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The Clash of Civilizations

Excerpt from ELSA
by Summer Brenner
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Outside Elsa can distinguish three different kinds of noise.
     One is a species of bird in the jacaranda tree near her window. Except for early morning, this one is silent all day.
     The second are the sirens of the city. No matter where she is, day and night, she hears them. She believes they are attracted to her. As they approach, they get shriller, louder. Then once they are near, they sound like bombs falling on her head. When they fade, the silence is stunning and absolute in their absence.
     The third is a mystery. It positions itself faithfully at the corner of the street and never leaves. It squawks day and night in two different, alternating tones, continuous yet changing. Its pair of sounds travel distinctly in opposite directions, like Cartesian coordinates.
     Elsa knows their habits well. She has listened to them for several days. She understands the first two, but the third remains a bafflement. She cannot understand something that chirps two sounds at exactly the same intervals. This persistent, loathsome noise is totally new to her experience. She tries to fathom its mission. If it's a bird, it obviously does not sing for the joy of morning, for its song is uttered at all hours.
     She understands a song inspired by pain, but any bird eventually tires. Pain is tiring. Doesn't she know? You can only cry out for so long. You sob until you're wrenched and wrung, but then you stop. This thing never tires. It never sleeps. She cannot imagine what affliction or ecstasy it contains, but it strikes her as entirely unnatural.
     More unnatural than sirens. Sirens she has heard all her life. She knows goose-honks from screeches, ambulances from fire trucks, fire trucks from police cars. These sorts of songs signal emergencies, rare in peace, constant in war. She is familiar with both frequencies.
     Elsa lies in bed awake although it is late. She is tired but anxious. The anxiety does not let her sleep, and when she dozes, the mysterious little caw disturbs her.
     She hates this idiotic noise and its repetitions. She feels besieged. She dreams of killing it. She hopes it is as small as a sparrow so it can be crushed by hand. She stretches her fingers in their joints, back and forth, as if she were about to play a piano exercise. She is warming her joints. She must keep her hands strong if she is to succeed at killing this sound who has become her greatest torment.
     Elsa has been in this room three or four days. She has not left. She is on vacation. She can lie in bed as long as she wants. She can watch television. She can listen to the radio. She can read newspapers and magazines in English and Russian. She can bathe many times a day.
     However, she is not permitted to go outside. She is locked in the room. Nor can she see out because the windows are painted black. She has been taken to the room blindfolded. She has been taken in a car. She probably traveled for two days, but she isn't sure. She was drugged and sleeping through most of the trip. Whenever she awoke, she was given a sandwich, a drink, a banana, a piece of candy, and another sleeping pill. Whatever she asked for, within reason, she was given.
     Elsa can do whatever she wants, within reason. They bring her newspapers in Russian. They know she likes that. They want her to rest. She will be on vacation for a day or two more so she can rest. They want her to recover. They have told her she's too thin. They say she doesn't eat enough. They think she's been working too hard. They bring her milkshakes and bananas.
     Always bananas and chocolate. They bring her joints to make her hungry. They say they can't make her eat, but eating is a glorious part of life. They like to say persuasive things. They like to make themselves sound philosophical.
     They also fancy the phrase: IN PRINCIPLE. They elevate their mandates with: IN PRINCIPLE. They employ such phrases for emphasis. They can say anything as long as they add a touch of loftiness.
     When they speak in such ways, it is without irony. They say, "You should get on your fucking knees and crawl across the room on your thumbs." And when they add IN PRINCIPLE to their propositions, it lends them an air of dignity: as if all mankind has been waiting, in principle, to do their bidding.
     Every evening they come into the room and say, "Elsa, here is bread. Here is soup. Eat, Elsa. Eating is a glorious part of life."
     They laugh when they say such things and slurp down the soup. They've brought enough for themselves. They've brought enough for a dozen. They throw themselves on the food. They throw napkins and drinks and cartons of food around Elsa's room.
     They offer her vodka. That she takes. She can hardly wait for the vodka. She drinks it over ice in a short bar glass. She doesn't like the sleeping pills, but she loves the vodka and the way it makes her body slip inside a smooth dream.
     After one glass of iced vodka, Elsa is content. She almost laughs. At least, she is ready to smile. But if she has three glasses, she cries. She can't stop crying. Nothing consoles her. That's why she is strictly limited.
     They don't leave her the bottle. They don't leave it behind. That is not within reason, they tell her. They do not want her to become an alcoholic.
     "Like every fucking whore in Russia," they say.
     Then they laugh. They're jolly, they are. They rarely miss an opportunity to eat and drink and laugh. They like Elsa. They want her to join in. They want her to party with them, but she tells them she's on vacation.
