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Emma Richler

Books by this Author
Be My Wolff

“Marry me, Rachel.”
“Not yet.”
“Tomorrow, Rachel. Marry me.”
“Maybe tomorrow.”
“There is no common blood between us. Say it,” pleads Zachariah.
“There is no common blood between us,” murmurs Rachel.
“I am not your brother.”
“I know.”
He traces her face with his swollen fingers, across the brow bones and down the zygomatics, and along the jaw from earlobe to chin, sweeping away the brine as he goes.
“I am your Wolff,” she replies.
Let the day begin.
Zachariah crams his pockets, straps on a watch, skips to the loo for a splash.

“Skip to the loo, my DAR-ling!” sings Rachel, stroking the bed where Zach lay, moving into that place. I smell the smell of a Russian soul. If she were a dog, she would see the shape of the smell he has left in this imprint on the sheets, she could make an olfactory portrait of the man in his absence, yes. If she were a dog with a twentyfold amount of pri­mary receptors and an ability to detect an odour at concentrations one hundred times smaller than man’s, she could see him in scent. A dog can distinguish between molecules of smell that have mirror symme­try, virtually identical, but drastically different, such as caraway and peppermint.

In Rachel’s dreams, Zachariah is sometimes a dog. Papa says this con­fusion is a well-known feature of sleep and dreaming, because there is a disconnection of brain hemispheres in the dormant callosus, between the hemisphere for recognition of speech and the hemisphere for recog­nition of faces. Rachel dreams Zachariah in various shapes—dog, wolf, bird, boy—and then wakes to the man, seeing him always in infinite detail, taking note this morning, for instance, as he exits the bathroom, of the overnight change in hue round his swollen sparkler, the emer­gence into lighter shades of blue and yellow, Belcher blue and yellow.

Don’t fight today.
“Whatever happened?” she asks. “The other day? You never said. Between you and Sandbags Shaw?”

Sandbag, Rach. It’s Sandbag.

“Sandbag, then.”

“Got to fly, Rach! Tell you later.”

“You won’t.”

“It was nothing,” he tells her. “A barney, a mere scrap. Man’s an idiot. Hit him in the head, there’s an echo! Blow in one ear, snuff a candle out the other end! Empty garret. With breezes blowing through it.”

Sandbag Shaw.

Rachel mistakes the name accidentally-on-purpose, because it irks her, hurts to utter. Shaw is an ogre in the forest.
Professionally, Wolff and Shaw fought twice and stand at 1–1, Zach losing the first, but winning the return, the title fight. It was Zach’s Pyr­rhic victory, Rachel decries, because of the damage done that freezing January night when the two men fought at light welter on the undercard of a name fighter who had drawn a big crowd. Theirs, however, was the battle of distinction and Zach became a name thereafter, for his fine win and gameness. Zach fought again too soon, defended his title too soon while still carrying the pain he would not own to of the orbital fracture Shaw inflicted in that famous return, a fracture entailing a legacy of recurring headache and double vision Zach cannot shake. Yet, in the usual hype of the pre-fight medical, Wolff was declared in prime condi­tion for the bout that would prove to be his last, against a sharp Geor­gian bruiser named Kubriashvili.

The Georgian was a walk-in fighter who punched at crazy angles, had a thunderous left hook and a brazen right-hand lead and was known not to be above raking the eyes, and hitting on the break and other indelica­cies. Moments before the bell to end the third round, Kubriashvili blind­sided the ref to butt out of a clinch, using his head, or “third fist” as it is sometimes known, the hardest part of the body, to open a spectacular cut on Zach’s cheekbone, those sculpted zygomatics leaving him more than usually prone to cuts. In the following round, as Zach gaped for air, pushing at his mouthpiece in a tell-tale sign of exhaustion, his antago­nist pounced, breaking his jaw, gashing the tongue and catching Zach with an uppercut as he fell, adding a scything blow to the ear to help him on his way to the floor, where he landed with sickening finality, one leg twitching. Zach had a clot removed and his licence also. It was not safe for him to fight ever again.

The ring is not safe, it’s a dangerous place! So what happens, Rachel wonders, when Zach sees Shaw? When the ogre comes at him out of the forest? What does he see that so unhinges him? What are the dynam­ics of rage, Papa? Tell me.

—Rachel. Explain reflection.
—A reflection is a mathematical concept, not a formula, not a shape. It’s a transformation.
—We are not bilaterally symmetric. Not invariant in reflection.
—Good, Rachel.
Perhaps, thinks Rachel, when Wolff and Shaw exchange glances at Izzy’s gym in Clerkenwell, they see into a glass, sharing a kind of mirror symmetry, each reflecting loss. Loss and fate. Sandbag feels a roiling fury because of that epic fight he lost in his prime, perhaps his one shot at the title, a bout after which he is not ever the same, eternally outclassed. And Zach sees in Shaw the bruiser he beat in such style he lost his head and gambled his title too soon, propelled like Stephenson’s Rocket into the ring with Kubriashvili to contest a title fight he barely survives.

