A New York Times Notable Book
A hypnotic, spellbinding novel set in Greece and Africa, where a young Liberian woman reckons with a haunted past.
On a remote island in the Aegean, Jacqueline is living alone in a cave accessible only at low tide. With nothing to protect her from the elements, and with the fabric between herself and the world around her increasingly frayed, she is permeated by sensory experiences of remarkable intensity: the need for shade in the relentless heat of the sun-baked island; hunger and the occasional bliss of release from it; the exquisite pleasure of diving into the sea. The pressing physical realities of the moment provide a deeper relief: the euphoric obliteration of memory and, with it, the unspeakable violence she has seen and from which she has miraculously escaped.
Slowly, irrepressibly, images from a life before this violence begin to resurface: the view across lush gardens to a different sea; a gold Rolex glinting on her father’s wrist; a glass of gin in her mother’s best crystal; an adoring younger sister; a family, in the moment before their fortunes were irrevocably changed. Jacqueline must find the strength to contend with what she has survived or tip forward into full-blown madness.
Visceral and gripping, extraordinary in its depiction of physical and spiritual hungers, Alexander Maksik’s A Marker to Measure Drift is a novel about ruin and faith, barbarism and love, and the devastating memories that contain the power both to destroy us and to redeem us.
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Alexander Maksik is the author of the novel You Deserve Nothing and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His writing has appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Harper’s, Tin House, Harvard Review, The New York Times Magazine, Salon, and Narrative Magazine, among other publications, and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. He lives in New York City.
Now it was night.
Jacqueline hadn’t eaten since the flattened chocolate bar she’d found on the step outside the pharmacy.
God’s will, her mother said.
The fortune of finding food just when it was most needed, just when she didn’t think she could stay upright any longer, here was food.
God’s will, her mother had said for the fortune of the airplane. She’d said it for the man with the truck. And the fruit pickers in Murcia. And the woman who had the brother who drove another truck. And the Senegalese girl in Alicante who helped her up when she rolled off the park bench in her sleep. Who took her home to her family, who fed her rice and chickpeas and gave her water. The grace of God, her mother had said. For the woman who found her unconscious in the sand on a beach outside of Valencia, who walked her to the sea and wiped Jacqueline’s face with a dishrag that smelled of glass cleaner, who bought her coffee with milk and sugar and two sweet magdalenas. God for the Moroccan men who were arrested while Jacqueline walked undisturbed onto the ferry in Valencia. For the cove in Palma, where she found cardboard boxes and a dirty blue blanket folded on a flat stone.
On and on her fortune went.
And for the man who’d beaten her on the beach in Málaga?
For the diarrhea?
For the absence of food?
For the bearded man and his immaculate teeth? We pay for our sins, for the sins of others, her mother said. Anyway, we can’t understand.
She knew she could not stay in that town. Not with all the people streaming off the ferries. She sat upright on a bench. She watched them eat French fries stuffed into the tops of their gyros. From the bench she watched them being made in a small shop advertising the best in the world. She watched the man slicing meat from a giant turning pile, could see him painting the bread with oil and tossing it onto the grill, could see him squirt a white sauce from a bottle onto the hot bread. There were tomatoes and onions. She watched him roll them and wrap them with white wax paper, and hand them across the counter along with cold cans of Coca-Cola. The smell of the meat and its fat, the smell of thyme and the grilling bread all blew towards her. She watched the tourists waiting in line. She watched bits of the meat falling to the ground, the sandwiches thrown away, half-eaten.
What it took for her not to stand up and cross the square and dig for food.
But she was not beyond pride so instead she ate the chocolate bar and tried to appear happy and bored. This was, she’d decided, the appropriate attitude. You must not be desperate.
She watched the policemen walk past and tried to appear cheerful as she ate her candy bar. She ate as if she might throw it away at any moment, as if eating were an entertainment, as if it were something to do. She thought, Perhaps when it’s dark I’ll go to the trash, but she saw that the square would never go dark.
