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The Curfew

The Curfew


    William and Molly lead a life of small pleasures, riddles at the kitchen table, and games of string and orange peels. All around them a city rages with war. When the uprising began, William’s wife was taken, leaving him alone with their young daughter. They keep their heads down and try to remain unnoticed as police patrol the streets, enforcing a curfew and arresting citizens. But when an old friend seeks William out, claiming to know what happened to his wife, William must risk everything. He ventures out after dark, and young Molly is left to play, reconstructing his dangerous voyage, his past, and their future. An astounding portrait of fierce love within a world of random violence, The Curfew is a mesmerizing feat of literary imagination.

Jesse Ball The Curfew

    For Alda Aegisdottir
    We are born in this cemetery, but must not despair.
— Piet Soron, 1847


    There was a great deal of shouting and then a shot. The window was wide open, for the weather was often quite fine and delicate during late summers in the city of C. Yes, the window was wide open and so the noise of the shot was loud, almost as though it had been fired in the room itself, as though one of the two people in the room had decided to shoot a gun into the body of the other.
    This was not the case, however. And because no one in the room itself had been shot, the man, William Drysdale, twenty-nine, once-violinist, at present, epitaphorist, and his daughter, Molly, eight, schoolchild, slept on.
    Those were their methods of employment. Daily, Drysdale went about to appointments while Molly went to school and was told repeatedly to repeat things. She could not, and didn’t.
    In the street beyond the window, it was very shady and pleasant. An old woman was bleeding, hunched over a bench. Two men were standing fifty feet away, one holding a gun. Some ten feet from the bench, a man was lying underneath the wheels of a truck, which seemed to have injured him, perhaps irreparably. The driver was kneeling and saying something. He stood up and waved to the two men. The one with the pistol was putting it away. Another, smaller truck arrived for the bodies. The man who had had the pistol, but no longer showed it — he was directing people to go away. People were going away.
    One minute after the gunshot, the street was empty. This was often the case. I shall introduce this city to you as a city of empty streets — empty only when something occurred, momentarily empty and soon full again, but empty nonetheless.
    I shall introduce this city and its occupants as a series of objects whose relationship cannot be told with any certainty. Though violence may connect them, though pity, compassion, hope may marry one thing to another, still all that is in process cannot be judged, and that which has passed has gone beyond judgment, which leaves us again, with lives and belongings, places, shuttling here and there, hapless, benighted, discordant.
    It was a school day and so, after a while, the two in the room began to stir. Molly woke first, and dressed herself. She was an able child, although mute.
    — We will get something on the way, said William.
    Molly nodded to herself. She stood by her folding pallet in the corner of the room and held up before her the two dresses that were hers. One was blue and the other yellow. Which to wear?
    And then they were in line at the bakery, and she had on the yellow, which matched her somewhat torn yellow dancing slippers, although she did not dance. She did not have a bag with books because it was not that sort of school.
    — Two of those, said William. And one of those.
    — Do you want one now? he asked.
    Molly signed, *Not yet.
    Well, what sort of school was it, then? It was one of the schools where you sat in rows on benches and the teachers told you what to think. You recited things and wrote things repeatedly. You read from books that were held on little chains to the tables. Examinations were given, and often sticks were employed to instill discipline. There was a little area of dirt where they could play at lunchtime. Play was encouraged, as was snitching.
    *Here we are, said Molly.
    — Goodbye! said William, and caught her up for a moment.
    She ran inside the building. Other children pushed past him as he stood there watching after.
    — Drysdale, did you hear?
    A coarse man of advancing years was there with wife. One might confuse either for a banker.
    — Latreau’s dead. Shot this morning.
    — The old woman? For what?
    — Pushed someone in front of a bus.
    — I heard it was a truck, said the wife. She thought the man was a cop, so she pushed him in front of a truck. But they caught her before she could get away.
    — I’m sorry to hear that, said William absently. I truly am.
    His lips hardly moved.
    William walked away without looking at either of them. He hadn’t looked at them once the whole time. If one had been watching, one might even have thought that the couple had just been speaking to each other. William was that cautious.
    The town was called a town, but it was a city. This is a convention of the very largest cities. It had districts: old districts, new districts, poor districts, trading districts, guard districts. There had been a jail once, but now there was no need for a jail. The system was much too efficient for that. Punishments were either greater or they did not occur at all. An ordinary nation, full of ordinary citizens, their concerns, difficulties, cruelties, injustices, had gone to sleep one night and woken the next morning to find in the place of the old government an invisible state, with its own concerns, difficulties, cruelties, injustices. Everything was strictly controlled and maintained, so much so that it was possible, within certain bounds, to pretend that nothing had changed at all.
    Who had overthrown it? Why? Such things weren’t clear at all, just as it wasn’t entirely clear that anything had been overthrown. It was as if a curtain had been drawn and one could see to that curtain but not beyond. One remembered that the world had been different, and not long ago. But how? This was the question that nagged at those who could not avoid asking questions.
    The nothing that had changed at all was really beyond bearing. Houses and buildings were full of desperate people who deeply misunderstood their desperation. This was due to artful explanation on the part of the government. It is impossible to tell, many said out of the corners of their mouths, if the ministry is thinking well of us — if they are acting on our behalf. Yet still there were acorns falling from trees, fish breaking the surfaces of ponds, etc. In a long life, said many an old man, this is but one more thing. Yet there were others who were young and knew nothing about the helplessness of life’s condition. Did they glow with light? They did, but of course, it could not be seen. And all the while, the grinding of bones like machinery, and the light step of tightrope walkers out beyond the windows.
    But recently, only recently, those who could not bear to be governed in this way had taken steps. It was impossible to say exactly what had altered, but clashes between the two sides were now common, and the people of the city had grown used to the finding of bodies without explanation.
    Such explanations, of course, may only be offered later, when one side has won.
    William headed to his first appointment. He pictured himself as he would be seen, a man in a long tweed coat, with a stick under his arm, with a bowler hat and a pair of sturdy black shoes. Then, he inserted himself into that image, as an actor would.
