My mother planted the lavender bushes by the gazebo. They attracted bees in the summer and the buzzing of the bees and the soft scent of lavender filled my head with dreams.
My brother was suspended from boarding school because he was caught smoking cigarettes on the golf course. There were other boys with him, but they took off on a golf cart and left my brother behind. My brother had the kind and trusting nature of all alcoholics even before he became one. He was suspended for the spring semester and my mother took us boys to the country early that year.
From the gazebo I could see the house of Pierre the peasant. It looked nice from far away. Red stone, blue shutters, green vines climbing up the façade. It was only when I got up close that I saw the broken windows and the holes in the roof, the rotted wood of the front door, which would not close.
Pierre the peasant did not live in his house. There was a neat, sturdy shed where he spent his days, and an old car, two doored with a rounded hood, where he spent his nights. I did not know the make and model of the car because my father discouraged such fetishes. The car was an artifact from a time long past.
In the evenings my brother would go for walks through the countryside and I would follow him. The paths we walked were long and meandering. When I think of the landscape now all those hills and vineyards, forests and fields flatten in my memory, as in a Japanese woodblock where bodies cast no shadows.
I remember the stream at the bottom of the valley and the small wood bridge over it. The line of cypress trees marking the edge of a farm. A fork in the dirt road and nothing but Pierre's vineyards growing all around us, low and hard under the palm of my hand.
Our walks sometimes led us to the village, where we saw many signs of life, but no people. Potted plants bloomed on the stoops of houses, laundry hung out to dry, shiny coins glinted in the village fountain where streets met like the spokes of a wheel.
My brother liked to walk to the village cemetery and sit among the dead. The graves were carefully tended and always crowned by fresh flowers. My brother would sit against the brick wall encircling the cemetery, chain smoke cigarettes, and sulk. I would take a nap on the warm stone bench beneath the statue of a crucified Jesus.
By the middle of summer, all eighteen rooms of our house would be filled with guests. Grandmama and Grandpapa, my mother's sisters, my father's half-siblings and step-siblings and house-mates from his days at boarding school. The same boarding school my brother was suspended from that summer, the one he would be expelled from the following year when he set fire to his bed.
When the guests filled the dining room my brother and I would take our meals in the kitchen with our little cousins and their au pairs. One of the au pairs was in the habit of naming vegetables before feeding them to her ward. Come eat Stanley, she would say, waving a green bean on a fork. Agnes is waiting. Doesn't Miriam look delicious?
My brother kept his eyes steady on the wall behind the au pair's head and said it was a cruel game. The girl turned red. Our little cousins giggled. My brother was their hero.
Pierre the peasant had no visitors to his farm. My mother said he had a son in the city, but no wife and no family in the village. When my brother and I passed Pierre's house on our walks we saw the pans of milk he had set out by the road, but never the stray cats come to drink.
When my brother finally died, his face was bruised yellow and bloated. My brother's body could no longer extract the poison from his blood.
My father said it was a suicide. He said there were fast and slow ways of killing oneself and my brother had chosen a slow way. By then, my parents were divorced and our house in county had been put up for sale. Pierre had died too, and our land and his were being sold together.
I never attended the boarding school that suspended and later expelled my brother. My mother distrusted the school. She said it was a cold, intolerant place.
When my brother set fire to his bed, he had been lying in it, and if it weren't for my brother's housemates who smelled the smoke, the same boys who had left him alone on the golf course, my brother would have burned to death.
My mother acquired a cottage in the town adjacent to the boarding school and stayed at my brother's side for the long months he was in hospital. When my brother returned home to the city, I could not embrace him, his skin was so raw. My mother cried and my brother showed me where they had stapled the skin of cadavers to his body.
My brother did not speak to me on our long walks. I missed the summers before he left for boarding school when we would play together in the woods at the back of the house, hide in the treehouse my father had built.
The treehouse my father and Pierre had built, for I remember my father had enlisted the help of Pierre the peasant. Pierre had built the shed where he worked all day and the wooden crates where he stored the grapes after a harvest. He repaired the roofs of houses in the village and had mended our fences when a roe deer trampled my mother's lavender and nearly drowned in the swimming pool. My father was a city man who had never made anything with his hands.
They worked together for many days, my father and Pierre. My brother and I circled them like dogs we were so excited. At the end of each day my mother and father would always invite Pierre for dinner and Pierre would always refuse.
On warm nights, Pierre the peasant slept in his vineyards. I could smell the earth damp and dark and fragrant where he lay. I could hear the rabbits and ground squirrels rustling through the low leaves, the gophers and voles burrowing through the dirt. I could feel the softness of the animals just out of reach, the warmth of their bodies.
