A Small War
The desert was blue in the moonlight, the sand under our bellies cool, the sky dizzyingly high.
“There,” Andre hissed. “You hear it?”
“Yes,” I whispered, after a minute.
In the dark beyond the mosquito net we’d nailed into the broken window, you could almost hear the jungle grow, the great leaves spreading wider, the roots of the trees creaking as they reached blindly for whatever they’d been told they’d find at the heart of the earth.
I’d straddled the chair and was watching the moonlight move across the floor of the room for a change, instead of staring right back at it.
Ina slept on the mattress.
“Ina,” he said.
Maybe she even knew how long he’d been standing there, with the curtain over the door drawn back.
She stood up, as steady as if it was broad daylight, pulled on the pants she’d dropped by the bed, buttoned her jacket over her chest, and went with him.
The two of us were born on the same street, at the height of Rivi’s popularity.
Before our birth, I’m not sure Andre’s mother and my mother ever spoke, except in polite greetings, but they gave us both the same name. This was too much for Andre’s Spanish maid: when I became his regular playmate, Andre kept his name, but I became “Dos,” even though, as I tried to remind everybody, I was born first.
As boys, we dreamed of dying for Rivi. We combed our hair like his. In games, we fought over who would take his name.
President Rivi was the only child of his parents’ four-month marriage, which, despite the official versions, rumor always held had lasted even that long only by the grace of God. His mother had been the brightest light in our country’s theater: beautiful with a beauty unrelieved by flaws at any angle, in any light, stage, sun, or moon; blessed or cursed with tears and rage and a transforming smile that came to her out of the air, on cue, night after night, as if, in that one slim body, all of us lived all our lives. She was perhaps the most magnificent woman in the nation: famous, beloved, and because of her sharp eye and keen investments, unimaginably richa woman with no need for forgiveness, married, in a moment of passion or madness, to a man she could only love with a heart full of it.
Plato Rivi loved women. And, like men who love women, he knew what he had, and that she was incomparable to the fresh-faced girls behind the counters at the bars and bakeries, the chorus dancers in the backstage corridors, all cheap lace, fading perfume, and open invitations. For a while, he may not have seen them. How could he, in the throes of that kind of dream? But her anger must have been unbearable, her sorrow paralyzing. Only a far stronger man could have brought himself to believe she needed him. And how could a man like him give up forever the pleasure of a heart, however small, that beat only for him?
The chorus girl delivered her child three weeks after our future president was born. Three days later their father set out to sea, in search of another country. The girl married a stage manager the next season.
Rivi’s mother enrolled him in school early, to a wave of criticism that quickly turned to astonishment at the boy’s abilities. Even as the youngest in his class, he could run, and sing, and made the highest grades. He was strikingly handsome, even at that age: thick dark hair, black eyes, a hint of cruelty in his face that might have passed for strength, always erased in an instant by his smile. Reading late, he finished all the books in the school, so his tutors began to arrange private trips for him to the massive city library, where he taught himself several languages, and became an expert on the history of cities, art, and the military, as well as memorizing, seemingly effortlessly, dozens of volumes of English poetry.
After graduating from high school, he played a season of rural summer stock before returning to the city at the age of eighteen for the most anticipated debut of the decade, in the role of a disinherited prince who returns to a nation in chaos, to find true love, institute peace, and mete out justice. With his father’s charm, his mother’s power, and his own secrets, his success was instant, and complete.
Perhaps if success had not come to him so easy and early, perhaps a few years of struggle and sufferinga chance to learn patience, self-doubt, sympathywould have changed all our histories.
As it was, by nineteen Rivi had been given proof of all his most outrageous young fantasies. He was the greatest stage sensation in recent memory. Theatres lucky enough to engage him sold out immediately, and pleaded with him not to take the requests for upcoming engagements that piled up on the small business desk in his dressing room daily, along with love letters, photographs, blessings, confessions, requests for guidance, and for cash. These he read, and answered, with the help of a small staff of three secretaries whom he directed with general instructions, and, more often than not, specific dictation.
Nobody knew how early he had become interested in politics. Certainly the theatre must have quickly bored a man of Rivi’s capacity. Flush now with his own fortune, he turned his attention for a few years to business, roaming the city by day in an unmistakable white limousine, giving his orders in a voice so low that no one could hear him except for the person to whom he was speaking. But he still returned to the theatre at which he was engaged in time for six o’clock call each evening.