    In such made and imagined clothing, he arrived.
    — Mrs. Monroe is in the garden.
    A servant led him down a tiled passage. The tiles had pastoral scenes: cows, gypsies, birds of different sorts, wattle buildings, haystacks. No two of them were the same. This had a disquieting effect. You would obviously never have time to sit and look at all of them, even were it possible, and so it gave an elusive impression. William wouldn’t like to be forced to give an opinion about it.
    The passage opened onto a shady porch that overlooked a stand of trees and a lawn. The whole thing was walled in. An elderly woman with straight gray hair and a mauve housecoat was seated on a wicker divan.
    — You are the mason?
    — No, I work for him. I am helpful in finding the best way of putting things, a way that everyone can be happy with. The epitaph, you understand.
    — It isn’t particularly important who is happy, other than myself. I’m the one buying the gravestone. I’m the one who knows the wishes of my husband, who’ll lie underneath it.
    The woman coughed violently, covering her mouth with a pillow from the divan.
    William began patiently:
    — There is the cemetery to be thought of: they don’t permit just anything. And, of course, the state has been known to remove memorials of one sort or another. We would not want for such a thing to happen.
    — I see.
    William sat in a chair that the servant provided. He took a small leather notebook out of his pocket, and a pencil. While the woman was watching him, he brought out a knife with a very small blade and sharpened the pencil. Then he opened the notebook to a new page, wrote on it:
    MONROE +
    — Well, he said, what do you think, to begin with?
    — Paul Sargent Monroe, said the woman. Died before his time.
    — That’s it?
    — That’s it.
    — He was quite old, however, that’s true, no?
    The woman gave him a very serious look.
    — Ninety-two.
    — Well, are you sure you want it to say, Died before his time, on the gravestone? I don’t mean to say that we can’t do that, because, of course, we can, if you like. It just seems a bit, well, just not exactly right.
    — I see what you mean, said the woman.
    They thought for a minute. Finally, she broke the silence.
    — Well, we could change the date.
    — The date?
    — Have it say: Paul Sargent Monroe. Died before his time. And change the birth date to twenty-five years ago.
    William shuffled his feet.
    — I suppose that’s possible, but …
    — You see, said the woman, when people are in a cemetery, and they see the grave of a young man, they stop and feel sadness. If someone lived for ninety-two years, the throng passes on by. They don’t stop for even a moment. I want to be sure of, well …
    — I see what you mean.
    A few more minutes passed. William looked occasionally down at his notebook. He had written there:
    MONROE +
    and then a line, and then:
    Died before his time.
    He took a deep breath.
    — Well, he said. If you’re going to do it that way, maybe it’s better to have him die as a child. It could be that he was six when he died, and the inscription could read, Paul Sargent Monroe, Friend of cats. It would evoke his personality a bit, and certainly people would pause there.
    A sort of ragged quiet was broken by another fit of coughing.
    Happy tears were in the woman’s eyes.
    — I see why they send you, she said. You’re right, just exactly right. That’s just what we’ll do. After all, it doesn’t matter what the truth of it was, does it? It’s just to have people stop, and be quiet for a moment. Maybe it’s late in the afternoon and they’re on their way somewhere, to a restaurant. They stopped at the cemetery briefly, and then they pass his grave, and, oh, now they’ll stop a moment. Now they will.
    She took his hand in both of hers.
    — I do wish you could have met Paul. You would have liked him, and he would have liked you.
    — I believe it, said William. I feel sure of that.
    He got to his feet, closed his notebook, put it in his pocket. The pencil he snapped in half and put in the other pocket. He used each pencil exactly once, for one epitaph. He brought as many pencils as there were appointments, and he sharpened each one as he began.
    — Goodbye, he said. We will send you a proof of what the stone will look like, and you can initial it.
    — Thank you so much. Goodbye.
    He stood and headed for the tile passage.
    She called after him:
    — And do you know what? He was a friend of cats. He really was. He really was.
    He looked back at the woman, but she was now occupied with something in her lap, a box of some sort and its contents. She did not look up.
    Next he came to a gate. A man he knew, Oscar, was there. He stood next to Oscar for a minute.
    A crowd of schoolchildren went through Oscar’s gate, shepherded by a matron in a severe smock.
    Oscar laughed.
    — When I was a kid, you know, I had a tremendous fear of horses. I felt very uncomfortable about their shape, and I was horrified that I was completely alone in this. Once, I read about a war a long time ago where thousands and thousands of horses were killed by machine-gun fire. I felt very comfortable about that. There was a black and white photograph in the book of a field of dead men and dead horses. The perspective of the book was that the horses were not to be blamed.
    — But you felt differently.
    — I felt differently.
    An old man drove up in a car with a rattling engine. His car was licensed to a different city. It was stuffed with belongings. He looked very tired, and slowed down very little. He came very near to running someone over as his car emerged on the other side.
    The man who had been nearly run over had fallen. He got to his feet and came through the gate.
    — That man has something in his pocket that looks like a gun but is probably a piece of fruit. If he should be shot for a piece of fruit it would be very unfortunate.
    — How do you think they know, the secret police, who else is or is not secret police? For instance, this man with the fruit — if it was a gun, how would they know to shoot or not shoot him?
    — But it is a piece of fruit.
    — And if he was shot for it?
    — It is a good idea to eat fruit when you buy it and not carry it around, my friend. Anyway — it is far nicer to stand nearby a fruit stand and eat the fruit than to carry it home and put it on a counter.
    — I disagree.
    — With this, William Drysdale, you cannot disagree. It is the way of things. I have never seen you carrying fruit in your pocket.
    — Because I am afraid of being shot.
    — Well, we will all be shot for something. I have a gold nose that I bought once, do you know that? This was many years ago. Apparently people used to lose their noses from syphilis and then they would sometimes have gold noses.
    — This is a very clumsy way of changing the subject, Oscar. There is not even a single gold nose in sight to act as a segue.
