The speech in Katja’s mind runs something like this: “Don’t be ridiculous! She’ll be nothing! Erased! Cold meat!” But when Katja opens her mouth, it is only to take another sip of coffee. She and Holly are having breakfast at the plank table in the kitchen. Flames flutter over heaped logs in a fireplace big enough to hold a cauldron. Holly is Katja's oldest friend. Two hundred years ago this house was a tavern, where travelers and farmers got drunk, and sometimes transacted disreputable business in the upstairs bedrooms. When Katja said she was moving into her mother’s house upstate, Holly volunteered to come along. “You can’t do that on your own,” she said. “Besides, it’s winter break. I’m free till February.” The door from the kitchen to the living room is closed. Behind it, Katja’s mother lies in a hospital bed, looking out the window at a garden buried in snow. She has emphysema and must wear a clear plastic oxygen mask twenty-four/seven. For a while the hospice aides raised the oxygen dosage every other day, but now it is as high as it can go. All that Holly said was, “Well at least she’ll find relief.” Was that really so terrible? But remembering these words, Katja becomes angry all over again. A new speech forms inside her head: “How can you believe so much crap? God loves us! There’s a reason for everything! The afterlife! Can’t you see that’s all too good to be true?” The fact that Holly is a believer and Katja isn’t has been deemed irrelevant to their friendship since they occupied neighboring desks in Mrs. Graham’s first grade. Katja doesn’t know why she is so angry. She worries she is cracking up.
The hospice aides come for three hours every other day, to bathe Katja’s mother, check her blood levels and medications, replace her oxygen tanks, and make sure she isn’t getting bedsores. Katja and Holly are taking advantage of that time to snowshoe in a wildlife management area. They are both lean, fit and fifty-three. The cold air feels therapeutically clean in their lungs. The powdery snow makes whispery noises as their snowshoes sink into it and lift out. Holly is talking about her husband, Hugo, who took a three-day business trip with his thirty-one-year-old assistant, Nadine: “I woke up with a migraine, so I cancelled my office hours and stayed home. Hugo got back around one and I was still in bed. I heard his laugh and his key in the lock. Just as I stepped into the hall, the door opened and Nadine walked in.”
“Whoa!” says Katja.
Holly stops talking and gives Katja a look. “What?” she says.
“That’s so strange. Why was she there?”
“She had to use the bathroom. She lives around the corner, so she and Hugo took the same cab from the airport. But she was so desperate when they stopped at our building that she couldn’t wait.”
“So anyway, she disappears into the bathroom and Hugo asks me why I’m home. When I tell him, he gets this sad face. Then he says shouldn’t I be lying down. ‘I’m fine,’ I say. When Nadine comes out she’s all cheery, so happy to see me, but she’s got to get home. To Mark. Her boyfriend. Then she gets all confused about which way to turn the top and bottom locks, so Hugo has to help her. And, I don’t know... They were just, sort of, paying too much attention to each other. And they were...well, too happy maybe.”
“Do you think...?”
“I don’t know. But I did wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t been there.”
“How have things been since then?”
“Fine, I guess. I don’t know. What do you think?”
“Has he been affectionate?”
“Have you been making love?”
“How’s that been?”
“Oh, you know: normal.”
“He’s not doing anything different?”
“No. Not, really.”
Katja is sure Hugo is having an affair. He’s one of those men who always gives you glances that last a half-second too long. She has never truly liked him, though one summer years ago, when she and Paul shared a house in Vermont with Holly and Hugo, she spent more than one dinner wondering if they might all get drunk enough for the conversation to take an unexpected turn, one that might end with her in bed with Hugo. But nothing like that ever happened.
“Well,” she says, “if everything seems okay, maybe there’s nothing... you know.”
“I’m probably just being paranoid.”
Holly gives Katja another look, but doesn’t say anything. They are walking beside a long snow-covered lake. High overhead, a red-tail hawk makes its frayed, lonesome kreee. At the end of the lake, they turn and tramp atop their own tracks, hurrying to make it home before the hospice aides leave. A gun shot loud enough to thump their chests sounds in the woods straight ahead. Then another. And another. The shots continue at varying intervals, growing ever louder. Eventually, Katja and Holly come to a clearing where a young man stands just behind a young woman, his arms reaching around her so that his left hand supports hers beneath the rifle stock, and his right hand envelops hers on the trigger. The man and woman are motionless. His shoulders tremble. A gunshot echoes off of hundreds of trees. A piece of paper snaps off a target pinned to a tree and flutters to the ground.
