Rebecca Makkai

The Briefcase


   He thought how strange that a political prisoner, marched through town in a line, chained to the man behind and chained to the man ahead, should take comfort in the fact that this had all happened before. He thought of other chains of men on other islands of the Earth, and he thought how since there have been men there have been prisoners. He thought of mankind as a line of miserable monkeys chained at the wrist, dragging each other back into the ground.

   In the early morning of December first, the sun was finally warming them all, enough to walk faster. With his left hand, he adjusted the loop of steel that cuffed his right hand to the line of doomed men. His hand was starved, his wrist was thin, his body was cold: the cuff slipped off. In one beat of the heart he looked back to the man behind him and forward to the man limping ahead, and knew that neither saw his naked red wrist; each saw only his own mother weeping in a kitchen, his own love lying on a bed in white sheets and sunlight.
   He walked in step with them to the end of the block.
   Before the war this man had been a chef, and his one crime was feeding the people who sat at his tables in small clouds of smoke and talked politics. He served them the wine that fueled their underground newspaper, their aborted revolution. And after the night his restaurant disappeared in fire, he had run and hidden and gone without food—he who had roasted ducks until the meat jumped from the bone, he who had evaporated three bottles of wine into one pot of cream soup, he who had peeled the skin from small pumpkins with a twist of his hand.
   And here was his hand, twisted free of the chain, and here he was running and crawling, until he was through a doorway. It was a building of empty classrooms—part of the university he had never attended. He watched from the bottom corner of a second-story window as the young soldiers stopped the line, counted 199 men, shouted to each other, shouted at the men in the panicked voices of children who barely filled the shoulders of their uniforms. One soldier, a bigger one, a louder one, stopped a man walking by. A man in a suit, with a briefcase, a beard—some sort of professor. The soldiers stripped him of his coat, his shirt, his leather case, cuffed him to the chain. They marched again. And as soon as they were past—no, not that soon; many minutes later, when he had the stomach—the chef ran down to the street and collected the man’s briefcase, coat, and shirt.

   In the alley, the chef sat against a wall and buttoned the professor’s shirt over his own ribs. When he opened the briefcase, papers flew out, a thousand doves flailing against the walls of the alley. The chef ran after them all, stopped them with his feet and arms, herded them back into the case. Pages of numbers, of arrows and notes and hand-drawn star maps. Here were business cards: a professor of physics. Envelopes showed his name and address—information that might have been useful in some other lifetime, one where the chef could ring the bell of this man’s house and explain to his wife about empty chains, empty wrists, empty classrooms. Here were graded papers, a fall syllabus, the typed draft of an exam. The question at the end, a good one: “Using modern astronomical data, construct, to the best of your ability, a proof that the Sun revolves around the Earth.”

   The chef knew nothing of physics. He understood chemistry only insofar as it related to the baking time of bread at various elevations or the evaporation rate of alcohol. His knowledge of biology was limited to the deboning of chickens and the behavior of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, common bread yeast. And what did he know at all of moving bodies and gravity? He knew this: he had moved from his line of men, creating a vacuum—one that had sucked the good professor in to fill the void.
   The chef sat on his bed in the widow K——’s basement and felt, in the cool leather of the briefcase, a second vacuum: here was a vacated life. Here were salary receipts, travel records, train tickets, a small address book. And these belonged to a man whose name was not blackened like his own, a man whose life was not hunted. If he wanted to live through the next year, the chef would have to learn this life and fill it—and oddly, this felt not like a robbery but an apology, a way to put the world back in balance. The professor would not die, because he himself would become the professor, and he would live.
   Surely he could not teach at the university; surely he could not slip into the man’s bed unnoticed. But what was in this leather case, it seemed, had been left for him to use. These addresses of friends; this card of identification; this riddle about the inversion of the universe.

   Five cities east, he now gave his name as the professor’s, and grew out his beard so it would match the photograph on the card he now carried in his pocket. They did not, anymore, look entirely dissimilar. To the first man in the address book, the chef had written a typed letter: “Am in trouble and have fled the city . . . Tell my dear wife I am safe, but for her safety do not tell her where I am . . . If you are able to help a poor old man, send money to the following post box . . . I hope to remain your friend, Professor T——.”
   He had to write this about the wife; how could he ask these men for money if she held a funeral? And what of it, if she kept her happiness another few months, another year?
   The next twenty-six letters were similar in nature, and money arrived now in brown envelopes and white ones. The bills came wrapped in notes—was his life in danger? did he have his health?—and with the money he paid another widow for another basement, and he bought weak cigarettes. He sat on café chairs and drew pictures of the universe, showed stars and planets looping each other in light. He felt, perhaps, that if he used the other papers in the briefcase, he must also make use of this question. Or perhaps he felt that if he could answer it, he could put the universe back together. Or perhaps it was something to do with his empty days.
   He wrote in his small notebook: “The light of my cigarette is a fire like the Sun. From where I sit, all the universe is equidistant from my cigarette. Ergo, my cigarette is the center of the universe. My cigarette is on Earth. Ergo, the Earth is the center of the universe. If all heavenly bodies move, they must therefore move in relation to the Earth, and in relation to my cigarette.”
   His hand ached; these words were the most he had written since school, which had ended for him at age sixteen. He had been a smart boy, even talented in languages and mathematics, but his mother knew these were no way to make a living. He was not blessed, like the professor, with years of scholarship and quiet offices and leather books. He was blessed instead with chicken stocks and herbs and sherry. Thirty years had passed since his last day of school, and his hand was accustomed now to wooden spoon, mandolin, peeling knife, rolling pin.
   Today, his hands smelled of ink, when for thirty years they had smelled of leeks. They were the hands of the professor; ergo, he was now the professor.

