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In the airport, waiting, there was a new quiet. The quiet shuffle of weary travelers, the quiet groan of engines on the runway, the quiet flapping of newspapers and magazines. She sipped the new quiet like gin. Twelve hours later, in the middle of the night, she arrived at her hotel. She peered out the window in her room onto a dry hillside marked with trees she could not name. Below that lay a city of ghosts. To be honest, she had always wanted to see with her own eyes the famous sculptures and stand on her own feet inside the eternal architecture. She had always wanted to feel on her lips the special ice cream. A shame. Morning came, and she dressed carefully in brown and beige.
She took a bus down to the city and got off near the steps of a building she’d heard a professor lecture about once. She walked straight past the cafes, past pretty youth in relaxed postures, until she came to the walls of the city within a city and wiped her damp palms on her skirt. Inside the gate, the line was long. Actually, it looped back and forth, like a drawing of a snake that made no sense if you looked closely.
She took her place, talked with the others in line. The man in front of her left his family as his wife entered her dying months. “Why?” she had to know. Because the sex he’d discovered with another woman was so good he could think of nothing else. There was chortling and hooting. The woman behind her stole money from her parents. “How much?” she asked the woman. “More money than you can imagine,” the woman said, and she held up a smooth black handbag with a diamond studded clasp. There was whistling and clapping. They were like schoolkids swapping stickers. Let it be known that she guarded her own story, which could only ruin the atmosphere, no matter where you went or who was listening.
The line moved slowly. Soon the sun was high above the city walls. She missed her children, her husband. More than anything, she missed her other self, before the rabid dog. When at last it was her turn, she was thirsty. She feared a bad smell wafted from her. But the Pope’s smile, as she spoke, reassured her. “Do you regret your actions?” he said. And though his eyes danced with the light of all those painted windows, she understood her mistake.
She covered her face and turned away. Her sandals clicked loudly against the floor as she fled the eternal architecture and dove into the bright sun. She felt too dizzy to walk, so she crawled to a crowded little ice cream shop. She licked and licked the spoon, but the ice cream left no taste in her mouth. Had it really come down to this, her life a riddle: What does it mean when a person feels guilt but not regret? In time, a sociopath might feel regret, yet she knew she did not contain even the possibility of it.
She held her children inside her. The ideas of them: her son’s innocent impulses, her daughter’s ferociousness, her oldest’s more vulnerable constitution. Also, the exact feel and weight of each small individual. The youngest had soft elbows; the girl had a perfectly round face; the oldest had tendons like violin strings behind his knees. She did not deserve them.
She considered the immutable distance between two words—this, but not that—and persevered. Eight hours on a plane, five hours on a bus, and thirty minutes in a helicopter between snowcapped peaks. The final 892 steps she managed alone. When the sun fell, up in the clouds, the world became a smooth pink basin. She called her children and told them she would be home soon, very soon.
She didn’t have to wait in line to speak with the shaved men in robes. They were sincere, curious. They asked lots of questions, about her past and her life as a mother. But in a way, their judgement was worse. Technically speaking, she had altered the universe, she had left a negative mark. It could not be undone.
This time she felt more betrayed than shamed. When she called home again, she couldn’t bear to speak to her children. “When are you coming back?” her husband pleaded. She wasn’t able to say. One, she didn’t know. And, two, a terrible sadness had backed up in her throat.
She traveled to the other side of the world, where she found a comrade living in a tent in the jungle. The comrade wore camouflage shorts, her bare thighs more intimidating than the bullets ranged across her back. “Be like me,” the comrade said, then showed her how to fry a grasshopper, how to master her posture. When at last she felt an intimacy between them, she tried speaking of her guilt. But the comrade didn’t believe in guilt and waved her away: “Fight! You have to fight history!”
So it went.
She read a headline in the newspaper one day: “Studies show most women don’t regret…” She tracked down one of the girls who was interviewed for the article. She was young, a child according to the newspaper, but when she found the girl, in a clothing store in a city that was known for its storytelling, she looked so much older it was hard to believe. She bought the girl-woman a pastry and a hot chocolate and the girl-woman told her, without blinking, all about her stepfather, how she went to the police and testified. This made her weep. But the girl-woman was a hero, and who doesn’t realize a hero’s tale has no use?
Over the years she spoke with many different sorts. People with genuine feeling behind their eyes and people of immense intellect—no one solved her riddle. She learned to carry a small satchel and nothing else. She wrote long letters to her family and became skilled at describing the strange places she’d seen, all the new things she’d tasted.
One evening, she is sitting in a café near the ocean, listening to a mother speak to her child in a foreign language that is like a lullaby her own mother used to sing. The years have quieted her mind. She wonders some days if she’s more like a tree than a woman. The rabid dog is still there, stretched out by her feet, napping quietly in her shade.
Eventually, the waiter reappears at the table to ask if she needs anything else. Startled, she looks up and says, “Something to do.”
The waiter, though he has been working at this café more than two decades, takes his customer literally (or perhaps he understands her better than she understands herself). He pulls a pen out of his pocket, tells her two men were in the café the other day and left it behind. He would like to return it to them.
She holds the object in her hand, judges the weight of it in her palm. It is heavy for a pen, but ordinary looking—except for a narrow rubber tube on one end. She finds herself curious about the owners and asks around town. She is not as quick-moving as she used to be, yet she does ok. Finally, a group of boys playing in the street tell her the pen is for writing underwater. She goes to the water, thinking she’ll find the owners there. Days pass. She discovers she is happy to live for a while on the beach. When was the last time she slept in a tent? Or built a fire? She whittles a spear for fishing, cleans and cooks the meat on her own. It pleases her to practice these basic things.
One day, she notices a simple vessel coming toward the shore. The men on board are wearing diving suits. One of them has lost his pen. Although they have wives and children waiting on land, the divers offer to take her for a ride. She climbs into the boat and glances back at the shoreline, her tent, the scraps of her fires. Then she turns to the ocean and listens to the men talk about their work. They have been swimming with sperm whale, free diving without oxygen masks. They talk to the whales, and the whales talk back. The pen is for sketching and taking notes.
“What language do whales speak?” she asks.
They tell her about coda clicks, and she imagines a spoken version of cave drawings, a language that can’t possibly ensnare with judgement or riddle. Seeing the look in her eyes, they ask, “Do you want to dive?” She is already reaching for a suit. Peering over the rim of the boat, she doesn’t feel brave, but more like a person who has tried everything.
The water’s icy hands, the darkness—these things don’t surprise her. It’s a surprise how deep she can go, how well she can hold her breath, how her body can transform from person to tree to fish. Or maybe it doesn’t transform. Maybe the words are not as solid as she’d once believed. Descending, scattering schools, she worries about frightening off the whales, too. Deeper and deeper she swims until she stops, recognizing the massive outline, an epic sweep of being. It’s like he has been waiting for her.
She places herself before the length of him, takes measure of the well-known features: the plateau of the head, the lower jaw shaped like a finger, the greatness of the tail. His eye appears to be as big as her face. With this eye he is looking at her, and she at him.
There is nothing left but to wait for him to talk.