Burning the Sea

Burning the Sea

by Sarah Pemberton Strong


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Burning the Sea by Sarah Pemberton Strong

In an airport in the Dominican Republic, two searchers are drawn together by a suggestive smile and a shared sense of longing. Michelle is a young American with holes in her past and a need to wander so strong that she walks in her sleep. Tollomi is a native of the West Indies, thoroughly Americanized by education and in search of his truer self. Haunted by elusive secrets of the past, they forge an intense connection that allows them to comprehend each other's secrets while remaining blind to their own. For Tollomi, the route to salvation lies in his deep involvement in Dominican politics; for Michelle, it is the rebuilding of a family home, long abandoned, which she hopes will hold the key to her lost memories. Michelle's blindly obsessive drive to complete construction and Tollomi's passionate love affair with a young Dominican man whose brother is involved in a growing revolutionary movement, pulls both into the vortex of volatile tensions between Dominicans and Americans surrounding increasing tourism and a national election, setting in motion an explosive series of events both heartbreaking and transcendent. In this remarkable debut novel, Sarah Pemberton Strong's poetically simple language enhances a story of emotional dislocation, cultural identity, and the powerful forces of memory and desire.

Sarah Pemberton Strong was born in California in 1967. After spending much time in the Caribbean and on both coasts of the U.S., she currently lives in Massachusetts. Burning the Sea is her first novel.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555836443
Publisher: Alyson Publications
Publication date: 04/10/2002
Edition description: 1ST
Pages: 344
Product dimensions: 5.62(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.89(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One:

Prospero: Can'st thou remember
A time before we came into this cell?
I do not think thou can'st...
Miranda: Certainly, sir, I can.
Shakespeare, The Tempest
November 12 9°45'N 80°05'W The sea is a flat sheet of blue today, blue without waves: The wind has died. If I were on a sailboat, a day like this would be cause for worry. The vastness of the sea becomes overwhelming when you don't have the power to move through it. On windless mornings like this one I wake anxious and don't know why at first. I still carry this with me, an internal sense of the weather, a sense born in the islands. On islands the only time the wind dies is at sunset and right before a storm.

Without wind, the freighter moves forward. By this time tomorrow I will be in Santo Domingo. I will arrive as I have arrived so many places, stringing each port of entry like a colored bead on a piece of fishing line, each bead lengthening the distance between myself and the island I once called home. Yet I find myself here, traversing the same sea I swam in as a boy, the same sea that swallowed my mother, the same sea that seven weeks ago rose and swept that island clean of every leaf on every tree, uprooted palms that had stood a hundred years or more, tore houses apart from their foundations, and, in the cemetery, knocked over a headstone I have never seen.

November 12 New York

Sometimes they have to touch my arm or shoulder before I realize it's me they're addressing. I know how it looks: It looks odd, my sitting all by myself on the floor in the airport. I can see how it looks as if I'm someone else, someone hurrying through the terminal who happens to look down and notice the young woman—girl, really—sitting there on the floor with her back against the empty check-in counter. She has a bag with her; she must be waiting for a plane, but she doesn't look as if she's waiting. She doesn't have anything to read. She isn't scanning the departures screen. She doesn't look bored. She's just sitting there, a tall, skinny girl with her knees drawn up under her chin as if she were sitting on a hillside somewhere and not in an airport at all. I know how it looks: the broad but somehow distant smile, the pale, shapeless clothes. Clothes too large for me, too faded, holes. Clothes belonging to other people, clothes borrowed or found.

People notice, they just do; it's not the clothes, it's the way I sit there watching the spill of movement through the terminal as if I were watching a sunset or an ocean. People notice, and they start talking to me. But I'm not there, I'm somewhere else, I don't hear them right away.

The flight from New York to Santo Domingo was delayed fifteen hours. I wasn't the only one sitting on the floor here. There weren't enough chairs at the gate, and after the gift shops and restaurant had closed, the other passengers clustered themselves on the hard cement tile with the resigned air of people accustomed to delays for which no explanation would be provided. They had come prepared, with bags of food and blankets. They chatted with one another, and after a while a woman holding a fat, earringed baby began talking to me. I played with the baby, and she told me in an English punctuated with Spanish mutterings that flights to the Dominican Republic were always this late and hadn't I brought any food?

