Natalia used to be a wife. His name was Erik. His name was Viggo. His name was Christien. His name was Lucas. His name was Nils.
He hit her. They had no children. He drove a motorcycle. Ran a company. Was a pastor, a surfer, an accountant. He taught her how to shoot, to drink, to bleed. Her husband. Her boss. Her man. See her as student, as interpreter, as waitress. See her learning how to skin: you start at the neck, then you dig into the hide, into the cooling fat, and pull away from what lived.
She had a missionary zeal he did not give her. It was a fatalistic streak he admitted from the start was hers. He was, you see, a Calvinist at heart.
‘Erik,’ she asked, ‘Am I ready?’
‘No,’ he joked, scratching his beard,‘It’s Christien.’
When she spoke that name always her voice hid behind her.
What he did to her was done to them all. There was an essential equality in their small group. But she could admit she was the favourite. Though attention is not always a benefit. In some cases, it merely means more scrutiny. And for the purpose of building endurance, they were Erik’s in ways he thought necessary.
When training was over she was called to his temporary office. The door locked as it closed and the room shrank.
‘You did well, Natalia,’ Erik said, walking out to meet her.
‘Thank you.’ She was almost happy.
He pushed his thumbs into her shoulders, kneading bone as she undressed and bent over the desk. Through the pendulum of the blinds she saw the dust that coloured everything wheat. The bunkers trembling in the sear. The absence of humanity.
‘It will be a very simple assignment. And in a week I’ll meet you there,’ he straightened, zipping up his pants. ‘Now have you learned your Spanish?’
She laughed. ‘Where are you sending me? Mexico?’
‘Ask Lucas,’ he said.
‘I don’t like that game,’ she frowned. ‘Besides, training’s over you said.’
Out in the world, she was most often Viggo Hjort’s wife: when buying guns, guarding the client, making a drop. But for those few last months of 2010, she worked alone in Beirut, becoming familiar with the city, going for long walks by the sea, getting closer to the boy, to the bomb.
The night before the bomb, she startled awake in the dark, queasy with dread. It was only pacing the apartment, drinking Cokes, going over her again and again: Milla – what she’d looked like, everything she’d ever said – collecting proof that she’d once been a sister, which allowed Natalia to fall back to sleep. By the time she heard the alarm, her alarm had dissolved, its logic evasive. And by the time she was facing the bathroom mirror brushing her teeth, he had arrived in the lobby, and Natalia was ready to be a wife again.
Lynchburg, Virginia, 1997
‘But I don’t wanna go in the kitchen – Bill’s still watching TV,’ Milla said.
Overhead, the fan curdled the air in the trailer and the cicadas beat their bodies against windows that had no screens.
‘Go to sleep then.’ From where she lay on the mattress, Natalia couldn’t see the full moon, but she could feel it pushing bright against the wall.
‘My stomach hurts,’ Milla said.
Natalia yawned. ‘Put pants on if you’re going out there.’
Milla flipped onto her back, squeezing up her stomach. ‘Fat people still get hungry you know. Mom told me I might get skinny when I hit puberty. If I get tall then all my fat will stretch out. What? I’m the liar? We were supposed to stop by Bill’s then go to Grandma’s. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this shithole is not Grandma’s.’
‘Stop moving, you’re making the sheet come off. It just got too late to drive.’
‘You mean Mom got too drunk to drive. If we call –’
‘No.’ Natalia sat up, pointing at her, ‘You hear me, Milla? No.’ She flopped back down, fanning her long brown hair across the yellowed pillow. ‘Besides, it’s like a seven-hour time difference.’
Milla rolled up. ‘I’m getting a bowl of cereal.’
She grabbed Milla’s arm. ‘Put pants on, I said.’
Milla twisted free, making for the kitchen.
Natalia scrambled across the mattress, pinning her to the door, hissing, ‘If you go out there I’ll put peanut butter all over your face and set the dog on you.’
