Ghost Protocol | Harper's Magazine
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From Lament for Julia, which will be published this month by New York Review Books.

I did not love her at first; not for a long time. She did not suit me at all, this fidgety, freckle-faced, thumb-sucking, bed-wetting Julia. She was too plump and tart for my taste; already as a tot she loitered around the servants’ quarters on the lookout for the maid’s lovers. And the way she threw herself about wantonly in the presence of any male! I was ashamed of Julia.

My situation appeared near hopeless at the start. Julia was indiscriminate, credulous, moody, perverse; prone to breaking out in prolonged fits of giggles and tears; now riotous, now listless, as the humor had her. She accepted candy from every stranger and would have followed him to the ends of the earth if he would but have her.

Julia’s appearance was a source of constant irritation. I found her particularly ridiculous dressed up in her bulky little white fur coat, fur hat, fur-lined boots, and white leggings complete with a little fur muff. She reminded me of a polar bear. And how silly she looked with that big white bow pinned on one side of her hair. Many times I tore it off and flung it in the mud or among the bushes.

Was that Julia? No, the Klopps girl I’ll call her. When was Julia born? Shall I confess to my ancient crime? For years that shapeless, whining, woebegone thing had been following me around: one day I took the Klopps girl, that reproach to God, and stuffed it down the laundry chute with the dirty bibs, socks, and panties. In its stead I would create Julia. For the time being I took its place. No one noticed. All the changes were for the better. For a while I almost believed I had succeeded, the dry stick blossomed. No, I did not think of it as my success. It was Julia. It was a miracle. Julia was the real child. The other, the Klopps girl, the changeling.

I stood by helpless while the maid following the parents’ instructions forced her into a starched petticoat and pulled the pink taffeta dress over her head. The cook was there, too, the two women fumbling with the tiny ribbons in the puffed sleeves, telling her to stand still. Perhaps Julia saw me frown when they tied the big pink bow in the back. She reached behind her to touch. The nurse slapped her hand.

I think that is when I threw my first fit. Several windowpanes were broken, a flowerpot smashed, a bottle of ink poured over Julia’s new dress. They thought she had a devil. Why was I so outraged? I wanted the moment my charge was hung with the emblems of her sex to be accompanied by ceremonies as violent and arbitrary as the act of investment. Or perhaps it was simply my constitutional aversion to the color pink?

But was I there at all, distinct from Julia, fully emerged as I am now? Was I not buried in Julia, a mere grub, just beginning to work myself out? Comfortably nestled in Julia, I dozed like an infant hanging on its mother’s neck while Julia went about her child’s business. For I remember moments of Julia’s summers as though they were mine. Julia’s pleasure in her own heartbeat racing down the slope, a handful of wild berries. Mine and yet not mine. How can I be sure, for I have only a pack of faded images, picture postcards of distant lands that I shuffle and reshuffle. I decked her with feathers, hung her with gaudy beads, wrapped her in lion skins, the treasures of black kingdoms plundered by Julia’s great-grandfather.

Ours was a kind of child marriage. Homeless, I attached myself to her, usurped all her hours. Was it not clear from the beginning? I was sent to the Klopps house to save Julia. One day we simply eloped.

We hid in closets and behind drapes; we played under the cellar stairs, but we were found. We crouched in the tall grass where the wasps harassed us. Till one day I climbed up the crooked stairs leading to the attic, turned the rusty knob, and found myself in a forgotten storage room. A shroud of dust, hoary in the thin morning light, lay over the furniture. I held my breath, enamored of the stillness, the dust that was the visible seal of stillness. Was I in a dream? For I felt I had been here before. Or Julia, one of the many times she lost her way roaming through the house. Even before I discovered its treasures I felt it had always been mine.

I installed myself in the attic with Julia, my foundling, my abducted bride. We had all the props for games of adventure and high romance. General Klopps’s collection of ancient weapons, sabers, daggers, and pistols. And snarling fiercely from their mounts, a gallery of stuffed animals Julia’s great-grandfather Wilhelm Fuchs shot a century ago in the Amazon and the arctic wastes. Crates of books, encyclopedias, grammars, lexicons, manuals of science and theology, the library of Julia’s great-uncle, Gundolf Klopps. What more could be desired? I could not have imagined a more perfect setting. High above the town with a view over the small forest and stretches of grassy dunes sloping down to the sea.

Up in our attic room we rehearsed sounds of passion, love scenes and death scenes. I call this our romantic period. I made believe her garments were removed by others, played attendant women, combed her hair, lined her eyes. Her confidante, page boy, and minister, I buckled her shoes, whispered the last instructions in her ear.

Those were our best years. The illicit character of our relation only enhanced its flavor of sanctity. Secret I had to remain, not out of shame but prudence. Like some rare jewel that it is foolhardy to flaunt before the covetous eyes of the world, I preferred concealment.

