Season of Ash

A Novel in Three Acts

by Jorge Volpi Escalante and Alfred MacAdam

Season of Ash

Paperback, 413 pages, Univ of Nebraska Pr, List Price: $15.95 | purchase

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Excerpt: Season Of Ash

Season of Ash

SEASON OF ASH

A NOVEL IN THREE ACTS


OPEN LETTER

Copyright © 2006 Jorge Volpi
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-934824-10-8

Contents


Chapter One

THREE WOMEN

1. Moscow, Russian Federation, December 30th, 2000

Those aren't her eyes. As frozen as the mosaics in that place, her tone defies contradiction. Who would have the nerve? It's hard to know what she thinks or feels: This is one of the great mysteries of our race. Irina Nikolayevna Granina remains locked in her silence. She devours the doctors with her black eyes and memorizes their names in order to denounce them later. Where do they get off insisting like this, with such urgency, making her get up in the middle of the night? The end of Communism has not changed them, she thinks (or so I believe she thinks): Now they wear crisp uniforms and gloves, but they're still the same executioners who spit on Arkady Ivanovich in the past, the same cowards who classified him insane and dangerous, the same bastards who filled him with sedatives. They still have the souls of policemen, she grows enraged.

Irina clutches her handbag as if it were a safe conduct pass. She'd like to leave as soon as possible, to return to the whiteness of her sheets and the silence of daybreak, to the dream that consumes her nightly: a dense sea without a shore. Ever since she separated from Arkady (or to put it more clearly, ever since she abandoned him after thirty years of sharing his life), no one protects her from the shadows. Now she has to stare into them alone, with the same determination that allowed her to go on living and rescue him.

Look at her again, Irina Nikolayevna, please.

The woman steps back a few paces, her pulse accelerates, and someone raises the curtain-it's white, like the rest of the furniture. Under halogen light, human skin acquires a greenish tone, but Irina Nikolayevna doesn't raise her eyes. She has no need. A mother is never mistaken.

Those aren't her eyes. She'd like to shout it again and again, not her eyes, not her eyes, force them to shut up and beg her forgiveness, convinced that this dull green gaze is not the one she loved so much. But the words do not leave her lips. The temperature rises at a dizzying rate. Some air, please! Outside, the rain beats against the storm windows. The nurses offer her a glass of water which Irina contemptuously rejects. Finally she collapses onto a plastic chair. We know how painful this is for you, Irina Nikolayevna.

The little boy with violet shadows under his eyes doesn't know whom he's dealing with: Thanks to her, to her tenacity and strength, Russians now are free to say whatever they like. Now they can buy Italian ties or sleep with teenage girls from Thailand. Now they live without fear of being arrested. So how do you dare doubt her word? Perhaps it would be better to wait for Doctor Granin.

Arkady Ivanovich? Were they going to pester him too? A bitter smile materializes on Irina's face. During the past few months, she hasn't had the right to bother him, but these good-for-nothings can call him in at dawn because of a bureaucratic error! She is almost pleased that someone has disturbed the tranquility of Arkady Ivanovich Granin, illustrious member of the Russian Academy of Science, once a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, and has returned him to the land of the living. She imagines him in his pajamas, obese and ridiculous, getting ready to walk out into the blizzard. It might be worthwhile waiting around a bit to contemplate his bloated face. Arkady Ivanovich? We've just called him. He'll be here in a few minutes.

How naïve they are, Irina thinks, or perhaps she whispers it. They clearly don't know him: Like all victims, Arkady feels obliged to exhibit his martyrdom. He accepts every invitation, all homages, turns up at every gathering to celebrate any praise whatsoever of his person, but at the end of the day, he always gets his way. How long has it been since Irina last saw him? Six months, seven? He'll be furious when he finds out it's an error, and he won't rest until the guilty are punished.

Irina has no fears about her daughter. She has no idea where she might be, it's been months since she's had a letter from her, but she isn't worried: Whatever they say, that is not her body lying on that slab. After so many fights and reconciliations, Irina has almost gotten used to her absence, to that mixture of hostility and cowardice that keeps her on the other side of the planet. She's certain that the same fate which made her fragile and violent will also protect her from danger. The poor thing doesn't deserve to die so young.

Irina Nikolayevna remembers caressing her daughter's bloody face. Oksana, seven years old at the time, had just fallen from a third-floor window, but miraculously (though of course Irina did not believe in miracles) she only suffered scrapes on her forehead and knees. As a good scientist, the socialist scientist she was obliged to be, she rejected supernatural explanations and convinced herself of the strength of her family: The girl's genes, present in her mother and grandmother, would make her invulnerable.

May I leave? One of the pathologists shakes his head negatively. Let's wait for Doctor Granin, please.

