They recalled the ambassador last night.
By the time it hit the news, he was gone.
It’s still always a ‘he’ when it comes to ambassadors here. They don’t trust ‘shes’ yet.
They don’t trust him either, now.
The ambassador was recalled last night and has not been seen since.
Probably a spy, someone says.
Probably a poet: someone else.
Only the sun knows where he is now and the sun is hiding today. Maybe only the moon then. The moon always watches, even when it’s not there.
Day breaks, watery, spindly, like limbs not yet formed. A flailing, falling down foal of a day.
I like these days. They make us seem more complete.
It’s a small city. Practically a village when you’re young, city limits closed in as a closet.
They pass time by passing ordinances. So many ordinances. There is an ordinance on allowable door colours. It’s buried in the books. I hope no one notices because I have a non-compliant door colour. My door colour is scofflaw. That colour is the last thing I see before I fall asleep.
The ambassador had a small black car and wore a grey overcoat. He did not have a dog. I note if ambassadors have dogs. Can you be a real ambassador if you don’t have a dog? I don’t see it.
In other aspects this ambassador was as grey as his coat, as the pale, sickly sky. He took his work seriously, which is to say he shut up and kept quiet. Both things, they are not the same. He shut up, i.e. he did not continue speaking in the present. He kept quiet, i.e. he did not reveal what he knows from before. He got a small ambassadorship in a small city with a small grey sky and a small car. And now he does not have those things.
There is an ordinance in this small city, verging on a village if you are very young, which I am not any longer, that you cannot trim your neighbour’s tree. I often think of this. There is no ordinance against chopping it down. Removal is fine. Modification is not.
I picture how this ordinance came to be. Which spiteful neighbour prevailed. I search our historical archives. I don’t have the answer.
When I learned this I went to the small scrubby patch of green outside the door I share with two others and planted a tree. It’s a ridiculous specimen, barely a tree, more a branch with a few sprouts still weighing whether to emerge. It may not make the winter. Maybe it will. Maybe it will grow. Maybe one of my doormates will decide to trim it and I will test the ordinance. Can a doormate be considered a neighbour? It’s a technicality but ordinances thrive on technicalities.
Unexpected development. Much excitement. Much speculation. They are tearing down the house in which the ambassador stayed. It served as home and office. Unobtrusive from the outside other than a small plaque declaring the small country the ambassador represented. Technically this house represents that country’s land. Yet here we are, clawing at it with big machinery. It’s impossible to hear the clang of that plaque as it tumbles to the earth amid the big machinery, yet I think I do. Tinny, like one of those fake sheriff’s badges children wear. The sound stays with me. It joins the colour of my door as the last things I am conscious of before sleep.
We will be at war soon, someone says, watching debris tumble.
Too much effort: someone else.
War’s old-fashioned, I say.
No one argues.
Later, in the archives, I look up the address. Something has been on that patch of land roughly 300 years. It has no great historical value. Nothing great happened there. That particular building was built 120 years before. It became an ambassador’s residence 43 years ago. This ambassador, with his small black car, grey coat and no dog, arrived 5 years ago. The building served as his home and his office. He has not been seen since he was recalled.
The building is no more. They cleaned up most of the rubble. It looks like a chipped tooth on the street now, a gap where the tongue travels in search of what was. No one noticed that unobtrusive building for years. Now they speak of it in coffee shops and kitchens.
At night I see the colour of my door. I hear the tinny fall of a plaque as a building falls all around it.
I look at the clock. It’s 11:46 pm but it feels like 1970. Or like I think 1970 felt. From above, doormate one plays a radio. I can’t hear words, more like a hum. Beside me doormate two keeps crying. The pity I once felt has hardened into boredom. I don’t know the source of their tears, only that there are so many of them. I don’t know the source of anything, even when it is plentiful. It has been 72 days since the ambassador was recalled, 69 days since his house was demolished and 147 days since I planted the little tree. All this seems to merit more than the mumble of radio and useless nights of tears.
