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The Summer House, Later
Judith Hermann

Nora shrugs. ‘Maybe I feel sorry for him? Maybe I owe him something because of what used to be? Maybe I think he needs some company? I don’t know. I’m simply staying.’

Christine repeats, ‘You’re simply staying,’ then laughs, says, ‘Belafonte’s “Jamaica Farewell”, do you know it? “Sad to say, I’m on my way, won’t be back for many a da-ay.”’

‘“My heart is down, my head is turning around,”’ Nora sings and giggles. ‘Cat. What’s with Cat?’

‘I don’t know,’ Christine says. ‘I come and stay and leave again. What should there be.’

That evening when Cat sits down on the porch next to Christine, Kaspar and Nora get up. Christine turns toward them, surprised, wants to say something, says nothing. They go into the house and pull the door shut behind them. Cat sits next to her and is silent. Christine is silent too. They look down across the meadow; in the jungle fires are lit, there is scarcely a breeze. Christine feels Cat’s hand on her head, he’s tugging at the elastic holding her hair; it tweaks a bit, her braid is loosened, and her hair falls over her shoulders. Cat twists a strand around his finger and smooths it, Christine gets goosepimples on her arms and neck. Cat puts his hand on the back of her neck. Christine bends her head forward and closes her eyes, the very gentle pressure of Cat’s hand at the nape of her neck, and she feels dizzy. ‘One night,’ Cat says. ‘No,’ Christine says. ‘That’s not possible.’ She gets up and takes back her hair elastic. Cat laughs quietly and softly slaps his thigh with the flat of his hand. Nora and Kaspar are sitting in the kitchen not talking; they look tense. ‘Thanks,’ Christine says to them. ‘Thanks a lot, that really wasn’t necessary. Shit.’ She slams the door to her room behind her and bolts it shut.

‘Lucky,’ Kaspar says, and Nora asks, ‘Who was lucky. Christine or Cat?’

Two days later Lovey comes back. She suddenly turns up at the edge of the hill and stops there; she is accompanied by two women, one holding a white parasol over her, the other carrying a child in her arms. Lovey stands there, immobile, and looks up toward the house. Cat is sitting on the blue porch chair, his eyes as usual half closed; it isn’t clear whether he even sees her. Nora and Christine, on their way to the beach, stop beside the Jeep and stare at Lovey. ‘That’s her,’ Christine thinks, feeling strangely breathless. The second woman impassively holds the parasol over Lovey’s head. Lovey stares up at the house, arms crossed over her chest, and makes no attempt to come closer. Cat seems to hold out against this. Nora and Christine stand still and don’t move. Then Cat gets up and jumps down off the porch, his face grim; he walks stiffly toward Lovey, five steps, seven, twelve, Christine is counting. Directly in front of Lovey he stops.

The white parasol sways a bit. Lovey says something, Cat replies. They stand facing each other. ‘What did she say, what did she say?’ Christine whispers, and Nora hisses, ‘I couldn’t hear!’

Cat turns and goes back to the house. Lovey turns her head and looks at Nora and Christine. ‘She’s putting a spell on us!’ Nora whispers, pinching Christine’s arm, Christine feels her heart leap. Lovey grabs the parasol and closes it; the three women swing their hips and disappear as suddenly as they came.

Cat sits down in the blue chair. Christine goes out on the porch every five minutes, circles around him, waters the azaleas, clears her throat, moves chairs around, carries coconuts into the house. Cat doesn’t react. He sits there like that for two hours, then he gets up and without saying a word walks to the back of the house. Christine knows he’s taking the shortcut to Stony Hill, the one you can only take with a machete in your hand and rage in your belly.

The game is called ‘Imagining a Life Like That’. You can play it in the evening when you’re sitting at Brenton’s Place on the step that leads up to his store, in the dark, with cigarettes and a glass of rum and Coke. You can play it if you have a little sleeping child in your arms, a child whose frizzy hair smells of salt. Nora imagines Brenton standing behind the worn counter. Christine chooses Cat, who, since Lovey came back, no longer sits on Kaspar’s porch, but instead plays dominoes with the old men or retreats to the bamboo bench far back at the edge of the clearing.

‘Imagine,’ Nora says. ‘Imagine the child in your arms is your own. It is tired after a long hot day. Cat is your husband. He’s playing a game of dominoes and drinking a little rum. You rock your child and wait till Cat is finished, then you walk home on the Stony Hill road. There are no street lamps, only the stars above you. Cat carries the child and walks in front; he is of course very strong because he works in the fields all day. You walk like that through the night into the jungle, and from time to time he has to clear the path with his machete, you’re impressed by that.’ Nora takes a deep breath. Christine shuffles her feet and says impatiently, ‘Go on!’

‘Well,’ Nora says. ‘Of course the two of you don’t talk, what is there to say to Cat? He’s the best goat butcher, the strongest worker, he has a hut in the mountains and some money under his mattress. That’s a lot. You’re quite happy with him, not least because the women in the village envy you for him. When you reach your hut, you put the child to bed and then you make love. In the dark, probably. Then you fall asleep, tomorrow is another day, and that you once … you’ve forgotten that.’

Christine smokes, listens, and looks at Cat. He’s playing dominoes, and now and then he looks up and gives her the hint of an aggressive smile. Nora rubs spit on the mosquito bites on her legs and scratches them with relish. She says, ‘Go on. It’s your turn.’

