Skip to content
Words Without Borders is an inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winner!
from the December 2008 issue

“Arnold . . . !”

She's wondering how to tell his children when an immense silence numbs her. It's as if her thoughts can no longer be captured in words, as if words are refusing service.

The briefcase sits in the hallway, in the exact same spot where it used to be left every day around 7 PM. She looks at it: the attaché case of a medical representative. She and the boys had been in fits of laughter when he turned up with the thing: leather, with copper finishing and a secret combination lock!

But forbearing and irresistibly charming as he could be, he had merely chuckled and taken them out for dinner that night.

During such nights of genuine togetherness, she felt her family life with him was like a chocolate cream she ought to savor very slowly indeed.

She's wondering whom she ought to tell first: his mother or his children … and whether there might be anyone in their circle of friends who could help her come to terms with all this? But again her thoughts grind to a halt because of this vast emptiness that crushes all her words.

Into this hole drops a still-fresh memory: the funeral of a former classmate in Groningen. She had taken the train on a Wednesday morning and he had booked her a room in a hotel close to the railway station. It would allow her to spend some more time with the family. And so she had; around one o'clock that night, her deceased friend's brother had driven her back to the hotel.

The sounds come back to her now: the creaking bed, the tap being turned on and off again, the running water … and indescribable sounds of intimacy.

She had tried not to listen, but what had taken place just above her had been too intrusive, and even though she had pulled the duvet well over her head, thoughts and feelings of physicality continued to haunt her.

So instead of feeling sad about a woman who had died too young and instead of reliving the pain of her surviving relatives, the smell of sorrow had been ousted by the sounds of carnality.

How she had longed for the strength of his thighs and the tenderness of his tongue there in that hotel room!

The following day, they had breakfast at a nearby table: a man and another man. They were dressed for the office and their gestures betrayed nothing of what had passed between them that night. To be absolutely certain, she had gone over to the reception desk to ask if there were any other guests. But the man's eyes had put her in her place, before he glanced at the two men and said defiantly: "It's quiet this time of year; we're happy to get the occasional visitors just for the night …!" Her eyes lowered she had unfolded the table napkin, and all choked up she had tried to make herself a sandwich. But nobody showed her any consideration. The two men shared the things for which the night had been too brief and she learned that one of them would travel back to his wife and children.

Again she's overcome by desire. And in her mind the film of the men and her in the hotel's revolving door is replayed in slow motion: they had played a childishly sweet game with her, as if they hadn't had rough sex for hours on end; and for some reason this had hurt her.

As she walks over to the bathroom for a painkiller she glances at the briefcase. She hates the secrets of others, which is why one day she'll toss it unopened into a canal. She hesitates by the phone. Nevertheless she carefully dials his mother's number. The moment she hears her voice, she goes on the attack: "I haven't heard from you in ages!"

"What's wrong?" she hears the woman say.

"Do you remember, that story I told you about the hotel in Groningen?"

"Years ago," she hears his mother say calmly.

"Years ago!" she repeats.

"Those two men!"

"Those two men!" she repeats nervously.

"Why didn't I tell anyone but you?"

"I've no idea," the woman says firmly.

"I've no idea!" she repeats.

"What's wrong then?" her mother-in-law asks.

"Nothing. Nothing at all," she says and hangs up quickly. But down the broken line she starts yelling: "Our man is dead. He's dead. Dead!"

She used his mother's precarious health to ask the police to please not release any lurid newspaper story. No name. No initials. Just some police findings.

They were very understanding. And ever so tentatively they tried to establish whether she was ready to identify the body. She'd said: "I only want to see his head and his feet!" And because the body was intact, they were fine with that as well.

But when she finally stood in front of him and untied his shoelaces, rolled down his socks, and took his toes in her hands, then she asked firmly to be left alone with her husband.

She pulled up the sheet far enough to see how bloody he was—and that he hadn't put up a fight.

Perhaps they thought she was a woman of courage, because she'd asked them about the details of the police report. And because she never shed a tear. And never once spoke with a catch in her voice. Insofar as she could tell she didn't even have cold hands nor had her fingers trembled when she signed the death certificate.