In my dreams I was the wind blowing through the vineyards and the hills and the forests and the fields. All of the land slid against me. The skin pulled taut over the flesh of each grape, the soft ears of wild rabbits twitching in their sleep, Pierre's solitude seeping into the earth and nourishing the roots of his crop.
My brother always left the village on the street that took us right by the caged dogs. We never found out who the dogs belonged to because the barn behind them was always empty. My brother chose this street to test me, I think, or in his own way to help me become a man.
The dogs were starved. Their bones as sharp as their fangs and the whites of their eyes yellowed with disease. They lived in their own shit, eating their own shit, their cages stacked on top of one another like the building blocks of a madhouse. I studied my brother as we passed the dogs and by the end of the summer I could walk as he did, unflinching, as the dogs bared their rotted teeth and sprung at me.
The summer after my brother set fire to his bed and got expelled from boarding school was the first summer we did not go to the country. I returned on several occasions, with my mother and father, or some friends from school, but my brother never went back. That summer when he was suspended for smoking, when we went on our long silent walks, was his last.
My last time at the house was the Christmas before my parents' divorce, when I was at university, and my brother had already broken contact with the family. On Christmas Eve, I walked to Pierre's house to invite him to dinner. It was a mild evening and the naked vineyards gleamed silver in the winter light. Pierre was not in his shed or his ancient car. I looked inside a broken window of his house and saw only shadows.
Because dinner would not be served for a few hours, I walked on through the vineyards. I made my way to the village. Wreathes hung from bright doors and yellow light spilled from windows. I walked past the cemetery with its fresh graves, circled the village fountain, and finally took the street my brother always chose, the one that led past the caged dogs.
It began to snow lightly as I walked to the bridge. The city was grey stone. Follow the pigeons, Alice had said, and I crossed empty plazas and entered dark tunnels and emerged into the light and no pigeon or angel flew up in my path.
Alice and I took a tram into the city this morning. The tram had been full. I did not know where all those people had gone. We had crossed the old town square and climbed up stairs to narrow streets. Alice had led me to a building that looked like a bank.
I'll be out before noon, she had said. She then kissed me on both cheeks and slipped behind the glass doors of the language institute. Slipped into the future, I felt, where I could not follow, where this city of heavy stone would crumble.
I waited until Alice had disappeared into the darkness behind the glass. I had a little time alone.
The snow fell in thick, unbroken flakes. It gathered on my eyelashes and edged my vision in white. I walked blindly through the city. Follow the pigeons, Alice had said, follow the crowds. Across the bridge she had promised a palace on a hill. I could not see it from behind the old wall of the city, but I knew it was there. The bridge, the hill, the palace. Lantern-lined streets and shops full of beautiful things.
If I could find the bridge, I thought. I listened for the water. I stood still and listened. It was very quiet inside the snow.
I came to this city because it was dark and there had been too much light in the other place where I lived. The light penetrated everything there. The three rooms of my apartment, the bus, the hallways and classrooms of the institute where I worked. The light flooded the museums, the bookstores, the cafés, the libraries, even the small movie theater where I spent my evenings.
I avoided open spaces in that city of light. The avenues and plazas, the gardens. I avoided the cathedral with its windows of stained glass, the opera house with its domed skylight. I walked ravines of alleyways and rode the metro one stop. It was no use. The light fell hard from the sierras, the brittle mountain light. Every day I felt it erasing my body.
When the clock tower struck twelve the spell would break. Alice would come to find me. We were to meet under the Christmas tree in the old town square where the tram had stopped this morning. The tree that swayed and glittered over the Christmas markets like so many stars come loose. The same tree now laden with snow, I thought. The square buried. I despaired. I was lost.
If there had been a bench I would have sat down, but there was only the old wall at the end of every street, so I leaned against it and slid to the cobblestone. There was another city, I felt, behind the snow. I could see it when I closed my eyes. A cluster of pigeons scatters, crowds fill the plazas and streets. When I opened my eyes again, I saw that the snow had erased my footsteps.
Alice told me a story last night when I arrived in this city. Once, there was a wise woman who could see the future. She looked upon this land across the river and said, a great city will be built there. It will touch the stars.
Alice told me this story as we watched candles burn down on her dining table.
Who built the city then? I asked.
Libuse herself, Alice said.
Some prophecy, I thought, but kept silent. I had not seen Alice in many years.
If the clock tower chimed in the old town square I did not hear it. I followed the stone wall. It will end at the river, I thought. Or, it will run along the river and I will hear the water and the crowds. I will see the pigeons flying over the wall. The wall rose higher as I walked. I walked veiled in its shadow, my head held down against the snow.
