Curtain of Frost
    Thomas Bolt  

I slipped, caught a branch in the face, but kept moving—quickly, though it was so dark I could hardly tell trees from the gaps between them. I followed the path (if it was a path), collided with no shadows, and went faster still, dodging physical or phantom obstacles, until I missed a curve, stopped just short of the edge, and looked down into blackness:

Rasp of crusty snow. Branches creaked, high up, as every tree resisted wind and was left alone.

The moon came out. I saw ice on the path—or path under the ice, patches of path.

I turned toward the moon and kept moving. It was red and creased, as if it had been folded, forgotten in a pocket, and replaced offhand in the blueblack sky. Night through trees had a stunned bareness, with some of the mystery of icy places: waste ground left by a fire. Nowhere. Here.

I moved faster. My eyelid stung. To cross the river I’d had to make a hopeless leap from a high, tilting ledge—and slammed onto a bank of frozen mud that had ripped at my hands. One foot had plunged through ice into unseen ooze, but I’d kept moving. Where are you, my darling? Where have they taken you?

I stopped to listen: nothing. Listened again:

Maybe wind, but maybe not, far off. Would they risk a fire? I smelled nothing, saw no flicker. I wiped my eyes and started up the hill. Wherever you are, I will find you.

The hill was steep. Near the top I had to stop and sit on a rock until I could breathe again. The rock, padded with icy moss, was pitched at a bad angle; I had to brace myself to keep from sliding off. I had six arrows; none matched. I was no warrior, but I had sliced the index tip and thumb tip from my glove. They had taken my daughter.

Her cloak was the color of the woods, a rough-spun thing her mother had made. Burrs would catch at it; snow would cake in its weave; but it was soft inside, well-lined.

Wind dropped off. I waded through a drift, unsure how shallow or deep my next step would be. It might be a dream, this cold, this silence, this emptiness posted with trees. I stopped before I knew what I’d heard: there. The soft squeak of fresh snow being walked on.

A glow moved up the hill, flickering between trees, coming closer. The gait was careless, pausing here and there, a little bored: I must be close to their camp. I slipped an arrow out. My finger felt for the notch. Braced against a tree, I nocked the arrow and drew it (—slowly—) taut:

Kept still as an icicle. Scarcely noticed the snow beginning to fall—a few light flakes. I might have heard the little crystals strike and catch in the wool of my coat.

The glow became a glimmer. I centered on it, aiming just above, a little ahead. The light sharpened: I saw a gloved fist, a bearded throat——let fly.

Off in the dark, a man fell back; his lantern clattered down. It stayed lit while he coughed and spat and could not call out, though he tried, with a horrible raspy hollowing, scarcely a whisper; then both died, light and man. I sat alone in the leafy night. Turned out my writing lamp and stared in the sunset at its cooling rim. Rim of a world.

The typewriter hummed on. Though I missed my computer, I was lucky this machine worked at all—I’d had it since I was sixteen. I rolled the switch; the motor died with a magnetic clunk. I crossed the room to the kitchen. There was rice, but the first onion out of the bag was soft with rot. Second, third. I dumped the whole bag in the trash. What else? A jar marked Mel de eucalipto da beira litoral: eucalyptus honey, never opened (a gift from a girl). More about the daughter?

In the fridge, two old bottles of wine (an inch in each), some imported water, a puckering half-lime, and a jar of salsa, already growing mold. The milk had turned; only the Greek olives looked edible. I emptied everything but the olives down the drain, rinsed the bottles, and placed them gently in the recycling bin. What had happened to time?

It had rained. New York—though it would never be clean—was wet. People were out on the streets. When I got back with warm food in cartons, my answering machine’s light was blinking red. I served my dinner into a bowl I’d bought years ago on a weekend drive with a woman I’d almost married. (We no longer saw each other.) The bowl was thin but strong: blue-glazed, with a crisp, uneven edge. It had been thrown and fired by a weekend potter I’d known for years, a Japanese-American businesswoman who kept a wheel and kiln in her garage.

I opened a magazine. I might be eating dinner in Brazil, if things had turned out differently. Maybe that’s what things do—turn out differently. Maybe we’re always risking everything, know it or not. I’m hardly the first to notice that the book you put down one morning to answer the phone—though the windows are full of sun and a spirited breeze lifts the curtains and almost lets them fall, and you feel about as content as you ever have—may not be opened again; that you might hear a friend ask, in a formal voice, “Is someone with you?”—or a stranger pronounce your name as a question.

I went out for a quart of milk and came back with a wife, a story of mine begins. It happened to be true, though it had been a can of black bean soup, listos para comer. Elisa­—like me, that afternoon, ready to love—had for a few weeks been pregnant with our child. We were still friendly; no longer in love. She lived in Paris with a man named Jean-Jacques Corbeilles. I called him “J.J.,” which he tolerated with a twinge of a smile. We even sent each other Christmas cards.

The phone again: the ringer was off, but the red light trembled. The machine recorded silently while I ate. I turned a page and there she was again: Ana, on a bright-orange Lambretta!

I cleared the table. This time, when the phone rang, I picked up: a character in my life wanted to know what we were doing for the weekend. I was slow to respond. A writing hangover can linger like dream weather, but she knew this and was patient. I heard her say she had the syrup, a small glass cabin full of it, and would bring it over if I would make those pancakes I called fritters, the crispy ones with corn in them? No, she hadn’t called earlier. How was the writing going?

I smiled into the phone. Hard to say. It was cold out, and I had heat. In order to have one thing, you give up another. To have a roof in the rain, you give up your labor, your time. To spend time doing this is not to spend it doing that. To be in one place you have to not be elsewhere, forsaking all other places. To be with one person, you have to not be with another (unless you are famous, supple, versatile, less finite than most). Every decision, forced or free, leaves other potential canceled or postponed.

I told her the writing was going fine. We made our plans and hung up.

My windows had no curtains; an ex-girlfriend had taken them to Brooklyn when she’d moved. I played the message: an editor, not a friend. She liked a story of mine called “Errand Involving Gun”—liked it enough to call, though there were apparently “a few things she wanted to discuss.” I put the magazine away. We might have just finished dinner, Ana and I. We might be walking across a plaza in Brazil, a few blocks from the wharves, where gulls feed among pigeons: it will rain. The plaza is paved with stones the color of the sky. The pigeons are visible only because they move.

