The Border Road
By Yael Samuel
The screeching canaries, the yelping Pekinese, the squawking parrots, and the whining cats vied for Elsa’s attention. Henry had given up. He made his escape past the caged guinea pigs, the fishpond, the gate on which hung sacks of stale bread left by thoughtful neighbors, to the shelter. Here, he kept and tended the Giant.
He marveled that the tourist left the bicycle indefinitely in his care. On it he would take flight, defying his age and arousing the awe and envy of his sedentary peers. Passing them as they sat on the benches facing the sea or as they gazed from their porches, he would disappear into the banana fields.
He checked the tires, oiled the chain, put on his bike gear, and took off. He pedaled fast, trying to put another sleepless night behind — of Elsa tearing at the sheets, calling out in the strangled words that even after years of abrupt awakenings, he failed to decipher.
Morning never betrayed the visits of the night. Elsa slipped out of bed into her galoshes and hurried to begin her rounds.
Gripping the bars, Henry arched his body forward. The Giant made him feel free, like the dreams he had as a child. In them he could soar like a falcon, race like a tiger, or swim the depths of the sea without need of air. He could almost feel those gills now as his whole body breathed with the lambency of his being. Beads of sweat tingled his back and dripped down his forehead, stinging his eyes. As he strained to blink away the salty fluid, the years flashed before him, days frittered away with worrying.
The tourist had triggered in him this troubling self-reflection. He questioned whether meeting her was accidental. He wondered where she was now, what new adventure she dared to take, and if she would really send the postcard she promised.
At the time, their meeting had seemed accidental. It was, after all, in front of the house that they had their first encounter. She had stopped to ask directions to the caves. Clad in Lycra pants, hidden behind tinted sunglasses, and buried under a huge, slotted helmet, she exuded a mysteriousness that was both comical and compelling. Worried that she might not have heard about the recent skirmishes at the border, he felt an instinctive urge to accompany her. “You shouldn’t go by yourself,” he cautioned. Still, he pointed the way to Lebanon.
She mounted her bike and sped off, her voice trailing behind, “Thanks for the directions!”
Grabbing the sacks of stale bread from the gate, he headed to the back porch. Elsa was attending to the guinea pigs. He followed her with the sacks, pausing obediently while she cooed at the caged pigeons. He lowered the sacks in the kitchen, put the kettle on next to the pots of dog food simmering on the stove, set the table with bread and cheese, and waited for Elsa to join him.
Henry wrapped his hands around his mug of hot coffee and said, “I met a tourist this morning, a young woman. She was in front of the house and asked directions to the caves.”
Elsa looked up to show she was listening.
“She was going by bicycle and wanted to take the border road.”
“You let her go?”
Henry shifted nervously in his chair. “What could I have done?” He was reminded of the time Elsa sent him to get a wounded owl he had seen lying in the avocado orchard. She wrapped the owl in a towel, placed it in a box next to the heater, and fed it chicken soup through an eyedropper for a week.
Henry rose from the table without finishing his coffee and grabbed his keys.
Once inside the car, with the engine running and the radio playing, he felt his mission was in vain. He followed the route he gave the tourist, through the banana fields and avocado orchards to the border road. The earth beneath was rutted, and the car rocked from side to side as he inched his way forward.
The more he climbed, the more remarkable it seemed that the tourist had done this on a bicycle. He looked for tire tracks, but the earth was too hard to produce them. By the time he reached the caves, he had given up hope of finding her.
Two tour buses were parked on the shoulder and their drivers were leaning against them smoking cigarettes. Henry pulled up alongside them, rolled down his window, and asked after the tourist.
“You caught a fox and let her get away?” laughed the taller of the two as he tossed his smoldering cigarette to the ground.
“We have two busloads of alter kackers and you turn down private escort service?” cackled the other.
Henry tried to chuckle, but a nervous cough caught his throat.
When he got home, he went to the shelter where his old bike was stored to keep the chain from rusting in the salty air, but after so many years it had rusted anyway. He removed the milk crate from the fender, took his pump and his grease gun, packed the hubs, oiled the chain, and filled the tires with air, but knew it wouldn’t do. There were cracks in the frame, broken spokes, and the forks were bent. Still, he straddled the bike, gripped the handlebars and imagined.
Elsa was brushing the Pekinese when he came in the house. “I couldn’t find the tourist. I went through the wadi to the border road and the caves, and asked everyone I saw if anyone had seen her.”
Elsa took the dog brush and pointed out the window with it.
“You tried,” she said.
That night, her dreams were more tortured than usual. She gnawed at her pillow until feathers flew out. Henry grabbed her wrists to try to stop her, but she fought back, biting his arms until he bled.
“Go to sleep, Elsa. It’s over now.”