    — Well, I thought I saw one. A man is coming now with a very shiny nose. He should be careful, with such a shiny nose. It could mean trouble for him.
    On then to the next appointment. This was a row house where houses were all slate-roofed. Every window in the street had bars across it. At that moment the sky was tremendously blue. For the first time in a long while, William looked down and saw his hands. If you have had this experience, you’ll know just what I mean.
    He knocked on the door.
    After a minute, he could hear footsteps. The door opened. A man and woman were standing there. They appeared to be husband and wife.
    — I’m from the mason.
    — Yes, we’ve been expecting you. Won’t you come in?
    They brought him through the dark low-slung house to the back, where a long narrow window with many clear square panes afforded some measure of light. It was a room of three chairs.
    — This is where we thought we’d talk, said the woman.
    — We thought it would be all right in here, added the man.
    — That’s fine, said William.
    He sat in one of the chairs and took his notebook out. This he set on one knee. From his pocket he took an unsharpened pencil.
    Then, out with the knife, and he began his sharpening.
    He looked at the couple.
    — The stone is for your daughter, I believe?
    — Yes.
    — She was, nine years old?
    — Just nine.
    — I’m sorry to hear it.
    The couple looked then the one at the other.
    William continued,
    — You see, I have a daughter who is nine.
    The woman flinched as if hit.
    — Be careful with her, she said. Our Lisa seemed indestructible, fearless, invincible. But all it takes, all it takes is …
    Her voice was drowned out by her own crying. Her husband put his arms around her.
    — It was a roof slate that did it. Right here in the street. The wind blew it. She had gone out to play and an hour passed, two hours, three. We just thought she was with a friend, or, well, I don’t know what we thought. Anyway, Joan went out front to see if Lisa was coming, and …
    The room was empty except for the three chairs. There weren’t any pictures, there wasn’t a table, just bare walls and this long narrow window of exactly square panes. Each of the panes was square, William observed for the third time. He looked at them in turn, yes, all square, leaded glass.
    The man was trying to continue, but it took him a little while.
    — You see, she was just there, right in front of the house, on the ground. The rest of her was fine, it was her head that, well, it had sailed down, the slate, and, the wind must have really sent it. I guess it didn’t make any noise as it came.
    — I’m sorry, said William. It is a terrible thing.
    — We want it to mean something, said the woman. We thought about it, and this is a place where it can be made to mean something, don’t you think?
    — I’m sure of it.
    — We thought it would begin with the name, that’s how they go, and then,
    — So … Lisa Epstein. Did you want the name in capital letters?
    — Yes, clear large lettering.
    The man broke in,
    — Perhaps, perhaps, She was walking in the street by our house, and it was almost evening.
    — We thought of it, you know, several different ways. What do you think?
    They looked at him then, very intently.
    — I think, perhaps, well, let’s look at it. How old, exactly?
    — Nine years, twenty-four days.
    He leaned over his little book.
    Lisa Epstein.
    She was walking in the street by our house,

    and it was almost evening.
    He took a deep breath and leaned back in the chair. He closed his eyes, opened them, looked at it again. He looked up and around the room, avoiding the eyes of the couple. Wherever he tried to look, his eyes were drawn to this narrow ledge of light, this eighteen-paned window. It was the room’s nature, and the three chairs were the expression of that nature. That wasn’t right, though, not exactly. There weren’t three chairs. There were two chairs, and then one that wouldn’t be used. He wondered if he was sitting in the chair that the girl used to sit in. It could even be that the room had changed completely, that the girl had never entered the room under these conditions.
    — Do you sit here often?
    — We sit here in the evening.
    He looked again at his book. Lisa Epstein. Lisa Epstein.
    He went to a new page.

    9 years, 24 days.
    In the street by our house, it was almost evening.
    He showed it to them.
    A thing that develops in a child — that which must occur particularly, precisely, if great success is to be had in some field — is not the prefiguring of that excellence, no! It is not the ability to produce great things of a lesser sort leading upwards like a ladder. It is rather a vague listlessness that infects other matters, leaving the single matter clear.
    But then, of course, there is the matter of RIDDLES which must be learned by hand or with great violence of tutelage. Why, I shouldn’t mind being beaten with a stick if it meant I could solve all riddles without exception. Yes, William had been whipped until he had the whole Exeter book by heart. No wonder then, the rise of this second profession, epitaphorist.
    There is a theory that the sun is made up of thousands of suns arranged in a war each against the others. It is a discredited theory, but it has never been disproven.
    He took an oblique route to the next place, and passed through several alleys, which were themselves connected to other alleys. Here, the backs of things could be seen, unrepaired, unconstructed, unrepentant. Still, one was not unwatched. Faces could be seen beneath ruined stairwells and from the mouths of makeshift tents.
    Down the first side-alley he saw a man running, and several men in pursuit. The man who was running ran in an odd way, the way one runs only if one’s hands are tied. Of those who chased him, one had a catch pole with a wire on the end. It ducked towards the first man’s head again and again, but he kept ahead and shot around a corner. The others raced on, relentlessly, and all were gone from sight.
    How could the government’s people know one another? The simple answer, and the truth of it, as far as William could tell, is they did not. Government men were often caught by other government men and taken into the huge death cell rumored to be in the city center (no one had ever seen it). Once captured, the truth or falsehood of their claims could be decided. It was a small difficulty that permitted them to go at large without uniforms, operating with impunity.
    The next place was a business. It was a butcher’s shop, a huge one. As he entered, he emerged into a place for standing before a long counter, perhaps ninety feet in length. Behind it stood ten or fifteen men dressed in long white aprons. The counter was wood on top with glass, and William had never in his life seen so much meat in one place.
    As it is described it seems very still, but in fact, there were dozens of customers in line, and the men behind the counter were strenuously engaged in great business of cutting, slicing, wrapping, tying. They dodged past one another, and past innumerable blades and cleavers with acrobatic motions.
    William bypassed the line, and a young man, also in an apron, approached him immediately.
