Elin, with Pliers
Elin, with pliers, pulled an old nail from the floor of the deck. She had cut her heel on the nail the day before; there was no blood, but it peeled away a rind of callused skin. She snipped the flap of skin with scissors. Isaac lifted her foot up and kissed the divot, as they called it. At dinner, she kept her foot on her chair and occasionally pressed in a finger.
After Elin yanked the nail up, squatting over it and using the full force of her body to heave it out, she dropped the nail in her palm. She pressed a finger pad to the tip, but it had long dulled and rusted. She shut the sliding door to the deck and threw the nail away.
She clicked on the ceiling fan in the living room for the first time that year and felt the air move. She cracked open the windows too. It was spring. Isaac brought her half a clementine; the other half was in his mouth. He asked if he could touch her divot, and then tickled her feet.
She rubbed her whole body with cream, but Isaac had fallen asleep reading in bed. Back in the bathroom, she pulled out cleaning supplies from under the sink and scrubbed at a sticky caking of soap residue. Then in the bowl of the sink, she cleared away lines of toothpaste and granules of exfoliating face wash. She peed, and when she went back to bed Isaac was awake, but now she was tired.
“No hay ninguna duda. Pero claro.” Isaac dressed up for the phone call. He moved between the kitchen and the living room while he spoke. Elin sat on the carpet with her coffee, serenely working through an assembly line of mailers for parent-teacher conferences.
They went to dinner and moved the basket of hot nachos so they could hold hands across the table. Isaac had a way of gesturing when making emphatic claims in conversation, of slicing the air and striking the table as if karate chopping in slow motion. He also, when less emphatic and more ruminative, smoothed his napkin out flatly, like a map, as if to say, this is what we’re dealing with. Elin sat with her arms crossed at her hips, and bent forward with keen interest as though always led by her chin. She clutched the edge of the table and laughed into her lap.
Isaac told her the news of the job as they brewed coffee the next morning, and he tried to finish telling her when the machine, as it did sometimes without rhyme or reason, flooded the basket of grounds with hot water and spilled unfiltered brew all over the counter.
They drove to the nearest coffee shop and once they took a window table, she asked him questions, slowly, while eating a scone piecemeal. Isaac answered her questions one at a time, holding his hand over the top of his mug as if warming his palm with the coffee’s steam. Across from the coffee shop was a seminary, and Elin watched a student reading on a bench with her hand in her hair.
Their friends threw them a party. They printed a poster of Elin’s and Isaac’s faces pasted over a map of Spain, on which they all signed farewells in Sharpie. In the kitchen, Elin grabbed two bottles of beer from the fridge, twisted them open and set the caps on the counter. She paused by the sink, tipped the bottles until some foam sloshed out and collected in the drain.
There were enough empty seats on the plane that Elin and Isaac could both lie down to sleep, but a metal seat belt buckle kept Elin awake, no matter how she adjusted, jabbing her hip bone or her stomach.
The apartment was down a side street off a central plaza, the lobby all marble with lots of plants. They were on the fourth floor with no elevator. When they first walked in, the apartment was empty. Isaac held Elin’s head between his hands.
At the grocery, they wheeled baskets behind them like wagons. Elin lifted a liter of milk from the unrefrigerated display of cardboard cartons. Isaac brandished a sack of oysters. She used the neighbor’s WiFi to look up how to cook them, and they ate the oysters straight from the pan on the floor of their tiny balcony. He pinched her nose with the empty halves of a shell, and she swatted him away.
Elin woke up after Isaac left for work. She showered in rationed spurts of water, since the country was in a drought. She shivered while she shaved her legs. She toweled off and stood in the only patch of sun in the apartment, in the kitchen. The rest of the apartment faced west, shaded in a morning chill.
