Zoetrope: All-Story

Port-Bou

Jack Gain

As a special online supplement to the Winter 2021/2022 issue, the editors present the prizewinning story from the 2021 Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Competition, as judged by Daniel Mason.

When the heat of the day has established itself, so that the dust on the air has settled a little . . . When the rays of light lift, like warp yarn or the strings of a piano, from the slats of the shutters onto the opposite wall . . . When the muffled cries of trading have died in the street below . . . And when the long rhombus of sun from the block window has crossed the bed and is touching the nightstand, my glasses case, the small vial of morphine, my papers, my watch . . . it is safe to go out.

At this time, even the police station closes for a couple of hours. The landlord of the hotel is sleeping. The stairs to the cave unlit. 

And the streets are empty as during a mass. Their narrow pitch, the scant shade of the buildings, guiding you down to the sea.

Quiet as it is, the sight of another soul cuts the air like an alarm. The shadow moving toward you is a vector of concern. One that isn’t fully resolved even when you are near enough to see it for what it is—

a local bourgeois returning late for lunch

a greengrocer sweeping his walk

—but is carried over, integrated back into the general mass of concern.

Wary of the priest, I cross outside the chapel. At the trundling of a cart, I take a flight of steps.

But turn by turn, I end up going in the right direction, which is down. Down until the village is behind me and the cove opens up into the bright outlet of the sea.

A neap tide pours between the rocks. Small boats bob at the entrance of the bay.

How can the sight of the wrong sea be so calming?

Can the eye tell all ocean is the same?

I have the feeling of being watched. To my left, I see a man standing up straight and winding rope around his arm. Dark eyes, dark eyebrows and mustache trained on me.

I give a weak smile and return toward the village. And then, once I’m back among the cover of the buildings, run.

In the darkness of my room, I hide my papers under the mattress and take two capsules of morphine with a stale glass of water. Then lie down to catch my breath, cursing this miserable town.

The last good moment was our first night at the tavern.

The vineal fug. The warm, yellow light. A song starting up that I recognized but couldn’t place.

We were just acquaintances, French Jews and other Germans. The other six posing as couples, and me. I didn’t know any of their last names.

We had arrived that afternoon into Cerbère, the final French town. Seeing into all the rooms of the apartment buildings as the train crossed the viaduct.

There, as in Paris, the advertisements had not been changed since the beginning of the crisis. Their bright colors faded and peeling away at the edges.

At dusk, we walked the last two kilometers across the hills into Spain with the guidance of a shepherd, passing low beneath the border terminal, under the cover of the ridge.

When we found ourselves in the dark streets behind the port, we burst out laughing.

—Let’s go for a drink! Miriam whispered.

—Will anywhere be open?

—There must be an inn or taverna or something near the station.

—Please! Just one drink, otherwise I’ll never sleep!

—All right, one drink.

The others had recognized the song, too. Their eyes widening and smiles forming around the table as the opening chords swirled between us.

Theo began humming and tapping along. Miriam pinched her brow as if to say, Don’t tell me.

For the first time, it seemed like we would make it. If we held together a few more days, we could reach Lisbon, then make our respective passages by sea. I could see my manuscript to America, where it was to be published in English.

The lyrics of the song came in, and we all realized at once what it was.

We must have made a great noise, because I became aware of a man watching us from another table. A man with a serious-looking face, thick eyebrows and mustache. A red neckerchief tied in the customary way.

I broke off from the man’s gaze out of politeness and thought nothing further of it.

The seven of us lodged separately under gentile names.

I stood swaying in the reception of my hostel, trying to appear sober, as the landlord took forever to place the carbon sheet to draft a triplicate of my bill.

The grave lines of his face lifting only when I paid up front for seven nights.

Concerned above all about my manuscript, I hid my briefcase behind the nightstand. And placed the morphine, a suicide dose, precisely within reach in case the room were raided before dawn, humming drunkenly to myself.

The next morning, I sat bleary-eyed in the police station, waiting to be seen by the young duty officer.

