Red Bird Rising

Becca drops her announcement into the conversation casually. “So… I met someone and it’s looking pretty serious so far.”

She is sitting at a long table in the party room of the Hasidic shteeble near her childhood home, the small synagogue that her parents, creatures of habit that they are, still attend. Her father prays in the old shul three times a day but also likes to schmooze politics and business with the men; her mother attends services on Shabbos and holidays and finds some measure of peace murmuring psalms from her tattered Tehillim. Becca is surrounded by the smells of her youth: the tang of gefilte fish, the must of yellowing tomes and the mildew of unwashed woolen prayer shawls, and by family members and their various extensions: sisters, brothers-in-law, nieces, nephews. Her parents. They are gathered to celebrate the bris of Becca’s sister’s first grandson. (Becca still has difficulty wrapping her head around the fact that she is, at age thirty-two, attending the circumcision feast of her great-nephew!)

Becca believes she’d murmured her news privately to the sister sitting nearest her, and so is taken aback by the silence that greets her pronouncement. Becca’s father eyes her mistrustfully.

Becca is to blame for the inordinate amount of time their mother spends on a therapist’s couch and for the startling amount of silver in their father’s beard. Becca is single-handedly hammering the final nail into his coffin.

“Nu, Rivky. So who’s the latest catch this time?” He insists on calling her by the name he’d bestowed upon her at birth, on these increasingly rare occasions when he deems the exchange important enough to actually address his daughter directly, without shifting his eyes uncomfortably away from the unholy ervah that is Becca’s hair, her elbows. The impurity that is his daughter. “Is he even Jewish?”

During the course of the evening, Becca’s family learns her new boyfriend’s name (Paul); what he does for a living (attorney); that yes, he most certainly is Jewish even with a name like that (and the grandson of Auschwitz survivors—because that little nugget tends to seal in authenticity like nothing else); that they met on JDate, and yes, that means she dates online which means on a computer, yes exactly that kind of crazy meshugas; that he’d grown up strictly Orthodox frum and attended yeshiva just like Becca and now no longer considers himself observant.

Just like Becca.

The family is unprepared for this last revelation. It is one of those glaring truths of which everyone is acutely aware but works really hard to ignore.

*     *     *

Some weeks later.

Becca answers her youngest sister’s call apprehensively. The caller ID flashes “Sara Leah” but she knows her other three sisters are conferencing in. The group call begins as an intervention of sorts.

“Bec, we’re calling because we all agree” (something new there, Becca muses) “that you’re intent on making Mommy and Tatty ill.” (Nothing new there. Surprise, surprise.)

The sisters all begin to talk over one another. Becca, pacing in the galley kitchen of the apartment she shares with her new fiancé Paul and her two-nights-a-week-and-every-other-weekend son Ari, puts the call on speaker and lets Paul listen in. It’s easier than trying to find the words to explain her family’s dysfunction, the unclouded contempt that erupts from them when faced with the agnosticism of one of their own. Their voices are jumbled, and all four are shouting over one another in a loud bid to be heard first. Angry fragments filter through the speakerphone: “…frumkeit means nothing…” “…not observant, unbelievable…” “…what about Ari…” “…what kind of example for your son…” “…a shiksa now…” “…marrying a goy…” “…killing us slowly…” “…a shanda, shameful…” and so on.

The message becomes clear: Becca is self-centered and arrogant. Becca is difficult and ungrateful. Becca is a terrible daughter and an even worse mother who thinks of no one but herself. Becca must surely be on drugs because why else would she behave this way. Becca is responsible for their parents’ anxiety, high blood pressure, and cholesterol. Becca is to blame for the inordinate amount of time their mother spends on a therapist’s couch and for the startling amount of silver in their father’s beard. Becca is single-handedly hammering the final nail into his coffin.

“We thought you should know how we all feel. And just so this doesn’t come as a surprise, we thought it only right to tell you that Tatty called each of us separately and forbade us to come to your wedding.”