At some point, however, he took on an orphanage. An especially well-written or pathetic letter, an off-hand remark from a business partner, an item buried in the local paper: for whatever reason, he made it his business. The place housed eighty children, of all ages, on the southwest side of the city, and was directly in the path of a demolition team intent on building the entrance ramp of a new freeway. The city had condemned the property, but the compensation they’d offered the orphanage wouldn’t be sufficient to find comparable lodgings for the children elsewhere in the burgeoning city.
Rivi had the children photographed. He wrote short paragraphs about their dreams and interests, and had them included in the playbills of his current production. By the time it closed, over thirty children had been adopted. The ones who were old enough he enrolled in private schools or colleges. And for those who were left, he built the most magnificent orphanage the city, and perhaps the world, had ever seen, preserving the façade and lower floors of a half-ruined mansion in the heart of the old city, but building above it, so that the sweep of the gorgeous double stairway that dominated the entrance led up into modern classrooms and dormitories, each orphan’s room provided with a small personal library of Rivi’s choosing, an antique writing-desk, and air-conditioning.
The press couldn’t get enough of it: Rivi’s intelligent, handsome face framed amid a sea of children still wide-eyed from the shock of a visit from God himself, the daring architecture of the dormitory addition, which Rivi had commissioned, the personal touches of the books he had chosen, and his opinions on the orphan’s curriculum, which convinced the reporters who visited that this was not simply one of the deals they were used to seeing the old tycoons cut with their consciences, but a true act of compassion, from a man of deep feeling.
Other requests poured in. And, like his letters, Rivi answered them. During that decade in our city, Rivi Charities provided more civil services than anyone but the Church: he built parks, paid for Christmas tree light bills and fireworks, funded animal shelters, choirs, and homes for the elderly, and, perhaps most important, privately answered scores of individual requests for help with doctor bills, late rent, tenement fires, winter coats, broken-down automobiles, tickets to bring lost loved ones home.
It was only a matter of time before someone suggested that he run in his district. And with the brilliance with which he tackled the problems of that small quadrant, it was only a matter of time before he moved on to the problems of the entire city, and then to the national stage.
At the age of thirty-three, amidst cheering so loud and prolonged that nobody in the crowd heard a word of the performance that evening, he left the theater forever to seek the presidency.
Ina had fallen asleep on floor, wrapped in the red jacket she’d found in the street, the pale skin of her wrists luminous through the cigarette burns that had turned the cuffs to lace.
I lifted her up and laid her on the broken couch. She kissed me sleepily, like a child not quite awake enough to know which parent carried her.
“Andre,” she said, using the name my mother gave me.
My father was a sailor, his face permanently ruddy with a wind that seemed to blow only on him, equally happy, as far as I could see, to return to my mother after long journeys, and to leave her again for the sea. And she, plump, thrifty, pretty, quick-tempered, was always true to him, or to the man she was able to believe him to be, at least while he was out to sea.
Andre’s father had been a gentleman, which meant that when his family disowned him after his marriage, he didn’t know how to do anything. It was Andre’s mother, so beautiful that strangers routinely followed her onto our street, so quiet that you sometimes wondered if even she knew what she was thinking, who supported the small family in the years before her husband died, when Andre was three. Their son’s death left Andre’s wealthy grandparents free to forgive him, and to interfere with Andre’s upbringing, and although his mother would not agree to Andre being taken from her, she did accept the services of the Spanish maid they pressed on him, and what seemed to the rest of the children in the neighborhood to be an endless array of lessons: piano, horseback riding, French, elocution, sharp-shooting.
Even as a child, Andre had trouble leaving things be. Small injustices tormented him, less for his own sake, it seemed, than for what they said about the world we’d been born in. Whenever possible, he’d right them, deliberately provoking bullies, so their usual victims could have a moment of rest, hiding his lunch oranges in various desks, according to what his heart told him. He bemused or infuriated his teachers with constant suggestions about the way things might be better, like his proposal for planting pecan trees on the school perimeter which, in only a few decades, would provide a large enough cash crop to fund the school library. He was a bright child, and it didn’t take long for his position to become clear to him, but even after a certain despair had set in, he never stopped giving his quiet rewards, making his secret improvements, and taking his silent revenges.