We had left France without exit visas, but each had transit visas for Spain and Portugal. I had volunteered to go along and present mine to the authorities to ensure everything was in order from here on.

—These papers are out of date, the officer said plainly.

—They were issued at Marseille only last week.

—There has been a change in the legislation.

—What does that mean?

—One moment, please.

He disappeared into the back. While I was waiting, a terror slowly dawned on me. I imagined him speaking to a superior officer. A telephone call being placed. The officer lumbering up from his desk. Before they could reappear and advance from around the corner, I fled.

Walking back through the crowds at the market, I felt cripplingly aware of how I carried myself. Of how my difference marked me. The oppressive stupor of small towns!

We met in Eloise and Victor’s hotel.

I wanted to make a break for it that night, on foot, but the others convinced me we should lie low until the situation changed.

—I can’t stay here, I exclaimed. I stand out like a colorful dog!

—It’s a border town, Victor said. They’re accustomed to seeing strangers walking around. 

Miriam agreed. 

—If you don’t think about it too much, you’ll be fine, she said, touching my arm.

When I returned to my room, my asthma was flaring up.

I thought about the man with the mustache the previous night. How foolish we had been to stay out drinking and draw attention to ourselves.

I moved my manuscript to the back of the wardrobe, and took a capsule of morphine. Cutting into my supply for the first time. The relief, like muting a rattle with your hand.

Before there was Spain, there were rabbits in a field. Hispania from sphan, the Phoenician word for “hare.”

I’d gone to bed in Spain and woken up back in France. The border being a power that moves, like a Frankish king.

Cooped up in my room, I fretted over the situation. 

When the town fell to the fascists, its population had halved, and it became a waypoint for republicans fleeing to France. There, some formed maquis and continued fighting.

The place now had the appearance of normality, but everywhere there was rot. All the local clergy and businesspeople were likely fascists. The police, members of the local Falange. The population scattered with German spies.

On the third day, I had watched the landlord talking with a man in the street below and then looking up at my window.

I started going out only during the siesta. Buying tobacco, sausage, a liter of wine. And then, after being seen again by the mustachioed man down at the beach, not at all.

And I started taking the morphine regularly to settle my nerves. The compulsion, like dampening a piece of cloth, each time raising the watermark further. I was no longer certain I had enough left to kill myself, eroding my last route of escape.

My dreams began to seem more real.

Anxious dreams in which the hills were full of maquis and gestapo, cowboys and Indians.

Longing dreams of northern Europe. Firm cheeses, eiderdowns. Steep rooves and drab, maternal stone. (The irony of a Jew longing for the heimat!)

On the fourth day, I woke to Charlemagne standing over my bed. His horse decorated with feathers from the maquis captured in the hills.

As I paced my room, affinities suggested themselves to me from my translation.

Hostel and hostile, from the shared root hostis meaning “stranger.”

Customs as in “conventions,” customs as in “restriction of trade.”

Papers as in “archive,” papers as in “permission to travel.”

To deport as in “conduct oneself,” to deport as in “expel.”

Traum as in “reverie,” trauma as in “wound.”

This hateful state (state as in “country,” state as in “condition”) in which everything has two meanings.

On the fifth day, Miriam stopped by, or was that also a dream? Sitting on the side of the bed with my papers on her lap. Her look of concern.

—I’m going to look after these until we go, OK?

Kissing my forehead before she left.

This neutral country where nothing is neutral. Down to the harsh contrast of light and shade in the pattern of the shutters that fell across my bed. The folds of my linen, set in stone.

On the sixth day, I wake to a cockerel crowing in the carrer below, although I can tell it’s late afternoon. The sound, different somehow from a cockerel in France, different again from Germany.

I am contemplating it when there’s a banging at the door. I lie still for several seconds until I hear the landlord mutter something and shuffle off down the hall.

I pace the room, expecting him to return at any moment with the master keys and the police captain at his side. 

After an hour of waiting, I am a nervous wreck. My breath, raking through my chest.

I decide to take the last of the morphine. Lying down on the bed, I swallow the handful of capsules and plug my ears with cotton wool. Hear the orchestra of my arteries tuning up.