“Hello!” calls Katja.
The man and woman turn around, both smiling. She holds the rifle diagonally across her belly, the muzzle dipped toward the ground. The gun looks as if it weighs as much as she does.
Holly has imposters syndrome. She is an adjunct professor of Business Analytics, a field she can never truly keep up with because it’s so boring. She dreams of becoming a jazz singer, but she is practical. Every morning she sits at the foot of Katja’s mother’s bed, squinting unhappily at her computer, trying to figure out if her applications of Algorithm A to Data Set B yields a description of human behavior credible enough to amount to real money. Katja’s mother sleeps and sleeps. Sometimes her eyes crack open and she makes a quiet sigh. Or a weary smile. Or she looks as if she has no idea who this unhappy woman with the computer might be. Now it is night. Holly is asleep upstairs and Katja is sitting in a wing-backed easy chair just beside her mother’s bed. Breathing is harder during the night and so is sleep, so Katja keeps her mother company. She also keeps the television on. Jimmy Fallon is holding up a photo of copulating turtles, the male tilted up on the rear slope of the female’s shell, his beak open in what seems half senile leer, half nauseated wince. “Looks like there’s an interesting story behind this one,” Fallon says to the debonair young man in tight-fitting big game hunter khakis. (The photographer? Katja hasn’t been paying attention.) As the audience laughs, her mother’s hand strikes Katja’s shoulder. Twisting around, she sees her mother looking straight at her, eyes glinting in TV light. “You okay, Mom?”
Her mother speaks too softly to hear.
Katja pushes mute on the remote.
“I am afraid,” her mother says. “I am very afraid.”
Katja’s mother is French. She pronounces “afraid” like “a Fred,” but Katja doesn’t hear it that way. Her mother is eighty-six.
Katja clasps her mother’s hand in both of her own. “Of course, you are.” Her mother’s hand is cold. There is an IV sticking out of it. When Katja squeezes her mother’s hand, she feels no response. Her mother is so weak now, she can’t even brush her teeth.
“I’m sorry,” her mother says.
“No, no, Mom! Of course, you’re afraid. It’s completely natural.”
The TV light makes her mother’s face look like wadded bread dough. Her eyes are black hollows, in each of which hovers an identical shard of brilliant light. “Sometimes,” she says, “I am so tired that I think... maybe... I am... ready.”
Katja squeezes her mother’s hand, but cannot speak.
“Other times—" Now it is her mother who cannot speak. Her eyes are wide with anguished bewilderment, much like on the night Katja confessed she and Paul were getting a divorce.
“I know, Mom. I know.” Katja squeezes her mother’s hand hard, maybe harder than she should.
“It is stupid.”
“No, it isn’t,” says Katja.
“It is stupid to worry about things you cannot change. That is a waste of life.”
Katja asked Holly if Hugo was behaving differently during sex because that was how she gave herself away. She had come to like something Anthony did to her, and when she asked Paul to do the same thing, he froze. Then he sat up. “Why did you say that?”
“You’ve always hated that.”
“Oh,” she said. She attempted a smile. “I just thought we could try something new.”
She drawled his name, as if he were being absurd.
“It’s Anthony, isn’t it?” he said.
Anthony consulted on real estate law at the firm where Paul was a partner and Katja still an associate. Paul had heard rumors.
Even as she uttered her incriminating suggestion, Katja had known she was making a mistake, but she hadn’t hesitated because what she really wanted was to make Paul feel she was more passionate than him. Then she admitted her infidelity for the same reason, and likewise asserted that she would never stop seeing Anthony. “I love him,” she told Paul. “I love him more than I ever loved you.” Katja was forty-seven at the time, on the verge of menopause, and passion loomed large in her imagination. She knew that refusing to give up her affair meant the end of her marriage and that she would never make partner at the firm. She thought of herself as a martyr to passion, a role she believed noble and beautiful. And anyway, Paul was a petty, vindictive and deeply repressed little man. She should never have married him.
She lived with Anthony in a rented apartment in Prospect Heights for four months. Then he went back to his wife and moved to Florida. Katja and Paul attempted to resuscitate their marriage, but that lasted barely a month. In the end, she was relieved to discover that she truly had fallen out of love with him. She had to leave the firm. There was no choice about that. But Paul was entirely reasonable about joint custody and child support. Colin and Amanda are in college now, and Katja is a partner at a family law firm in New Jersey. She has been seeing Leo, a paleontologist, for a year, but is not sure their relationship will survive her vigil at her mother’s bedside, especially as he spends half his time in Utah. Her relationship with Anthony really was the beginning of a radical transformation of her sex life, which briefly included a Danish woman she met at a party. But recently sex has begun to hurt her. The same thing has happened to Holly. They talk about it constantly—especially about whether it is safe to take hormones. Neither can decide.