A dog barked in the distance: barked again. I sat at the humming typewriter, reread what I’d written, crossed a few lines out. Added a line. Arrows? Not some stratagem? So many ways to turn, so many choices that could end in agony or boredom or both. This story isn’t working.

People give up writing books to have children; others give up having children to write books. Some manage to have their children, write their books, make themselves useful to others, learn to fly. Others lose their chance—or misplace it, as I might have done, through inattention. (Attention to something else.) The novel I was working on was an inert inch of paper in an old spring binder. It might change the way people I’d never met would understand their lives, but for now it was unborn, unread, fragile with potential, including the potential to fail—a necessity.

The typewriter hummed on. If I had “failed” as a writer, I had also failed to quit; my computer had died, and if my typewriter did the same, I had a couple of pencils and a legal pad.

I stepped off of the path. There was moss underfoot, a springy give to the ground. I had to scramble over slippery clumps of growth, tenacious ice. Despite the snow, most trees still had their leaves. Near the top I stopped to listen: only wind; then something beyond the wind, the distances it reached for and hadn’t touched. Snow blew across my boots. Powder sprinkled over luscious, crusted curves and danced, moonlit crystals, as if peace were a simple thing, free to anyone.

No peace for me, as long as they have my child.

I stood and stretched; yawned melodramatically. The windows were blank with frost, as if a curtain had been drawn across the glass. I cleared the table. When the dishes were done I leaned back in my only comfortable chair and picked up a book with Fairy Tales on its cover in flaking gold. I read, then reached for my binder of stories and got to work. Some were typed, some neat printouts; some untouched yet, others heavily marked. My blue pen skipped from tale to tale.

Cici wore a beaded loop in her navel. From where I stood it made a Saturn shape, a planet in a warm and dark brown universe. A universe I’d kissed.

The music was so loud I felt the bass inside my muscles. Leaves of light kept whirling along the walls, the ceiling, the floor, all over our clothing and skin. What could I say? I was perspiring. I felt a little sick. I asked her why, but she only looked at me with those sane brown eyes: those eyes, that mind, that dense and springy hair. “I think you need to figure some things out.” She turned to go.

As if there could be no give, no room for mercy anywhere in this whole arrangement, the music was even louder in the hall. I caught up with her outside, but all she did was put her lips up to my ear: “The person who challenges you is not necessarily your enemy.”

I looked up: windows still blank, except for a trickle of condensation here or there. I could see through those trickle-tracks. Transparent black. Radiant cold. I switched the typewriter on.

“Look, it’s not so vibrant here, believe me. Once you get to know it.” Ana smiled that extraordinary smile. Pigeons settled and stirred. “No, you know, but it interests me, because I’m interested in perception. You can’t have a perception of a past time, only a memory of it, right? So in a way our perception is our life, right as it happens,” Ana said. No—I haven’t met Ana yet. I meet her in Brazil, once Susan leaves. A sheaf of 1-real notes in my pocket, I’ll be waiting near the water, half in sun.

“Just tell the story,” Susan said. We sat in a tightly packed café on Broome Street, Susan Nochman, a young editor, and I. She had blue eyes, and always wore something blue: today, her cotton shirt. Fingernails varnished clear; hair pulled back and trapped with a barrette. It was vanity as commonsense, completely inoffensive.

Okay, I said, I understood the need to simplify, but which simplifications? Ones that overlook things the simplifier doesn’t like, or even know about? Ones that pretend to be uncontaminated by an ignorance the size of almost everything? Ones that try to pin us down with earnest commonplaces, assumptions taken as facts, conventions treated as realities? Which simplifications are lies?

Not those few pale freckles her sparse makeup let show. Not those lips.

“Just tell the story,” she said again—a little smugly, I thought, as if it settled everything.

“You talk about a made-up story as if it already exists, and then the writer comes along and sets in down. Even with journalism, that’s naïve.”

She thought about it. Her eyes were far from simple. (To simplify.)

Of course I should have left it at that, but I kept talking. To me, she might as well be saying “Get down to business. Focus on the payoff. Eliminate everything interesting. Get rid of any context, texture, hints of unreason, restless thoughts, the persistent failure of wish and world to align—”

“Hey. People like stories they feel they already know. That’s why so many stories are alike. Maybe yours aren’t as different as you think.” She sprinkled sugar into her coffee. “And as for truth—”

I caught myself at the edge: blackness went down and down with no sure depth.

Slight smile. “I mean, if it isn’t plausible—”

“Is a stack of pancakes plausible? Is Brazil plausible? Are you?”

She took a sip. “Okay. Maybe some stories let us believe what we’d like to believe. But there’s also—” She thought about it. “Sometimes, the expression is corny, but the feeling isn’t.”

We were about to argue. Wouldn’t we rather...?

No. We were already too caught up to stop. I said look, things guide or drive us: known or hidden needs, ideas, wishes, misconceptions, impulses, fears, influence what we do; but there is no bare plot. Plot is a lie. Besides, Ana sang so beautifully in Portuguese—sang not in the shower but in her sleighlike bed where I lay inert, glutted on beauty, absorbing everywhere the warm smile of her skin.

Trite, read Susan’s note. But, to her earlier point, maybe also true.

A few months later, in Prospect Park, Susan slipped on the ice of my words, clutched at my coat, and turned her wet face away. We were both hoarse, stumbling; our noses ran. Why had we ever gotten involved? How had we thought anything was possible?

“Oh, it’s just the winter,” she said, and began to sob, and sat down in the snow and shook, and I kept on walking but had to circle back and offer my hands and brush the caked snow from her coat and hold her until we both could feel at least the weak peace of not saying any more at all.

“Please send us another story,” the rejection letter said. I’d rather feed it into a shredder.

A month later, in a Bowery bar, we sat together, still a little stunned, listening to a dreamy singer croon. The singer’s eyes were like Ana’s—what is it about these women from Brazil?