When we were all eleven, Theo and I stood watch while he broke all the store windows on the opposite side of the street. Even at that age, we knew better than to ask the reason. But I never forgot the look on his face, as if he recognized each pane of glass for exactly who it was, in the instant before he smashed it.
He met Ina, he told me, at the carnival, although both of them had a weakness for telling stories about the way things should have happened, instead of the way they actually did.
The line for the Ferris Wheel stretched all the way down to the shooting gallery, so when they told the old carnie they weren’t together, just strangers in a line, he would have none of it: he herded them into the same small car and sent them, unsmiling, to their fate in the sky.
I didn’t meet her until weeks later, when she ran into him on the street as he was coming to meet me.
“It’s a terrible book,” she was saying, as they walked up together to the corner where I waited. “I read it before I go to bed, and then I can’t sleep.”
“Why do you read it at night, then?” I asked.
“He doesn’t understand,” she told Andre.
“He does,” he said.
Andre, in those days, couldn’t help it: he made friends with everyone he met, which is why, for long stretches, he’d refuse to leave his room, and when he did, he wouldn’t go anyplace he hadn’t already been. He was irresistible even then: young, handsome, funny, but with a reserve that made both men and women want him, and a stubborn need to make himself understood that seduced people into believing he told his secrets only to them.
Both he and Ina had wild streaks so wide the could easily have been mistaken for madness, and both of them, I think, had struggled all their lives not to believe that. But after they met, you could see the balance shift. They no longer felt outnumbered.
And they weren’t.
Ina had been a spy, back when most of us still believed in Rivi. Somehow, even from the field, she began to see things long before we did: perhaps because of what she was asked to steal, perhaps because of the secrets she was told to keep, perhaps because Rivi began his purges with his own people.
At any rate, she started to go to the libraries, in whatever city she was in, and type up her reports in their basements, among the histories and out-of-date sciences. One night, she kept me up, giggling, listing them for me: an elaborate system of hidden rivers and lakes she’d fabricated under the capital city of our neighbor to the east, which kept several of Rivi’s loyal intelligence men digging in secret for weeks; coded messages she’d pretended to discover hidden amidst the patter of a teen-station DJ; an abusive maitre’d, harassed for the better part of a year by the secret police as the suspected leader of a big-cat smuggling ring.
Ina, in her day, had been brilliant. It took her handlers years to believe what they were seeing. And by then, she’d already left them, because although she was no longer a Rivi loyalist, the people in the small country in which she was last stationed had no way of knowing it.
Ina and Matthei had been together for years, both dreamers, both homeless, both only, with great difficulty, keeping both feet on the ground as their respective governments moved them from town to town, glad, finally, to have found a use for a breed which in earlier times could only have wandered out alone in the desert to die. And if the explosions hadn’t begun that evening, he might have come back the next afternoon, unshaven, ashamed, overwhelmed with gratitude when she stepped back to let him in.
As it was, he couldn’t leave the girl alone. She had no training for that sort of thing. The blast happened in her home.
Ina waited as long as she could, and then she left, alone. Matthei managed to get the girl out, but on the way back to Ina’s empty place, they picked him off, according to plan.
That part she never told me: only Andre, just after they met.
At first the people Rivi locked up didn’t make sense. No one even laid it at his feetit just seemed like police incompetence, and we were used to that. Our people didn’t have the sense Americans had, that one man’s problems meant much, or that anyoneour TV station, our representativewas listening. And if there was some risk for us, what, truly, could we do about it? The sun rose and the sun set, with or without our permission. As a rule, we took our chances.
But the year Andre met Ina, Rivi had begun to show his hand. In response to student unrest, he removed the card catalogue from the university library. It wasn’t censorship, which he’d always spoken out against, because all the books remained on the shelvesyou just couldn’t find them. Bookstores closed, and we lost one of the independent presses. The prisons were crowded, as always, with men who claimed to be innocent, but more and more, we believed them. At first it was fashionable to dislike him. Then it was dangerous.