     She wants to be alone, she says. And they accept that. First they consult, and then they accept that it's within reason.
     The radio is turned on next to the bed. The bedside lamp is on too. Only artificial light illuminates the room. Elsa is accustomed. When she's working, she rarely goes out. When she's on vacation or sick leave, then she goes out but only if accompanied. Sometimes she stays indoors for weeks. She no longer cares if she goes out or not.
     When she first arrived, it was required to stay inside for four weeks. They said it was to help her get accustomed. She lived behind darkened windows in one room. She named it her cocoon. She called herself a pupa in a cocoon. She told herself she was lucky to find such a silky, protective covering. She coached herself on how to keep steady and not lose her chance, whatever it took. She suppressed any regrets.
     After all, what should she regret? That she exchanged one hole for a new one? In fact, she considers it a monument of progress, for in transport alone, she has relocated from one continent across the ocean to another. Above everything else, that was the great promise.
     When Elsa emerged at the end of the initiation period, she was surprised what made her cry out with a shock of recognition. Most of all, the sun. When she looked up and saw the sun, she cried. For the first time, she perceived that light, like water, is capable of permeating everything. Every color, every shadow, every reflection receives its singular definition solely because of light. She cried, because like everyone, she used to take so much for granted. Now Elsa understands why people worship the sun. Someday when she is asked her religion, she will say sun-worshipper.
     The tribute to Dakota Staton has been interrupted by the news. Elsa only half-listens. There is a war somewhere with casualties. A dozen innocent? A thousand, a hundred thousand, a million?
     Innocent? She hates the word. Innocent is a shield for the guilty. It is certain they who decry the fate of the innocent are guilty and pious at the same time. The news makes her smirk. Elsa takes a pinch of pride in having swiftly moved from victim to casualty to survivor. That's over now. Past.
     She gets out of bed and trips past the card table and four matching chairs, the poorly upholstered love-seat. The vacation is almost over. They have warned her.
     She checks the door just in case. She checks the closet just in case. On the floor is a large valise, filled mostly with underwear and gowns. Her raincoat and wool jacket hang next to a couple of thin acetate dresses. Her shoes -- mules, sandals, high boots, sneakers -- tumble in disarray next to the valise. At least, they allow her to have shoes. She grabs a pair of thick cotton socks and pads into the bathroom.
     In the mirror somewhere is her face. It looks hard to her. The same but hard like a mold created for the sculpture of a woman. A beauty, no doubt, in her youth, and now recaptured for perpetuity in metal, stone, or something cheap like plaster.
     Elsa examines her nose. It's big but not bad. The big nose balances the big tits. Actually, the nose is long rather than big, which in her case makes the same impression. The nostrils, however, are disproportionately small, tense, and shapely. They always look flared. Her lips are thin but elastic. They stretch easily like twin rubber bands. The teeth are bad. That cannot be helped. There was not adequate dental care. As she recalls, the clinic was destroyed in the first raid. Afterward, when people had toothaches, they went to the barber. The bottom row of teeth is crooked. They're already yellowed from coffee and unfiltered cigarettes, but she has given up both. She's on a health kick.
     "In principle," she mutters, half-smiling.
     The skin too cannot be helped. Bad diet almost all the way through. A few pock marks are visible by the temples and there are a couple of ruts on her left cheek. That's why she habitually shows the right side of her face. She lives in profile. Sometimes they call her The Hieroglyphic. It goes well with their other nickname: Elsa, the Egyptian.
     The skin color is worse than the texture. It ranges from sallow to olive. It always looks slightly wet, slightly feverish, and the sweat beads easily on her upper lip and forehead. If her hair shade is too light or too brassy, then she looks nearly green. Their other nicknames for her are Seaweed or Mermaid. They like to tease her, which is normally better than a beating. However, sometimes she wishes she never had to hear their voices again. Sometimes she would prefer the strap.
     She strives for dark ash blond. Too much yellow gives her hair a greenish cast like verdigris. There is also the additional pallor that comes with living indoors under artificial light. The women who work long hours in factories under fluorescent tubes have the same coloring. Even when their skin is dark, the epidermis looks as if it's underlit.
     Elsa's eyes are good. No one doubts that. They're speckled and green, deep-set, shrewd, and small. Besides the color, they slant upward and give a Eurasian cast to her face. A blond Mongol. Such exotica only takes a stray drop of blood and a box of dye.
     However, her eyes have lost a quantity of liveliness. That's to be expected. In measurable quantities, life takes the liveliness out of a person. She knows that well. She remembers her mother's eyes. There wasn't much left of that whatever, force, behind the sockets.