There is no ordinance against crying, not even in this small city. I searched quite extensively. The closest is an ordinance against group singing after midnight. Hastily passed in 1996 on the verge of civil unrest when the bravest of people got together to sing in the town square. When they blocked off the square they sang in the streets. Then they passed the ordinance, and they sang during the day. Enforcement at that time, however, failed to observe the time written into the legislation and simply rounded up choristers whenever. Overachievers by training, they entered churches and social clubs too. Grandparents drinking coffee found themselves slapped with warnings and mug shots to show their grandchildren today.
The ordinance continues to say midnight, but people don’t sing. They put on the radio. Radio the collective song in this small city. They caught onto that also. Now radios just talk. No one listens. They sing quietly alone while the radio speaks.
2:45 am and, unusually, I can’t sleep. I think of the tree ordinance. Removal is fine. Modification is not.
How different would it be if I cried, instead of doormate two? What if I played the radio, instead of doormate one? Would either of them dig into the ordinances? Would they haunt the archives?
Would we be removed?
Would we find the ambassador?
Would they tear down our home?
No. They wouldn’t notice at all. We are not poets, not spies. We are only the past. Only the archives see the past, and only I see them. Everyone else has forgotten.
It is an unseasonable day. The sun shines. It has blown apart the clouds. Like Hercules breaking free of fetters. It blazes free and alone in the sky.
Its appearance is too little to warm the soil but it unearths people. We emerge from our homes, unbelieving, but unable to not emerge. Hello neighbour, hello friend, hello daughter. Greetings all around as we float down streets bathed in summer sun in a winter month. Doormates one and two are out. We smile on the street in the sun, like we never do at the door.
The town square, unboarded since the ’90s, is vibing. There is chatter, mostly idle. Sunshine is made for idle chatter, winter for silence. There is no in-between. People use the space where a house used to sit and the ambassador used to live as a pass-through, from one street to another. Someone brings beer. Someone sells sandwiches. Children pick amid the remaining rubble. There’s not much of it but they lift it, hurl it, inspect it. The youngest place their mouths to it, like candy. Such a day, people say. Fates are smiling today. God is happy today. Hello neighbour. Hello friend. Hello daughter.
Even when night falls, people remain, unwilling to release the memory of sun rays. Children will be born 9 months from this day, they say. People say such ludicrous things.
The next day is seasonal. Mid-grey clouds tie up the sun again. It pulses feebly, then vanishes. Amid this gloom we discover a TV station has been shut down.
No one watched it: someone says.
On its own airwaves the state announces it’s taking over another digital newsroom.
No one read it: someone else.
The sun shone on that, like it shone on our greetings in the street. The sun doesn’t care what it shines on.
At home I have a secret. It sits on the table beside my bed. I stole rubble from the old ambassador’s house. Just a little piece. I slipped it into a pocket when no one was looking. It weighed there all night until I removed it, placed on the table by the bed. Is it wrong to take a piece of rubble? I search the ordinances but find nothing about such an act. For once the omnipresent and officious council did not foresee something. They did not anticipate a recalled ambassador, a demolished house, a sunny winter day, and me. It feels like a triumph. I sleep soundly. The last things I’m conscious of are the colour of the door and the sound of a fallen plaque, like a piece of tin hitting a breastbone.
I don’t go out today. Not even to the archives. I stay inside and think rubble. I sweep it in my mind, pick over it like the children. Move debris from one side of the gap tooth to the other, like a child who tidies by moving toys to a different part of the floor. I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I know what I’ve found. I found a mistake. In their hasty clearing, they left something behind. They failed to remove.
If they made one mistake, they can make another. I think of rubble and no longer live in this place by doormate one and doormate two. I live in the space of the error. I live in what the ordinances fail to predict.
You can’t see me.
You can’t see me here.
I’m in the space you think doesn’t exist.
The sun emerges, slicing through clouds, blade sharp.
I feel exposed. The sun sees.
The small country that bore and subsequently lost the ambassador was founded 568 years ago. It has undergone several name changes and several more border changes. The border is now irregular, like a broken block. So much of the world formed by a clumsy child.