I had bought some bread and cheese in the Frankfurt airport, but it was long gone. No, I said, I hadn't. She gave me a piece of chicken from her bag and studied me. I was the only white person at the gate. This was not a tourist airline. Everyone else who was waiting was waiting to go home.

Was my boyfriend Dominican? she asked at last.

No, I said, I didn't have a boyfriend.

Surely I wasn't going to Santo Domingo alone?

Yes, I said, I was alone. No, I had never been there before. Did I speak Spanish? Only a little. No, no relatives there.

Then why on earth are you going, she wanted to ask. I saw the question form on her face and changed the subject before she could ask it.

Why on earth?

I could not have given her the real answer then. I had no sense of my own destiny. Now I can see clearly the shape of it, the shape of my destiny. It is not separate from the shape of my life itself, and that is precisely why I missed it all these years. But I see it now. It's all around me. It's given my life a completeness I would have dreamed of had I been able to dream of such things.

I'm not saying I wanted it.

When I was three years old I climbed from the bed in which I had been put down to nap and out of the third-story window. It was a dormer window, I climbed right onto the roof. I crawled along this slope of shingles the whole length of the house until I reached the edge. Then I stopped and just sat there like a dislodged weather vane. I stayed like that for several hours. My parents found my empty bed and after a frantic search drove to the police station to report that I had been kidnapped. When they returned, there I was on the roof. They saw me right away: I had started screaming.

I don't remember all of this firsthand. It's a family story. It happened to me, but the memory isn't mine. Most of my memories aren't mine, in fact. I know most people don't recall anything of their first years, but for me that early blankness stretches on through my entire childhood until I was almost grown. I lived all those years like everybody else, but somehow they got away from me. Where there should be birthdays, Christmases, odd flashes of scene that somehow lodge with great significance in most people's minds—a tree branch outside a window, the print of mother's favorite dress—there is nothing. I have nothing. I've always been careless with my possessions. Memory is just one of the things I've lost.

This story of me on the roof, though, there is one thing about it I do recall, something no one else knows: When I began screaming it was because I realized that the distance between the roof I was on and the neighbors' roof was too great and there was no way for me to continue my journey.

I was screaming because I could not get away.

I remember a few other things besides this, and I view them over and over like a closed loop of film. It doesn't take long to go around once. The parts I remember best, that I see most clearly, happened at night. You'd think the days, with all their activity, would contain something remarkable enough to stick in my mind, but no. It was the nights. The first time it happened I was very young, seven, maybe, or six. It goes like this: I have been asleep. I wake up. It's the moment right before I open my eyes and I have no idea where I am.

The bed I fell asleep in has dissolved under my back. It is gone, and nothing is there in its place, only air. The blankets are gone. My feet are intensely cold, the soles of my feet flat against something hard. My left hand too is icy cold. I move my fingers and discover they are closed around a cold metal sphere.

I open my eyes. Nothing, only darkness, and then I see a slab of wood a few inches from my nose. One crystal moment of panic, clean as a knife edge, and then I know where I am.

I am standing in the hallway of our house in the middle of the night, clutching the knob of the front door.

This happened again and again. Not every night, but from then on I never knew where I would be when I woke up. Any continuity between where I was when I closed my eyes and where I would be when I opened them was severed forever. The logic of time and space did not apply to me. I could have been anywhere.

Sometimes I imagined whole landscapes, entire countries, in the moment before I opened my eyes.

During the day my body did what I told it. I'd say sit and it sat, I'd say run and it ran, and when I opened my mouth to speak, words did come out. But during the day I took another kind of journey without moving my body an inch. It was my mind that left. I'd be sitting at the dinner table and in the blink of an eye my mind would depart, leaving my body behind.

"Michelle? Michelle! What are you thinking?"

