“I married your mother for her skull. It’s no secret.” Jarak put aside his rasps and gouges for the moment, resting his eyes and mind from the precise, exacting work his trade demanded. He didn’t mind his son’s persistent questions at such times. Akan was at an age when he should be curious and, if curiosity was a duty, Akan was a dedicated boy. It wasn’t as though Purlo the Baker, whose skull rested patiently on Jarak’s workbench, was in a hurry.
Delightful Audoghast! Renowned through the civilized world, from Cordova to Baghdad, the city spread in splendor beneath a twilit Saharan sky. The setting sun threw pink and amber across adobe domes, masonry mansions, tall, mud-brick mosques, and open plazas thick with bristling date-palms. The melodious calls of market vendors mixed with the remote and amiable chuckling of Saharan hyenas.
On a beach by the sea stands a gutted stone tower. A man is climbing up the remains of a staircase that spirals up the tower’s interior. Vivi sits on the roof, oblivious, counting coins that have spilled from her breast pocket: one fiver, three ones, one golden ten. She’s only wearing a worn pair of pajamas, and the damp breeze from the sea is making her shiver. She has no memory of how she arrived, but is vaguely aware of the sound of footsteps.
“Manuel Black is dead. Long live Manuel Black.”
—Headline of the New York Times obituary
“Are you crazy? You may as well ask me to write a eulogy for God.”
—Me, when my editor assigned me this article
One night, I woke to the sound of my mother’s voice, as I did when I was a child. The words were familiar to my ear, they matched the voice that formed them, but it was not until I had opened my eyes to the dark of my room and my husband’s snoring that I remembered the words were calling me away from my warm bed and the steady breathing of my children, both asleep in their own rooms across the hall. “Because I could not stop for death,” my mother used to tell me, “he kindly stopped for me.”
In the beginning, I was not attracted to her at all. Quite the opposite. I don’t know if it was intentional on her part, and honestly, I’m not the sort of dick who always judges women on how hot they are, but if there’s any situation in which a person’s attractiveness matters, I think everybody would agree it’s a blind date.
The candlelight in our attic erased the imperfections from Libby’s round, heavy features: She seemed time-smoothened, a madonna of golden stone. But when she posed for me in the dress, her over-ripeness—the way she thrust out her chest, the coy glances—spoilt the illusion, corrupted it with indecent knowledge.
“There are one thousand eight hundred bolts total,” the old man said. “You’ll work every night until sunrise. Always go in order. Never skip a bolt.”
One day Lily decided to be someone else. Someone with a past. It was an affliction of hers, wanting this. The desire was seldom triggered by any actual incident or complaint but seemed instead to be related to the act or prospect of lateral movement. She felt it every time a train passed.
A loon called this morning, loud and clear in the cold hours before dawn, but it was not that which woke me from my sleep. As I opened my eyes, the bay and the beach were wrapped in heavy blackness, invisible clouds shutting out any hint of starlight above. For a moment, I lay in my lean-to, breathing heavily under the shaggy bison skin blanket.