I finally finished it: the second panel in a literary triptych bound together by the theme of lost love. The first panel was the story I recently published called "Charlie & Emma".
It has taken a long time to complete because reality has a way of insisting I focus on tasks like earning a living and tending to the overgrowth in my front door garden. This sometimes limits me to writing on weekends, and evenings when I'm not drained from work. In any event, I am interested in your feedback.
I am particularly interested in knowing more about these issues:
- Does Mr. Simpson have a clear voice of his own. That is, is his language, considering that he is a university professor, distinctive?
- Is Mr. Gormand clear in the mind's eye?
- Does the theme clearly emerge? Does Mr. Gormand's struggle with the nature of his friend emerge clearly?
- What did you like? Didn't like? Would have liked?
- Any other comments?
And so…here is "Mr. Simpson & The Wolf."
Finally it happened. The incessant torment of hearing Moon River played over and over, ended suddenly. And the comforting silence of crickets in the hot August night breezed past my curtains. Mr. Simpson was accustomed to playing it once, at exactly 10:00 p.m. every evening upon retiring. And I would imagine his thick white hair on the pillow and he driftng into a world of memories.
While he was alive, I often wondered about the secret sheltered within this nightly ritual. it seemed to reach out like a tendril longing for a memory that would dissolve if the music were not played. And in my affection that evening I indulged him by enduring this unusual replay of comfort.
I liked this vibrant, strong septuagenarian who planted beauty with a vengeance. He had a smile as broad as a Saskatchewan prairie. And most mornings his luxuriant moustache and broad shoulders tended a profusion of colour and life. His lawn and garden bordered mine. And our little horticultural conversations allowed our friendship to percolate. Although we talked over the hedge and shared tea on his manicured lawn, I knew little of him. He'd appeared suddenly in Osoyoos about three years ago, in '98, and I'd rarely gotten behind his brilliant wall of smiles…
…except for a couple of occasions. The first glimpse behind that wall occurred on a warm September of his first year. We drank red wine beneath the coolness of a vine-covered lattice in his back yard. Plump grapes hung fresh above us. The earth was at peace and we were aglow with the liquid that loosens tongues. I broke a pause in our conversation by asking, "How does a Yugoslavian come to be called John Simpson?"
He mused for a moment, took a sip from his wine glass and kindly corrected me. "I am Serbian." Mr. Simpson spoke in a heavily accented but flawless English cleansed of slang, contractions and popular expressions. "When I left, I wanted to start a new life." He tipped the glass again and swallowed. "When I arrived in Halifax I adopted the name of the immigration officer who processed me."
When I asked him his Serbian name, he simply replied that he didn't want me to think of him as anyone other than Simpson. "You speak such excellent English," I told him. "What was your occupation in Serbia?"
"I was professor of English Literature at the University of Belgrade." He winked at me and pretended to whisper, "But no one knew that my favourite novel was Dr. Zhivago. A book written by a Russian." We both chuckled at this mischievous irony. And when I remarked how well his daffodils had done that year, he fell into a recital of a poem by Wordsworth. These lovely times together were precious orchids, and it is they that helped me struggle with what was to emerge.
The other glimpse beyond his brilliant wall occurred almost three years later, at the end of May. We were drinking tea from dainty cups that spoke of the influence of an elegant woman in my friend's life. We'd slowly become friends by that time, and liked each other's company. When I asked if he'd ever been married, he set his cup down and folded his hands. A cloud had momentarily obscured our sunny day. "We liked to drink from these," he said, motioning to the cozy arrangement of teapot, cups and saucers. "They are the only things I have left."
Mr. Simpson was a very private man who displayed the pearls of his life reticently. And he knew that I respected his need. But I was a writer who loved stories from the heart. So I boldly asked him, "And what became of her?"
Sadness arose in him, like the melancholy I sensed behind the nightly replay of Moon River. Looking away from me, to the relics on the table he answered, "Her name was Fatima. I was much older. She was a student at the Unviersity and loved flowers. When we married she created a magnificent walled garden where we spent hours reading to one another and drinking tea. I liked to call her Lara, after Zhivago's lover. And like him, I lost her."
