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Oct/Nov 2017 Fiction

The Commiserators

by Jeffrey Gibbs

Image excerpted from A Nice Cup of Tea by Roe LiBretto

Image excerpted from Beware the Company You Keep by Roe LiBretto


Number 46T drops him off right at the gate of the courthouse early Sunday morning in Çaglayan, Istanbul. The law is closed, but that's not why he's here. The bus was merely going the opposite way, toward the center. The hospital is across the freeway.

On Sunday, the courthouse gate is locked with a brand new chain. Behind the bars he can see the monument to the men who, a hundred years ago, orchestrated a genocide. The marble looks like moon-ice in the afternoon heat—a path of white stones cuts straight up in a precise geometrical line to a hill where a pillar thrusts into the cloudless blue, a monolith to glory, a proud raised fist. It casts a shadow diagonally down the empty steps like a spill of black hair. An epitaph reads "For eternal liberty." The flag flies above the somber ensemble, a smear of red against the fall sky.

"What makes a flag a flag," the president had said in his opening address to the nation's schools the day before, "is the blood on its surface."

A blank plaque has been newly hung below the old epitaph. The old history has served its purpose. A new one, still forming, will be engraved.

Death is on his mind today, but not the deaths of those millions in the past. Speaking about them is so taboo that they have become background radiation, the same intensity at all distances and thus inaudible, just like the entreaties of the beggar woman selling tissues on the overpass or the static of traffic and car horns. He is thinking of his own death. He can't shake the thought that the tremors in his left arm are from something more deadly than the pinched nerve his doctor predicts it will turn out to be. His grandfather died of a brain tumor. He bears the man's translucent blue eyes, his balding pattern, his long fingers and tendency toward addiction. Perhaps other genes wait to reveal themselves, unfolding like patient caterpillars in the cocoons of his cerebrum. He is forgetting things. He is forty-five, and he cannot look at himself in the mirror anymore without a shudder. He sees life evaporating in skeins of vapor rolling off the surface of his skin.

As he enters the hospital's sliding doors, his right hand holds his left arm down to still the shaking.

In the waiting room, he takes the only empty seat, next to a thin woman in a blouse patterned with blue paisleys. She has the collar turned up rakishly around her neck. Her hair is henna red; her face wide and flat. She is reading a book on alternative diets and disease. A small tattoo runs from her elbow to the underside of her wrist, a line of something in a script he can't recognize. It's spidery and very fine and seems to alter subtly as he watches.

"I like your tattoo," he says. Talking makes the tremors subside.

The woman casts her eyes up without moving her head and smiles, turning her arm over so that the design is easier to see.

"It's a line from a poem, in Georgian."

"What does it say?"

She hesitates. "I've forgotten."

"You're not Georgian?"

"I had a friend a long time ago who told me about this poet. He wrote something about love. Or maybe it was from a song."

She turns her arm down so that the tattoo is invisible.

"I'm not really sure."

She returns to her book and he notices something about her face. There's a dry translucence to her skin, the vulnerability of something stretched too thin, like the bones beneath are straining to tear through. One of her eyes twitches, a violent convulsion of muscles. He traces the pulse as it fans out across her forehead and down her cheeks. In a flash, her face contorts itself into a radiant smile, eyes mashed closed in ecstasy, and then the expression vanishes, the muscles suddenly going slack.

"It makes it difficult to read," she says, sensing his gaze. "Or to focus on anything." She closes the book but her fingers nervously tap the cover, all five at once, as if typing a message on some invisible keyboard. "But to be honest, talking seems to make it less frequent. A distraction..."

He nods, feeling grateful—an echo of his own thoughts. "I know what you mean."

She looks at him directly for the first time. Her dark irises seem to contract and adjust. After a moment, she lets out a sigh, surrendering to something. "Are you here to see the neurologist, too?"

"My arm," he answers. "It goes through these... spasms. The left one."

He doesn't tell her how he wakes up in the middle of the night and finds his left hand moving on its own. Sometimes it seems like a random seizure. It flops against the sheet like a fish thrown on the sand. Sometimes his fingers make shapes, spelling out signs in the shadows the moonlight makes on the wall. He wants to wake his wife, but the unburdened in-and-out of her breaths stops him, and so he just observes the flow of unknown words cast against the trio of pictures of him and her in her village, one of them having a picnic by the spring in the shade of the willows, the second of them strolling down the hill toward the apple orchard, and the third as they sit on top of the Armenian church ruins, their mouths black with mulberry juice. A mountain looms behind them like a volcanic cone, the haloed summit blocking dazzling sunlight.

"It's funny," he says, "But I met a shaman this summer—on a trip my wife and I took to Panama. He was Indian—native I mean. He owned an island and we stayed in one of the tourist cabins there. At the end, when we left, he gave us a bracelet and tied it on our left hand because—so he said—that hand was supposed to be connected to the spirits." He chuckles and holds up his left hand. "Maybe the spirits got a bit restless."