    — You’ll need to wait there.
    — I’m not here to buy anything.
    — In that case, you certainly need to stand over there. If you just want to look around, come by at some hour when we’re less busy.
    — No, no, I’m here on business. Mr. Denton asked me to come.
    — Denton? Well, why didn’t you say so? Come with me.
    The boy gave the line a stern look before turning away, to make sure everyone stayed exactly where they were.
    — Over here.
    He walked William down to the end of the shop, where a small stair led to a door.
    — I go no farther, said the boy. It had better have been true what you said. Denton doesn’t like soliciting.
    He hurried away back down the stairs.
    William then opened the door and went into one of the tidiest, most comfortable rooms he had ever been lucky enough to encounter.
    There was one very fine leather chair directly in front of a large window that overlooked the shop. All around were bookshelves, full of books of every kind, although he could see that many pertained to butchery and to animal anatomy. A drafting table was against one wall. The whole room was lit by candles, perhaps sixty of them. Before the drafting table, which was meant to be used standing, stood a large man of formidable characteristic.
    — Mr. Denton?
    — You are from the mason, I assume.
    — I am that.
    — Sit over there, please. I will fetch a stool.
    Denton opened a closet and removed a three-legged stool. He placed it beside the sumptuous leather chair.
    — Sit down, he said again.
    He was about fifty, with a weathered face and deeply brown, almost black eyes. He wore the same aproned outfit as the men below, but his was the definitive version.
    William sat. Out of his pocket, the notebook. He began to sharpen a new pencil.
    — That’s a fine little knife, said Denton. Marzol?
    — It is, said William.
    — I knew it. Those take quite an edge, quite an edge. I won’t lie to you, I have more than a few of them myself, although substantially larger. The only meat you’ll cut with a knife like that is a man’s throat.
    William blinked, and tried not to flinch as the man sat on the stool and rested one burly arm on the armrest of the leather chair.
    — So, this is how it is. My father’s dead. He started this business. Made it what it is now. People will always need someone to do their butchering, that’s what he used to say. Do you know he could butcher a cow in any of thirteen different ways? How do you write an epitaph for a man like that?
    — Robert Denton, that’s how we’ll start, said William matter-of-factly.
    — Robert Denton, that’s right.
    — So, any thoughts? Some people like to put something simple, in remembrance, others like to really make the person’s presence felt. Sometimes the epitaph is an inside joke — something only the deceased would understand.
    — I do have something like that, said Denton.
    The door opened, and a man nearly as big as Denton stepped into the room.
    — Wilson fell under an ox, and his leg’s bent.
    — Well, call over Hal Sanderson. He’ll put it right. As for the ox, is it dead?
    — It was dead. He pulled it off a beam and it dropped on him.
    — I see. Well, that’s how it is.
    — Right.
    The door shut.
    — I’ve got something, said Denton. He often said he could skin a pig with the lights off. He even said he did it once, although I never saw it.
    — That’s good, said William. That’s really good.
    He wrote:
    who could skin a pig in the dark.
    — I like it, said Denton.
    William went to the door.
    The two shook hands.
    — They made me think, down there, you might be a hard man to deal with, said William.
    — Don’t fool yourself, said Denton. I’m a mean bastard. You just caught me at a tender moment.
    — Well, I’ll get to work on this.
    Denton nodded.
    He was out on the street again. A man jostled his elbow. It was … William looked away.
    — Will? the man said.
    Will did not stop walking.
    — It’s you, isn’t it? he said again, catching up. Well, of course it is. I haven’t seen you in quite a while. It’s, actually, it’s very fortunate to meet like this.
    Will continued on, and didn’t look at the man.
    — Will, I need to speak to you. Do you hear me?
    He grabbed William’s arm and pulled him around.
    — Sit down with me, there, in that cafe?
    — We mustn’t be seen. Come after five minutes.
    — Do you see what I mean? It’s crucial. It’s everyone’s place — everyone is in a position to act, at some point.
    A man with a long moustache and a military-style coat was muttering into his soup. This man had come in five minutes after William. He had sat at a table near the front, but then knocked over a bottle of wine and asked for another table. He had been moved to the table next to William. This man was William’s friend. William had not spoken to him in four years.
    — I don’t know what you mean, said William.
    — Even you, said his friend, even you must have heard of it.
    — It seems just like the purges. I’m not interested.
    — It’s not the same thing, not at all. That’s them killing us. This is us killing them.
    His friend’s moustache moved ornamentally as he spoke in precise, deliberate sentences. It was as if the conversation had been rehearsed.
    — Did you rehearse this conversation?
    — And if I did?
    — It would make me feel like you thought it was important.
    — It is important.
    — Then did you rehearse it?
    — Perhaps.
    — If you did, then who did you have as me?
    — Whalen.
    — No? Whalen? Is he still around?
    — Of course.
    — It doesn’t matter. I have Molly to think of.
    — Come tonight, please. The address is on that sheet. It’s necessary. Louisa would have wanted you to. You know that.
    William held his hand close to his face. He didn’t say anything.
    His friend’s face, turned away from him, addressing an empty table off to the right, became somehow slightly cruel.
    — If nothing else would get through to you, I will say this last, that I intended to save for a place of greater privacy. We have had news of Louisa and what happened to her.
    William flinched and involuntarily his eyes fixed on this man who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere in sudden frightening focus.
    His friend stood, and William watched him walk through a door behind which lay the lavatory. He did not return. This was a typical method of leaving a restaurant. If William was the sort to meet people at restaurants, he might well have employed that same technique, but as it happens, he was not.
    He sat there, with the crumpled sheet in his hands. An address. He had not gone to someone’s address in a long time. He didn’t even know how to begin to do such a thing. And this, if he went there at eight, it would mean returning after curfew, a danger in and of itself — such a danger as he had not taken on in years.
    Any danger to himself seemed to be a danger to Molly. But wasn’t that just an excuse for cowardice?
