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The Man in the Howdah

Rating: PG-13

"Remorse is memory awake"
Emily Dickinson

"So what is it?" Thomas asked, nearly out of breath. When he finally allowed himself to inhale, a jagged burst of coughing seized him.

Harald looked at the uneven, ceiling-high stack of wooden crates that served as a slapdash dividing wall between him and his brother, and winced at the sound. The first of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos was playing quietly on an old Panasonic tape player, resting on the desk behind Harald. He wanted to make it louder.

"He won't tell me." Studiously, Harald frowned down the wide line of his nose, reading glasses slid to the tip. The square package, wrapped solidly in newspaper and crossed with twine, sat on the glass counter in front of him, where Stevens had thumped it a few moments earlier.

"Why not?" Thomas' voice was as thick as glue.

"It's a surprise," said Stevens, head twitching to move his thin black hair from his eyes. His bony face, the pronounced cheeks, hard mouth and alert eyes appeared harder, inflexible from the cold. He stood on the customer side of the counter, and could see both brothers.

"What surprise? Another broken antique I'll have to fix?" Thomas asked. He reopened the can of Wood Glo and resumed brushing varnish on the right leaf of an American Tiger Maple side table, which was clamped to a paint-splattered workbench. A moment later, across the room, the sweet, alcoholic scent irritated Harald's nose. He dreaded the thought of remembering this about his brother - this smell, and the sickness.

With both leaves extended, the side table had the shape of a giant, eviscerated bumblebee. Well-worn hand tools, arranged by size on wire racks, lined the walls of Thomas' workshop. Ongoing repairs covered the tabletops and floor space: a hand-sized, vine-motif, brass picture frame; a badly damaged, black Venetian table with curved aprons and cut-outs, and caramel-colored, Italian marble inlays; and two matching, unpainted, chestnut rocking horses on long bows. Six plastic pill containers were lying haphazardly on the seat of the plain wooden chair where Thomas' black overcoat and thick wool scarf were draped over the back.

"It's a surprise present, I mean," said Stevens, removing a crumpled pack of Camel cigarettes from the inside pocket of his cracked and weathered, brown leather overcoat.

"You're giving this to me?" Harald asked. With his thick white eyebrows raised, he looked like a bemused bulldog.

"I'm offering it to you for sale," Stevens said. "The surprise is what it is."

"I hate it when you do this," said Harald. Thick gray hair hung over his forehead, and almost brushed his hazel eyes. Behind him, the first Concerto's minuet cycle began, but it did nothing to alter his mood.

"When have I ever sold you wrong?" A dry smile creased Stevens' face.

"Take a look around you," Thomas rasped, through the wall of crates. "That wardrobe?"

"An heirloom." Stevens pointed to the Austrian pine armoire standing along the wall, next to the display window.

"That ridiculous brass beast of a mirror, the banjo, the Elvis Presley wine bottle?" Thomas asked, falling short of breath. These items were piled on countless others in the disparate and cluttered front section of the store.

When Harald looked across the room, the daylight glaring in through the large display window saddened him, it was so cold and heavy, and seemed frozen in the display case. It was the kind of dreary, silver winter light that only made the room appear darker inside.

"The mirror's an antique, that's a vintage Alvarez banjo, and that's a genuine Sargent Elvis decanter from 1956," Stevens said. "I'm sorry, tell me again what it is you guys do here?" Put on the defensive, he would often speak with an insinuating, suspiciously self-assured tone of voice. Harald knew it aggravated Thomas.

"Verdammt nochmal," Thomas said, exasperated.

"We're a little congested with your merchandise right now," Harald said. He began rummaging through the drawer behind the counter, looking for a pair of scissors.

"Inexplicably, my brother likes you. He thinks you have some sort of eye for this stuff," Thomas said. "Otherwise I'd send you on your way." Harald could hear another coughing jag building in Thomas' gruff voice.

"How long have I been-" Stevens started. He had lifted a cigarette to his mouth but stopped when he looked in Thomas' direction. With an annoyed expression, Stevens replaced the cigarette clumsily to its package.

"He's brought in some excellent merchandise. Some," Harald emphasized, leaning forward briefly to glance around the crates at his brother. He could only imagine what Thomas had done to refuse Stevens' smoking. "But we need to make some room in here, to sell the things we bought from you, before we can buy any more," he said to Stevens.

"Sure, I get it. The queue is full. This is different, Harald." Stevens pronounced it hurled. "It's an extraordinary case."