In a remote recess of Becca’s reeling brain she is able to think, Forbade you? Are you nine or are you all married women with husbands and kids and mortgages? Actually, scratch the mortgage part—all her sisters are still dependent on their father’s financial support because their husbands are “learning,” i.e., warming a bench in a yeshiva for young married men and not making a living, and their families are hard pressed to make ends meet on a teacher’s or secretary’s salary. So yes, it actually makes perfect sense to Becca that each sister has branded herself Tatty’s champion and waves his banner furiously before the charge.

And in a separate corner of her mind lurks her ultimate fear: Now that Paul’s seen my hideous skeletons, he’ll run for the hills.

Years of practice have made Becca adept at compartmentalizing her thoughts and keeping them hidden deep.

*     *     *

Some weeks later.

Becca is called in for a parent-teacher conference. It is an unusual time for a conference, given that her middle-school son is nearing the end of a remarkably productive school year, all things considered. This is a golden son, a hard-fought-and-lost son, a son who’d been unceremoniously dropped back into Becca’s life by his indifferent father who’d swiftly lost interest in the daily grind of parenting. A son who remains the epicenter of his mother’s existence. This is Ari, whose response to Becca’s cautious coming-out of the religion closet had been a flustered, “You mean like, you eat like, pork and stuff?” and “You mean, like you drive on Shabbos, like in a car? Things like that?” He’d briefly mulled over this new version of his mother before regaining his composure, then hugged her and said, “I’ve never seen you as happy as you are with Paul. So that’s the most important thing to me, Ma. That you’re happy.” This is Ari, whose teacher now wishes to speak most urgently with Becca.

Between one heartbeat and the next Becca feels the blood drain from her cheeks; breathing is something she suddenly needs to remember how to do.

Rabbi Goldblatt is waiting for her in the yeshiva’s office, surrounded by black-hatted teenage boys all talking with their hands, all talking at once, ritual fringed tzitzis swaying from their belts. He shoos them out of the room and waves her into a chair opposite him.

“I hope you don’t mind the hasty nature of this meeting, Rebecca—may I call you Rebecca? …As I mentioned on the phone, there is no need to worry about Ari, he’s doing just fine. He’s not aware that I’ve called you in.” He hesitates.

Becca’s anxiety trickles down her back into the waistband of her skirt. She manages a cautious half smile. “Please. I’m listening.”

Rabbi Goldblatt seems a decent sort. This past year, all of their interactions on behalf of her boy had revealed a sympathetic person whose emotional intelligence, to Becca’s surprise and relief, consistently matched his scholarly aptitude. Today, however, the rabbi seems discomfited.

“Someone came to visit me recently. Um, this is awkward to say the least.” He clears his throat. “It was your father. Ari’s grandfather.” Becca feels her windpipe closing. Rabbi Goldblatt continues haltingly.

“He seemed to think it his urgent duty to warn me. To warn me that Ari’s continued exposure to you, his mother, would be catastrophic for the boy’s spiritual health.” He stops, catching Becca’s eye. She believes she sees compassion brimming in him.

“It was a highly unusual conversation. Quite difficult. But I imagine it’s far more difficult for you to hear this than it was for me. Shall I continue?”

Becca nods silently, adrift. She listens as if from a distance.

“Your father told me things I had no right to hear. Things about you. Things… I did not need to know. He felt he was safeguarding his grandchild by exposing you, or should I say branding you as an unfit mother. He…well, he believes you’re corrupting your son. He said your home is not kosher, and—actually he said quite vociferously that…that you blatantly desecrate—that you’re mechalel Shabbos…” Rabbi Goldblatt exhales quickly, clearly unsettled by his role in this particular play.

Rivky loves to read Victorian novels and in this pursuit often bumps up against phrases that describe various ways one may suffer from, or actually die of, a broken heart.

“Listen, Rebecca. I know you as Ari’s mother. You’ve always shown yourself to be a mensch, a good person, a good mother…even so, it’s none of my business, you see? I’m not the judge of you.

But your father is telling us…telling everyone that you’re marrying a man who’s practically a shaygetz and that it’s my duty, my duty as Ari’s rebbe and mechanech, as his spiritual advisor, to ensure that you don’t corrupt the boy further.”

Rabbi Goldblatt’s forehead is shiny with sweat, with the effort of playing referee in the midst of a melee. “Your father,” he resumes loudly, “is portraying his own daughter as a shiksa who doesn’t deserve to raise her own son! I’m sorry, but none of this is my business, first of all, and second of all,” the rabbi pauses, the energy gone from him. “I just—I just think you deserve to know what’s going on behind your back.”

Maybe his voice trails off or maybe Becca stops listening. Between one heartbeat and the next Becca feels the blood drain from her cheeks; breathing is something she suddenly needs to remember how to do. Clouds of déjà vu settle in her memory. Her father, she is forced to admit, is indeed capable of such cruelty. Her father, her Tevye, who rails against the rebellion of a daughter. Her father, her not-Tevye, her father who is unable to eventually come around, like Tevye, to tolerate what he cannot control. In the name of God, religion, and faith, Becca’s father takes no prisoners.

*     *     *

Some years earlier.

Becca is not Becca yet. She is still Rivky, still a slender eight, still eleven and whip-smart, still a coltish fourteen, still fearful of her father, of rabbis, of Yom Kippur the awesome Day of Judgment, of enumerating all the myriad sins of the year that’s passed and klopping al chayt, beating her chest with a closed fist as she recites rivers of tears in shul, her youthful back bent to the sorrow and guilt of one much, much older and hardened to the world.

She is still Rivky, she is twenty-two, and she is leaving her young husband. She wants to explore the outside and change her name and wear blue jeans and fling the shaitel from her head and grow her own hair back and inhabit the world fully, and the only way to do this is through divorce. Rivky expects an angry husband, a husband who will marshal the resources of family and community to keep her home, keep her covered, keep her hidden, keep her obedient. But she is unprepared for the summons to her father’s office. She is unprepared to be peppered with questions, with accusations, from bearded big-bellied men sitting, watching, hovering from their seats in a semi-circle as Rivky, unprepared, stands before them, trembling and terrified and stripped naked in front of the questions, the questions, the insinuations of slut, the censure, the sins.

Rivky floats away from her body, her body that stands like a target. She watches herself from afar.

“Where did you go late at night last week? Who were you with?” Rivky worries a thread at her hem and sees her skirt unraveling, unraveling, until there is no more skirt…

“Do you go to the movies in secret? Do you check out filthy goyish books from the library?” Rivky breathes in the light as the sleeves of her jacket slip off her arms…

“Do you spoil your holy body with treif food from treif restaurants?” Rivky’s shaitel, made of someone else’s hair, slides back from her head, exposing the uneven shaved stubble on her scalp, and drops whispering to the floor…

“Do you corrupt your soul with indecent goyish music? Do you turn on the lights on Shabbos?” Rivky watches her blouse fall from her shoulders and gather in soft folds at her feet…

“Do you dip in the mikvah after you menstruate to be permitted to your husband? As the Torah commands?” Rivky’s opaque tights are suddenly sheer, showing her legs…

“Are you a lesbian? Are you an adulteress? Have you had forbidden relations outside of the sanctity of your marriage?” Rivky’s bra and panties are visible to all the men in the room. She is undressed, she is visible, to all the men in the room.

And so the bearded men, her father’s friends, her father sitting amongst them, decide that Rivky is unfit to mother her toddler son, because every month she insists on wearing tampons while going for her Shabbos walks which, her concerned husband worries, could be construed as carrying, which could be interpreted as violating the laws of the holy Sabbath. They consider her unfit because she was once seen stepping out of a McDonald’s (a McDonald’s!!!) with a cup of coffee, which could only mean she was blatantly flouting the laws of kashrus. They deem her unfit because she’d recently attended a nursery school orientation for her son, after which the menahel hastily phoned her father to say he was very sorry to do this to a man who is such a pillar of the community, BUT. Your daughter, the mother of the little boy Ari, does not belong in our school. The young woman is immodest, her wig is long. The young woman stands out, her skirts are modish. The young woman is noticeable, indecorous, visible.

The tribunal of bearded men is not yet done with Rivky. They decide as well that she must leave the community and that it is best for Rivky’s husband to raise the boy. Never mind that each of these men has a separate feud, over money or shul politics, with Rivky’s husband. Still. He is the one best suited, they believe, to raise Ari up as a respectable member of the Hasidic community. Much like themselves.

Rivky loves to read Victorian novels and in this pursuit often bumps up against phrases that describe various ways one may suffer from, or actually die of, a broken heart. In this moment, listening to the panel of rabbis sitting in judgment of her, deciding her fate—in this moment, facing the loss of her child, her family, her friends, all of life as she knows it—only in this moment does Rivky understand “broken heart.” She pushes the shame and the rage and the humiliation down, down into a deep place where she will try to forget, and be forgiven.

It is decided. Rivky becomes outcast.

Rivky becomes Becca.

*     *     *

Becoming Becca means leave-taking, means reinventing, means self-immolating. Becca means to fight her way out of her rigid, glistening chrysalis. She digests the worm that is her self and from the soup she pulls her eyes, newly sighted, and wings, antennae. Becoming Becca means flying, means running, means rounding corner after cutting corner, means slamming. Slamming doors that shut fast on the past and open up to poetry and song. She wrenches words from somewhere deep. Words explode onto her page, words burst from her lips. Words buried in vaults, words hidden in hollows of shame, words that air the soil of secrets to the cleansing light of day. Words that reignite her mother’s distress, her father’s wrath, her sisters’ rage, disappointment and dishonor all around. Becca writes lyrics to rap songs, staccato punches that reverberate with anger, sorrow, truth. She writes poems of anguish and celebration. She slams in dark dodgy East Village basements. She writes torch songs that fuse the fiction of her imagination and the reality of her torn, almost beautiful life. She sings in Bowery lounges that stink of beer and the press of flesh. She sings, she tests her brand new wings. She writes. She writes like she’s running out of time, like she’s Alexander Hamilton reimagining her country from the ground zero up. Becca builds a world. She puts the pieces of the broken one back together. She is mother. She is partner. She is nightingale. She is red bird rising, leaving ashes at her feet.

*     *     *

Sometime here and now.

Becca knows enough about fetal ultrasounds to note the absence of a tiny heartbeat. She is almost seven weeks pregnant, or she was, until this morning’s bloody flush in the toilet. The doctor explains to Becca and Paul about gestational sacs and embryonic poles and fetal viability and then schedules a D&C. He leaves and softly closes the door to the examination room to give them space to begin the grieving process. It is three months before their wedding; it is Ari’s twelfth birthday; it is the day after Yom Kippur.

Becca thinks that the timing of her miscarriage, exactly a year before her son’s bar mitzvah and directly following the Day of Atonement, is significant. She is wracked with grief and guilt. She begins to venture down the rabbit hole. Maybe her family is right. Maybe she truly is unfit for motherhood. See, she cannot even sustain a viable pregnancy after leaving her roots behind. Maybe she is indeed uprooted, unmoored, a waif in the wind at the mercy of the elements, with no Torah, no tradition, to anchor her. Becca resolves to visit her father to make amends, but she is paralyzed by fear. She is in no shape to be in the same room as her father, let alone confront him. Paul steps up.

“Why don’t I meet with him? You know, man to man. I can make him see how special you are, I can convince him that he’s missing out on his own family.”

 

Becca and Ruchi have a long history of laughter, secrets, tears, and hushed whispers. Back when Becca still answered to Rivky and Ruchi’s close-shaven scalp still sprouted brunette strands, the two were inseparable on summer nights out on Ruchi’s parents’ back porch.

 

Becca starts to interrupt him—“He’ll eat you alive!” but Paul calms her.

“I don’t have a history with him like you do. He doesn’t affect me the same way. I’m sure he’ll come around to me.” Becca is comforted by this proposal. Paul is good in the living room, like Jerry Maguire; he has a gift for getting people to buy what he’s selling. She is heartened by the notion that Paul’s natural dignity, his reasonable lawyer’s mien, his cool head, will prevail.