    And Louisa, if he could learn something of Louisa. He felt again as he had on the day she vanished, and the feeling of waiting, restlessly waiting, was fresh upon him, but tinged now with a dire, hopeless grief. He shook his head as if to cast off a weight.
    The day before, Molly had handed Will a piece of paper. That piece of paper did not have an address on it. That piece of paper had said:
    I am an elephant today. I will need to have lots of

    room and also a bowl of water on the floor.
    William had taken the largest mixing bowl from the cupboard, filled it with water, and set it on the floor.
    He had found some cardboard also and wrote on it:
    This he had put near the porcelain bowl.
    Was he becoming a coward?
    And if he was, then what was the worst of it—
    that there is nothing worse than to be the daughter of a coward! or so it seems to the coward.
    William ate the rest of his lunch in silence. He put what he had learned in a box and he shut that box. To do otherwise would be to give signs that he had learned something, some new information, and such behavior — indicative of new information — is what alerts those who seek after traitors. He could not even consider having learned that which he had learned, which after all was practically nothing. Just an idea, a hope of an idea. Away with it for now.
    He had ordered pea soup with sourdough bread. The pea soup was very peppery and that pleased him, but he was not happy with the spoon he had been given, which was rather shallow for soup eating. He began to dip the bread in the soup, and in between bread dipping he would take spoonfuls. He had measured it out so that when he had the final taste of soup, it would be accompanied by the last bite of bread. However, the spoon’s shallowness made the whole proposition laborious in the extreme.
    Unbidden, the thought of Gerard came again. What could he know?
    He should not go. He wouldn’t. It was out of the question. But of course, of course, he must go.
    Yes, there are times when something is asked of us, and we find we must do it. There is no calculation involved, no measure of the necessity of the thing itself, the action that must be performed. There is simply an acknowledgment that we will do the thing in question, and then the thing is done, often at considerable personal cost.
    What goes into these decisions? What tiny factors, invisible, in the jutting edges of personality and circumstance, contribute to this inevitability?
    The restaurant was quiet. A couple, sitting across from him, was whispering. On the table in front of them sat a decanter full of water. He could see the woman’s face through the decanter, but distorted. It appeared to him that she was crying, but then she moved in her chair, and he saw that she was not.
    The waiters were standing together by the door to the kitchen, and they also were conferring quietly.
    There was a little breeze, like the movement of a finger, and it came and went.
    I was a great violinist, thought William. What does that mean?
    He returned the same way. He could see the gate from a ways off, and through the open door, the double chair. The back of Oscar’s head was visible. The light came through the open door, making an oblong area that placed the chair in a sort of spotlight.
    There is a space in the playing of a virtuoso piece where the violinist must cease to think about the music, must cease thinking of fingerings, even of hands and violins, where the sound itself must be manipulated directly. At such times even to remember that one has hands, that one is playing, is disastrous.
    William had stood many times before an audience, playing such pieces, and it was in this way that he sought to control the very passage of his life, deftly and without forethought, yet precisely and with enormous care. Part of it was to allow what was enormous, what was profound, without limiting it.
    And if he should be forced to give up music? He had been. And if he should be forced to lose his wife? He had lost her.
    He came closer now, and saw the gate, and the wall, and the gatehouse. The whole thing was simply to have people be watched. To delineate areas in which people felt watched and areas in which they didn’t. It was one more surface on top of the other surfaces.
    He paused there by the wall to consider his position.
    An hour passed, and the sun weakened by the gate. In the long afternoon, people of every kind passed by.
    A young woman with a very short skirt and a thin blouse came out of a building in the distance. Because she was so beautiful, he saw her from far away, and for the same reason, he watched her as she came all down the road and through the gate. She wore her beauty very carelessly, and she left no one unaffected.
    She was on the verge of dropping some of the things she was carrying, and in fact did drop them, at various points in her approach to the gate. But each time, someone came and picked up whatever it was, and handed it to her, and she accepted it, and appeared surprised each time that something should fall from her hand.
    When she came closer, William saw that one side of her face was horribly deformed. That was why she had been dropping things — she had to walk in a very special way in order to keep one side of her face hidden from the crowd on the sidewalk.
    To the next appointment he went hurriedly. He did not hurry out of worry that he would be late, but because it was the appearance of virtuous citizens — hurrying.
    He found the house near the rail station. It was a large building with many apartments. Outside there was a huge signboard. It said,
    in thirty-foot-high letters. Underneath in small letters, it said, Government Ministry 6. William had often wondered where the Government Ministries were situated. Their locations were not publicly known. The system was virtually invisible.
    He was waved on by the doorman, who wore a remarkable gold-stitched uniform. There was no elevator. Instead — a grand staircase usually reserved for descending.
    Many fine lamps here and there. Apartment 3L. He knocked.
    A girl in a dressing gown opened the door.
    — Come in, Mr. Drysdale.
    William nodded.
    — We are aware of you, she said, and walked ahead of him to the living room.
    There, an elderly couple, her parents, sat amidst lavish furnishings. She sat, and he did the same.
    The elderly couple inspected him quietly.
    — He was her husband, you see.
    — Our son-in-law.
    — Died in the night, two weeks ago.
    — Two weeks, three days, said the girl.
    — There is no body. The body was taken. He has been …
    — Accused, said the girl. It is unlikely that we will bury him. Nonetheless, we would like a stone.
    — For her to visit, said the father.
    — We will go with her, of course, said the mother.
    William took out his notebook. He took out a pencil and his knife. He sharpened the pencil.
    At the top of the page he wrote:
    He looked up.
    — The name?
    — Jacob Lansher.
    — Have you considered what you would like the stone to say?
    Meanwhile, he wrote on the page:
    Jacob Lansher.
    The state of the room really was remarkable. It was full of contraband things. It was, in short, the house of a government minister, or seemed so. And yet, the disappearance of the husband.
    — He was a writer, said the girl.
    — Not exactly, said her father.
    — He was.
    — Dora, said her mother sharply. You agreed.
    Dora looked away.