My mother's voice, worried; my father's, annoyed. "Nothing," I'd say, startled. I never knew when I was doing it. I tried to be my own jailer, but my mind was too quick for me. It slipped out between breaths, and I never knew it had gone until someone called to me from far away to come back and answer for my mind's behavior.

"Nothing," I'd say. I couldn't say anything else. I never knew where my mind had gone. It disappeared like a ship over the horizon.

"Nothing," I'd say. "I wasn't thinking about anything."

And then I'd smile and focus my eyes on the frayed edge of the tablecloth or the uneaten food on my plate. I chained myself to the objects of this world as sailors lash themselves to the mast when their ship passes the sirens.

What was I afraid of?

About the world of my mind I know only this: It has never been explored. Like all unexplored worlds it is flat like a pancake. Bordered by edges. If my mind were allowed, it would go and go until it had gone too far and dropped beyond the horizon once and for all, the stern of the ship upending before it plunged over the waterfall at the end of the world to fall and keep falling forever through empty and infinite space.

When I was twenty I left. I wanted to go around the world. The world is round, like an orange; there are no ledges to fall off of.

When I left home my sleepwalking stopped. I still never knew where I would wake up but now it was because I moved around so much. In all the hotel rooms, pensions, cabins, tents, grass huts, empty stretches of beach, motels, forest clearings, bedrooms of friends, bedrooms of strangers, sofas, bare floors, train stations, bus depots, airports, and city parks I slept in, I opened my eyes in the same place I closed them. My body stayed with me all night and stopped deserting me. I moved so fast it was all my body could do to keep up.

And I did what I set out to do: I went around the world, the world that is round like an orange. I went all over. I went around backward and forward, through everywhere twice, and I always left by a different road than the one on which I had arrived. Every house I went into, if I came in through the front door I left by the back. Superstition, you may say, but I covered a lot of ground.

In a land far from where I began I heard a story.

One day in the streets of the oldest city in the world a young man named Ali was sitting in a café. He had his whole life before him, spread out in such a magnificent fashion that he did not contemplate his tea on the table or the rhythm of his own heart but instead looked all about him in the manner of one waiting for a parade. While craning his neck this way and that, he happened to notice two men sitting at a small table across from his own. After eavesdropping on their conversation for some minutes in case he should overhear something beneficial, he divined that one of the men was none other than Death himself.

Upon realizing this, Ali became quite pale and fled from the café at once without finishing his tea, for he knew Death travels to claim those whose lives are deemed finished, and he was afraid his own name might appear on Death's itinerary. He ran straight home, where he gathered a few possessions into a sack and hired the fastest horse he could find to take him out of Baghdad to a city on the other side of the country, across a great river and a great desert to the very edge of a sea, for there surely he would be safe from Death. Day and night he rode, and the farther he left the city of Baghdad behind, the more the color returned to his cheeks, and at last his fear was replaced with visions of the town of Baku, where he could live his life in all its glory with no worry of Death coming to call.

Several weeks later, Death was still wandering around Baghdad seeing the sights when he came upon an old man standing in the street. The two of them fell to talking about this and that, and presently Ali's name was mentioned.

"Ali?" said the old man. "Yes, I know him. His house is just across the square from mine, and if you are looking for him he is usually home at this time of day."

"Really?" said Death. "How peculiar! For I'm due to meet him tomorrow, but hundreds of miles from here, in a place called Baku."

It's an old story, of course. Destiny is the story whose ink is dry on the page before you ever pick up the pen. Destiny is the path that bears your footprint before it bears your foot. With destiny everything is in the past tense.

But suppose you have no past? Suppose your past is an erased slate? Will destiny not find you? Will destiny arrive at your house and find no one home?

It's in the eyes of the man in the porkpie hat who chooses a path I will walk down almost half a century later. It's in his hands, my destiny, as he picks up a pen to sign his name on a dotted line. He doesn't know what he's doing. He is my mother's father, my grandfather, and he's standing in a hot office on the ground floor of a building in New York City. He's going to be a rich man—that's what he's been hearing for the last hour and a half. So he is promising to pay two thousand dollars in exchange for the deed to three square acres of beachfront property on the most beautiful island in the Caribbean. He's never seen it himself, but that's what the agent tells him.

