“And so, you say,” the notary continued, gracefully holding the ornate handle of a heavy teacup, through which his finger didn’t fit, “that is, you claim, that the point of your visit is not to dispute your sister’s rights to have acted exclusively as inheritor of your parents’ estate, and naturally proceeding from that also not to appeal for the annulment of the amendments in ownership that transpired as a result of legal acts executed on the basis of mandates signed by your sister?”

“I already said that I came to visit her.”

“Because—I hope that as a reasonable individual you understand me in this—if you ever should, by chance, happen to develop a similar intention, which wouldn’t surprise me in the least, by the way, because it would be natural that you require the utmost clarity in these matters, meaning, if you should ever decide to undertake something along those lines, then I would simply like to tell you—not that I might be trying to somehow hint at anything, certainly not that—but I would simply like to say that firstly, you should, in that case, be prepared to prove any of your claims on the basis of significantly more documentation, you see, because as long as you’re simply a brother who is simply visiting his sister, then it’s, so to say, your personal matter—you do understand what I mean—but if you decide to be a brother who wants to dispute your sister’s signature to certain documents, then the matter becomes, so to say, public—you do understand the difference, don’t you—and that would in turn lead to a consequence, which indeed brings me to the second point that I’d like to make, for you see, you’ve only been in this town a few days, while I, on the other hand, have spent my whole life here, as a result of which I do believe that in some sense it might be prudent for me to advise you in this, you understand—to enlighten you about the circumstances, so to say.”

“You invited me to tea. I came. Let’s drink tea.”

The notary’s hands trembled slightly as he refilled both cups from the heavy teapot.

“What I’m trying to say is that several very esteemed persons in our town, I would say so much as the very pillars of our little community—you can probably imagine whom I’m talking about, can’t you—in short, if things should, for some reason, go the route I mentioned before, if the circumstances should maybe change and you develop the desire to become involved in this issue, then several people could be, how should I put it now, unpleasantly surprised, which might not necessarily be the most favorable course of events, neither for your sister nor yourself, because, you see, there are particular rules in the capital and elsewhere around the world in general, but we have our own here, you do realize, and we’ve become accustomed to them, although you yourself might not be, nor should you, since I certainly understand that you’ve had more of a nomadic lifestyle, but on the other hand, your sister really hasn’t, now, has she, and she also has the greater share of her life still ahead of her, so I can only hope that you will, by all means, give full consideration to any step you take beforehand. You do understand what I’m saying, don’t you? Right? So, what do you say?”

“For us, things have gone the way they’ve gone. Now, we’ll see how they go for you. Pass the sugar, please.”

[. . .]


“I don’t understand,” Brother said. “I don’t understand how you’ve allowed the world to step on you like this.”

“Because I hoped it would step over me,” Laila replied.

“Even so.”

[. . .]

“It’s hard for me even now,” she continued, “when someone greets me out of habit, as if I’m still the way I was then. I don’t know what to say to them in return, but they still do it—my old tutor Mrs. Salt or Mrs. Cymbal or the twin boys Hendrik and Hindrek—or, well, they’re not quite boys anymore—whose mother used to be the Villa chef, or else Gabriel, you know—the bachelor photographer, with whom I was in love for a while in high school, against my will but all the more hopelessly. How can’t they see that I’m not the one they knew?”

“I understand,” Brother said.

“No, you don’t,” Laila sighed. “You still think that I’m just like you are. Strong. Someone who can handle anything.”

“No,” Brother replied. “What I think of you isn’t something I don’t see, because that’s just the way I love you. But it seems like you’ve let yourself be bent the other direction. Maybe it’s easier, but it’s definitely not right, and blaming the world for it is even worse. You can stay hungry even while walking between tables heaped with delicacies if you never reach out your hand.”

“I want nothing from them. Nothing at all.”

“That’s what I just said.”