Heavy rain washed away all of the snow, but now small flakes are making tiny clicks on the frozen grass in the Methodist church cemetery. Katja and Holly are standing in front of the grave of Ezra Keating, the man who built Katja’s mother’s house in 1790. His wife, Harriet, is buried on top of him. “She has no last name,” says Holly. “She’s only his wife!”
“Neither do their children.” There are two smaller gravestones on either side of Ezra and Harriet’s grave: Thomas died at nine, Constance at seven.
“But it’s different for children,” says Holly.
Holly steps from one grave to the other. “How awful to lose both your children in the same year.”
“Come here.” Katja walks to a solitary gravestone near the edge of the cemetery. She stops and points: “Look.” In cursive writing, much larger than the roman font of the Keating family’s graves, is a single word: Mercy. “No last name,” says Katja, “even though she’s buried alone.”
“Oh, my God!” says Holly. “Mercy! She’s real? Aunt Mercy? I thought Colin and Mandy made that up!”
“Aunt Mercy” was the family’s imaginary scatter-brained relative, who misplaced everything that could not be found, and who was sometimes blamed for inconvenient thunderstorms.
“Actually, my dad made her up.”
Holly’s smile is puckered and half-sad. “That sounds like him!”
“Read the inscription.”
Holly bends over. “Comfort of... to?...’” She glances at Katja. “What’s it say? I can’t make it out.”
“‘Consort of Ezra Keating, as discreet in death as she was in life.’”
“‘Discrete in death!’ About what? And what’s a ‘consort’?”
“She must have been his mistress. And look at her death date? She died when Harriet was eight years old and she and Ezra were thirty-one.”
“Oh, my God!” says Holly. “She’s the ghost!”
Holly laughs, wriggles her fingers on either side of her face and rushes at Katja, making the long goofy wail from when they played ghosts as children. “Your house is haunted! Don’t you know?”
Katja ducks and flails, laughing. “Get away!”
“Wooo-oooo-oooo!” Holly chases Katja all the way back to the Keatings’s graves.
Still flailing and laughing, Katja shouts, “You’re a total lunatic!”
It is two in the morning. Katja is slumped in the wing-backed chair beside her mother’s bed, reading a novel she found on a shelf in the downstairs bathroom. She looks up. Her mother is staring at her. “How you feeling, Mom?”
Her mother gives her fingers, lying on her belly, an impatient flick. “That is a question that no longer has any meaning.”
Katja laughs, because how else is she to respond to such a statement? “But you’re not feeling any worse?”
“Oh, I do not know. Maybe. Maybe not.” The head of Katja’s mother’s bed is elevated, which supposedly makes breathing easier. But her whole body is slumped, as if she has deflated. Her chin is invisible. Her cheeks rest on the flesh of her shoulders and chest. Even so, she is able to lift one eyebrow to indicate that what she has just said need not be taken seriously
Katja feels a sudden surge of love for her mother. “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
“Not at all. But maybe I will not answer it.” Again, the raised eyebrow.
“You know what they say about atheists in the foxhole. I’m just wondering. Now that you... you know... I’m just wondering if now—”
“You mean God and heaven? All that stuff? I don’t have time for all that.”
Katja sighs heavily. This is exactly what she wanted to hear, but not, she now realizes, what she expected. Her mother’s eyes are closed. She looks dead, but her chest is still rising and falling. She drops off in an instant all the time now. Katja returns to her book. The room’s only illumination comes from the lamp just over her shoulder. Deep shadows loom behind the furniture. The open doors to the mudroom and the kitchen are wells of impenetrable blackness. Katja hears a noise. Or thinks she hears a noise. She listens intently, but can only detect the ringing in her ears. She thinks the noise came from the staircase, but she doesn’t look that way because she is afraid Mercy will be standing there, her dark eyes open wide, staring.
“Really,” Katja insists. “It would be crazy if you didn’t.”
“I feel like I’m abandoning you,” says Holly.