    The mother handed William a piece of paper. It said:
    Jacob Lansher
    Dutiful Husband, Devoted Son.
    — We’ve agreed upon this.
    — I refuse, said Dora. He would have hated that.
    — He made his decision, said the father.
    Dora was on her feet.
    — You know more than you’ll say.
    — If I do, said her father, then you’re lucky.
    The girl stormed out of the room. William was left staring at the parents.
    — We make no apologies for her, said the mother. She is a grown woman.
    — He was a dissenter, said the father. He couldn’t change. He was always thinking of how things were. It was the end of him.
    William wrote on the page:
    Jacob Lansher
    Dutiful Husband, Devoted Son.
    He closed the notebook. He set the pencil carefully in his pocket.
    — It will be as you say.
    — Thank you. Have them send the bill around.
    He stood up, nodded to them, and went back along the hallway to the door. He opened it and closed it behind him. He proceeded to the staircase

    and stood

    for one



    The door to the apartment opened. The girl came out. She joined him by the staircase.
    William took the pencil from his pocket and opened the notebook.
    — There will be two stones, he said. The first will be as they say. You determine the second. You cannot go to it, unless you are sure you are not followed. Do you understand?
    Dora murmured yes.
    William wrote on a new page:
    Jacob Lansher
    then beneath it
    John Cable Ras
    John Carables
    John Sarcable
    — Sarcable, he said.
    — That’s good.
    William leaned against the rail and squinted his eyes. He wrote on the page.
    — That’s good, said the girl again. John Sarcable. Elsewhere and beloved.
    She smiled.
    — One thing, and thank you. White marble, and leave room for his wife, when she dies.
    He broke the pencil in half and put the pieces in his pocket.
    — Goodbye.
    William stopped on the final step, and thought for a moment of the stairs he had been thrown down as a child. It was an accident. A woman thought that he was her son in the darkness of the building and, in great anger, had hurled him headlong. The actual boy was there too, but did not get thrown.
    William had broken both his hands, and they had healed in a rather odd way. It was later thought by aficionados that this breaking of his hands was an advantage in his violin playing, and there was an ill-advised spate of hand breaking that went on until it was seen the accident could not be successfully replicated.
    The woman was imprisoned and drowned herself in a washbasin. William never heard what happened to the son, but he often felt that if his life were a book, the boy would intercede at some point to take some terrible blow meant for William.
    On then to his final appointment. For this he went out of the city gates and a little ways down to a waterfront and harbor that stretched there. He passed a woman who was putting up posters that read, MY HUSBAND HAS DISAPPEARED AND I MUST FIND HIM, with a photograph of a middle-aged man standing in a doorway wearing a prerevolutionary suit. William did not meet her eyes as he passed.
    By the last pier, there was a shack with a sign that read:
    FISH if you WANT THEM.
    He knocked on the door of the shack, which made an awful racket.
    — Coming!
    A young man came to the door.
    — Yes?
    — I’m from the mason.
    — The mason?
    — Yes, about the gravestone.
    — Ah, the mason … yes, well. I would ask you to come in, but I imagine you wouldn’t like it at all in here. I mean, I live here and I don’t like it at all. We’d be better to just sit over there on that bench.
    He pointed to a bench on a hill overlooking the harbor.
    — Sure enough.
    The young man shook his hand.
    — So, you might think this a bit strange, but the tombstone I want is actually for myself.
    William nodded.
    — Won’t be a problem. Are you intending to … fill it soon?
    — Fill it?
    The young man blushed.
    — Of course not! I just, well, I will explain it.
    They walked up the hill to the bench and sat down. The young man was wearing fisherman’s waxed clothing that was quite dirty. He himself had the sheen of good health and a thin but shining face. He seemed a very happy fellow indeed.
    — I have a theory, the young man said, that a person should prepare his or her tombstone at the happiest moment of life. I am right now, for no reason at all, as happy as a person could possibly be, and so I decided, yesterday, to prepare my tombstone. I want nothing of sadness in it. Just rejoicing, you see?
    — There is one danger, said William.
    — What’s that?
    — Well, although you feel now that this is the happiest you can be, what would happen if, in the years to come, you became happier still?
    — I would simply make another gravestone! I have done it three times already.
    — What did the others say?
    — Oh, I can’t tell you that. I don’t want them to influence this one.
    — Understood. All right, well, what sort of epitaph are you interested in? Do you want it to be a general address, a private message, a warning, what do you think?
    — A warning?
    — Well, some people favor something like, Watch Out. Or, Hell Rears Its Head.
    The young man burst out in peals of laughter.
    — Certainly nothing like that. Perhaps something about my shack. I’ve just gotten it, you know.
    William took out his pencil and sharpened it. He opened his notebook. So, your name?
    — Stan Milgram.
    He wrote:
    Stan Milgram
    Dweller in shacks
    — That’s not quite right, said Stan. It’s just one shack. And anyway, maybe the shack isn’t that important. I just, well, the whole thing came from Death Poems — where some people would prepare a death poem, so that they would know for sure it would turn out well. But then I want it to reflect these brilliant days I have come to now.
    — What do you do?
    — Fishing, and I sit around there in the shack and read.
    — What if it gave a catalog of your day? Tell me about your day, what happened?
    Stan told him in detail about the day’s events.
    — All right, then.
    William turned to a new page.
    4 AM, rose, already dressed, and set out for the boat.
    5 AM, out on the water to the shoals.
    6 AM, net after net of powerfully squirming fish.
    & 7, 8, the same.
    9 AM, returned to the docks.
    10, 11, read Moore’s Urn Burial; ate an onion, cheese, brown bread.
    12, closed eyes for a moment.
    4, woke and met with the epitaphorist, and set down this record.
    — I would like to see a gravestone like that, said Stan proudly.
    — I also, said William.
    — The writing will have to be rather small.
    — Not in itself a large obstacle.
    — It isn’t, is it?
    — Nope.
    — Let’s settle it, then. Thank you. How did you come by this work, anyway?