After the concert, Susan conceded one point: Brazil. Something in that country’s energetic style made visceral sense. I’d never been; she’d been once, years ago, and only to Rio: on an air tour the fog had come in suddenly and her plane had just missed the False Sugarloaf.

We needed to talk; we talked about Brazil. Not much time passed before we were in the air, flying not to Rio de Janeiro, but to Belém. On the plane Susan asked if I knew the fairy tale about the girl whose eyelids froze fast as she slept in the woods. Fused with crystals that had been her own breath.

I shook my head, fascinated, but she wouldn’t go on. She unpacked some work from her tote bag and started to read. The moonlit frost dissolved and there we were, airport, taxi, hotel room, balcony—more or less where we’d left ourselves, but in a different mood, alive to a different way of doing things. Not even the air around us felt the same.

“It’s all travel,” Susan said. “Reading is travel, too.” For once, we agreed.

A river flowed at our feet. Susan wore jeans, unfaded, fresh, and a soft blue shirt. Alert, correct, exact—but she knew how to smile. The trees in Brazil were amazing! The light! The tremendous clouds, the estuary, the Pará and the Great River! “The Pará is the Amazon,” Ana would tell me a few days later: “It’s the main stream of the river, where it flows into the sea.” Check this.

The typewriter hummed, waiting for my touch. I sat perched on a modernistic chair, a gift from my ex-wife. An uncomfortable mix of theory and wood, it was pitched at just the wrong angle—I kept slipping down in the seat. Let me break the dream here, I scribbled, before it breaks me.

It had gone on too long, and now it was life or death, this business: I could feel it dying in me, the future in which my manuscripts became books and gathered readers who knew them for what they were. I couldn’t do it alone; I needed help. As much as I’d given up, I would have to give up more.

I circled the camp, looking for a way in. Are you there, dear one? No sign. No sign of her.

I lay in our hotel bed, marking a manuscript; Susan sat up with a guidebook, editing our next few days. That night I dreamed of a forest lit only by snow. Alone, I followed a dim and dangerous path deeper and deeper into the silence. Through gaps between trees, a large white structure rose like a luminous wall: a frozen waterfall. All that power stopped in ice, or slowed to a thin, clear trickle. A girl with purple mittens stood gazing up at it, talking to herself as if to keep fear away. I knew that voice!

I couldn’t get back to sleep. I felt her presence—as if she’d been in this room just a moment ago, written her name in the window’s frost with a fingertip. I made you up. How could you be real?

I sat in the bathroom so the light wouldn’t bother Susan and read a fashion magazine she’d left there. Breakfast was simple, fresh. My blue pen skipped.

“‘Real?’” She took up the argument again over coffee in a corner café; again in a shop that sold sweaters; yet again along the riverside. “We can barely understand our own simplified versions of the world. You can’t tell the whole truth—how could you? There isn’t time or room. Anyway, we don’t have as much use for truth as we like to think.” Her fingertips slipped between the buttons of my shirt. I smelled her hair where the sun caught it. Her surfaces, always in place. I looked away:

Two girls passed, brown skin, white shirts, straw hats, in a low dugout canoe. Glide, drift, dazzle, paddle-dip. Their jewelry was sun-melt. And Ana’s kiss was slow, her lips dry; her face tilted down to mine because she was tall. Susan had flown back early, alone, to deal with a work emergency: a manuscript they’d been counting on had floated in belly-up. In our room, saying goodbye, she closed her eyes. We kissed. Her hand slid over my jeans. “What’s that?” She let me feel her nails.

“The plot.”

Those grand portals stood open. The flag blew, its diamond shivering, its globe labeled ORDER AND PROGRESS, its night sky heraldic, particular. Susan had left a book on the wrought-iron table by the bed, One Hundred Nights Passed in Meditation without a Vision. I picked it up and went out.

I sat alone at the Café of Peace, reading a magazine instead. An article on Hollywood musicals rose to its climax, and I looked up–into Ana’s droopy eyes. She lowered her book—a guidebook with an old dome on its cover. I smiled. We smiled. “Have you been to Rome?”

She pronounced English sweetly, almost like something sung. Her phone rang. She frowned down at the screen, pressed a button, and smiled up at me. “You know, in some mosaics, they give a living person—usually the Pope—a square halo. Like an apprentice saint. Isn’t that funny?”

It must have been—I heard both of us laugh. “Amazing waterfalls there,” she said, in answer to a ghost question (asked and forgotten). She may have meant the interior of Brazil, but I assumed she had a quaint way of describing Roman fountains, and smiled. I was smiling too much, but she turned her chair and told me all about Belém. Some buildings have details of zinc. There are baroque façades, there is the Portuguese fort dating from 1616, its cannon still aimed. And, in another neighborhood, American missionaries are pouring a sidewalk in front of the bright white church they’ve built.

The museum had an echo. We walked among aboriginal ceramics, Susan and I. We tried to picture, with the usual problems of translation, the canoes coming to “trade fruits for fish, meats for vegetables, grass for ceramics, in the faraway year of 1688.” We saw goods in wicker baskets of arumã, in straw hampers, jute bags; heard of medicinal grasses and a yellow broth, said to be aphrodisiac. We ate baked duck, tasted fish candy, walked up and down what a local woman seemed to our ears to call “the curly stairs” of her city. We were at the mouth of the Amazon; we didn’t need yellow broth.

 New York, Belém; clouds like a spill of popcorn overhead. Ana had the keys to a friend’s place. She showed me her new bracelet, look: silver, with tiny ceramic lemons. She’d bought it a month ago on a Paris sidestreet, in a little shop she would never find again—she’d already tried! She asked if I had any children and blushed. No. Would I want to? Yes. A daughter or a son? A barrette flashed in her hair like a silver mirror—and then those hazel eyes.

For now, Susan read aloud from a brochure. Solemn Palacio Antonio Lemos beckoned; we studied a glossy shot of its marble stairs. Later, near the water, when the wind came, we saw two gulls blown sidelong as they tried to fly in our direction; saw them carried much farther than they could fly. We embraced in a wildness of moving hair, long streaks of self blown all around us. Drivers do not respect crosswalks. Rain floods the streets in an instant—but there is always soup with dried shrimp and pepper, followed by sausage and rice in a one-room restaurant without a sign. Let the traffic deal with the rain; our map—a city draped over a chair—would dry out while we ate.

