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Fiction

Honey and Ashes

 

 

This, too, is going to happen. A woman will stand in the wings of a theater. She’ll be a West African woman, and the theater will be on the campus of a university, a university in New York City. Most of the people in the audience will be students, but some of them will be professors and support staff, and some will be people from the community, many of whom have never been on the campus before and have come on this occasion—a clear fall night—to see the woman speak. 

The theater is going to be crowded, all the seats filled: there will be a dozen people standing in the back, and a few more sitting in the aisles with their coats and bags tucked around their legs. An usher will try to move the people in the aisles, but as soon as he succeeds in doing so, others will take their place, and in time he’ll simply give up, turning to the back of the theater with an irritated shrug and an expression on his face that says, What can I do? But there will be no one who cares enough either to chide him or excuse him. 

There are going to be camera crews along the side walls: two on the right side and one on the left, and they’ll have bright lights set up, which will make the atmosphere slightly tense, as it often is when everything is easily visible. A man in a heavy black V-neck sweater is going to turn to his companion, a woman in a slate grey coat, and say, Someone should tell them to turn those off. He’ll pause and start to get to his feet—but just then the young woman will walk out and take her place at the podium, so he’ll sit down again. The audience will quickly hush, and the woman at the podium will look out over the people gathered there and take a few breaths.

She’ll be dressed in a conservative charcoal-colored suit and black shoes, and wearing a pair of small silver earrings, an outfit that will be meant to make her look formal, dignified, and perhaps more mature, though in truth it’ll make her look even younger than she is—so much so that some people in the audience will assume she’s not the speaker at all, not the main speaker anyway, but a student who’s been tasked with introducing her—perhaps because they’re from the same country, for when the woman begins to speak, she’ll have an accent, slight and charming, but unmistakable, especially when she pronounces less common words, like amnesia, which she’ll render with four distinct syllables, or words with prominent r‘s—treason, for example, or resources or revival. And soon the audience will realize that she’s the one they came to see. 

Her name will be Matilda, or something like that—a Western name, but an old-fashioned one: a church name, slightly ungainly, but also elegant, dignified, even comforting. She’ll be a Christian woman, and she’ll say so, with a plainness that seems to prove it: I am a Christian woman. My mother was a Christian, and so too was my father. And then she’ll tell them about her country, the country where she was born and where she continues to live, even though she could live elsewhere if she wanted. She’ll talk about the landscape, the reddish color of the dirt, and the rains, and about the way the air smells when the rain has passed. She’ll talk about her father’s sign-painting shop, and how she used to sit there watching him work. She’ll talk about her sister, who was several years older than she was; how strong the woman was, even through all her losses; how little she spoke but how much she knew; and how many people attended her funeral, where they sang the old songs of grief. 

She’ll talk about punishment and she’ll talk about forgiveness, and then about mercy, even for those who haven’t asked for forgiveness. The audience, which will be mixed—some black, some brown, some white; some Christian, some not—will listen carefully, even with the distraction of the television cameras and the lights. They’ll sit, motionless and attentive, while she describes, with a slight smile, the difference between the tears one cries when one remembers, and the tears one cries at the pain of something present and immediate. She’ll say a few words about the size and shape of the world, how round it is, and its three colors: blue, green, and brown, just like the eyes of the people who populate it. She’ll talk about having learned a few things along the days, specifically, about what people must have, regardless of what else they might be blessed with, like wealth or soul-sweetness or very good luck. They need the words, for example, all the words to a few valuable songs, like the old songs of grief; a place to go where they can be alone and a place to go where they’re never alone; someone to admire, someone they know personally and can visit when they want to. She’ll mention a saying that she once heard from a man that she herself admired: that the phrase Thank you is among the first that a child learns, and they should be the last words all men and women say when they close their eyes and their spirits are ready to rise, at last, away from this good grim world. And then she’ll thank the audience for coming out to see her and for listening to the things she has to say.

When she’s finished, the applause will be long and very loud, and afterwards people are going to linger in the lobby, talking to each other, even after the house lights have come up, the television crews have packed their things and left, and the university employee charged with locking up has taken to making shooing gestures. Extraordinary, that such a young woman, from such a poor place, could have achieved so much. I only wish our own leaders were as courageous. —Remarks like that, not really conversations, and spoken with a certain dazedness. Then there’s going to be a brief scuffle by the door, when one man accidentally steps on the back of another man’s shoe.

