Izotz Zubizarreta Intxausti is a Basque writer who uses Basque, English, and Spanish to tell stories. This is his first publication.
The Sea Undone
The excitement began after Yakov left. A sailboat fell from the sky, struck a passerby’s head. Here in Samarkand, so far from the sea. How odd, Aviva imagined the people on the street saying. They’d squint at the clouds, ignore the rooftops and swaying stockinged feet, never suspect an old woman. Word would spread, unparsed, telegraphed throughout the city. Even Yakov would hear, wherever he was. He loved the bizarre. Might’ve broken the story, had he not abandoned Samarkand.
Pity he went so soon. Aviva laughed. Yakov the naysayer. Grumbling Soviet news isn’t news. Soviet theatre’s not theatre. You understand, my love. Newspapers printed, reprinted mundanity. But he chose the field. She taught engineering. Science always had a future. If only he’d stayed, journalism would’ve allowed him raining boats and elusive anile women.
They saw little of each other by the end, trading moves on a chessboard on the kitchen table during separate meals. Yakov brought the board home one day, setting it up after they rather stopped talking. At first she disliked the pieces, frosted glass and cobalt in lieu of black and white. Each morning she made a move and Yakov responded at night. They tried playing live a few times but she loathed his rages, channeled against the ballet or the passion he claimed music today lacked. “You’re not concentrating,” he’d remark.
“It’s a pawn,” Aviva would respond. “It doesn’t matter.” Knights, bishops, rooks let her win. Yakov fell to ploys and whims. Sometimes she lost on purpose so he’d sulk less. It was easier to play apart. She stowed the set in the closet before he left. He hadn’t tried to take it with him.
Now he would’ve heard how a machine solved a man. At chess, of course. “Yakov, my little star,” Aviva whispered, tilting her head back. “You said it could never happen.” The game, he believed, required a human mind. Ever wrong.
Deep Blue beat the great Garry Kasparov. A computer outwitted a man not unlike Yakov. He must have felt something. He idolized Kasparov, but prodigies are born, not made. None came from Tashkent. Yakov defeated Aviva if she didn’t care to win, the match too contested or petty.
They moved to Samarkand for him. He’d gotten a job with the paper there, swearing he’d triumph as an arts critic. She hadn’t worried, getting a job at the university. While he embittered and floundered, she decorated their flat.
Aviva conjured so much out of wood. Tables, chairs, cabinets. It surprised Yakov. Why, she asked. Why should a woman limit her magic to knitting and cooking? They needed a table; no sense in buying one when pine was cheaper. After furnishing the house, she adorned it with boxes, bowls and figurines. He’d gone before seeing her skill peak, the sailboats and ships she whittled and painted. But he’d hear of them now.
She lifted the wooden skiff the size of her forearm. Should her fingers uncurl, the boat would drop. Fast enough to startle but not injure, with the sails’ drag. Someone would collect it, while others relayed the event to anyone they met. Eventually the story would reach Yakov.
Perhaps he’d think how strange, a boat in the air. Samarkand wasn’t so wondrous when he’d lived there. He’d never given it a chance.
The wonder was always elsewhere. The stone boat in China. How Yakov doubted her, rebuffing There’s no such thing as a stone boat, until seeing it. “Come,” she’d beckoned, winking. Together they marveled at the marble ship on the lake. Magnificent that June evening. Fog hovered over the water, spilt through the vessel’s arches, veiling the colonnades in gossamer. Through dazzled eyes, Aviva mistook Yakov for love. He was giggling, hissing in her ear, “Where did they think the boat would go?”
“Must it go anywhere?” she said. “Does sailing make a boat a boat?” She drank in the rippled striations – whites, pinks, greys spanning paddle wheel to helm, cream swatches by the decks. The pediment and glossy bow. The trees abloom, wreathing the lake in flowers. Against concrete fog and lulling water, the ship seemed to glide past the arced bridge and the barn-like buildings on the opposite shore. Adrift between sea-worthy and sea-faring.
The Japanese spared the boat. In the first Sino-Japanese war, the tour guide or a book said; Aviva couldn’t recall a sign in Russian. Maybe she dreamt it. A stone boat! Yakov guffawed. He ignored the etchings, the lavishness, repeating, “At least the boats back home float.” His hand slipped round hers. They squeezed their palms together like on other summer nights, twirled and spun alee of the Aral Sea.
All their best times were away. They’d met by the Aral Sea. Young, enamored, entranced. Yakov seemed handsome, with wind-ruffled dark hair. Aviva must have come across as pretty, though how, she couldn’t decipher, garbed in a simple green dress her mother made.
