by Eamon McGrath
“A little bit higher,” she called down from the balcony to her husband.
The garden was still wet from the storm the previous night. Caroline hadn’t slept well, waking up to the crash of thunder and the rattle of the old double windows in the wind. When she was a child, the sound of thunder excited her, and she couldn’t imagine how anyone could be afraid of it. Even Toby, the chocolate Labrador she had grown up with, hadn’t been afraid, and weren’t all dogs supposed to instinctively fear such loud noises? She had a memory of lying on the floor of her sister’s bedroom with Toby during a summer thunderstorm, gazing up at the rain streaming down onto the room’s small skylight, her hands pressed firmly into the carpet as if to steady herself.
But as she had gotten older, it wasn’t exactly that she had come to be afraid of thunder. Instead, it brought on a feeling of disquiet, of creeping anxiety. She wasn’t sure exactly when this change had begun.
She clasped her robe more tightly around herself. The breeze of the early summer morning was cooled off the pearls of water that coated the garden, across the fragrant peonies and waxy oleander, the drooping white roses and feathery lady’s mantle. She had always loved this time of day, both as a child in the quiet suburb outside Philadelphia where she grew up and now as an adult. Here, in the middle of Europe too, the morning light was soft, and the world felt more organized, more forgiving, and more attainable. The light of the afternoon was harsh and revealing, lacking in discretion.
“And this?” Markus called up to her from the step ladder beneath the flowering catalpa tree whose leafy branches coiled upwards to the balcony.
He was installing a bird feeder that Caroline had ordered online a few weeks before. She had wanted to see the birds up close. The tree was a frequented site for a group of coal tits who hopped unseen from branch to branch behind the cover of the heart-shaped leaves. Their chirping brought vitality to her mornings, and she hoped that they might stay longer.
She knew Markus felt guilty for having offered to help hang the feeder but then forgetting several days in a row. Remembering this morning, he had rushed out of bed first thing. The short instructions for the feeder were in German, so she had left them for him to read. He was tugging a plastic chain back and forth along a spindly branch that reached towards the balcony. Each adjustment brought a shower of raindrops down onto his sleep-tousled hair.
“I guess that seems about right,” she said.
He latched the chain and pulled on it gently, and it seemed to hold. He descended the few steps of the ladder to retrieve the feeder.
Caroline looked out over the gardens behind theirs. Located at the top of a hill, their house had what she considered to be a comfortably large garden for a city. But the balcony gave her a view out over their fence to the gardens below, all of which seemed larger and more substantial than theirs. She occasionally heard the distant sounds of a pool somewhere down the hill, but she couldn’t make out which house it was. She had even taken to an aerial map search to try to satisfy her curiosity, but the dense tree cover in their neighborhood made it impossible to tell. Though perhaps the noises came from something else entirely.
Markus latched the metal hanger on top of the feeder to a ring on the lowest link in the chain. It was still empty, and its translucent plastic insides struck Caroline as unnatural amidst the garden’s vigorous greenery.
“That’s perfect,” she told him. “Not too close, not too far.”
If she were to lean out from the balcony, the feeder would slightly exceed her reach. Just far enough to avoid scaring the birds. Markus descended the step ladder once again, bird feeder in-hand, this time to fill it with the bird seed she had picked up. She could hear the seeds tinkling into the plastic column on the stone patio below her, reminding her of a wooden rain stick that she had as a child. Flipping it over, she could hear the pieces inside (what were they – grain, rice, beads?) as they cascaded over, simulating an uncanny, Martian rain.
She heard a click as Markus pressed the lid of the bird feeder onto the column and base. He reappeared from underneath her and carried the feeder carefully up the few steps. She could see that the weight of the filled feeder required a slightly greater effort as he held it up, both arms extended, and attached it.
The sharp, nutty smell of the bird seed reached her, and she tried to imagine how it would taste. Markus, firmly back on the ground, folded up the step ladder and glanced up at her, his eyebrows raised above the round lenses of his glasses.
“Thank you,” Caroline said, smiling down. “Let’s see what happens.”
As he carried the step ladder back around to the front of the house, she spotted the first daring tit land on a higher branch of the tree. She waited to see what would follow. Would it be able to resist? Would it call its friends?