    — I was always good with puzzles, and I have memorized the complete works of five poets which I can recite on command. Four years ago, when I could no longer do the work that I did before, I saw an advertisement in the paper. It read, Position requiring: ingenuity, restraint, quiet manner, odd hours, impeccable judgment, and eloquence. Unworthy candidates unwelcome. I was the only one to apply.
    — That sort of thing, said the young man. That sort of thing I understand effortlessly. It seems the way things should work.
    William smiled and shook his hand, broke the pencil in half, tucked away his notebook, and set out back towards the gates.

    had a few small houses by the cemetery, with a yard around and between them. The whole thing was walled in, as you can imagine, with a high stone wall. The grass was short and yellow and patchy. The trees were old and august.
    Smoke rose from the chimney of one of the houses. To that one William went.
    — Mercer, he said, a good day’s work done.
    — I’d expect no less.
    Mercer, a man of about fifty years with a ruddy face and thick clever hands, was grinding a piece of granite. He stopped his work and went with William into the next room, where the fireplace was. They sat.
    — Let’s see it.
    William handed him the notebook.
    He read slowly through it, nodding sometimes, sniffing, narrowing his eyes.
    — I see, he said.
    He set the notebook in his lap.
    — Can the girl be trusted? This could be trouble, and for nothing.
    — Not for nothing.
    — No, not for nothing. But can she?
    — I believe so.
    — Good work, then. These will be attended to. And how is Molly today?
    — Seemed happy.
    — You know, the rhyme she made me, I say it every day. The paper she wrote it on is gone. But I remember it.
    — When was that?
    — Last winter. She was here the whole day while you went around.
    — I remember.
    — She came to me, and I was chiseling away, in the midst of it, you know, and she had a scrap of paper. It said Mercer on it, and underneath, to be said on mornings, and under that the thing.
    — I asked you what it was and you wouldn’t say, and I asked her, and she wouldn’t either.
    Mercer grinned.
    — It’s a thing like that. Not to be bandied about.
    He set to coughing again. Finally he settled.
    — On the way here this morning, I saw a woman killed.
    One of the gnarled hands was gripping the other.
    William waited.
    — I was under the walking bridge on Seventh. There was a shout and then she came down, hit not twenty feet in front of me. Then right there where she fell from, a face looking down.
    — Did she look like a cop?
    — What does a cop look like, these days?
    — So, the body was there, and you walked past it.
    — Looked to see if she was dead, and she was. Twice over. People don’t fall like cats, you know. Even cats don’t always fall like cats. Have you ever seen it? When a cat does something it knows a cat shouldn’t have done? There’s nothing like the embarrassment of cats.
    He laughed.
    There was a little stove, and William made a pot of tea. The two men sat there while the water boiled, and then Mercer made the tea.
    — I do prefer good tea leaves, he said. In a fine tin.
    — If I saw any, I’d bring it. These days it can’t be bought.
    There was a book there, of old tombstone designs. William leafed through it.
    There were many there he liked, and he showed them to Mercer. These were also ones that Mercer liked. They sat there, then, together, liking them.
    The mason picked up his chisel. It was a splendid tool, an old tool, extremely heavy. William was very fond of Mercer and of all the things that Mercer owned. There are a few people one meets whom one can approve of entirely, and such was he.
    — You keep that chisel sharp.
    — I like to think I could cut the heart out of a sheep without it knowing. Just the tap of a hammer, and a slight twist.
    — But you’ve always been fond of sheep.
    — And am, and am. I’m speaking of the chisel, you understand.
    There was the humming of an airplane overhead, but neither man looked up or made as if to notice.
    — Tomorrow’s list is by the door, said Mercer finally.
    He handed William the notebook. William tore the pages out of it and set them down. White marble for the last, he said. And leave room, she says.
    — We’re all planning our own death these days.
    — Tomorrow, then.
    At six o’clock, he picked up Molly and they had a glass of lemonade by the lake.
    *Can we rent a boat and go out to the island?
    *But what about tomorrow? Can we tomorrow?
    Molly played in the enormous gnarled oaks that had stood in the park for more than a century. Their limbs were long and bowed and many. Nearly every one could be climbed easily, and Molly had climbed nearly every one.
    There was a man selling newspapers. William bought a newspaper, but did not read it. It looked bad to avoid the newspaper; one bought it, but one didn’t actually have to read it.
    He had not performed violin in over four years. There were no musical performances anymore. There were no performances of any kind. There was a new ideal, and one could sit in an audience and listen to people talk about the new ideal, but that was the extent of it.
    Much of his life in the past years was a matter of making it so that things could not get worse. He tried to, through a series of habits, insulate and barricade the life that he and Molly lived, so that it could not be invaded or altered.
    He had done this in a series of ways. First, he bought an apartment in an area of town that was known to be very quiet. He established a policy of having no friends, none at all. He ceased to speak to the friends he had had before. He got a job as a mason’s assistant. He and Molly lived cheaply, and wore old clothes. They did simple things together quietly. They learned sign language together, for Molly couldn’t speak. He taught her to read by himself, and he taught her mathematics by himself. He taught her to use an abacus. He taught her everything that she would need to know in school, and he did this when she was five and six, before she went to school. Therefore, school would have no difficulties for her, and her muteness would not be a problem.
    Every night he and Molly ate supper at a little cafe some distance from their home. Molly sometimes played with a boy who lived in the same building, and while she was doing that, William would sit at the window and read, or play through a volume of old chess games with a small wooden chess set. He loved the games of Tchigorin and also of Spielmann. Neither one had been the greatest chess player of his time, but their games were full of sacrifices and wild, inventive play. For such things, William would say to himself, for such things …
    There was no difference between any one day and any other. The weekend had been abolished. It had been a sick way of going about things, that was the idea, a sort of illness that had led to widespread moral decay. Many of the ways that things had been gone about were weak, and had to be changed.
    *There was a new teacher in school today.
    — A woman?
    *A man.
    — Old?
    *Rather not.
    — Handsome?
