We may as well begin with the ride home.
It is Christmas night, 1998. The ending of a day that was not unseasonable, except in its failure to fulfill the sentimental wish for spur-of-the moment snow. The sky: gray; the air: cold, with a high of 33 degrees Fahrenheit. Palpable winter but not winter at its worst. Fewer of the poor than usual died on that day of causes traceable to the weather. Perhaps the relatively unimpressive showing of weather-related deaths was due to the relative clemency of the air, the relative windlessness, the relative benevolence that could be counted on by the poor to last, perhaps, eight days, December twenty-fourth through the first of January.
Ten o'clock Christmas night. Four friends drive south on the way home after a day of celebration. They have had Christmas dinner at the house of other friends, a weekend and vacation house in the mountains north of New York. One couple sits in the front of a brown Honda Accord, the other in the back. They are all in their fifties. All of their children are on other continents: one in Brazil, working on an irrigation project; one in Japan, teaching English; one in Ireland studying the Irish language at Trinity College. They were determined not to have a melancholy Christmas, and for the most part they have not.
They leave Maria Meyers off first since she lives in the most northerly part of the city or, as they would say, the farthest uptown.
She opens the door of her apartment on the sixth or top floor of a building on the corner of La Salle Street and Claremont Avenue, a block west of Broadway, a block south of 125th Street, on the margins of Harlem, at the tip end of the force field of Columbia University. Before she takes off her brown boots lined with tan fur, her green down coat, her rose-colored scarf, her wool beret, also rose, she sees the red light of her answering machine.
Her heart lifts. She reads the red light as a message from her daughter, who has not, after all, forgotten to call on Christmas. She probably thought her mother would be home all day; Christmas has never been spent anywhere but at home.
In the darkness, seeing with clarity one thing only, the blinking red light that means her daughter's voice, Maria knows that when she flips the light switch she will be illumining a place nothing like the house she grew up in. Purposely, deliberately unlike. Walls painted orange-yellow. Woven fabrics from Guatemala, carved wooden angels--green and pink--from Poland, and from Cambodia a tin demon, her protector.
She drapes her coat, her hat, her scarf over the chair covered with a slipcover the color of a green apple. She sits on the footrest in front of it, on woven triangles of magenta, cobalt, rust. She takes off her boots, which made her feet so uncomfortably overheated in the car. She is greedy for the sound of her daughter's voice, her greed a tooth that bites down hard. Her stocking feet are slippery on the pine floor. She'd been more hurt than she wanted to admit that Pearl hadn't returned her call, hadn't made contact before she left for the countryside. But that was what she wanted, wasn't it? A daughter who did not feel obligated, who felt free to pursue her life, her interests, her pleasures, her adventures. She'd imagined Pearl sitting in a basement kitchen around a table of students toasting one another with cheap red wine, filling plate after plate with spaghetti they had made together. Or maybe it wasn't spaghetti; she didn't know what cheap meal Irish students chose to celebrate their liberation from the domestic cliche of family Christmas. Pearl had said she would be with friends. No one's family? Maria had said. "I don't know anyone's family here," Pearl had said, and Maria had thought, Well, that is being young.
But it is not her daughter's voice she hears on the answering machine. It is a strange voice, a woman's voice, a voice with a southern accent.
"This is the State Department in Washington. We're looking for Maria Meyers, the mother of Pearl Meyers. This is an emergency. You can call toll-free."
The word makes Maria believe she has lived her life all wrong. The familiar walls, the furniture of the apartment are threatening to her, offer her no comfort.
State Department. The official world. Run by men like her father. And where is her father now? She wants her father, dead twenty-four years, dying thousands of miles away from her, estranged. She says the word: Father. Then tries to unsay it. She tells herself to be calm. She breathes in and out, the breathing technique she learned for giving birth. She focuses her dislike on the voice on the machine--what kind of voice is that for the State Department?--and the name of the person she is supposed to call: Lynne Craig. Lynne Craig?
