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“Enough”: a short story by Philip Gourevitch

This was what he did when he felt like a failure: he withdrew. Erika said he withdrew into himself. He said, No - his self was no refuge. He understood what she meant, of course, the figure of speech. But when he felt like a failure he could not accept that anyone might understand him. That would contradict his despair. He didn't want to see anyone and he didn't want to be seen and so he made himself unsightly: he drank a great deal and slept very little and gave up on grooming and laundry. He did not want to talk to anyone. He spoke only when he felt he had to, and the speech came in brief bitter outbursts that surprised him and gave him no relief.

He said things like, "No, no - don't console me. Don't even try. It's pointless. Don't dare. Please, don't patronise. You cannot understand. You can't relate. You will only make it worse. Your consolation is anathema to me. Don't protest. This has nothing to do with you. I'm sure your consolation is excellent, and your sincerity first rate. I just don't want it - not yours, not anybody's. Isn't that obvious? Is it so outrageous to be unconsolable? Is it such an affront? Does my affliction afflict you? Please don't forgive me. I make no apologies. And I blame nobody. I have nobody but myself to blame. Do you hear me? Nobody but myself. I know this makes me intolerable. Please don't tolerate me."

So talking was useless; and he withdrew further into his private squalor, the black mood that had its reasons but quickly grew beyond them to become its own all-encompassing unreason.

There were times when feeling so bad could feel pretty good. He didn't deny the perverse tremors of pleasure that came from wallowing
in the murk of his soul, with language running riot in his head, until the din of his flailing being drowned out the wars that were his livelihood. That's what he had done with his years: he went to the wars, and he went through them, and he wrote about them, and he got praised for it, because he was good at it. He was uncommonly successful, he liked to say, at being the sort of failure who needed armies clashing around him to forget about himself and find his equilibrium.

In the beginning, he'd gone to war out of curiosity. He had wanted to see for himself. He did not like what he saw, but he liked having seen it, and he liked telling the stories. He kept getting prizes, but his stories made no difference. The wars just kept on going, and there was always
a new one, and then another. He saw that his work was futile, and his work was his life. Why write about things that nobody should ever have to know? He despised war and he could not live without it, and for this reason, when he lost perspective - or was it when he gained it? - he despised himself.

There always came a point, in his times of withdrawal, when he noticed that he'd started writing again. Writing helped. It came in small fragments at first, half-formed thoughts that gradually fit together into a coherent mood - that is, a mood he could inhabit. In this way, painstakingly, he wrote himself back into existence again, and when he recovered the ability to feel happily oblivious and insignificant in the sweep of larger forces, he did not worry about annihilation and he went back to work, back to war, doing the thing he was good at. Words got him into trouble, and words got him out of trouble.

This time, the first phrase he wrote that gave him a way out was just six words: "Self-loathing or narcissism - what's the difference?" According to the habits of his mind, that question was the strongest possible argument against his feelings of failure. A day or two later, he wrote, "Narcissists should be shot," and it occurred to him that if he were to shoot himself that would make a very funny suicide note. It felt good to laugh.

He asked Erika, "Should I be shot?" She said, "Whatever makes you happy." He thought that was funny, too, but he could see she wasn't joking. He had succeeded in making her sick of him. He began to hate himself anew. He could not withdraw further without leaving, so he left.

“You're leaving me," she said, and he said, No. Then he said, "But I'm not doing you any good staying." And she said, No. Then she said again, "You're leaving me."

He waited for her to cry, but she didn't, and that made him want to stay, but he didn't.

She said, "Goodbye, Jerry."

He said, "I'll write to you."

A few wars ago, during a firefight, a photographer friend gave him the keys to a house on an island in the Hebrides. "Just an old pile of stones on the seashore really," the photographer who gave him the keys said, "but if I don't make it, it's all yours." When the shooting was over the photographer said, "You saved my life. Giving you those keys made me feel free to die, so there was no point in anyone killing me. Does that make sense?"

“No," Jerry said. "Well - yes and no."

In the next war, the photographer was blown up, and Jerry inherited the stone house. He had never been to see it until now. It was just one room, with a few windows, running water and a stove. The whole island was similarly austere. There was a distillery and a shop, but most of the people had fled to America more than a century ago when they ran out of food. There were just 143 residents left. Jerry wasn't interested in them, which was convenient, since none of them lived near his house.

The sea was right there. The sky was right there. Behind the house, the land was peat and grass that lifted towards a distant horizon. There was nothing else there, no trees, no houses, just sky, sea, grass, peat.