*

Later that evening there will be a dinner, in a restaurant just off campus that’s been rented out for the night. Matilda will be the guest of honor, though any stranger who might happen to peer through the window would find it impossible to tell that she is. There will be four identical round tables, with six seats at each table, and one long rectangular table with ten seats. The guests will arrive all at once—or not all at once, exactly, but within a few minutes of one another, having walked from the auditorium in groups of three and four, chatting pleasantly and even laughing because however important the speech was, now was the time to celebrate having heard it. Matilda will arrive with a middle-aged man, well-dressed but startlingly ugly, with pockmarked skin and red-rimmed eyes, and what’s more, walking with a slight limp, the result of a bout of polio he suffered as a child—a well-known poet from her own country, though long since exiled and writing in English. To an observer, they’ll look as if they’re bound to each other by their shared origin, though the truth will be more complicated and subtle than that: their conversation will be an elaborate and slightly artificial exchange, consisting largely of gestures, on his part of deference to her fame, and on her part of deference to his wisdom. He’ll call her by a name that means dearest (or most valuable or most unusual) one, for example, and she’ll call him by a name that means one of the men for whom I feel almost the way I feel for my father. Still, their respect for each other, touched though it is with real warmth and pride, will be tempered by the fact that the older man is not a Christian, and indeed, has made the imposition of Christianity in his native country one of the themes he visits and revisits in his work; and while neither of them will be offended by such a disagreement, each will assume that the other one is, and the result will be a slight awkwardness between them, manifested in exaggerated courtesies.

There’s going to be a bustle at the door to the restaurant, with the maître d’ checking names against a list, people stopping dazedly to gaze around the room while others pile up in the vestibule behind them, waiters coming forward with trays of hors d’oeuvres, and two or perhaps three very large men, security agents of some sort, hired by the university against Matilda’s wishes, who will stand motionless just inside the door, causing the flow of people around them to become more chaotic, the way water in a stream roils around boulders. The poet will disappear without saying goodbye, and a hand will touch Matilda’s back, a voice murmur in her ear, and she’ll be guided through the room to the rectangular table, where she’ll be seated with a city councilman on one side, and a television personality on the other side; and there will be an American diplomat, a very rich man and his wife, and then, all the way around at the other side of the table, a young man, a few years younger than herself, black as a blackbird and wearing glasses so thick his eyes appeared distended behind them.

The television personality sitting at her right is going to be a large man, well over six feet tall and broad. She will have been on his show that afternoon. It won’t have been the first time she’s been on television, but it will have been her first time doing so in this country, and she’ll have been vexed by the way they stopped every few minutes for a commercial. And in fact even now, at dinner, he’ll have the same sort of attention span, as if the rhythms of his television show were a direct reflection of the rhythms of his thought. —You know, you mean so much to so many people, he’ll say to her. I’ve never seen the people who work in my office so excited to meet a guest. Honestly. Tomorrow I’m going to go in and tell them that I was sitting right next to you at dinner, and they’re going to want to know everything you said and did. 

Matilda is going to be taken aback by this, but she’ll recover quickly enough to make fun of her own alarm, widening her eyes and raising her eyebrows, smiling and moving backwards in her seat a little bit, with her hands gripping the edge of the table as if she were on a roller coaster. The television personality will chuckle and say, Don’t worry: I’m not going to tell on you. In my profession, you don’t last long if you’re the kind of man who gossips. He’ll lean in to speak to her: They say things about me, too, you know. The newspapers. They pay people—he’ll point—like that waiter, for example, to be informants, to provide information. 

Matilda is going to look at the waiter. Him? she’ll say, in a tone of voice somewhere between curiosity and shock, and unsure whether she’s understood. 

The television personality will say, Not him, necessarily. You know what I mean, he’ll say, and Matilda will nod distractedly. It will have grown very loud in the restaurant, with everyone talking and the waiters moving about, and chairs being shifted slightly so that someone can speak more directly to someone else; and she’ll be trying to smile at everyone who smiles at her, but she’ll be thinking about her two young boys, whom she’d left at home and whom she misses terribly. The television personality will pat her hand and say, That’s all right, never mind. I’m just very pleased to spend some time with you.

