Don Stoll’s fiction has appeared in A NEW ULSTER, GREEN HILLS LITERARY LANTERN, THE AIRGONAUT, CLOSE TO THE BONE, HORLA , PUNK NOIR, YELLOW MAMA , EROTIC REVIEW and CLITERATURE. In 2008, Don and his wife founded their nonprofit (karimufoundation.org) to bring new schools, clean water, and clinics emphasizing women’s and children’s health to three contiguous Tanzanian villages.
By Don Stoll
James, the new owner of the decaying house in Dublin whose self-contained flat I’d rented, had said it might be haunted.
“Chap I bought it from says so. You’re not worried?”
The plumbing worried me more. James promised that it was adequate. And the price and the location were right, and I liked the idea of living in a house that wasn’t merely in the Tudor style, but that looked to have been built during the reign of the Tudors.
That amused James.
“Intriguing to an American, eh?” he said. “Place is twice as old as your country.”
The former owner had been right about the ghost. She was named Anna. If I’d had the chance, I would have let it slip out “accidentally” in conversation that our relationship had begun when she came to my bed as a stranger in the middle of the night.
I’d gone to Dublin on a Fulbright because the right people had thought my doctoral thesis on Joyce held promise.
I should say “the right person.” In an era when the distinction between high culture and low culture is contested and famous literary critics seem no longer to exist, you might nevertheless recognize my major professor’s name. Perhaps she didn’t really believe that my thesis held promise, but only that she could will promise into it. That made sense because she’d willed the topic into me. Without her direction, I might never have thought to look in Joyce’s work for evidence of the silences that the English invasion and subordination had forced upon Ireland. Of course, I’d known about Ireland’s fraught relationship with England. Yet I had no particular interest in Joyce as an Irish writer. He interested me as a writer as such. My interest treated his Irishness as incidental, whether or not that makes any sense.
I’d thought, reasonably, that I was alone in the flat my first night there, when she came to me. She would have frightened me if I hadn’t been mostly asleep. By the time I’d awakened fully, we were well into the act of love. I felt curiosity rather than fear.
In the morning she heightened my curiosity. She’d gotten out of bed before me, saying she would make breakfast. When I went into the kitchen, she was dressed like someone from the past. Victorian clothes, I thought, or maybe Edwardian.
I told her she looked beautiful without commenting on her clothes. I suppose I gave them some thought even though I was more interested in caffeine; I’ve never been a “morning person.” I think I hypothesized that her eccentric dress was linked to her sexual boldness, as another way of indicating that she lived by her own rules.
We ate in silence. Silence is par for me in the morning, but I hadn’t expected it of her. I finally asked if she was all right. She said she was thinking about “the disaster at Easter.”
“What disaster?” I said.
She looked surprised, but only for a moment.
“I forgot that you’re American, so you wouldn’t care,” she said. “But you must have heard of the Rising. The utter failure, the executions. . .”
My morning dullness conspired with my slim knowledge of Irish history. A full minute of silence must have passed before I understood.
“You mean the Easter Rising? Of 1916?”
“Loads of Easters since that one, I suppose,” she said. “I know time passes on the outside. You’re maybe a hundred years on? But I lose track here.”
“Purgatory, I suppose. I mean, I don’t know what else to think.”
“This is Dublin,” she said.
Catholicism isn’t taken for granted in the Dublin of today. My flat was a five-minute walk from Dublin Mosque. The city would have been different in 1916, though.
“Is it Catholic doctrine that there’s no time in purgatory?” I said. “I don’t know—”
“You can find the doctrine in a book. I’m telling you about my experience.”
I didn’t want to encourage her to question our sexual relationship. But I had to ask.
“You’re Catholic. And yet last night—”
“More orthodox souls would judge me harshly,” she said. “But you tell me how else I’m supposed to pass the time here.”
She stood up and said we ought to go back to bed.
Afterward, we were lying on our backs beneath one of the crosses formed by the ceiling beams.
“Don’t you need a reason be in purgatory?” I said.
I wasn’t sure. I knew Catholicism as superficially as I knew Irish history.
“What did you do?”
“First the Rising, now my condemnation to purgatory,” she said. “Let’s make love again instead of discussing such bleak topics.”
I wasn’t ready yet. I thought that at my age I ought to be able to recover right away. I tried to distract her.
“That ribbon around your neck,” I said. “Were you wearing it last night?”
She was otherwise naked.
Before I could get an answer, she’d forced her tongue between my lips.
My Fulbright had come with privileges for the James Joyce Library, at University College. I might have walked the three miles to get there if traveling from New York the day before hadn’t worn me out. I took a cab and spent the day browsing the stacks.