A white-haired man with a bracing, reckless command of maybe thirty English words gave us advice about places we shouldn’t miss. He envisioned an itinerary so ambitious it would take weeks—but he seemed to love the city and know it well. When he told us what his son had been like at six, he measured the boy’s height with his hand, adjusting it carefully—and that boy was himself a father now! He showed us proof, a tiny photo of a granddaughter, her ears freshly pierced.

Brasíl, I did not understand your Curupira, defender of the flora. Perhaps that watchful monster has fallen asleep? Your forests, like ours, are being torn apart; enormous machines pinch your trees and haul them out of the ground, their roots alive and trembling. If we insist that it is a better world these days, with fewer curlicues, without empires and slaves, you smile and say nothing.

“If Curupira were here,” Ana said, and made a terrifying face.

We dined on baked duck. Wrote postcards, or planned to. Made the best of the bed in our room in the old hotel (when she came, the bathroom door swung open with a sigh). Under changeable skies we visited the jaguars and lily pads of a sprawling zoo. Too ticklish to kiss, we hardly spoke; watched the gray skyline sparkle from a boat. Saw kids on the street kick a ball made of rags. Your fingers, laced with mine, were thin and cool. Thoughts and smells were fresh, available; we were in love with an experience we shared, if not with each other.

Brasíl, your manganese! Your bauxite, iron ore, gold! Your nickel, phosphates, platinum, tin! Your rivers and timber, your cakes and pies, your chestnut candies! Your buildings and languages and people crowding in to share their solitudes, all their histories overlapping, jostling—or leaning for a moment in sunlight, aware and alone. Or unaware, as I was when I first met Ana. It had rained, bringing hidden colors out in the paving stones. Even the garbage glittered; a passing truck looked newly painted. I met her under an ancient mango tree while I waited for Susan, then happened to see her later in New York: German-Polish-Portuguese, tall and dark blond, also subject to sudden floods and disregard of crosswalks but not immune to good food, architecture, spice. Maybe slightly Irish, too. I was single again by then and so was she. Like anyone she embodied more history than she knew, but she knew quite a lot: Aboriginal Period, Colony, Kingdom, Empire, Republic—she claimed her history casually, as any native does. Oh, yes, I don’t know about that, but it is mine. She was funny-looking in a way I found completely appealing, better than beautiful. The reality of her body was more interesting than any idea I might have had or borrowed about it, especially the light touch of her fingers, or one warm palm. Her laugh—and the orange motorbike!

“My first Only Girl Story,” she said. “I didn’t know how to drive a scooter in real life!”

I asked a personal question. A wild trace of something ran through her whisper. She held my hand. (Her latest bracelet dangled little keys.) I listened to her words, and maybe even to what informed her words. It was exciting to think I might identify it, make it a part of me, live up to it if I could; instead, I blushed. Her lips were soft and plump, her kisses delicate, yet so matter-of-fact—

I sat with my notebook. The chair was uncompromisingly uncomfortable, but I no longer noticed what I sat in, where I sat, even who I was: I’d begun to write. Across the plaza, aimlessly, a breeze awakened everything that could move. These pages stirred. For a moment you and I were both at ease, as if everything was known, admitted to, forgiven; even enjoyed. We had come to a pause in the game, a timelessness in which we could feel time flowing with us rather than fight it.

A young girl with lavender fingernails and a neat black dress had been our waitress three days in a row. Beatriz was solemn and shy, full of questions about the United States and its contradictory ways, its music and peaches and unusable arsenals, its churches with escalators, its middle class. My blue pen moved. Thin crystals crunched, so lightly I could scarcely hear. I found the place where I’d left the road, climbed up through ice-coated briars, and pushed on. Old snow—a virgin patch—squeaked as I walked. The only path, a weathered rut, led down into shadows. Five arrows left.

This cold was sheer subtraction, what life fights: the shutting down, the stillness, a little foretaste of the sucking void. What else is the warmth we share but its opposite? Such moments do not last long on this planet, within the physics we’re used to; may last the least when the lasting is wished for most.

I leaned back on her bed. Ana’s Manhattan apartment, toward the end of our fling: a flag-blue bedspread rumpling under us, her dog asleep and dreaming on the rug. Ana lay there naked: I could touch what others saw in photographs. Why? I’m not handsome. I have a crooked smile. Maybe she liked my curly hair, my big, ungainly hands, but when she turned into my arms, into our kiss, something seemed to be telling me: Pay attention. This is your chance to think. (In this it’s no different than any other moment.)

When I opened my eyes, I was alone. I followed the sound of water: Ana was in the shower. Snug against its velvet backing, a framed coin flashed on the wall: 1 Real. Her grandmother’s birth year.

A rushing mist began to blur the glass. Ana was soaping her legs. I stripped, stepped in, and helped. She leaned against her own folded arms; I held her hips. Her wet hair lashed against the tiles and stuck in a long draping loop. The cry she gave came up from some deep place, an involuntary clutch, as if insisting on some need neither one of us knew we had.

No birth control this time. I stayed in alone until the water went cool. Would we have a son, a daughter? A coined moon gleamed. Coins of Brazil wore a dripping white mask with trickled clarities.

Ana had left a trail of towels across the room. Where was she? Her little dog slept on.

I kept moving. What else could I do? On a rain-colored plaza in Brazil, a man on a scooter drifted past, so slowly that the birds kept feeding. He held a mobile phone to his ear and said nothing at all; he was getting some awful news.

“Take it easy on yourself,” Ana said. “Think you’re made of steel?”

Only an alloy.

Then Ana was kissing me, terrible kisses, a torment of kissing, as if kisses were an adhesive that might caulk the gaps between us. Her sticky lips were softer than they looked, softer and hotter and wetter, like a steamed flower. There was no saying No, no talking at all, just mouth and mouth, with teeth and then her strong and delicate tongue. I had to learn to kiss all over again.

Done, we lay apart; I felt alive all over where we’d touched. We coupled again, twice more, with unusual formality and vehemence. Her face, her long-fingered hands—everything seemed different, as if an odd light distorted our desires. As if, for a moment, we could see ourselves without needing to be consoled or forgiven for what we saw. As if we did not need an excuse or a story.