The euphoria is quick. This time, I don’t fall asleep but have a waking vision. 

Of customs houses collapsing and railway lines being built. Their branches spanning out across the plane like an angiogram, veins flooding with dye.

Of wind blowing through the abandoned border terminals on the highland pass above the town.

It is a vision of a future Europe in which I, Jew and oriental, from its dark heart, can travel unmolested between its capitals.

When night has fallen and I hear the landlord leave, I slip out of the hotel and walk in the direction of the road. Starting up the hill into the trees. Running at first, until the soft, deciduous waste of the forest floor tugs at my shoes, making me stumble once and then again.

I have to sit down for a moment, whereupon I black out.

When I come to, it is staring back at me. Its lights glistening from a thousand points beyond the town.

It is already real. Passage to any continent. The lands of history submerged, leagues deep.

My limbs feel tired but strong. I imagine myself swimming and fill with confidence.

As I run toward it, the slapping of my soles resounds against the sleeping walls of the buildings.

The road gives way to rocks, whose dark mass I can barely see to place my feet.

When the water is at my waist, I remember: my papers! Miriam has taken them. It is almost enough to make me turn back. 

Instead, I wade on. Then am lifted off my feet and start to swim.

The sea is rough. Waves sting my sinuses and nearly strip me of my glasses. But I am sure of where I’m going. Sure I can reach it on my own.

Soon, my arms grow tired, and I am dragged farther out on the tumbrel of the tide.

Still, my vision burns more clearly. A brotherhood of nations! I am moving out toward it. The bright atrium of stars above affirms.

Suddenly, I am pulled low in the trough of a wave, which then crashes over my head and sends me deep.

In the undertow, I lose my sense of up and down. It is quiet here. My lungs fill quickly, and I cease to struggle.

I am free!

Taste of salt. Pink backs of my eyelids.

The name comes from the Catalan word bou, meaning “bull.” The stout fishing boats that crowd into the cove.

But this describes the view from land, from safety. On some old shipping maps, the town is recorded as Port Bo. “Port Good.”

he taste is rinsed clean. My eyes open to the twinkling light.

The Phoenicians called it Allis Ubbo, meaning “safe port,” “delightful little port.”

It was Olisipo under the Romans.

Ulixbone under the Moors.

Then Lisboa. 

Boa: the Portuguese for “good.”

Salt again. Rinsed away by beer.

I am in Lisbon. Facing west. The right sea before me. Trams rattling past. Catlike vowels from the next table.

I don’t recall the feeling of being pulled from the water. The first thing I remember is his good face over mine. His thick eyebrows knitted together. A look of concern that, in my peace, I couldn’t make sense of.

He was a fisherman, a communist.

—I thought they all . . .

I made a whooshing motion.

—Not all of us, he said. Some of us stayed.

He’d stripped me off, wrapped me in wool, and lit a fire. When I came to, he cooked us eggs. Shared his bed. We slept side by side for several nights.

The others had fled, he told me. No one knew where. He’d recognized us as refugees that first night in the bar.

He said that once I recovered he would take me to some people who could help me get to Lisbon. As we ate, his voice and gentle gestures calmed me.

—Who are these people?

—Friends, he told me. I have many friends.

Somewhere near Lleida, a peasant met me on the highway. 

A family hid me in a loft in Aragon.

In a caravan of twelve, I crossed a field outside Toledo. Rabbits racing past us in the dawn light.

Each time I was handed over, it was without explanation. My gratitude, my poor Spanish waved away.

The trail I was on seemed to be the work of generations. The roots of some old vine, cut back but growing underground.

From a man in Badajoz, I heard a description of three couples who had passed along the route a week before.

I looked for them when I got to Lisbon. Looked hard into the shade under the hats of every couple I saw.

But now I sit alone on this promontory terrace, the night before my passage. Drinking beer and eating toasted corn. 

I do not know if I will see the others again. But I have made my peace with the idea that my manuscript is lost. That I must write it all again from scratch. And that anything that memory cannot recover must be written over. New associations forming in the deed.

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