Refreshed, I suggested a walk after dinner. Anna refused.
“We can’t stay here and just eat and make love,” I said.
“We can also talk. Let’s make love and then you can tell me about this ‘Grace’ that you’ve spoken of a few times.”
I was embarrassed to realize that at dinner I’d talked about Grace so much. How many times was a few? No more than three, I hoped. Three was the number of months since Grace had kicked me out. I thought I should have been capable of moving on without ever mentioning her to Anna, especially since it had been an eventful time, with so much happening to help me forget. Within three months I’d left Grace and the Sultanate of Oman to return to Columbia. I’d told my professors that my disappearance for the better part of a year had been because of a woman. They’d been understanding. One of my male professors had winked. Then I’d had the Fulbright approved, gone flat-hunting in Dublin so I’d have something set up in advance, returned to Columbia again, and finally moved into the place I’d found in Dublin.
I told Anna that I’d met Grace in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in New York, practically next door to Columbia. I would go there often to clear my head of my studies. I went not because it was a church, but because it was beautiful. One afternoon, Grace and I happened to be admiring the same stained-glass window. I spoke to her. She’d finished NYU and she was thinking about grad school. She wanted to visit some of the great mosques to see how they compared. I’d finished my classwork and only—only!—had to write my dissertation. Before I knew it, we were teaching English in Oman.
I told Anna how Grace’s spun-gold hair attracted the stares of the Arab men. The stares continued after she’d buzzed it because of the heat.
Anna’s long skirt and sleeves and blouse buttoned to her neck reminded me of Oman’s covered women. A woman named Khadija, who left only her face and hands uncovered, had lived in our building. Her eyes had a black-hole darkness that sucked you in with a force you knew you couldn’t resist even if it would mean your death.
Grace and I frequented a beach where, soothed by the Gulf’s lake-like serenity, we would swim hundreds of yards out to find ourselves surrounded by Arab men and boys, treading water and showing elaborate courtesy to Grace, the only woman who hadn’t remained on the sand. The men were awash in colognes that drowned out the smell of the salt water. We would gaze at the dark shapes of the women on the shore, some of them covered more completely than Khadija. They ate fruit and chocolate behind their veils and never swam out to us to inhale the fragrance of the cloud that the waves buoyed up.
Grace and I had described the scene to Khadija, who replied that if the sea were ink used to record God’s wisdom, it would be consumed before the words were exhausted.
“Tom Kennedy would have consumed two seas with his wisdom,” Anna said. “In his own mind.”
“We were to get married, but he would joke that there had to be a divorce first: from the United Kingdom. We’ll destroy that union and then enjoy our own, he liked to say.”
“So with him you weren’t as. . . free?”
“On the contrary. Never mind the union of England and Ireland. There was no shortage of pleasure in our union.”
We hadn’t left the table. The dishes needed clearing.
“This was Tom’s flat,” she said.
One night, when Grace needed cooking oil, she thought of borrowing some from Khadija. I tried to conceal my excitement when she returned. In her flat, with only another woman to see, Khadija might have left her hair uncovered.
“Sorry I was gone for so long,” Grace said. “She was telling me all about her childhood, how she met Mustafa—”
“Cool. Did you see her hair?”
She took the cup of oil into the kitchen. I followed her.
“Was her hair dark?” I said, trying to get her to look at me. “Like a black hole?”
Grace looked at me, but not fondly.
“Not at all,” she said. “Too much shine.”
She poured some oil into a skillet. She lit one of the stovetop burners and put the skillet on the flame.
“You don’t want to hear what we talked about?” she said.
That night I dreamt about long hair of black-hole blackness. The black hair without shine belonged to a woman with a veiled face. Somehow, I could see her face anyway, to see that she wasn’t Khadija. Yet I couldn’t see who she was. Such is the logic of dreams.
The next afternoon I knew, without having thought of my dream in the morning, that the black hair had belonged to my mother. When I was little, my father would brush her hair. She had beautiful shining hair when she was alive. In my dream, the shine had gone.
That evening Grace cooked with the oil she hadn’t used the night before. We’d forgotten to buy oil during the day, so Khadija’s generosity had been fortunate.
It was during that meal that Grace told me I needed to move out. I convinced myself that it was just as well. She’d sucked me into her life and I needed to get back to my own.
At least that’s what I told Anna about my decision to leave not only the apartment I shared with Grace, but Oman. Anna saw it differently.
“You wanted to be sucked into the life of your Moslem beauty,” she smiled. “You thought you’d be lord and master there. But this Mustafa chap was her lord and master.”
