by Whitney Judd
“Damn you, Erosa, for ever coming into my life!”
“Shii, poor little boy.” It was a crawling sneer and spoken slowly, and it ate up everything. “Pobrecito garcon, you be back. Always you be back.”
“That’s not French. You can’t speak it, not French, not you.” He turned back from the door, turned his head towards her and wanted to shout those words. They came out weary.
He pushed through the door, walked with his head hung, “Damn, damn, damn.”
The steps in the path were white stone. There were brown weeds in the garden and thistles. The light of mid-morning was clear and in it the smooth skin of his face wrinkled around his eyes. The door was open, left that way, and he could hear the echo of her standing in it, knowing she smiled.
“Avi,” Drawn out, high at first then low, almost to a whisper, rich and hot, of dancers held close.
Passed through the gate out into the dust of the street, he still muttered, “Fuck, Erosa, fuck, fuck,” and it trailed off.
The muscles in his arms and legs strong and lithe but they were now too worn. They pulled back at him, and he was hungry almost as a sickness that kept growing. And he couldn’t look.
Erosa stood and watched and smiled. The olive cast of her skin was pale beneath. Her eyes were brown and bright. She touched the corner of an eye and went back into the rooms. In the rooms they were shadowed and brown, deeper for the light outside. The thick walls made the rooms cooler. She was a bit taller than he, and when she bent a leg and pushed a hip that much shorter. And that pleased her, the bending and the pushing, not that so much but what it did. Supple and she moved easily, move well among all the people of the town, among those who were ragged and with those whose clothes were silk on their skins, those that came off, always with those eyes and that smile. Perspiration had began under her clothes and arms, and as she move in those rooms the small swing of the arms beneath the gown was more fluid. She liked the smell of sweat; he, too. The gown was finely woven and white and when the breezes came they blew through it.
His shirt and pants were white and rough cut, with stains at the arms pits, around the waist and at the knees. The chord which held his pants up, and the shirt loose, was knotted and frayed. They smelled like her.
In that brown light in the room she sat at the wooden table they had sat at, pushed a glass of wine away, licked her lips and laughed deep from her chest. It made the air flutter and her ripple.
“You be back like always, Nina.”
When Avi worked he worked at anything, hauling in nets from the sea and mending them; in the fields cutting grain, leading the plow horse and kicking stones away. He painted some, drank wine at the Taverns with friends, but not so much lately. Now he worked as an apprentice to a stone mason. He lifted stones, cut them from larger blocks. Now his friends were Erosa only. He hadn’t gone to the taverns to drink in months, and his hands had become hard and rough. There had been other girls, his age or nearly, but now there was Erosa. And he shivered, sitting at a table in front of the tavern, looking up through the light and the street to Erosa. He sat alone, no one else, now, was there, and the door always opened to the inside, opened black. No music played; no other clothes he had. He sang with no one here, anymore.
“Damn, damn, damn, fuck, Erosa.”
The streets were empty. The doors from Mass hadn’t opened; not even the widows dressed in black walked. The streets wound narrowly among the buildings, except up the hill where they were wide and where Erosa was. His hand thumped on the table. His nails were ragged. The other hand he held clenched in his lap.
He sweated a bit under his arms, at his waist, and it was worse, feeling of it, how skin slides when it is moist, and the musk. His hand stuttered. He swore and got up.
“I’ll work tomorrow. I won’t do this …. not this, damn.”
The rest of the day, slowly and awkwardly, he walked through the streets, along the shore line and over the hill to the quarry, staring down or before him. At night he lay on his bed. Nothing moved in him but a shallow breathing which he’d stop and hold. The mattress was stuffed with rags and grass, with anything that was soft, and held up on a wooden frame by leather straps. He lay clothed with his eyes opened. The breeze from the ocean came through the door, and he lay in it all night with his eyes wide, and it began to smell like Erosa. He twisted on the bed, and his clothes tied around like arms and legs holding him.
Once he got up, wandered in the breeze and outside and stared into the black ocean and came back into the one room and stared into the mirror hung on the wall; held his head in his palms, “Damn me, damn me.” Only in the pale light from the stars and ocean could he see. Sleep was, after, no rest.
In the morning he got up. His face was lined and he was wrinkled. He was dirty and he hurt. The smell of Erosa was on him still, and he was hungry. He ate the bread and meat and drank and left, and the hunger was still there. The scrub of the bushes on the path to the quarry dragged at his pants. The sky was hot and white. The ocean faded and dust kicked up easily.
“Today, you come.”
“I work today.”
“You look like shit. Everyone knows. Go to work.”
Before noon he had piled the stones he carried in the mason’s shack. He cut bigger ones to smaller ones, beating them with an iron hammer and chisels. He lifted and stone dust covered his clothes and clung to the scruff of his face. He was hot and loose and sweated.
“Erosa,” something like a whisper in him.