But beside the corpse she was overcome with fear, for who had hated her husband so much to stab his heart with such passion; and why does everyone assume it had been a man? He had not been robbed of any of the expensive items he carried on him; and his car had been found, safely locked, in the centre of town. Did he have any debts? Extramarital affairs? Enemies? Criminal connections? She could answer unequivocally—and be convinced in her own mind that she was telling the truth. Why didn't he wear his wedding ring? She had stared at the plainclothes officer for a long time and shaken her head, for how would she know?

Had she been allowed to touch him, she would have undressed him at once, washed him, and dressed him in a brand-new suit. Perhaps his body would have disclosed secrets to her that would have remained hidden to trained police eyes. Perhaps.

On her way home, carrying his attaché case and car keys, she kept trying to find words with which she might put together a telling yet acceptable story for the children. She had three different versions to work on: one for their boys, one for his mother, and one for her parents. And no matter how guilty he may have been of his own death, it is her duty to clear him in everyone else's eyes.

By sheer coincidence her parents had been around during the whole hepatitis controversy. They were back in the Netherlands for a holiday and wanted to stay with them for a while. And as usual, to make it even more of a surprise, they burst in completely unexpectedly.

He had been home for weeks: pale, yellowish, and weakened by hepatitis attacks. At first he had tried to convince her it was jaundice, but when she too was called for a check-up it turned out he had contracted this nasty infection. And so had she. Miserable and weepy, she had laid into him when she came home and had sworn not to sleep beside a man who tells lies about his body. She believes people flout a basic principle of trust when they deny their bodies' warning signs. Our minds may be using words to lie, but surely our bodies are capable only of telling the truth!? He knew that damn well. He knew that when he said "I love you; I long for you; I want to live in you" she would always explore his body for proof and that while doing so she would sometimes even avoid his gaze until she'd found the warmth of his words in the circulation of his sex.

So when her parents suddenly turned up, they found themselves in the center of a marital spat, complete with separate beds and two children tip-toeing between them.

Meddlesome and well-meaning as her mother was, she thought it necessary to tell her daughter that the issue had to be resolved, even if only for the sake of the grandparents and children.

And too tired to keep quiet any longer, she revealed the secret: he contracted hepatitis somewhere and got me infected too!

Should she have grabbed this opportunity to reveal more: that she never had any money of her own; that he did the shopping; that she couldn't even choose her own sanitary napkins. Or should she have fanned her mother's anger by saying they were one of a cheating kind, father and son-in-law, because they frequented whorehouses while supposedly going to the casino to mix with men of the world!

But her father's escapades had always amused her and in his latter years she had certainly not begrudged him something more than a wife who dragged him all over the place as if he were some little lap dog. And her own husband appeared to be so worn out from his medical sales that he had trouble getting it up even once a month … So it really couldn't be all that bad between the sheets of purchased love. But even without any of this information, her mother had made a big deal of the hepatitis thing and had gone so far as to force her son-in-law to leave the house until he was fully recovered from his venereal disease!

That was too much for him and her parents were sent packing straightaway, leaving her no choice but to share his bed again. But in the room where that bed stood it had grown quieter. They barely spoke. They didn't laugh. They never sang anymore. And from this silence had sprung their late arrival: a four-year-old son who's hard of hearing, a boy who's the mirror image of his mother. He worshiped the child, would clutch it to his chest in the morning and read it animal fables in a whisper, the child's beautiful eyes close to his beautiful mouth. He had so much love in him!

When a woman has waited so long she has seen the sun rise without having him slip in beside her in his pajamas, she can camouflage her anxiety by hating him for a couple of hours. She can feed this hatred with the confessions of female friends and their female friends and their female friends who likewise waited and waited, called the police in a panic only to be told later in the day, during a hellish fight with their partner, that a man loves the night and that he can get so involved he forgets everything the light of day can bear: the wee small hours, that's what men were made for! After their vanishing act they will saunter into their living room as if nothing's happened, jingling their house keys and holding their head up high. The nightmare is over. But the fury reaches its climax. After all: he's alive! That's why at first she didn't think it was necessary to alert anyone or anything when, by the time the children set off for school, he hadn't come back yet.

She carried out her morning rituals on autopilot and pushed them out the door with a smile on her face. But the middle one suddenly reappeared in front of her: "Mum, I'd wanted to ask Dad for some money."

Angry, because he had caught her telling one of her untruths again, and because she was so deeply disappointed that it wasn't her husband standing in front of her, she had wanted to throw her son out the window.

