth, and I went nuts. Yelling. Trying to break things. Breaking things, too. I don’t know exactly what. I was away from myself. Just out of my head. Afterwards, I told the Bishop I needed to be alone somewhere, and he said I most certainly did.”

    “Remember,” Father Percy said as we were leaving, “this will be something else when you get home. But try not to let it be.”

    When we came back, Raymond and I were estranged. The whole world seemed pushed to the sides of my vision, and out of focus. Peripheral is exactly the word.

    There were questions first, in September, asked very seriously across a desk at the Mercy House in Brooklyn. There was a priest present, a vocations minister, and a sister. The questions had a certain weightlessness about them, an absence of gravity, in both senses. I was reminded of the process for obtaining a permit to carry a concealed weapon, which I had read about in a story.

    “We are in the world,” the sister said. “Not like the Benedictine. You won’t renounce your family, or anyone. That is right for some women. You should think whether it is what you want.”

    Later, I was alone with the priest and the crucified Christ, which hung over his head and seemed very attentive. The sounds of the city seemed to come back then, car horns, shouting, the hum that is thousands of people talking, the forward-going of their lives.

    “You are older than most of the candidates,” the priest said. “Most of the time they come to us from high school, during high school. You’ll automatically become a mother figure, probably a confidante if you have that skill.”

    “I don’t know if I do,” I said. He looked at me for a long moment, as if he were wondering whether I knew anything useful.

    “Most of our older candidates don’t make it. But there have been exceptions.”

    It was there, then, like a weak stitch in the fabric, a loophole.

    “Make your confession now,” he said.

    And I did. But it was not a good confession. I left out the most important things: Raymond, Lockerbie, our strange and desolate marriage.

    “Is that all?” the priest said. His eyes were closed, or maybe he was staring down at his hands. His fingernails were ringed with something black and unwashable, grease or dirt. I thought he must have been working on his car.

    “That’s all,” I said.

    He looked up, at my face, then took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. The dirt seemed to sting, he blinked hard, pulled his hands away quickly and stared at them.   

    “There’s something—” he began, then sighed heavily. “But what do I know?” He smiled. “There’s a power in you. A kind of sadness. Power and sadness can be the same thing sometimes. Think of Christ.”

    I nodded. Unaccountably, I said, “It’s lonely at the top.”

    He laughed, shook his head. “You probably don’t belong here. But sometimes that’s good for the others.” He folded his hands, signaled that I could go.

    “Did you fix your car, Father?” I said.

    He glanced at his hands. “I’m not a mechanic,” he said. “I can’t fix anything.”

I went to Raymond’s apartment. He was drinking tea and studying his art history text. The Greeks. I thought of all the statuary I’d seen, all those broken bodies. He had made cookies. His apartment smelled like sweet, tentative life.

    “I went to see the Sisters of Mercy,” I said.

    He didn’t respond for a long time. It was all right. I knew he had to take in such information slowly. I looked around his apartment, which I believed I’d never enter again, saw the monkishness of it, the futon, the hemp rug, the board over the radiator, the red butterfly chair someone had given him, the metal bookshelves which he had assembled badly, without tools.

    “Do you want some tea, Nora?” he said finally.

    I followed him into the kitchen. The blue kettle, the package of tea bags in the cabinet above. The pegboard also inexpertly attached to the wall, the shaking utensils, the sound of falling books. I had not thought of it this way: several times an hour, his whole place rattled, threatened to collapse.

    “I’m going to move in with another candidate. Named Wendy. She lives on 112th Street, so I’ll actually be closer to you. Nothing will really change.”

    “Nothing will really change?” He spun away from the stove toward me. “What do you mean nothing will change? You take vows. Everything will change.”

    “Yes, but—”

    “You know what I mean.” He flung his arm toward the futon.

    “I know what you mean.”

    He handed me a mug of tea and arranged some of the cookies on a plate. We sat down on the futon which he folded every morning into the nearly S-shape of a couch. He was using a fruit crate for a coffee table.

    “I guess I never thought you were serious,” he said.

    “I didn’t really act serious, did I?”


    Subway cars rocked under us. The art history book, heavy and glossy and awkward, fell off the table and convulsed briefly on the floor.

    “The priest said I was too old. He thinks I’m probably not going to last.”

    “But he let you in anyway?”

    “It takes a long time. You have plenty of chances to blow it, fall away.”

    “Why are you telling me this?”

    “I think I’m telling myself.”