     Aside from any color, the texture of hair is excellent. It's wavy and thick. It's shoulder-length, which is both convenient and chic. Wherever she is, someone is hired to come in and cut her hair. Every six weeks, it's cut. The price varies, but like everything it goes on her tab. $75 plus tip is average.
     Her eyebrows, she shaves off. Once they were as furry as caterpillars and the color of calico, but now she prefers them smooth and dark. She expertly pencils them on, and if they're missing, the bare, denuded protrusions above her eyes accentuate the broad, Slavic shape of her head. Missing eyebrows is like shaved pubic hair. It's unexpected but conveys its own allure.
     Scattered across the commode are tubes of lipstick, mostly dark, like dried blood. The color accentuates the discoloration of her teeth, but she prefers a lurid mood. It goes well with her eyebrows and suggests something mischievous and forbidden.
     In a row behind the sink are tins of rouge to hide or lift her pasty skin to rosy. She squeezes her cheeks until they bruise. Then she brushes her entire face with powder before she draws on her eyebrows. She prefers pink eye shadow and dark-blue mascara, but today, on vacation, she forgoes both.
     Next to the sink are a jewelry box and vials of perfume. She favors gold and pearls and rosewater scent. She owns one strand of champagne cultured pearls, but the remaining assortment of dangling earrings, studs, bangles, cuff bracelets, chokers, and long necklaces are costume.
     Elsa drops her Victoria Secret jacquard robe to the floor. She examines the front of her body. The moles trip across her stomach like mouse turds. She counts them. There is one more than before. Twelve mouse turds instead of eleven. Is it cancer? She picks at the new mole until it bleeds. Can she make it cancer?
     Music has returned to the little box by the bed. It's the sweet, thin voice of Chet Baker. His voice used to make her cry because it sounded so girlish, weeping and giggling inside the body of a man. The hermaphrodite's voice could pull her over the edge with its regret, but she is beyond regret too. Victim, casualty, survivor, no regrets.
     Elsa's time is almost up. They've told her after the next assignment, she will have earned her liberty. Liberty is the word they use. Liberty fits the way they elevate their role to a cause. Regarding Elsa, they say it's within reason now. Her debt is nearly paid off.
     Elsa glances behind her. As usual, she is struck by the curves she rarely sees. They are likely the best part of her. Her legs are long and the muscles well-defined from walking up the mountain throughout her youth. Her legs show off well in heels, short skirts, and baby doll pajamas.
     Anyway it wasn't quite a mountain. It was a hill with a gradual incline that went up and behind their town. After climbing a kilometer of rocky, unpaved road, you reached a plateau with the best view of the valley. From one end to the other, a wide, lazy river wound its way around.
     Elsa's grandparents had a farm on top of the plateau, and for years Elsa traveled every day by foot to visit. In 1991 their farm was wrecked by a bomb of liberation. Then afterward, her grandmother, Buba, died from falling into one of the holes the bomb made. The doctors called it, "Complications from a fall," but Elsa thought the complications were much larger. After all, why was there a hole instead of a farm?
     Once Buba died, her grandfather moved down the mountain into Elsa's house. Because of the view, Elsa continued to walk up to the farm. When she had her first boyfriend, they heaved an old mattress onto the handlebars of his bicycle and pushed it up the mountain. They stored the mattress and a moldy blanket in what remained of the pig shed. During the spring of their pubescent courtship, they dragged the mattress out onto the plateau of wildflowers blooming in the remnants of her grandmother's vegetable garden. When it rained, they stayed inside and despite the dankness and smell, fucked in the pig shed.
     Elsa smiles warmly at the mirror. Her lips widen nearly to her ears and break her face into two pallid yellowish halves like a grapefruit.
     She must be good, she tells herself. She must be patient. She has waited long. She has worked hard. She must wait only a little longer.
     Elsa hears a large, animate object knock against the outside door of the room. Reflexively she tenses. Next she hears fumbling, jangling, and a curse.
     "Fuck," the familiar voice says. No hostility, only inconvenience.
     The large object leaves the range of Elsa's hearing and returns in a few minutes. A collection of keys brush against the escutcheon. There is another hushed curse. Then they are inserted into two keyholes: one door lock and one bolt. Elsa remains in the bathroom as the object enters the room.
     "You here?" A thick, disembodied voice calls.
     "Where the fuck else would I be?" She responds.
     "Cheerful," the masculine voice's laugh is deep and energetic."Tired," Elsa whines.
     "Too much vacation," he chides.
     Marty lumbers over to the small loveseat. He lands, rather than sits, on its unresponsive foam cushion. He lets his small hands fall onto the center bulk of his thighs. He examines his fingernails. Then he takes the corner of a matchbook and cleans them.