As she waited, she heard an abrupt rustling of leaves. The chain holding the bird feeder was slipping. Before she fully understood what was happening, the bird feeder flipped sidewards violently, and its base and lid fell off in opposite directions. In a single great whoosh, all of the bird seed poured out of the column and down onto the grass, and the sole tit flew off. The column of the feeder remained hanging at an angle, bouncing up and down from the offending branch
She called out to Markus, but he wouldn’t be able to hear her around the front of the house. From beyond their garden, a grey raven swooped in to have the first pass at the feast.
Caroline glanced down at the wreckage. With Markus out of earshot, she felt that she was the sole witness to this collapse, as the seeds disappeared one by one into the mouth of the greedy raven. She wondered whether the feeder was salvageable. Either it was defective or Markus hadn’t properly read the instructions. She turned back into the kitchen, where she could hear him fumbling with the coffee machine.
Still wearing her robe, Caroline lay sitting on their bed with her ankles crossed later that morning, her back leaning against the cool wall. She could hear Markus turn off the shower in the bathroom as he began to get ready. His morning routine was remarkably consistent, which she always admired. The order of noises marking his progress was unfailing, from shaving and showering to blow-drying his hair and brushing his teeth. If she missed even the slightest sound – the spritz of his cologne or the click of the cap on his hair gel – she felt something must be amiss. But his routine had only settled in over time. When they had first started dating, he hadn’t kept such a regular schedule. He would shower at different times every day, and she had made fun of him for not brushing his teeth the first few nights he slept over. He later explained that it wasn’t that he didn’t want to, he just thought it would be presumptuous to bring a toothbrush.
Before Markus, Caroline had had a few relationships, but she felt that they had never surpassed a certain degree of intimacy. A poorly-chosen gift or a comment about a movie that she allegedly loved but had never in fact seen would suddenly reveal an unbridgeable gap between what they thought her to be and what she knew herself to be. This wasn’t the case with Markus, who was slightly older than any of her past partners.
He, on the other hand, had had two long-term girlfriends before her and had even once been engaged. His fiancée had broken off the engagement, although Caroline never really understood why. He was considerate and loyal, and she could see that he thought long and hard about what she had to say.
They had only dated for a year before getting married. At the time, she was working as a program director at a non-profit in Philadelphia. She had recently moved back in order to be closer to her family after nearly fifteen years away, first studying and later working. Markus had just moved to Philadelphia when they met, having transferred on a short-term basis to the regional office of the consulting company he worked for back home. She only later realized that this was meant to be a period of soul-searching after his broken-off engagement. He had always planned to return home after a year or so, and they decided to get married and move together.
It had taken some time for their relationship to adjust to the new circumstances. At first, Markus had been around for her more often, making an effort to show her around the city, introduce her to his friends, and encourage her to look for ways to involve herself before she received a work permit and could find a job. But by the time his work began to pick up again, she had patently failed to find a place for herself in the city.
After she had finally received her work permit, she had applied for several senior jobs at local NGOs, but it was impossible to compete without speaking German. Since then, she had enrolled in a language class that met twice a week, but her progress was slow. They had been living in the city for over two years now, and she had dedicated a substantial portion of that time to furnishing the house that Markus’ parents had helped them buy after moving, hoping to make her new life there feel more tangible. He deferred almost entirely to her choices, which she thought would irritate some people but didn’t mind herself.
Markus leaned out of the bathroom, a towel around his waist and his toothbrush in hand. “Did you remember we’re meeting Kathi and Stefan in the evening?” he asked.
She had been holding a book in her lap while he showered, her finger marking the page she had left off on last night, and finally let it slip down onto the duvet.
“That’s right, I completely forgot,” she answered. They were two of his closest friends.
“Is it okay for you if we meet there after I finish with work?” he asked.
“I’m not sure exactly when I can leave the office.”
“Yes, of course,” she said.
He stepped back into the bathroom, and she could hear the buzzing of his toothbrush. As she considered how to organize the few errands she had planned for the day, she ran her forefinger back and forth through the pages of the book.
Naked, Markus walked out of the bathroom and over to the dresser. He had a short but sturdy build with broad, freckled shoulders. His muscular forearms, which she had found deeply attractive when they began dating, seemed to have an ever-diminishing impact on her. Back then, he also used to shave his chest, but now it was lightly speckled with brown hair that winnowed down to his navel. She could tell that he had gained a little weight around the waist over the last few months, although his penis, partially obscured by an ungroomed nest of pubic hair, still seemed to radiate youth.