    Molly made a face.
    — That bad?
    *He wrote a book about history. The history of the country.
    — And how did that go over?
    *Jim spat on him and then they took Jim in the next room for a while.
    — So, Jim, he’s a history lover?
    Molly did the thing that she did when she would have laughed but wasn’t laughing.
    William laughed as well.
    *He just spits on teachers.
    A ripple came and then subsided in the lake, as though a fish had surfaced, but none did.
    — There is a game, William said, where you try to throw a stone high up in the air and have it make just that noise, the noise of a fish at the water’s surface. It is not easy to do.
    William threw a stone high up in the air, but when it hit the water it made a decidedly stone-like sound.
    *You see, he gestured.
    *Read to me from the newspaper.
    She nudged his arm.
    *Don’t want to.
    *Come on. Over here. It’s very nice, look.
    — All right, all right.
    He sat down by the tree. This was a game they had. He unfolded the newspaper. Molly sat with her back against him.
    — On the fourteenth of July, a man was discovered walking about in a daze near the courthouse. He claims to have been asleep inside a hill for the last fifteen years.
    *Twenty is better.
    — All right, twenty years, the last twenty years. He was greatly confused by the gray banners everywhere, and by the change in administration. He has been taken by the police for questioning. It is believed he is pretending, and that he didn’t actually sleep inside a hill.
    *That’s no good, said Molly. Don’t have it be pretending.
    — All right, let’s try it again.
    He removed his hat and set it on the ground next to him, then cleared his throat.
    — On the fifteenth of July, a man was found in a confused state near the courthouse building. He claims to have been asleep inside a hill for the last twenty years. Upon further investigation into the matter, authorities have discovered the hill in question, and, within it, a sort of foxhole. The man refused to comply with any questioning, and escaped through the faucet of a sink. Beware!
    Molly smoothed her dress, but did not smile. It wasn’t her habit to smile at things that were funny.
    *That’s the news, then.
    And all of a sudden it was becoming dark. The lights bloomed automatically all along the streets, and at the edges of the lake. A bell rang, and it was a shift change. Workers could be seen exiting houses, and beginning on their way to the factories at the outskirts of the town.
    *I wish you could play for me a piece where you can hear the curtains blowing. Where you scrape the strings and the curtains move.
    — Don’t talk like that.
    Molly pushed against him.
    They threaded a path in a homeward direction, he murmuring, she gesturing, he peering at her hands in the dim evening.
    When they reached the street there was a crowd formed around a man who seemed to be asleep on the ground. He was in a mime’s regalia, with painted face and thin gloves. Suddenly he sprang up and froze at attention.
    In the street, another mime, marching as a soldier, passed by. Marching, marching, marching, and on the sixteenth step, he went on all fours and loped as a pack of wolves does, grimacing and showing row after row of teeth. He turned upon the crowd and made for them! Shouting and confusion. The single mime began to conduct an orchestra, and of a sudden, the soldier-mime was playing instruments of every description, alternating in rows on invisible seats with invisible instruments. The conductor mime sat in the invisible audience, dabbing a handkerchief at tear after tear.
    A shout then,
    — They are coming!
    — Watch out! Run!
    The orchestra threw its instruments in the air and careened madly off into the park. Yes, two men in shabby clothing ran off into the trees.
    *Will they get away?
    Molly’s hand was very tight clutching at William’s coat.
    *Will they get away?
    — They have gotten away. That’s how they did it in the first place. That’s why, even if they get caught, they can’t be caught. It wouldn’t mean anything, other than to show that they are what they say they are.
    Molly frowned.
    — They are students, said William. It is their resistance and has at its heart their youth. Catching them only makes others join them. So, in a sense, they want to be caught. Or be at the edge of being caught, always.
    *They don’t want to get away?
    — No, not really.
    *But if they were caught, wouldn’t they be …
    — Yes, it is a choice they are making, to be alive and unrepentant.
    — They don’t want to have to ask permission for anything, least of all for being alive.
    *But could they win? What would that be, if they won?
    Molly looked at William inquisitively.
    — There are always different types of resistance. These are of one type. Their resistance is both to the government and to the world in general, to existence, to just being, also. There are others who want to …
    He leaned in close and whispered in Molly’s ear.
    — overthrow the government directly and put something else in its place. That’s why so many people have been dying.
    *What would they change?
    — For one thing, you wouldn’t have to go to that particular school anymore.
    Molly clapped her hands together excitedly.
    *When do you think it will happen?
    — Oh, I don’t know. Something terrible would have to happen first.
    Molly thought about that a little and then she thought about that some more, and then they were back at the apartment and William was moving about, switching on the lamps.
    — I am going to meet some people. It’s important, and so I have to do it. You will eat supper with Mrs. Gibbons. I’m going to speak with her now about it.
    Molly said nothing, but stared up at him.
    — You really must go along with it.
    Molly continued simply staring at him.
    — I mean to say, it’s the best thing. We can’t have you here all alone.
    Molly covered her face and, turning her back to him, sat on the floor.
    — See here.
    He picked her up and began to say how there was nothing to worry about, something sweet and meaningless like that. But he did not say it.
    — My dear, we must remember how the elephants behave.
    Molly collected herself and came along immediately, but balked suddenly and threw herself on the floor.
    — What is it?
    *Just remembered something.
    She was pointing her hand at William, while still lying prone on the floor.
    — What did you remember?
    *Elephants are playful. They do not behave. They must not.
    — So what would a compromise be?
    *You know.
    — There isn’t time.
    *Just a short one. Short!
    which is a game of clues hidden among things in the house, woven in messages and riddles.
    It was a family inheritance and Molly adored it above all things.
    — You go sit by the window and ONLY look out.
    Molly grumbled silently.
    — Go on.
    William found a pad of paper, a scissors, string, and a pencil. He sat on the edge of the table and surveyed the room.
    How to begin?
    There was a photograph of a little bird falling out of a nest. That’s a good place to start, eh?
    William wrote then the first instruction: