Girl With Lizard
It was a painting of a girl with a lizard. They were looking at each other and not looking at each other, the girl gazing dreamily toward the lizard, the lizard directing its vacant, glistening eyes toward the girl. Because the girl's thoughts were somewhere else, she was holding so still that even the lizard sat motionless on the moss-grown rock, on which the girl lay half leaning, half stretched out on her stomach. The lizard lifted its head and probed with its tongue.
"That Jewish girl," the boy's mother said whenever she spoke of the girl in the painting. When his parents argued and his father got up to retreat to his study where the painting was hung, she would call after him, "Go pay your Jewish girl a visit!" Or she would ask, "Does the painting of that Jewish girl have to hang there? Does the boy have to sleep under the painting of that Jewish girl?" The painting hung above a couch where the boy napped at noontime, while his father read the paper.
More than once he had heard his father explain to his mother that the girl was not Jewish. That the red velvet cap she wore, pressed so firmly down into her brown curls that they almost hid it, wasn't meant to suggest her religion, wasn't a folk costume but a matter of fashion. "It's what girls wore back then. Besides, it's the Jewish men who wear caps, not the women."
The girl wore a dark red skirt, and over her bright yellow blouse was a dark yellow vest, a kind of bodice loosely laced with ribbons at the back. The rock on which the girl rested her chin and plump childish arms hid much of her clothes and body. She might have been eight years old. The face was a child's face. But the eyes, the full lips, and the hair, which curled against the brow and fell to cover her back and shoulders, were not those of a child but of a woman. The shadow that her hair cast over her cheek and temple was a secret, and the darkness of the puffed sleeve into which the bare upper arm vanished, a temptation. Behind the rock and a sliver of beach, the sea stretched away to the horizon and surged into the foreground on rolling breakers; sunlight piercing the dark clouds left its luster on a patch of glistening sea and the girl's face and arms. Nature breathed passion.
Or was this ironic? The passion, the temptation, the secret, and the woman in the child? Was it the ambiguity in the painting that not only fascinated the boy, but also confused him? He was often confused. He was confused when his parents argued, when his mother asked her sarcastic questions and when his father smoked a cigar and read his paper, trying to look relaxed and superior, although the air in his study was so charged that the boy scarcely dared move or even breathe. And his mother's mocking words about the Jewish girl were confusing. The boy had no idea what a Jewish girl was.
From one day to the next, his mother stopped talking about the Jewish girl and his father put an end to the obligatory naps in the study. For a while the boy had to nap in the same room and same bed where he slept at night. Then there were no more naps at all. He was glad. He was nine and had been made to nap at noontime longer than any of his classmates or playmates.
But he missed the girl with the lizard. He would steal into his father's study to have a look at the painting and talk with the girl for a moment. He grew fast that year; at first his eyes were level with the gold frame, then with the rock, and later with the girl's eyes.
He was a strong boy, sturdily built, with large-boned limbs. As he shot up, there was nothing touching about his awkwardness; instead it was somehow threatening. His schoolmates were afraid of him, even when he was on their side in games, arguments, and fights. He was an outsider. He knew that himself, although he did not know that it was his appearance, his height, broad shoulders, and strength, that made him one. He thought it was the world inside him, with which he coexisted and in which he lived. None of his schoolmates shared it with him. But, then, he did not invite any of them in, either. Had he been a delicate child, he might have found playmates, soul mates, among other delicate children. But they especially were intimidated by him.
Excerpted from Flights of Love by Bernhard Schlink Copyright 2001 by Bernhard Schlink. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, 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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