“You, what’s wrong?”
“Ah, there is nothing.”
“Her. Why? You have nothing now. Before . . .. You’re a fool. Go back, get some better stones. These break.”
Like a whisper in him, like a cascade, and from among the rocks in the quarry he looked up into the sun. On the ledge above him Erosa stood. The breeze came in from the ocean and he began to cool. Her hair rose up from her shoulders. Cheek bones cast shadow and caught the light, and the red dress blew loose.
“Fuck.” It fell out mumbled. He could see her smile above him; see, as if they were close, her lips move.
And he watched the slow turn back, the glance back waiting, then the roll of her hips away, and the wind blew. He stood and watched with his palms over his ears; sting from the sweat in his eyes.
“Damn.” He hung there amid the cut rocks, his hands moving like the rhythm at the tavern. “Damn.” The stones he brought back he’d picked for the cracks in them.
“Put them there. Go get something. Go eat. You’re too slow, walk like the dying.”
It was the rolling away of her that made him hungry, again. And he cursed himself. He sat in the quarry with his back to the sun and ate, and stared before him to the sea. It looked dry, and his last bite stuck in his throat and he spat, stood up and his shoulders sagged. He took off his shirt to rinse clean. It was the burn of his skin in the heat, it held like hands, and the water stung. What had stayed and sloshed in his mouth he spat out. But there was still the roll of Erosa beneath; that drink of cool air in those walls.
The old man craved into the stone. “You know how many people die, widow’s son?”
“Every week two, three maybe. I cut these stones for their graves. I never hunger. And you, always.” He worked the stone as if it were nothing else. To Avi he looked like that sea, flat and barely moving. And there was the wind blowing eddies around his feet. He picked up the hammer and began to cut another.
“Always, boy, you hunger. She eats you, no other way. You go when she wants. She eats you, boy.”
Avi stood up form the stone he cut, blankness like the gray flatness of sea on his face and the eyes, that realization, not from the sea or night, but looking at the stone cutter. “Wha …”
“You know. You go from jobs, this to that; work here for me when she’s done. Every body knows. Nothing, you have nothing, boy. A home, a home anymore, what was your mother’s? No family, never. No, what you do, now. No friends, not a thing you have. Every week two, three people die. You die, what happens? You bury yourself.”
Stone carver look at him. He hung in that air like the chisels and hammer from his hands.
“Go get more. You’ll break these.”
All afternoon he carried rocks. For every one broken he was sent for two, till his sight was black, and their weight stopped him, and the sun burned through his throat. All afternoon like the sun behind me, all blackening as that night sea and his hands over his face. Between each load he’d hesitant, look back to the ridge where Erosa had walked from. There, where he was, where the stone carver worked, among the fallen, broken and upright stones it was like looking up out of the earth. A ground hot and filling his breath. Everyday he would do this, here and sleep at night somewhere, soon in a place black and opened; wander with those ragged men only the widows gave food to. He looked up and it was looking out of a grave.
“No more, no more, no more, no more.”
After those hesitations, when his sight was back, he bent hard over the stones and lifted them. The wind pushed him, and the flat sea.
“Will you pay me more?”
The hands of the carver, as veined and heavy as they were, lifted up lightly from the head stone.
“You work everyday, you make money.”
Avi nodded and walked back for more stones. Every time he bent and lifted there was strain through his back, over his shoulders. Who buries you. Every time the stone carver’s face and the white dust over his hands, and the widows hunched and walking. Who buries you. He bent and lifted more, intent and only seeing the grains in the stones, and the cracks. Night, every time, and the twisting of his clothes about him. It was all he saw, even with his eyes opened.
“Go home, there is enough here. Go on. Go home. Go sleep. You work tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow, I’ll work, and after that. I’ll work.”
He dragged his water skin over his shoulder. Beneath it was the only place cool. The slope up from the quarry was dustier and into the face of the sun. He stopped there, on it, closed his eyes and brought the water to his lips, breathed for the first time. Who does? He held his eyes closed. And there was that strain.
Erosa was at the crest, and the water ran down his chin.
“Pobrecito, you come to me.”
She waited at the top of the hill, pushed her hip, smiled and shifted and turned so the wind blew hair across her mouth. He, stuck on the slope up.
“You come to me, Pobrecito.”
He was left standing at the top of the hill, where she had been, above the sea, staring, weak and drooped, “I can’t.”
Behind him the quarry, its dust and that black heat. “Who buries me? Who buries me . . ..”
In the evening he walked into the ocean, naked, sunk into it and let it wash him, and he lay in the waves on the shore. It was rough as his hands. The sun reddened the sea, let it reach out to purple on the sand. He got up and dressed and walked up the hill.
“Pauvre, garcon, mi amour.”
The shadows in the open robe, the sheen like oil on the skin in the fall of light: “Like always, bebe. Avi.”