The dishes still needed clearing. The uneaten food had hardened on them.
“I don’t want to be a woman’s master,” I said.
Anna arched an eyebrow.
“Around Tom and the others—Pearse, Connolly, the lot of them—I sometimes felt like their equal. They would say they wanted to hear my opinion. So I told them the English would grind us under their bootheels.”
Pearse and Connolly. I’d barely heard of them. What were their first names?
“You wanted independence, but by peaceful means.”
“No such a thing,” she laughed. “I said the timing was wrong. We needed a couple of years to build our strength before we could take on the bastards in a fair fight.”
She saw me looking at the dishes.
“They heard me, but there’s two kinds of hearing. My words went in their ears and penetrated their thick skulls up to their brains. Yet what they heard was a pretty lass, afraid to fight and only good for tending their wounds when they came back as heroes. Good for tending their wounds and for bringing them even sweeter consolations.”
She pushed her chair away from the table.
“Clear the dishes if you’re bothered,” she said. “Our agreement was that we should talk and make love. Well, we’ve talked.”
Later that evening, Anna asked to see a picture of Grace.
“Can you get my computer off the dresser?”
She got up. She wore only the ribbon around her neck. She put on her robe and handed me the laptop. I found a picture of Grace with buzzed hair.
“Let’s cut yours like that.”
“It wouldn’t grow back,” she said.
Anna had red hair: “like fire,” as the cliché goes.
“Tom sometimes brushed my hair. Would you like to?”
“To some music,” I said.
I’d bookmarked an old Rome Opera House Orchestra recording of Turandot, with Renata Scotto as Liù. I knew exactly how many minutes and seconds in I needed to go for the part I wanted: the slave girl’s plea to the prince she loves not to risk his life for the hand of the cruel Turandot.
“Is there a story?” Anna said.
I summarized and she said “We’re enslaved in so many different ways.”
She’d put her brush in my hand. She swept it down the length of her hair.
As much as my mother had taught me to love opera, I’m not a connoisseur. I wondered if I would have been able to tell the difference between Scotto’s rendition and my mother’s, even though my mother never sang professionally. Turandot had been her favorite. She often sang the parts of the slave girl and of Princess Turandot in the house. She would sing when my father wasn’t there because he couldn’t stand opera. Or, rather, he liked the male voices well enough, but he found soprano voices like those of Scotto and my mother “screechy.”
Scotto brought the slave girl’s plea to its conclusion.
“How did your mother’s die?” Anna said.
“I’m sorry,” she said as she turned around.
She took the brush from my hand. She put my hand inside her robe.
“They don’t last forever,” she said. “Enjoy them while you can.”
I removed my hand.
“You haven’t explained your own death. Was it by hanging?”
“You talk so much,” she said, fingering her ribbon. “You wouldn’t rather—”
“I’m still alive. I get tired.”
“Quickly then,” she sighed. “Tom insisted that in the Rising his future wife should be a nurse. I bit my tongue. But on the first day I went to join the attack on Dublin Castle. Going there I met three British soldiers. They said something about my hair, and then something obscene. So I shot one of them.”
She shut her eyes.
“Dublin Castle was far, so I ran back here. I tried to hold them off. But others joined the two I hadn’t shot, and I ran out of ammunition. When I stopped shooting, they shouted obscenities.”
I took her in my arms.
“They were going to rape you. But you hanged yourself.”
“It’s not what you think,” she said. “Rape wouldn’t have dishonored me. It would have dishonored them, but I was damned if they were going to have the pleasure.”
The next morning after breakfast, I heard a knock on the door. Anna was in the bathroom. I opened the door to my landlord, James.
“I know you just moved in,” he said, raising his hands to ward off the expected objection. “But my mate has a much nicer flat for you, closer to University College, and he’s agreed to take what I’m charging. And we’ll do the whole move for you.”
I blinked my incomprehension as he talked about the money he would make by demolishing “this old ruin” and building something new.
“Demolition chap’s coming day after tomorrow,” he said.
I glanced over my shoulder. Anna had cracked open the bathroom door.
“Poor ghost,” James smiled. “You’ll tell me if it shows up before we move you?”
“You can come with me,” I told Anna after he’d gone.
“I’ve tried to leave,” she said. “I can’t.”
“What do you mean?”
“If you’re ever here, you can try. I don’t make the rules.”
“But what happens to you when this place is demolished?”
I wanted someone to be able to tell me.
“Is there anything in Catholic doctrine—”
Her laughter cut me off.
“It doesn’t work like that,” she said.