When I looked up again, the black spires of the city gate pierced the white sky. I stepped out from the wall's shadow. The gates of the city faced east, Alice had said, and the river lay west. I had been walking in the wrong direction. I had been walking into the past.
The light filled the bathroom of my apartment in the city where I lived. It was the brightest there. I closed my eyes in the shower so I would not have to see my body under that hard, punishing light, but I could still feel my body. The skin dry and flaking off, cracked where the light had bored through. There were cracks in my skull too. The light entered my dreams through them.
The city gate loomed before me like a monolith. It filled my eyes. Standing beneath it, I felt very small. I thought of Alice and how we had been children together. She had the smallest wrists I had ever seen; rounded shoulders, which gave the appearance of a slight stoop. Even having spent the morning and the previous night with Alice in her adult's body, with her adult's words and gestures, I could only conjure her in my mind as a child.
I did not know when we had grown so old. I turned from the gate and looked upon the city I had traversed. All was white and snow.
Alice wrote poetry. She was learning the language of this city. She wanted to translate the living and the young. She would be better off walking the city with me, I felt, lost, but Alice was raised by urban intellectuals who had retired on a farm. She believed in hermeneutics, the archive, letters exchanged between artists.
I did not know what I believed in. Lost cities. Deep time. A prophetess looking out upon a hill. I knew very little of this city's history. I came here like a leper with my collapsing body. A body I kept in shadows, or close to stone. The language of this city was held in the stone, I felt, the language of the dead, the martyred, the apocryphal. It was a language Alice could never learn.
I stepped into the vault of the city gate. The air was colder there. I felt the weight of the stones above me dissipating along the curve of the arch. The pressure in the walls. The snow fell in ripples at the end of the vault. Framed by the stone arch, it was very beautiful. I walked slowly.
I emerged at the end of the gate onto a small, wooden bridge. It was not the bridge I had been looking for. It was not the river. I walked out onto the icy wood and saw that a channel had been dug along the side of the old wall. A medieval moat to protect the city.
Beyond the frozen water, there was nothing but vast fields of white. No sprawling suburbs, no roads, no electric lines, not even lights blinking in the distant hills.
When we were children, Alice and I had played a game on the long bus rides from our farms to the school in town. We would look out the bus window and erase humans from the earth. Whoever could hold her gaze the longest without the interruption of an electric tower or an irrigation ditch would win the game.
Every day, we looked and looked, unblinking, for the longest stretch of meadow or forest, that for a few seconds, would make us feel like ghosts, gazing upon a world that no longer belonged to us.
I did not know the patron saint of this city, so I prayed to the lady of the citadel, whose cathedral I had avoided in the city of light. In the hour of my death, I prayed, for I have strayed into the valley of the shadow.
I ran from the moat and the city gate and the old wall I had followed. The snow fell. I could not remember a time outside of the snow. I could not see where the snow ended and the city began. The white pressed against my eyes.
The city lay behind the wall of snow. The city of Christmas lights and guiding pigeons. In the story of the lady of the citadel, the city wall had crumbled miraculously to reveal her icon hidden there. Two votive candles still burning at her feet. I threw my body into the wall of snow before me and there was no miracle. I fell down. Tasted blood.
When I could manage it, I rolled onto my back and rested for a moment. The sky was white. My face felt numb. The grey façades of buildings rose up at the edges of my vision. I thought of the old town square and the Christmas markets. The clock tower and its parade of apostles. I thought of Alice in her woman's body and if she was looking for me on the bridge, among the crowds. The snow fell into my eyes and I blinked the snow away. The grey stone of the buildings blurred against the sky. I thought I saw a pigeon flying through the snow. Blinked again.
Manuel didn't go by Manuel anymore by the time I met him. That is how I should have known he would disappear.
Manuel said when you make a wish on the full moon it comes true. The night we met, at a daiquiri bar by the city's west plaza, neither of us were drinking.
How do you know it comes true? I said.
This is the second time, he said.
The first time, Manuel wished that the stray dog he had rescued would accept its collar.
This time, he wished to meet me.
Or someone like you, he said. Someone who doesn't belong here either.
My parents left the country where they were born for the same reason Manuel's father left the country where he was born. Manuel's father was an ugly man. I never met him, but I imagine he was mean and sad. The day Manuel told his parents that he liked men, Manuel's father went into a mournful rage.
My own son, he kept saying, my own son.
After all I've gone through, my own son.
