When the mighty roar goes up, I’m in the alley, looking for my keys in my pockets. The ground falls away beneath my feet. I stop. I think it might be a delusion again. But the earth starts moving up and down slowly, then it quickens. It looks as if somebody is shaking the asphalt street and everything stuck on it, like when you shake a mat out of dust and soil.
I hurl myself onto the ground next to the curb. My apartment block is trembling, and I am too; I don’t have my hat on and my hands, holding the cemented edge of the curb, burn with the freezing cold.
I think it will soon be over like all the earthquakes that remind me of her, those small earthquakes that I’ve got used to.
I imagine where she was struck with fear this time. Was she lying down in her bed in the dormitory and reading a book, or holding the mirror in front of her face and making her long black eyelashes even blacker? So black that when you’re standing outside, waiting for her on a date and rubbing your hands together in the cold, you can recognise her among so many jostling people and feel a warmth fall across your face.
But this one is not like the previous ones. Its tremors are getting more intense. The electrical wires are swinging wildly, and the roar of the earth is deafening. Window panes shatter abruptly; then there’s a rain of bricks and stones.
Is hers a brick dormitory? No, I don’t think so. Cemented. It must be cemented.
I cannot catch my breath. I’m hoping for relief, that all of this will be over. I would go up to my room and throw myself on the bed without taking off my clothes. Instead of watching the bricks drop in clusters, I would bury my face in the pillow and, between sleep and consciousness, reconstruct the past.
I would start with the very first time I saw her, at the poetry reading session: I’d go back and sit in a Polish chair in her favorite cafe, listening to her poems and admiring her when her purple shawl was about to fall down. Then I’d talk with her about everything, listen to her long monologues, and stay with her till she’d be almost too late to reach the dormitory before eight-thirty. I’d take a taxi there with her.
I would build and build until I’d get to the bottom of it. To the time when the bricks were about to crumble.
I’m not surprised anymore that concrete and metal structures are falling around me one by one. I’ve come to my feet and I’m clinging to a tree that jerks around. When nothing remains of the houses in the alley except a few columns and a few walls, the earth calms down and I let go of my tree. I turn around and stare at a heap of rubble that was about to bury me.
I can’t find my apartment anymore. I throw a glance at the ruins of my building, then start running. I know there’s a long distance, and I know, too, that with these heavy shoes and this thick coat, I might fall short. But I also know that I have to try getting there. This is the only thing I can think about and do at this moment.
I circumvent the blocked alleys. I pass by the cars that have fallen into channels of water or been crushed by chunks of rock. I pass through the ruins. I pass by the people who are wailing and rummaging in the soil. I even jump over a body that’s wedged beneath a light pole.
I get to her street. There’s very little to let me identify this place. Everything is mixed together: concrete and cement, and pieces of iron, steel pipes and window frames. I walk through them and start searching for her dormitory. The hissing of a gas leak resounds in my ears, together with the cries and wails, nearby and faraway.
I think her dormitory was right here, in the intersection of this dead-end alley and the main street. When I find its smashed sign, I feel certain. I climb up on top of some fallen pillars, looking around. From the corners of the collapsed roof, pieces of blue curtain and broken wood are protruding, while others are chopped, mixed with the debris that has buried the people below. I hear a whining, but not from nearby. As if somebody is standing in the wind and transmitting their voice to me. As if the wind also blows here deliberately to spin in my ears, blow the Styrofoam pieces in all directions, and shake my knees.
As I walk through and take a look into each hole, I expect my heart to stop. I can’t bear to see her crushed and bruised body. I’ll go crazy if I see her hands are cold; her large brown eyes aren’t moving anymore; her sonorous voice will never rise.
I could go from here right now and erase her from my memory. I could take the first opportunity to transfer from the university and return to my own city; my family would surely agree with my passing the last two semesters there. I’d never return to her city. How calmly her streets used to watch us passing along them. How gently her cafes seated us in their chairs and tantalised us with their aromas. How placidly the windowpanes of her buildings reflected our images passing hand-in-hand or sitting in the back seat of a taxi. I’d find a way not to see her city again, even if the new buildings bear no resemblance to the ones we knew.
But I can’t. I cannot leave this place empty-handed and forget this sea of heavy debris and bodies underneath. I can’t help using all my strength to find a sign of her.
I smell like dogs. My hands look sore but I don’t feel pain. There are so many fripperies: rolls of film in plastic boxes, mats torn into pieces, clothes with gaudy colours that I know she would never have bought, and books whose cover pages tell me that they don’t belong to her.
Each area that I sift through, I mark in my mind. I crawl on hands and knees and search the next areas. I move the cement pieces as much as I can, pulling aside the rebars while collecting my thoughts so that I don’t leave anything unseen. I keep searching to find something that proves her presence in this place, something that tells me of her fate.
I find the first sign: that purple scarf, which is torn in the centre by a rod. I move my hands more quickly. Shreds of her manteau are also there. The checkered manteau she was wearing at that poetry reading session. She said it was a memento of somebody she’d loved very much, whom still she could not forget. She would tell me of these things while my mind was busy with the scent that rose from its texture and the light that, when the taxi passed in front of a streetlamp, put her bones in penumbra.
I tear off a piece of the manteau and smell it. That same perfume is still there, and on the rest of the fabrics that are lying around. All of them surely, at least once, have covered the body that is getting crushed under this debris. I hold them to my face.
Another quake may come, and this time the earth may open its mouth and swallow everything. My hands are bloody, but I don’t care. I let the pieces of iron and rocks scratch them. I must dig and find her. I must not let the memories slow me down.
But I can’t help myself. When I find one of her patina tiles, which she made with her own hands and wished to sell at the university’s charity bazaar, or when my eyes spot the torn pages of the book I bought her as a gift, my dedication note on its first page, or when I uncover her distorted wooden picture frame with its broken glass: these are the times when I can’t stop myself from touching and looking in silence. I remember how thrilled I was when buying that book and still more thrilled when she unwrapped it, her eyes sparkling with excitement. I remember how she grimaced and pulled faces while I was taking that photo, flashing the camera until I could take a good shot to be printed and framed.
The more I search, the more of her things come out from under my hands. She herself must be somewhere around here, but I don’t know what I should do if I find her. I feel dizzy. The gas smell has filled my nose. I can barely move my hands.
Wearily, I move the soil until my hand touches a cold finger.
I stop at once. I hear my heart beating louder than ever. I close my eyes for a moment. Cold sweat dampens my face. As the wind blows, my wet body freezes and my hands tremble. I don’t know how much time passes. Then, very cautiously, without hurrying, I remove the soil and take the hand out. The fingers seem wider than hers and colder than the first time I felt them. Slowly I take the hand by the wrist and pull it. Nothing happens. I grope around the wrist and arm. The pieces of debris are larger than I had expected. I bend and smell the palm of the hand. It’s just the smell of dust and sourness of gas that burns my nose.
I sit on a piece of rock. I stare at the hand and at the purple scarf whose fringes sway in the wind. The distance between them is so much that it makes me doubt. I hold my head in my hands and sit there so that another earthquake may come, a spark may set fire to the gas, or anything could happen to relieve me from uncertainty.