For us, though, life was not so bad. Of course, Andre plotted revenge: sneaking into Rivi’s legendary parties to feed the tigers sleeping pills, or sink the torch-lit barges; making friends with the prison guards who frequented our favorite bar, stealing their keys, and freeing all the prisoners. Theo came in one night with a ticket one of his girls had stolen him, for a Rivi party she would be waitressing at that weekend, and Andre wanted to make copies, but Ina wouldn’t let him, so in the end Theo went alone, and got kicked out when security found him and the girl behind a stand of potted palms.
“Dos, Dos,” Theo called. “Listen to this.”
He and Andre had a system: Theo came to Andre with the address of any new girl he’d met, and a deadline by which he wanted to take her to bed. Andre would write her letters, in Theo’s name. And after days, or weeks, he’d arrange for them to meet. The trick was for Theo to bed them quickly enough after that that they never realized he was nothing like the man who had written them. After that, their own love, or lust, or shame, blinded them.
“I’m writing this one poetry,” Theo told me, reading from the letter Andre had just handed to him.
“On that busy street
no one else could see
that love was walking
just ahead of me.”
Ina laid down her magazine.
“I don’t consider myself a poet,” Theo told her. “But when I think of this girl, it just flows out of me.”
“Saturday?” Ina said, guessing.
“Thursday,” Theo said. “A matinee.”
“It’s bad luck to read a love letter after you write it,” Andre said, plucking it from his hands.
“And some cigarettes,” Theo called after him.
Andre moved the first mailbox by himself, with the help of a handcart he found on the same corner, wheeling it through the deserted streets one block down and two blocks over, to another corner that seemed just as likely. By the time he got it there, the handcart had become official property of the rebellion, along with a paint-flecked tarp from a small renovation site along the way.
Theo complained that the girl would never get the letter now, but Andre produced it from his pocket and handed it over. “Deliver it yourself,” he said. “When no one else gets their mail, you’ll be a magician to her.”
We actually passed her apartment as we moved in ever-widening circles through the neighborhoods that night, Theo drunk on cherry wine, Ina always a block behind, glancing up at the windows and into the shadows as if she hadn’t yet noticed us, Andre and I taking turns moving the heavy red boxes a few blocks this way or that.
Maybe we moved twenty of them before dawn.
I don’t think Andre was trying to start a war.
I know I wasn’t.
We never moved another one. The hundreds of mailboxes that changed corners, wound up in public fountains or on rooftops, or simply disappeared over the next week were moved by other citizens of our city, after the news broke the following day.
The postal service, of course, was paralyzed. Even if they hadn’t had to impound all the switched mail as evidence, they would never have been able to deliver anything on time with the added burden of playing hide and seek with almost every mailbox in the city. They made rough maps the first day, but the boxes didn’t stay there: teenagers, old women, even one expectant mother were arrested using various contraptions to drag the mailboxes through the streets.
Rivi took all their names, but let them go: for such a foolish prank, he said, he couldn’t see his way clear to throw a grandmother in jail. But our police had more important duties than protecting our mail. At the end of that week, all the mailboxes the collectors could find were loaded into the big red package trucks.
We never saw them again.
It wasn’t unusual for Theo to make promises he didn’t keep, so it was days before we began to worry.
Two stories up, his light was on, but he didn’t answer.
The three of us stood in his street, while nearby children argued over some point of recent history, and the streetwalker at the end of the block pretended not to notice anything, until another resident of the building came out.
I caught the door.
Upstairs, none of us knocked. Ina simply pulled a delicate black pick from her jacket, flicked her wrist, and turned the knob.
He had died horribly, his ears bloody and fingers broken. From the singed flesh on his wrists and the random pattern of bloody discs on his back, it was clear that they’d taken hours with him.
Andre caught him in his arms and yanked the limp body to its feet.
“Go out the back,” Ina said to me. “We can’t go home.”
Gently, she pulled Theo away from Andre. His head rolled grotesquely on her shoulder. Andre choked, his eyes shining.
“In the square,” she said to me. “Friday evening.”
As I reached the second landing, I heard someone else, just one of them, come down after me, but they must have gone out the front, because I stood in the alley for what could have been hours without seeing another soul, except for a shadow passing over the rooftops which might have been her.
That was the only system we ever made: to stand on opposite sides of the square every third day, leave messages among the prayers tucked under the candles in the cathedral.
