Story no. 2, with an illustration to follow tonight.
The week after Anushka killed herself was a terrible one at the school. At first all the teachers were supposed to pretend that they didn’t know, and in fact there was an awkward period between when she didn’t sign in Tuesday morning and about five hours after the body was found that no one really did know what happened, whether she had been murdered or had an accident or run off to Gagnesk—
But the police collected her—what was left of her—from the rocks below King’s Point, and once they knew that, there wasn’t much left to the story. Forty or fifty despairing pitched themselves off King’s Point every year, or every month, or perhaps every week, depending on who you asked; the rock face sheered down three hundred meters or so from the Heights before it pulled up at the Hill. To the north the Hill stepped down neatly into the terraces where the rich and aspiring bourgeoisie lived; to the west it tumbled down toward the river, the numb barely-not-desperate row houses staring across at the huge industrial district on the other side; and to the south, the Hill gushed, no, bled down to Sabernasch, the Slum of Slums.
But just beneath King’s Point, at the base of the Heights, the Hill had not yet divided itself—in fact the streets went to the very edge of the plateau above but did not start again on the ground below until the Hill had moved out of the shadow of the rock. The Heights overhung the Hill, so much so that the Great King, the Good King, Habbaneth-King who had ridden at the forefront of an army of ten thousand eight hundred years ago and who had made this city his capital, had simply ignored the space at the base of the cliff. In the time of the Good King a road had run down from the Point to the river, and his people had lived entirely on the Heights: or at least that was what they said. But no one lived now where they said the pylons had come down from the great road.
The police checked the rocky area once a week to collect the suicides: students who had flunked their exams, fathers whose children had died or moved with their mothers away from Vailga, young men who had lost their jobs or their savings or their self-respect. And the foreign teachers, like Anushka, usually here to teach English or or Mandarin or Russian or Hindi for a year or two before fleeing back home: the young women who had come to Vailga for an adventure, maybe a bit of romance with a black-eyed Wodani. Somewhere along the way they got caught up, had gotten trapped with their face turned away from the door and the key abandoned somewhere in the street.
Sophie was the first one to hear where Anushka’s body had been found. They all noticed that she had not come into work, and the teachers who had been at the school longer than a month were afraid. Sophie had been at this temple school in Radderschasch, which sat just at the edge of the clean part of the Hill, for seven years. She smoked huge quantities of marijuana and delivered most of her lectures on Romantic English literature stoned. Despite this, or perhaps because of her drug-fueled tenacity, she was a great favorite amongst the students, particularly the older men. Whatever Sophie’s faults, her acquaintance in Vailga was enormous, hugely varied, and penetrated all social classes and professions. So when a sergeant climbing amongst the rocks and small ravines picked out a dark ripple and a bit of paleness at the bottom of a gully, Sohpie heard about it within an hour from a friend. This friend was cousin to the brother-in-law of a fellow who was being checked in for questioning at the Habenasch Station. He was sitting handcuffed in a chair, waiting, when two police came in with the body folded into a tarp between them. There were two because when Anushka jumped she had somehow come down on a promontory that had split her in two (though where the dividing line was no one knew) before she rolled down into the gully, and though she was no more than an armful for any Wodani policewoman, no one wanted to be the only one responsible for not losing her arm or her leg or whichever part had come off.
At least, that’s what Sophie had said. Joanna, who lived in the flat just over Sophie’s, found herself shaking her head mutely as Sophie hoarsely recounted the story over and over, deep into the evening, as teacher after white-faced teacher milled through her tiny sitting area, batting at the cloud of pot smoke and coughing. They had started coming when the second session of the classes let out, at six, trying to find the truth of the matter before they either had to go home and sleep or return to the school for the third session at eight.
Joanna had been there since six-ten. She was probably high now but she felt too ill to know for sure.
She could not say exactly why the news of Anushka’s death affected her so strongly, as she did not even know the other teacher well enough to guess where her accent and dark hair were from. Anushka had come several months before her and lived somewhere outside the shitty teachers’ apartment complex. Or rather: she did know why it bothered her. But the fact that she had started meditating regularly upon when, exactly, she would have to throw herself down in front of the trolley that came up the hill from Sabernasch for a wheel to crush her skull and not her leg or her abdomen—well, this would be shameful in the best of times. That Anushka had apprehended that heaviness made Joanna feel like she had murdered the other girl.
You couldn’t help but wonder, she thought, as she watched the other teachers cluster around Sophie, who divulged her insider knowledge with an admirable lack of smugness, how many of the tired women in this room had thought of doing the same thing Anushka had. Not so violently, maybe. Perhaps just a trip to the apothecary, a complaint of tiredness. Oh, madam, I am so exhausted, won’t you give me something to help me sleep . . . It was something terrible to feel that dull, comforting fantasy, crisped by pain, peel up and float away from the realm of the imagined. You didn’t want to look back and see what had been lying underneath it.
The priests made an official announcement at lunch on Friday, three days after the body had been collected, when the first-shift and the second-shift teachers were both there, sitting down to trays of boiled potatoes and liters of milk. The school could not afford to give them meat every day, but they could afford milk.
We must seem very cold, Joanna thought, looking over the unmoving faces of the other teachers, nearly all women, turned away from the trestle tables toward the woman dressed in rigorous black by the door. None of us are acting even a little surprised.
At the back of the room, a small group of students sat apart from the teachers: young men, mostly, their heads shaved or their hair in thin tight braids against their scalps. They, too, seemed entirely unastonished, and the tic of tightly reined emotion behind their eyes that the foreign teachers learned to look for during every class was entirely absent.
Watching them made Joanna feel like she was falling from a very great height, so she finished her potatoes and did not look up again from her tray.