We didn’t look at each other afterward. She faced the window, I faced the wall; our damp limbs almost touched. Not shame: shyness tickled by unexpected intimacy. We collected ourselves in silence (items spilled from a bag). I remembered, for no reason, a baseball game I had played in as a child.

On my way back with takeout Japanese food I bumped against a narrow stove left out on the street, streaked down the side with a couple of decades’ cooking. I let myself in. “Ana?”

There was no one home.

What do you want? Something else will happen. You have to put up with whatever happens next, if not evade it altogether (for a time). I thought of our friend Cláudia, who was about to give birth. Last week she’d been in the best possible mood, her hand resting on the high hard curve of her belly as she laughed and told us stories about ordinary events as if they were miracles, hilarious miracles. She carried the future casually. Why couldn’t I?

Ana pulled her boot on and looked at me: those pale eyes, dreamy, slanting slightly, seldom too far open, split-pea green. Though her hair looked fine, she pulled at it again and took her hairbrush out of her purse. “You live your characters’ lives instead of your own. Is that what all you writers do? Or just you?” I sat quiet. “I think you like to do it the hard way.” She zipped her boot: the black gleam curved with her calf. Her questions were exact, direct; no philosopher could have answered all of them. I tried to answer the most personal ones, without being any too definite. “The hard way. That’s the only way you know how to do things! That’s the way you are.”

I felt like a boy who has had his hair tousled—a little roughly, but fondly all the same.

We looked at the arrowheads in a dim museum. A school group seemed always just ahead or just behind us, but we liked children. “I’ve been one of those kids.” When Ana smiled it was a silly, girlish smile. Yet she was a serious person, with a resilient dignity, as if an internal spirit level kept her always, if not perfectly balanced, at least aware of the “true”: that shifting bubble in a tube of oil.

We wanted coffee after, but a máquina e quebrada. The coffee machine was broken? In the café! It was a cave of a place, all tiles and beams, and seemed to go back and back. I’d never been out with a young Brazilian woman before, I did not know where our assumptions would overlap and where they might fail to fit; also, I’d never been out with Ana. She said she came from Encante, a place she would not describe. “I love to dance,” she said. “ like talking a little better than I do.” I got the hint and moved closer than words could go. She let our cool, careless kiss develop with an unplanned tenderness. In slowed-down time, we stirred like undersea plants.

O gravity-loving air! O resilient oil!

She had a teddy bear in her room, a gift from a German athlete. It wore swimming goggles. I looked through a box she handed me: postcards of cathedrals. She preferred the gothic fronts in white stone to those intense pieced windows. In the cascading displacement of mass she found a kind of flow, a redirection of invisible force. “Those mediaeval masons knew exactly what they did—look!” We looked together. “I’d like to design a building one day,” she said softly, her face close to mine.

Two concrete arms hold cornucopiæ, also of concrete. Traces of paint can still be seen on the stony bounty—the green of a zucchini, the ochre of maize—but only the streaks of rust that have dripped for years from brackets overhead are vividly dark.

She put Pieces for Muted Trombone on low and poured us a red wine I’d never tried before and have not found since, though I ask and ask. Her thin sweater, the color of pea soup, had a tiny hole in its waist but moved soft and close against her skin. She lay with her head in my lap, her legs over the arm of the couch in a position she insisted was comfortable, and talked to me about growing up, about her life. She wanted to get a little dog. She’d used to keep the bracelets she collected in a box, but they got tangled up like memories. (Memories!) She kept them, at the moment, pinned to a cork board over which she had draped velvet. She looked up and asked if I wanted a child someday, or rather if I had ever wanted one, really, and I was too surprised at my first, sad reaction to answer honestly.

Over the next few months Ana became so busy, and travelled so much, and earned so much money, and we saw so little of each other, that our love affair was not so much broken off as diluted to such trace amounts that even a homeopath might be skeptical. Only when she asked me to look after her dog because her fiancé was in Spain did I realize that it had ended definitively, the easy way.

I stepped out onto the ice. My weight forced flooding up from unseen cracks; dark spread across the surface. Another step: wetness in my shoes. At any moment it could all give way: I took a step.

The J train rattled across the Williamsburg Bridge. A young Hasidic woman in a Kangol cap sat across the car from me, talking quietly with a friend. I got the mail. Logjam had accepted a chapter of my unfinished novel, no questions asked. I’d “submitted” it (odd word) three years before. The chapter had changed, of course, since then.... I walked upstairs, letter in hand, went to unlock the door still staring at the page, had trouble with my key and waggled it, tried another key, until the door opened from inside and my downstairs neighbor, a gentle architect, reminded me that I lived one floor up.

Another message on the machine: Lyle Tate from Zuckermann saying that an editor at Van Honig might be interested, if I was willing to revise. (Which manuscript?! My first novel? The comedy?)

Bare legs, scarlet dress, big smile: Ana asked me to feed her dog while she worked in Paris. “You can stay in my place if you want. He loves you!” She kissed me—as if the kiss were a test.

She came back with a wonderful present for my cousin’s children and broke up with me again. As in a French film, she was leaving me for a French filmmaker. “Not yet,” I said. She listened. In my arms, she cried, lay limp; agreed. The Frenchman’s films were mediocre, flashy pop—almost Hollywood. What kind of Frenchman is that?

The dog shared my poor opinion. The walks I took him on were more than walks; we played until we were tired. After a long romp with Atílio we lay down together, Aninha and I. While the dog lapped at water and crunched food, she called her French friend despite the time difference, to tell him it had all been a dream, a drive, a diverted river, a rêve. Silence seeped into the room. I thought of all I’d done that no one knew about. Some of it was good. Some of it warred with any opportunity.

Stop going on about your writing,” she said. “Such misery! You’re so happy when you’re at work on something, the harder the better, impossible all of it, but then you can’t deal with a simple—”

I told her it wasn’t the literary marketplace I was thinking of, but only that nothing gets easier as one goes on. No, not easier: better. Even one’s best is so flawed, defective, incomplete.