My kitten, she dubbed him by the Aral Sea – when he still merited loving, in a place not yet Uzbekistan. She dreamt of a life possible in Tashkent and he of distant cities.
His family returned to Tashkent a week before hers. Alone, she combed the Aral’s shore, seven days conversing with an absent Yakov. You’re lovely when the sun catches your eyes, she pictured him saying and blushed. Why come to the seaside in those shoes? We’ll dump sand out all night! I like them, she mouthed, glancing down. The absent Yakov kissed her forehead.
In Tashkent, they lived too far to know each other. If they crossed paths, she’D never noticed. Another gawky boy with a wispy moustache passing a shy, sleepy-eyed girl. Things one doesn’t see when not looking.
Aviva slid back along the wall, swiveled, lowered her legs onto the roof terrace. “Do you remember us other summers, Yakov, far from Samarkand?” she whispered. From the minaret at the street’s end a whish sounded, auguring a desert wind – a flaw in the tape – followed by the call to prayer. Noon. The Adhan kept the time with which Aviva long dispensed. It had little value in a city older than any country to ever claim it.
She bobbed the boat along the air. Another morning winnowed away on her roof, admiring the vivid blue mosque, the hue of the vanished sea.
How would the Aral look now? What were its islands without water? In truth it was a lake. These days they said it was a dirt pit, where little water clung. Most of the Bukharian Jews had gone too, while Aviva remained bound to these doorposts and gates, in the land of the ever-changing name, as Yakov joked. Kept mapmakers employed. That world was always changing. Only cities stayed put. Now seas disappeared.
She stepped onto the roof terrace and stretched, boat in hand, and entered her apartment. In the kitchen, she boiled coffee on the stove and poured herself a cup. The chess set lay on the kitchen table, feigning another’s presence.
“Chess bores me,” she said. Blueprints covered her walls. Designs for vessels from caravels to merchant ships, dinghies to sloops-of-war substituted the wallpaper never bought; steady images surrounding unsteady eyes. Dizzied, she found inspiration elucubrating by lamplight. Next she’d make a fleet of artillery boats. Painted and mounted on a teapoy in the hall, until that jaded her and the next obsession seized. The coffee burbled. Aviva poured a cup. Black, dulcet, bitter. From the credenza she took a cigarette and lighter, then returned to the roof with the boat and coffee.
Aviva sat by a galvanized washtub half-filled with water. She squatted, her knees cracking as in her youth, six decades ago. Yakov would tease Someone forgot to oil you. “Yet I haven’t rusted,” Aviva said. “The spring never rusts.” She placed the wooden boat in the tub, tapped it, lit the cigarette, exhaled smoke to her right. The breeze was too soft to bear off the cloud or move the boat across the water. Her hand dangled over it.
After the Aral Sea, he sought her out. Accompanied her home from school, took her to the bazaar and museums, the opera and theatre. Newly married when the war reached Asia, he’d said “I loved you before you loved me.” Begging reciprocation. She bartered, countered via gritty smiles. She wed for stability, intending to deduce how to love him. Quantal – the term shook loose from the jargon acquired reading to evade Yakov. Something that could exist in one of two states but not both. Yakov could be somewhere and alive, but not alive nowhere. Aviva could not love Yakov and not marry him, but not marry Yakov and not love him. It was a matter of logic.
“I don’t believe you,” Yakov said when Aviva promised to take him to the stone boat. He rebuffed There’s no such thing. “Come,” she insisted, beckoning, winking, I can show you so much that shouldn’t be, all you’ll never see alone. Let me teach your eyes to look.
At some point on that trip, Yakov began asking if she loved him. Aviva would stare at the horizon and say “If I pose the same question, does it become rhetorical?” Yakov soured, admonishing that love wasn’t a trick, his sunshine. Today’s cloudy, she muttered. She contemplated asking why he loved her. Didn’t she disappoint, perplex him? Perhaps people shouldn’t marry young.
Aviva inhaled deeper, directing her next breath at the boat. It advanced a few centimeters. How strange this ship floating in place. Yakov would say it needed better construction. Aviva lifted the boat whittled from balsa. Muslin-scrap sails. She tapped the hull.
Would this be bizarre enough to intrigue him? Or would boats allure far more than a nattering old woman playing on her roof, adorning her walls like a shipwright, drinking coffee, cup after cup, and smoking cigarettes, pack after pack. Addiction wasn’t in vogue when they met, but he used other words for her – obsessed, driven, intense – when he found the trait charming. I have a samovar I don’t use on my kitchen counter, she could say, proof she held the reins. It idles all day and gleams at night, when the moon shines through the windows. But she’d always loathed tea. Yakov would remember.