There’s going to be a glass of wine to the right of her table setting, but she won’t drink from it. Where she’s from, a woman tastes wine only in church, and while part of what she’ll have spoken about that very evening will have been the problems—the difficulties—the issues—besetting her culture, she is after all a woman from just that place, and its habits are not so easily left behind; and this is one phenomenon that will always disconcert her when she travels to cities like this, the alcohol with a meal, the assumption that she wants to have alcohol, and more broadly, that everyone wants to be intoxicated, whenever it might be possible. She’ll remember an occasion in London some years previously, when someone she needed to speak to, someone she was soliciting, at last relented and agreed to meet with her the following afternoon in a bar near her hotel. When she arrived, she found a dark, discreet room, overseen by a bartender in a grey vest; and while it was pleasant enough, no men at the bar with machetes sheathed under the waistband of their pants, no party girls tucking cash between their pressed-together breasts, still she’d felt uncomfortable there, the more so when the waiter asked her what she was having. She’d needed to search for the right words, a response that wouldn’t be prudish or impolite; and she’d worried that she was resisting some fundamental gesture of hospitality, like a piece of bread, or a bit of colored cloth—the kind of thing that, in other parts of the world, would be an untenable breach of manners to refuse. But in the years since that afternoon she’ll have discovered that it’s easiest to allow her glass to be filled and then simply to ignore it, as she’ll do that night. 

Across the table, just now arriving, there’s going to be a grey-haired woman, a professor from the university, and her husband, once a dean at the same institution and now retired, both of them prominent figures, the wife perhaps more so than the husband. Matilda will smile at them and wave, happy and a little bit relieved to see them, because it’s the professor who will have made it possible for her to come here, who sought her out, contacted her, issued the invitation, arranged her airplane flight and her stay in one of the university’s guest rooms, set up her speaking engagement, composed the guest list for this dinner, and so on. And yet the weekend will have been so busy that Matilda won’t have had the time to meet with her privately, to get to know her and to thank her for this opportunity. 

They will be very old, the professor and her husband: where Matilda is from, men and women that old will be very scarce, a thing to look upon with wonder and respect; but here in this city, there will be a great many old people, the sidewalks will be full of them. Still, these two will be special, as if age were its own crown; it’ll be evident from their bearing, in how much they give out and how much they hold back. It will show in the unhurried way they take their seats, the professor waiting patiently while her husband, who’s noticeably stiff and perhaps even a little bit unsure of where he is, slowly lowers himself into his chair. When he’s settled, the woman will take her own seat, and only then will she look across the table, and say with great warmth, Matilda! How are you holding up? And when Matilda indicates that all is well, the professor will turn and whisper something to her husband, and he’ll nod and then sit back in his chair and observe the scene before him, as old people do: silent, expressionless, his eyes peering out hawklike from behind his large hooked nose, his hands folded on the table top.

*

Afterwards, Matilda, the professor, and her husband will linger on the sidewalk outside the restaurant, saying goodbye to their guests, with thanks and promises, compliments, more and more handshakes and kisses, until at last they’ll look around and discover that they’re alone, and they’ll sigh and collect themselves. Hm! the dean will say, but when Matilda turns her attention to him, she’ll find that he’s looking across the street at nothing in particular. Come, the professor will say to her, we’ll walk you back to your room. 

There will be scholars on Broadway, and mothers with all of their belongings in plastic bags, Chinese men on bicycles, and scaffolding everywhere, as if the city proper ended at the first floor, above which there was only a stage set. Outside a subway station a young black man—just a boy, really—will be sitting on a small stool, drumming loudly on a little jazz kit, and the professor will stop to watch, nod approvingly, and drop a few dollars in the cardboard box at the drummer’s feet. They’ll pass through a narrow iron gate onto a grand, quiet campus of old stone and brick buildings topped with green copper roofs, quite a different landscape than the one they just left; for one thing, the smells of the street, of food and refuse and aging concrete, will have disappeared—but there’ll be the same spring mist overhead, charged with a million particles of discarded light. Matilda will be struck by the evidence of riches around her and how suddenly it appeared, the quiet, the lovely lampposts and architecture, the students in their expensive clothes, or in tattered clothes worn as wealthy people wear them; and the three of them will slow, not to take in their surroundings, though Matilda will use the opportunity to do so, but because the dean will have grown tired and will have conveyed as much to his wife, perhaps by clutching her arm a little more tightly, or by allowing his shoes to scrape the ground a little more audibly, or by one of the many unspoken signals that couples who have been together for a long time send to each other.

Now moving quite slowly, they’re going to make their way past a monumental building, its windows shining from within. —That’s the library, the professor will say.

Ah, yes, I see, Matilda will say. Is it open always?