A band was setting up. The tourists kept coming, the lights came on. There were more and more police. She stood and stretched her legs. She felt as if she might lose consciousness and sat back down. She waited until the blood returned to her head, until the feeling of nausea had eased. She stood up again and left the square, turning onto one of the small streets, thinking she might find a trash bin in a darkened corner. But every street was burning with white light. The stores sold gold and t-shirts and alcohol and food. Everywhere was food. And the tourists pushed against one other and plodded along, as bored as the shopkeepers, who eyed Jacqueline as she passed. Everything was shining with light, the narrow stone streets and the white walls, and the food, the drums of ice cream under glass, and the turning meat, and the faultless rows of tall plastic water bottles, cold in the refrigerators, all of it white under the light.
There was a large foam cup of ice cream on a ledge outside the window of a jewelry store. For a moment she thought it was part of the display, a prop for the gold chains. Then she saw there was a spoon stuck into it. As if it were hers. As if she’d ordered it. She moved to the side so that the cup was in front of her, so that she put herself between the street and it. She pretended to consider the gold. She shifted Saifa’s red school pack from her shoulder to her hand, hoping it might look something like the purses she’d seen the women carrying up and down these narrow alleys. It would take one movement—an open palm, a turn of the hips, a sweep of the hand—and then she’d be moving along like the rest of them, eating as she walked.
She could feel it. Cup. Spoon. The ice cream cold in her mouth. Bits of chocolate.
Then a man appeared in the doorway.
He took a pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket and shook one out.
He wore a clean blue shirt, collar sharp as knifepoints.
He lit the cigarette and looked at her. She looked back and smiled.
“Nice,” she said. The word felt misshapen and dry in her mouth.
He glanced down at her feet, over at the pack, and back to her eyes. She smiled again. She could feel her heart. “Have a nice night,” she said, turned, and walked away toward the square, leaving the ice cream melting in its cup.
She followed a road lined with eucalyptus trees and then a sign with the picture of an umbrella and a sequence of rolling waves. The road was darker and darker. She was on a hill now and could see the white lights of an airport in the distance, an occasional plane gliding away from the island. She walked for miles along the dark road, following the signs to the beach.
The beach, this beach, she decided. She would go and sleep. She’d sleep and sleep and sleep.
Like the dead, her mother whispered, a little drunk, sitting at the kitchen table in the early morning, looking out across the lawn to the ocean.
There were lights on steel lampposts running along the beach road, and from the hill she saw the pools of white. At one end a mountain of rock shot upward into the dark. She walked down the hill, past closed restaurants with hand-painted signs and sandwich boards chained to trees. She descended the few steps to the sand and vanished into the shadow of the mountain, its peak invisible in the blackening sky.
She dropped her pack and removed her rubber sandals and pushed her swollen feet into the cool coarse sand. Now she heard the sea. Or now she became aware of it.
The wind moved over her skin, cooler than she’d felt since arriving on the island the night before.
She leaned against the wall and listened to the water drawing and breaking, drawing and breaking. Above the beach the first lamppost pressed a coin of light onto the concrete sidewalk. She watched those coins stretch off in a slow curve along the road in the direction of the discos.
Barefoot, she walked a few feet away toward the sea, pushed down her underwear, and squatted.
The urine burned and felt thick, as if it were turning to something solid. She needed water. She finished, waited for the last drops to fall to the sand, and shook her hips the way Saifa used to. Then she returned to her dark corner. From the pack she withdrew the blanket, unfolded the neat square, and lay down on the cold beach. She drew the fabric over her body and then her face and fell asleep.
That night she dreamed of the bearded man. They were holding hands, laughing together on the lawn.
In the morning she woke with coarse dark sand blown across her face and piled up against her back in a smooth slope. It was in her hair and in her mouth, caught between her lower lip and her gums. She gently removed the grains from her lashes and from the corners of her eyes. She rose onto her knees. The sand slid down the back of her neck, and caught in the waistband of her skirt. She shook her head, flinging sand from her hair, spitting it from her mouth, running her tongue over her teeth, along her gums. Then, still kneeling, she opened her eyes.
The sun was just rising. The wind had turned and was blowing hard offshore. She’d heard laughter in the night. It had been far away, coming in across the water or drifting from the other end of the road. Now there was no one. As far as she could see there was no one anywhere. But surely the shops would open, and the cafés above the beach with their tables set beneath colored awnings. People would come. She couldn’t leave anything here. She would need to be clean.