“Of course! Because that’s always, always the way everything always is!” She puffed air out through her lips. “Anyway...isn’t any kind of ‘perfection’ that comes from people a lie?”

I rubbed her neck, so gently. Silence, let alone by both of us, floated off into the city, finding noise somewhere at last, a sound so distant it was almost musical.

“I know,” she said, “I know. But that’s just because what you’re trying to do is hard.” We lay down together. “You almost never complain, it’s true, but you bring a lot of this suffering on yourself. I mean, that was a pretty famous editor who asked you for a story.”

I made a rude noise. “She’d just rejected—”

“It was too long for them! Too long is too long, right? And then what did you say, when she asked for another? Vanity. You’re as vain as Liebniz.” That wouldn’t have been Ana: Yolanda? I switched on the typewriter. My overcoat still on, I leaned down; my fingers touched the keys. I knew the layout well enough to think without seeming to type; to hear a story, not the punctuated scatter of letters. A hundred sharp slaps and I looked off into blueblack sky. Visible breath.

It would be dawn soon. I couldn’t dare a fire. I’d lost the camp, missed it in the dark, and now another cloud was moving over the moon. Frostbite is ice-crystals in your flesh: numb damage, with pain to come. I’d waded deep into moonshadows and limbs, among plants flattened or trimmed to stubs by cold. Yet leaves were still on the trees!

I heard Ana laugh, saw sun flash through the night sky of her flag. I stopped the rented car and unfolded our map. We’d happened to pause near an odd graveyard in which all of the tombstones were new and blank. We stared, shared a look, stared again: it was a monument-maker’s exhibition yard, on the edge of the very town we were looking for.

I sat down with my notebook. Let the typewriter hum—I’d be back. I paged through stories as a god looks down on life—a god with bills to pay, a god with stacks of return envelopes and no book. But I could see a car with two Christmas wreaths on the windshield, its driver and passenger looking out as if through portholes. I could hear the crackle of ice as it turned up the drive. Maybe we aren’t aware of how much and how often we fail. Failure’s pressure is constant; something is always being subtracted. So while we can add a little together, my love, whoever you are—

Here it is, still warm in its mold. Rapping bar meets rapping plate: loosed from the hinged halves, a new thing rocks, its flashing crisp and thin. Formed, it gleams. Pick up a file and finish it. It may not be true, if truth be so very difficult, but it is itself: a positive thing poured into (and formed by) an absence. Let me tell you a story:

We were a long way from ancient Greece, yet when she sat down in a brightness wild with shade, the leaves kept moving, took her apart and reassembled her as I watched, dazzled, almost too aware.

“Looking is like touching for me.” Her smile said I didn’t need to tell her that. Like touching, at first: then not enough. She moved closer. We didn’t need to speak. Those shadows kept switching and swarming over us, making us human leopards, two savage animals with a picnic lunch. I couldn’t see what she was doing with her hands, but I heard a crinkle and felt her jacket me.

In an essay entitled “China and the Sublime,” we are shown how, from the reports of the earliest Western explorers down to the stories of Hans Andersen and Franz Kafka, China (as perceived from the far West, from a Czech land, say, in German, from within a culture and a time that have vanished much as this time, your time—though its dominion seem self-evident, absolute—is already vanishing into its own success) has been made to stand for the shock of the human mind and body set against vastness and distance and time.

There is no analogy to China. There is China. She surrounded me with complicated warmth.

We lay in the grass for a long time after. The dog fell asleep on my chest.

“Brazilian Jews came to New York in the 17th century,” Ana murmured, reading from a guidebook. “There are still some old Chinatown? Off Chatham Square. Three.

“Want to go there?” Long silence, both of us breathing. “Ana?”

“Mmm...we’ll get to the cemetery soon enough. Take me to the ocean instead—I’ve never even been to Coney Island!”

We left the lights off. As we watched, dusk drained the room. Two mourning doves had settled on her ledge. Then I found her looking away, tears at the rims of her eyes (held back by surface tension). A scene from a bad film, but this wasn’t a film: it was passing for our lives.

I asked her what it was. “Não sé,” she said. She might have been trying to smile, but why force these things? “Não sé.” Okay, so it was me: I was wrong for her. Wrong. The blue pen moved.

“It loops through me, through the olive tree, through the deep blue sea, to infinity,” Mrs. Castor sang. Her jewelry glittered: the energy it must take, “Keeping up appearances”—though no one was looking. But she was determined, at least, to be seen to be enjoying her inevitable decline. She offered us all coffee: the full service, with delicate little cups. If a wing of her house had been on fire, one felt, her attitude would have been the same. I gripped a cube of sugar with little silver tongs.

Ana was in Milan. I sat down, ordered souvlaki, and kept writing. An elderly couple were shown to the next booth. It took me a moment to understand that they were arguing bitterly, with impacted rancor. “You poked me in the eye!” The old man said in a high, vicious voice. “You might have had it hanging down my fucking cheek! Is that what you want? Is it?”

“It was an accident!” No apology. “I didn’t mean it!”

“You never mean nothin’. It hurts! You hurt me!” He ripped open a packet of sugar substitute so fiercely that it burst over the table in a puff of crystal dust.

So little time left, so much spite to voice. A check came in at last, though my finances were such that depositing it was like tossing a spoonful of water into a hot pan. Ana was rich now: checks piled up on the table by her door, still in their envelopes. If she’d been struggling, I’d have asked for a loan.

My flashlight threw shadows everywhere: the shed was a tangle of antlers. Dead horn crammed into corners, piled, fallen: hundreds of antlers, and no place to walk. “Not everything makes sense....”

So why pretend? Because we love to explain things, get it right or not. Because Ana is gone and it’s late at night and I’m waiting for the F train. My mind sits on a pedestal of bone and living nerve and cartilage (live horn). If my life is a coherent narrative, I’m in no position to perceive it. A man is asleep on a bench down the platform, slumped over a greasy canvas bag. He is having a nightmare through which a subway runs. The wind of the train’s approach stirs in his hair; I cannot see his face.

I get on the train: my destination is somewhat farther into his dream.

My foot moved—gently. A bubble of air panicked under the ice. With the notch of my last arrow I pulled the bowstring taut. One quick crack and I plunge into frigid water, but I moved forward, as weightless and quiet as I could make myself. Oh, my love.