The familiar rise and fall of Elsa’s breathing indicated she would have no more dreams this night. Henry lay on his back beside her and dreamed his own dream. He was on the border road, and the milk crate was still on the bike, weighted down with sacks of cat litter. He tried to pedal, but the tires kept turning in place. The more he pedaled, the deeper furrows he made. Then he saw the tourist, flying past him on her bicycle, her voice trailing behind. “Thanks for the directions!”
The animals began molting all at once. The cages needed extra cleaning. That meant extra trips to the dump, and Elsa expected Henry to scavenge. As tiresome as it was, he never failed to sort through the debris and bring something back. Elsa would say, “It’s like diving for pearls,” just like her mother said to her as she lowered her by a rope behind the ghetto walls.
Henry began sifting. He held up a moth-eaten overcoat, the label Goldman Furriers still intact. Reaching into the pockets, he came up with handfuls of lint. He inspected a chipped teakettle, a grandfather clock with the hands missing, and a small chest with a rusted lock. He took out his penknife, forced the lock open and found a yellowed handkerchief, and inside it, a lock of golden curls. Carefully, he folded the handkerchief and placed it back in the chest. A few buzzards circled overhead and a light wind began to blow. He picked up a chipped ceramic clown, its face painted with an oversized red smile, leaning on an umbrella. It will do, he decided.
He took the coastal road, rolled down his window, and let the sea breeze in. Pools of water formed on the rocky shore. A few fishermen stood statuesque on the rocks, their lines disappearing into the water. The sun’s bright glare cast an explosion of color, and he had to squint to focus on the road ahead. And then, as if from out of nowhere, he saw her. She was removing the front tire from her bike. He slowed and pulled up alongside her.
“Do you need help?” he called out.
She looked up at him, and in the voice he would recognize anywhere said, “Another flat. My second one today.”
Henry turned onto the side of the road and got out of the car.
She ran her fingers over the tube and said, “Look, a thorn. I must have picked it up on the Kabri trail.”
Forty-three kilometers, Henry calculated.
“I guess you could help. I don’t have another inner tube, or even a patch. Can you give me a lift into town?”
“Where are you from?” Henry asked as he opened the hatch back and lifted the bike into the car.
“Holland. It’s so flat there you can never get a view. But here, it’s fantastic. You can see everything.”
Henry opened the passenger door. The tourist removed her helmet, shook her hair loose, and got in.
“Are you with the U.N.?” he asked.
“Me?” she laughed. “No. But I am staying with a Dutch family who are with the U.N. Friends of my parents. They have a great place facing the sea. And you?”
“I’ve been here for forty years.”
“Well, that’s before I was born. But where did you come from before that? Your accent sounds familiar.”
“No kidding? I speak a little Flemish myself. So how did you get out? The war, I mean.”
Henry was startled by her frankness. “You really want to know?”
“My generation needs to know. It’s the only way we can go forward.”
Her generation. It occurred to Henry that he had forgotten to shave again, and the grey stubble on his face made him feel particularly self-conscious of the desire stirring within. He had no desire to talk about the war, but he found himself saying, “Say, how about I buy you a cup of coffee and tell you about it?”
“Terrific,” the tourist said as she removed her bike gloves and placed them inside the helmet.
Henry relaxed and leaned back in the driver’s seat.
“How about here?” he suggested as he pulled up to a roadside kiosk.
“Fine with me.”
Henry parked the car, and before he could open the door for her, the tourist was outside, heading towards the kiosk. He hurried to catch up to her.
“My treat,” she said.
“But I invited you,” Henry protested. He felt like a youth in courtship, wanting his first date to go just right. I'm old enough to be her father, Henry thought. No, grandfather.
“I’m Dutch and I treat,” she insisted. “Besides, I want to return the favor.”
“A lift into town? I was heading that direction, anyway!” She is such a mystery, Henry thought.
“No, not just the lift, for the directions.”
“Directions?” Henry asked in surprise. He was sure she hadn’t remembered. All this time she had said nothing, and there it was all along.
“The caves. Remember?” she asked, paying for the coffee and carrying both cups to the table.
Henry had no idea what he wanted from her.
“Why didn’t you say something when I stopped?”
“And why didn’t you say something?” she asked, leaning on her elbows.
Henry began at the beginning. He told her his life story, and she listened attentively. He was unaware how much time passed or how long he had been talking. When he stopped, she asked, “And do you have any children?”
Being childless in a country where children were the measure of one’s worth was only the beginning. Henry paused before answering. “We couldn’t have any. My wife... they did something to her in the camps... I don’t know myself. She can’t talk about it.” He thought about the animals, and how much he should tell her. The look in her eyes urged him on. “They’re her children. They’re everything to her. Sometimes she calls them by names, names of children she knew from over there.”
The tourist gazed into his eyes. “I never met a real survivor before,” she said.