Katja flicks on the turn signal and stops at the intersection. “I never expected you to stay for Christmas. That would be ridiculous. You need to be with Deirdre. And Hugo.” Katja almost adds, “especially now,” but remains silent. She makes the turn. She is driving Holly to the train station.
Holly sighs. “Deirdre’s bringing home her new girlfriend.”
Katja glances at Holly. “That’s big. Meet the parents! It must be serious.”
“As serious as it can be at twenty-two.”
Silence. It snowed during the night, and the reddish-blond stalks of grass in the fields on either side of the road stick up through a layer of white powder. “Maybe when you come back we can go snowshoeing again,” says Katja.
“So?” says Katja. “Any more thoughts?”
“Agh! Not really. His phone was off again. But that could be completely innocent. Maybe the batteries ran out.”
“At lunch time?”
“What is it—like the third day in a row?”
Holly’s voice is determined and businesslike: “I can’t draw any conclusions until I have clear evidence. So far, all I’ve got is this weird feeling. But that could be—you know: just my own insecurity.”
“Yes,” says Katja. “That’s true... But... Well, yes.”
“You think so?”
“Sure. Yes. I don’t know.”
It is Christmas. Katja has only one present for her mother: a collection of cartoons about birds. Her mother loves birds, and cartoons are just about the only thing Katja can imagine giving her mother any pleasure. But the gift feels paltry. Last year she gave her mother a pair of tickets to La Rondine, at the Metropolitan Opera. Such a present would be cruel now—a reminder of the life her mother can never live again. Katja wakes early, turns on the coffee and plugs in the Christmas tree lights. Donning rubber boots, she fills the bird feeders in the garden. The snow is ankle deep. Not great for snowshoeing, but more is predicted. Barefoot now, she pours her first cup of coffee, then goes to sit by her mother. Katja knows from Holly that her mother sleeps all morning, but even so, she hopes. At ten o’clock her mother is still asleep. And eleven. And noon. Katja naps, then does email. She looks over and her mother is looking back, her plastic mask half-covering one eye. “Merry Christmas, Mom!” Katja straightens the mask.
“Christmas?” says her mother. “Is it Christmas already?”
“It sure is!” Katja points at the tree.
“Oh!” her mother says. “I must be getting old.” Her crumpled smile is wry. “I am forgetting Christmas!”
Katja wants to laugh at this attempt at wit, but she can’t quite manage it. She has just seen that the urine bag under the bed needs to be emptied. “How about some breakfast?”
“No thank you. I am not hungry.”
“You have to eat something.”
Her mother makes an unhappy face.
Katja goes to the kitchen and returns with half a cinnamon donut and a glass of water. Her mother insists she doesn’t want anything, but Katja gets her to swallow two small pieces of donut and half the glass of water. She leaves the room to empty the urine bag, then returns and reattaches it. “Merry Christmas!” she says holding up the book of bird cartoons. She has wrapped it in paper dotted with partridges and pear trees, and wonders if her mother will notice. Her mother seems surprised by the present. Katja puts it down on her mother’s belly, and her mother rests both hands on top of it. “It’s nothing special,” says Katja. When her mother makes no effort to unwrap it, Katja says, “Would you like me to open it for you?”
The question seems to disturb her mother. “That’s all right. I will take care of it later.” The book slides off her belly and gets stuck between the mattress and the aluminum guardrail. The phone rings. It is Colin and Mandy. They want to do FaceTime with Mummung, but Katja’s mother is asleep again. Colin and Mandy are at their father’s. They wish Katja merry Christmas several times. They talk about the presents they have gotten and given. She apologizes for not having bought their presents yet. They apologize for not have given her hers. During the conversation, Katja has the unsettling feeling that it is entirely false, that the whole ceremony of Christmas is a pointless charade. Colin has always been the more sensitive of her two children. In his low, manly voice, in which Katja still hears traces of his toddler voice, he asks, “You okay, Mom?”
She smiles grimly, shrugs. “Well, I’ve had merrier—” Her throat closes. Her eyes grow hot and blurry. Tears spill down her cheeks, which both children can see, since they are on FaceTime.
“Oh, Mom!” cries Mandy. “I wish we could be there with you!”
The sight of tears welling in her daughter’s eyes calls up Katja’s maternal instincts and frees her from grief. “I wish you could be too, lovey! Both of you! But that wouldn’t work, alas.” She glances at her mother, who is still asleep, then gives her children a straightforward rundown of her mother’s condition. She does not tell them Mummung might die at any minute, but should the children choose to, that is a conclusion they could reach. Paul takes the phone. He has begun shaving his head and has grown a gray-laced beard. He lives in Brooklyn now, and his new wife is an artist. She makes exquisite abstract paintings with spray guns and sanders on chunks of scrap metal. Paul tells Katja that he has run into their old friend, Cindy. She and Bill are still living in North Carolina, and have a grandchild. “I said I would say hi,” says Paul.