She looked out at the water. Small waves were suspended in the powerful wind, blown hollow, their peaks torn off before they fell to the sand with a crushing sound. She walked down the steep beach to the water, where she raised her skirt and slipped her feet into the foam lit white against the black sand. It stung where the glass had sliced her right heel, where the wire had cut her left ankle.
She liked the stinging because it was sharp.
The salt will prevent infection, her mother said.
She liked her feet against the rough sand and the way the water pulled the sand from beneath her feet. She watched the waves coming in again and again and again. She leaned back into the wind and waited to decide.
She did not know how to decide. She’d come to this point. That was undeniable. She was here, while before she’d been somewhere else. She’d come here by deciding. She could not remember how she’d decided. Or even the moment of decision or the consideration. But she must have. Logic insisted. Still, now she did not know how to decide. So she waited. And when the sun had been up over the low hills for a few minutes and already, this early, she could feel the heat of it, she decided to stay.
Yes. She’d stop here.
Perhaps it was because of the water on her feet. Perhaps it was because she was tired.
Look, her mother said. Look at the sparkling water. Look at the color. The sun in the sky, the orange morning, all of it evidence of intervention, everything, all of it, a convergence, the will of God.
And this ugly yellow dog?
Jacqueline watched as it passed by on the road above, clicking its nails along the sidewalk, tongue lolling out. What? He is also God?
Her mother only smiled and looked away.
Jacqueline returned to her camp. She shook the sand from the blanket and folded it in half, then into quarters. She slid the square into the thin white grocery bag and smoothed the plastic flat and gathered it together and turned it three times before tying a loose knot. She fit it into her pack. She leaned against the wall with the sun on her face and brushed the sand from her feet and slipped them into her sandals.
The tide was going out, leaving behind pools of clear water and small spits of wet black sand. She climbed up onto the rocks and followed them away from the wide beach. It only took a few minutes before she could no longer see the stretch of hotels behind her.
She was looking for a place to live.
She hadn’t thought about it this way when she’d pulled her skirt to her knees and walked through the water around the dark and giant outcropping. But that’s what it amounted to.
There were many caves in the rock, but all too low. They’d take on water with the rising tide. But she could see they were deep, and soon she found one above the sand at the very back of a beach like a long tongue with its tip pressed flush against the edge of the dark cliff. She climbed up the rocks to just below the entrance and looked down at the sand still shining. The mouth of the cave, only a few feet above her now, pronounced not an O, but an M. Three pale swallows rested on its bottom lip, a narrow ledge of rock.
You must be careful, her mother said. To break an ankle would be to destroy your life. Better to fall and crack your skull open and die.
Jacqueline made her way to the edge of the cave. The birds screamed and flew off to a nearby boulder, where they stood and watched her.
She swung her pack up harder than she’d meant to. It skidded across the floor and vanished into the darkness. Then she brought her body up onto the ledge. This was the only move, a step, two steps, that posed any threat. The rock was damp and not quite flat. Her right foot, which would require all of her weight, could slip out from under her and if that happened she would fall.
Her foot held. She leaned forward onto her hands and drew herself into the cave. She turned and sat and looked out from the shadows at the sea. She was lightheaded and felt for a long moment that she might lose consciousness. She slid deeper into the cool cave, so that only her feet were in the sun.
She smelled crushed ginger in a hot, dry pan.
Hours passed and it was late afternoon when she woke. She would have to eat. It was no longer possible to ignore it. She was nauseated and weak and cold. Sunlight cut deeper into the cave. She’d been sleeping on her back, but now rolled onto her stomach and turned so that she faced the sea. She rested her chin on her interlaced fingers. She watched the tide coming in, swallowing the narrow beach. The light was turning soft and for the smallest moment it reminded her of the yellow sand at Robertsport. But now there was only her body. There was nothing left for memory except for the memory of food. She might have fallen back to sleep if not for the nausea and her cramping stomach.
But you must not sleep, her mother said.
Jacqueline knew this problem.
Your mind knows you need food, but your body has abandoned the idea. This is when you must eat. It is your last chance. When your mind agrees with your body, you will die.
In a park in Alicante, she’d heard stories from three Tunisian women. Stories of people falling asleep in northern cities. Fall asleep in the cold and you die of cold, they said. They told her about drunken men who pissed...
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