‘And when all of us have gone,’ Christine says, ‘you kiss Brenton, turn off the radio, close the shutters, and it becomes quiet. You put away the glasses and the rum and count the day’s takings. You wonder whether the next thing you want to buy is a refrigerator or, after all this time, a very small television set. Brenton is a good man. He sells rum, cigarettes, bread, adhesive tape, paper and pencils. People say he has a lot of money under his mattress; you would know if that’s true. Brenton is gentle, and has never had a fight with anyone; people also say you have him under your thumb. No matter – he loves you very much, and most of all he loves your hair and the little white hollow at the base of your throat. You chase the chickens out of the hut, bring in the dogs, smoke another cigarette, and then turn out the light. I think you sleep on small cots at the back of the store; I know the child sleeps in the compartment on the right side under the counter. Brenton snuggles up against your back and puts his arms around you, you fall asleep, and everything – is all right.’

Nora laughs, and Christine nudges her with her shoulder. The child in her arms is breathing quietly and moves its hands in sleep.

The hurricane brushes Costa Rica, destroys some hotel facilities and causes a tidal wave in which two fishermen lose their lives. Then it moves back out to sea again and becomes stationary one hundred and twenty-five miles north of the Island. Christine sits at the foot of the hill and watches the horizon. The radio is still issuing hurricane reports twelve times a day. The tourists in the clubs, so the islanders say, left days ago. The embassy phones to ask if Kaspar wants to book a flight to the United States, but he says no. He is restless; spends less time than usual working in the fields; instead repairs the roof and the shutters, carries water and coconuts down into the cellar. The people from Stony Hill and Snow Hill come with baskets on their heads and store them in the house.

‘I want it to come,’ Christine says sitting at the foot of the hill, her hand shielding her eyes, the sky white and cloudless. ‘I want the hurricane to come, damn it all.’

‘If it does come, you’ll shit in your pants, damn it all,’ says Kaspar, who is standing behind her. He looks at the back of her neck; she has become tanned, the skin on her shoulders is peeling. ‘You’ll be wailing and blubbering. A hurricane isn’t a melodrama. A hurricane is terrible. You may want it to relieve you of having to make decisions, but not at the expense of the Island, not at my expense.’

Christine turns around and looks exaggeratedly surprised. Kaspar’s face is white and he is biting his lips.

‘Look here,’ Christine says softly, furiously, ‘what’s this all about?’

‘I called the airline,’ Kaspar whispers in reply. ‘It’s no problem at all for you to leave in two days, they’ll be flying out till the end of this week. Only then, only after you’re back home, will it start.’

Christine does not answer. The grass under her naked feet is prickly and stiff. I’d like to have soles like Cat’s, she thinks, soles like a hard rind, and no step I take would hurt anymore. Nora is standing on the porch, is watching her, Christine sits there and doesn’t move, and Nora turns around and walks into the house.

Of course Christine kissed Cat that last evening. Kaspar didn’t want to drive to Brenton’s, but Christine and Nora did, so they went. Kaspar drove the Jeep down the rocky road, the white beams of the headlights eerie in the total darkness; a huge moth smashed into the windshield, and Christine reached for Nora’s hand. Down at Brenton’s the children were just coming back from a soccer game, the old men were playing dominoes, Brenton had a new refrigerator, and Cat was nowhere to be seen.

Christine, feeling restless and sad, stared nervously at all the black faces. She wanted to drink some dark rum, quickly. ‘Bee-uutiful refrigerator, Brenton,’ and Brenton laughed, was very proud, put all the Coke bottles into the freezer compartment where after six minutes they froze into fat brown lumps. ‘Is Cat here?’ Christine asked, looked pleadingly at Kaspar. He didn’t answer. Nora presumed Cat was sitting on the bamboo bench; someone seemed to be sitting there, a shadow, not quite recognizable.

Christine drank some rum, smoked one cigarette after another, and was unable to really listen to anybody. Out of the darkness, off and on, came the metallic snapping of a cigarette lighter. Christine understood only after the fourth time, then ran off toward the bamboo bench – ‘Cat?’ Cat showed his white teeth, and Christine sat down beside him, breathless, her heart pounding. She leaned against him, said nothing.

Nora and Kaspar, outside in the clearing, in the bright glow of the lamp on the step in front of the store. Brenton was busying himself with his refrigerator while the children squatted around Nora and pulled on her long smooth hair.

‘Will you come again?’ Cat asked. Christine instantly said, ‘Yes,’ lied effortlessly, tried, leaning against him, to figure out what he smelled like – petroleum, earth, rum, hashish? All strange. The old men slapped their dominoes down on the table, and a child secured herself a place on Nora’s lap. The world was divided in two. Christine dangled her legs, then Cat took hold of her head and kissed her. She realized with amazement that his jaw cracked as he did, and the ‘Imagining a Life Like That’ game passed through her thoughts like a bright red strip of paper. She kissed Cat and thought her mouth was much too small for his; Cat’s jaw cracked and, as he was kissing her, he looked over towards the store with wide open eyes. When Brenton looked up he let go of her. Kaspar turned around and spoke with Brenton. Nora stealthily craned her neck, and Christine knew that she was trying to see what was going on on the bamboo bench.

‘When you come back, will that be our time?’ Cat asked. Christine answered, ‘Of course, that will be our time,’ lying again. She thought of the Island, as if for the first time. Would she live in Cat’s house, or where? And Lovey? And Cat’s child? For four weeks or five? She kissed Cat and carefully touched the inside of his hand with a finger. The rum that was left in the glass tasted sweet and burned her throat. Confused, Christine thought that drinking rum on the Island was completely different from drinking rum back home, and she heard Kaspar calling her name. Cat held on to her, didn’t close his eyes this time either, then Christine freed herself, and called back, ‘Yes?’ in a voice that sounded strange even to her. Cat didn’t say goodbye either; she jumped off the bench and took a seat in the jeep. Kaspar stared at her reproachfully, and she turned away.

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