Lars said to Miranda, “Understand this…” and left the table.
A series of explosions shook the six storey building but did not deter Miranda’s study of him; his untidy egress.
Through the narrow living space towards the sash window, she watched him go. Observed him at the window and after a time wondered why he found what was on the other side of the glass – a post-siesta pre-bombardment tableau in the still spring air – more compelling than whatever it was she supposed he intended to spout next.
If indeed there was more.
Regardless of whether there was or wasn’t more dogma forthcoming, Miranda refused to be drawn by impromptu acts of theatre and remained seated, reflecting that for the first time in months she no longer felt captive to lust and as a result bore fresh witness. Later, she would acknowledge this revelation fell a long way short of an epiphany. Nevertheless the vaguely euphoric air it conjured inside her felt like progress and brought her a step closer to understanding; Lars the fighter – Lars the beast of burden; and herself, naturally.
The dichotomy no longer lost on her she pursued Lars.
For one thing, Miranda said to herself, his bulk – much of it skins and their fur or what was left of them, stretched over heavy cotton garments – deceived.
Yes, deceived, she thought, but not with intent.
She stuck out a leg and with a big toe – the nail freshly lacquered crimson – located the baldness at the corner of the sofa – a spot the dog had worked and worried over like a master embroiderer lovingly and dutifully unpicking old threads – whilst inwardly repeating the mantra, understand this, understand what? that you, heroic Lars, fearless commander of the Overseas Brigades are nought but a shell!
Albeit a large one.
Lars was crumbling. On that score Miranda had no doubt. He was imploding. Piece by piece both physically and metaphorically. And whilst Miranda took no pleasure in his demise she sensed the momentum was with her. Pushed back the chair and got to her feet, smiling.
Ironically it could be said.
Long hair heavy with cinnamon infused oils was swept off her shoulder and fashioned into a ponytail, dense like a wheat sheaf conversely not gold but as red-black as a day old inoperable chest wound. Hair duly secured behind a hard-edged diminutive stature, using a scarlet ribbon always kept about her person, Miranda rejoined Lars in mind if not in spirit.
Lars a husk! Resign herself to the fact with a dignified air? Never!
Miranda wrenched the ribbon free. Fastened her hair once more deftly.
Lars, bereft of tenderness, she went on – but only to herself – emptied of all substance; reason you might say; Understand what, that he speaks to the gatherings with passion hewn from his private larder of rhetoric labelled ‘false hope’. Understand that Oh yes, Lars sounds like he means it. Every fervent utterance. Speaking as he does from the heart. Or was that, like he does, not, as he does?
Forthright and impassioned, fiery Lars.
Didn’t the impoverished masses, the artisans and the farm workers, the common labourers alike, call him el pasionaria – the passion flower – because he bloomed in the tumult of idolised oratory?
The women did.
And there were those (it was said) who would readily pawn their children by the half dozen to know him for a night.
¡One night – as if he was worth it!
Barter what little dignity still resided in them in exchange for whatever indignities Lars desired that bought them scarcely more than a short-lived escape from the oncoming ravages. What is more, it was said, the women did not flinch under the glare of husbands and boyfriends, or the like, who publicly condoned (out of fear?) such trysts to which in reality only their base fantasies ascribed to. These unfathomable heady times complicated by sexual freedoms were like no other, yet Miranda knew Lars like no other would know him. Better than a vixen knows its cubs. By his smell. His wiles and their chameleon like deceptions. His earthy honesty of physicality, a private tendency much removed from a public image of manners; a huge joke in fact, prisoner to its own nondescript corner of surreality, whereby the enigmatic construct that is folklore was fashioned.
Oh yes, Miranda thought, Lars will command legend.
“What should I understand,” she said to him, “that you’re washed out, washed up; beached like the whale whose lungs are tired of breathing in all the swill and muck mankind feeds it?”
“Understand that ¡We lived!”
Lars repeated the phrase sottovoce several times. Each time in a quieter voice than the last, before he abandoned his reverie and raised the sash window as far as it would go – without the aid of the cord pulley which had perished in a fire started by incendiaries – stuck his head outside and bellowed ‘¡WE LIVED!’, into the midst of a hubbub. Horses whinnying and planes droning. Wastrels shouting obscenities. Children chanting refrains for the games they’d one day cease playing when the last of innocence escaped their fragile but as yet inescapable existence.
