A cloud of yellow gas from the pesticide plant had descended over the ring of houses around the lake and killed thousands of our people. My only son, his wife, and their daughter were sent to the hospital. A few days later, I received news from a nurse that they were dead. Shrouded corpses were piled along the streets. Friends had thrown out their dogs with the soil. The smell in town was of flesh and mould and pee. The journalist asked if my wife was religious. I had nothing to say.
The journalist stopped looking up and down my face. He scribbled notes on the bottom of his page with an unlit cigarette in his mouth. He had chosen to conduct these interviews at one of the cafés by the lake. In the eighties, the golden facades of the lakeside buildings were the colour of caramel, and the homemade chocolate sold on the waterfront tasted better than rum. These days, the plastic outlines cleared of the bodies made the sidewalks look like the inside of a furniture store, and flies swarmed between the brick walls and the racks full of postcards. On the other side of the boardwalk area was the neighbourhood of run-down apartments my son and his family had chosen to move into. I had no reservations when they decided to move there. Our cottage was dilapidating, and I knew my son was often bored living in our tree-lined suburb. The apartment they found was barely the size of our second floor, but it was cheap, central, and close to their work. They said they would visit once a week. A weekly visit was more than enough.
This side of the boardwalk at least was cleaned up. In my son’s new neighbourhood, the military was still checking for bodies in apartment buildings. These were not the soldiers from my days in the army. They were wearing the inflated garments of astronauts. They stared at the living as if they had come back from space. I had spent a lot of my last few days by the boardwalk. This was why I knew all this.
This journalist did not look like the kind of man who would work for the paper, Our Nation. They were usually northerners of the tall and pale sort. He was a man of medium height. He had the features of someone from here, but his eyes were green, and he spoke none of our language. His hair was greying. His blazer, pants, socks, and shoes were all black. He always kept his back straight. I found this a very northerner thing to do. He repeated his question, slowly, like he was speaking to a child.
“What … happened … to your … wife … during … the … Incident?”
“Nothing … nothing much,” I responded. “Tragedy comes … people change. She become religion. I become smoking.”
“I didn’t … understand,” the journalist said. I switched to my language.
“We all change when tragedy strikes. My sweet dear darling used to pray once a week, now she goes to the church at six in the morning, even while the doors are closed. I go through a carton of cigarettes in a day. An entire carton, in one day. I used to only smoke when my brother visited town.”
The journalist patted the dandruff out of his hair.
“You answered in … again,” he said. “I think I … some words, but I won’t be able to … this if you don’t…”
I did not know how to speak our national language. I used to listen well, but I did not have the energy to struggle. I even lacked the force to sigh. I lifted my cigarette pack from the table and showed it to him.
“Do …. you … need … a lighter?” he asked. My wife told me once she never knew if I was staring at her these days or at something behind her. I must have given him one of these stares. He found his own lighter and pack of cigarettes in his briefcase.
We paused to smoke. The black circles of his tape recorder rolled on. The fifty-year-old posters on the wall watched us. The server was cleaning the coffee table and switching TV channels. The coffee machine made the most noise out of us all. Our table was by a window facing the road. A few people passed the window. They were loud, built men, their arms stained with petrol. They must have come from stores on the parallel streets where tires were sold and cars were repaired. Behind them came some women, heads covered with polka-dot or striped scarves, or with dark black ones. They all stared openly at the journalist. Tourists hadn’t come since the Incident.
“My mother … she … told me … of this place … when I was a … child…”
He went on using words bigger than any I knew. I would have loved to tell him there were many things to see in our city. It was famed for its precious blown glass. The most famous store of its kind was four storeys, at the centre of the intersection between the ring road and the main avenues leading up a hill. If people were not looking for souvenirs, they could eat our style of chocolate, or go to the saunas towards the north, as the lake was famed over centuries for healing problems of the back. The university on the other side of the lake was one of the best in the nation. Our textiles and products went all over the country, all over the world. We were so much more than our calamity. We were a vibrant town mentioned in many great novels, with a history of hundreds of years.
These were all the things I could never express in the language he knew. He realised I understood little. His eyes skipped to the end of his thoughts. Silence came again, and I made a trip to the bathroom. The window next to the sink peered towards the lake. The sun kissed the cloud hats upon the green hills goodbye. It left warm flickers of orange around the water’s edge. It would have been pretty to reflect on, if the lake had not been powdered yellow and dotted with the bodies of dead fish.