He found Niki, or she took him in, within that first week: a slim form with a pretty, suspicious gypsy face, gazing back at me, even over that distance, as if I might be the one who couldn’t be trusted.
I was working down at the docks for a day’s pay, with a new beard, a new room every night, always ‘new in town that day’. Ina told me later that she lived a week in the library, in a basement carrel, barricaded in with botanical books, and that, for those first days, the grief was so strong that she forgot how to read.
Andre wouldn’t speak, wouldn’t meet. He appeared, with Niki, like clockwork at the other end of the square, but when we left an address underneath the candles, we learned quickly that he wouldn’t be there.
A fountain, and by the fountain, a gypsy.
“Where’s Ina?” I asked her.
“She’s there already,” Niki told the white horses that had turned to stone as they reared in the froth.
She melted back into the crowd.
The room was any room: a table, chairs, and bed, cheap glass flowers chasing each other around the light fixture overhead.
Ina sat beside him, frowning. Niki measured out coffee or tea in the kitchenette.
“Here,” he said, and pointed.
A circle drawn in white on blue, between parallel lines: a ventilation duct that opened, Ina said, a dozen feet from Rivi’s bedroom.
He traveled silently and without hesitation through the cramped, complicated, often blind passages below the presidential mansion, moving fast, but never so fast that I couldn’t keep up with him.
We had known there would be a guard at the door, maybe two of them. But when we stood over the single man, far too tall for the small chair, smelling faintly of orange perfume and old wine, asleep, Andre just stared at him, Ina’s gun, long with the silencer, lax in his hand.
The man opened his eyes.
I pulled the gun free from Andre’s cold fingers, and killed him.
The bedroom was empty.
Twenty, thirty feet above us, the ceiling stretched like the vault of heaven, the stars blotted out by clouds or the wrath of God. There was no place for him to hide between the even rows of military jackets, tuxedos, and dressing gowns in the perfect closets, between the deep, gleaming tub and the pristine sinks, or anywhere in the wide expanse of velvet carpet that surrounded his untouched bed.
Andre spilled the contents of the little flask in his pocket across the lush spread, and struck a match.
“He’s insomniac,” Ina said when we crept back to the apartment, her face thin with fury at herself. “He was in the library.”
During the war, I used to dream about those days: the wide tiled room, filled with sea haze; Ina sleeping in the afternoons on the blue couch; Niki, nut brown, soaking up the sun on the veranda; the gauzy curtains dancing silently in the long windows, like ghosts on holiday. I’d climb down over the black rocks between the cliff and the beach, which made it almost impossible for visitors to reach, the reason we could afford to overlook the sea in the tourist village we’d fled to in the next country east, the first train leaving that night when we’d arrived at the station.
The sand was white under my feet. Fish shimmered in my shadow. I swam straight for the horizon, and let the tide carry me back.
“Where have you been?” Ina would ask when I lay down on the sand.
“China,” Andre would correct me. “But he’s a spy, so he can’t tell you the truth.”
Sometimes when I climbed down alone, she’d be there already, so far down the beach I couldn’t tell if she was walking to or away from me. Or we might sit together watching the sun drown in the sea.
They found us through the gypsies.
The students, the professors, the mothers who had lost sons, had heard about someone. Of course it never made the papers, but everyone knew what we had done, even though no one, even Rivi, knew who had done it. But Niki’s sister, her cousin, or her uncle, would take your name, would hear what you had to say.
That afternoon, I was still trying to shake off a nightmare I’d had in the grip of the sun on the beach: Andre had forgotten which side we were on, he was shooting at me. When I came into our rooms, Asa was already talkinga dark gypsy teenager, as pretty as a girl, with a mind like a switchblade.
The volunteers were too young. Or they were too old. In every case, they were too innocent: full of heroic scenes they’d seen in movies, when the cameraman, from deceit or mercy, had cut away from the true cost of victory; full of dreams conceived by pale-skinned thinkers in the safety of their libraries, or by young hotheads who never had the chance to amend their wild statements from beyond the grave.
But they were angry enough to die. And they knew Andre’s name.
