“You know what would clear that skin right up?” Still recovering from the act of heaving her large, soft body into the van, the old woman pauses for breath. “Calendula.” She smoothes out the shawl across her broad shoulders, her cheeks becoming less flushed by the second. “Calendula. Right down at any pharmacy. Good for the complexion.” Coughing slightly from the closeness of the air permeated by the scents of twelve other bodies, she nods to the passenger across from her. The young woman beside me, for whom this sage advice is intended, clutches her purse tighter, but flashes a slight smile that passes for polite acknowledgement. It is rare to hear a stranger’s mundane ramblings in this country. I feel an anxious anticipation for the next inappropriate words that might spill forth from her mouth.
Now fully recovered from her prior exertion, the grandmother turns her attention to the glum driver as he speeds breakneck through an intersection. Several weeks ago, this would have frightened me. This morning, I calmly plan out what I will say to the medics as they pull my body out of the wreck. It’s important to have thought of such details beforehand when operating in a language that is not your mother tongue. Grandmother makes a clucking noise in the back of her throat. Her chin wobbles as she extols the orderly streets of this city during her youth. Angling her neck back she explains to the driver a better route he might take in the future. “Just as fast,” more clucking, “Yes, but safer.” The van driver grunts and exhales more smoke into the fetid air. Clearly suffering from craning her head at such an awkward angle for so long, she settles back comfortably into her seat like a very smug mother cat.
A laugh catches in my throat. I force it to emerge as a quiet cough. Immediately Grandmother’s sharp gaze snaps towards me, lingering on my filthy boots. A look of composed displeasure molds her features, but softens as her eyes roll upwards to my face. Foreigner. I sense her recognition and fiddle with my fraying mitten to avoid meeting her stare. Surely my stop must be coming up? I scratch at the iced window. A small, foggy hole reluctantly forms. Increasingly uncomfortable that she has called my poor bluff, I doggedly watch for the familiar line of buildings to emerge out of the snow. Eventually, their silhouette appears through the grey. Aware that her eyes are still upon me, I call out for the driver to stop; the routine words feel strangely clumsy under her gaze. After making my way through packed-in bodies and bags, I leap for the grimy curb. Turning to pay, Grandmother’s watery eyes find mine. “A young lady,” she says in a firm, quiet voice, “should always have clean boots.” With surprising strength, she slides the door shut and the van speeds away. Faintly puzzled by the unlikely kindness of her remark, I remain teetering on the curb before turning towards the path. Trudging away through the slush, I take care to avoid the especially muddy stretches.
From Aleph 8