She tells herself she has never liked anyone named Lynne. What kind of name is that for a diplomat? If you were expecting a serious future for your daughter, would you name her Lynne?
Her daughter's name has always been something she was proud of. She always relished people's surprise when they heard it.
What's the baby's name?
A disappointed look. Wanting to say, That's no name for a baby, people would say, "Unusual."
"It's my mother's name," Maria would say.
Then people would say, "Oh, yes, of course." Forgiving her for something.
A toll-free number. As if paying the toll would prevent someone's making a call to the State Department when they'd been told it was an emergency. She tries to imagine a person for whom a toll-free number would, in such circumstances, make a difference. She cannot. She loses confidence in the ability of someone who would invent such a procedure to save her child. This frightens her: she cannot trust the people who are said to be in charge. And, unusually for her, Maria does not know what to do.
She dials the number. The tone beeps. She tries to imagine the State Department. She sees official buildings but they could be anywhere, in any city, at any time since the mid-nineteenth century. She sees her young self and her friends demonstrating in front of such buildings in the 1960s. In those dark years, the people in the buildings had been the enemy. Now they are her only hope. Therefore they are dear to her. Therefore she hates them. They know something, possibly unbearable, that she does not know. Something about her daughter. Something she needs to know.
She gets, on the fifth ring, Lynne Craig.
"It's Ms. I'm not married."
This is the kind of woman Maria is. She has heard the word emergency, and yet she insists on not being misnamed. She is not married; she wants to make that clear. No husband for a second opinion. She is a person who believes it is one of her strengths: making things clear.
"Yes, well, Ms. Meyers, ma'am, we have a bit of a situation over there in Dublin. A little bit of an unusual situation that your daughter's gotten herself involved in."
"Is she all right?"
"Well, we hope she will be."
"What exactly do you mean by that?"
"Well, as I said, your daughter's gotten herself into a little bit of an unusual situation. She's chained herself to the flagpole in front of the American embassy in Dublin. She says she hasn't eaten in six weeks, and she's refusing food and drink."
"Why is she doing it?" Maria knows she must try to understand. If there is a logical progression, it will be comprehensible. Therefore, some action can be begun.
"Well, at first, Ms. Meyers, because it's Dublin and because of the particular situation over there with the Irish politics and all, we supposed she was involved with the IRA. You know, there's a group that's very opposed to the peace treaty that's being worked out, very vocal about their opposition, more than vocal in some cases. But this doesn't seem to be the case with your daughter--IRA involvement, I mean. She wrote a statement that she left on the ground by where she's lying. It's a bit confusing, Ms. Meyers. We think she's doing what she's doing because some young boy died and she considers herself responsible. And then she's in favor of the peace treaty; she says her act is in witness to it. We can't make much sense of this, and she won't talk. Now she's written a letter to you and another to a Mr. Kasperman. It says personal and confidential, but if you were willing we could read it to you now."
"She's getting medical help?"
"In that case, we must respect her wishes. If the letters are confidential, it means they're for our eyes only. Mr. Kasperman is an old friend of the family. Just take the proper medical steps and wait for me to get there."
"Yes, ma'am, whatever you say. Does she have any history of mental instability?"
"Of course not."
"Well, Ms. Meyers, as this is a kind of unusual situation, we'd have to ask that kind of question. Any political involvement?"
"As long as I've known her she's been only marginally aware of politics. She's interested in language. She's studying linguistics. She's in Ireland to study the Irish language."
"Yes, ma'am. Well, you see, she has some connections there that are of some concern. There's a young man, a kind of involvement, who has interests, connections, with certain radical groups. But they all seem to disavow any connection with what your daughter's doing. They say it's just the isolated act of a disturbed individual."
"My daughter is not disturbed. She's in danger, and I'd like to know what you're doing about it."