“Say hi to her from me if you see her again.”
“I will,” he promises, though his Christmas good cheer seems to have given way to disconcertion.
Katja says, “Thanks.” Unable to think of anything else to say, she hangs up.
It is sometime after one a.m. and Katja has nearly finished a bottle of wine by herself—a melodramatic gesture to which she feels entitled. It is Christmas, for fucksake! And she is alone. Abandoned. Leo hasn’t called. Or even texted. How much can one person be expected to stand? The house is dark, apart from the tiny lights on the tiny tree, which send a lacework of shadows across the wall. About halfway through the bottle, Katja came to the realization that her mother’s life was one long tragedy of dashed hope. Her father (Katja’s grandfather), an American businessman living in France, lost everything in the 1929 stock market crash, then died, leaving his family little more than their big house in a remote suburb of Paris. Her sister was able to go to acting school, and went on to have major roles in dozens of films, some of them American. Charlie Chaplain gave her a wooden pitchfork. Picasso drew a picture for her on a restaurant napkin. But Katja’s mother’s education ended in high school, when France was invaded. The family home was occupied by German soldiers who made Katja’s mother and her own mother live in the kitchen. One night, a German officer shot through the window, saying he would kill them both if they didn’t blow out their solitary candle. Katja’s mother saw the bodies of boys she had known at school driven through the village in a German truck, their heads bouncing on the metal flatbed. She saw an English paratrooper machine gunned as he descended into the field behind her house. She saw so much more. Ever since the war ended, she has had a recurring nightmare in which she is burying German soldiers in a pit at the center of the village. It is pouring rain. She is drenched and at the bottom of the pit with a shovel, dead Germans all around her. The villagers crowding the pit’s edges shout insults at her. She moved to New York in 1947, primarily to get away from her mother, whom she hated, and got a job as a receptionist for a veterinarian. She worked there for ten years. That is the only job she ever held. In 1958, the veterinarian’s first wife died and he married Katja’s mother, who was already pregnant. She was thirty-three; he was forty-nine. They moved to New Jersey for the sake of the fetus in her womb, and Katja’s mother became a fulltime housewife. She wanted a big family, but Katja was her only child. Even as a little girl Katja knew her mother was smarter than her father. He was honest and loving, but never understood the workings of his wife’s mind, nor did their New Jersey neighbors, nor the farmers populating the hills and valleys around the beautiful old house to which they moved when he retired. Katja’s mother was cripplingly shy. She had acquaintances, but no real friends. Katja’s father died in 1993, less than a decade after they moved to the country house. Her mother consoled herself in widowhood as she had all her life: with books and cigarettes. And now the cigarettes are about to kill her. Such are the thoughts that fuel Katja’s night of drinking. She empties the wine bottle, and follows it with shots of vodka. She is not sure how many, but she has to put her hands down on the steps to climb to her bedroom without falling. She wakes in the darkest moment of the night, still drunk, convinced Mercy is standing at the end of her bed. Mercy has the balloon head and black egg-shaped eyes of a cartoon ghost, and is about to touch Katja’s exposed big toe with a finger like an inflated condom. The notion of betraying her lifelong loyalty to fact, logic and science is profoundly humiliating, but the truth is that Katja will never get back to sleep unless she draws her foot back under the covers.
“Hi.” The voice is Holly’s. “Merry Christmas!” Holly says. “How you doing?” Katja rolls over and looks at the clock on the night table: 10:33. How could she have slept so late? When the explanation barges into her consciousness like a surly drunk, she bolts upright, her heart pounding with panic and shame.
“Okay,” she says. “But... uh... not okay really.” She flings off the covers and crosses the floor on clumsy, cracking feet. “I mean, you know.” She is desperate to pee, but first she had to make sure her mother is alright.
“You poor thing,” says Holly. “I’ve been worried about you.”
Katja clutches the banister as she descends the stairs, still not steady on her feet. She feels the aching urgency of urine gradually forcing its way into her urethra.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t call yesterday,” says Holly. “Things just got so busy.”