     Wrapped tightly in her red rayon jacquard robe, Elsa emerges from the bathroom. Her hair is wet and brushed back. Her face is refreshed, almost clear. She looks her age, which is twenty-one.
     Marty is struck and surprised by her youthful, wholesome look. His fingers fold together in approval.
     "Isn't it too fucking early to fucking visit?" She asks.
     Even her foul, expletive language strikes him as youthful. She could almost be an American.
     "Hey, watch the fuck language." He is good-naturedly compelled to say.
     She shrugs and lights an extra long, filter-tipped, blond tobacco cigarette. The unpleasant filter is part of her new health regime.
     "I brought you fresh orange juice." Marty holds out a paper cup with a plastic lid. "From the Farmers' Market."
     "Farmers' what? Where the fuck are we?"
     "Go on. It's good for you. Good for the complexion," he winces at the left side of Elsa's pocked face. It's a shame, he thinks, but then so many things are.
     Elsa takes a tiny sip. Only a few drops of nectar reach her tongue, but that's sufficient. The sensation rushes from the tongue to her brain. She had clearly forgotten, but the tongue can still faithfully recall. A Ukrainian soldier with six oranges and a makeshift press in his rucksack intercepted Elsa on a road outside Uman. He had carried the oranges all the way from the Turkish border, thinking to save them for a desperate moment. When he met Elsa, his desperation climaxed. He offered to squeeze two of the oranges into his mess cup in exchange for a blow job. The time to do both was exactly equivalent. Elsa chose to drink the juice after she spit out his come.
     "I just picked it up a minute ago. I watched them myself. It's a beautiful thing. They take these perfect, round, orange spheres, like perfect tits, and they slit them in half." Marty pauses to lick his lips. A few drops of juice have dried and grown sticky at the corners of his mouth. "They put each half in a silver press. They press the living fuck out of them. Every single drop. Not a drop left. Then they pour the liquid into a cup. What you want? I can't get fresher than this cup unless I bring you a fucking tree."
     Elsa laughs, but it's joyless. The sip has made her gag.
     "Yours took eight oranges and cost me over $6. I got you a large. I got me a small." He winks insincerely. "That's because you deserve more than me."
     "I can't drink it."
     "You don't like nothing, Elsa. You don't like nothing I bring you anymore. Remember?" Marty sinks lower into the seat, wriggling to make the shape accommodate his bulk. He brushes his trimmed blond beard with his hand, combs back his wisps of blond hair with his fingers. He reminisces.
     "Remember what I used to bring? Anything you ask for anytime of day. I run all over town. Didn't matter what town, I run to get it. And I didn't never put it on your tab. You remember when it was cold in Baltimore. Never been so fucking cold in the history of temperature, and I found you hot pastrami."
     Elsa puts the lid back on the cup of orange juice and returns it to Marty's side.
     "The heat was turned off in the room, cock-sucker. And you, stubborn as a rock, would not change rooms. You think the pastrami kept me from freezing to death? Either I had to crawl into bed next to your slab of fat or die." She makes a sound of disgust.
     Marty smiles with parental tenderness. His upper gums show when he expresses happiness. He loves to hear Elsa talk, foul or otherwise. If she calls him cock-sucker, it doesn't matter. It's good therapy for her to call him foul names. It's good for her to express herself. Like everybody else, she's got frustrations too.
     He watches her dress. Her back is nearly unmarred. Her buttocks are young, firm, voluptuous, untouched by her lack of appetite. They are perfectly accented by two large, tufted dimples and a tiny sprig of blond downy hair. She pulls on a tiny turquoise-colored thong and over its bit of nothing, a pair of tight jeans. She looks at her nails with disgust. "I need polish. When you go out, I need pink polish."
     "We got a little problem," Marty glances at the dark window. The bright winter Southern California sun is less than a half-inch away. He checks his watch. It's nearly noon.
     "There was a hang-up at headquarters. We're changing locales."
     "Fuck," Elsa exhales with exasperation. "I just unpacked."
     "No problema because we ain't going far. It's only a six-hour drive. Straight road all the way."
     Marty motions at Elsa to come to him. She saunters across the blue, tightly woven carpet. There's a track of round, brown stains beneath her. "I didn't do that," she points down.
     "We leaving anyway."
     "Your pal messed up the rug."
     "Can you live with it for a few more hours?" Marty pulls her forward into his lap. "We're going to leave here. We're going to drive. You're going sleep. Then when we get where we going, it's just a few more days." Marty growls affectionately. "And presto."
     Elsa presses her lower lip with her teeth. She can't smile because it's not yet true. When it's true, then she'll smile. Then she'll look deeply into the cock-sucker's eyes and tell him to fuck off for the last time.


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