Markus didn’t seem to notice her staring. He was a graceful and methodical dresser, and Caroline enjoyed watching him get ready for the day.
“Did I tell you that Mathias is transferring to the Dubai office?” he asked. “I think they are really pushing to increase our position over there, since that’s quite a new region for us.”
“Is that so?” she asked.
“I know that they are still looking for more of us to volunteer for work over there.” He sat down on the side of the bed and rested his hand on her leg, which had slipped out of the robe. His fingers circled her kneecap.
She tilted her head and smiled at him. “If you’re planning to move there, it’s without me,” she said.
“No, I didn’t think so,” he laughed. “It’s not somewhere that calls to me either.” He stood up and picked up his suit jacket from the chair next to the dresser.
“So then, I’m going,” he told her. “We’ll see one another this evening?”
“Yes,” she said, remaining seated. “I’ll see you there.”
The tram jostled her gently as it rolled down the street. Caroline sat with an oversize tote bag in her lap, which shook up and down with the forward lurches of the tram. Through the canvas material she could feel the cool of a head of iceberg lettuce against her thigh. Riding the tram always felt like a reprieve from the bustle of the city.
When she had first moved, she had been overwhelmed by the all-pervasive feeling of foreignness, greatly amplified during her first forays into the public transit system by herself. The sense of foreignness didn’t strike her in the ways she had initially anticipated, such as the language, of which she still had only an intermediate knowledge, or the food, which she wasn’t particularly fond of. Nor was it to be found in the art, or architecture, or fashion, or even the landscapes, all of which seem so central to any guidebook or travel brochure. Certainly, those things were all unique, but every place had its own flavors and smells, its own varieties of plants and architectural styles, none of which were particularly foreign to her, only unfamiliar at best.
No, the foreign lay instead in the mundane. It wasn’t to be found in novelty but rather in the subversion of her expectations. She felt it in building materials, in the weight of old doors with squeaky handles, in the rattling creak of parquet floors, in the design of windows, light switches, and electrical outlets. It was in supermarkets, in the shape of bread rolls, the packaging of yogurt, and the flavor of potato chips. The foreign was also in speech, not language exactly, but the undefinable gestures and sounds that were never taught in a language class but would expose a non-native speaker in an instant.
Why didn’t they teach these things in her German class instead? Why did she know the names for all the rooms of a house, many of which they didn’t have, but she didn’t learn the appropriate modes of greeting (one kiss, two kisses, or three, a hug, a nod, a handshake)? Why did she know so many body parts that she hadn’t once used in practice but didn’t learn the intricacies of interacting with strangers on the street? Was it permissible to stare at her fellow passengers on the tram? Should she say “excuse me” or “thank you” when others moved out of her way? Could you smile at a stranger, or what would that imply? But, then again, what would she have told Markus for her own country? Everything seemed so multivarious, so impossible to define.
Instead, she had had to puzzle out most of these things for herself or occasionally ask the advice of Markus. None of it came naturally, and when she caught herself adopting a gesture or phrase from someone else, she could never be sure if it was something universal or if it was unique to that person. For much of her first year in the city, she constantly doubted herself over the right way to order at a restaurant or ask for the bill. She wanted to blend in while still maintaining her unique selfhood. It made her second guess how she would do all of these things back home.
As the tram clattered to a halt, she disembarked in front of a trendy bakery. It had opened up after she had moved, which by comparison always made her feel more established. Bulging bag over her shoulder, she entered and tried to find a space to wait in front of the busy counter. When her turn came, she ordered an Americano and a brioche roll and found a seat at one of the tables outside. She dropped the tote bag into an adjoining chair and stirred a half packet of sugar into her coffee.
She loved observing people in their part of the city. It was a mostly well-to-do and family-friendly district, and on weekday afternoons the streets were overtaken by young mothers pushing strollers and retired couples walking slowly on the shady side of the street.
