Rawleaf
[ Issue 32 ]

Emily Bronto is without doubt an admirer of Rawleaf

Let Bikwil introduce you to Rawleaf

Rawleaf

Rawleaf is an extract from Michael Hoffman's linked series of short stories entitled The Nectar Chronicles, set in the imaginary suburb of Nectar.
 

I was napping when the doorbell rang. I nap at odd hours. What had I been dreaming about? I stumbled to the door.

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Rawleaf — Michael Hoffman

Copyright


A Visit

I was napping when the doorbell rang. I nap at odd hours. What had I been dreaming about? I stumbled to the door. “I'm so sorry to trouble you when you're busy . . .” What was she selling? Milk? Insurance? Housekeeping services? Home renovation? “Busy’s the word,” I snapped, pulling the door shut. In my heart I am kind, gentle and charitable, but my exterior is a nasty bit of business, gruff, curt, anti-social. A middle-aged man living alone with no occupation — I will qualify that in due course — tends to acquire those outward signs of social disengagement. What am I doing, you ask, in Nectar, of all places? I should be living in a forest or mountain hut, with bears and wolves for company. Well, I'm in Nectar precisely because I don’t know how to cope with bears and wolves.

Something was wrong. Something was missing. Of course: the sound of retreating footsteps. I tiptoed into the living room, moved the drawn curtain a fraction of an inch, and peeked outside. She was still there, staring numbly at the shut door — a young woman, with milk-white lightly freckled skin and soft chestnut hair, shoulder-length, not strikingly pretty, not strikingly the reverse either. I remembered my dream, vaguely: I had given a speech and was being lustily applauded. I went back to the door and opened it. She gasped, stammered an apology, broke off in mid-sentence and gaped at me, her eyes wide with terror. They were blue. “Well, come in,” I said. “Come in. You’re selling something? Struggling to feed hungry children? Husband drinks, and a gambler besides? I know, I understand. Come in and tell me what you're selling.”

“N-natural food health drinks,” she stammered.

“Do you stammer naturally, or is it because you’re afraid of me?”

Her self-possession was returning. “Why should I be afraid of you?”

I laughed. “Well, young women have been known to experience a twinge of fear at the proximity of an eccentric old man, sometimes with reason. In this case, not. Natural food health drinks. Take a good look at me now. How old would you say I am?”

“I’m sorry to have troubled you. I think I’d better go.”

“Nonsense. You shouldn't have come, but since you’re here, step in. Would you like some hot milk?”

“Hot milk?”

“I was just about to fix myself some. I always nap between twelve-thirty and one-fifteen, and when I get up I have hot milk. Even on the hottest days, of which today, I know, is one. Hot and sticky. Global warming. I was reading of it this morning in the paper. Does the prospect alarm you? I probably won’t live to see the disasters in store for us, but you might, and your children certainly will.”

I turned and walked into the kitchen, quite confident that she would follow, as indeed she did. I took a carton of milk from the fridge, measured out two cups, poured the milk into a pot, and switched on the fire. “Sit.” The kitchen table was a mess of books, papers, notebooks; I had been working that morning. “Just ignore the rubble. Seriously. How old do I look to you?”

“Forty?”

“Fifty-five. Never been sick a day in my life. All through my childhood, more than anything in the world, I wanted to be sick, have a fever, stay home from school, be fussed over by my mother . . . never. Not once. I even prayed to God: ‘Dear God, please make me ill so that I may know the joys of convalescence . . .’ Hm. Natural health food drinks. Are their health-giving properties general, or specific to this or that condition?”

Her eyes surveyed the room. “Do you live alone here?”

“Oh yes, quite. You needn't worry. No one will disturb us. How old are you, may I ask?”

“Twenty-six.”

“Married?”

“No.”

“Boyfriend?”

“Yes.”

“Are you deeply in love?”

She blushed and smiled. She lowered her eyes. “Yes, I think so.”

“Good, good. Splendid. I was deeply in love myself once. Would you like to hear the story?”

She stood up. “Look, I’m sorry, but I’m supposed to be working, you know?” She gave a self-conscious little laugh, either at the idea of working, or at being in what must have struck her as an absurd, if not frightening, situation.

“The milk's ready. Here, you can have the cup with the whistle. It's the cup I drank hot milk out of as a child. The whistle doesn’t whistle anymore, but to this day, I can close my eyes and hear the sound it used to make. This, you see, is my childhood home. I inherited it when my parents died. I’m an orphan, but I’m well housed.”