"They call this island the land Columbus loved best," says the agent, "because it was the most beautiful place he'd ever seen, and he ought to know. He got around, Columbus did."

The land already has a house on it; the pictures are attached to the deed with a paper clip. They're out of focus and overexposed, but that makes it all the more perfect, mysterious. The house is made of wood and painted white, it has two stories, and those trees beside it are definitely palms. That's really all that's visible, but it's enough for my grandfather.

"You can walk out your front door and be on the beach," says the agent. "You can squeeze rum out of the sugarcane in the front yard and mix it with coconut milk from those trees in the backyard. You'll live the good life, my friend, and then, when you're old, you can sell it to any one of the hotels that will be buying up the coastline, and they'll pay you anything you ask because they've got to have your land, see, it's right in the middle of a bigger plot, they can't build their hotel around your house. Sure, there's no tourism yet, which is why it's such a wonderful place to live, but mark my words, there will be. If you wait a few more years to buy, you won't be able to afford something half this size. You're a man ahead of your time. I can tell, it takes one to know one." My grandfather, the man ahead of his time, signs his name, and then the two of them go off to a bar and get drunk.

They drink to the land Columbus loved best. They drink to men ahead of their time. They drink to Americans and the American way of living. They drink to banana republics, the place to go to live like an American when you can't afford to live like one at home.

Hours later my grandfather takes a taxi home across Central Park. It's a beautiful night, but he can't walk it: The ground is spinning. The cab turns and heads uptown, block after block, and that's when it hits him: Two grand is a lot of money. It is. The whole of this city they're driving through was bought for only twenty-four dollars.

He's signed his name, Henry Sandbourne Harth, and that night he dreams the dreams of a rich man. Later that year he and his wife pack up four steamer trunks, eleven suitcases, one guitar, and an indeterminate number of carpet bags, hat boxes, and linen chests, and they set out by ship for this magical island. They have brought from home framed pictures, tablecloths, even a rocking chair. Their cabin on board the ship looks just like home. If you stand with your back to the porthole, you're standing in a brownstone on West 81st Street. You can put your hands on the back of Grandmother's rocking chair, and beneath your feet is the living room rug.

The living room on West 81st Street steams south and the two of them sit in their chairs and dream of sitting in their chairs in the living room on West 81st Street with the Caribbean Sea in their backyard and sugarcane in the front and palm trees all around.

When they arrive on the island, they do not find what they expected. They find the deed they hold is to a piece of property half an hour from the sea by car, and the road to the property is so bad no car can get over it. The house is there, all right, but they can't get to it. It's on top of a hill in the middle of someone else's cow pasture and there is no road up the hill at all.

There used to be a road. Now it's a forty-five degree mudslide. You can see the gravel that used to grade it lying all over the cow pasture.

What happened to the road?

"Hurricane," says the man in the army jeep who has offered to drive them out to the land.

They nod wisely. They're in the tropics now—hurricanes come with the territory. Having never been in a hurricane, they imagine it like the rainstorm at Coney Island that one summer when the carousel was hit by lightning. Everyone crowded into the arcade to wait for the storm to pass and sang songs about the first World War.

They gamely get out of the Jeep and slog their way up the hill. By the time they reach the top they're covered in mud. They go into the house. It isn't locked. Half the floorboards are rotten. You can see the foundation beneath them, light seeping through the cracks. There is no electricity or water. It starts to rain and the roof leaks.

They try to stick it out, but the weather gets them. They expected sun, they expected the water to be in the ocean, not falling out of the sky. After a few days they get back in the jeep and drive back to the town on the coast, where they check in at the Hotel American and try to figure out what went wrong.

They stay there for a while, in the Hotel American, with all their luggage. My grandfather drinks himself silly. My grandmother gets diarrhea, salmonella poisoning, and amoebas. My grandfather doesn't. He's healthy as a horse. There's so much alcohol in his stomach lining that nothing can grow there.

What a mess. The palm trees in the yard were not even the kind that produce coconuts. How could this have happened?