A young mother in a graphic T-shirt passed by. Living in a land of German speakers, she liked to meditate on the meaning of T-shirts written in English that she spotted around the city. Not so much the absurd or non- sensical shirts that the wearer didn’t seem to understand, nor even the shirts listing cities that simply seemed exotic (she had once seen a shirt that included Lansing). Instead, she liked speculating about the cultural messages imprinted or perhaps invented by such shirts. The latest trend she had identified was an aesthetic of proud resignation. Its mantras were inscribed on T-shirts with slogans such as “I don’t really care,” “Just do nothing,” or “I didn’t have anything to wear.” How had the distant makers of such shirts picked up on this widely-shared sentiment? Was it related to the fact that these were T-shirts, rather than another article of clothing? And what was the significance of it being written in English, rather than in the language of the wearer?
She tore off a small piece of the roll. She wasn’t really hungry, but she valued the excuse to take her time watching other people. The bakery was popular with fashionable young professionals out for a coffee break or a business meeting. The buzz of a language that was familiar but not native to her was soothing, providing a warm reminder of human voices even while it did not derail her own thinking by forcing her to eavesdrop. She hadn’t sought out the companionship of other Americans in the city, and anytime she heard someone speaking with an American accent felt jarring.
Two men sat down at the table nearest to hers and began speaking English, although it was clear that it was neither’s native language. One of the men appeared to be in the city for the first time, and they were discussing some kind of business venture. Since Caroline had moved, she had begun noticing the rise of a new pan-European language: an English spoken with strong accents, unusual grammatical constructions, and a blend of Britishisms and Americanisms, seemingly castaway somewhere mid-Atlantic. It was a language eminently recognizable but nearly impossible to pinpoint. The accents seemed variously Danish or French, Czech or Dutch, and its most fluent speakers, heard most commonly in airport lounges or in up-market restaurants in historical city centers, were businessmen of a certain age who all followed a similar dress code. All were more carelessly fashionable than their American counterparts but also marked by their bon vivant eating and drinking habits. In this language, words were constantly being reinvented or assigned new meanings. Caroline heard one of the men say that he “would need a refreshment on the history,” and the other took up using refreshment in the same way. It was a language that was evolving rapidly and unpredictably.
It appeared that one of the men was a local and was offering up the usual list of places where men of their ilk must visit, including both overdone tourist hotspots and expensive bars where the age gap between men and women was at its most striking. Caroline had heard this conversation too many times before. She could no longer identify with the initial excitement of the first-time visitor, marveling at the city’s baroque buildings, its finely-curated parks, and its florid desserts. But nor could she see herself in the local who was proffering up his city and showing it in its best light. What was left in between the two?
Leaving her roll largely untouched, Caroline lifted the tote bag over her shoulder and prepared to leave. She wondered if anyone had been watching her.
On the way up the stone steps from the tram station to their street, the budding tendrils of an overflowing sweet mock-orange reached out, occupying half of the staircase. Caroline breathed in its rich perfume, as if it were her own. How many such treasures did the city hold?
She pushed open the iron entry gate to their house from the sidewalk, which they always kept unlocked. All along the street, the houses were densely clustered together, directly abutting one another on either side. But she rarely ever saw their neighbors, as if they all hid behind their curtains and waited for just the right moment to dash out unnoticed. She unlocked the front door, entered, and dropped the bag on the kitchen table. The groceries could wait a little longer.
Stepping into the living room, Caroline sprawled out on the couch. Although it was warm outside, the rays of the sun were greatly amplified by the windows, making the air feel hot and three-dimensional. She rolled over to look out the window, having trouble focusing. She had begun experiencing a disorienting brain fog on a regular basis over the past few months, and it always felt its worst during the afternoon. In such moments, she couldn’t bring herself to do anything, and different scenarios for her life in the short-term and long-term coursed through her head. Should she start her career over? Begin something new? Go back to school? Ultimately, no option seemed particularly feasible. She ran her fingers over the dark green velvet of the couch and listened to the minute sounds of the house: the low vibration of the refrigerator, the ticking of the clock over the kitchen table, the whirring of the fan in their bedroom. Rather than a calming white noise, it was a sound of absence. It couldn’t be filled by the things she had artfully amassed to furnish their home.
She let her eyes glance over the living room at the objects that she had collected: an assortment of succulents in many shades of green, a red tin box with a Chinese dragon motif, a wooden divider tray filled with a collection of tchotchke dogs, a selection of many-hued glass candlesticks, a large bronze compass, an iron lantern, an unidentifiable sculpture that reminded her of hardened magma, a jar of oddly shaped stones, a green marble bust of a woman, a tiny crochet work of a nondescript seaside, a deep brown ceramic bowl, and a purple seashell vase.