He seemed to struggle as if with something locked in an attic. But I sensed him holding it back. I shared that I too had lost my wife, to cancer six years past, hoping that this would help him release what he'd caged inside.
"I was a Serbian Christian and she a Bosnian Moslem," he said. "And her family forbade our relationship. Because her father was dead, her uncle and her older brother ruled the family. When I went to plead for her and declared my intentions, the brother set his dogs on me. I was repeatedly bitten before he called them off."
Sorrow was entwined with something that I couldn't clearly discern. It hid in the background like luminescent eyes in a dark forest. "They imprisoned her," he continued, "…in her bedroom. And her clothes were taken from her. I found her barefoot and terrified, in her pyjamas at my door. In the eyes of her family she was now a whore." And he spat that word – whore. "But we married. She became pregnant. And we were happy."
I didn't want to ask him again how he'd lost her, so I waited. "She died giving birth to our son." Reaching for the golden teapot he added, "And that is enough for today, my friend." As he filled our cups, the eyes in the forest receded and his smile recovered like a freshly watered bloom. He redirected our conversation to his lupines.
"They are tenacious and grow like weeds. One has to be careful with lupines." And indeed he was right. By the time his home and possessons had been auctioned, this plant with the wolfish name was rank among the columbines and bellflowers.
In 2001 June burst forth in a riot of floral glory. I heard him in his back yard listeneing to songs from the movies and spraying the elegant beds of iris, and the honeysuckle that ran unhindered along his walled Eden. I needed to borrow a garden trowel and traced the green path along his house to the backyard. The lawn muffled my footsteps. And it was then that I saw it – tattooed on his bicep: a large picture of a snarling wolf. He wheeled round in his undershirt and stared from behind a scarlet face. Forcing a smile he reached for a long-sleeved shirt he'd lain on a lawn chair.
"You statrtled me, Mr. Gormand…please, sit down." He was auspicious and filled with grace. "I see that you have discovered my little secret." Which he dismissed as a dare between drunken buddies. He invited me to tea on the lawn and apologized that he was out of honey. But through the wallpaper of hospitality, awkwardness bulged. Something had emerged that was unintended. Although my affection conspired to protect his secrets, he sensed my curiousity, set his teacup down and explained: "In 1945 I was seventeen. My friends and I loved the mother country. We joined the White Wolves to protect her from Communism. But it also meant siding with the Nazis. I was too young and too stupid to understand what I had done. The war ended quickly, and the White Wolf remains."
I believed him, but I felt uneasy. In this man of mystery I sensed more. That night I dreamed: Moonlight shines on a river of purple lupines. Mr. Simpson swims desperately. Struggling aginst the current, he calls, "Lara! Lara!" And as he sinks beneath the turbulent flow, I see blazing, luminescent eyes.
August burned mercilessly. And the hunger of plants was evident. Mr. Simpson and I were talking over the hedgerow when I saw him look to the street below and watched the colour bleed from his face. Another man was looking back intently: a black-headed man, needing a shave. Mr. Simpson excused himself claiming he had left the water running in the back yard. And I wondered what could have made this powerful man blanch as he did.
On what seemed the hottest night that month, my air conditioner broke down. And through the open windows Moon River entered for what must have been the twentieth time. But it was not the demented loop of lyrics that brought me to his door; it was the sudden, arching scratch of stylus on vinyl that had brought me there. It was unusual and alerted me. I climbed the three steps to his verandah; the lights were on and the door was slightly ajar. When he didn't answer I walked in and was shocked by the red blotches that seeped from his belly and chest.
He had called me by crawling to the cabinet and overturning the record player. His lips moved and I bent to hear him: "Lara…please…forgive me." By the time the ambulance and police arrived, my friend was dead.
The RCMP captured the black-headed man at the tollbooth of the Coquihalla Highway. And the trial exposed the secrets of the tattooed wolf: My friend was Bojan Vladic, of the White Wolves, a paramilitary group in the wars that had recently fractured Yugoslavia. His assassin, a Bosnian refugee, described how they had cut his uncle with razor blades and pulled off his skin with pliers. How they had murdered his aunt and sent the family to concentration camps. Settled in British Columbia, the Bosnian was astounded when he saw Vladic casually walking in a Kelowna mall. He followed him to his car, obtained the license number and discovered where he lived.