Once Katja’s waist is level with the ceiling of the first floor, she bends over and looks at her mother, who is sitting fully upright in bed, smiling. Katja holds up one finger to signal she will be a minute, and her mother holds up one finger as well.
“That’s okay,” Katja says, in something close to a gasp. And then, because she doesn’t want to talk, she says, “What’s up?” She sits down on the toilet off the mudroom just in time. Amid the hiss and the nearly erotic relief of venting her bladder, Katja takes in almost nothing Holly says, although she gathers that Christmas was splendid and Hugo’s gift phenomenal. Only once she has wiped herself is she really able to pay attention. “So how are things going with Hugo?”
“Good,” Holly says. “Wonderful!”
“Good.” Katja lowers the toilet lid and puts her hand on the flush lever. Partly with the idea of concealing the sound, she asks at the exact instant she flushes, “Did you ever find out what’s going on at lunchtime?”
“Oh, it’s great! Hugo is taking a meditation class at work, and they are all required to turn off their phones before entering the room.”
Katja has closed the toilet door and is standing in mudroom. “Oh. Wow.”
“He loves it. He says it makes him more clear-headed. It’s done wonders for his mood.”
“Fantastic. What a relief.”
“Yes,” says Holly. “Yeah.” But then she seems to have nothing more to say.
Katja is in the living room now. Her mother is actually leaning forward in her bed and waving her over. “Listen, Holly, my mom’s really eager to talk, so I better...”
The disappointment in Holly’s voice tells Katja that something is wrong. “Let’s talk later,” Katja says.
“Great.” Katja is standing at the foot of her mother’s bed.
“Also,” says Holly, “I just want to let you know that I might not be able to come up tomorrow.”
“And maybe not the next day.”
“I’m not actually sure when I can come.”
“Okay,” says Katja. “You do what you have to. That’s much more important.”
“But I do want to come up. I am definitely coming up.”
“We’ll talk about it later.”
“Okay. Thanks again.”
Katja hangs up.
“I’m better!” declares her mother. “I feel so much better! Almost normal. I want to go for a drive.”
“Wow!” says Katja. “That’s amazing. But let’s talk to Consuela and Maddy first.” Consuela and Maddy are the hospice aides. Hugo is having an affair, Katja thinks. No question.
While Maddy bathes Katja’s mother, Consuela takes Katja into the kitchen, closes the door and speaks in whispers. “So it’s good news/bad news. The good news is that she really is better. Her oxygen level is eighty-four percent, which is remarkable given her condition. But emphysema is different in everyone. People do sometimes improve dramatically, even near the end. So, your mom could be around for... Well, longer than expected. Weeks, maybe.” At the thought of having to endure weeks more of her mother’s humiliating struggle with the implacable, all the strength drains from Katja’s body. Consuela continues: “But, I am sorry to say, the bad news is much more likely.” Her expression has grown severe, as if she is about to level an accusation. “I’ve seen this often. I don’t know why, but at the very end, patients can seem dramatically better. Then, a day later. Or even hours...” Consuela shrugs and looks sad. Katja can’t make sense of anything she has just heard. She thinks she should ask questions, but her mind is blank. “The thing is,” says Consuela, “there’s no way of knowing whether this is good news or... well, not good news. So, you just have to be prepared... Okay?” Katja nods. “But from now on our job is to give your mother a good time. Whatever she wants, she gets! That drive is probably not a good idea. It’s way too cold, and more snow is coming. But that candlelight dinner she was talking about—why not?” Consuela grabs Katja’s hand and squeezes. “But no actual candles—okay? With all this oxygen, the whole house could go up in a white flash!” Katja makes an expression like she has swallowed an insect.
Katja Scotch Tapes Christmas lights to the rim of her mother’s bedtable. These will do for candles. On the table itself, she places two glasses of Gigondas, a wedge of supermarket brie and a straw basket filled with squishy “baguette” slices. The table hovers beside her mother’s breasts. Wine glasses clink. Katja’s mother says, “Santé,” but with one eyebrow raised. Katja hopes the noise in her throat passes for amusement. Her mother lifts her mask, takes a tiny sip of wine, then clacks her glass onto the bedtable. “Oh! That is good!” She pulls her mask back down, but it is crooked. Katja positions the plastic chin over her mother’s actual chin. “There is no better wine!” her mother says. Katja thinks the wine is off, but says nothing. She tells her mother Paul is taking the kids skiing over their winter break. A shadow crosses her mother’s face, and it occurs to Katja that taking the grandchildren away right now is a mistake. What if something happens? Her mother lifts her mask and takes another sip of wine. When she lowers her mask, her eyes are red, as if she is about to cry. “Are you still in love with Paul?” she says.
