Nearing an outcrop of rock that formed a cove with a brutal undertow, Anton saw the usual small craft, that rowed out to the anchored boats. His ear was attuned for the first time to snatches of the peninsular speech, the patois of the fishmongers. He was able to make out “today” and “goodbye”, no more.
Someone came to walk at his side, and kept pace with him, a man with a metal box for carrying ice. Anton spoke first, these motions too deliberate for him to suppose his acquired companion did not bring a message.
“You were saying something just now.”
“Oh, well, I was talking to myself.”
He laughed, in a way he would not have found convincing. He had just recognized this messenger as the other Anton. And realized, that in taking off his coat, he’d taken his hand out of his pocket, flashing tourmaline.
“Say that again.”
Anton cleared his throat. “Ehca bei feidda djoui-acht.”
Sarcasm. Goodbye, the other Anton said, and ground the shape of a turning foot in the soft pebbles of the beach.
“Do you have two sisters, Anton?”
If he had named the family, called out Swisshelm within earshot of the three-wheeled motorbike, its camera, the officer on patrol who had ridden to the causeway’s end, he would not much more greatly have breached the rules.
The officer’s face was an expressionless mouth between dark lenses and chin-strap.
This Anton, a better agent than A. Leonhardt—for he’d made note, without staring, of tourmaline—also was resolute in keeping his face forward, and his gait steady. Only he had twitched a shoulder slightly at the words. But the officer might notice even that.
These days the invaders used the university’s auditorium and its larger lecture halls to show films; this present round to explain the new rationing scheme. Gaining his ticket had demanded a long walk of many blocks.
Anton came to a table, one of six placed in a hexagon skirting the naked base of a statue. He’d never seen it, and didn’t know what it had once commemorated. He shuffled at last to a place across from a Helper, and was sent to a different table. Here, he was classed in some way he thought designated him an outsider.
“Nedforum,” the woman had written in her binder. The name was beginning to stick. It was a way of pronouncing NED4M, that designation for the capital, its location and rough population: Northeast Department, four million.
The invaders’ plan called for each population center to be also a center of industry; to move the people into quadrants and to balance their numbers. This second Helper handed him a clip-on badge, and told him he might wear it at the waist, or at the collar.
And because they were finally being given enough to eat, the people had become now gentle as lambs; they walked miles and waited hours…they even laughed and sang in the queues.
The Swisshelms were at home.
He knew it. He’d followed them from the kitchen to their door. He had atoned for the emotional impulse, for having called out to Anton. He’d kept clear of their house for a month. He saw the family bunched together, ahead by a few dozen ration-seekers, coatless, the daughters bright in their spring dresses.
He hadn’t spoken. That was taking care…they ought to appreciate it. He hadn’t come close enough to their heels to look as though he were walking with them. He would not have expected her to leave the door standing open. That might not have been wise.
But he found she’d locked it. She had smiled at him once, bending to turn the knob, lifting her eyes and brushing away a strand of hair. She had locked him out.
Emotion caught Anton again. This treatment was the reason he’d spoken out of turn…the only reason! Yes, the aloof smile. The phrase embodied how they’d cultivated and rejected him. He banged at the Swisshelms’ door.
They had wasted his time. He’d forgotten tourmaline, thinking he’d found it. He ought to have been out making contacts.
But he was not making a troublesome scene. He had only shouted something crude; and then, feeling so much a fool…being one in such an exposed way, had gone on with it, pounding the door with his fist, ready to kick in its glass, calling her bitch, bitch, bitch.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)