CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
A Hill in Spain
—From “A Hill,” by Anthony Hecht
On our honeymoon, I caught a stomach bug in Spain and, for the long day leading up to Easter, for Easter itself, and for the day after it, I spent most of my time in the hotel bathroom, my wife wandering the streets of Granada and visiting the Alhambra, bringing me back her impressions and talking to me while I leaned against the porcelain tub in the bathroom or while I was wrapped around myself on the bed. The hotel had been decorated with lilies for Easter. There was a large bouquet in the foyer, and another, smaller one in a vase on our bedside table, which pleased my wife. The bathroom of our room—a good-sized room with a large balcony overlooking a popular public square—was painted blue, not exactly like any pond or ocean I had seen, more the color of a swimming pool tiled with bright, false colors which, in the sunlight, magnified and amplified the water extremely. I did not like that bathroom, and I did not like the lilies. The smell was cloying, like the color of the bathroom. At night, and in the dusk, and into the dawn, the square filled with people and music and musicians, and I could hear them, even deep inside the blue bathroom with the door shut I could hear the rise and fall of their many voices anticipating and then celebrating Easter day. At my worst in the sickness, I even thought the ground might be moving with the force of their feet, as if the cobblestones had turned to water and the crowd—what a perpetual crowd—was waves and eddies, or boats and ships, a small navy of Spaniards, foreigners, strangers in the square.
My wife, twelve years my junior, had a different impression. She got herself lost in the Moorish streets, and wandered in the deep alleyways, searching out small stores that sold earrings, necklaces, and bracelets, all of them in the shape of pomegranates, which, I had learned from the tour books, were the fruit of Granada. My wife loved it when I recited to her what I had learned from the tour books. She had bought a pair of earrings—two pairs, in fact—as a present for her sister, and she showed them to me, sliding them out of a white paper bag and into her palm. I couldn’t see that they actually looked like pomegranates, more like globs of metal with the suggestion of red at the center. I did not like them then and I don’t like them now. I find them difficult to look at. One of the pairs was more expensive than the other, but I didn’t tell her she should take them back. She was delighted with her find. I asked if she had seen any actual pomegranate trees on the streets, and she said she hadn’t, but then she admitted—if I’m remembering this correctly, which I believe I am—that she wouldn’t know one if it walked across the street and hit her. She tried to laugh and to get me to laugh, but I was feeling too ill, and the bed shook when she laughed, and I had to get up suddenly for the bathroom. When I returned, she appeared to be peacefully asleep.
The earrings, as I’ve said, were to be a present for her sister, a woman closer to my age who, during our dance at the wedding, held onto my shoulder, pulled the shoulder pads of my suit to the side, and started to cry. I knew she was crying because she wanted me to know she was crying. She could have easily hidden it, she was not shaking or sobbing, but the tears were in her eyes anyway—they, her eyes, look much like my wife’s eyes, disconcertingly so—and one or two tears slid down her cheeks, not affecting her makeup. My wife, at the time, was dancing in a circle of friends on the other side of the floor, and would have been no help. "What is it?" I had asked, but the sister shook her head, and I realized that she wanted me to ask again. “What is it?” I asked again. But she, again, shook her head, and the song ended, and she separated her hand from my suit, and I was relieved not to know whatever it was that caused her to cry. I probably could have guessed. I had felt it before, too, the willfulness of loving somebody, anybody, the futility—made more stark by the nuptials and solemn vows—of marriage, which is only, I know now, an act of faith, one that might in fact deliver on its promise of happiness, or at least an end to loneliness, but will probably instead end with pain. This loneliness, this futility, was my predominant feeling in the year before I married my wife, and again for the last five months and twenty-nine days, although for seven years in between it lifted. Never, either then or now, did it make me frenzied or un-calm, and it only rarely made me cry. She, my wife’s sister, cried, and the song ended, and I did not think of that moment for many years. Just today I remembered, and I remembered the vision I had in Spain, at the Alhambra, although it too I haven’t thought about in years. I am not a crier by nature, and when I do cry I shake and twitch and I envy the people who can actually summon up tears. In me, it feels like the emotion is pushing up from somewhere below, and it is pushing on a surface that will not break, my skin, the outer bounds of me bows but does not break, however much I twitch and shake and wrack my shoulders and lean my head down between my knees. I used to do it more than I do now. When I was a boy, I used to do it more.