Katja lets out a flat “Hah!”
“Is that so funny?”
“I’m just surprised.”
Katja’s mother utters an impatient, “So?”
Katja lifts her glass and discovers it is empty. She refills it and takes a swallow. “That depends on what you mean by ‘love.’”
“Love is love,” says her mother.
Katja takes another sip. The wine is tasting better now. “Well, I am not in love with him. And I have no regrets about our divorce.” She is silent a moment, thinking of Leo, who has still not responded to her texts. “But he’s the father of my children. And we were together for sixteen years. And—well, it’s not like he’s a bad person. So, I do care for him. And will always want the best for him. So that’s a kind of love.”
Katja’s mother looks unhappy with what she has just heard. This time she pulls her mask down to take sip of her wine. When she restores the glass to the bedtable, she leaves her mask under her chin.
“Mom.” Katja taps her own chin. The mask gets twisted as her mother tries to replace it, so Katja helps. She ends a silence by telling her mother that she thinks Mandy may be in love for the first time, but her mother, scowling, interrupts her.
“I have something to tell you.”
Katja meets her mother’s somber stare, but doesn’t speak.
“Do you remember,” her mother says, “when you asked about my passwords? Why they all have forty-two?”
“I lied. Forty-two is not the number of our house. It is the year I met the German.”
“Yes.” The anger in her mother’s expression softens to something like worry. “This is something I want you to know.”
Katja is gripped by a strange fear.
Her mother looks at her glass, gives her mask a feeble tug, then leaves it in place and doesn’t touch the wine. “In 1942... You know this: the Germans came to our house to recover from the Russian front. After a month they went back and new ones came. So, one day... It was spring. May. The twenty-ninth of May. I opened the back door of the kitchen. We had this little alley there. For deliveries. So, I stepped out and a German soldier was walking down the alley. It was exactly like the movies: Electricity passed between our eyes. We both felt it. So, he came over and we talked. The other Germans only spoke German to me, but his mother was from Bordeaux, so he spoke perfect French. We talked for hours, just sitting there on the steps. Hours!”
“What did you talk about?”
“Everything! Literature, art. He was very cultured. He could play piano. We had this old piano in the garage. It used to belong to my grandfather, but nobody had touched it for years. One day, he sat down at that piano and played me Chopin. One of the Nocturns. The piano was completely out of tune, but he was such a good pianist! To this day, I have never heard... Chopin... Played... More... Beauty—" Katja’s mother has begun to gasp. She grips her mask with both hands.
She pulls her hand away and holds up one finger.
“Maybe you should stop,” says Katja.
Her mother shakes her head violently. Then holds up one finger again. She is taking deep, wheezing breaths.
“Are you okay?”
She is breathing fast, but the wheezing has stopped. “Okay,” she says. “I am better... I... was just... talking... too fast.”
“Maybe we should wait until tomorrow.”
“No. I want to tell you.” Katja’s mother’s eyes go vague, as if she has forgotten what she was saying.
“How old were you?” Katja asks.
“How old was he?”
Katja raises her eyebrows.
“We didn’t care about that,” her mother says. “Our ages—we didn’t think about them.”
“Were you in love?”
“From the moment our eyes met!”
Katja smiles. The story makes her happy, but her smile is condescending.
“No,” says her mother, clearly hurt. “We were really in love. It was true love. Real love.”
“I’m sorry.” Katja reaches out and strokes her mother’s hand. “I was just thinking of myself when I was sixteen.”
“Everything was different then. With the war, everything was important. Not like it is now.”
“Yes, of course.” Katja lifts her mother’s hand and kisses it. “So, what happened?”
“Well, after a month he had to leave. He was being brave, but I was terrified. The Russian front! It was terrible! So much death! I could not bear it. Anyhow, his very last day, he came to me and asked me to marry him.”
“Oh, my God, Mom! What did you say?”
“I told him that I loved him, but I couldn’t marry him. There were too many bodies between us. That was the hardest sentence I have ever spoken. Then he got on his train and I never heard from him again.”
Katja puts her arms around her mother. “Oh, Mom, that must have been so sad.”
Her mother shrugs, and says “Oh,” as if she is about to make a dismissive remark, but she doesn’t say anything.
Katja wonders what it means that after seventy years her mother’s every password should memorialize this German soldier she knew less than a month. “That’s an amazing story, Mom! Why didn’t you ever tell me before?”