Thomas laughed and coughed. Harald snipped the twine off of the mystery package, and unfurled the first outer layer of newspaper.

"You might say it's a requested find," Stevens said.

"From?" Harald asked, undoing two more layers of newspaper, which was followed by light cotton, resembling bandages.

"You, and I'm waving the finder's fee. For Christ's sake, can you unwrap it slower?"

"Impatient boy," Harald said, stopping unexpectedly when he removed the last gauzy layer. He placed the richly colored, shining item to the side, away from the pile of discarded wrapping.

The moneybox was the width of Harald's hands placed side by side, and was roughly cubical: a gray elephant with its eyes closed beatifically, an ornate red howdah on its back carrying a small man. He wore a pith helmet, monocle and thick moustache, sat cross-legged and contentedly with his head above the edge of the howdah. The moneybox was made of tin, overlaid in parts with polished and intricately detailed, painted wood. It was much heavier than it appeared to be.

"Is this really it?" He turned the elephant over and found the maker's stamp on the rear left foot: "Biedermeister, Berlin 1850." These words were painted in finely edged, old German script on the elephant's belly:

"Legen Sie eine Munze in sein Kabel
und ziehen Sie sein Endstuck.
Der Elefant spart Ihr Geld.
Sagen 'Ich bin der Mann im howdah'
und er erinnert, an was Sie andenken."

He took the box to his desk, and inspected it with a magnifying glass in the light of his banker's lamp. He asked Stevens where he had found it.

"You know what that is, right?" Stevens asked.

"Of course I do." Harald spoke as if it was to himself.

"Tell me," Thomas said, loudly.

"The Gedachtnis Sparbuchse," Harald said, and realized he was smiling.

"Ach, another one of your money boxes. Is that all?"

Stevens told Thomas that this box was supposed to be special. Thomas said they were all special. Both men spoke as if it was amusing that Harald collected such things.

"That's the magic moneybox," Stevens said. "If you read the poem that's printed there, and you think of something you want to remember, it'll stay inside the box until you say the words again. Then you relive the memory, as fresh as when you put it in."

"Children's games. That was just a way to make kids remember their lessons," said Thomas.

Harald read the words on the elephant's belly to Stevens:

"Place a coin in his trunk and pull his tail.
The elephant will save your money.

Say 'I am the man in the howdah' and
He will remember what you think about."

"Yeah, I don't know. You'd think it would be about making more money or something like that," Stevens said. "So, about the money."

Stevens had wanted two thousand dollars for the box, and despite Thomas' protests, Harald had agreed to the price immediately, without the usual haggling. He only had half that amount in the till, and had offered to write Stevens a check. Stevens had said not to worry, he would be back soon anyway, and Harald could pay him the balance then. Stevens always preferred cash.

Stevens and Thomas were still chatting when Harald left the shop that afternoon. He had told them he was leaving early because he wanted to start making dinner. He knew he hadn't fooled either of them.

He rode the streetcar north along Roncessvales Avenue, from the corner of Queen Street, then took the subway one stop west from the Dundas West station to Keele Street. Along the way, in defiance of the cold, he whistled quietly a small line from the second Brandenburg Concerto. This time of year the air smelled only of itself: empty and nullifying. That piece of music always reminded him of springtime, and life. When he walked the slippery, ice-covered half block to the apartment, he held the re-wrapped moneybox as tightly as he could with mittens on.

His three-bedroom apartment was on the second floor. In one room, four deep display cabinets lined the walls. Two more cabinets filled the floor space, back to back, along with three standing lamps. When he turned on the lights, the glass shelves and chrome frames glimmered like the frost on the window. Each cabinet held four shelves, with three boxes on each shelf, 72 moneyboxes in all.

One bank depicted a mule facing a stable. Placing a coin in a slot on its hind legs and pressing a lever made the animal kick the money into the stable's upper level, while a small dog ran barking from the front door. Another bank had a diorama-like scene of a lion staring up at a monkey in a tree. With a coin in its hands, a flicked switch had it throw the coin into the lion's mouth. One moneybox caricatured an opium-smoking old Chinese man lying on his side and holding a fan of cards. If a coin was put into his other hand and a small bar lifted, he pocketed the money and tipped his hand to reveal four aces. Harald rearranged the position of the bank that displayed a cast iron frog, its arms raised in battle against a snake, swallowing a coin set on the snake's extending neck. An inscription on a bank shaped like a monkey read:

"If you pull my ear,
You will see my tongue appear.
Place a coin upon my tongue,
Save your money while you're young."

Harald unwrapped the elephant box, and made space for it on a cabinet next to the window. Taking a penny from a small pile on the shelf, he placed one in the elephant's trunk, pressed the tail, and the elephant swallowed the penny. He held the box and read the words painted in the underside while concentrating on the room, filled for a moment with an unusual contentment. Once recited, the words resonated in his memory, and he felt foolish.

The living room separated the kitchen, bathroom and one of the bedrooms from the other two bedrooms. The brothers sat on Harald's leather couch, Thomas' suitcases on the floor in front of them like large pets. Thomas gave Harald the keys to one, and began unpacking clothes from another.

"You've brought a lot. You're all right with me going through all these things?" Harald asked. He was looking inside the suitcase at stiff packets of folders, bound together with elastic bands and labeled variously: taxes, letters, receipts, will and testament.

"Why not?" Thomas moved to the floor so he could stack his clothes on the couch.

"There are more than just clothes here. These are all your things. Files, papers," Harald said.

Thomas unpacked and refolded two white shirts. He moved deliberately, but his expression betrayed his concentration elsewhere.

"All of it. I did bring all of it. I guess you can have these, none of them fit me anymore." Thomas looked at the unopened suitcases. He began to speak, then stopped, frustrating the impulse to speak his mind. He took a determined, deep breath before continuing. "We act like children sometimes. Do you ever think that? We hold onto objects too much. You can't hold onto them after you're dead."

"Do you remember stealing my school bag? It was brand new. I'd been looking forward to getting one all year, and when I did, you stole it," Harald said.

"I threw it away. It was better than mine." Thomas stacked his shirts carefully next to the opened suitcase.

"You had one of those bags for a whole year before me, so the leather of yours was worn in. I liked yours better."

"You either broke or burned a lot of my records for that. I even had a few Elvis Presley ones. Seventy-eights," Thomas said.

"Considering how much that would be worth today, I apologize even further," Harald said. He brought another bottle of schnapps from the kitchen, Goldschlager.

"It's our business to hold onto old things, to place a ridiculous, extravagant value on them," Thomas said, taking a full shot glass from his brother. "Do you remember the move? That was around the same time as our fight over the school bag." His body relaxed slightly into the couch. "Let's drink this one slower."

"When the city was bombed," Harald said.

"I think we were cruel children," Thomas said, simply, looking into his suitcase, then to Harald. "To each other. That's all I'm saying."

"I don't remember cruelty," Harald said.

"I've felt the remains of it." Thomas seemed to recede into his black wool cardigan, which hung loosely on his weakened frame.

The brothers worked their way through the entire bottle. Thomas called his daughter to tell her he had arrived at Harald's place, and that he had seen the doctor already. To Harald, most of the phone conversation was a series of quiet, noncommittal words from Thomas. When Thomas hung up, Harald asked cautiously why Thomas' family didn't all live in Toronto.

"You commute often enough as it is, for the workshop," Harald said.

"She likes living away from the city. They both do, and now Stephanie is working, settling down," Thomas said. "I've never felt a part of either of their lives. Not like you and I."

Both brothers had begun to smear their words, which they found increasingly funny. Two unwise bottles of Grolsch beer later, they retired.

Later, while Thomas slept, Harald stole back into his collection room. The alcohol crooked his walking, and he had to hold the wall every few steps. He found the elephant box and repeated the words on its belly. Suddenly the late afternoon sun was back in the sky making a prism of his iced windows. Coin-sized rainbows reflected from the glass shelves into every corner. He was certain that the room had all it would ever need, and he wouldn't collect any more moneyboxes. He was also certain that the new box worked.

"Meine Gute," Thomas said, amusedly from the doorway, and Harald was once again standing next to the window in an unlit room at night. "The things you hide in here."

"It's not hidden. It's just valuable. It's important." The words stumbled from him. He replaced the elephant box and left the room. Unable to contain his astonishment, he related to Thomas the successful test of the box's ability.

"It helped you remember something that happened a few hours ago? I could do that for less than two thousand dollars," Thomas said, sleepily.

Harald tried to explain the memory's exquisite vividness, but couldn't. He allowed the possibility that he imagined it.

Smiling with pensive warmth, approaching a kind of resignation that baffled his younger brother, Thomas waved the words away with a slow sweep of his hand.

"It doesn't matter. If it works for you, it works. I believe you. We're still drunk, you know," Thomas said.

The month passed, the winter remained. Seltsam Antiques was the same bright mess it had been for the past several years. The front window display was undisturbed, filled with an incomplete collection of Victorian figurines in winter clothing, an impeccable Underwood typewriter and a tattered, 32-volume edition of the 1955 Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Thomas' illness worsened, as they both knew it would. At first, Harald told him to rest at home, bringing him bronchial medicine, and watching with increasing desperation as his brother's health abated, as his cheeks steadily hollowed and paled. Starting in the third week, when Thomas began coughing small, then increasing amounts of blood, Harald took a taxi with him to the doctor's office every day. Late in the fourth week, Thomas moved into a bright, small room at the St. Joseph's Health Center. His window looked onto Lake Ontario, and the corner of the Queensway and Sunnyside Avenue. In early February, with Harald sitting bedside, one hand restlessly curling and uncurling one tiny edge of the blanket he brought from home, Thomas, unconscious, died.

Stevenson returned to the shop midway through the next month. When he heard the news, he said he was sorry for the loss.

"In a way, I suspected your bother was sicker than he let on," Stevenson said. "I watched my dad die the same way. For a while he was always a little sick, but then, something caught hold of him that just melted him away. I watched it happen. I'd never seen anything like it before. Once you've seen it, you can see it in other people, especially older people."

"I guess you came back for the rest of your money," Harald said. Stevenson offered to return another time. Harald told him to stay, giving him an envelope with ten hundred-dollar bills inside. The old Panasonic was playing the Brandburg Concertos, which he hadn't listened to since Stevens' last visit. This day, Harald had been playing it since he had arrived to work in the morning. "The box worked, you know. The Memory Box. I tried it once, before all of this happened."

"What will you do with all these tools? I might have a line on someone who'll buy them," Stevenson asked, walking along the counter.

"Maybe I'll send them to his wife and daughter. They're in Belleville," he said, half-heartedly. He hadn't seen them since the funeral. Kind, empty words in the Turner and Porter Funeral home on Roncesvalles Avenue before they took his brother back to Belleville.

"I know, he told me," Stevenson said.

"Did he? He was always so hesitant to talk about them." The winter light hadn't changed in almost two months, and Harald didn't expect it ever would.

"I don't know about that. He talked quite a bit, once I got him going. He told me about your store here, how you guys grew up in Hanover during the war, how you almost died when the entire city got blasted right near the end. You guys led a pretty amazing life."

"He told you about all of that?" Harald couldn't remember his brother venturing so much information, so freely, especially all at once.

"You can tell a stranger things you can't tell family. He said he came here to stay with you because his doctor told him that his problems were way more serious than bronchitis. You know he hadn't really been close to his wife and kid for a few years, right? Once he heard for sure from his doctor, he told them goodbye. He wanted to be near his brother," Stevenson said.

Harald walked away from the counter and sat at his desk. Across the room, the American Tiger Maple side table was still clamped to the paint-splattered workbench, the brass picture frame, black Venetian table and rocking horses were still waiting to be repaired. Two empty pill containers were on the floor. A trace of Wood Glo ghosted past him.

Stevenson thanked Harald for the money, apologized briefly. The wind rattled the improperly closed door for hours after Stevenson left.

When Harald returned to the apartment, he took the elephant box from its place and sat on the couch, holding the box lightly with his fingers. He wanted to test the box again, to remember the afternoon he brought it home, the sense of serene completion he had, if only for a moment, before the past month-and-a-half had happened.

"Legen Sie eine Munze in sein Kabel
und ziehen Sie sein Endstuck.
Der Elefant spart Ihr Geld.
Sagen 'Ich bin der Mann im howdah'
und er erinnert, an was Sie andenken."

Instead of the room, near dusk and sublime as before, Harald is in a moment he doesn't recognize. He is sitting on the couch, late afternoon sunlight filling the room. His mind is jumbled with a singular sadness and regret, erratic memories of a wartime childhood in Germany that are familiar, yet somehow removed. He feels an extraordinary gratitude and a completion that eases him to the core. He remembers unpacking suitcases and getting drunk, but in these moments he sees himself sitting across the room.

Mensch, he thinks. Thomas has stored a memory for him.

Harald reclines on the couch, holding the Gedachtnis Sparbuchse to his chest. For a moment, he holds the box very tightly. He wonders if a remnant of Thomas, whom he now fears he has never understood, is still inside the box. Concentrating, he tries to compel every memory of his brother to assemble in his mind, and is heartened by his accuracy and quantity. The school bag, the records, the fire and the wreckage: more than he could ever hope to hold again. Quickly, he says the words printed on the moneybox. No matter the time it takes, he will fill the box with all of his memories.