Caroline had gathered all these things and more piecemeal over her two years in the city. She liked to imagine the objects as the remnants of an eccentric and fully-lived life. She knew it wasn’t necessarily artful, but it was tangible. The items were arranged to look scattered and haphazard, although they were in fact carefully staged and she knew where everything belonged.
She kicked her canvas sneakers off and raised her head up on a crooked arm. The room was encircled by several overstuffed bookcases that had been left there when they moved in. They contained old books written in a Gothic German script, and she admired the seriousness of the book bindings as well as the intentions of whoever had put this collection together. She would sometimes look over the titles, reading out the words on the spines, which she had begun to understand gradually since beginning her language class. A word here or there, and sometimes she could decrypt the title, especially if she knew the author. Still, she had rarely taken the books out to inspect them. They seemed to her to be features of the room, rather than objects for casual consumption.
The room had also come with a hulking antique vitrine. This she had taken full possession of in its beguiling emptiness, stuffing it full of mismatched martini glasses and floral-patterned china. She had loved acquiring these things – as most of her collection – at outdoor antique markets and rummage sales around their neighborhood, where she breathed in the stale air trapped in abandoned puzzle boxes and ran her fingers over clunky costume jewelry that was destined for oblivion. Their house still had more space to fill.
An enormous plane tree dominated the square onto which the restaurant sprawled, its roots forcing up windy veins of cobblestones that unbalanced the table. It tilted back and forth depending on who had leaned their elbows on at that time, rocking the wine glasses precariously from side to side.
Caroline rolled her fingertips through the condensation that had accumulated around the head of her glass, making the white wine glow opal-like in the last sun of the day. She sat across from Kathi, whose dark brown hair was neatly tucked behind her ears. Kathi wore no makeup and emitted a wholesome yet tightly-wound beauty that Caroline envied for its seeming naturalness. She and Markus were enthralled in a conversation about the upcoming city elections, while Stefan had not yet arrived.
To Caroline, the two of them seemed to hold the same basic political views. But while Markus supported the more established party of the left, Kathi supported a new party that Caroline would have characterized as left- wing by American standards but, apparently, drew in voters from the center. Moreover, it seemed that the two parties differed in their climate policies.
“Don’t you see that there is not any time left for compromise?” Markus asked Kathi. “That is exactly why the world is in this crisis.”
Kathi shook her head, smiling. “But seriously, be realistic. Do you think there is any other way?” she asked. “There’s no time for this ideological purity. It was never possible before, and it is not possible now.”
Caroline liked seeing Markus so passionate, since he seemed to voice his opinions at home ever less. She, on the other hand, couldn’t quite bring herself to speak up in the debate. It wasn’t that she didn’t care. Climate change just seemed far too complicated for an uninitiated person to truly and meaningfully understand – all of the charts, models, statistics, and policy recommendations. What were these discussions really about? And when had it become the job of an unqualified electorate to argue about scientific facts?
Markus poured himself a second glass of wine. The air was warm, and he reached over to touch Caroline’s leg. A slow-moving taxi crept through the square, as if the driver was unsure if this was the right way. As it rounded the corner, she spotted Stefan walking towards them.
Kathi poured a glass of wine for him as he draped his suit jacket over the back of a chair. Stefan had a cleanly shaved head, deep brown eyes, and a week-old blond stubble that suited him.
“Sorry I’m so late,” Stefan said before sitting down.
“You have great timing, we are just talking about politics,” Kathi told him, smiling at Markus.
Caroline admired Kathi and Stefan’s relationship. They were seated at some distance from one another, almost intentionally keeping a space between them. When she had first met them, she might have interpreted this as a sign that something was wrong, but now she knew better. They had a loving and playful relationship, but it didn’t seem to follow any traditional rules. It turned out that most people, upon meeting them, never even realized that they were together. Their relationship seemed un-needy and comfortable, like a childhood friend who you didn’t have to work to win over. But she didn’t think it was for her, all the same. Would trust really be possible in such an arrangement? She liked assurances, and Markus always seemed so ready to accommodate her vision for their relationship. But perhaps that too was a sign of precarity. When was it too late to renegotiate a relationship or change the terms of a marriage? Could one only move forward, or could one choose to move backwards too?