Irina Nikolayevna seems fated to wait: For years she waited for Arkady to return from exile; what can a few minutes matter to her? Her yellowed fingers dig around in her bag until they find a pack of cigarettes. She takes one out, lights it, and carefully inhales (a strange ceremony). Nicotine accentuates her sadness. She repeats the action again, and then again.

Where is she? Irina recognizes her husband's voice. Ash slips between her fingers. Where is my daughter?

Arkady doesn't look fatter or older, but solid and majestic, with a carefully clipped beard. The master of the situation. Even now, he can't stand inelegance: He's wearing a dark suit, a freshly-ironed shirt; no one would imagine that for years he wore the same suit and the same underwear, holes and all. Irina conceals her spite and yields to her husband's confidence (yes, he's still her husband). Arkady Ivanovich Granin is no ordinary man; he's a moral reference point. A symbol. Or at least he was until the scandal erupted. The scandal she herself provoked.

He doesn't even bother to say hello and follows the doctors, who show him the body with a deference that that used to be reserved only for high-ranking Party officials. Arkady can't stand the spectacle and quickly nods. He hopes to resolve the matter as soon as possible; for him this death is nothing more than an undeniable fact. He's neither sad nor surprised, just resigned. His daughter was possessed by uncontrollable violence, a delirium that made her abnormal. Oksana died long ago (at least in his heart), when she ran away from Moscow and joined the other dropouts who were lost in the dark streets of Vladivostok, the ghost port.

Arkady whispers a few words to the director of the morgue and gets ready to leave. Irina stops him. As if he feared the raucous presence of the reporters who've been tailing him since the DNAW-Rus scandal became public, he gives in and hugs her. Irina Nikolayevna clings to his body. Arkady notes with disgust that she's dyed her hair blond and then feels dizzy after inhaling her sugary perfume.

It's not true that it's Oksana, it's not true that it's our daughter, right? Arkady remains silent. He's always been afraid of his wife's outbursts. He knows her determination, her daring, her courage, and he doesn't want a scene. The newspaper vultures will be there any minute now, the autopsy and the burial must both take place as soon as possible. The cause of death? Arkady asks the chief pathologist. He leads him to the slab and shows him the wounds: We'll take care of covering them up. Oksana finally got what she wanted, thinks the biologist.

Arkady stands tall, but Irina begins to collapse. Neither cries, but for different reasons. All he wants is to leave, while she remains incredulous. Those are not her eyes, isn't that so? Arkady doesn't answer. Tell me those aren't her eyes, that those aren't the eyes of our Oksana. Tell me, Arkady Ivanovich.

Calm down, Irina, it was inevitable. Those words condemn him. The woman glares at him furiously and then rushes toward the body of her daughter. Irina approaches the slab, overcomes her own resistance, and touches the lifeless body. She won't dare to look at her face and simply caresses her neck on top of the sheet. Then she seizes her daughter's right hand, small and covered with scabs, her childhood hand. When she realizes she hasn't touched it in years, she kisses it again and again. Finally she kneels and makes the sign of the cross.

Arkady Ivanovich rushes through the paperwork. He's not willing to break down now, after all he's suffered. After contributing to the liberation of 200,000,000 people, he cannot allow himself to weep over one. A long time ago, when his fights with Oksana became unbearable, he made a decision: The death of his daughter would not be his death. As simple as that. Even so, he smashes his fist against the wall, his only display of rage or grief. Calmer, he decides to wait until Irina finishes praying to the inert body of his daughter, that part of him which defied him all her life and which now has taken the cruelest revenge.

2. New York, United States of America, December 30th, 2000

Jennifer opens and closes the kitchen cabinets, fascinated by the sound of the doors: The touch of the wood calms her nerves. Wearing that black skirt and that blouse, with its peter-pan collar, she looks like a schoolgirl. Either she hasn't had time to put on makeup or she's decided to skip it in order to accentuate the drama in her face. The kitchen tiles sparkle in the sun filtering through the windows. In the distance, the skyscrapers delineate a grayish labyrinth. It's been a long time since the city looked so bright, so immobile, Jennifer thinks (I want her to think) as she turns on the water and rinses her hands for the umpteenth time. She's always adored cleanliness-the shelves are packed with Brillo pads, rags, detergents, soaps, disinfectants, insecticides, bleaches, deodorants, rolls and rolls of toilet paper, napkins, and spot removers-but today she will not allow even a speck of dust, which is why she will not stop dusting and rinsing her hands under the water.

Finally, Jennifer plops down onto one of the armchairs in the living room, a purple model with no pleats that must have cost Wells a fortune, and contemplates the void stretching out before her eyes. From this observation point, a Park Avenue twentieth floor, the world doesn't look like a battlefield. There are no tanks in the streets, no rotting bodies on the sidewalks, no land mines in the garbage dump, no machine gun buzzing, no dynamite exploding. But the war is there, everywhere, without anyone's seeing it.