The riverbed was rock, and no more than waist-deep, normally. But the rains had swelled it to a rapids. It took us a good part of the night to cross it, tied together waist to waist, the lights on the water always slipping another step away, Andre an angry shadow, Niki surefooted as ever, Ina clinging to my back after she was almost swept away.
After we clambered up the slick steps of the abandoned factory, there were more shadows, it seemed like hundreds of them, their eyes flickering in the darkness as someone wrapped heavy blankets around us and led us to safety.
Someone had always lived in the woods outside the city: drunks and thieves, runaways, gypsies. The great forest stretched for hundreds of miles to the south of the capital, bounded by the river to the east and dissolving into the desert to our west. Mapping the forest was one of Rivi’s favorite projects, but it had never been completed. The woods were a trap for a single man, or even a small band of them: unmapped, with small foot trails that ended sometimes at water, and sometimes in wilderness, with a population united only by their desperation. When followed, so many of the maps Rivi’s surveyors brought back were inaccurate that he realized at last that, terrified of the woods, his men were only fabricating them, although the rumor persisted in the city that the surveyors had, in fact, been honest, and it was the woods themselves which had changed, in self-defense.
Asa had chosen a group of small buildings somewhere near the dark heart of the forest, abandoned years ago by other outlaws, their traces completely erased now by the birds and the rain, except for the coat of flaking whitewash that still clung to the rough exterior walls. It sat on the top of a high rise, invisible to the sky under a thick canopy of broad leaves.
As we climbed up to it for the first time, a ragged line of children, men, and women stared down at us, each at what they believed might be attention.
Ina murmured to Andre, but I couldn’t hear what she said.
A bright light appeared on the dark desert horizon, as if a star had just awoken from the faint it succumbed to on its long fall to earth.
All along the ridge of the dune, shadows arose, then scrambled down the sand. At the foot of the rise, red embers glowed in the night, then slowly crawled the hundreds of feet to the thin bands of steel.
I don’t know if Andre or Ina had timed it, but the explosion, that time, was perfect: every third car, from the engine to the caboose, exploded in unison. Even that far away, some of us were knocked off of our feet by the blast, and the sky filled with the acrid bite of defoliant. Fireworks, which probably hadn’t been mentioned in the communication because they had no strategic importance, flashed through the seams of one car in lurid greens and purples and gold, before a new explosion blew the roof loose, and the rest fled.
A few escaped to the sky, dazzling against the black smoke, but most of them died in the sand.
“Where is she?” Andre demanded. Before I could whisper an answer, he pushed past me. The blanket we’d nailed over the door between the two rooms dropped back down behind him.
I could hear him take the chair, hear it tap against the thin wall as he tilted back on two legs, hear the sizzle of his match, and her complaining silence, the endless patter of his important news and plans. And then her laugh.
The city we returned to was a different world. Everything looked the samefear of Rivi’s secret police had grown so deep that people hesitated to make any break from their daily routines, even for whims, or surprise visits, or holidays. So nothing changed, day after day: the same white dress hung in the same store window; the same old men sat in front of the café, staring at their papers; the same children played uneasily on the sidewalks.
There were rumors: that Rivi had installed a hidden camera on every street of the city, mostly on the roofs of buildings, disguised in smokestacks, flowerpots, and aviaries; that one in every seven citizens was a member of the secret police, and that the secret police still were actively recruiting bartenders, children, cleaning ladies; that, with the aid of new pills which Rivi himself had had a hand in developing, some members of the military could now lift cars from the pavement, unaided, and that several citizens had died in bar brawls as the result of such a soldier’s single blow, which sent them sailing through mirrors, windows or walls, plaster dust settling around their broken bodies.
No one believed all the rumors. But on the streets, you sometimes caught young girls stealing glances at the skyline, their faces set resolutely ahead, their eyes darting upward. Boys who scoffed at the idea of cameras on the rooftops thought twice before picking fights. Lovers and crooks began to burn letters instead of leaving them in wastebaskets. And throughout the city, people began to keep their own secrets, even the harmless ones that strangers confess to each other in bars or café lines: the crush on the girl down the hall, the harmless but illegal shortcuts, the wished-for indiscretions that lose their power as soon as we name them. Rivi’s true history was so accomplished, and so unlikely, that it was impossible to tell what he might be capable of in secret. And although none of us believed him guilty of everything, we all, I think, believed him capable of anything.