    He nodded and we drank our tea. The cookies were still warm, peanut butter with chocolate chips, the ideal marriage of sweet and salt. I thought that at the time, I really did. The ideal marriage.

    “My brother—” Raymond stopped, picked a shard of cookie off the floor. “David is everywhere.” He turned to face me. “I talk about him too much. Is that it, Nora? That I can’t get over it?”

    “There should be fewer people in the world with something to get over.”

    “He’s everywhere,” Raymond said. “But what good does it do? I can’t get to him, can’t talk to him. Can’t touch him.”

    “He can’t eat these fabulous cookies,” I said.

    Tears ran down his face. “That’s exactly right. That’s it. That’s right.”

    “And he’s missing them.”

    “He is. He is.”

    He bent double, weeping, his face pressed into his knees. I patted his back, then lay sideways across the strong table of his spine, the curve of his ribs, feeling the faint good rumble of his heart.

    “This is killing me,” Raymond said. “This feels like murder.”

I moved in with Wendy and two other candidates, but downtown, near the Mercy House. They were all in nursing school, and nineteen years old. What the priest said was true, that I was their mother, their confidante. They were very sweet girls, very pious. What they wanted most was to do good in the world.

    I worked on my candidacy, substitute taught in the public schools, tutored children, taught religious education classes. The students did not understand much of what they were learning—I can see that now—a cultural moment was overtaking us. Good children went bad overnight, brought knives to school, smoked marijuana before CCD classes, so that there was something of the beyond, of the divine, of the immortal about them when they came into the room. It gave them a kind of awe, an appreciation for the miraculous. They said “whoa” when we read that the stone was rolled away, the burial garments folded neatly, the body disappeared. They meant it.

    Every other day, I took the subway uptown for a class at Mother Cabrini. I knew when the car I rode in passed under Raymond’s apartment, knew how his place fell apart and then becalmed, fell down and then got up. After I moved, we didn’t see each other, but I knew that his brother was still everywhere.

    And I understood the Millet painting, the Angelus, the strange fade of that light, the storm coming in from the right side of the canvas, close to the village in the distance, the way it burned on the arms of the man and the woman standing together in the foreground. It was she who was facing into the light, and the bridge of her nose and her fingertips glowed red, as if she would feel hot to touch, to kiss. And the light turned the field red, too. The ground was burning; it would be impossible to walk across. How would they get home, this man and this woman? I had once asked Raymond, but he didn’t answer. How would they lift their loaded cart and turn and move toward the village without bursting into flame? And what was there waiting for them? The place they lived was only a dark steeple, almost black, and a low rectangular structure that seemed to admit the light, a corncrib, a broken down stable. No wonder she stood frozen, burning, her neck bent as if expecting a blow. Allow me to translate. The King James version of the Bible, for instance: in French, one reads “Laissez la lumiere.” Let there be the light. In English: “Let there be light.” Unspecified, casual. Some light, somewhere, wherever, whenever. This is the difference between the painting and our seeing of it.

    There is a story I heard later, about this painting, that the man and the woman had just buried their child, who had died in an accident on the road outside the town. Millet knew them, loved the child also. In English: “The child has been run over.” No one’s fault. Accidents happen. In German: “Das Kind ist unter die Rader gedommen.” The child is under the car’s wheels. Such drama, and a terrible vision in the mind’s eye. In French: “L’enfant s’est fait ecraser.” The child has caused himself to be crushed. This is what Millet would have said when his wife asked him what had happened to the child. This is how I have to make him say the words. This is my violent occupation.   

    The translator brings her own language into the machinery of another language. She enters into that language and smashes her way to the center, the heart, and she tries to break that heart open, to see what’s inside, see how it all works. And in so doing, she becomes invisible. She leaves the scene.

    What the translator has power over is order. Words in the sentence. Events in sequence. What the reader knows when. Otherwise, she’s nothing.

Liza Wieland has published three novels: The Names of the Lost (Southern Methodist University Press, 1992), Bombshell (SMU, 2001) and A Watch of Nightingales; two collections of short fiction: Discovering America (Random House, 1994) and You Can Sleep While I Drive (SMU, 1999); as well as a book of poems, Near Alcatraz (Cherry Grove, 2005). A Watch of Nightingales was this year’s winner of the Michigan Literary Fiction Award. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, and the North Carolina Arts Council, and has won two Pushcart Prizes. She teaches literature and creative writing at East Carolina University.

Back to Freight Stories No. 5


Liza Wieland

First, Marriage