Tourmaline (part one)
Anton nearly smiled.
The glass kept steaming up, over and over. Because in a downstairs chamber something, he did not know what, boiled. Had it been sour cabbage, he would have felt envious, hungry as he’d always been. But he never smelled anything cook in this house. On an early winter day, he’d arrived…it had been frigid like this every day since. He’d been forced, given orders, to keep to his room. He had no idea what went on below.
This huddling figure he saw, dressed in black wool, ought to be Palma, coming in at the door, at the foot of the fire escape. She would give him something to do, and a reason for going out. An identity, as had been her promise…under the cover of which, he could go out. This stretching of his legs was at the moment all in all to Anton, and he strained to catch the sound of her heels, clattering up the last flight.
These were not proper stairs, but salvage from a breakers’ yard; the steps were metal, open to the shaft of the stairwell, and induced in Anton a nervous fear. Minutes went past. He knew this from the ticking of his watch, without taking his eyes from the beading condensation. He supposed she’d been able to enter.
Since he did not make arrangements with Palma—Palma made arrangements with him—it occurred to Anton that particular door might be kept locked. Next it occurred to him that Palma, having told him to record traffic on the causeway, note insignia and colors in his diary, might have guessed him to have more sense. He decided he would go out without specific permission, just to creep as far as the last attic step. Listen there. Descend to the ground floor, if it seemed safe to do so.
Palma was standing in the cold brick lane, her coat in anticipation folded over her arm, her beret still cocked over her chopped hair, scarf hanging loose.
“That’s a warm-looking sweater,” he said.
She shoved at the power closet’s door, and Anton scuttled backwards. The buzz of electricity made him nervous as well. His bare wrist touched something that seemed to coil away, and he started. The closet affected Palma not at all—she had left him, not caring for his remark, not answering. There was only Anton, bathed there in a red glow from the rows of monitoring lights.
He found her in his room. She’d taken his chair, and was reading his diary. But anything he’d written there was for her.
“No,” she said. “This won’t be good enough…not by any means. Will you think?”
“Tell me how I’ve gone wrong.”
“This sketch…what does it say underneath?”
He was confident, at first, that he could mollify her. He knew of no reason, other than the cold, other than that she’d had to walk here, why her mood must be so tetchy.
“Green,” he said, taking the book from her and reading off his notations. “Yellow.”
He’d been about to say, “black”; but Palma reached across and tugged the diary from his fingers. She did this as though having lost all patience. It dropped to the floor, between his shoes and hers.
She tapped it from sight under the daybed, and drew a deep breath. “If you are going to bother making pictures, you must please make your figures large enough…” She broke off. “I don’t think you’ve got it.”
Anton interrupted her in turn, feeling, for the first time with Palma, unconciliatory. She knew she’d left him here, with only tinned meat and biscuits to feed on. He’d been getting his water in a cup, tipping in the window and breaking the ends from icicles, letting them melt…sucking them when they wouldn’t melt. It was not so much, he thought, to have said, “I have brought you your name.”
Palma might have done him this small kindness at once.
“I’ve done a poor job, I suppose. But let me tell you who they were. I can. Why you wouldn’t know it yourself, when I’ve given you the colors…”
“Tell me! I may never see you again.”
He opened his mouth…and then thought, she doesn’t mean it like that. Her voice had sounded scornful. The scorn had been shaded, not overt. His director seemed moved most often by irritation, otherwise by the pity one might feel for an imbecile.
“I’m doing a poor job,” he said again. “Who will I be?”
The card had his photograph printed on it, a seal in red stamped over this, a signature, his own, mysteriously. Another signature, the name of an official (one of theirs), safe to be checked. Yes, he eyed it all carefully once more—the name on his identity card was given as A. Leonhardt.
“Why…” But what was the reasonable question?
“They’ve decided on this,” he said.
And in accord with habit, Palma answered by skipping to the next topic. “I have your instructions. I hope you’re paying attention. The word is a very easy one. Tourmaline.”
“You say easy.” And as it was useless with Palma, he would not go further. She might not find it so, if she were the one having to work it into conversation.
The other thing had been to have supper at one of the kitchens, to walk out into the town, to find a place at a common table, if any supper were being served that day. But, she’d said, to be finished by sunset…and to keep clear of the illegal cabarets.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)