The truth was far sadder, and more frightening: a man of vast talents and almost unlimited power, in the early grip of madness. He’d never been able to sleep, but now, according to reports from the palace, the lights blazed all night in every room, and servants were expected to be at their station regardless of the hour. He was teaching himself to play piano. He had been ordering poisons, and mechanical parts, from around the globe.
He still threw his parties, where trained ostriches in masquerade masks roamed among his guests, silver trays of food or drink balanced on their swaying backs, while on the borders, where light lost to darkness, terrified musicians played tremulous dances, sure they’d be hit first when we attacked, and fireworks exploded overhead. All the best people still came to them, but now the parties were animated only by a finely controlled hysteria, his guests desperate now not to give offense, to stay too long or leave too early, to be betrayed by a glance.
It was Asa who pointed it out to us, in a simple drawing wrapped as scrap paper around the piece of fruit I bought from him each morning at the small stand he manned a in a nearby park, which doubled as our shadow post office.
“He’s drawn us a picture of the moon,” I said, spreading it out on the scarred table, which always looked to me as though it knew more about war than any of us did yet. “Fallen over on its back.”
Andre turned it upside-down, holding his hand out for the other half of my orange. “It’s the wall,” he said.
Centuries ago, our city had defended itself against the desert gypsies by building a wall in a giant crescent, from one point on the river bank to the next, sealing itself off from all attacks by land. Of course, once the city was established in the safety of the wall’s shadow, it quickly grew beyond it, foraging west into the forest for the tallest trees, and then replacing them entirely with buildings and streets, and sprawling up into the desert with complicated irrigation systems until it was twice, three, ten times as big as the original settlement, and grown skyward, too, most of the modern skyscrapers, theatres, and museums actually built beyond the shelter of the wall, so that today it protected only our failing neighborhood and the original length of riverbank, where great ships dreamed fitfully of voyages they couldn’t be sure now they’d really taken, among the ruins of the shipyards where our ancestors had first made them, in the shadows of the proud bridges that raised the traffic from the heart of our city into the clouds over our heads.
The wall had been a masterpiece of its time, made by some Masonic alchemy from an amalgamation of sand and spit that set harder than anything the gypsies had then found in the desert, six feet thick, over twenty feet high. Out of respect for its former protection, or due to the wall’s own stubbornness, the city had let it stand, intact, all traffic still flowing through the three original gates.
At midnight we began to scuttle ships, towing them into the inky river and blowing their bellies open with underwater charges that glowed angry orange below the current, like glimpses of hell with the sound turned down, sparks from a fire no water could put out racing to the surface and sizzling there like so many cicadas. By dawn, the river was clogged both ways with twisted steel that would shred even a shallow rowboat to pieces. The gates we filled with wire, old cars, trash, scrap metal, machinery. As day broke, a few frustrated drivers still honked in protest, but by this time, most simply turned back.
In the wide courtyard just inside the wall, Ina leaned back against a ruined turquoise Cadillac, looking up at the sky as if waiting for an answer.
Rivi was an insomniac, and therefore a patient man.
For three days, he let time and the sun have their way with us, as our sentries grew faint from the heat and began to argue about card games, and the residents of the poor neighborhood we had cut off from the city grew more and more insolent. Rivi hadn’t even noticed us yet, they’d shout from a safe distance. Did we know how to fight? Because they hadn’t seen it.
Beyond the wall, as far as we could see, were only empty streets.
Each day, Ina slipped underground, through the maze of steam tunnels and utility entrances below the city. Ten blocks up, beyond our line of sight, she found a military perimeter that would have contained a hundred times our number: tanks, artillery, and soldiers in rows a dozen men deep.
On the third day, she didn’t return.
The bombs began to fall at daybreak: new craters blown in the dusty lawn of the park, fountains spitting helplessly as the thirsty ground soaked up the water from their broken pools, the roar of collapsing buildings, the gentle rain of debris falling into the street, and the complete, crushing silence in between.
Asa took those he could still find below ground, into the sewers and steam tunnels, using Ina’s codes to broadcast back to us by shortwave radio: numbers, Latin, a burst or two of rock ‘n’ roll.