It imports a lot, exports a little. It has a paltry GDP but quite beautiful beaches. Two official languages. Several unofficial ones. The climate is generally pleasant. Maybe that’s how they lost an ambassador, they are unused to this level of cloud cover. It has not had a revolution in some time. Maybe that’s how they lost an ambassador. Peace makes you careless.
I don’t read their language but do my best to scour their news for reports on the missing ambassador. Diplomats don’t disappear into thin air like ordinary folk.
I find nothing.
Maybe they don’t know he’s missing.
I search the archives. The small country does not have many ambassadors.
My mobile rings. It is doormate two. We exchanged numbers in the giddy summer sunshine of that winter day. Frivolity. They live in the unit next door. I hear the hum of their voice both over the phone and through the wall. It’s strange and comforting. I sit with my back against that wall. It’s possible they do too. It’s possible we’re back-to-back against the wall, murmuring into the telephone like the walls might hear us. After 12 minutes we hang up. There’s not much to say.
A bad night. Feverish. I’m rarely sick, and squirrely with it. I pace, collapse on the bed, pace again. From the covers I see a small slice of sky through the window. It’s blank, like a stare. No point of light. No moon, no stars. The sun is held hostage somewhere and the night doesn’t care. Pace, collapse, stare. I must doze, I must dream, I wake enraged. I am a fury. A cautious fury, I want to destroy but not break. I don’t want to clean up. Cleaning is already tedious, cleaning up adds shame to tedium. I will not be party to shameful tedium. I will not clean up. I am a fury. I seize rubble, the proof of the mistake I live within, the space they can’t see. I remember the phone call, 12 minutes speaking with my back to the murmuring wall. I don’t want to live in the absence anymore, I don’t want to be invisible. The talisman of the invisibility is the rubble. I seize it. I am fury. I throw it. Seize it. Throw it. I am not a person, I am fever. I am fury. I lie in my bed and throw it against the ceiling. Doormate one will be livid. Their fury will join mine.
What is all this communion all of a sudden? No more ceiling throws.
I switch direction. Throw with all my might against the wall that faces outside. On the other side of the wall is the tree I planted, barely a tree like this is barely a life and this is barely a rage.
The rubble smashes. The talisman breaks. The fever breaks. The fury breaks.
Inside the rubble there is a finger.
On the finger there is a ring.
On the ring there is a name.
It is not the ambassador’s name.
The ordinances have nothing to say about this.
First, the ring.
It’s simple. Unremarkable. It doesn’t look particularly expensive. It’s silver. Unless it’s white gold. Unless it’s platinum. I’m no jeweler. I think it’s silver.
It has no stone. It has no crest. No tell-tale sign of why the wearer wore it, or of the jeweler who crafted it. The name is ambiguous, it could be a girl’s name, or a boy’s name. It could be a mother, or a father, a brother, a sister, a lover, a spouse. It could be second-hand, the name belonging to someone unrelated to the missing ambassador.
Even the size is ambiguous. It is too big for me, but my hands are small, my fingers weak, made for scraping through archives, not the heavy lifting of life. A large woman, a small man, I don’t know.
As for the finger. I am no anatomist. It has been encased in rubble, who can tell the gender of such a finger. I believe it is a ring finger. I don’t know of which hand, right or left. Left or right. The finger itself does not interest me. What interests me is it is here, in my room, having been carried by me under a summer sun in winter, in a bed of rubble, now smashed against the wall that on the other side faces the tree I illicitly planted. In each of these cases, the ordinance is in tatters. Smashed to more pieces than the rubble. Stomped under clumsy feet. Scraped so thin it’s like it never existed.
Someone thought the person this finger belonged to was removed. In fact, they were modified. A finger remains. Where there remains a finger, there may, still, remain a person. Instead of nothing, there is a trace. Paltry as the tree outside the wall. But existing.
Removal is fine. Modification is not.
I climb into bed. This requires thought, and I am cold. I am tired.