“I was ashamed. I am a French woman who fell in love with a German soldier. That is not something you admit to people.”
“What about Dad?”
“No. I have never told anyone. It was my secret. You are the first person.”
Katja cannot speak for a long time. “Oh, Mom,” she says at last, “that must have been so lonely—keeping that secret so many years.”
“No. The secret is only shameful to the rest of the world. To me, it is good. Beautiful. It always makes me happy to think of Willy.”
Willy. Katja turns the name over in her mouth, and can’t help being disappointed. She wonders what it would be like to fall in love with a man named Willy.
“What?” says her mother.
“Nothing. I was just thinking about your story. It is such an amazing story.”
“No. There is something you are thinking.” Katja’s mother’s brow is pinched with that skeptical irritation that always precedes their fights.
“No, Mom. Really.”
“You are not being honest,” her mother says. “I know you too well. I told you this story because I want you to know I have had a happy life.”
“Because of Willy?” As soon as she speaks these words, she realizes she has made a mistake.
“Yes.” Her mother is defiant. Wrathful, even. That expression used to terrify Katja when she was little.
Katja doesn’t say anything. She knows that nothing she says or does will please her mother. Finally she says, “Would you like some cheese? You haven’t touched the cheese.”
“No,” says her mother. “I am tired. I need to sleep.”
It is 7:17 a.m. Everything outside the window is white, gray or black. Mostly white. Katja’s car has been transformed into a bulbous caricature of itself by the foot and a half of snow on its roof, windshield and hood. The road has been ploughed. In an emergency, an ambulance could get through, but it wouldn’t be easy to drag a gurney across the lawn. The flakes are feather-size, falling rapidly. Sometimes the flakes nearest the house descend to the left, while the ones further away go right. Sometimes it’s the reverse. Katja’s forehead touches the glass. She is wearing only her nightgown and fluffy slippers, having spent the night on the couch. She brought her computer down with her pillow and blanket, hoping that, were her mother to wake during the night, she might ask her for Willy’s last name, then Google him. But her mother didn’t wake. The couch is parallel to the hospital bed. When Katja opened her eyes in the blue glow of the new day, she noticed the wrapped book of bird cartoons still stuck between the mattress and guardrail. Now the book rests beside the computer on the coffee table. Her mother’s lips are still dark red with the lipstick Katja applied to them before the “candlelight dinner,” but her skin is so pale, the color of rain on snow. Her chest is still rising and falling. (Is it? Yes.) Katja moves closer to the bed, and sees her mother’s corneas shifting under the crinkled flesh of her eyelids. She is dreaming. Taking this as a good sign, Katja goes into the kitchen for another cup of coffee. As she returns to the living room, mug in hand, her mother makes a high, feeble moan. Her eyes are open. Katja puts her mug down on the bedtable. “Hey, Mom! How you doing?”
Her mother squints at her uncomprehendingly.
“Looks like you got a good night’s sleep,” Katja says.
“You got a good night’s sleep. Tu as bien dormi!”
Her mother’s eyes flutter, close, then open, but only in the narrowest of squints. Katja can just make out faint sparkles between her mother’s eyelashes. Wanting to keep her mother awake, Katja starts to speak: “You hungry, Mom? Would you like a donut? A cinnamon donut! I can get it for you. Or coffee? You love coffee! I bet—" Her mother’s eyes close, then flutter, but don’t open. Katja’s heart is pounding. She is faint. She absolutely must keep her mother from losing consciousness. “You know, Mom, I was just thinking about that time we went to the shore. Do you remember? I was four. Maybe five. And we were walking along the beach. Do you remember this? There were tiny white stones on the sand and you told me they were mermaid teeth! I loved that! I thought that was so magical! Do you remember? I became a complete believer! That whole summer I believed in mermaids! I was always looking out for them! Every time I saw a splash beyond the waves, I thought it was a mermaid. I thought the sea was filled with mermaids! And I wanted to be a mermaid. I so longed to have a fishtail. Do you remember that? But then—" Katja cuts herself off, because she absolutely cannot tell her mother what has just remembered: that one day, it occurred to her that if all those white stones on the beach were mermaid teeth, then mermaids must be toothless. She kept imagining a mermaid opening her mouth and all of her teeth spilling out. She saw the mermaid’s pink gums and wagging tongue. The mermaid was screaming. She was screaming and screaming, but she couldn’t form a single word.