In the middle of a novel, between a woman’s death and a wet Paris street, I came across the boarding pass from my flight to Brazil. All those years ago; all those connections untended, released. The universe is 13.7 billion years old, and yet there are things that exist only because of us. It may expand forever, spread and cool and darken. Why do we think we can stop it with a kiss?

spacerÓ Pátria amada
Salve! Salve!

“This is your real life?” Ana asked me. “Nothing but this?” Look, I said, put it this way: Kafka’s China is vast. Lives are spent crossing it, spent learning enough about it to measure a small part of one’s ignorance. Sticks are picked up and bundled for fuel, mountains are given paths and paths are walked, every handful of rice must balance and perhaps exceed by a little whatever muscle and perspiration, patience and luck (all weather is luck) has brought it down to the table hot. I have a story to finish, a little girl to rescue; people in publishing have started calling me—not at all the usual state of things—and Susan and I are becoming friends again. “This is your real life,” Ana had told me, looking around at my dingy room, but she was gone now, living in Paris, or in another part of Manhattan that might as well be Paris; I no longer saw her. Our sugarbowl was still the same blue, still thin and strong under its glaze—strong or it would have been broken long ago.

Dark light. Snow crisped over with ice. The glow came from a hollow just ahead. I crept closer, sheltered by pines loaded with snow. There: wrapped in a blanket, chin on her chest, her back to me, keeping warm. I knew her shape, the way she sat, the hood of her cloak—but where were the guards?

Phone rang. I was on for some time. I hung up, turned on the radio, sat listening. My dearest Brahms! It is with great regret I write to inform you of the recent decision—

I stand over the typewriter, fingers almost touching the keys, each one hollowed to fit a fingertip. The motor runs on. Words snap and patter onto paper. Another check would come in soon; in a little while, with patience, I will see my name again on the spine of a book, available in almost any bookstore. It will be sold and borrowed and given away; someone might even read it.

I poured a little wine. Now I was going to have to do something much more difficult (for me, at least) than writing: I would have to invent some readers or cease to exist.

My dearest Brahms, in the middle of the city of Belém stands a wooded park, designed as “a specimen-case of the Amazonian bush.” The Baron of Marajó (whomever he may have been—these guidebooks presume a certain expertise) is said to have constructed its grottos, lakes, and “orquidário,” and caused its 2,500 trees to be planted, on the model of the Bois de Boulogne.

Funny, we hear a lot about absolutes like “success” and “failure,” but most often encounter such things diluted, mixed, not easy to separate from their opposites. To be poised for success is also to be poised to fail—with failure having the odds. Success takes energy. Staying in one place is impossible. The still place is moving very fast.

The motor hummed. I played on those smooth curves, the fingertip dips of the old typewriter keys: a powered alphabet. Old paper-batterer, it made antique dents in the page. Smith-Corona was its maker: here was a tool to forge a crown (both senses of forge).

I crept closer—as close as I dared. Was she asleep?

I could set a fire, cause a diversion that would scatter them—all but the leader. At the first alarm he would put his knife to her throat and wait to see what other plans I had.

Other plans: Ana pulled away. “That’s a pretense, not an argument.” Her intelligence flared when she was angry. Anger focused her; her English improved. But then going to bed would be like a stop-action nature film in which decisive thaw leads to racing melt, great cloudflows, quick sweeps of warmth, explosive blossoming. However, as the simile suggests, I might almost have been an observer; Nature was the cause, I was merely there. (Unfair—but feelings are.)

“Be serious for a minute. I want children someday. I don’t say you love kids...I think you’d be a good father, but do you even understand how much you’d have to change your life?

As if I loved rejection, wanted to be poor. In fact, I tried to be as indifferent as I could and simply get on with my work. In the end Ana understood this about me; but agreement only changed her argument—not her conclusion. “Maybe your real children will be books. Okay? That’s fine. There are seven billion people in the world.” Two of them kissed.

I angled down a gully to an icebound brook with a single wet trickle at its heart. Briers caught at my clothes. I followed the stream to where it burst from the ice, finally flowing fast: wind, water, stones tumbling down to unseen rapids—all of winter’s threats roared in my ears. By now my daughter was far ahead or behind me, lost. Like the leaves in this cold, her future was withering quickly, curling up.

My darling, I would have loved you. I had to give you up in order to do this work...and now I can’t even afford to have my computer fixed.

The owner of the 1968 Lambretta Li that Ana straddled with such easy grace in her first solo editorial had restored the scooter himself. It had been no more than a rusting frame and a bucket of parts when he’d bought it from a building superintendent in Saõ Paulo. But that bright orange was matched precisely to the original paint, and all the weather-pitted chrome was original. He’d been nervous, protective of his toy, but by the time the shoot was over he was beaming at Ana, encouraging her to go ahead, take it for a ride! The Italian firm that had manufactured it—that had invented the motor scooter, more or less, after World War II—had made bullets for the Nazis. But, with peace, the firm had dedicated itself to mobility for the masses: easy, affordable, full of cheerful style. A melhor do mundo para todo o mundo!

I listened to messages. Listened again to be sure.

So it was happening at last, all by itself, as if it were happening to someone else. I went to a small bar and sat in communal solitude with a small neat scotch and tried to understand. Four calls from editors today; one from an agent. I had not thought any of them would know my name. I didn’t know what it meant, and of course it could stop at any time—but for now it was actually happening.

I told no one. There was no one to tell, no way to tell it. If it really was happening, my friends would know soon enough. Light through the bottom of my empty glass made a wavering jellyfish on the bar napkin. What next? Would money come to my mailbox in window envelopes, bringing freedom and time and elegant complications? Even the waitress seemed to be in on it: the way she smiled and lingered to talk to me although the room had gotten busy. The last drink was on the house.

At home in bed, alone, I felt the covers grow warm around me as I breathed.

Her bright eyes were on me. We stood together in the snowlit dark, near the stream behind our house, listening: what was that? Water moving under ice. The layer that had formed was so clear and thin that only touch could convince us: we reached down at the same instant and laughed. Clearest shatter: water flowed over and under the sinking plates. More like pages than plates, my daughter said.