   He had written to friends A through L, and now he saved the rest and wrote instead to students. Here in the briefcase’s outermost pocket were class rosters from the past two years; letters addressed to those young men care of the university were sure to reach them. The amounts they sent were smaller, the notes that accompanied them more inquisitive. What exactly had transpired? Could they come to the city and meet him?
   The post box, of course, was in a city different from the one where he stayed. He arrived at the post office just before closing, and came only once every two or three weeks. He always looked through the window first to check that the lobby was empty. If it was not, he would leave and come again another day. Surely, one of these days a friend of the professor would be waiting there for him. He prepared a story, that he was the honored professor’s assistant, that he could not reveal the man’s location but would certainly pass on your kindest regards, sir.

   If the Earth moved, all it would take for a man to travel its distance would be a strong balloon. Rise twenty feet above, and wait for the Earth to turn under you; you would be home again in a day. But this was not true, and a man could not escape his spot on the Earth but to run along the surface. Ergo, the Earth was still. Ergo, the Sun was the moving body of the two.
   No, he did not believe it. He wanted only to know who this professor was, this man who would, instead of teaching his students the laws of the universe, ask them to prove as true what was false.

   On the wall of the café: plate-sized canvas, delicate oils of an apple, half-peeled. Signed, below, by a girl he had known in school. The price was more than three weeks of groceries, and so he did not buy it, but for weeks he read his news under the apple and drank his coffee. Staining his fingers in cheap black ink were the signal fires of the world, the distress sirens, the dispatches from the trenches and hospitals and abattoirs of the war; but here, on the wall, a sign from another world. He had known this girl as well as any other: had spoken with her every day, but had not made love to her; had gone to her home one winter holiday, but knew nothing of her life since then. And here, a clue, perfect and round and unfathomable. After all this time: apple.
   After he finished the news, he worked at the proof and saw in the coil of green-edged skin some model of spiraling, of expansion. The stars were at one time part of the Earth, until the hand of God peeled them away, leaving us in the dark. They do not revolve around us: they escape in widening circles. The Milky Way is the edge of this peel.

   After eight months in the new city, the chef stopped buying his newspapers on the street by the café and began instead to read the year-old news the widow gave him for his fires. Here, fourteen months ago: Minister P—— of the Interior predicts war. One day he found that in a box near the widow’s furnace were papers three, four, five years old. Pages were missing, edges eaten. He took his fragments of yellowed paper to the café and read the beginnings and ends of opinions and letters. He read reports from what used to be his country’s borders.
   When he had finished the last paper of the box, he began to read the widow’s history books. The Americas, before Columbus; the oceans, before the British; the Romans, before their fall.
   History was safer than the news, because there was no question of how it would end.

   He took a lover in the city and told her he was a professor of physics. He showed her the stars in the sky and explained that they circled the Earth, along with the Sun.
   That’s not true at all, she said. You tease me because you think I’m a silly girl.
   No, he said and touched her neck, You are the only one who might understand. The universe has been folded inside out.

   A full year had passed, and he paid the widow in coins. He wrote to friends M through Z. I have been in hiding for a year, he wrote. Tell my dear wife I have my health. May time and history forgive us all.
   A year had passed, but so had many years passed for many men. And after all what was a year, if the Earth did not circle the Sun?
   The Earth does not circle the Sun, he wrote. Ergo, the years do not pass. The Earth, being stationary, does not erase the past nor escape toward the future. Rather, the years pile on like blankets, existing all at once. The year is 1848; the year is 1789; the year is 1956.
   If the Earth hangs still in space, does it spin? If the Earth were to spin, the space I occupy I will therefore vacate in an instant. This city will leave its spot, and the city to the west will usurp its place. Ergo, this city is all cities at all times. This is Kabul; this is Dresden; this is Johannesburg.
   I run by standing still.