My next ten years with Julia were spent mostly watching over her manners: keeping her from sticking out her belly, holding her head to one side, chewing her nails, sitting with her legs apart, laughing at the wrong time. Not a very flattering occupation for a spirit of my gifts; yet a trifle can engage the will when it offers the stubborn resistance Julia did. Small wonder I became somewhat prim and dreary, a regular schoolmarm by the time Julia learned to cross her legs properly.

I was her slave, her drudge. What didn’t I do for Julia? I went on tedious hikes to keep her trim. Ate carrots that Julia’s eyes might shine. And a thankless job it was. Julia began to drift away from me. Days I waited for her in vain in the cemetery. Where was she? Sitting around with the girls in the corner pastry shop? Reading movie magazines in the locker room? It would be like her to spend the afternoon hanging around the ballfield where the older boys played soccer. Unless she was just ambling stupidly along the road, blowing spit bubbles or picking her nose—but there were things I frankly preferred not to know about Julia.

I admit I was somewhat of a prude, but the world will grant me that Julia was not easy to take care of. Would my charge never grow up? I had to be on guard every second or she’d make a fool of us in public. The time we had to appear before the school principal, for example, I am sure she would have stroked his whiskers if I hadn’t pulled her back.

No, Julia, I had to keep reminding her, this man is not your Daddy, he is Mr. Kraut, the principal. You can’t call him Popsie. You must say Mr. Kraut, because he is the principal. His teeth may be like your Daddy’s, his glassy stare like your Daddy’s, but still he is the principal, Mr. Kraut. See, he has whiskers. Your Daddy doesn’t have whiskers, you know that. So say Mr. Kraut. (Lower your eyes and you’ll be less likely to giggle.) You mustn’t stroke his whiskers, he is the principal, the principal, Julia! You don’t gape or wink at the principal. (I’ll buy you ten candy bars, just please don’t laugh now.) You can’t touch anything in his room. Not even the monkey paperweight on his desk. Nothing. You mustn’t kiss him when he gives you your report card, just curtsy, say thank you, and go back in line with the other children.

A moment’s inattention could prove disastrous. Once during church service a detail of a cornice caught my attention; I was trying to make out the Latin inscription when I noted looks of consternation frozen on us. Julia, I realized with horror, had sat down while everyone stood in silent prayer, and what was worse, had plunked herself in the lap of the statue of Moses to our right. Her teacher promptly pulled her back into line with a yank whose mildness astonished me. Given the power I think I would have struck her dead.

It was around this time that I resolved to make something out of this wayward, dreaming Julia. I saw her as a ballerina, a countess, a spy. But most of all I wanted Julia to be a child of God. Though at moments I was carried away by ambition, I understood my task was to preserve her purity.

Secretly I consoled myself with the thought that it would not be for long. Like those whom the gods love, Julia would die young. Would it happen by itself, or was it up to me to tip the scales? Looking back I must admit that I toyed with the thought of doing away with Julia ever since the first time I saw that round, freckled face in the mirror, when she burst into her mother’s bedroom, took a sip from her most expensive eau de cologne, and poured the rest over her head. At that time I was going to have her lie down on a grave mound in the old cemetery at night in the heavy snowfall. By morning the snow would cover her. But there was no snow that winter.

I tried several times to poison her. Apricot seeds, the cook once warned, eaten in a quantity of more than six were sure to be fatal. I had her eat a few dozen. I remember how we collected the stones over weeks, hid in the cellar, and cracked them open with a brick against the cement floor. It did not even give her a bellyache. She was very tough. I interpreted it at the time as the verdict of the gods.

What deaths I dreamed for her! What hangings, stabbings, throwings over cliffs! Her death must be an expiation, her down-going as sheer, blind, and sudden as the breathless plunge of a Peruvian child hurled down a stony chasm to placate the mountain spirit. What priest would sacrifice her, to what God? To wipe away what sins?

I had forever to restore her that I might sacrifice her anew. I had her laid out in white in a little coffin with four candles at each corner to make sure she stayed spotless. And for each time I hanged her, drowned her, pushed her over a cliff, I repented a thousandfold. I sat in ashes, I confessed, I said I shall die that Julia might live. I consented to Julia. Consented to die that Julia might live. Julia, my incarnation, my passion, my expiation.

I did not make long-term plans for Julia. Our first deadline was Julia’s twelfth birthday. It was a fine day in late autumn, my favorite season. We wandered into the old cemetery and rested on a tumbledown tombstone. I collected acorns, pods, bits of dead insects. Dry, brittle things. I did not question at the time the infallible instinct whereby anything with life in it was discarded, a bough still resilient with sap, a berry whose color warned me that decay was still at work. I reached out for things past corruption. Shells of which time had sucked out the rot, things that have done with dying. Light, dry, and delicate like a thin snail house or an empty husk in a child’s hand I wanted to become. A great peace came over me. It was growing dark. At home they must be anxious for her. The dusk deepened perceptibly. Julia stood with her hands clasped, shivering in her party frock. Peace made me magnanimous. I gave her another year’s extension.