She packed a book and set out for a cafe, but none were open. The only storefronts open were bakeries, and those without tables or chairs. She ordered a coffee which came in a very small cup, and a pastry with many fine layers like sheets. She imagined a filling, of chocolate or fruit, but was mistaken. She sipped and ate on a stone bench in the plaza by the apartment. She could not read for the loud screeching of the birds that circled overhead.
Isaac came home for lunch and they had sex in the kitchen, more out of a desperate need for the familiar than desire. This was something Isaac liked to do in their previous home, but here the counters were slightly higher, and the cabinets slightly broader, so they had to readjust, and eventually repair to their bed.
They set out north for tapas, crossing the newer, thicker city roads to the ancient and slenderer ones that snaked in cobblestone up the foot of the mountains. They found a bar charming for its hanging wooden sign. Elin ricketed back and forth on her chair, and eventually wedged a menu underneath so it was stable. Their wines arrived with small crisps of bread topped with slices of hard cheese. Isaac peeled a papery napkin from its dispenser and wiped the crumbs from his hands. He reached for her leg under the table.
Two men, one on the other’s shoulders, wore a demon costume and loitered on a corner of the shopping district. The mask was dark green with black eyes and spiraling horns. Elin watched a child approaching the demon and laughing, but Elin spun around to avoid the corner, even though it meant going a block out of her way.
The gelato stand served cones that were long and thin, with scoops the size of a very small plum. Elin zipped up her windbreaker. It was maybe too cold for ice cream. She took her treat into the nearest building, a church, and sidestepped down a corridor to the restrooms. She stood next to the radiator and licked the drips from the cone. When she finished, she heard a choir singing in the nave. Their voices rounded the buttresses and refracted against the stained glass windows. The acoustics were wet and bright. Elin sat in a pew to listen. The choir was in rehearsal. The welling of voices ceded to the director, whose muffled voice corrected them, and then they began again.
Crossing the footbridge out of the old Jewish district, Elin pulled at her skirt, which bunched with static cling up her knees and between her thighs. The river was straight, and still, and smelled briny. She mistook it for the same river that babbled north from the mountains. She buzzed in the building’s main entrance and climbed the stairs to the third floor, mindful of the loud echoes of her heels. The man interviewing her did not smile or break eye contact.
The church held a vespers service. The doors were left open. When Elin stepped in, she heard the call and response of the psalter, the reader and then the congregation, soft and then loud, like waves that had receded crashing against rocky shore.
The flamenco dancer, in her red-and-white polka-dotted dress, stomped the floor, harder and faster, spasmodic as though possessed by a spirit, but wrangled into rhythmic precision, as though steered by a deeper and tempered passion. “What here they call duende.” It all began with a quiet gesture, when the dancer, gliding soundlessly to center stage, unfurled the beaded shawl from her shoulders. The shawl dropped and shot the dust up from the ground.
Elin met her tutees in the plaza with the mini coliseum, by a cafe with chairs and tables set out with umbrellas. She cleared her throat to ask a tutee for her number, but cut herself short. She wandered up the northeast sloping streets to a park, walked its dirt paths webbed through sunken pools. In the shade she saw a peacock dragging its heavy feathered tail on the ground.
Isaac wouldn’t be home for another hour. Elin put on music. She wrapped a scarf around her shoulders, and then loosened it, trailing it along the tile floor on her way to the kitchen, stepping long, dramatic steps, then halting and snapping. By the time Isaac arrived, Elin lay on the couch. He traced the neckline of her dress with his fingers.
Isaac’s coworkers invited them to dinner. Elin forgot to take her shoes off in their entryway, and when they all reached the kitchen Isaac grabbed her wrist and pointed to her feet. They padded around the apartment in their socks and the coworkers showed off their hobbies, his guitar and hers pottery. The woman coworker lit a stick of incense. They had two types of bar soap in their bathroom. Elin sniffed each before choosing.
“I think she thought you were great. She even asked you to join her pottery class, didn’t she? Oh, she offered… I knew you would say that. I knew you would.”