The refugee was convicted and sentenced. But his testimony profoundly distrubed me. He had fingered Vladic with other atrocities, but I couldn't reconcile them with the memories of a broad smile, of aromatic tea and legions of vibrant flowers. I was dismayed, then angry. This Vladic must have lied to me! I challenged the warmth that had grown between us and debated whether anything he'd told me was true. Who was this man!?
About a month later I received a letter written in an elegant hand. Mr. Simpson had dated it August 5, 2001, a week before his murder.
Dear Mr. Gormand,
I have instructed my solicitor to mail this letter to you in the
event of my death. For you are my only friend. And I have
things to confess so that you may know the man who called you friend.
But first, I apologize for playing Moon River so often. You see…Lara and I
played it frequently. It became what you Canadians call, Our Song.
One night in June while walking back from a movie, we passed by a
pub out of which her uncle and three of his associates spilled.
They were drunk and hurled insults as we hurried onward. A
bottle passed over her shoulder and shattered in front of us.
We ran across a field where we turned to face them beneath
a large Oak tree. I was beaten into insensibility. And the
beasts raped and brutalized her.
While I was unconscious she awakened. We had lost our child,
and she, in the depths of her despair,
flung herself from the hospital balcony.
Like the wolf on my arm, I howled and snarled my grief – I wanted to kill
them all. I planned. I searched. I was careful. And although
it took a few years, I found the associates and slaughtered them.
When I was ready for the uncle,
he had dissolved into the chaos of the Balkan War.
So I made a deal with the devil. Because I'd been a White Wolf
I used my war record to gain influence with the paramilitaries,
who also called themselves White Wolves.
They found him, secluded in a farmhouse by a river.
It was a night in April, the snow had melted and the rivers were swollen.
Nine of us moved on the farmhouse.
I was told to cover the back. The front was kicked open
and the squeals of children haunt me still as I write.
Someone from the barn ran quickly to the river.
I heard two shots from within followed by shouts
and the wail of someone in agony.
Inside, a young man lay dead and two children wept, "Pappa! Pappa!"
A paramilitary clenched an older woman by the hair
and held up a photograph torn from the wall. His mouth
cursed her and demanded to know where her husband was.
When she would not say, he simply shot her in the head
and pointed the pistol at one of the children.
A mother covered the child and desperately pointed to a
closet. "He is behind there! Behind there!" She pleaded.
They smashed a walled hiding place
and dragged out the terrified uncle.
The paramilitary known as Ratko calmly asked me, "Is this the man?"
I simply nodded. They bound him firmly in a chair,
stripped his clothes, slashed him with razor blades, and with
pliers tore strips of skin from his quivering body.
The family was all tears, wailing and agony. I was stunned:
the price I had paid for this man had been too great.
I had gone too far into the heart of darkness.
As though in a dream I raised my weapon to his head
and it was finished: for both him, and me.
I was a walking dead-man when I moved next door to you.
And I could not reconcile what I had done
with the memory of the woman I loved.
One night the radio played Moon River, and the flood of my
grief burst forth. I remembered a moment in our garden.
Lara was smelling lilacs while gently chiding me for something
I had said: "Bojan," she said gently, "It is better to plant a flower
than to curse the soil." And so I did.
I understand, Mr. Gormand, that planting beauty, alone
cannot absolve me. But it is something…is it not?
Otherwise, how can any man be redeemed?
Do you remember that man with dark black hair, looking
at us from the street? he was Fatima's brother. I'm sure it was he
who fled from the barn. I don't know how he found me,
but now all that remains is for me to wait.
I have enjoyed our times together.
P.S. Please, tend the lupines. They do not respect boundaries.
It is night. And at any moment I expect to hear Moon River floating through my bedroom window. I've re-read his letter a dozen times. It is as beautiful and as brutal as roses. And I feel bewildered, like someone lost in a maze. Who was this man who nurtured flowers, recited Wordsworth and loved music? Could such a man have lived in the same body as the one who murdered for love?