"Are you a foreigner?" she asks. "Your Turkish is so good, I mean, but there's something..."

"I'm American," he interrupts. "But I've been in the city a long time, a lot longer than many of my "local" colleagues at work even. I don't know what to call myself exactly."

He shrugs. She shrugs. They smile uneasily at one another.

"And you?" he asks. "Why are you here?"

"Oh, I had a stroke," she says. "Or something. The doctors won't say exactly what, but I have these seizures. My face makes expressions I don't feel, you know? It's strange. Sometimes I glance in the mirror and it looks like I'm screaming. Or like I am about to cut someone's throat, I look so angry, but all I'm doing is brushing my teeth or something... mundane like that. So they've been running these tests."

Her fingers reach up to her face and feather touch each part as she talks, like she's trying to reassure herself of what it's doing. She's scared. He feels the fear radiating off of her, resembling his own. Her hand glides over her eyes, over her nose and lips, trembling.

"It's all kind of unsettling, isn't it?" he says.

She laughs, "Yes. Really unsettling."

"I really don't like getting older. All these little body breakdowns..."

She nods. "Can't say I much care for it, either."

"I'm not bothering you, am I?"

"No, it's good to talk about it—with someone who kind of understands. I've been staying indoors, hiding I guess. Even my husband looks at me like I'm an alien. And so I just kind of try to keep out of the way. And then I'm afraid that..."

She glances toward the closed door of the doctor.

"So anyway it's good to talk about it," she repeats.

"Well, how about you then?" he asks. "You know where I'm from so..."

"Oh," she says. "You know, I'm just a local."

"From the city?"

She hesitates. Her eyes seem to be weighing him.

"No," she says. "Well, not exactly."

"Then..."

"I'm from out east." Her fingers come to rest on her throat. "Out east somewhere."

"Oh? Whereabouts?"

And suddenly his hand starts to go through its convulsions. They both watch it curiously as his fingers curl and crook and straighten, then his eyes grow wide with alarm. He can't control the fear. The fat flesh beneath his thumb pounds the chair. He shoves his whole hand quickly between his knees.

"This is what happens," he says. He forces a smile, as if to apologize. Again, there's that odd movement in her irises, a growth and retraction.

"You were saying," he presses, "You're from somewhere in the east."

"Are you sure you're okay?"

"Yeah, I mean, if I can just get my mind off of it." He's got that panicked feeling squeezing his chest. "Where out east?"

"Oh, just a little village out in the mountains. A tiny little place."

"Well, what's the name?"

He already feels the spasms subsiding. The hand stills and he draws it out, massaging it with his right.

"It's about a 20-hour bus ride from here," she says. "You wouldn't know it."

"I've been here a long time," he reminds her.

"Most people born and bred here don't know it."

"My wife, too."

"Pardon?"

"I mean, she's from a place out east, too. It takes us 22 hours and we have to change busses once in a little town out... well, east."

"Are you sure? Which one?"

"Of course I'm sure. I've been there a hundred times."

Could he say the name? They let their gazes rest on each other for a second, saying nothing. She wears a hopeful look, an inviting look. He wonders if this is one of those expressions she can't control. He thinks of the marble pillar of the monument outside, of the strength with which it threatens the sky. Last week, he remembers, trying to call his wife and getting no answer. He was in the subway and couldn't get a signal and so he leapt off at the next stop and ran upstairs. Outside it was cold and raining. He tried to type out a message to her, but his hand had started to twitch, spelling out signs he couldn't decipher. In the end, he managed only a truncated "Where u? Ok?" When she finally messaged him back, she was hiding in the bathroom of a coffee shop. The barista had understood from her name where she was from and a crowd had begun to gather. They were on their phones, calling others, forming a mob. A line of young men blocked the entrance. Women were pounding on the door, shouting, "Out! In the name of the fatherland! Out, you traitor bitch!" She had escaped through the window. That morning the president had issued a statement in the newspapers calling on "the people" to be watchful for internal enemies, rats nesting in the very soil of the nation. Neither of them had known.

"My wife's from the mountains," he tells the woman with a look that mirrors her own.

She seems excited somehow, and relieved all at once. Is this expression real? he wonders again. Or her affliction? She starts to speak and he swears she's going to say, "Me, too." Or as close as she can allow herself to get. But then a nurse comes by wheeling a gurney. They both turn. Propped up on white pillows is an older man, but not much older than either of them. His head is shaven bald with black bruises around his eyes. Half of his skull is covered in a bandage. Blood and something yellow seeps through the gauze. His eyes stare emptily at everything he passes, his mouth gaping too widely as if the muscles holding his jaws together have been cut.