"Well, right at the moment, ma'am, we're trying to be in dialogue with her. But she doesn't seem very receptive. I'll tell you the truth, ma'am: she's very weak, and we're afraid of injuring her if she resists when we try to remove the chains by force. She's chained her wrists, you see. So we're sort of hoping she'll remove the chains herself."
"Isn't it cold there?"
"Yes, ma'am, we have some concerns about that. They seem to be taking measures; I think some heaters have been set up. But our greatest concern is that she won't drink. You know, they can survive this kind of thing without eating, but the drinking's crucial. We're worried about dehydration. We've set up heaters around her so she's warm. She can't stop us doing that."
"Then get the chains off without hurting her."
"That seems to be the problem right now. She's resisting us pretty strongly there. We're trying to avoid force. Of course, if she gets much weaker, she won't be able to resist."
Maria doesn't know what to hope for: that her daughter will weaken enough so she can't resist or that she will retain her strength. How is it possible to wish that your child will weaken? Yet she knows that is what she must do, if only she knew how to form the wish. She has never had this experience before; she has always known exactly what to wish for. She has often believed that her wishes would be granted or that, if not, she would be able to live with their having been refused. But now she does not know how she must live. Or how she would live if anything should happen to her daughter. Her daughter who is in danger now.
"We were hoping you might have some kind of leverage if you were on-site."
"I'll be on the next plane."
"I've taken the liberty of booking you a seat; I'm afraid there's only first class left on the six p.m. flight tomorrow. And I've taken the liberty of booking you a hotel, the Tara Arms. Any cab at the airport will know it. Of course, you'll want to stop by the embassy first. Speak to Miss Caroline Wolf."
Maria wants to vomit, as if, opening her mouth, the horror of what she's heard might spill out as in a medieval allegory: a sinner spewing out devils, sin.
But she can't waste time thinking of herself as a figure of allegory. Her daughter is in danger. Her daughter is doing something she doesn't understand. She can't even form a picture. Why can't they remove the chains? Maria is an impatient woman, and not being able to understand has always made her feel trapped, suffocated. She wants to claw against this incomprehension. She wants to make Lynne Craig say something that will allow her to understand. So, although she doesn't want to hear her voice anymore, she asks another question. In case it will unlock something.
"First class?" she says.
"I'm afraid that's all that's available. The flight leaves JFK at six p.m. tomorrow night."
Tomorrow night. Six p.m. First class. Thousands of dollars. Nineteen hours.
She packs her bag.
Maria waits until midnight, when it is 6 a.m. in Rome, to call Joseph Kasperman, her oldest friend. Joseph Kasperman, to whom Pearl addressed the other letter.
And now I will tell you the story of Joseph and Maria. Your first thought might be that they are lovers. Having learned they are not, you might imagine they are blood relations: perhaps brother and sister. They are neither lovers nor blood relatives, they are friends. More than friends. Neither has a memory of life without the other. And what is a life without the memory of a life?
Joseph's mother was housekeeper to Maria and her father, Maria's mother having died before Maria was two years old and Joseph's father having abandoned him and his mother before Joseph reached his first birthday. Two half-orphans, brought up together: a tie not of blood or sex, a tie of friendship. Friendship from the start of memory. Joseph cannot forget that he is the son of a servant. Maria almost never thinks of it.
Maria has a little Italian, enough to ask for Mr. Kasperman in the hotel Santa Chiara, where she has stayed many times, first with her father, then with her father and Joseph, then with Joseph and his wife, Devorah, most recently with Joseph and Pearl. Now Joseph is there alone. Devorah and her father are dead. She will not allow herself to think that Pearl might be dying.
Joseph answers the phone, and she tells him what Lynne Craig said. How she dislikes Lynne Craig, how she dislikes the State Department and its toll-free number, how she dislikes having to depend on the State Department for anything. Particularly anything important.
"Why is she doing it?" Joseph asks.
"It's something about a boy who died, whose death she feels responsible for. And something about being a witness to the importance of the peace treaty."
Copyright © 2005 by Mary Gordon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.