Milla tried to bite her. Natalia took her by the shoulders and slammed her against the door, smacking her head against the hollow wood, and Milla dropped to the carpet.
‘Hey.’ Natalia lightly kicked her thigh. ‘Get up. You’re OK.’ She tried to pull her up by the shoulder. ‘C’mon. Hey, you’re not crying, are you?’
‘No,’ Milla sniffed.
Three years older and a foot taller, she scooped Milla up.
‘Put me down, retard.’
‘Don’t say retard,’ Natalia said and tossed her onto the mattress. ‘You’re overtired.’
Milla rolled away and into the wall. ‘Mom’s high.’
‘She got pills from Bill.’
‘She met Bill in rehab.’
‘I guess she’s not cured.’ Milla rolled back to her, watching, waiting, polite. Natalia sat, saying nothing, lost to a carnival sickness. After a minute, Milla dimmed. ‘Talia, what should we do?’
Natalia crawled to the foot of the mattress and found Milla’s soccer shorts. ‘Here. Put these on. We’re leaving.’
Natalia went to the door. ‘Stay here. I’ll be back.’
She padded out into the blue sheen of TV. Bill, their mother’s new boyfriend, was slack-jawed in the sagging armchair. Natalia wondered if somewhere he had a gun. She checked the drawers, but in his kitchen thick with trash she found only his keys. Through the open bedroom door, she could see her mother’s feet, something sticky gone black smashed to one heel.
Back in the bedroom, locking the door behind her, she opened the window, hoisting Milla out and lowering her onto the ticking grass.
In the trapped heat of Bill’s car, Milla kicked off her sandals, bouncing. ‘You think you can drive this?’
‘I think so,’ Natalia said, pinching her bottom lip, staring into the now cryptic black of the country road.
‘But you’ve only done parking lots with Daddy.’
‘When I start it, we’ll have to go really fast.’
‘In case Bill wakes up? Hey, do you think they’ll call the police on us?’
‘They’re on drugs.’ Natalia found the lights and slid in the key. ‘Seat belt,’ she said.
The Kalahari Desert, 2002
Why do it to her? Why do it so fast? During training, she begged him to be patient. To teach her to wait without waiting. ‘Again?’ she asked. ‘OK. Do it. I’m ready.’
God, she was sore. All of inside. She was urine and sweat, but still she longed for water.
Better to be back in the box. Better the water dripping through the cloth over her face. At least then she had her clothes and wasn’t spreadeagle on a mattress. ‘Again?’ she asked without ever seeing who she was asking. ‘OK, hurry. Do it. I’m ready.’
When Natalia was little, she always got cold in the ocean. Her lips would turn purple, but still she refused to get out. Because she loved to swim, to feel the force of something bigger all around. ‘Again?’ she asked, or at least made that shape with her mouth.
Erik put his hand on her forehead. ‘I don’t like to hurt you. But I want to make it so that nobody can.’
Lexington, Virginia, 2001
‘Well, I’m not gonna pretend this is not the most bullshit thing –’ The pause in this tirade was merely in order to wipe a fleck of melting butter from her pearls. Then their mother raised her knife, holding it up like a spear, eyeing both her daughters with something approaching dislike. ‘Why do you have to be so extreme, girl?’ Waiting for no answer, their mother pointed with an oleaginous finger, ‘You like these? George gave them to me. Aren’t they gorgeous?’ These pearls were then dangled over Natalia’s unmarred hollandaise. ‘Your father doesn’t seem to buy you anything chic so I have no idea what you’d wear them with but they’d sure look pretty on you, honey.’
Natalia stared mutely down at three strips of bacon unbroken on her gilt-edged plate.
‘Talia, I know we’re all God’s creatures, but can’t you at least eat the yolk? It’s protein.’
‘Mom, you know Natalia doesn’t eat meat,’ Milla said.