I have come into the possession of a finger. I do not know who the finger belongs to but wish to. The finger possessed a ring. At least it wore one. I don’t know if it is theirs. I would like to advertise the finger in hopes of repatriating it with its owner. How may I go about this?
Thank you for your prompt reply. No, I will not disclose details. How will I know if the rightful owner comes forward if I advertise details? I have no wish to return the finger to the wrong person
Thank you for your continued correspondence, though it is becoming tiresome. If you do not want me to advertise this in your publication, just say so. The finger’s owner probably doesn’t read it anyway.
Excitement. Doormate one has a sister! She arrives at our door in a blue coat, unbuttoned though it’s cold. Doormate one greets her with much fuss to ensure no one misses that she has a visitor. Two, even. Clasped unhappily in the sister’s hand is the hand of a child. I’m no child expert but it looked about age 9. Crimson with horror of holding his mother’s hand and visiting her sister, which he had not done, I learned, since before his baptismal.
I haven’t been baptized: The child
You have. You had ice cream after: The mother
I don’t like ice cream: The child
You didn’t like being baptized: The mother
Doormate one, her sister and child enter her unit. I heard them talking from my ceiling. It sounds like the radio and I forget they’re there and go out to look at my tree.
It is as it was yesterday, and the day before. Trees don’t grow in winter. It would be hard to tell if it is dying.
As an experiment I tie a small piece of string to a small sprout. A modification of the modification. A dare to the universe. To watchful and ordinance-heavy city leaders.
I am incautious. When I turn, the child is there, with silent eyes. He says nothing.
Distract him, I tell myself.
I have a severed finger, I say.
I show him.
I want to find the owner but the paper won’t let me advertise, I tell him.
It’s pleasant talking to a child. You assume they won’t listen so it’s like talking to yourself but with someone there.
I’ll help, he said. The only words I hear him speak.
But he must talk somewhere because the very next day, the knocks come at the door.
The first an old woman. Too old. Wrong absent finger.
I send her away.
Then a man with no right hand ring finger. I do not reveal the ring but make a string circle the same size for people to try on. Too small. I send him away.
This continues for some weeks. I did not know so many in this country were missing fingers and interested in reuniting with them.
I make a list.
27 middle age
Notes: Either the new generation are less careless than we or finger loss increases with age in the female population
61 men, 10 accompanied by women pushing at their backs to ensure they knock on the door
25 middle age
21 in their 20s or less
Notes: The new generation are just as careless as we in the male population
Total missing fingers: 104 (some lacked more than one)
Ring fingers: 30
Index fingers: 20
Middle fingers: 48
Little finger: 0
Notes: There is an epidemic of missing middle fingers in this country
Conversely, there is a wall of protection around little fingers which, despite their paltry size and precarious hand position, retain a remarkable record of intactness.
None of these 104 missing fingers are my finger.
Conclusion: Plan B required.
The child returns weekly to my window. Knocks on it until I let him in.
I give him bad news. Still no match.
I give him bad news. I have no new fingers.
He is resourceful but still a child and thinks if I have found one missing finger, more will soon follow.
This is not a museum for missing body parts, I tell him. I am stern. I think I have settled the matter.
He returns the next week. Knocks on my window until I let him.
Unbuttons his red jacket and extracts from his unpleasant-looking sweater three chunks of rubble.
Maybe there’s more here, he says.
No one notices a child picking around the rubble, he says.
I can bring more each week, he says.
Maybe there will be a clue, he says.
That finger wanted to be found, he says. Why else would it have found its way into your pocket? Why else would my mother have visited her sister? Why else would I be here?
His sense of causation is impressive, so I don’t tell him it’s nonsense.
Maybe the finger did want to be found. It’s the owner who’s proving stubborn.
We smash rubble together. There’s an art to it. Forceful enough to smash the debris, not so forceful any body part smashes with it. We are archaeologists of flesh and bone, I tell him. Maybe we’ll discover a lost city.
He is interested only in body parts. Children are grisly. No wonder I don’t have them.