The history of travel, of people traveling anywhere, is the history of mistakes. Columbus died still believing he'd found Asia.

My grandparents give up and make reservations on a steamship back to New York.

When my mother is born, she grows up with the story of The Land Your Father Bought Like a Fool. She hears it from her mother, who has the sense to be amused by the whole thing since there's nothing else she can do.

My grandfather never goes anywhere again. But my mother—my mother is like a dog at the end of a rope. My mother is at the end of her rope. She begs and pleads and works nights and weekends, and at last my grandfather says yes, all right already, and my mother gets to do what she's always wanted: She buys a ticket to take a trip.

She goes across the ocean on a ship, and by herself, which is unusual in those days. She comes back to the U.S. when she runs out of money, but she talks of leaving again. It's a crucial point: She comes back and things look smaller than she remembered; America, the land so big and wide on the map, now seems to be only an image reflected over and over in opposing mirrors to give the illusion of infinite space. It has the appetite of infinite space.

My mother is not hungry.

"Will you please eat something?" my grandmother says. "You must have caught some disease out there that's ruining your appetite."

But it's not a sickness of the stomach that makes bread turn to wood in my mother's mouth—it's a sickness of the heart, the eyes. It's the sickness of a woman who has tasted a life the world does not want her to live. She knows it. It scares her, the flavor of what she got away with. She holds freedom in her mouth like an illicit kiss. She tries to forget it, she does not believe she will ever taste it again.

I carry with me one photograph of my mother. Before I was born, before she was married, this picture was taken. She's standing with her back against the railing of a bridge somewhere, laughing into the mouth of the camera. The background is washed out, like fog. It's impossible to see where she is, and when I ask her she says she doesn't know, it was too long ago.

"It might be Pittsburgh," she finally says. "I think I'm in Pittsburgh."

Pittsburgh! I want to shake her. She's not in Pittsburgh. The look in her eyes is happy, wild almost, thrilled. Thrilled is the word. She thinks she's in Pittsburgh because that's where she met my father, fell in love. But she's mixing it up, the look of being in love with the look of being in motion. She forgets now, she thinks love is all there is.

She thought if she didn't get married she would just come untied, float away like a balloon from the hand of a child. My father was her anchor.

I look at my mother and see the weight that sank her.

She didn't want me to go. She never said so, but like any daughter I could read my mother's mind. The day I finally left I could tell by the pauses in her speech exactly what she was feeling. Like any mother she was watching her life being carried away by her daughter. Not the life she was living, but the life she never had. She didn't want me to take it. It was like giving away a beautiful dress before she had a chance to wear it herself.

She clung to the hem.

I pretended not to notice and packed my bags.

It was in Berlin that the inevitable happened: I fell in love. Her name was Heike, yes, and the fact that she was a woman and not a man made it worse when it ended. All of us who come back to our own sex for the things we thought we had to leave it to find, we all have this idea in our heads that now that we're back, love will be easy, or easier. It's a beautiful illusion, and perhaps a necessary one, for without it, I don't know if I would have had the courage to begin at all. To admit who it was my eyes followed at parties, who I lost sleep over, who made me blush.

Heike lived in West Berlin, that island whose sea was concrete and barbed wire. I stayed in Berlin what was for me a long time. I stayed long enough to get a job: Four nights a week I tended bar in a café in Savigny Platz. I stayed long enough to find a place to live, with Heike. We moved in together, into an apartment in which we could see the Wall from six of our nine windows. It was considered a great view. Perhaps that's why I stayed so long, long enough to fall in love: the Wall surrounded me on all sides, and I forgot I was on the side of it where you're permitted to leave.

Love, I don't know what else to call it. When I think of her I don't think of that word but of the silent space between our two languages where words could not go. When we were out in public we spoke German; at home we spoke English. When we made love we spoke neither, although weren't silent. I think of those sounds now. In that closeness, in the heart of it with her fingers inside me and our bodies moving as one, the bed vanished and there was nothing but flesh, lips, hair, and a whole different existence in the moments when our eyes met, in those few moments I was there with her and nowhere else. In those few moments we were all that existed and all I wanted in the world.