It is, I imagine, a feeling similar to sex, or what sex could be, or how it is sometimes described by people with either more practice or with a greater capacity for becoming lost. I don’t know—I have never been able to figure out—what this capacity is, either a willingness to lose oneself, or perhaps a lack of fear, or maybe something as simple as the compulsion caused by what is happening in the body, the swelling and moving and wetting that is the animal side of the act. I do not find it distasteful, and when I’ve been lucky enough to watch a woman—there have been very few who demanded watching—lose herself, with her chin tilted back or else tensed against her neck, her fingers gradually tightening on the pillow or the side of the bed or the corner of the blanket, or flat against the wall, I see the muscle along the underside of her arm defined against the small bones and then disappearing into the curve of a breast, or the subtle, white, soft skin of the armpit, the skin that never gets any sun, regardless of habit or location, and which is, I believe, as intimate as any other part of a woman’s body. I am alone in this appreciation of the skin underneath the arm, I believe. When I, as a young man, tried describing the feeling I had when running a finger along this skin to my friends—I could not ask my father, who never made an opening for conversations like this, and I could not ask my mother, who had died years before—I was given either a blank stare or else a laugh. “Her armpit?” my friends asked. It is not a sexual response to that skin, however, but more of an appreciation for it. It is softer than any other skin, and usually whiter. It is as soft as anything I can bring to mind—petals, a horse’s muzzle, rabbit’s ears (sentimental images, I know)—and my appreciation of it is the same as if I were looking at the velvet-like skin of a Venus in a painting which, hung behind lights in a museum, is forever at a distance from me, even perhaps created by me in my mind, not real at all. If I touched it, it would feel like oil on canvas. It would be a disappointment, to touch Venus. What we want is so often not what we get in the end, and what we have we can usually not keep. My wife has—or, rather, she had—beautiful arms, lovely, thin, glowing in soft light, but they are not strong and they do not tense during sex, they never reached back to push against the wall, and so the muscle is never defined against the bone, and the transition from the hard ridged muscle to the soft breast is never as distinct in her as it has been with some others. Not all others, but some others, only the women who could lose themselves in the act. I don’t know how they were able to lose themselves, or why my wife couldn’t or wouldn’t with me, except that, on the fourth day in Granada, the first day I felt well enough to go out, we made love in the hotel bed after touring the Alhambra—me at the palace for the first time, where I had my vision—and I saw, watching her, that she was not lost and that perhaps she never would be. Our skin felt more like a barrier than it normally does, and we ended it—both of us, I think—feeling more separate than when we began. She closed her eyes for most of it, and when she opened them, turning her head toward me on the pillow after I moved aside, I saw that her pupils were hard and small in her lovely, hazel eyes—sometimes exactly the color of a walnut, her eyes—and that she was looking at me as if I were a stranger. "Hello," I said, trying to make my voice soft, trying to coax the distance between us into shrinking.
“I love you,” she said. “I love you so much.”
The Alhambra, like the rest of Granada, was covered with the representations of pomegranates, and we looked for them in the motifs and in the statuary, finding and losing them again. As my wife said, “You don’t get these kinds of places in Chicago,” and, though it was her second time to the palace, she seemed entertained enough. It was lovely light that day, orange and brown in the morning, turning yellow then white by noon. The word “Alhambra” means, literally, red—another fact from the guidebook—and was either named for the color of the sun-dried brick or, in a more imaginative version of the story, for the glow from the torches of the workers who built the palace for the Moorish kings. Most of the rooms in the palace were built around a central plaza and, as the kings needed more space—hard to imagine, them needing yet more—they added on plazas and rooms, and more plazas and rooms, as their wants dictated. The palace had been nearly destroyed many times, despite the promise of its brick. The construction gave the grounds a winding, tightly coiled feeling, and though it was possible to stand under the pillars, tilting the head to the intricate ceilings, or else look through the pillars toward the gardens with the sound of the fountains gurgling and splashing perpetually in their basins in perfect, ideal, silence, it was also possible—even likely—that at any moment a family, or a group of tourists, or one lone traveler—their olive-colored backpacks slung low over their shoulders, riding like ballast on their hips—would pass through the room, disrupting the moment of silence with ohhs and ahhs of pleasure, or else casual conversation, or else, as happened just once, an appreciative, openly sexual glance at my wife. We both noticed it, but both let it pass unmentioned. My wife blushed in response. The man, the boy, to whom the glance belonged—a lone traveler—walked politely from the room. The light came in waves, and I had to sit down. “When’s the train?” I heard, in English, from an obviously overheated woman, followed by her husband’s annoyed response, “We’ve got time.” “Sweetheart,” said my wife, and kissed me on the forehead.
