by m. pinchuk
The following was read into the record of the Court of Inquiry by the Clerk, with the assent of the Presiding Magistrate.
I verify that I am the Chief Scribe of the Capital City, and I attest to the following: On a day not unlike today, a stranger visited my office in the early evening, shortly before closing time. His manner of speaking was awkward, indicating a lack of familiarity with our language. He refused to give his name, saying only that his time was limited and it was urgent that I record verbatim what he had to say.
I attest that I have transcribed his words faithfully, and a copy of the transcript comprises the majority of my testimony. I apologize to the court for my absence, but I remain indisposed.
— Transcript of the Stranger’s Tale —
My errors have been those of naïveté and poor judgment, as I expect will become evident from the honest accounting that I now give to you. Up until this time I have been blameless, but alone I am responsible for the action I shall shortly undertake.
It is unlikely that a precise determination can be made as to where everything began, so I must relate what I know and what I think to be important. Some might argue that I should have been alert to the signs, but of them I was unaware. My failings in this regard are understandable, not willful. However, it is clear that others may weigh the evidence and calculate their own conclusions.
In the days I believe to be relevant, I travelled as often as possible, mostly on my own but sometimes with one girlfriend or another. I was impetuous, choosing destinations based on the cost of transportation to them, once flying nearly twenty-four hours for a weekend in Salvador da Bahia. Sometimes, another type of chance guided my choices. I spent a summer working at an orphanage in Romania after meeting a girl at a youth hostel. We didn’t last, but I found I had a knack with children.
Eventually I encountered a woman who also travelled often and alone. We met at a threadbare hotel in Berlin. On my first morning there, I descended to the breakfast room in the basement, and she was the only other person not coupled or grouped. I invited myself to her table. We sparred over our competing guidebooks: mine more budget-minded, hers concerned with numerous walking tours.
During our two days together, we did the things that all tourists do: visited Checkpoint Charlie, the remains of the Wall, the Brandenburg Gate. We compared descriptions and recommendations in our books. Over dinner and wine we talked only travel. London had been her first overseas destination; Dublin had been mine. She loved Barcelona; I preferred Madrid. We agreed Marbella was too British. We drank and we laughed and we talked, and the city glittered around us, although that I see in retrospect.
We promised to keep in touch, but we lived on opposite coasts. I didn’t think it would happen. I returned to my life.
Maybe one month later, a postcard arrived from Amsterdam. I responded the following month with a card from Copenhagen, and another after my homecoming. Through this unwieldy means we negotiated an agreement to meet in cities that were new to both of us. Our start was tentative, with weekends in Boston, Miami, and Santa Fé. Then we went farther: to Vancouver and Cancún. Soon, cities all over the world enticed us, and we made our way through Europe, to Paris and Sorrento and Bruges and Vienna, taking in museums and cathedrals, medieval squares and cafés.
All that travelling across all those borders and time-zones, existing on trains and aeroplanes—reading, watching films, sleeping, breathing, going somewhere—I’d never felt so alive. I considered whether a lifetime would be enough to travel to every country and each important city.
After our trip to Prague I was a little under the weather. I presumed it was the jet lag. When my chest began to ache, I understood that I had a cold. Around that time I occasionally woke in the night—unusual for me—feeling an anxious discomfort. There was a lot on my mind. I was responsible for planning our next trip. Our goal was to reckon how far we could go and how much we could see in one week. I wanted us to be ambitious.
Perhaps I was already becoming a different person, though I did not notice it at the time.
In Delhi she complimented me on the weight I had lost. It hadn’t been an intention, but I told her I’d been exercising and eating more healthily. I had a slight cough. Just a tickle in my throat. I said I suspected allergies.
Delhi was hot and the air accumulated much moisture, but we managed to see almost everything on our list including the Red Fort, Chandni Chowk and other miscellaneous markets, Humayun’s Tomb, the Baha’i Temple, the Qutab Minar, and the Jantar Mantar. There were more sights but, in honesty, we visited too many places to recall them all now.
I did not return to work immediately. The jet lag proved pernicious. Luckily, distance favoured my excuses—I said that work was busy, the bureaucracy needed attention—and she agreed to a slight delay before our next meeting.