I kept moving. She didn’t complain, though she had to walk quite quickly to keep up.

Moon sharpened our shadows. No, I told her, no, it’s too wide here: that ice would never support us both. But if I climb to the top of that rock—

Her eyes were on me. I could jump across. She would never make it.

I scrambled up and leaned out over the stream. As she shouted after me—

I lay awake. My windows, blank with frost, glowed slightly. Streetlight? Neighbors up late?

A dream, of course. No daughter had existed. Maybe I hadn’t, either, but I’d made my choice—or let a series of circumstances and events choose for me. So many possibilities, all gone now, nothing to keep. There was still time, but I’d already turned away.

I looked off into the darkness. She’d never been born; never known the things I might have been able to teach her, give her, guide her toward. Had I really spent or squandered so much of myself in writing these stories, in walking half-awake in a world of words, that I’d failed to live?

It was possible. That dream felt larger and more distinct than my real life. If I closed my eyes, I could still see her face, so like and unlike mine; could almost think that it had been different; that I really had a daughter; that her mother and I (and who was her mother, by the way? which one of my failed loves?) were still a couple; that I’d written a short, bright, popular book instead of a long, dark, unpopular manuscript.

Enough! What had happened had been my choice—or my nature. What I felt now was the hiss of a deflating dream: my own breath, magnified by idle listening.

...Or so I told myself, but it stayed with me: a sense of waste so sharp that it had scraped the window clear of frost. I could see out now—through a hard little frame intense with focused cold. It had a clarity I might prefer to do without, that small black window. I turned on my side again and shut my eyes.

“Dad? Where are you? Dad? Did you make it across?”

I turned under the covers; turned again. In the dimness under the pines I felt her watching, waiting for me to speak. Of course a character had come to me whole before, but this was a person. I knew her, as if she were part of me; as if I’d known her all her life and helped her become herself.

Snow was falling lightly in the woods.

I lay quiet, almost at peace with what I’d done. Less comfortable with what I’d failed to do, but those things were, for the moment, far away. I was alone, but happy. In fact, I was free. Goodnight, and may you have the sweetest dreams—but, please, dear, don’t try to exist.

As I lay there, half dreaming, half awake, it came to me: I knew how to finish my book. A simple idea—maybe the one I’d been working toward all those dry and dust-white years. I didn’t even have to write it down. It was so clear, so perfect, made such strange sense, that I knew I would remember it when I woke. (I would remember it for as long as I lived.)

In warmth and drowsy happiness, I refused to blame myself for wanting to let go: let go.

The way was slippery. Steep rocks, a long path curving through the woods, and there it was: the frozen waterfall she wanted me to see. In the pine-crazed moonlight I could make out one black trickle moving deep in its Gothic whites, its captured structure. My daughter stood waiting, listening—as if she might suddenly hear all of that trapped water begin to flow.

Ice cracked underfoot. She turned and I saw again those steady eyes—eyes so like mine, so different, so much her own. Her dark sweater was unraveling. Though she was afraid, she held a branch back for me, as a considerate stranger holds open a door. But this was absurd! Where would she go to school? What kind of person would she be or want to be? Would she wear glasses, learn to sing, be good at math? I’d made my choice already—how could she not know that?

The released branch trembled. She walked on, through the darkest part of the wood, certain that I would follow, that I would be there to love her and teach her and care for her.

I turned around and walked quickly away. Wind flung ice stars at my face. I heard running behind me, a scramble—she cried out——

I lay awake. It was over: the cold was gone; the lovely warmth was gone. Perhaps I was ill—a fever, the roiling despair of some microorganism—for I could still hear her calling me: “Come back! You’re not done with things! Come back!”


The phone was ringing. I must have overslept. My agent—I still had an agent?—was cheerful, brisk, businesslike. She’d found me a publisher. No, no—they were willing to pay. Enough of an advance to give me time to write another book? She laughed. “How fast can you write?”

“Haven’t had coffee yet,” I said. She named a house, an editor, a sum that might last me two books. We would talk more later—assuming she took my call.

I poured coffee and sat at the typewriter. On the slope near the waterfall, pines sagged with ice. Shadows were deep, almost liquid, although the sun, just up, wasn’t high enough yet to light the heavy white-glassed bristles or the rough trunks smoothed and thickened on one side.

There were no people anywhere at all. The unstable path I’d followed in the night made a mild curve in the hill’s shade. Where sun touched it, ice took on the waxy look of impending melt. I found a mitten halfway down the hill: frozen into the snow, it must have belonged to someone else’s child.

Letter by letter, a few words spattered out from the fan of keys. If I’ve left any prints on the white layer over the black dirt, they are only these: marks of a metal alphabet hammered through film.

I kept moving—but I was not alone. You were here. I was calling you into existence by writing this. With luck I will have brought you to this place to show you something valuable, dazzling, indispensable; but soon you’ll be on your own. (Careful: the white path is trickier than it looks.)

The burden slid from a branch. Another pine limb dumped its slush and sprang back, green. I unrolled the last page and found myself looking down into the machine, where the keys and their long arms spread out like the seats of an ancient theater. Formalized long ago into a delicate stepped fan, that shape (which is older than this alphabet) must have first come into being when people gathered on the hollow curve of a hill in Greece. A few stones to sit on, or just grass. Music ready; masks on; silence at first. Then the actor’s voice sets everything in motion: all the rivers in the world begin to move.

The phone rang. I let the machine pick up.

The typewriter hummed on. In that restless space, its spread keys waited like an audience.

It began to rain all over Brazil, a hard slapping patter on roofs and leaves, on streets and rivers, on greenhouses and tombs. It clattered on the slick decks of ships, on moss and rocks and fruits for sale in the streets. It spattered on the awning over us. I was there with you; I had finished my tale. While I waited to hear your thoughts, I lifted a delicate cup to my lips.




"Curtain of Frost" first appeared in Epiphany.

Epiphany cover

So did a piece on the writing process for the story.





A piece on the writing process for "Curtain of Frost" is here.



"Curtain of Frost"
copyright (c) 2011
by Thomas Bolt.
All rights reserved.