Elin laced her fingers together and asked if she could pray. Isaac straightened his fork and knife and shrugged, as if to say it didn’t matter either way. She cleared her throat and pressed her knuckles into her forehead. Her head shot up when she finished and she asked if he would rather she prayed in silence. Again, he shrugged.
In line to enter the old Islamic fortress, Elin and Isaac complained about the price of bottled water. They draped their guest pass lanyards over their heads. They posed for pictures beside horseshoe arches and clumps of coxcomb. They held grins next to reflecting pools and stone lions. In the whispering gallery they did not lift their cameras, but looked into the dome of honeycombed stalactite. At the edge of the ramparts, where the wind picked up, Elin twisted her ring around her finger.
“So, another common aspect of Islamic art is the transcription of the Koran and other traditional or poetic texts into their dwelling places. In some antechambers soon, you’ll see some passages carved in stucco, repeated up the walls to create a texture or a pattern… Again, symmetry, geometry… Here, and in several other places around the palace, the passage reads, ‘There is no victor but Allah.’”
Elin wound the pulley system to send their socks out to dry on the line. They bounced slightly as she clipped one, then rotated the line, then clipped another, and rotated the line. When she took everything down to fold, she could feel indents in the fabric where the clothespins once held them.
When she came into the bedroom, Isaac had lifted the cover of her Bible and was peering inside. He turned to see her and let the pages drop, then moved to his side of the bed.
The city smelled of incense and candle wax for holy week. Elin and Isaac sat on their balcony and people-watched. Children crowded the pastry shops for torrijas and licked their fingers and patted their parents’ legs for more, and then fell asleep in all positions while their parents sipped beer with friends. Isaac rested his hand on the inside of her thigh. She pulled at his wrist, indicating the people in the street below.
In the cafe, when Elin asked for iced coffee, the waiter brought her a glass filled with two big blocks of ice and a small cup of hot espresso. She poured the espresso over the ice and a steam rose. The blocks glazed from the heat but melted slowly, so she began sipping the espresso still warm. The ice slushed down and bumped against her upper lip. She cried.
“You hadn’t written anything on the list so I was just calling to see. Yeah, I’ll grab some more. Okay. Love you too.”
For the holiday, crosses coated in red carnations appeared all over the city. Elin and Isaac walked past arches of heather, vased marigold and potted geranium, open patios and garden tours. Isaac plucked a verbena from a stranger’s patio arrangement and stuck it down Elin’s shirt.
They licked their cones and he asked about her church. Around the corner, the doors were open. He put his whole hand in the basin of holy water, until his palm touched the bottom, and the water reached passed his wrist. He pulled his hand out, looked at it, front and back, then shook it dry.
Elin snapped the white sheet in the air and it ballooned. The room was hot with sunlight. She stretched the sheet to tuck under the mattress, but couldn’t fit it around the farthest edge. She ripped up the other three corners, balled the sheet up, and threw it on the floor.
When she tried to pray, she felt this same action of pulling taut, and springing loose, of crumpling, and resigning. There was a flatness to her first attempts at prayer, which filled a given shape, the way a sewing tutorial provides panels, or the way a sonnet prescribes a form. The incantatory nature of these prayers proved a comfort, but one day, passing under the shade of an orange tree, she felt her cadence vary, a stray thought erupt against the pattern of her prayer. This happened more and more, not just in the shadow of orange trees, but lying in bed, or listening to the radio. And so, what first manifested as unpredictable swerves of thinking, Elin embraced as adaptations, or variations. Her prayers, less like the smoothed flatness of a sheet or a map, grew to be like rooms. They were the sheet, but also the bed, and the door, and the windows, and the hard tile floor, and the closet, and the desk. She let each thought be, whether sparkling or bickery, and aired it before God. She discovered that her thoughts and the things of her life were as much God’s as they were hers, in the same way that one finds, beneath a bright layer of paint, an early and stubborn primer.