But taken aback by the look in her eyes he had, before she could let her hands do the talking, vanished through the shuddering front door. She was on her own now: he had come to offer help and she had rejected him again. He cannot help being so close to them. He cannot help knowing his parents so intimately.

She really ought to tell him first, before the others. She went to the bathroom to have another shower. Picking up his toothbrush, she dropped it into the trash with an odd feeling of revulsion. She took her time gargling, brushing her teeth and then gargling again. The alternating hot and cold water momentarily took her mind off the day's pressures.The jets of water crashed onto her head, her shoulders, her back. She rubbed her body dry with a coarse towel.

Arnold … with his fine features, his jet black eyes and his tawny body. And his tongue: pinkish red just like the palms of his hands, like the soles of his feet, like her inner labia.

Never again could she put her desire for his body into a small gesture—a sign of receptiveness that he had always understood and responded to at once. At such moments, what did she care that their marriage had lapsed into a union without words: their bodies had retained their lust and thus the heart too got what it wanted.

There were times when all she could do was cry, not knowing whether it was with pain or pleasure. And he would fall asleep with a crumpled face that couldn't taste the difference between sweet and sour. She cannot even work out how long it's been since they've come together like that. It feels like last night.

In her country of birth it is not the custom to name a child after one of its parents, but Arnold's family tradition had demanded that his first son be named after him. But the eldest child was hers: it had been her fight from beginning to end, her victory over death, and she alone could name him. And because both of them, exhausted, had been hooked up to an oxygen machine, she had called him Adam. Thus the second son was named after his father. The late arrival, meanwhile, was never given a name, because fearing the child would crawl back into her body he had called her mirror image Boy. Boy had restored a voice to an era of dead silence. They had not conceived him as they had their first- and second-born, during nights of abundance when their bodies were insatiable. All this is going through her mind as she walks across the schoolyard to pick up his namesake. She divulges little and the headmaster meekly fetches him from his class. He asks no questions, this twelve-year-old child. He quickly slips into his coat and starts walking beside her.

She waits until their footsteps are in sync and she can breathe in the fragrance of his hair. Then she tries to tell him without her voice seizing up: "Last night your father was found in a park where gay men meet to have sexual relations. He had bled to death. You must help me come to terms with it, because I love him so much!"

She could cry then because he just kept on walking beside her, oblivious to everything . . . even walking past their home . . . "Perhaps they attacked him and dragged him to the park because he didn't want to go with any of those queers!" Fifteen-year-old Adam is working on a model airplane, and on a story about his father. His words have a leaden tension and the story will consume a lot of time and energy before finally dissipating.

The late arrival appears to be engrossed in a television cartoon. Every once in a while he mutters with a half-sob in his voice: "I don't want my father to be murdered!"

They've heard it from their brother, in plain and honest words, the way he was told. Arnold carries a tray with four mugs of warm aniseed milk into the room.

The despondency dies down. She finally dares to look at their children—the curls on the three boys' heads all glossy in the autumn sun.

The phone rings. She takes the receiver off the hook, then changes her mind and makes contact possible again. More ringing. It's someone from the police with difficult questions. She doesn't want to know. She isn't cooperating. The boys can hear it through her fingers: "There's a murderer on the loose." Now the glass link that just about holds them together shatters: the doorbell. Arnold heads bravely for the hallway. They hear voices. It's the GP in his lace-ups on the tiled floor. With him are the detective and a plainclothes man.

She gestures for them to take a seat. One of them asks to speak to her in private. She doesn't know what she wants.

Then the boys are asked to leave their mother alone for a moment. Adam leaves in a huff, taking his little brother with him. Arnold stays put by the window. Staring outside. Immovable. Angry. Severe. She knows he'll only leave at her request. But she leaves him be. Tawny. Skinny.

The men start talking. But all she sees is the mustached mouth that never stopped kissing her. The mornings in bed. The afternoons. The odd Sunday evening in a remote restaurant. Candlelight. Wine. Another kiss … And she is overcome by raw lust. When confronted with death, life clamors hardest where it all commences.

As she gets up, her lips search for his mouth. Then she slides the wedding ring from her finger and puts it on the glass tabletop. The doctor picks it up and slips it onto his little finger. He stares at Arnold's back for a long time. She notices. Then she asks the other two men to leave her alone with her three sons.

Read more from the December 2008 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.