The debris of the debris we place in the small patch near the tree I planted. The string I tied is still there. No one has noticed.
Each week he brings more. There won’t be any left at the gapped tooth soon. We are doing for them what they failed at. We are removing. If we strip the site bare, I fear the ambassador will be lost for good.
We must stop this, I tell the child. We must save the ambassador.
Conclusion: Plan C required.
Winter desolation grips the country. All is grey and wet-cold. Silences roll over words in waves. No one wants to see their breath. No one wants to hear. It’s 1:45 pm. It feels like 1980.
It has been 114 days since the ambassador was recalled, 111 days since his home and office was demolished, 94 days that I have lived with this finger, 56 days since I last breathed. 189 days since I planted the tree. 15 days since I visited the archives or combed through the ordinances.
On the 16th day they call.
Are you ill: Them
I am not ill, I am oppressed: Me
Ah. Poetry season: Them
That gives me an idea.
When the child visits, I ask: Are you afraid of jail?
Jail is an abstract concept to a nine-year-old, which is perfect because abstract concepts is Plan C.
We will cease being archaeologists, I say. We will start being artists. On sidewalks and walls. We will write and we will draw. Or you will. I’m too old. They will come for me. You they will just return to your mother. Are you afraid of your mother?
He burns crimson. Young boys are unwilling to fear mothers.
Winter desolation grips the country. All is grey and wet-cold. All but the walls and sidewalks we splash with words and colour.
Words like the name of the missing ambassador. Words like the name on the ring. Nonsense words we make up just to splash on walls and sidewalks. The small city cloaked in ice and weighed under by cloud erupts with names and nonsense words. I cannot sleep. I cannot sleep. What will they do, the city leaders, with this unexpected jumble? With what will they react? I am so excited I lock myself in the archives and wait.
This is what happens:
The small city awakes.
It gathers in small groups.
It wrestles through silence to chatter.
The chatter rises in the air and settles on the scrawled and painted words.
And adds to them.
New names. New words.
Names of the missing appear as though conjured all over the small city. On benches, sidewalks, walls, storefronts, bus stops. So many names. So much nonsense. Even the sun struggles through its fetters enough to peer at the commotion. The sun sees. The moon always watches. The city centre of power jolts into action.
Council members and bureaucrats struggle from their beds and chairs to gather in hallways. They pore through ordinances searching for the sufficiently ominous to strike against this unseemly explosion of names and nonsense with the cold fury of written authority.
But they do not find it. They cannot find it. I have removed it. I have modified the ordinances by removal. I have modified and removed.
They did not know how many words were sitting in the chests of their citizens.
They did not know such nonsense was barely below the calm surface of their people.
They did not know the ambassador would cause such trouble when they removed him.
They did not realize what they modified when they failed to sufficiently remove.
Word spreads. Words spread. Other nations report on the strange uprising of words in our small country. The small country of the missing ambassador at last files a story. It mentions his name. It laments their lost contact with him. His mother, aged and determined, pleads for information. The small country demands answers. It demands justice. It demands to know not only where the ambassador is but also his brother. Who had a wife. Who died unfortunately two years ago. Whom this brother grieved for terribly and went to his brother in our small country awash in his grief. Whose name is on the ring. Two brothers and one dead wife. The end of our line, the mother pleads. Find them or we will have no chance to replenish. Find them or our name will cease to exist.
Find him or we have no choice but to extinguish.
Her small country has no interest in her grief or her line. The international community has no interest in her grief or her line. But they share an interest in ambassadors who disappear. There are international ordinances against this. The international community demands investigation. They appoint investigators from third-party nations.
The child and I confer. We pack up the finger and the ring and send it anonymously to the investigators. They seal off the gapped tooth as a scene of interest.
The worst of winter is over. Sun cracks through its prison of cloud and breathes warmth on the soil. Soon there will be crocuses. Soon after, lilacs.
Outside the door with the non-compliant colour is the tree I planted 300 days ago.
Irene Gentle lives, writes and edits in Toronto, Canada. You won’t know her work, but she’s probably a fan of yours.