She might say, thank you for this day. Thank you for this sidelong, alley-slice of sun. Thank you for the apricot jam I have not yet eaten but I know is in the fridge. Thank you for the rain in this dryness. Thank you for this bright blue bowl. Thank you for my legs. Thank you for this mountain. It has been said, it is well with my soul. It has been said, you have dealt bountifully with me. It has been said, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? You say you are good and loving. Sometimes I forget. Alone boiling lentils, alone walking Calle Elvira, alone at the Mirador. But you meet me here. Here, under this orange tree. But I have Isaac. I have his knees. His chin. Can you know the soul through the body? Is that why Christ came in the flesh, as a human?
She rolled over in bed to see Isaac blearily opening his eyes.
Thank you for his eyelashes, his eyelids.
He blinked several times.
How can we see what we cannot see?
He did not reach out, as he once did on instinct, to bring her close to him, but looked at her from his side of the bed, as if he knew she’d already been taken up by something else.
It is said that the last Sultan of the Alhambra had three beautiful daughters. Their names were Zayda, Zorayda, and Zorahayda. When the Christian rulers invaded from the north, the Sultan locked his three daughters in a tower so they could not be captured, or worse, made Christian Queens.
The battle was short, the Alhambra fell. The last Sultan mounted his horse and sighed his way into exile. It is said this very sigh still sweeps down upon the city from the peak of Mulhacén. Not long after the conquest, three Christian princes heard a rumor that three Moorish princesses were locked in one of the Alhambra’s many towers. They bridled their steeds for the search. They rode to the foot of each tower and called to each high window: “Dear princesses! We three Christian princes would like to convert you, and take you for our wives.”
The princesses poked their heads out of their tower one at a time: Zayda, of the strong chin; Zorayda, decked with many jewels; and Zorahayda, with the lute. Then, back in the tower, the three princesses convened. Not one wanted to stay locked in the tower forever. Zayda wanted adventure, Zorayda wanted riches, and Zorahayda wanted beauty.
“Dear princes!” they called. “We three princesses would like to convert, and become your wives, but first you must free us from this tower.”
So the princes threw up a rope, and down climbed Zayda, and then Zorayda, taking their places on the backs of two steeds. But Zorahayda had a change of heart.
“Dear princes, and dear sisters, I do not want to stay locked up in the tower forever, but I cannot turn from my God.”
So the princes took down their rope and rode away with their princesses, and not much else is written of them. Zorahayda, on the other hand, found beauty in her solitude. She communed with her God and played her lute with heavenly skill, so that all in the countryside would wander near the tower, to hear the music of Paradise.
Many centuries later, the King and Queen of Spain and their court traveled to the Alhambra for a time. A young and dashing page wandered the gardens, enthralled. He came upon the tower of the three princesses, as it was still known, and heard from within a lute. It was said, even then, that the ghost of Zorahayda still played. He collapsed before the tower door, so transported was he by this celestial music. He begged that he might enter, and the door swung open. Within he beheld the pale and slender muse, a rose in her hair, holding the instrument on her knee. He dropped before her and confessed his love, crawling forward only to kiss her toes.
“Come again tomorrow,” Zorahayda said. “You will find what you seek.”
The page obliged and returned to his room, but he couldn’t sleep a wink. He tossed and turned and thought only of her long white arms, the rose in her hair. Finally, in a delirium, he left his bed and snuck through the moonlit ramparts and courtyards to Zorahayda’s tower. He knocked on the door, but heard no reply. He pushed the door open.
Here is where the tale diverges. Some say the room was piled with dry bones and ash, the unstrung skeleton of a lute. Others say embered honey, loaves of bread, gold dust.
Kelsey Peterson is assistant teaching professor of English at Penn State University. She is one of the winners of the 2019 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. Her work has appeared in Conjunctions, and she holds an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis, where she was an Olin Fellow. She lives in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania with her husband.