THERE IS ALWAYS A WAY OUT
I lost my wallet. It probably was stolen but I didn’t notice when it had happened. I was too busy roaming Dormini: uphill through the Gothic downtown and downhill to the Jewish ghetto and all the way into the concrete outskirts, from medieval gutters and gargoyles sprinkled with pigeon droppings to the Museum of Funeral Carriages, taking a break basking in the sun by a singing fountain and climbing crumbling stairs again to look at river from the top of the hill. Dormini steamed with August heat like an iron. My head swam in its ancient dust and pollen.
The bell tolled five in the afternoon, when hot and thirsty, I plopped down on the cobblestones in the soft shade of the Cathedral.
"Young lady wants drinks?" asked an old man with leathery face, sunken cheeks and a bone yellow carnation in his button hole. He pushed a rattling cart with sparkling bottles and jars.
"Thank you, I'm dying for something cold," I said.
I reached into my purse without looking. I couldn't feel my wallet. I looked inside. I took out my passport and tickets. A compact powder box, a hairpin, lipstick and an open pack of mint chewing gum. A few olive-yellow coins, worth ten dollars, maybe, if that. I turned the purse upside down and watched dust dancing in the sun. The wallet wasn’t there.
The old man smiled and I noticed that his teeth were extraordinarily long.
"Your pocket?" he said.
I didn’t have pockets. I wore a silk summer dress—no underwear, no bra, no belt—nothing to look for the wallet in. I didn’t carry a cell phone. I had no one to call, anyways.
I didn't like him staring at me. His eyes were dark and deep like the eyes of a Greek oracle I saw on a half-ruined mural in Athens. I picked up a coin, 1 Lls, from the crack between the cobblestones, and almost shoved it to him. He took it with his spiderlike fingers and laughed.
"Shaved ice, please," I said.
He handed me a small pink cup with jade-hued translucent ice, nodded and pushed his cart forward, jingling and clattering, walking away from me and singing a strange song with no words. I sat on the stairs, licking the melting coldness and feeling the warm wind in my hair. The ice had a strong aroma of mint, lime, lavender and, strangely, evergreens, but it wasn't refreshing. It was rich and slippery, and made my head heavy.
I watched ant-like people slowly crawling on the bridge and disappearing in the dollhouse doors with white walls, tiny dots hovering over the waves of coral roofs, sparrows or just flies, I didn't care. Somehow, I didn't care about much. I knew I had to worry, to go somewhere or do something but I had hard time remembering where or what. I vaguely remembered that I had round trip tickets to the beach town and a print-out for my flight AL-323, AirLimbosia, Dormini—home. The strange song sang by the old man still rang in my ears. I decided that it was ok. There was something good in losing all my money, but I couldn't focus and understand what it was. I would figure it out later, I thought.
I picked up my honey-yellow suitcase at the hostel. My grandmother had stored love letters in it for decades and the lining smelled like her musky perfume. I decided to walk to the railway station.
I walked by a balmy cemetery with mossy gravestones, the Princess’s Palace nicknamed Cucumber Palace--I’ll never know why because I didn’t go in. I walked past Guillotine Square, where in 16th century the Limbosian hero De La Romba was almost executed. I touched De La Romba’s bronze knee for good luck. His knee shone from so many hands touching it. I read a poster: about to be beheaded, De La Romba fell on one knee, bowed and screamed, “I love you,” to his mistress Marquise X. The rotten boards gave in under the weight of his body. De La Romba fell into the city sewer, lost consciousness and was washed into the river where he came to right in time to swim to his survival. According to the legend he cried, "There is always a way out!"
De La Romba became the head of the Great Limbosian Revolution, overthrew the Emperor and married Marquise X. at Guillotine Square. I liked the story and the statue. De La Romba’s face looked thin and inspired, and the bronze fly perched on his epaulette—a symbol of Fortuna Merda Bonita, or Fate in disguise. From there I turned around the corner and made my way through a crowd of gypsy beggars. I dropped a coin into the hat of a very young woman with a baby suckling on her bare breast. A little girl played a violin by the mother's knee, a tune sad and pure cutting into my heart. The young woman looked up at me--her face didn't look Gypsy, I thought, it looked Japanese--and said, "Kyuu sureba tsuuzu."
"What is it?" I asked, looking at her very long black hair.
"There is always a way out," said the little girl, without any accent, looking past me at the monument.
I took an old train to the beach town. Neat green fields rolled by. Golden cows flickered by as the train rattled on. An old lady in a cranberry-pink hat and white jacket sat next to me, looking straight ahead, without blinking. She looked like a retired ballet teacher.
I could sell something to get by. But what? My multicolored thread bracelets—one thread for each city I visited? I stole my hoop earrings at the Grand Bazaar in Grizny. My anklet, bought from a street peddler in Ambidam, was made of glass. I had a few summer dresses, a large straw hat and a shawl. A few books with underlined texts and notes on every page.
"Your mother's watch," said the lady next to me, without turning her head.
I probably spoke out loud without noticing it. I looked at my wrist. But how did she know it was my mother's watch?
"I have never taken it off since the day she died," I said. "It doesn’t work."
The old lady didn't look my way, and kept looking ahead. Maybe, I dozed off and dreamed that she spoke. I’d never sell it, I thought. I rubbed my eyes. I felt that I was forgetting something. Something important.