   At the post office, he collects his envelopes of money. He has learned from the notes of concerned colleagues and students and friends that the professor suffered from infections of the inner ear that often threw his balance. He has learned of the professor’s wife, A——, whose father died the year they married. He has learned that he has a young son. Rather, the professor has a son.
   At each visit to the post office, he fears he will forget the combination. It is an old lock, and complicated: F1, clockwise to B3, back to A6, forward again to J3. He must shake the little latch before it opens. More than forgetting, perhaps what he fears is that he will be denied access—that the little box will one day recognize him behind his thick and convincing beard, will decide he has no right of entry.
   One night, asleep with his head on his lover’s leg, he dreams that a letter has arrived from the professor himself. They freed me at the end of the march, it says, and I crawled my way home. My hands are bloody and my knees are worn through, and I want my briefcase back.
   In his dream, the chef takes the case and runs west. If the professor takes it back, there will be no name left for the chef, no place on the Earth. The moment his fingers leave the leather loop of the handle, he will fall off the planet.

   He sits in a wooden chair on the lawn behind the widow’s house. Inside, he hears her washing dishes. In exchange for the room, he cooks all her meals. It is March, and the cold makes the hairs rise from his arms, but the sun warms the arm beneath them. He thinks, The tragedy of a moving Sun is that it leaves us each day. Hence the Aztec sacrifices, the ancient rites of the eclipse. If the Sun so willingly leaves us, each morning it returns is a stay of execution, an undeserved gift.
   Whereas: if it is we who turn, how can we so flagrantly leave behind that which has warmed us and given us light? If we are moving, then each turn is a turn away. Each revolution a revolt.

   The money comes less often, and even old friends who used to write monthly now send only rare, apologetic notes, a few small bills. Things are more difficult now, their letters say. No one understood when he first ran away, but now it is clear: after they finished with the artists, the journalists, the fighters, they came for the professors. How wise he was to leave when he did. Some letters come back unopened, with a black stamp.
   Life is harder here, too. Half the shops are closed. His lover has left him. The little café is filled with soldiers.
   One afternoon, he enters the post office two minutes before closing. The lobby is empty but for the postman and his broom.
   The mailbox is empty as well, and he turns to leave but hears the voice of the postman behind him. You are the good Professor T——, no? I have something for you in the back.
   Yes, he says, I am the professor. And it feels as if this is true, and he will have no guilt over the professor’s signature when the box is brought out. He is even wearing the professor’s shirt, as loose again over his hungry ribs as it was the day he slipped it on in the alley.
   From behind the counter, the postman brings no box, but a woman in a long gray dress, a white handkerchief in her fingers.
   She moves toward him, looks at his hands and his shoes and his face. Forgive me for coming, she says, and the postman pulls the cover down over his window and disappears. She says, No one would tell me anything, only that my husband had his health. And then a student gave me the number of the box and the name of the city.
He begins to say, You are the widow. But why would he say this? What proof is there that the professor is dead? Only that it must be; that it follows logically.
   She says, I don’t understand what has happened.
   He begins to say, I am the good professor’s assistant, madam—but then what next? She would ask questions he had no way to answer.
   I don’t understand, she says again.
   All he can say is, This is his shirt. He holds out an arm so she can see the gaping sleeve.
   She says, What have you done with him? She has a calm voice and wet, brown eyes. He feels he has seen her before, in the streets of the old city. Perhaps he served her a meal, a bottle of wine. Perhaps, in another lifetime, she was the center of his universe.
   This is his beard, he says.
   She begins to cry into the handkerchief. She says, Then he is dead. He sees now from the quiet of her voice that she must have known this long ago. She has come here only to confirm.
   He feels the floor of the post office move beneath him, and he tries to turn his eyes from her, to ground his gaze in something solid: postbox, ceiling tile, window. He finds he cannot turn away. She is a force of gravity in her long gray dress.
   No, he says. No, no, no, no, no, I am right here.
   No, he does not believe it, but he knows that if he had time, he could prove it. And he must, because he is the only piece of the professor left alive. The woman does not see how she is murdering her husband, right here in the post office lobby. He whispers to her: Let me go home with you. I’ll be a father to your son, and I’ll warm your bed, and I’ll keep you safe.
   He wraps his hands around her small, cold wrists, but she pulls loose. She might be the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.
   As if from far away, he hears her call to the postmaster to send for the police.
   His head is light, and he feels he might float away from the post office forever. It is an act of will not to fly off, but instead to hold tight to the Earth and wait. If the police aren’t too busy to come, he feels confident he can prove to them that he is the professor. He has the papers, after all, and in the havoc of war, what else will they have the time to look for?
   She is backing away from him on steady feet, and he feels it like a peeling off of skin.
   If not the police, perhaps he’ll convince a city judge. The witnesses who would denounce him are mostly gone or killed, and the others would fear to come before the law. If the city judge will not listen, he can prove it to the high court. One day he might try to convince the professor’s own child. He feels certain that somewhere down the line, someone will believe him.