The Polaroid photograph that they sent was taken with film so old that all the green and red had turned to grey, as if the photographer had been too poor to afford any other color but the blue in that morning’s sky, which stretched unconcerned above the fountain she stood before, arms bare, hands bound behind her back, glancing away from the camera, probably in response to the photographer’s command that she look at it.
“This is the fountain in the old royal gardens,” I said. “We can see exactly where she is.”
“You noticed that as well?” Andre said.
The bombs fell through the days, and the nights. Teenagers, men, a woman died. From the elevated positions we’d taken in windows of the warehouses and department stores that bordered the wall, we could see fires now in the distant city by night, smudges of blue smoke in each morning’s sky. A trickle of rebels flowed to the wall each day to join us. Some scaled it successfully. Some died trying.
I stared down into the empty streets, trying to train myself, at that late date, to listen to new frequencies, as if I might be the only one who could hear the messages she was sending.
Andre didn’t sleep for the first two days, and when he did, a bomb knocked him awake. He’d chosen the place because you could see all the ways Ina had returned in the past from the wide windows of the warehouse’s second floor: a steam grate in the middle of the street, the back door of a cannery.
A few hours earlier, he’d begun to see things, which we didn’t realize until he began shooting, with such stealth and fluidity that both Niki and I ducked below the window frame to avoid what we thought was enemy fire, until we glanced over at him and realized that it was the muzzle of his rifle glinting in the window. I couldn’t see anything in the street, but his eyes tracked something carefully as it moved under the shadow of the wall, to the fountain, to the tree.
“Andre,” Niki hissed. Gently, she pressed a flask into his hand. Without breaking his gaze, he drank from it. Niki nodded at me.
Moments later, he was asleep.
I actually heard it coming, the long, otherworldly whistle, like the sound an angel might make as it breaks the barrier between their world and this, and then a thud and rattle on the roof, and the moment of silence before the blast.
The roof three stories above us held for a moment, and then collapsed, cinders and beams and concrete dust free-falling to the next floor, where it shuddered for a moment above us.
Niki, half her face black with blood, screamed in fury.
I had Andre on his feet, but he twisted away from me, and ran back to the window.
Niki caught his arm. He shook her off.
Above us, the building roared and creaked.
“Get her out of here,” he shouted to me through the dust that poured in clouds from the ceiling.
“Not without you,” she screamed above the groans of the building.
For a moment the two of them were lost in the rolling dust.
Then they came toward me, together.
When Ina did come back, it was through Andre’s room.
She stood in the doorway, swaying like a tree in the breeze.
“He wouldn’t send anyone,” I said. “It was what they wanted.”
She sank down beside me.
“I was going to kill him,” I said, my voice breaking.
Rivi had left her fingers, but her hands, her delicate hands, were wrapped with newspaper, the natural creases in her palms criss-crossed, when I unwrapped them, with a web of new red lines where the knives had pressed into her flesh.
Andre couldn’t stand it. His eyes went wild any time he saw them, roving the room like a blind man’s whose muscles worked long after he’d lost sight, but who still, in his dark world, remembered things that made him cry.
We came up from the steam grates, the sewers, the loading bays. Later they said Asa, his face hooded, emerged in at least a dozen places, leading bands of raging angels, which the people recognized because even when killed they wouldn’t die.
The palace hummed in the darkness, like a child comforting itself with a single note as it tried to ignore the noises drawing nearer outside. No lights, and even at the points where they were supposed to be stationed: at the six entrances to the great hall, at the library door no guards.
Massive curtains had been drawn over the great library windows. A few shelves of books glowed silver in the light that slipped between them. Beyond them wide, shallow steps led up into complete darkness.
“Andre?” a voice asked after a moment, unhurried, almost uninterested, as if absently confirming the arrival of a trusted servant.
“Yes,” I said.
A flash and crack in the dark, and from Andre at my side, an answering shot.
With enormous effort, my heart beat one, two, three, then stopped.
I never felt Ina take me in her arms, never saw Andre climb the steps into the darkness and lay the back of his hand against the old man’s cheek, as if checking for fever. By that time, none of it could matter to me, not even when Andre picked up a pen from the old man’s desk, slipped it into his pocket, and then walked slowly down the library steps and through the dark halls to meet the crowd.