The town was just as I expected it. The air was alive. Salty and sweet, as if filled with champagne and sweet desserts. Everything around sparkled—the tile verandas, the crystalline underlining of palm tree leaves in the breeze, the plumage of silver durrets, the unique peacocklike birds that survived only along Limboisian coast, read the sign by the train station.
Roses were everywhere. Lemony and honeyed, crispy and fragile, they looked like cupcakes in a bakery. The scent drenched narrow streets and shadowy alleys. The flowers attracted rare butterflies, dragonflies and Limbosian fireflies, a unique species that inhabited the beaches at night, read another sign by the bench in a park.
I walked down the wide alley of the park between the pyramids of cypresses. I had nowhere to stay, but it was warm so I decided to sleep on the beach. I didn't feel hungry, so I decided to save 5 Lls for my breakfast.
Around eight at night the air turned lilac and dense like hot chocolate. I walked down the endless stairs to the ocean and stopped. The ribbon of pure light shimmered along the water. It looked like it was made of fallen stars. I took my sandals off and stepped on the beach. The sand teemed with the fireflies. They crunched and felt wormy.
I went back to the embankment and curled on an antique bench, my suitcase under my head. As soon as I dozed off, a policeman in a white uniform with golden buttons emerged by my side. His face hardly moved, and his eyelids were heavy. Silently, he pointed at the sign in five languages: “No camping”. I thought he'd ask for my passport but he just kept standing there, staring into space.
I walked to the square downtown. It was well-lit and women were dancing a dance that looked like Flamenco. I noticed that people hardly talked to each other in that town. I started to get dizzy. My eyelids got heavy and I sat on the bench until dawn, dozing away.
The next day I spent sleeping in the shade of the chestnut tree in the park. I realized that I didn't feel hungry at all. I decided it was stress but I didn't feel thirsty, either. I went swimming. The water felt good, and I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, my suitcase, purse and sandals had disappeared. I saw footprints in the golden sand, next to my white dress and my torn straw hat. I could see two teenage boys far away, running, and I thought I saw my belongings, but the sun was bright, I wasn’t sure, and I was too weak to run. I went back into the ocean and reached my arms and legs to the side, like a star-fish. I had no money left. My tickets were gone. Something was really odd. I looked at my watch and got out of the ocean.
I walked around until late in the afternoon. I found a jewelry store. It was a small dark room with a glass counter in the shape of an L and a sharp resinous smell. A brass telescope, porcelain figurines of ballerinas and a stuffed tiger head, teeth scowling, fuzzed with dust. A stout woman with dark skin, a coil of copper hair and a sparkling ring on every finger, nodded to me.
“Good morning,” said the woman. She had a strange accent, not Limbroisian, maybe Turkish or Greek. She sounded heavy and spicy.
““Dubroshvam,” I said, the only word I knew. “Do you speak English? Can you please take a look at my watch? How much?”
The woman grabbed my wrist, glanced and looked away. She moved a bordello-red lamp closer, pulled my watch off my wrist, put black-rim glasses on her massive nose and stared at the watch. Her tar-black eyes were underlined with kohl.
“Gold and diamond,” I said.
“No tick-tock,” she said, puffing as if she had a pipe in her mouth.
“No,” I said. “How much you pay?”
“150,” said the woman.
“No,” I said.
Then something happened like in a dream. There was a movement in the air, under the ceiling as if the wind came through the small window and shifted an invisible curtain. Or maybe a cat jumped on the shelf. I looked up and saw a crystal chandelier swinging. The moment I looked down at my watch, it was gone.
“Not to sell,” I repeated. “Please give back.”
The woman smiled. A golden tooth sparkled in the dusk.
“Momento,” she said. “Artrito—"
She waved her clawed fingers in front of my face.
“Voila,” she pointed at the upper shelf of the open case. Tangled necklaces, golden chains, single earrings and rings shimmered in a pile like snakes. “Momento.”
She stuck her fingers into the jewelry.
“Voici,” she said, fishing out a tear-shaped earring. “Belissimo donna.”
She put the earring next to my face and giggled.
“No, thanks,” I said. “I want my watch. Tick-tock.”
“Davajto, davajto,” said the woman and moved her fingers in the pile of jewelry. “Braceletto! Gold. You take.”
“I want my watch,” I said, my voice starting to tremble.
“Momento more,” said the woman. “Zis.”
This time, she pulled out an engagement ring and said, “Tick-tock bad, 3 carat good.”
“I don’t want carat,” I screamed. “I want tick-tock!”
“No tick-tock,” the woman said, frowning. “Basta! Telephona militia.”
She reached for a black old fashioned telephone, but I pushed her back and dunked my hand into the case. I grabbed a fistful of chains and as I opened my fingers, I saw my watch. I squeezed the slippery metal, turned and ran out of the store and along the street towards the ocean, my bare feet burning on the cobble-stones.
I slowed down and walked the path along the beach. The air was light and sweet. The ocean lay calm. Waves licked the shore like a cat lapping milk out of a saucer. On the right I saw red grass, like eyebrows of an old magician. I read a sign, crooked and scratched, with inscriptions in Limbroisian, Portuguese, Italian and, finally, English, "Welcome, New Deads. Enjoy the Afterlife. The fine for littering is 100 Lls."
I looked back at the path and just a few steps away I saw my mother, smiling at me and waving her hand. I started walking towards her, without approaching, thinking that this town was all right. I’ll stay longer, I thought, walking towards my mother, moving my fingertips over the smooth glass of my watch. I’ll be ok. There’s always a way out.