In the Country of Last Things

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Authors: Paul Auster
You remember how it used to be for me at home: the cook, the maid, the clean laundry folded and put in my bureau drawers every Friday. I never had to lift a finger. The whole world was given to me, and I never even questioned it: piano lessons, art lessons, summers by the lake in the country, trips abroad with my friends. Now I had become a drudge, the sole support of two people I would never even have met in my old life. Isabel, with her lunatic purity and goodness; Ferdinand, adrift in his coarse, demented angers. It was all so strange,so improbable. But the fact was that Isabel had saved my life just as surely as I had saved hers, and it never occurred to me not to do what I could. From being a little waif they dragged in off the street, I became the exact measure that stood between them and total ruin. Without me, they would not have lasted ten days. I don’t mean to boast about what I did, but for the first time in my life there were people who depended on me, and I did not let them down.
    In the beginning, Isabel kept insisting that she was all right, that nothing was wrong with her that a few days’ rest couldn’t cure. “I’ll be back on my feet before you know it,” she would say to me as I left in the morning. “It’s just a temporary problem.” But that illusion was soon toppled. Weeks went by, and her condition did not change. By mid-spring it became clear to both of us that she wasn’t going to get any better. The worst blow came when I had to sell her shopping cart and scavenger’s license to a black market dealer in the fourth census zone. That was the ultimate acknowledgment of her illness, but there was nothing else we could do. The cart was just sitting in the house day after day, of no use to anyone, and we badly needed the money at the time. True to form, it was Isabel herself who finally suggested that I go ahead and do it, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t hard for her.
    After that, our relationship changed somewhat. We were no longer equal partners, and because she felt so guilty about saddling me with extra work, she became extremely protective of me, almost hysterical on the subject of my welfare. Not long after I began doing the scavenging by myself, she launched a campaign to change my appearance.I was too pretty for daily contact with the streets, she said, and something had to be done about it. “I just can’t bear to see you go off like that every morning,” she explained. “Terrible things are happening to young girls all the time, such terrible things I can’t even talk about them. Oh, Anna, my dear little child, if I lost you now, I’d never forgive myself, I’d die on the spot. There’s no place for vanity anymore, my angel—you have to give all that up.” Isabel spoke with such conviction that she started to cry, and I understood that it would be better to go along with her than put up an argument. To tell the truth, I was very upset. But I had already seen some of those things she couldn’t talk about, and there wasn’t much I could say to contradict her. The first thing to go was my hair—and that was an awful business. It was all I could do not to burst into tears, and with Isabel snipping away at me, telling me to be brave, and yet all the while trembling herself, on the verge of blubbering some dark maternal sadness, it only made things worse. Ferdinand was there, too, of course, sitting in his corner, arms folded across his chest, watching the scene with cruel detachment. He laughed as my hair fell to the ground, and as it continued to fall he said that I was beginning to look like a dyke, and wasn’t it funny that Isabel should be doing this to me, now that her cunt was all dried up like a piece of wood. “Don’t listen to him, my angel,” Isabel kept saying into my ear, “don’t pay any attention to what that ogre says.” But it was hard not to listen to him, hard not to be affected by that malicious laugh of his. When Isabel was finally done, she

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