Yes, it was love. I know because I had the illusion that things would be different because of it. I mean different in the place inside me where nothing, not even love could penetrate because that place was too far down. If anything could reach it I believed love could. Love can't, it seems. It didn't. But at the time I believed it would, so yes, it must have been love.

The tenderness I felt for her was sometimes so overwhelming that I was crushed under the weight of it. I would have to get up out of the bed where we lay—she sleeping and me looking in agonized tenderness at the shape of her closed eyes—get out of bed in the middle of the night and walk, first in the hall and then down the stairs and into the streets, breathing too fast and overwhelmed with the feeling of being unable to breathe.

I walked around and around the blocks of nighttime Berlin in such a state. I walked in the alleys, over the canal bridges, and along the Wall, always along the Wall. I climbed the little wooden observation staircases and looked out over the black stretch of field and barbed wire on the other side of the Wall, at the silhouettes of the soldiers in their turrets in the middle of the field. My heart was always beating too hard. I was full of a feeling I could not name, though I knew it well. At last I would descend the stairs and walk again, through Mariannen Platz and along the river until exhaustion fell like curtains over my mind. Then I would return to Goerlitzerstrasse and climb the stairs to our flat, exhausted, praying she was still asleep.

I watched the disaster of my own life approaching as if it were a ship coming toward me from far away. I spotted it long before it arrived. I was powerless to stop it. I didn't tell Heike what I saw. I thought if I said nothing perhaps it would go away again, or sink. Then it would never happen. Then she would never have to know.

It happened one night at a party in Kreuzberg. We went to a lot of parties like this one, a benefit for a movie some women we knew were making. I wasn't expecting anything. At one point I walked into the kitchen to get some wine. Five or six people were there, immersed in the conversations you go into the kitchen to have: two women at the small table, heads bent toward each other, three people clustered around the refrigerator speaking in low voices. I poured the wine into my cup and took a sip, and then I saw it. I saw a woman who looked exactly like myself standing there holding a teacup of red wine. Her head was in profile, and she had just raised the cup to her mouth. The woman was me. It was myself I was looking at, but from outside, as if I were outside the window at the end of the room. I tried to move toward myself. I couldn't.

"Are you all right?" a voice was saying. One of the women at the refrigerator had turned around and was looking at the woman who was me. "Are you all right?"

As I watched from a distance, the woman who was me dropped the teacup she held. Wine splattered on the linoleum, and the other woman came forward and touched my arm. When I felt her touch, suddenly I was back in my own body, I was able to move. I moved my head and looked at the floor. There was wine on my shoes.

"What's wrong?"

I looked up at the woman. There was worry in her eyes. I didn't know her name.

"Nothing," I said. I picked up the teacup, which hadn't broken, and smiled. If the world had been ending at that moment I still would have picked up that cup, smiled that smile.

"Nothing," I said again, and went back to the living room. Heike was standing with her back to me, laughing at something that had just been said. I hardly recognized her. She turned to look at me and stopped laughing.

"You look sick," she said. "Michelle, are you all right?" I shook my head. "I have to get out of here." "Okay," she said, misunderstanding. "We'll go home."

I sat in the apartment like a drugged person. There were things in it that belonged to me, books on bookshelves, a couch, a closet full of clothes, pots and pans, posters. They were all a kind of accident happening around me. I looked at them with no feeling of ownership. I didn't know why I'd bought them, what I was thinking.

"What is it?" Heike asked.

"Let's go to bed," I told her.

She looked at me to see what I meant by this. I tried a smile, managed to keep it there. Pleased, she reached out and touched the base of my throat with her fingers. I willed myself to attend to her touch, her body. I leaned forward, fit my mouth to her mouth, pressed my tongue against the swell of her lips that I had come to know as well as my own, the faint ridges of her teeth, the taste of her, anise and rain.