A trident-shaped leaf from the tree above twirled down onto the table in front of Caroline, and she picked it up by the stem, spinning it around between her thumb and forefinger.
“Is it maybe a sign of good luck?” Stefan asked her, as he lit a cigarette.
“Well, it probably is somewhere,” Kathi laughed. “I would say that that’s good enough?” Caroline smiled at her.
“So, where are you two going off to next?” Markus asked.
Kathi and Stefan were avid hikers. Caroline knew that they hiked almost every Sunday, setting off before dawn and returning late in the afternoon. They also went on a couple of hiking trips every year, most recently to the southern Tatras in Slovakia. To Caroline, it seemed that hiking was the decisive activity for companionship. Two people together, out in the wild, taking things in for themselves. Attuned to the vagaries of nature, the terrain, the weather, and the seasons. And there is a perennial threat of an accident that, alone, could rapidly become an emergency but, together, might be overcome. She wondered if she and Markus needed such a hobby.
The wind began to pick up, gently rustling Caroline’s hair. It was loaded with the scent of flowering trees, car exhaust, and cigarette smoke.
“I’d really like to go to Sicily this summer,” she announced. Markus turned to her, caught off guard.
“People say it’s very beautiful,” Kathi offered. “Although I think it must also get extremely hot.”
Caroline took a sip of her wine. “I don’t mind the heat,” she answered.
“Do you remember the trip we had to Mallorca?” Stefan asked Markus. “Was that in July?”
“It was incredibly hot,” Markus laughed. “It was just after we completed our second year at the university, and I still didn’t know that Kathi and Stefan were together,” he explained to Caroline, even though she knew this story. “When I went to sleep every night, the two of them always stayed up later in the other room. Really, I don’t know how I never guessed.”
Caroline turned to look at Kathi.
“Do you remember when the car we rented broke down in the middle of the street?” Kathi asked Markus.
A strong gust of wind tore through the square, sending waves whooshing through the leaves of the plane tree and knocking a water glass off the table next to theirs. The glass shattered on the cobblestones, and a shard ricocheted off Caroline’s sneaker. She moved her foot over the piece as a waiter rushed over with a dustpan. She could feel the shard poking into the sole of her sneaker, making its presence felt.
On the tram back home that night, Caroline sat closely next to Markus on the gently curved wooden seats. It was one of the city’s old trams, which required passengers to climb a few steps after boarding. She could feel the heat of Markus’ leg next to hers as he looked out the window.
In the seats facing them, a woman and a young boy sat speaking in hushed tones. She had short blond hair fashioned in a sculpted pixie cut, while her son had messy light brown hair. They were speaking a language that Caroline couldn’t recognize, maybe Polish or Russian? The boy sometimes paused and mixed in a German word, seeming to forget the word in his mother’s language. He was doing most of the talking, not making eye contact with his mother, and Caroline wondered what he could be reporting so assiduously. His mother held a small backpack on her lap and smiled patiently down at him as his narration continued. With his fingers clenched around the bottom of the chair, the boy swung his legs back and forth, as if willing the seat to take off from the ground.
Caroline had never really known how to act around children of that age. Babies were much simpler. Her sister had given birth a few months before she had moved, and she enjoyed spending time at her sister’s house, holding her nephew and offering to lend a hand where she could. Her sister was a decidedly relaxed parent, and she and her wife had been eager to get back to their jobs as soon as possible. It helped that Caroline’s nephew had been an easy-going baby, rarely crying and sleeping through the night. But she had moved before her nephew had learned to speak, and she hadn’t quite figured out how to engage with children who could talk.
The boy’s swinging legs strayed further, and she felt a kick on her knee, like a test to her reflexes. The mother put her hand down firmly on his leg to stop the kicking and smiled apologetically at Caroline. Seemingly embarrassed, she whispered something sharply to the boy.
The tram came to a stop at an intersection, and the woman stood up with her son, holding his backpack in one hand and his hand in the other. As the tram lurched forward along the short stretch to the next stop, the woman’s foot slipped down the first step by the door. She went crashing down the remaining two steps, her head knocking against the tram door. She had let go of her son’s hand before falling, and he remained frozen at the top of the steps.
