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And Bear Unfaltering

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Saturday, for breakfast: one poached egg, white toast with butter and jam, black coffee with two sugars (Jonas); leftover lasagna, warmed, with a side of leftover french fries, rather futilely warmed, Diet Coke (Angelica); oatmeal made with milk, sweet cheap tea (Yrsa).

This is how the story begins, Jonas thinks now, alone in a holding cell. Jonas has never been quite right with time. Just as they visit each other, creeping around the corners of each other’s sight, so it seems to Jonas that he visits himself: he sees the past as if it were fresh and new, in all its smells and flavors, down to the last crumb.

He touches the wall. In some ways, the past feels more real than the present, which consists mostly of an endless series of jails, each more formless than the last. In between, he visits Will. In between, Whispers visits him—sometimes in the flesh, sometimes not.

Jonas lets himself drift. He remembers vividly the taste of that jam: a student had made it from fresh raspberries and mint she’d grown in her own back garden. It was a thank-you gift, and it tasted like the last vestiges of his old life, like grading term papers on Milton and making awkward conversation over sherry with his senior colleagues. Putting on the memory feels strange now, like trying to slip into one of his old blazers with the patches on the elbows. He wonders how he ever could have thought that life was all he was meant for.

The sudden sharp taste of french fries collides with the mint of the jam, and Jonas smiles. That first breakfast—he remembers dropping his coffee mug, he was so startled. He can still see the spilled coffee sinking into the red-and-gold plaid tablecloth. The stain never came out, either, despite repeated washings; the first time Angelica sat at his table—really sat, really touched it with her long, ink-stained artist’s fingers—she kept looking at that stain, like she was the one who’d dropped the coffee.

Maybe she was. Even in the beginning, Jonas always found it hard to tell the difference between things she did and things he did.

That was what Yrsa helped with, in the beginning.

Monday, for breakfast (sixteen years later): leftover pad thai, Diet Coke (Jonas); herring, brown bread, sparkling water (Yrsa, having lunch). The memory of a croissant (Angelica—gone now—who knew what breakfast of hers he was remembering).

Yrsa railed at him while they ate. She didn’t like his hotel room; it was shoddy, he had to agree, and perhaps too much of a reminder of how far they had fallen. So they sat in her kitchen just outside of Reykjavík, where the tap smelled slightly of rotten eggs and the view from the window might as well have been Mars.

It had taken a long time for Jonas to realize why Yrsa was so interested in them. She wasn’t one of them, but she seemed to know everything about them; she hated them fiercely one moment and put herself in terrible danger to protect them the next. One night, during his fitful researches, he’d come across her name in a payroll file for a subsidiary of BPO. There was a tax form attached: Widowed.

Death punctuated their relationship like two parentheses. The opening, when he understood her loss intellectually; the closing, when he understood it viscerally. Before and after: only mistrust.

But within: they made a plan.

Jonas shifts now in his cell, trying to stretch his hips. It’s not as unpleasant here as it could be, but it’s cold, and he feels stiff. He wants to be alert when they come for him to start the procedure, wants to be ready, but it’s so hard to pass all this time in the present.

He tries to do something useful (even though it’s never worked before, he has no reason to think it would work): he tries to remember Yrsa’s husband.

At first, he has to fight through all the memories of talking to Yrsa about her husband, and then all Angelica’s memories of the same—those are more painful, tinged now with the smell of iron—and then at last, he arrives at Yrsa’s mind.

(Somewhere distant, he feels her annoyance—she was always more sensitive than any of them, and perhaps she can tell that he’s digging again. But surely she can indulge him this; there are so few real connections to the past, and she is the last of her cluster left alive.)

Wednesday, for breakfast: skyr, sweet cheap tea (Yrsa); and... something sugary...

It comes to him in a rush: Jacob, brown eyes sparkling, black curls falling over his forehead as he tucks in. The pönnukökur are steaming hot; they burn his tongue, and Yrsa drops the spoon from her mouth. Even though it’s full of cold skyr, her tongue feels burned too. He laughs and says, “טָעִים מְאוֹד.” Delicious.

“He’s beautiful,” Jonas whispers to the air. “Our father.”

There is no response, but Jonas feels a wave of grief and rage surge over him.

She never forgave them for being born. But she could never abandon Jacob’s children. And now Jonas, like Yrsa, is the only one left.

Jonas has always believed that if he could remember—really remember—that he could find the secret of awakening the clusters. That they would no longer be confined to this cycle of death and birth. That he could become father to a whole universe of sensates across the globe, lighting up the world like sudden stars.

It is a bitter dream, he thinks, to strive so that your lover’s death will have been in vain.

The Sunday of Chanukah, for breakfast: half a jelly donut, one blueberry muffin, coffee with two creams and no sugar (Angelica); half a jelly donut, one old-fashioned donut, black coffee with two sugars (Jonas). When they went to the Dunkin Donuts around the corner, both of them immediately, as if on instinct, wanted a jelly donut, even though neither of them had ever liked jelly donuts before.

She painted while they ate. He remembers the light: despite her relative poverty, her place was beautiful, an old creaky rent-controlled loft she’d inherited from her mother. The subway was more than a thirty-minute walk away, and the neighborhood always reeked because the trash collection was less than reliable, but inside, Angelica’s apartment was a temple to art.

When she paused, he handed her half of the jelly donut. Some of the raspberry jelly spilled out onto the tablecloth; he suspected it would stain. Together, they counted to three. A game: they took a bite of the jelly donut at the same time, just to see what it was like.

Now, in his cell, he isn’t sure whose memories they are, the soft donut and the sugar, the jelly in his mouth: his, or Angelica’s, or their father’s.