A Tree

You will naturally suppose that we proceeded, having got to know one another over our milk, to sport on my childhood bed. No, reader, no. It all passed off quite innocently. She admitted that, to her surprise, hot milk was indeed a fine refreshment on a hot day. She stood up, wiped her milk-stained lips with the back of her hand, smiled, thanked me, and bid me good-bye. I saw her to the door . . .

“Adios, senorita,” I said in my courtly way. With that, I went back to work. Back to my kitchen table.

  My work. What work? The work of an independently wealthy man, for such is my occupation: independently wealthy man. I live off my parents’ fortune while guarding and protecting it. Well, to make no further bones about it, I am the writer Jason Rawleaf. The unknown writer Jason Rawleaf. My published works number two: a short story written in college, and an essay written some years afterward. The story appeared in Canadian Fiction Quarterly, now defunct some quarter of a century. The essay you will find in the September 1973 issue of Epoch magazine. I will not suggest that you consult it, for editorial revision turned it into an object of shame and disgrace for me. I thought, Well, if that's how it is, I will publish no more. And, true to my word, I haven’t, though I have written voluminously. Why? Why, because it is my calling to write.

A frequent subject of meditation is, should I burn my writings before I die, or should I leave them to be discovered by the god of all failed writers, Posterity? I can't seem to make up my mind one way or the other, except temporarily, for at moments I am very decisive indeed: I will burn them; I will leave them. How do people in the outside world make decisions? I swear, I am incapable of it, and there have been times when I have gone without dinner, unable to decide between an omelet and a tuna sandwich.

I go out three mornings a week, my destination always the same: the Feinberg Provisions shop on Golda Meir Avenue. That's four blocks from my ancestral home on Maharal. (It seems to me that if I were a young couple in the market for a house, the last house I would choose would be one situated on Maharal Crescent, but my young parents obviously thought differently, if they thought at all. Neither had had a particularly Jewish upbringing, and it’s quite possible Maharal had no significance for them. I didn't have much of a Jewish upbringing either, of course, but a lifelong compulsive reader like me picks up this and that, here and there.)

The Feinberg Provisions shop on Golda Meir Avenue, then, is my thrice weekly matinal destination. A bell tinkles when you open the door. There I stock up on such necessaries as canned tuna, salami, eggs, bread, lettuce, tomatoes, milk, coffee and so on. Milk I buy in quantity, for I make my own yogurt. It's quite simple: you merely skim off a teaspoonful of yesterday’s yogurt and mix it with a carton of warm milk. You let it stand overnight, and in the morning you wake up and admire the bacteria’s handiwork.

Mr. Feinberg and I have what you might call a bit of a friendship. He is a man of about my own age, though I look younger than my years and he looks older. We have common interests: in, for example, the question of suffering. Mr. Feinburg, behind his innocuous white apron and his foolish avuncular smile, is a well of secret suffering. His eldest son died in a car accident. His wife has cancer. His mother died when he was a child; his father, ancient and senile, lives still, and threatens to go on living forever. He is a resident at the Albert Einstein geriatric home on Parklawn, just behind the store. Every day Mr. Feinberg goes to visit his father — who of course doesn’t know him — ready if necessary to perform in perpetuity the rites of sonship.

His endurance fascinates me. Not only his endurance — his cheerful endurance. Slicing salami seems to give him genuine pleasure. I can’t fathom it. Mocked by the fates as he is, why doesn't he put an end to it? Is he too dull to feel despair? Or too intelligent? “Mendl,” I once said to him, “Mendl, don't you see how miserable you are?” It was a tactless remark that slipped out before I had time to repress it. But he was not offended. He smiled. How can a man with bad teeth have a beautiful smile? He does. And he said, “I am alive in God’s world. How can you talk of misery?”

“I don't understand,” I said.

He grew excited. “Come here, come with me.” He took me by the arm and led me outside. Across the street was a little park, and in the park was a tree, don’t ask me what kind, that was just then sprouting new leaves. He pointed at the tree. He said nothing, and I, puzzled at first, realized at last that the tree, the tree was his answer. All right, yes, I see the point, the beauty of nature. There are men, I know, for whom the beauty of nature is an answer to all despair, all scepticism.

“Mendl,” I said, “did you read the newspaper this morning?”

“I read it.”

“Then you know about the earthquake in India? Tens of thousands dead?”

He lowered his eyes. He understood me very well.

“And about the starvation in Afghanistan? The genocide in Yugoslavia? The famine in North Korea? The AIDS in Africa? The persecuted minorities in China? You know about all this?”

“I know, I know.”

“You know. And your answer is . . . a tree?”

He raised his eyes to me and smiled. I wish I could describe his smile. Don’t they have dentists where he comes from? But he comes from right here; he’s a native. He smiled, and said, “Yes. My answer is a tree.”

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