‘But look at those legs – like two strings hanging from your shorts.’
‘I notice, Mother dearest, that you didn’t eat your yoke,’ said Milla.
‘I’m on a new diet. Now I don’t know but I’m not sure those refugees’ll have eggs in Kag. . . Kang?’
‘Kangwa. They’ll have eggs,’ said Milla, unsure.
‘Let Natalia talk. They won’t have chickens cause they’re starving for the Lord’s sake. Honey. Talia. Look at me, honey. Look at me and not the dead pig.’
Milla reached across the table. ‘I’ll eat them.’
‘Now you don’t need them, Milla! Girl, you are getting on my last nerve.’ Their mother rearranged the bracelets down her arm, spacing them neatly. ‘Nossir, I am not lending my blessing to this saintly crusade.’
‘She wants to help people,’ said Milla, winding the pearls to pinching round her wrist.
‘She wants to be a martyr,’ said their mother.
‘I believe that qualifies as Jesusy.’
‘Why don’t you just stay here? Didn’t you say you’d like to volunteer at a women’s shelter? There’s one in Lynchburg. One in Charlottesville too.’ She elegantly sucked butter off the outside of her palm. ‘I have a hard time believing that your father of all people thinks this Kang-wah is safe. But then we are speaking of a diplomat that’s never successfully brokered a peace deal. He only thinks with one of his heads and it doesn’t have a cerebral cortex.’
Milla spat out her eggs and gestured to go. Natalia frowned at her, saying, ‘It’s too early to leave.’
‘And I want y’all to meet George,’ said their mother. ‘He’ll be back from work any minute. Look, if you want to travel we could go to Paris. Would you like that? That’s where George took me on our honeymoon. Just like Lon and your Daddy. Make eye contact. People are gonna take you for an Asperger’s. I am certain they got people in need in France.’
‘A Saturday and he’s at work?’ Milla scoffed. ‘I don’t want to be the one to let the cat out of the bag, but have you ever wondered if he’s having an affair with his intern? I’m not saying for definite, but you’d be a fool to rule it out. Government officials are into that. I mean, Exhibit A, Dad.’
Natalia pushed away from the table and stood. ‘I’m calling us a cab.’
On the train from Charlottesville to DC, Milla picked her cuticles bloody. ‘I have decided to pawn Mom’s pearls. Yo quiero un new bike. How much do you think I’ll get?’
‘We were supposed to take the 3 p.m. It’s only 11. Now Daddy’s gonna want to know why we’re home early. I’ll tell him I felt sick.’
‘Are you proposing you lie? Thou? What kind of dastardly –’
‘Did you steal her Valium?’ asked Natalia.
Milla held up a vial. ‘You perhaps refer to this? Did thou not witnesseth that they give her the shakes? Call it an act of grace.’
‘What do they do to you?’ Natalia tried to grab it.
‘Fuck off.’ Milla sat on the vial. ‘They make my scalp hot. Occasionally. If Mom does any more she’s gonna be in eternal pause.’
‘Gimme your hands. You’re bleeding. Milla, fine, I’m not going to take it.’
Milla held out her hands and Natalia wiped them off with the underside of her T-shirt.
‘Maybe you’ll save some hot refugee’s soul.’
Natalia showed the passing train conductor their tickets. ‘They’re already Christian,’ she said.
‘But are they Holy Redeemers, we ask ourselves? Propaganda time, baby.’
‘You can ask the pastor,’ said Natalia.
‘I don’t talk to that wolf in sheep’s clothing, that charlatan –’
‘I hope you know,’ said Milla, ‘That I’m not going to Mom’s without you. She’ll have to wait till you come back.’
‘It’s only for a year. Maybe she’ll be sober when I get back.’ Natalia leaned back against the hum of her seat, watching a tattoo of waves rippling around the bicep of a man in a bleached tank top weaving down the aisle, steadying himself on the headrests.