Jerry kept his word to Erika. He wrote to her every day. But he had always written about people; now there were no people, and he didn't want to write about himself. So he decided he would write only what he saw.

“My dear," he wrote. "The great blue heron comes in from the south, dropping over the pier in a steadily slowing swoop, unflapping, coasting on arched wings, lowering his awkward bulk in imperceptible increments until he's skimming the glassy low-tide shallows so closely that his silhouette appears about to merge with his reflection. Suddenly his wings jerk back, and for a moment he is standing upright in the air. Then the wings drop, and he drops with them. He takes a few stiff-legged steps in the kelp beds at the water's edge. He freezes. He waits for his prey to come to him. Now he's strutting, crouching, in pursuit of some minnow. This is how the story will end - with a kill."

He wrote again. This time, he said, "My darling, the sky is forty shades of grey and the sea just lightly crinkled - a stillness composed of uncountable gentle movements."

Once, at dusk, he wrote without a salutation, "A half-dozen wild goats stand silhouetted on the rocks at the tip of the island at the mouth
of the bay. A half-dozen gannets are in the air, knifing high above the chop, flipping sideways, tucking and diving. I read somewhere that the skeletons of gannets are like those of rodeo riders, broken shoulders, broken ribs, but from where I sit I know only that the high splash of impact blows to foam behind them."

He no longer felt the need to address Erika directly. He no longer felt the need to account for himself. It was enough to record what was outside him. Some days, he wrote several pages, and on some days only a single sentence. One day he wrote: "I can see for miles and miles and miles without interruption - and interruption is the enemy of mind."

The next day he wrote, "The entire vast view is socked in fog, a fine drizzling mist, the sky a solid blanket the bright blue-grey of skim-milk." That was it.

A week later, he wrote: "The drizzle-dark skies are gashed with blue, and the light showering through the gashes flames off the lighthouse-keeper's whitewashed cottage on the far hook of Lowlandman's Bay. Every afternoon, when the sun swings west and comes from behind me, splashing over my view, there are rainbows. Some are perfect sky-high arches, some are low and almost horizontal, some are pillars of candy-coloured light, and some are just slices of prismed air - scraps of rainbow hanging in the mist. Sometimes they are near and sometimes far off, sometimes solid-looking, sometimes entirely transparent. Sometimes they hang like the curtains of rain falling from a single cloud on an otherwise rainless day."

And later that day, he wrote: "Now this is the whipping, bright, amplified light that pilots call severe clear, light that lifts the colours and distils them and makes them absurd with gleaming exaggerated perfection. In this light a pair of swans on the grey hard sand at the water's edge is doing a mating dance. An odd ritual - they stand about a yard apart, at 90 degrees to one another, and at the same moment, in response to no discernible signal, they lower their heads abruptly to barely half an inch above the ground. Their long necks dip and curve, thrust out so that their whole bodies, from tail to beak, form the shape of a tipped-over S. It's a pose of high formality - like a pinkie extended from a dainty teacup. Then, all at once, the necks rise and lift and reach up to full extension, pointing straight into the sky, beaks aimed high and nearly but not quite touching one another. They quiver there, then collapse, waddle one step closer together, and repeat the whole business. It is impossible to imagine what their bird brains are going through in the course of this drill. They look devoutly unexcited. And yet, my dear, there are enough swans around to indicate that it works."

The words "my dear" had come to him naturally, without thought. He had felt happy writing them, but having written them soon made him unhappy. At night he could not sleep until he got out of bed and drew a line through them.

He had kept his word to Erika. He had written to her every day. He was aware of her when he wrote. He felt that he was addressing her. But, beyond that, he never thought of her, and he never sent her what he wrote.

After a month on the island, he packed his bag to return to the wars. That night, he wrote, "I have been as close here to feeling free of restlessness as I ever get. Now it's dark. It's entirely still and quiet. In the morning I'll be gone, and all this will always be here."

He did not go in the morning, and when he realised he was not going he wrote, "The wars, too, will always be here." He felt he was once again his own master. When he quit the island a day later, he did not take the notebook with his writings. Erika found it there the next year, after he was shot, when she came to see the house he'd left to her. The last thing he'd written was, "Enough."

Philip Gourevitch is the editor of the Paris Review. His most recent book, "Standard Operating Procedure", was a joint investigation into Abu Ghraib with the Oscar-winning film-maker Errol Morris

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: The Lost War