“But you see, I’m not a survivor. That’s the problem,” he said. “I got out. I didn’t go through what the others did, what my wife did.”
“But you live it through your wife.” She turned around and pointed in the direction of the caves. “When I was inside the caves, I thought I was alone. It was dark and damp and I couldn’t see very well. Suddenly I heard the muffled sounds of two people talking. A woman started crying, ‘I’m trapped. Let me out!’ The words echoed through the caves over and over.”
Everything the tourist said reverberated in his ears, not because of what she said, but the sound of her voice. All he wanted was to listen, to let her talk. He asked her about the bike riding.
“Oh, it’s the greatest way to get to know a place. I’ve been here such a short time, but I feel like I’ve really been able to connect. I love it here.”
“So, I guess you’ll be around for a while?” Henry asked, already looking forward to endless possibilities.
The funny laugh came first. “Actually, I’m leaving tomorrow. You know, places to go, people to see.”
Henry didn’t know where to hide his pain. He wanted to cry out, to beg her to stay, but years of controlled emotion got hold of him. “Where will you go?” he asked.
“Well, I’m off to Cyprus first, but eventually I’ll make my way to the Himalayas,” she said with a faraway look in her eyes.
Henry felt she was slipping away from him, like she had in his dream. “On your bicycle?” he asked, trying to hold on to her.
“Oh, heavens no. The Himalayas one must backpack.”
Henry couldn’t think of anything else to say. He fumbled for words, hoping to keep the embers alive before the fire went out completely. Instead, he found himself hurrying the inevitable. “Well, I guess I better take you into town. You must have a lot to do, get your bike fixed, pack...”
“Not really,” she said. “I travel lightly. But I must be keeping you. I’m ready whenever you are,” she said, and got up from the table.
Henry felt like he was sinking in quicksand. He let her pull him to his feet. “No, you’re not keeping me. I’m happy to take you into town, then to your hosts.”
She didn’t argue, and agreed to tell him about herself, pausing only to pick up a bicycle tube and patches at the bike shop on Ghetto Fighters Street and repair her tire. She told him stories about her childhood home, the schools she went to, and her favorite Dutch adventure: mud walking the Wadden Sea.
“We’re here,” she said, pointing to the U.N. house. “Thanks ever so much.”
Henry was hoping she would say something, anything that told him that their meeting meant as much to her as it did to him. Even when she added, “It was great meeting you,” he knew it didn’t.
She got out of the car and Henry hurried to get to the hatchback first so he could help her with the bike, but she was heading for the house. “Wait!” Henry called out to her. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
She stood for a moment, then laughed. He lifted the hatchback as she came back towards him. She held her chin in her hand, let out a long, “Hmmm,” and said, “Why don’t you use it? I can’t take it with me, and it will just gather rust here.”
Henry was speechless.
She closed the hatchback and smiled. “It’s okay. Go ahead. Enjoy.”
Henry didn’t know how the words formed themselves, but he managed to ask, “When will you come back for it?”
“Who knows? But it’s not important. The important thing is you should enjoy it now. Here – you’ll need this.” She thrust her helmet in his hands. “You can take out the padding and adjust it to fit.”
Henry felt he should sign something, or offer some kind of collateral, but all he could summon was, “Let me write down my address for you.”
“Just tell me and I’ll remember it.”
“But what if I want to find you? What about these friends here?” Henry asked, nodding towards the U.N. house.
“They’re going, too. He’s being stationed in Somalia. Look, I’ll send you a postcard from Delhi.”
Henry knew there was nothing more to say. He couldn’t buy time with questions. It was time to let go. He opened the car door and looked over the roof at her. She was motioning for him to go on, like the candy man after giving away a free treat.
He looked in the rear view mirror at the bike, visible between the back seat and the trunk. The handlebars and seat framed an odd picture in the mirror, like Picasso’s Bull’s Head. Henry wondered what he would tell Elsa.
She would be indoors by now. He parked and carefully took the bike out of the car, one hand under the seat and the other beneath the front end. He leaned it up against a sawhorse in the shelter and looked at it for a long time. Slowly, he smoothed his hand along the frame, over the seat cushion, and felt the fullness of the tires. He placed his hands on the handlebars and swung one leg over the crossbar, balancing the bike between his legs. He squeezed the brakes and thrust his body forward. He leaned back in the saddle and lifted the front end, feeling the lightness of it as he raised the bike effortlessly. Tomorrow he would ride.
Elsa was putting fresh newspaper in the birdcages when Henry entered. He hung up his jacket and went to her. “I found a bike at the dump. I put it out back.” He reached into his pocket, took out the clown and held it out to her. “And I thought you might like this. We could put it in the fishbowl to replace the broken treasure chest. Think the fish might like it?”
Elsa turned the clown over in her hand. “I don't know. Its mouth is laughing, but Henry, look at the eyes, such big tears.”