I'm here, I thought, here, here, here, and she slid her fingers down over my sweater, wandered them toward my breasts as if we had all the time in the world. And my body flushed with heat and wanting as I waited for her hand. It's working, I thought, and for one long moment I believed it too—that I could stay there forever, that the spell of her body was strong enough to save me, but as her hand slid so slow and certain toward the pulse of sparks that were now my nipples, I bent my knees and took her fingers in my mouth before they could arrive. If her fingers moved any farther down my body, they would trip over the little cloth bag with the passport in it that hung from a cord around my neck, next to my skin.

I should have known, it was right there, the warning, written plain as day in that idiom of American speech, "to fall in love." I didn't pay attention to it until it was too late. It wasn't until I felt the air rushing about my head and found myself staring down, down into an endless space below me, not until then did I think about those words.

To fall in love. To fall in. To fall.

On the last day—I didn't know it was going to be the last—I wasn't the one who left. My body was testament to that; my body sat on the floor of the apartment in front of the windows in the echo of her departure and was still for a long time. It was not my body that left.

My mind, my mind. Never say it was because I was impervious to love. It was because I had come too near an edge.

After she left I sat there in a stupor for what might have been hours before I noticed the street outside. Through the windows I could see there was some sort of demonstration going on. The streets were so full of people you couldn't see the pavement. I watched for a long time before I registered what I was looking at. They were taking down the Wall. For weeks there had been talk of this happening, but in the past few days I had somehow missed the events that led up to its commencement. In the past few days my mind hadn't been in Berlin at all.

I put some things from the apartment in my knapsack and went out the door. I headed for the train station, threading my way through the crowds of East and West Berliners celebrating. I walked for hours. After sunset the streets grew even more packed. People lit bonfires and set off firecrackers, and no one in all of Berlin went to bed. In the passion of that crowd my own journey was swallowed and so it took me a whole night and a day to get from Goerlitzerstrasse to the Bahnhof am Zoo. I saw Berliners with pickaxes or hammers in one hand and bottles of champagne in the other. I was given a handful of fireworks, which I put in my knapsack, and a flag, which I lost. I ate the cake that was passed to me, and I drank lots of champagne, which was everywhere, but I wasn't part of the celebration. I didn't dance on the wall or run back and forth through the center of the city that had been divided for so many years, as the Berliners did, some of them weeping with joy. I moved through the crowds like someone in a dream. When I boarded the train that would take me out of Berlin the party was reaching its height. The coach was mobbed with East Germans drunk on schnapps and freedom, but by the time the train actually crossed the border I had fallen asleep. When I woke up I was in another country and the compartment was empty.

I dreamed of the house, the house on the island.

I am walking up the hill to the top, where the house stands out against the sky a brilliant white against enormous blue. The world blazes with color. Emerald, fuchsia, the sky so blue it looks swollen. The air itself blue, and dizzying, tropical, hot. I stand on vibrant grass and look up at the bright whiteness of the house, so bright it is almost blurred. I squint. Through the windows I can see people. My family is inside.

My grandmother, bent like grass in the wind.

My grandfather, looming, solid. His feet shake the floor when he walks.

My mother, whose eyes follow everything and arrive nowhere. My father, a presence in another room.

I can't see myself. I know I am in there with them, but I can't see where.

I stare at the house, trying to see, but it's too bright. Forgetting shines like a star. To look straight at it hurts my eyes.

I awoke with a start. I was on the train. Outside the dirty compartment windows, a countryside whizzed past. Autumn grass dying in a field. The sky looked as if it had been raining. I did not know how long I had been asleep.

I was alone in the train. I couldn't see the sun, but it felt like late afternoon. I couldn't remember what time of day I had boarded the train in Berlin. I couldn't remember being awakened at the border, whether we had crossed it.

I looked out the window.

Fields, dead grass, newly turned earth. The clack of the wheels, low iron clouds overhead. The train ran for a few moments alongside a highway and I saw a road sign. I was no longer in East Germany.

The house, I dreamed of that house. Not of Heike, not of the hundred different ways it might have happened instead, not of her face which I will probably never see again. Not of the city I have just left. I dreamed of that house, a house I have never even seen.

Before my grandmother died she used to tell me stories about it, the house, the adventure in the tropics that ended in a mess. I sat beside her on a sofa whose color and shape I have forgotten and listened as she told me about things that had happened, her eyes alight in rare animation at relaying the scandal of it all, of her younger days.