Coffee, whiskey, vodka. Don’t give me things that don’t change me, my love, she used to say. I am myself enough. Yakov, my soul. Give me things that improve me. Yakov, my love. Spoken then with sincerity, she never meant it now. They say the shore where we loved, Yakov, has been stretched to sand. I haven’t gone back yet. I’m not sure, Yakov, I will without you. Together they could venture where the sea had been, remark “How strange these wooden boats on sand” and she could forget. But he wouldn’t return. No time for memories, for a sea that wasn’t. They hadn’t been so in love that he’d recall.
He was too old and probably had a wife wherever he’d gone: Sarnia, Baltimore, Cape Town, Medellin. Some place where they’d never heard of Bukharian Jews. He’d have a large family. Grandchildren busied the mind and heart. He’d say he was Russian, bite back the sting.
Just as well. Yakov wouldn’t believe how lonely these Samarkand rooftops had become, drabbed oases. She too had turned papery and rough in shapeless dresses instead of the gowns as radiant, her mother said, as Aviva’s eyes. It was her mother who named her for the spring, with its constant hope, saplings ever in blossom. As if one girl could stay a season. Names had power, her mother often stated while critiquing Aviva’s shaky penmanship in Hebrew. The Cyrillic alphabet came so much easier. After she mastered her name and wrote it to revive, winter settled on Aviva in white flecks and flakes dappling her hair and eyebrows.
Yakov wouldn’t find her beautiful anymore. That would’ve been the only constant. That, and Samarkand. Aviva watched a pair of white-tailed rubythroats alight on her wall.
They’d soon stopped going to the Aral Sea. When his work stymied, Yakov talked of other trips. Israel, sometimes, but the nation was new and leaving mountains for desert disconcerted him. Europe he wanted to visit. And the Americas. Lima, Glasgow, Boston, Buenos Aires, Copenhagen, he said over and over, an incantation to transport him to any distant city. One day, it did. Yakov was gone and Aviva left in Tashkent. He asked her often to leave with him, she recalled, another question blended into the rest.
She’d fiddled with a Rubik’s cube while Yakov droned. She sat on her bed, turning the sides, matching. He’d come by, put his hand on her shoulder, say, “My little bird.” She concentrated on the colors whisking through her fingers, pleading, “Why hurry? We’re happy enough here.” He tensed. “Leaving won’t make you a better critic,” she told him. “Better theatre won’t make you a better critic. Why don’t you work at it?”
He put his other hand on her other shoulder, knelt on the bed behind her, touching his forehead to her nape. “Aviva, come with me, please.”
“I need more time,” she said. “My joy,” tacked on, hollow, to hold him until her hands aligned the colors and her lips configured the words to vitiate his heart. She reached back to entwine their fingers but he recoiled. Her fingertips skimmed his knuckles. “I shall leave one day, my sunshine,” he said. “Can’t wait forever.”
I won’t live my whole life the Soviet Union, he swore. If only he’d stayed. It would’ve come true.
I don’t think you try to understand how I feel, Yakov would say. Why does it matter so much, Aviva replied. Just tell me what you feel and I’ll know. Then you won’t be upset when I don’t guess correctly.
You have no sense of others, he said. All situations and logic with you. You don’t feel at all. You enjoy, you exist, but you’re distant even when we touch.
She couldn’t understand. “How can you feel so much in five minutes?” Aviva asked once. “More than I feel in five years.”
Did he envision her now, a cracked skein of skin dangling her legs over a rooftop ledge, a samovar lazing in the front hallway? How strange this boat, Yakov. How strange this love, Yakov. How strange this girl.
They never bade the seashore farewell. We’ll do it properly together, she envisioned Yakov saying. Really, he’d kissed her forehead and cheeks before leaving. She stood stoic and teary. Don’t seem so forlorn. It’s no good to leave each other like that. When you’re ready, you’ll find me. She’d kissed him, said goodbye, still hadn’t calculated whether she’d loved.
She never could decipher his emotions, the futile sequence of their love. Then time revoked the sea. Yakov vanished. And she remained, stranded.
Aviva stood, took the wooden boat and returned to the terrace wall. She shut her eyes, spread her arms, imagined standing on the lip of the land, her back to the Aral Sea. Turning, she admired the ships balanced serene on sapphire waves, ceding to a sea of sand. She expected wooziness from the cocktail of sensations. Nothing stirred.
She opened her eyes to view Samarkand, the boat in her hand, her rooftop and the sky beyond. Perhaps, if she really were by sand-bound ships or with Yakov somewhere that mattered, Aviva thought, she’d feel more.