For Jennifer, peace is merely an image (like the idea of the world economy taken as a totality), a deception only the uninformed or indigent believe in. All you have to do is kick a hole in that anthill, demolish its mechanisms and springs, to reveal the cruelty of its battles. Most people prefer to dissimulate, to convince themselves that nothing is happening, that here in the heart of America it's possible to be safe, far from the stray shots that murder children and old people in other places on the planet. They're wrong. The fighting is everywhere, even in this tower just a short distance from Central Park. Sitting like this, her legs crossed, barefoot, Jennifer can barely tell the difference between herself and the irresponsible masses teeming down below. Her apparent indifference makes her resemble the models whose flesh carpets Manhattan's billboards. Like so many women of her age and social class, she could simply accept being just one more victim of fashion and indolence. She would almost like to be as ignorant, as pure as those women: That way she wouldn't have to appear charming, she could massage her feet for as long as she wanted, could watch soap operas, exercise, do yoga-or pay a psychoanalyst-with no fear of being frivolous. That's not her fate. She chose to belong to the exclusive club of those who guide, who order. Of those who know.

At the International Monetary Fund, the altar of the planet's economy, Jennifer learned to imagine herself commanding an army. Except that her soldiers don't carry weapons, don't besiege cities, don't fight guerrillas or terrorists. But their mission of pacification is not really different from those carried out by tanks or infantry. Her conquests are more subtle, but no less violent (and no less necessary, according to her). She's never doubted the morality of her goals. Even if hers is a dirty Job-fighting against those who disturb the freedom of markets-she's convinced that someone has to do it. She has no regrets. And certainly isn't sorry.

Jennifer is dying to light a cigarette (she hasn't smoked for twenty years), but she doesn't. Instead she just opens one more bottle of mineral water, takes a sip, and puts it on the table next to her cell phone, her fetish. It hasn't rung in over half an hour. The truth is, she doesn't know what to do or how to behave. Actually, what she doesn't know is how to break the news to Jacob. Should she explain that it was an accident and perhaps use the word tragedy? Or would it be better to skip the details and launch into a sermon about the existence of Heaven and the angels? And if she were to tell him the truth, that Allison was stupid, that for years she been taking senseless risks, that she'd always been irresponsible, cynical? How do you tell a ten-year-old boy that his mother would not be coming home, and, the hardest part, how do you make him see that it's the best thing that could have happened to him? Jennifer will need all her diplomatic skill to convince him, but there's a reason she is the Fund's star negotiator. Jacob is clever and has begun to take on the same defiant attitude all the Moores possess.

For the first time since she learned what happened to her sister-the ambassador's voice is still echoing in her ear-Jennifer can't manage to hold herself together. Which sensation is stronger, pain or relief? Her puritan temperament forces her to erase that comparison. She will never admit they were not a model family, as they presumed, but a pair of fighters, of rivals. One part of her always wanted to get Allison out of the way: That weepy girl was a permanent bother, an obstacle to her plans for independence. Jennifer had to slip out of the yoke imposed on her by her father, Senator Moore (that's what both girls called him), and to do that she invented an intimate, barely perceptible revolt that Allison put at risk. That's why she preferred having her far away, why she detested taking charge of her, spoiling her, watching over her, scolding her. She had work enough taking care of herself.

Jennifer withdraws to the bathroom, where the mirror reflects her devastated face. Perhaps if she'd been less beautiful when she was young, less perfect, she would be less unhappy now ... She fixes her hair as she does every morning, untangles her long blond tresses, rubs her eyes, and washes her hands again. With horror, she confirms the fact that yet another wrinkle has appeared at the corner of her mouth. How much time will pass before the telephone transmits the news? She'll have to explain things to Jacob before that happens, before she hears the buzzer, and the neighbors burst in with their condolences.

Jennifer picks up the phone and dials Jack Wells. It rings several times before he answers. What do you want? In the background she hears the noise of motors. Where are you? What? Something's happened ... Can't you go someplace quieter? Is this better? The racket goes on at the same pitch. Allison is dead. What? She's dead, Jack, damn it all. The stupid fool. What are you saying, Jennifer? If this is a joke ... She's dead, are you listening to me? I understand, I'll be right there.

Jennifer takes another sip of mineral water and discovers Jacob's eyes at the other end of the kitchen. Was he listening? The boy's face is bleary, his hair a mess. She goes over to him without touching him. I want hot chocolate. Jennifer sighs. At this time of day? Please. Jacob looks like a cartoon character in his green and orange stripped pajamas. He's biting his left thumb. I've told you a thousand times never to go barefoot in the house! (Continues...)




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