She pulled an orange from her bag—wonderful woman, she had thought ahead—and peeled it for us, then, playfully, fed me slices one by one. I remember the bite of that orange distinctly, and the low wall on which we ate it, and the drips of its juice on the red brick, and my wife’s fingers that turned white from the sugar of the fruit and were stained yellow by the oil on the rind and, later that afternoon, still smelled of citrus. Below us, we could just see the central, large square of the many squares in the brick palace, decorated with carts and umbrellas and the moving forms of our fellow tourists. After we finished the orange (unable to find a trashcan, she put the peels inside her bag) we walked down to the square to look through the jewelry, maps, coins, cheap landscapes, and ugly religious paintings on sale, searching for another perfect pair of earrings for her sister.
She picked her way among the carts away from me. A clear fretwork of shadows from the huge umbrellas littered the pavement. A smell of dust and juniper rose from the gardens below. The bricks shone red under the sun, and many voices rose at once, bouncing off the brick. The hands and voices of merchants and tourists rose in what sounded like exaltation.
And then—when it happened, my vision—the noises suddenly stopped and it got darker. The pushcarts and people dissolved, and the palace itself and the gardens.
In its place was a hill, mole-colored and bare. It was very cold, near freezing, with the promise of snow. The trees were like old ironwork gathered for scrap. There was no wind, and the only sound for a little while was the click of ice as it broke in the mud under my feet. I saw something, a piece of fabric, snagged on a hedge, but no other sign of life. And then I heard what seemed the crack of a rifle. A hunter, I guessed. At least I was not alone. But just after that came the soft and papery crash of a great branch somewhere unseen falling to earth. And that was all, except for the cold silence that promised to last forever, like the hill.
Perhaps it wasn’t a vision at all. The voices came through, and the shadows, and I was restored to the light and to the scene. My wife was standing at some distance, not aware of me, leaning over a table that was full of something I could not see. I breathed, and the smell of dust and juniper and heated brick came in, and I did not feel dizzy, and I did not feel sick. My wife turned, and smiled, and held up something in the air. Earrings, I guessed, for her sister.
She wore the earrings that afternoon, and at dinner, and did not take them off before we got into bed and made love, the smell of citrus still on her fingers. All through dinner, I was troubled by what I had seen, the plain bitterness of that mole-colored hill, although I did not mention it to her. I did not know how, but I wished that I had, or had at least tried. Then, in bed, after she had turned to me with her walnut-colored eyes and told me that she loved me so much, I remembered where I knew that hill, and when. It was just in front of the house on the road to Poughkeepsie. I remembered that house—my house. It was behind me if I stood beneath the hill. I remembered my mother framed in the window of that house, and then I remember the house itself, quiet and white, with just my father somewhere inside, when I was a boy. I stood before that hill for hours one wintertime, the cold everywhere on my skin, when I was a boy.
I have seen those earrings at various times on my wife’s sister’s ears, and every time I see them I remember the Alhambra, and my sickness, my wife’s pleasure at the lilies in the lobby and in the vase by the bed, and that I had seen the hill. The vision itself faded until I only remembered that I had remembered. I did not like the earrings then, and I do not like them now. They are inartistic and crude, metal surrounding a cheap stone that had been made overly red in some workshop in Spain. Years ago now, too long. Overblown. A disappointment. I remembered the look that that lone traveler gave to my wife as we toured the palace, and how she blushed, and how she never blushed for me. I wonder if this is a failure in me, in my love. I wonder what would have happened differently if I could have loved her more. I don’t think I could have loved her, or anybody, more.
Just today I saw the earrings again, when my wife’s sister came by to check up on me. I heard her car, followed by the doorbell and then a knock, and I assumed that she would eventually go away. But she didn’t. She found me outside in the garden, which is now brown and made white by snow.
“Come inside, John,” she said, gently. “It’s cold.”
I offered to make her some tea.
“I’ll make it,” she said. “You just sit.”
I watched her, and I saw her pull her hair back from her ears.
The tea smelled of oranges, and I held the cup below my nose.
“Six months ago today, John,” her sister said, incorrectly, standing by the stove.
I didn’t correct her. I envied her as she started to cry. She looked like my wife, but she was not my wife. I felt my skin wrapped all the way around me. My wife died five months and twenty-nine days ago, and I will remember it tomorrow, as I remembered it yesterday, as I remembered it today.