In lush detail and gesturing with her usually silent hands, my grandmother describes for me how silly the rocking chair looked sitting in the mud of the front yard, how the storms shook the roof until she was afraid it would blow off but it didn't, how they sat drinking rum in the darkness and waiting for the house to fall down around their ears. But it didn't, she says, it didn't fall.

I ask her if it's still there and she says she expects it is. As she speaks of it I can see it, the house. It would be a place to wander off to, a place to hide in, to slide through the bushes and make my way up wooden steps into the shade of a roof so strong that even a hurricane would not blow it away.

Things that have happened to me, the stories of my own life, have slipped through me without a trace, but the stories my grandmother told me, stories about other people, about things that happened many years before I was alive have caught and fixed themselves inside me with perfect clarity. I have other people's memories in place of my own.

Another memory is that of my mother, hands on hips, eyes flashing, standing in the kitchen yelling at her parents. She's younger than I am: "She'd just had a birthday," says my grandmother, "Your mother was just twenty-one."

She's twenty-one and looks like she does in the photograph I have of her, the photograph that isn't in Pittsburgh. She's angry now, furious, but like in the photograph she is full of life.

"All right," says my mother, stabbing the air with her chin, "all right, then, I'll leave. I'll go live on the island."

My grandparents, sitting at the table, look up at their furious daughter and ask her what she's talking about.

"I'll live in the house on the island," she says. "I won't need any money. You won't wonder where I am. You won't have to do anything. I have enough money for the plane ticket. I'll just go."

"No you won't," says my grandfather. "You don't even know where it is."

"But you do," says my mother.

My grandfather says nothing.

"You mean he wouldn't tell her?" I ask.

"You have to understand," my grandmother says. "You have to understand, Michelle. Your mother was so young, barely twenty. Back then girls didn't go off gallivanting around the way they do now. Besides, it wasn't as if we said she couldn't go anywhere. Just not there, not alone. If she'd been married, it would have been different. It was a strange country, a wild country, no Americans around for miles and miles. Suppose something had happened to her? You know what I mean. It wasn't safe."

I think about that word, safe. A safe is a box, a box of iron. I see the hinged door, the lock, the numbers. A safe is where you put things you don't want other people to know you have.

Valuables, secrets.

I have the deed to that house with me. When I was packing to leave America I went into my parents' room for a picture of my mother. The picture I wanted she kept in a jewelry box I had never seen her opened, though I had opened it many times myself. It contained things like pearls and a lock of my hair from when I was small. There were a few envelopes, one with the hair in it, another larger one containing the deed to the house. I pocketed the snapshot of my mother laughing and started to close the drawer. Then, on impulse, I took the deed. I knew she wouldn't miss them. She never opened these drawers.

I was surprised to find out I once had blond hair. At least on the envelope it said in my mother's writing, "Michelle, age 2." But my hair is brown now.

Outside the window of the train it was getting dark. I switched on the light over my seat and pulled out the little bag I carried around my neck. I took out my passport and looked at the visa stamps, the inks in different colors, blue, purple, dark red, the smudged words in foreign languages. I turned to the front of the book and looked at the photograph on the inside cover for a long time.

I took out my money and counted it and then put everything away again and slipped the bag back inside my shirt. I switched off the compartment's reading light. Outside in the world, on the fields, it had started raining.

"You could have gone anyway," I told my mother once.

"Gone where, honey?" she said, as if I were still that young.

"To the house. On the island." She wasn't listening. "Mom."

"Oh," she said finally. "That. Yes, but I didn't know where it was, they wouldn't tell me. It wasn't until after they'd both died that I even saw the deed. You know that."

"You could have gone anyway. You could have just gone to the island and gone to the hall of records or something. You could have found out where the land was."

She shrugged. "I don't know, it was too much of a hassle. And anyway, then I met your father." She smiled. "And if I hadn't met your father, I would never have had you, and then where would I be?"

She kept looking at me after she said this, as if she expected an answer.

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