Muzhik!” Zach had called himself as she sat in his hospital room in those long days of recovery. “Had they not passed me fit!” he mused. “If I had ducked, if I had danced, if I had hit through the target. If I had been fully fit. If I had not been so

“Bloody-minded?” she teased. “Hot? Impetuous?”

“All of that,” he smiled. “All of that.”

“Rubbish!” Rachel countered. “I mean, walker! As you love to say. Stuff and nonsense! You are a fighter,” she added. “Were a fighter. Noth­ing you could do,” she insisted, offering consolation now that she is cer­tain he will not ever be allowed to fight again. One of Nicky’s favourite sayings came to mind, though she did not voice it, words of the old soldier, his special wisdom.

“What is the point of ducking?” says the old soldier to the young soldier. “Each shot has a man’s name on it anyway!” he laughs. “Nothing you can do.”
 Zach pats his pockets in the bedroom doorway: keys, cash, mobile, yes.

“Bashing off now, be right back,” he says, frowning with decision. “And the Shaw thing—I’ll tell you later, Rach. OK? Full particulars, no holds barred!”

“You’re running away!” she accuses.

“I’m not! I’m late, that’s all. I need you to call the rat man. Tell him I’ll be a few minutes late. OK? Left the number on the kitchen table.”

“Come here for a moment,” says Rachel, and Zach kneels by the bed. “Does it hurt?” she asks, brushing his brow. “You don’t answer me.”

“It’s all your fault,” Zach smiles. “The scrap with Shaw. You and your rats. That essay you read to me. The ratcatcher in New York City.”

“Joseph Mitchell? The Rats on the Waterfront.

“Yeah. The catcher and his peanut butter sarnie. What he discovered.”

“The efficacy of peanut butter in attracting rats. But I don’t—”

“I called Shaw a rat,” Zach confesses, hangdog.

“That’s all? You fought over that? Can it be so silly?”

“Stupid,” he concedes.

“Didn’t you tell me about a fighter who won a round without ever throwing a punch? In the forties?”

“Willie Pep! Willie Pep, Will o’ the Wisp. Great featherweight. Yeah.”

“He won on skill, yes? Not a single blow thrown. I like that story,” insists Rachel. “Very much.”

“Well, he’s also famous for one of the dirtiest fights in history. OK?” “I still like it,” she says, and slips her hands up his sleeves, clasping him gently by the forearms—brachioradialis—forearms her fingers can-not quite encompass. “Makes one think, doesn’t it? Winning a round without a blow. Without a blow, Wolff!”

“Marry me,” Zach murmurs, dropping chin to chest.

“We are married. We’ve always been married. Every day, we marry,” she says quietly. “Can’t you see?”

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Feed My Dear Dogs


Jude always said a kid is supposed to get acclimatised to the great world and society and so on, and just as soon as he can bash around on his own two pins, but the feeling of dread and disquiet I experienced on leaving home in my earliest days was justified for me again and again on journeys out, beginning with the time Zachariah Levinthal bashed me on the head for no clear-cut reason with the wooden mallet he had borrowed from his mother’s kitchen. It did not hurt much, as I was wearing my Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hat with both ear flaps tied up neatly in a bow on top, providing extra protection from onslaught, but I must say it struck me that Zach, who was nearly a whole year and a half older than me, same age as my brother Jude in fact, Zach was the one in need of a few pointers regarding recommended behaviour in the great world and society at large. Never mind. The way I saw it, he was just testing out his enthusiasm for tools and surfaces, and, possibly, exploring a passing fancy for a future in architecture or construction work, and in my household, enthusiasms were encouraged, which is why I regularly went to and fro with a handful of 54mm World War I and World War II soldiers in my pocket for recreation purposes, with no one to stop me, although I am a girl and expected, in some circles, to have more seemly pursuits. You have to allow for enthusiasms, you never know where they may lead, so I knew to keep my composure the day Zach hit me on the head with a meat pulveriser. No. Tenderiser. So there you are, that is what I mean, it depends on how you look at things, how bashing away at a piece of beefsteak with a wooden hammer can induce a quality of tenderness in meat is just as surprising, perhaps, as my not protesting the risk of brain damage I incurred at the age of eight or so, instead, forgiving Zach on account of his enthusiasms and general spirit of endeavour.