‘I’ve never told you don’t go, did I? Nope, because I would never do that. You sure you don’t want these?’ asked Milla, whipping the pearls in Natalia’s face.
‘If you don’t want them I’m going to go between the train cars and throw them out. Because I don’t want them. Unless you want them?’
‘Do you want them?’
‘Get out of my face.’ Natalia snatched the pearls from Milla.
‘See, you wanted them.’
Present Day, Washington D.C.
In the black-and-white picture, Daddy is squatting in the grass at the bottom of a green hill that photographed grey. His left arm is reaching to pet a monstrous cat. It is an unwanted advance. The sun has whited out his left side. Wite-Out, as in the corrective product, the pungent neon-white paste that obscures but does not hide a mistake, and white out, the meteorological phenomenon where due to snow or sand the horizon is erased, no shadows are cast and one is blinded by white. Both of these are in effect.
In the future, depending on what artifacts remain, people might suppose him a saint, blessing the cat, absolving it of its sins in contrast to the grubby schoolgirl on his right, whose hand, also outstretched, is about to yank the cat’s head.
In this picture, Milla is little again. Her smile has more than a couple of gaps. She has a boy’s haircut: heavy bangs and shaved at the neck. The right side of her face, the side farthest away from Daddy, is in shadow.
I’m not in it. But somehow I’m there. You just can’t see me.
Natalia was nothing but a faceless body of about medium height staggering towards the agents through the ruins of drooping concrete. A bad fit in a men’s grey oversized sweatshirt. Blood browning where there might have been a nose.
When the hood was removed and the hair from her eyes and the gag from her mouth, she produced a smile irregular and undespairing, which revealed that either in the explosion, or perhaps during the beatings, she had lost more than one tooth.
‘Natalia Edwards?’ asked the suit guiding her into the back seat. ‘I’m Agent Kelly.’
She nodded, her eyes watering. It had been so long since she’d heard an American accent; it sounded like a banjo. The driver was older, anonymous, monitoring both her and the road. Agent Kelly was young and sandy-haired, his scalp showing pink through his assured parting.
Agent Kelly handed her a bottle of water and the van began to move away from Beirut, perhaps towards Tripoli. She closed her eyes, feeling his on her. She felt no real interest in the agent, even though he was saving her from the blandly unbearable pain of the police. Dreamless in her cell, she had paid herself only periodic visits.
‘Does my family know I’m alive?’ she asked.
‘The Department contacted your father. Are you cold? We’ve got blankets in the back.’
She drank more of the water, swishing it around, tasting the dank iron of old blood, trying to quiet the yearning in her throat. ‘Is he coming to get me?’
‘Well, that’s a little complicated, isn’t it?’
She turned back to the window, seeing what the sun had bleached.
‘Because of course,’ the agent hurried on, ‘we have a few questions, before you see him, before we can let you back in the States, before –’
‘– Before I get medical attention,’ Natalia finished without turning.
She dropped the emptied water bottle. It rolled into the tip of the agent’s loafer. He gave a waspish, mechanical smile like an actor in a bad play.
Mexico City, 2005
In a night of steam, Natalia walked into the grim cantina and bought a Coke. Outside, dust swept over the road and the people were slick with heat. Her tank top, already sticking to her back, sagged under the haze of the cantina’s red and teal Christmas lights. She counted five men inside. They wore a careless menace.
Erik was sitting at a sodden bar wide enough for three. In Copenhagen, he’d been in a tux, but here he was dressed in a T-shirt and khaki shorts stained above the knees. His blond hair was long and he’d grown a thick beard. He had come as Christien.
She walked by him, choosing one of the plastic tables facing the entrance and smoothing down her short hair. Immediately, he swaggered over with two tequilas.
‘May I join you?’ His blue eyes had gone small in the lean red bloat of his face.
‘Of course, yes,’ she said in Spanish.
‘What is your name?’