"Kaa," he moans, over and over. "Kaa kaa kaa kaa!"

A woman and two girls rush up to him as he passes. One of them cries out "Daddy!" and holds up a picture torn from a princess coloring book. There's no recognition in the man's gaze, no sign that he is ever coming back. The woman takes his hand. She is weeping and mumbling into his upturned face. The nurse tells her to calm down, calm down, it's over now. His daughters trail behind—the one still clutching her picture, the other playing a game on her mother's phone.

"That man had a tumor," the woman whispers to him as the gurney disappears behind the door.

"But that's... awful," he says. "To end up like that..."

"But they say the operation was successful."

They both consider that in silence.

"They tell me," she says at last, "that if I have another stroke it could kill me."

"Are you sure it was a stroke? The thing you described. It sounds so strange."

"I'm not the doctor, right? They're supposed to tell me for sure today. There were tests."

A nurse calls out a name, "Emine."

The woman's eyes go wide, then relax. She closes her book and puts it in her bag. "That's me."

"Oh. Well, it was good talking to you."

He finds himself a little afraid to be alone with his thoughts. She lays her right hand lightly over his left. "I'm sure it's nothing."

"Yours either," he says. Then adds, "But good luck anyway."

She hoists her bag over her shoulder, nods, and then seems to freeze. He is looking up at her. The hospital lights are white over her head, no shadows. Expressions roll quickly over her face, one after the other. She purses her lips, grinds her teeth, narrows her eyes, winks, scowls. This is a seizure. He starts to shout for help but something in her eyes says no. No. Don't.

The nurse calls her name again, impatiently.

At the sound, the woman's expression calms, like the surface of a puddle after a wind. Still shimmering but settling. She turns her head toward the nurse, then jerks back quickly and bends down toward him. Her left hand clamps down on his and he feels a stinging in his palm, like a tiny hot needle bearing through the bone. They're face to face.

"My name is not Emine," she whispers.

He nods.

"My tattoo." She enunciates every syllable. "It's not Georgian. And I know what it says. There's a story where I'm from."

"Emine!"

"About a mountain and a bird. The mountain used to be very sacred," she persists. "I've climbed to the top and looked out in every direction. You can see the curve of the planet there. But the bird betrays the mountain."

Her face is precisely parallel to his—eye to eye, nose to nose, chin to chin.

"They call it Mount Victory now," she continues. "But the old name..."

Silbus, he hears, like a whisper from right behind his head.

"I know that mountain!" he says leaning forward. "I know that place! I've climbed to the top with my wife and her family. Almost every summer. You are from there. I knew it!"

"There's an overhang at the top..."

"Where you light candles," he says. "Right next to a flat rock. And a place for making..."

"...wishes. You tie them with white cloths to the dead branches and..."

"...leave a picture or coin or something of yourself behind. And the hidden valleys on the north side..."

"...that have snow even in August."

A spasm goes through her face, and for a second, it looks like she might murder him. Her eyes are wide, her teeth bared in a savage grimace. He braces, but she simply lets go of his hand, turns and vanishes with the nurse into the neurologist's office. The door closes.

That night, after all the tests, after all the electrodes sending exploratory currents through his muscles and nerves, after the brain scans, he lays wide awake on the white moonlit sheets. His left hand is twitching fiercely, the fingers flying into formations. He has downloaded an app on his phone to translate the signs it forms. The program takes a video and cross checks what his hand is shaping with all the known sign languages from around the world. It could be dangerous, if anyone is watching. A member of the special forces on the balcony of the apartment building across the way with a pair of binoculars, a neighbor with her ear to the wall, a tap on the phone, a drone, a satellite. People are disappearing these days. He has a feeling, a growing sensation that all the forbidden names and thoughts flowing over the empty streets at night have been revealing themselves to him all this time, in these moon-made shadows. He switches the camera off and lets his fingers continue to talk in the dark as his wife snores safely beside him.

His phone begins to speak in an electronic voice, staticky and monotonous.

"My real name is Razdan. I'm from the village of Chamenos along the river Horvank. There was an ancient church where a monk still lived in secret, and we played music in our ceremonies and danced at the crossroads. In summers, people came down from the mountains and we met them secretly in the forests with food and supplies. They only spoke our language.

Then the uniforms came and erased all the names and the people who bore them. And the houses were burned. Even the graveyards smashed. The bodies lie under the dry river bed, their mouths stuffed with gravel. The body of the mountain is red. Nothing climbs up or down anymore.

I tied a wish on the peak once, when the winds blew fiercest, and I had it written here on my arm in a language not even I can read. That way I can't betray myself, alone in the night, even far away from the mountain gusts and bird sounds and dancers, far away from everything familiar, from every human thing."

 

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