I think all stories are like this, about looking out for a way to be in life without messing up in the end, a way to be that feels like home, and if you bear this in mind, it’s easy to see some situations as OK which might strike you otherwise as downright odd, and that story about Francis of Assisi and the crow is just one example of many. At the latter end of his life, Francis befriends a crow who is fiercely devoted, sitting right next to Francis at mealtimes, and traipsing after him on visits to the sick and leprous, and following his coffin when he died, whereupon the crow lost heart and simply fell apart, refusing to eat and so on, until he died also. Now, if you nip along the street or go about the shopping with a crow at your heels, you are not likely to make friends in a hurry, because it is odd behaviour, and not recommended. Unless you are a saint, in which case it is OK. So that’s one thing. The other OK-not-OK thing in this story is how that crow did not choose to make life easy and fall in love with his or her own kind, another crow with whom that bird might have a bright future and bring up little crows and so on. No. For the crow, Francis was home, that’s all there is to it, it is OK.

This is also how it goes for le petit prince in the book of that name by M. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a story about a small boy in a single suit of fine princely haberdashery, living on an asteroid with a volcano, a baobab tree and a rose, and having nothing much to do but watch the sunset. In the scheme of things, it is not so odd that he falls in love with the rose, and leaves his tiny planet in a fit of lovesickness, taking advantage of a migration of wild birds for his journey, hanging on to them, as it shows in the watercolour, by way of special reins. The prince finally lands on Earth wherein he has a shady encounter with a snake who has murder in mind, albeit concealed in a promise to this small lovestruck and visionary boy, a promise of return, a single ticket home by way of the eternal worlds.

Upon landing, the prince asks, Where did I fall, what planet is this?

I remember everything.

Everything and nothing is strange. It depends how you look at it.

Zach, now, is something in law, Jude says, although I keep forgetting the details, because all I can think is how Zach found a place where everything ought to come out right, and where even hammers crash down upon suitable surfaces for the tenderising of felony and injustice, and I hope he is happy, I hope so, though I don’t know, as I do not go in for telephones and letters these days, not now I have fallen out with society and the great world, but still I have enthusiasms, ones I pursue in low-lit rooms, with my handful of soldiers here, entering my world in unlikely ways, it might seem, to strangers.

October 1935. Joseph Goebbels issues a decree forbidding the inscription of names of fallen Jewish soldiers on war memorials, men who fell for the sake of younger men who are now getting busy scratching out offensive Jewish names from tablets of stone with what you might call corrupt and frenzied enthusiasm.

Me, I turn away and weep.

Where did I fall, what planet is this?

I hear it, I see it, and I was not there, it’s a vision. I remember everything.

Under the influence of gravity, stars in orbit in an elliptical galaxy such as ours are always falling, always falling without colliding, and the greater the mass, the greater the attraction, and the faster a thing falls, the faster it moves in orbit, so the Moon, for one, is always falling towards Earth, but never hits it, and I like to think William Blake, b.1757, d.1827, would appreciate this, as he was very interested in fallen man, and for William, memory is merely part of time, an aspect of the fall, and the visionary worlds are the true regions of reminiscence, a realm wherein every man is uncrowned king for eternity and there is no need for memorials because, so he wrote, Man the Imagination liveth for Ever.

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Sister Crazy

Dad just spoke.

"What?" I say.

"Sorry, what?"

"We are not going to any other shops. Just the chemist. I'll stay in the car. You have ten minutes." I start singing in my head, the tune from the Sturges film Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. O-KAAAY...co — RAAL! O-KAAAY...co — RAAAAL! I almost sing it aloud. I want to, because it might make my Dad laugh but I worry that for once it won't; that he won't join in and I'll feel bad, worse than I do already. The song rises, then dies in my chest and I miss my chance and that's the hell of this thing, this sissy, crackpot, sneaky disease which is not ok, like consumption with its angry show-off blood on wads of linen.



"Did you hear what I said?"

I can see Dad's eyes looking at me in the rearview mirror. He has wild brows and his eyes are narrowed, weather-beaten lines running from the corners toward his temples. He is a handsome man, in an unruly way, and he has a gunslinger's gaze. This comes from years of squinting into a high sun and into duststorms and sharp night winds. It comes from a perpetual state of wariness and the need to see around things and be ready at all times. Anything can happen but you must stay cool. You have to master the distant look and know how to forage the horizon for looming dangers such as wild beasts, Apaches, and other gunslingers with sharp, squinty vision who might be on your trail.

When my Dad talks to me, the little muscles around his eyes bunch up, giving him that gunslinger look. I have the distinct sensation he is not having a good time having to make words, having to speak at all. It's the way he is and you have to get used to it. His vision is acute; he is the only one in the family who doesn't need glasses.

"We are not going to any other shops — just the chemist."

"Right." My Dad looks at the road now.

I practice a gunslinger squint. I can see my reflection in the window, which I keep closed due to air conditioning, and my face is dappled with tree leaves and other passing things, but I can see my eyes. I look silly, because a gunfighter cannot wear glasses and look cool. A good cowboy does not wear specs.

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