“There are few parts of our country as beautiful as the north side of this lake,” I reminded him when I returned. It was a good place to fish or to picnic with the family, if he had one. He sighed around his cigarette. I changed languages and repeated slowly, “North … lake … nice…”
He smothered his cigarette against the black table.
“I really should have hired …” he said. “But, the advertisements did say that the interviews were to be … for a national …”
Yes, yes. Our Nation. A newspaper which rarely represented the needs of people from the south, and yet the only one willing to hear our voices at all. I gave him the stare my wife complained about.
“It would have been nice … very good … if my mother had … the time to teach me your language. She comes … from here...”
I could see that from his skin tone and curly hair.
“But my father is from the north…”
I could tell that as well, from his round cheeks, and wide green eyes.
“I was raised far from here … far … far … and moved to the capital for work … work … I’ve never been to this city before … or any city around here, for that…”
He should have known our language, regardless. Did no one have pride in their culture? My son didn’t teach his daughter a single word. He said it wasn’t understood in the city where he worked. I thought it was luck when he was transferred back home. When I was in the army, this region had no signs in other languages, and its children were taught in our script and knew only their tongue. Often my granddaughter didn’t understand a single thing I said. I had taught her the words for “water,” “pine,” “pumpkin,” and “comb.” I should have taught her much more.
The journalist saw I was thinking of them. His eyes lost their drunkenness of thought. He straightened his back and offered me his pen. His eyes were sad and his words jumbled and he was hard to understand. It was when he asked his question that he spoke like someone on the radio.
“How … how does it feel … feel … to know your family is … gone … dead ... over?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Do you miss your granddaughter?”
“Yes,” I said. The words to be said in my language were, ‘Of course.’ I remembered the morning of their last weekend visit when she woke me at the foot of the bed. I told her I wanted to sleep. She exclaimed, Look! She flittered her feet on the hardwood floor and jumped in the air and showed off the calluses on her toes. I told her she was going to be the best dancer I knew. Then I sent her back to bed, for the sake of any family member not yet awake. I was planning to buy her a new pair of dance shoes for her next sleepover. The next day, she appeared to be more interested in the anatomy of caterpillars, and dragged me into the garden for me to see them.
I remembered when my wife and I searched for her body in the pile of corpses. Hers was the face being eaten by the maggots. For many days after, no words came out of my mouth.
“And your daughter-in-law?”
“Yes, yes,” I said. My daughter-in-law often hunched her back and held her knees when she sat. It looked like she was preparing to warm an egg. I always wanted to joke with her about it. Afraid I would offend her, I never did. My eyelids were flinching because I was wondering why I never grew courage over things so minute.
“And your son? Don’t you miss him?”
The words I wanted to say were, ‘How could I not?’ I didn’t get to see him. The hospital had cremated all of its corpses when I visited. They did such things without the relatives’ permission, too. What an excuse, that there had been too many bodies. I spent the entire evening wondering if he had even died in a bed. I thought of the last words we had exchanged. Much like me, he was a collector of coins. I had been recently gifted a coin that was minted around the time of my military days by an old friend who had found it in a closet. I made a promise to my boy to give the coin to him the following weekend. It became a date that would never pass.
I had not said anything, and the journalist sighed, one too many times. I banged the table and stood.
“You are nothing but a rude northerner coming to a land where you speak nothing and expect us to accommodate to you.”
I threw his notebook at the poster nearby and knocked over one of the cups.
“Do you know how many nights I prepared for this interview, and now, I cannot say anything?”
The server reacted as quickly as a disturbed cat and rushed to the table. She was too afraid to speak.
“My son is dead. His family is dead. None of them are coming back. My wife and I will die knowing that our family will not continue. And who is to blame? Who is to blame? The most corrupt government in the world chose to build a pesticide plant here, knowing that it would be cheaper. This is a government that has done nothing but damn our region since the day it was annexed. Even to this day, the head of that company refuses to call our tragedy anything more than an ‘incident.’ Do you know how that feels? Do you? Do you?”
The journalist stood as well. He took the napkins under his beer and used them to pick up the broken glass. I wanted to kick him as he crawled.
“Do you know how any of this feels?” I squatted down and yelled. “Do you? Do you?”
The journalist sat up and slapped a palm against his ear.
“He cannot understand a word you are saying,” said the server. I knew. Whether it was in our language or not, he could not understand. The server brought a trash can. I handed her a bill for the damages. I went to another table and smoked. I also ordered a beer for the sake of the server. The journalist had blinked little and shown no emotion during my entire speech. I could have asked him if he had colleagues who interviewed in our language. I did not.
I took out my wallet.
I reached for the coin meant for my son,
and held it under my palm.