Soon after Lars was done bellowing he withdrew his bison-like frame back inside the room, away from the harshness of out there.
Miranda saw he was smiling and responded in kind.
Behind Lars, smoke from the street and from the sporadic artillery-led skirmishes in the hills wound its way into their fourth floor one bedroom flat and settled there. In the meagreness. Exhausted by its journey. Begging for shelter. Anonymity. Like the wearied people, craving stasis. A place in history concealed. In this room. Locked away. Never to trouble the atoms of their essence into motion again – unless or until, Miranda thought, a five hundred pounder struck them.
Lars slept. Miranda sat beside him on the bed. She eyed his scars. Pictured his pain. Yet did not feel it. That was vain, she believed, you couldn’t do that no matter what they said. Feel the pain of others, like the shamans and the priests, the prophets of doom and of redemption, the clerics, the soothsayers alike, down the ages claimed.
All of them, Miranda said to herself, party to the same show.
The same unholy lies. Jesus died for our sins. Suffer his pain. Feel guilt.
She wanted Lars emissions gone from her person and to that end squatted on the bidet. The crazed porcelain felt hard against her underwhelming buttocks. She welcomed the hurt; cherished the pulsing water chilling her soreness, till her opening and its surrounds no longer felt like a part of her. And caressed herself at the breast. The undernourished flesh there, in contrast, warm and comforting to the touch, the sweat pungent, beading redolent; autumnal, a lament to summer. Memories stirred; stolen moments coddled in leaf mould under cover of bracken and early evening dimness when elders were at rest after prayers; an odour with comfort she would not sponge away readily.
If at all.
The priests were all dead now. In truth, not all dead, Miranda conceded, but those that were not dead were not priests any longer.
Not in the Republic at least.
She looked down into the bowl, saw blood and found herself peering closely at where it found purchase in the irregular fissures of greyness not troubled by the weak and intermittent water-flow. Fissures which at right-angles traversed the meniscus of stale contents backed up along pipes and further down towards caved-in sewers.
Traces of her would remain there, she supposed, in the once wealthy-man’s pristine whiteness of a former hotel and its bygone age. Miranda pictured the menstrual remnants, a crust lodged in the crazed fault-lines, long after her and Lars were gone. After the Second Republic was no more than a hiatus in time. A beautiful intermission amidst centuries of oppression forgotten.
What then? What would they say about her? Did she care about they? She must, she thought to herself, or why frame the question and then permit it licence to linger, to coalesce into a solid thing – rather than a flimsy transient concept – making good its berth like a stowaway, wary of discovery.
But all that was so much speculation about ghosts not yet born. It was not a question, Miranda knew, of what would those future generations say about her but what did the present day denizens of this rotting front-line soon-to-be last-stand town, say about her. In the market when she moved at will amongst crowds who gave her passage with deference and insisted upon her place at the front of every queue without a spoken word and scarcely a nod as though she were a deity they dare not make eye contact with. What did they say about Lars’ woman, a woman of means. In the taverns and in the bars in the square at night when the old men split carafes of vinegar tasting sherry and the young men drank whatever liquors the licensee had gathered about him.
Nothing that counted, she decided. That bore weight. Endured even as long as a next day hangover. And what did Miranda care anyway? Without Lars what was she? Nothing, she thought. Less than that.
There was no going back to a time before him. When he fell – as he surely would – she would fall too. Die on the barricades. Or soon after, when they were torn down. Die in the lanes by the ruined church. On the hills above the old quarter. Die in the gutters with no light in play where tenements held forth tethered by washing line and starched linen. Die in her heart diseased by war. A war of fellow countrymen and women.
The worst of all wars.
Lars stirred. Miranda pulled back the covers, climbed onto the mattress, backed her shivering carcass into the cavernous crook of his giant frame, dragged his great shank of an arm around her hard-boned shoulder hefting the dead-weight hand with its club-like fingers that felt as heavy as a vast clod of turf blasted from the earth by explosive, whilst the planes that were flown by men who spoke the same (native) language as she (but not Lars) drew near the town bearing their payload of Welcome-to-Armageddon, and nearer still.
Miranda clasped the mighty hand to her breast and held it there wishing it were the hand of a higher authority than Lars.
When the first bombs fell she considered this notion; someone had lost someone else but did not yet know it. Or would never know it, if they, too, had gone.
And; when it ended it would start again.
Lars got dressed. Shouldered his rifle and left without a backward glance at her gaunt nakedness.