The break in our travel habit seemed to help. I recovered from whatever tiredness had manifested as a result of our irregular lifestyle. Soon, we embraced our usual schedule. We explored the Djema el-Fna in Marrakesh and the underground houses in Matmata, Tunisia. We splurged money and time on Sydney, climbing the Harbour Bridge and enjoying that classic view of the Opera House. We arranged a stopover in Hong Kong, and took the tram to the top of Victoria Peak at sunset; later, we got lost in the night-market. And purely to say we had been there, we made our complicated way to Antananarivo and, later, to Timbuktu, where I proposed. I hadn’t planned to, but it seemed the right place. To celebrate, we agreed to devise an extended honeymoon.
We travelled the way other people lived.
Travel plans became honeymoon plans became travel plans, and nothing could have been simpler. All of our bookings fell magically into place. We opted to put time and money into our honeymoon, and we opted to travel sooner, rather than prolong our engagement.
One evening, when our itinerary was almost finalized, the cough arrived again, prodding me to wake. I thrashed around for a time, tangled in the blankets, and then brewed myself a hot drink. Eventually I collapsed into an uncomfortable, dampened sleep. I believed this malaise would pass quickly. I concentrated on the wedding, and did what I was able: I went to work during the day and came back directly after. I undertook no strenuous activities. In the evenings, I rested on the davenport, though sometimes I was too exhausted to make dinner or telephone for delivery. It was nerves about the commitment, or all the imminent changes.
The cough persisted. I was mostly able to muffle it during our phone calls. My idea was to relax after we got through the wedding. I could not tolerate a postponement. Life would be simpler during our honeymoon. We would be travelling, and we knew how to do that. Subsequently, there would be sufficient time to settle in at my house. If necessary, I would take advice on our return.
The time arrived. My wife and I married in a small ceremony in her hometown. Our time in your country was to be the start of our honeymoon, but now a wretched inconvenience has presented and forced me to come to you before I journey farther. It is imperative that my share of the story be fully detailed.
Soon after arriving in your country, the ache reappeared in my chest, and I needed a day to rest. That evening, the cough worried my wife awake. In the morning our sheets were wet with my perspiring. The kind family running the guesthouse where we stayed sent their teenage son for a doctor. Their young daughter brought me a fruit juice. Against my wife’s wishes I was transported to a facility, confined for more than a week, and given many medicines. I remember nothing of these events. I know only what I have been told. Yesterday, my wife found a way into my room. I removed myself from confinement while personnel were occupied elsewhere.
I have been ordered not to travel for fear, but I will not be held hostage to unwarranted concern. That is intolerable.
Our embassy has refused to intervene. On our own, we have arranged transport from this country. Our journey onward to our home will be circuitous, and difficult to follow: We will utilize various methods, and cross many borders. The route is not yet complete, but its nature is unavoidable owing to the circumstances.
My wife is innocent of these choices. All of them have been mine. I have harmed no one, and that fact should be acknowledged and considered.
— End of Transcript —
After he had dictated his story, I affixed my stamp and signed the document. The stranger took his copy, paid me in cash, and left promptly. My clerk delivered a copy to the local jurisdiction, as is customary in cases where doubts arise.
While in the hospital, I met the family who runs the guesthouse where the stranger stayed. Their daughter had a room across from mine. The family said that the stranger had been good with her, the two of them often holding whispered conversations and laughing together. When their son brought the doctor to the guesthouse, they found the little girl in the stranger’s room, entertaining him with a puppet show. They kept her away after that.
The little girl was extremely ill. The doctors say that children are often the most severely affected. The family is, of course, inconsolable.
I heard a rumour that some people near the border had sickened, but that is only hearsay.
I remain confined.
Perhaps it will end with me.
— End of Testimony —
m. pinchuk has lived in Turkey, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. She has studied in Cairo. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and included in anthologies of new writing in the United Kingdom (New Writing 14, Granta; Unthology 2, Unthank Books) and in China. Another story will be published in the Buenos Aires Review later this year. Excerpts from Architecture, a collection of short writings about places and spaces, were included in an audio tour of an outdoor sculpture exhibition, and Borders, Boundaries, a work of prose devised for the web, was included in the Migration exhibition at the Helen Day Art Center in Stowe, Vermont.