Yes, the professor will explain, stopping. Twenty-four hours a day, while classes are in session. 

Matilda will watch through the windows as a young man strolls swiftly down one of the inside corridors, pauses to say something flirtatious to a girl about his age, and then emerges, just a few seconds later, from the front door of the library, slowing as he nears them and glancing for a long moment at Matilda’s face before his pace quickens again and he passes down the long pathway to the north end of the campus. Matilda will turn to the professor. He knew who you were, the professor will say.

No… Matilda will reply, not out of modesty but in genuine disbelief.

Yes, he did, the professor will say. 

Matilda will laugh brightly, and then change the subject, as she often does; if there is one thing she will have learned, over the years, it’s how to change the subject without others noticing. Have you been here a long time? she’ll ask.

Yes, the professor will say. A very long time, almost all my life. And my husband has been here even longer than I have. In fact, I was once his student. —This was quite some time ago, you know, back when he was teaching. He was young then, and I was even younger. The professor will touch Matilda’s arm. —You should have seen him, she’ll continue. He was so handsome and he dressed so elegantly: like a gigolo, he was.

I’m sorry? Matilda will say, tilting her head. A…

Oh, the professor will say, a man who hires himself out to women for sex. And Matilda, slightly shocked, will look over at the professor’s husband to see if he minds the imputation, and find nothing at all in his expression to suggest that he does. Instead, he’ll stop and speak to Matilda for the first time. Everybody was in love with her! he’ll say. But I got her! Then he’ll smile, with large yellow teeth, a smile so broad and ferocious that for a moment he’ll look like a madman, and he’ll nod once emphatically.

Yes, the professor will say warmly. You certainly did. And her husband will nod once more, and then they’ll start walking again.

You had many suitors, Matilda will say.

I had my share, the professor will say, as if her share was a large one and no more needed to be said about that. She’ll point. —This is the main administration building.

Matilda will look up and see the wide marble stairs, the heavy colonnade, and she’ll wonder who paid for such a magnificent building; and who designed it; and who quarried the marble, and who lifted it into place: how many thousands of men and where they all lived—were there camps here, where the students now walk?—and who cooked for them when they came home at night.

What are you thinking? the professor will ask.

Oh, nothing, I was just looking, Matilda will say. And then: This campus, this entire city, it’s all so… —The word will escape her. Venerable?

The professor will nod and then pause, waiting for Matilda to say more. The professor’s husband, too, will be looking at her, his eyes so clear that Matilda will feel like she’s looking through them, straight into the spark that animates him. Both of them will seem to be smiling, although neither of them actually will be; and Matilda is going to smile herself in phantom empathy. No, she’ll say, I don’t think that’s the exact word. Ancient. Aboriginal. Like a civilization that’s been lost for thousands of years and then reappears, yes? With its magnificent buildings appearing out of the mist, and all the people with their customs and rites, bent to their business.

The professor will nod and say, The New World. It’s always been here.

*

Matilda won’t think of this moment for many years, not until two more wars have passed in her country, and one season of very heavy rain, and one where there was no rain at all. Some diseases will have been cured, and a few new diseases will have sprung up to take their place. She’ll have gone from being universally admired to being almost as universally despised, and then back to being treasured again; and then almost forgotten, until a man who had been in love with her many years earlier wrote a song about her called Honey and Ashes, with a sweet and mournful melody and the words when we were young, and time was time for kissing, made all the more piercing because he recorded it himself. People heard the song and remembered her as he remembered her. By then, her husband will be long since gone, but she’ll have many people whom she considers part of her family, and indeed, one of her own sons will be a professor himself. When she does think of that night in New York, she’s going to remember it very well: the scent in the air, the luxury of the campus, the pride of the dean and the affection of the professor. She’ll be sitting in a comfortable wooden chair, in the dooryard of her nephew’s house, when it’ll come back to her, all at once, in part because she’s grown old and she’s reflecting on her past, but mostly because she’s been thinking this: They say the butterfly evolved so that its wings would resemble the petals of flowers; but what if it’s the flowers that evolved to look like the butterfly’s wings?

 

Excerpted from GHOSTS OF NEW YORK by Jim Lewis to be published by West Virginia University Press in April 2021. © 2021 Jim Lewis.

black and white portrait of a man, Jim Lewis

Jim Lewis lives in Austin and is the author of three novels, which have been translated into many languages: "Sister" (Graywolf), "Why the Tree Loves the Ax" (Crown), and "The King is Dead" (Vintage).

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