Part Two - 03 (2)
‘This is it, Klara. From here we're on foot. Can you manage it?'
When we got out, I felt the chilly wind and heard the birds' noises. There were more wild trees around us as we climbed a path with rocks and clusters of mud. I had to take precautions, but I kept up behind the Mother, and after a time we went through a gap between two wooden posts onto another path. This one kept rising, and the Mother had frequently to stop to allow me to catch up. It occurred to me then she might have been correct after all in believing this trip too difficult for Josie.
Just at this point, I happened to look to my left, over the fence running beside us, and saw the bull in the field, watching us carefully. I had seen photos of bulls in magazines, but of course never in reality, and even though this one was standing quite far from us, and I knew it couldn't cross the fence, I was so alarmed by its appearance I gave an exclamation and came to a halt. I'd never before seen anything that gave, all at once, so many signals of anger and the wish to destroy. Its face, its horns, its cold eyes watching me all brought fear into my mind, but I felt something more, something stranger and deeper. At that moment it felt to me some great error had been made that the creature should be allowed to stand in the Sun's pattern at all, that this bull belonged somewhere deep in the ground far within the mud and darkness, and its presence on the grass could only have awful consequences.
‘It's okay,' the Mother said. ‘He can't touch us. Now come on. I need a coffee.'
I made myself look away from the bull and followed the Mother. Then quite soon we were no longer climbing and around us appeared the rough wooden tables I'd seen in Josie's photograph. I counted fourteen of them placed around the field, each one with benches attached on either side made from wooden planks. There were adults, children, AFs, dogs sitting at the tables, or running, walking and standing around them. Just beyond the tables was the waterfall. It was larger and fiercer than the one I'd seen in the magazine, filling eight boxes just by itself. I looked for the Sun, but couldn't see him in the gray sky.
‘We'll sit here,' the Mother said. ‘Go on, sit down. Wait for me. I need coffee.'
I watched her walk to a hut made of the same rough wood some twenty paces away. It had an open counter at the front so that it could function as a store, and passers-by were now standing in line there.
I was glad of the chance to sit down and orient myself, and as I waited at the rough table for the Mother to return, I found the surroundings settling into order. The waterfall no longer took up so many boxes, and I watched children and their AFs passing easily from one box to another with barely any interruption.
Although none of them looked my way with any interest, and each seemed very focused on their child, I felt pleased to be in the presence once more of other AFs, and for a moment watched them with happiness, following one then another with my gaze. Then the Mother returned and sat down in front of me, and I turned to face her fully, the waterfall moving fiercely behind her. Her coffee was in a paper cup and she raised it to her mouth. I remembered what Josie had said about sitting close to the waterfall, how your back could get wet without your noticing, and I wondered about mentioning this to the Mother. But something in her manner told me she didn't wish me to speak just yet.
She was gazing straight at my face, the way she'd done from the sidewalk when Rosa and I had been in the window. She drank coffee, all the time looking at me, till I found the Mother's face filled six boxes by itself, her narrowed eyes recurring in three of them, each time at a different angle. She said finally:
‘So how do you like it here?'
‘So now you've seen a real waterfall.'
‘I'm grateful you brought me here.'
‘That's odd. I was just thinking you didn't look so happy. I don't see your usual smile.'
‘I apologize. I didn't mean to seem ungrateful. I'm very pleased to see the waterfall. But perhaps also regretful Josie couldn't be with us.'
‘I am too. I feel bad about it.' Then she said: ‘But I don't feel quite so bad because you're here.'
‘Maybe Melania was right. Maybe Josie would have been fine.'
I said nothing. The Mother sipped her coffee and continued to look at me.
‘What did Josie tell you about this place?'
‘She said it was beautiful and she'd always enjoyed very much her trips here with you.'
‘That's what she said? And did she tell you how we always came here with Sal? How much Sal loved it here?'
‘Josie did mention her sister.' Then I added: ‘I saw Josie's sister in the photograph.'
The Mother stared so intensely at me that I thought I'd made an error. But then she said: ‘I think I know the one you mean. The one with the three of us sitting over there. I remember Melania taking it. We were over at that bench right there. Me, Sal, Josie. Something wrong, Klara?'
‘I was very sad to hear Sal passed away.'
‘Sad puts it pretty well.'
‘I'm sorry. Perhaps I shouldn't have…'
‘It's okay. It's a while now since she left us. Shame you didn't meet Sal. Different from Josie. Josie just says what she thinks. Doesn't care if she says the wrong thing. That gets irritating sometimes but I love her for it. Sal wasn't like that. Sal would have to think everything through before she came out with something, you know? She was more sensitive. Maybe didn't handle being sick so well as Josie's doing.'
‘I wonder…why Sal passed away?'
The Mother's eyes changed and something cruel appeared around her mouth.
