I was furious with her for not having told me that my grandfather had left home. He had told her and my mother that he was worried about my goodwill mission, about the inoculations at the Brejevina orphanage, and that he was coming down to help. But I couldnt berate my grandma without giving myself away, because she would have told me if she had known about his illness, which my grandfather and I had hidden from her. So I let her talk, and said nothing about how I had been with him at the Military Academy of Medicine three months before when he had found out, or how the oncologist, a lifelong colleague of my grandfathers, had shown him the scans and my grandfather had put his hat down on his knee and said, Fuck. You go looking for a gnat and you find a donkey.
I put two more coins into the slot, and the phone whirred. Sparrows were diving from the brick ledges of the bathroom walls, dropping into the puddles at my feet, shivering water over their backs. The sun outside had baked the early afternoon into stillness, and the hot, wet air stood in the room with me, shining in the doorway that led out to the road, where the cars at border control were packed in a tight line along the glazed tarmac. I could see our car, left side dented from a recent run-in with a tractor, and Zóra sitting in the drivers seat, door propped open, one long leg dragging along the ground, glances darting back toward the bathroom more and more often as she drew closer to the customs booth.
They called last night, my grandma was saying, her voice louder. And I thought, theyve made a mistake. I didnt want to call you until we were sure, to worry you in case it wasnt him. But your mother went down to the morgue this morning. She was quiet, and then: I dont understand, I dont understand any of it.
I dont either, Bako, I said.
He was going to meet you.
I didnt know about it.
Then the tone of her voice changed. She was suspicious, my grandma, of why I wasnt crying, why I wasnt hysterical. For the first ten minutes of our conversation, she had probably allowed herself to believe that my calm was the result of my being in a foreign hospital, on assignment, surrounded, perhaps, by colleagues. She would have challenged me a lot sooner if she had known that I was hiding in the border-stop bathroom so that Zóra wouldnt overhear.
She said, Havent you got anything to say?
I just dont know, Bako. Why would he lie about coming to see me?
You havent asked if it was an accident, she said. Why havent you asked that? Why havent you asked how he died?
I didnt even know he had left home, I said. I didnt know any of this was going on.
Youre not crying, she said.
Neither are you.
Your mother is heartbroken, she said to me. He must have known. They said he was very illso he must have known, he must have told someone. Was it you?
If he had known, he wouldnt have gone anywhere, I said, with what I hoped was conviction. He would have known better. There were white towels stacked neatly on a metal shelf above the mirror, and I wiped my face and neck with one, and then another, and the skin of my face and neck left gray smears on towel after towel until I had used up five. There was no laundry basket to put them in, so I left them in the sink. Where is this place where they found him? I said. How far did he go?
I dont know, she said. They didnt tell us. Somewhere on the other side.
Maybe it was a specialty clinic, I said.
He was on his way to see you.
Excerpted from The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht Copyright © 2011 by Tea Obreht. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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