‘Anastasia, but everybody calls me Ana.’
They drank – the smell of meat frying on their skin – until the cantina emptied to the bartender and waitress. Uneasy, she had been careful to pour most of the tequilas under the table and into the dark.
‘Why don’t you come here.’ He patted his lap.
She sat on him and he tipped her chin, looking into her eyes. ‘You must remain Ana.’
It was her first assignment alone. She had been living in a seedy hotel for days, constipated and unable to eat. Mosquitoes preyed on her, waking her every hour because she slept with the light on.
‘I will.’ From over his shoulder, she saw the bartender looking at her, a different bartender, she thought, than the one before.
‘Cut contact with Arturo.’
She liked Arturo. ‘OK.’
‘Ana is not Natalia. Two blocks west is your new hotel. Room 11. There is a key in your pocket. A nine millimetre under the mattress. Do not leave that room until you hear from Victor.’
‘Who’s Victor? It’s raining.’
‘Your new source. Arturo is dead. You will have to run or get soaked.’
The death was as distant to her as if it had been committed centuries ago.
He made an impatient sound. ‘He was beheaded. You see why I tell you that now you must be careful to remain Ana?’
Arturo had said he had a girlfriend who was pregnant. ‘Was it the cartel?’ Now the baby had no father. ‘Who told them he was talking to us?’
‘We will deal with them afterwards. Give it no thought.’
She tried to remember Arturo’s girlfriend’s name. The waitress was watching her.
He tilted back in his chair and lit a cigarette. ‘It’s getting late. You had better go.’
But like a child from its mother, she didn’t want to be parted. ‘Why are you Christien?’ she whispered.
Erik’s laugh was coarse, amplified, detached.
‘Min hjärtan.’ Two fingers traced Natalia’s spine. ‘He’s the one who puts them on the rack.’
‘Any other names, aliases?’
(Katya Durmashkina. Anastasia Ray, Lynn Feldman, Suheir Ali.)
‘Do I need to repeat that?’
‘Lawyer.’ Natalia sat blindfolded and strapped to a chair.
‘I apologize but I don’t think there’s any in town. Why were you tailing the boy? Might as well speak freely. Your CEO, Erik Carlsson –’ she heard him flipping through a file ‘– alias Viggo Hjort, Nils Tjader, Lucas Westerberg, Christien Thomsen, died in the explosion. I’m afraid Risk Control International is done.’
‘There he is,’ Erik had said in her ear on the day of the bombing.
‘Are you sure?’ she had asked.
‘Of course,’ he had said. ‘Do it before he gets any closer to the building.’
Her neck ached as she had leaned forward through the blown out window. There was a place in her neck where she carried that night. A knot which sometimes slid to her shoulder. A hard, desert pain that would not be pushed out.
‘Now,’ her husband had said.
All she had to do was shoot the boy with a bomb strapped to his back, the boy in the suicide vest. But she had not expected him to be beautiful. To be seventeen with God on his lips.
She went backwards out of the room, down the stairs, through the front door until she was facing where the boy stood on the other side of the street. Through the traffic, he saw her, his eyes the colour of the sea.
After she saw him going for the detonator, the dust bit and bled her ears. The scorched graffiti of the pocked buildings was eaten invisible. She’d crawled over a child’s bike and into a red arc of blood. The arm chewed off by the blast was not the boy’s, and, she checked, not hers. She tried to radio Erik. Shouting his every name, and since no one could hear, the names of the sister and father she had once had.
The heavy steel door opened and a soldier stepped into the interrogation room. ‘Sir? We have a situation.’
Agent Kelly stood, scraping his chair back.
The door closed. She dropped her forehead to the table. Erik could not be dead.
The door opened. She sat up. Katya’s hands folded in Ana’s lap. Suheir crying under her blindfold. Lynn’s burns starting to itch. She heard arguing.
‘Daddy,’ she said.
Image by Owl Dreams