‘What kind of a question is that?'
‘I'm sorry. I was merely curious to know…'
‘It's not your business to be curious.'
‘I'm very sorry.'
‘What's it to you? It happened, that's all.'
Then after a long moment, the Mother's face softened.
‘I think it was right we didn't bring Josie today,' she said. ‘She wasn't well. But now we're sitting here like this, I do miss her.' She looked around, turning to look at the waterfall. Then she turned back and her gaze went past me, to the passers-by, the dogs and AFs. ‘Okay, Klara. Since Josie isn't here, I want you to be Josie. Just for a little while. Since we're up here.'
‘I'm sorry. I don't understand.'
‘You did it for me once before. The day we got you from the store. You haven't forgotten, have you?'
‘I remember, of course.'
‘I mean, you haven't forgotten how to do it. Walk like Josie.'
‘I will be able to walk in her manner. In fact now I know her better, and have seen her in more situations, I'll be able to give a more sophisticated imitation. However…'
‘I'm sorry. I didn't mean however.'
The Mother looked at me, then said: ‘Good. But I wasn't going to ask you to do that walk anyway. We're sitting here, the two of us. A nice spot, a nice day. And I'd been looking forward to having Josie here. So I'm asking you, Klara. You're smart. If she were sitting here instead of you right now, how would she sit? I don't think she'd sit the way you're sitting.'
‘No. Josie would be more…like this.'
The Mother leaned closer over the tabletop and her eyes narrowed till her face filled eight boxes, leaving only the peripheral boxes for the waterfall, and for a moment it felt to me her expression varied between one box and the next. In one, for instance, her eyes were laughing cruelly, but in the next they were filled with sadness. The sounds of the waterfall, the children and the dogs all faded to a hush to make way for whatever the Mother was about to say.
‘That's good. That's very good. But now I want you to move. Do something. Don't stop being Josie. Let me see you move a little.'
I smiled in the way Josie would, settling into a slouching, informal posture.
‘That's good. Now say something. Let me hear you speak.'
‘I'm sorry. I'm not sure…'
‘No. That's Klara. I want Josie.'
‘Hi, Mom. Josie here.'
‘Good. More. Come on.'
‘Hi, Mom. Nothing to worry about, right? I got here and I'm fine.'
The Mother leaned even further across the table, and I could see joy, fear, sadness, laughter in the boxes. Because everything else had gone silent, I could hear her repeating under her breath: ‘That's good, that's good, that's good.'
‘I told you I'd be fine,' I said. ‘Melania was right. Nothing wrong with me. A little tired, that's all.'
‘I'm sorry, Josie,' the Mother said. ‘I'm sorry I didn't bring you here today.'
‘That's okay. I know you were worried for me. I'm okay.'
‘I wish you were here. But you're not. I wish I could stop you getting sick.'
‘Don't worry, Mom. I'm going to be fine.'
‘How can you say that? What do you know about it? You're just a kid. A kid who loves life and believes everything can be fixed. What do you know about it?'
‘It's okay, Mom, don't worry. I'll get well soon. I know how it'll happen too.'
‘What? What are you saying? You think you know more than the doctors? More than I do? Your sister made promises too. But she couldn't keep them. Don't you do the same.'
‘But Mom. Sal was sick with something different. I'm going to get well.'
‘Okay, Josie. So tell me how you'll get well.'
‘There's special help coming. Something no one's thought of yet. Then I'll be well again.'
‘What is this? Who's this talking?'
Now, in box after box, I could see the cheekbones of the Mother's face very pronounced beneath her skin.
‘Really, Mom. I'm going to be fine.'
‘That's enough. Enough!'
The Mother stood up and walked away. I could then see the waterfall again, and its noise – as well as that of the people behind me – returned louder than ever.
The Mother stopped near the wooden rail marking where the ground finished and the waterfall began. I could see the mist hanging before her and I thought she would become wet in moments, but she continued standing with her back to me. Then at last she turned and waved.
‘Klara. Come on over here. Come and take a look.'
I got up from the bench and went to her. She'd called me ‘Klara' so I knew I shouldn't attempt any more to imitate Josie. She gestured for me to come closer still.
‘See, take a look. You've never seen a waterfall before. So take a look. What do you think?'
‘It's wonderful. Much more impressive than in the magazine.'
‘Something special, right? I'm glad you're seeing it. Now let's get back. I'm concerned about Josie.'
The Mother didn't speak for the entire way back down to the car. She walked quickly, always at least four paces ahead, and I had to take care not to make errors on the steep downhill path. As we passed the spot where we'd seen the bull, I looked over the field right into the distance, but the terrible creature was now nowhere to be seen, and I wondered if it had been taken back down into the ground.
When we reached the car, I began to get into my usual seat, but the Mother said: