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Dr. Cleotilde Ruppenthal held up a picture and said, “Let’s try this one. What is this?”
Mai Fisher stared at the black and white drawing, and the image of a flower formed in her head. She knew exactly what it was, but the word “flower” would not emerge from her mouth.
How ironic that she understood and could even say her condition—aphasia: the loss of a previously held ability to speak or understand spoken or written language due to disease or brain injury. If the doctor had handed her a pencil and paper, she knew she could write the word flower; saying it was another matter altogether.
Mai shook her head, more at the picture than the doctor.
“Do you know what it is?” Ruppenthal asked.
“Yes,” Mai said.
“Give it a try.”
Mai’s right hand went into her hair, barely an inch long, and pulled. She shook her head again. “I. Can’t.” Just two words that took such a long time to utter. She pulled harder at her hair.
“All right,” said Ruppenthal, “let’s try something else.” She laid three cards on the table before Mai. “What’s common to all three pictures, Mai?”
“Good! That’s very good. In each one, the ball is doing something different. Can you tell me what each is doing?”
The pulling of her hair had become a reflex when things disturbed her, and she felt a hand close on hers and gently lower it to the table. Mai turned and looked at the man sitting next to her. Alexei. His name had come to her the second she had regained consciousness and seen him. As clear a memory as she’d had since, but though the name had come easily, just who and what he was to her had not.
He smiled at her and said, “Take it easy. You don’t have much to be pulling it out. Take a look at the cards and tell me what you see.”
Mai looked at the three cards. In one a person let a ball fall through his fingers. The next one was a man with a baseball bat hitting a ball, and in the third one someone kicked a ball. She could see each action, and she knew what each was, but when she opened her mouth, nothing emerged.
She turned back to Alexei. “Fucking. Useless,” she said. With her one good hand, she swept the three cards off the table, then wept in silence as he knelt and picked up the cards then handed them back to the therapist. He sat beside her again and dried her eyes and cheeks with his handkerchief. That felt good and safe and undemanding, and Mai leaned against him.
“You shouldn’t do these things for her,” she heard Ruppenthal say. “I know it pains you to see her this way, but none of her injuries, from the severe concussion, the memory loss, and the aphasia to the accompanying left-side muscle weakness, are permanent.”
“We’ve discussed why I have to be present,” Alexei said, and Mai felt the vibration of his voice where she pressed against his chest.
“Yes, I understand, in case she says something classified, but, frankly, you’re keeping me from helping her.” Mai saw Ruppenthal hold up a hand to forestall an interruption. “I know you think you’re helping, but you’re not. You can’t keep doing things for her. If you do, you’re just creating a dependency, and she’ll never recover.”
“No, Mr. Bukharin, you need to listen to me. I can help her, but if you step in every time something becomes hard for her, she’ll never push herself. You want her to need to you.”
“You think I’m deliberately hindering her progress?” Alexei asked. Mai felt his muscles tense, his hand tighten on her shoulder.
“No, I think it’s unconscious on your part, but, regardless, you’re not doing her any favors.”
Mai sat up straight and looked first at Alexei then at Ruppenthal. “I’m. Here,” Mai said. “Don’t talk. Like I’m. Not.”
Ruppenthal clasped her hands on the tabletop and leaned toward Mai. “Do you want to get better?” she asked.
“Do you want me to help you?”
Mai was tired of the inability to remember the simplest of things, of having Alexei step in and fill the gaps in her recovering physical abilities. “Yes,” she said.
The psychiatrist nodded then shifted her gaze to Alexei. “You can stay in the room, but you have to sit over there, away from us, and no matter what happens, you stay quiet,” she said. “Am I clear?”
Mai turned to him. “It’s. Okay. I’ll be. Fine,” she said.
He nodded, his fingers brushing her cheek. Mai caught his murderous glare at the doctor as he withdrew to a corner of her office to a wing-back chair and sat, one leg crossed over the other at the knee, forearms resting on the chair arms, his eyes never leaving Ruppenthal.
Mai looked again at Ruppenthal. The doctor gathered the cards, stacked and straightened them, then set them aside. “Let’s talk for a moment,” she said. “How are you sleeping?”
“Movies in. My head,” Mai said, then added, “Dreams?”
“Yes, they’re dreams. Do you remember them?”
“Pieces. Scenes.” Scenes. How could she remember how to say an odd word like “scene” and yet clutch on the word “flower?” Her brain had become a stranger to her, and that more than anything she wanted to alter. “I think I’m,” she began, forcing the words free from her throat. “I think. I steal. Things.”
“Why would you think that?”
“Running away. From people in. Dreams. Hiding. From people. Afraid of. Getting caught.”
Ruppenthal held up her hands, palms upturned, as if offering something. “I’m not going to give it away, but I’ll tell you, you are not a thief. Rest assured, you are not a bad person.”
Mai’s fingers went back into her hair, pulling. “I can’t. Get some pictures. Out of my. Head.”
“People. I know. Them. We’re laughing. Singing. We…” She stopped, glanced at Alexei, then stared at the table top.
“Mai,” Ruppenthal said, after a moment. “Mai, look at me.” Mai obeyed. “Stop pulling your hair.”
“I used to. Have long. Hair,” Mai said, letting her hand drop to her lap.
“Did you? How long was it?”
“Middle of my. Back. He liked it.” She could feel a man’s hands stroking her hair, his fist clenched in her hair as they kissed and…
“You mean Mr. Bukharin?”
The vague face she saw could be Alexei or not, and the doubt nagged at her. She opened her mouth to say she didn’t know then glanced at him again. He gave her security and comfort, he alone had stopped her from wallowing in her injury. It must be him; it had to be him.
“Yes. Alexei,” she told Ruppenthal. “Why did they. Cut it?”
“You had a severe head injury, Mai, a significant laceration. It was easier for the doctors to suture if they shaved your head. It’s regrettable, but hair grows back.”
That made sense. Alexei had said much the same. “The dreams. I think. I killed. I killed. I…”
“Doctor,” Alexei said from the corner, his voice calm. Mai saw Ruppenthal look at him, and in her periphery she saw the shake of his head. He had tiptoed around many of her questions, and now he made the doctor do the same.
“All right, Mai,” said Ruppenthal, “let’s try some of the pictures again.”
Mai had come to hate the doctor’s photos and drawings, which only added to the frustration of knowing and not being able to say a simple, fucking word. Enough was enough. “No!” Mai said. “I don’t. Want to.”
“Well, I’m the doctor,” Ruppenthal replied, her smile gentle, “so I say that we give them another try.” She held up the card with the flower. “Do you know what this is?”
Mai sighed. “Yes.”
“I. Told you I. Can’t.”
The smile left Ruppenthal’s face, and the expression she gave Mai was not pleasant. “You’re not even trying, Mai. Say it.” When Mai didn’t respond, Ruppenthal’s tone notched up to demanding. “Say it.”
This woman had degrees lining the walls of her office. What part of aphasia didn’t she understand? In frustration, Mai slammed her right fist onto the table. “I can’t!”
Ruppenthal smacked the table with her free hand, making Mai jump. “You’re not trying hard enough, Mai. Do you know why? You want to give up. I was told you are brilliant, very capable, but suddenly this is too hard for you. Or is this the way you always were—a bratty, demanding child who lets other people take care of her?”
Mai grabbed the card from Ruppenthal’s hand, crumpled it, then tossed the wad at the psychiatrist’s face. “Fuck you! I don’t give a fuck about your fucking flower!” Mai shouted. The wadded paper struck Ruppenthal at the base of her throat and bounced away.
Ruppenthal leaned back in her chair and smiled at Mai. “Did you hear what you just said?” she asked, her voice soft and smooth.
“I said I didn’t give a fuck. I thought you spoke English,” Mai said, and felt something ease in her chest. Sarcasm was the word, and she realized how comfortable she felt using it.
Ruppenthal contained her triumph and glanced at Alexei Bukharin, who gave her a grudging smile. To Mai she said, “You said flower, and you spoke without hesitation.” Ruppenthal put the three cards with the ball in front of Mai. “Tell me what the action is in these three pictures. Don’t think. Just say it. Tell me to fuck off again if you need to.”
Ruppenthal noted the anger in the woman’s eyes, and the determination. “Someone dropping a ball, hitting a ball, kicking a ball,” Mai said, her tone challenging.
“Excellent. And this one?” She held up a photograph of a thunderstorm at night.
“Lightening,” Mai said.
“Good. This one?”
When they finished the stack of cards, Ruppenthal summoned the orderly, who came in with a wheel chair and helped Mai into it. Ruppenthal motioned to Alexei Bukharin to stay, and he lingered, though his eyes stayed on Mai as the orderly wheeled her into the corridor then closed the doctor’s door.
“I asked you to stay,” Ruppenthal said, “not to apologize. I want to get that clear right off.” She saw him bristle at that, his shoulders squaring, his eyes narrowing at her. “I think you understand she’s using the aphasia and her injuries as an excuse not to remember.”
His eyes shifted to stare out the window. “I don’t want her to remember,” he murmured.
“But it’s not about you, Mr. Bukharin. She needs to remember she went undercover in the IRA to save lives. She needs to remember the bomb. She needs to understand and accept whom she is.”
The muscles in Bukharin’s jaw clenched then twitched, but he didn’t look at her. “The neurologist indicated there may be things she’ll never remember,” he said. “I would prefer the fact she rigged a bomb that killed nine people be one of the things she doesn’t recall.”
Ruppenthal came from behind the table to stand closer to him. “Have you always wanted to protect her?” she asked.
The quick answer attested to the truth of it, even though she knew spies could lie with ease and without hesitation.
“Knowing what I was allowed to read of her file, I don’t imagine she appreciated that attitude from her partner. Or her husband.”
“I’m very circumspect, Doctor Ruppenthal.”
Ruppenthal crossed her arms over her stomach. “Mr. Bukharin, I’ve examined her brain scans, I have consulted with the top neurologist you engaged to examine her. There is no permanent physical damage, but, yes, with a concussion as severe as she had, there are things she may never remember or things she doesn’t remember now but may recall in months or even years. Those memories could be triggered by a sound, something she sees, even a smell. Can you shield her from all that?”
He shook his head, his eyes narrowing.
“Right now, the bomb, the knowledge of it, of her part in it, is your burden, and I understand you believe you can bear it. But what if she remembers, Mr. Bukharin? Tomorrow, next week, next year. Then, it becomes her burden. Do you understand?”
His eyes had never left the scenery and still didn’t. He nodded, just once.
“She needs to know now who she is, what she is,” Ruppenthal said. “She needs to know about the bomb, and, above all, she needs to know she did what she had to do to save lives. Sometimes the sacrifice of a few that secures safety for the many is justifiable.”
When Bukharin’s eyes met hers again, his were a cold void, the color a washed-out blue. “I find your attitude interesting but not surprising,” he said, “for the granddaughter of SS Standartenfuhrer Wolfgang von Ruppenthal. Oh, yes, doctor, that came up in the background check.”
Ruppenthal contrasted the man who had wiped his wife’s tears with such tenderness to the soulless manipulator standing before her. To bring that up, after she’d spent her life and career living it down… She calmed herself before she replied, “Then, you know that he renounced Nazism and served his full sentence at Spandau.”
“And my grandfather’s transgressions have nothing to do with my helping your wife recover her memory,” Ruppenthal said.
“And I’m sure the fact that Nazis killed my father won’t prejudice my professional opinion of you.”
“This isn’t about you, Mr. Bukharin. I thought we established that. This is about Mai. You cannot take the chance of not telling her about the bomb. She could remember on her own and resent the hell out of you for knowing and hiding it from her. Ah, I see you hadn’t considered that. Well, I’m no Mengele, Mr. Bukharin. I can’t create a new wife for you, one who has only the memories you want, but I can help restore the one you had before. Now, my next patient will arrive soon. I believe you will find Mai in physical therapy. Good day.”
At the bungalow on the grounds of the private hospital, Alexei Bukharin sat on the porch, drank wine, and watched until the sun dipped below the horizon. At full dark and with the bottle empty, he went back inside.
Mai sat on the couch in the living area, a soft rubber ball in her weakened, left hand. She squeezed the ball, held it, then released it, over and over. He put his glass and the bottle in the sink and wished for vodka. He wanted to be drunk, not mellow. False courage, he knew, but sometimes when that was the only courage available, you took what you could get.
He leaned against the counter and watched her, realizing how lucky he was to have her here, damaged, and not buried in her family’s mausoleum in Dublin. Yes, hair grew back, physical dexterity would return, but memory was tricky. Regardless, he wanted her whole again. He wanted Mai back, undamaged, as futile a wish as that might be.
Throughout his life, he had carried so many burdens for his family, his country, his profession. For Mai. The burden of her memory, which was his alone for now, was small and inconsequential. To him. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, Cleotilde Ruppenthal was right, and one day he’d find it in himself to apologize for bringing up her grandfather for the sole reason of hurting her. Just not today. Or tomorrow. Or any day soon.
He came into the living area and sat on the other end of the sofa from Mai. She looked at him, and he caught an expression from her, as if she expected someone else then covering that when she saw him.
“How many times have you squeezed that ball?” he asked.
“Too many. My arm. Hurts,” she said, but she smiled to assure him.
“Then, give it a rest for a while.” He held out his hand, and she put the ball in his palm. He rolled it around in his fingers for a moment then slipped it into his trouser pocket. “Mai, you trust me, don’t you?”
“And you know…” He broke off, the words catching for a moment, new words from him to her. For all he knew, she remembered far more of their life together than either he or Ruppenthal realized and would think him a liar. “You know I love you, right?”
“Yes. Is something. Wrong?”
“No, nothing at all, nothing with you, about you, but I have to tell you something, something I didn’t want you to remember.”
“Then, don’t. Tell. Me.”
“I would be selfish if I did that. I have to tell you because it’s something you should know.”
Her face showed him some fear, and he got the distinct feeling she knew what he was about to say.
“Mai, you’re no thief, you’re no killer,” he began, even though he lied about the latter. No, killing in self-defense or to save others, that was not murder. “But you are a spy, a very good one, and you have done heroic things, things to save lives.”
With dread his burden now, he told her all of it.