Caroline stood up from her seat, but several other people had already jumped up to assist the woman. She sat back on the top step and held her head in one hand, her neat hair smushed in on one side. She repeated a noise that sounded like “Oy,” which Caroline didn’t register as a natural expression of pain. It was an oddly foreign sound, yet it struck her to the deep.
Two men were kneeling down, asking if she was okay. One held her free hand gallantly. A woman crouched down next to the woman’s son, her hand resting on his shoulder. The woman winced but nodded to say that she was fine.
“What happened?” Markus whispered, rising to stand behind her.
The woman was trying to reassure her fellow passengers that everything was okay. Caroline could hear that her German was good but thickly-accented. She was accentuating all the wrong syllables and wasn’t making any effort to get the case endings right, yet she lacked any of the hesitation that Caroline felt whenever she spoke. Caroline admired how she took full possession of the language, creating something new, something that bore her imprint. She had no doubt about her place here.
“She slipped, but it looks like she’s all right,” Caroline told Markus.
She sat back down, hoping to give the woman some privacy. The tram driver had come around to check on the woman, and she got up and off the tram with her son in tow. The tram stop was in front of an overflowing bar, outside which small clusters of young people stood smoking and sipping beer out of cans. The woman was clearly making an effort to demonstrate that she was okay and could walk normally, that nothing was broken. She seemed uncomfortable with the continued level of attention directed at her. The tram driver gave a final nod, and the woman led her son away.
The driver re-boarded the tram, and they pulled forwards. Caroline leaned over to catch a last glimpse of the woman and her son walking beside the tram before they passed them by. In the darkness of night, the woman’s face was hidden, but Caroline could see her steering her son confidently onwards through the crowd of young people blocking the sidewalk.
Early the next morning, Caroline stepped out on the balcony to take in the morning light and sounds. She breathed in the cool air deeply and heard the low hum of construction from somewhere in their neighborhood. The garden wasn’t as wet as the morning before, but the remaining dew lying nestled in the petals of the white peonies sparkled.
The image of the blond woman on the tram hadn’t left her all night. She had resurfaced in Caroline’s dreams, a figure stoically seated on a tram bench amid a vast darkness, lit up from below. Her son was curled up in her lap, a miniature version of himself. Despite the void around her, the woman occupied her seat with conviction, her gaze fixed somewhere above Caroline’s eye-level. Caroline held the image in her mind.
She looked down to inspect the damage from yesterday. At least half of the bird feed had been picked away, seed by seed, and the column of the feeder still hung dolefully from the branch of the catalpa tree.
Suddenly, two coal tits appeared from the tree’s leafy interior. Caroline clasped the wooden railing in front of her, worried to make a sudden movement, and leaned in. She could hear their playful chirping and saw them hopping from branch to branch. Hopefully they had had their fill of the spilled seed. She felt herself inching towards them, as if drawn by a magnetic force, and she let herself be guided by the forward movement.
The birds froze, staring back at Caroline. Relaxing her grip on the railing, she felt her body unwind. The birds seemed to acknowledge her, cocking their heads from side to side. Perhaps the feeder wasn’t necessary after all.
Caroline went back through the kitchen to go downstairs. Stepping off the stone patio out onto the lawn in her bare feet, she could feel the bending blades of grass, the silkiness of peony petals, the crackling of fallen leaves, and the firmness of the earth. The soles of her feet flattened the little mounds of soil left by earthworms, bearing a record of her path.
Leaning over, she picked up the top and base of the bird feeder. The top was undamaged, but the concave base had broken into two pieces. She knelt down in the grass and began to scoop up the remaining seeds that hadn’t been picked away, pouring them into the larger of the two pieces of the base. The moist seeds smelled of damp hay and earth, and they poured from her hands like a rich harvest. Some lay scattered in the grass, too small to pick up. If she left them in the soil, might they grow too?
About the Author
Eamon McGrath is a writer and and literary critic currently based in Brooklyn. His most recent story appeared in “La Piccioletta Barca.” He writes about literature from Southeastern Europe on his page Balkan Books (see instagram link below). Eamon has previously lived and worked in New England, Serbia, Austria, Albania, Slovakia, and Ukraine. He received his BA and MA from Tufts University.