Manuel told me he never felt that he had to choose. He believed in ch'i, in chakras, in the Mayan calendar, and the imminent realignment of the earth's magnetic fields.
I also enjoy the company of women, he said one night as we walked down the street, arm in arm. The light was green and we crossed to the next plaza where prostitutes lingered in the shadows. Their pale legs and chests exposed to the cold. Their faces very young.
I kissed a girl once, Manuel said to me. But it was joke. It was like kissing my mother.
For his birthday, I read Manuel's numerology. He was an eight, the number of Wednesday after dark, the eighth day of the week.
What does it mean? he said.
I thought of four eights aligning on a bloody day. The stories my parents told. When a radio from the university bell tower called out, we are unarmed, we are unarmed.
It means you are not like other people, I said.
If I had read Manuel's palm as well that night, I would have seen the unbroken line that cut his hand in two. A cut hand, a person who cuts others out of his life.
Manuel had a younger brother, Andrés, who I never met. All I knew about Andrés was that he lived with Manuel's father, and Manuel lived with his mother.
Manuel's mother was a journalist. She was very beautiful. She looked too young to be the mother of adult children. At Manuel's birthday dinner, she made a brief appearance in the dining room before hurrying out of the apartment.
Why didn't you ask your mother to stay? I said.
She has a date, Manuel said.
She's very beautiful, I said. You never told me that.
You think so? he said.
Manuel's father and brother were not invited to the dinner either. It was just me and some of the practitioners from his chi kung class.
Manuel did not know how his father left the country where he was born. In the absence of this story, I substituted other stories I had heard.
For example, the story of my landlady's boyfriend, Guillermo.
Guillermo was a student at university who had gone home one weekend to visit his parents. When he returned to the city, some friends stopped him before he entered his dorm.
The police are waiting for you, the friends said. They already took your roommate.
Guillermo went into hiding and left the country just a few days later. He married his girlfriend so she could come with him. They were twenty years old. No one ever saw his roommate again.
I brought Manuel to the coast with me once to visit a wealthy, childless woman I knew. The first moment we had alone, our host remarked on Manuel's heavy brow.
Such a melancholy young man, she said, your boyfriend.
I did not explain. I worried that if I did, she would feel obliged to give us two rooms. I did not mind sharing a bed with Manuel. We had slept crammed together on the train.
The people of this country, our host said, they have an air of tragedy about them.
Air of tragedy, I thought. Death flights over the ocean. I imagined the people of this country falling from planes. Before their bodies hit the water, could they be said to fly?
Manuel rejoined us at that moment, and the woman smiled at him warmly. I noticed then that Manuel rarely smiled.
My last night in the city, Manuel said he would see me again. He had no doubt. We walked the streets we had always walked, arm in arm, and when we said goodbye, he kissed me on the lips, as a joke.
I wrote him only one letter. Mostly I apologized for not writing earlier. I'm not good at this, I said.
Manuel responded with a letter twice as long as mine. He said he understood. He said he was glad that I was happy. Then he asked many questions about my new life.
I put off writing that second letter for a week, a month, then many months, years, until it was too late. I never heard from Manuel again.
One day, I received a phone call from an unknown number. It was Manuel's father. He said Manuel had broken off contact with everyone back home.
He moved out of his mother's house last month, Manuel's father said, and now he's stopped answering our calls. Manuel's father had a soft, kind voice. It was not at all what I had imagined.
Andrés tracked down Manuel's new address, and paid him a visit, but Manuel locked the door and turned off the lights as soon as he heard Andrés's voice at the door. The next time Andrés returned, the porter would not let him into the building.
We were wondering if you have heard from him, Manuel's father said. He did not have many friends and I know you two were close.
Manuel had told me two stories that in my mind converged into one ending.
In the first story, he is walking an isolated stretch of road on a pilgrimage to the northwest. Maybe he is taking a detour through some marshes. I do not know the landscape of the north, so maybe there were no marshes, but only the sea, a rocky coast. In any case, Manuel gets lost. He watches the sun set into the marshland or the ocean, and in the darkness that follows, he can't find his way back to the road.
In the second story, Manuel hikes up the sierras with a friend who knows some people who have prepared for the end of the world. A whole village has sprung up in the mountains, the friend tells Manuel. When they reach the village, however, it consists of only three men and a bunker. The leader of the men has a beard down to his belly button. We're going to seal the bunker for a week, the bearded leader says, maybe more, just to be safe.
Both stories end with Manuel tumbling through the dark, alone. Before he finds the road, the headlights of a car, the hostel, and the bed, he thinks, I will die tonight. On both nights, he thinks, they will never find my body.