Within a few days, Paul meets with his future father-in-law in Becca’s childhood living room. They talk. (Or, as Paul recounts to Becca afterward, Tatty talks and Paul takes a beating.) To every one of Paul’s explanations of misunderstanding, to each of his protestations of innocence, to all of his avowals of Becca’s virtue, her gutzkeit, Becca’s father puts forth arguments of ancient Talmudic law, imagining justice being meted out as if they are living in the Second Temple era, as if Paul is actually a Gentile and not, in fact, a Jew born and bred.

“If we were living during the time of the Beis Hamikdosh, do you know Rivky would be sentenced to death by skilah! Yes, stoning—don’t look so shocked. Because she’s like the Gemara describes, a ben soyrer umoyreh, a rebellious child. Doesn’t heed her parents’ discipline. And because she’s mechalel Shabbes. And as her father, I would be responsible for being the first to push her off the cliff!”

“You know Paul, you seem like a nice person, but—maybe not such a good yid, you know… And for the life of me I can’t understand why you would want to marry Rivky—but in any event I’m not permitted to allow you sit at my Shabbes table, because then the wine would be considered yayin nesech, tainted, contaminated.”

Paul notices he is being lectured. He is highly educated in Talmudic law from his own yeshiva days and recognizes the fallacies inherent in the arguments so passionately put to him by Becca’s father. But this is beside the point.

Eventually the Holocaust makes an appearance and wraps up the session. “It’s not enough about our families—Rivky’s grandparents, my aunts and uncles and cousins… It’s not enough how we suffered at the hands of the Nazis? People died because they refused to give up Shabbes, my parents in the camps didn’t give themselves a heter, an exemption, to eat treif, they didn’t allow themselves to make excuses to eat non-kosher…and they had the biggest excuse of all! And my own daughter? Who I had such high hopes for? Mein eigene tochter, she turns her back. Such beeshes heaped on our heads… Such humiliation. Mommy and I can’t talk to our neighbors, we mamesh can’t even walk in the street…”

And practically in the same breath: “But I’m always ready to forgive her. I’m waiting for Rivky to come to her senses and leave all this foolishness—all these shtisim behind. Tell her I’m waiting for her to come back and be part of the mishpucha again. If she behaves the way she’s supposed to, the way she was taught. She knows—she was raised in my house! She knows exactly what needs to be done. The basics. Nu, genik shoyn mit di narishkeit. This madness has gone on long enough. Tell her I’m waiting.”

At this last, Paul silently thanks whatever angel of a filter he possesses for not allowing the news of Becca’s miscarriage (and of course, her illicit pre-marital pregnancy) to escape him today. But this is beside the point as well. The point is Becca and Paul now recognize they must sever ties with her delusional parent if they intend to fashion a healthy life for themselves and their future family.

*     *     *

Some weeks before Becca marries Paul.

Becca glances at the handwritten sign in Hebrew and Yiddish announcing this is a house of mourning. She gently eases open the door to the women’s entrance and steps inside. Her old friend Ruchi, now a prominent rabbi’s wife herself, sits in a low chair close to the ground, her head bound with a black satin tichel wrapped tightly, revealing the one-inch band of synthetic hair that is her shpitzel, her blouse torn at the neck to reveal a modest black shell. Ruchi is surrounded by her mother the rebbetzin and her sisters, all sitting in similar low chairs. All their blouses are torn. All their heads are bound. There is a steady murmur of women’s voices, women who are there to comfort the bereaved among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, as the traditional blessing says.

Becca and Ruchi have a long history of laughter, secrets, tears, and hushed whispers. Back when Becca still answered to Rivky and Ruchi’s close-shaven scalp still sprouted brunette strands, the two were inseparable on summer nights out on Ruchi’s parents’ back porch. Their favorite game was “What If,” a rich springboard for their delirious girlish fantasies and dreams. “What If” encompassed boys, periods, high school, goyim, parents, clothes, music, hair, and weddings and marriage (specifically, the cost-benefit ratio of the freedom of marriage to the requisite post-ceremony shearing of the kallah’s bridal hair). Many a moonlit night they passed in pursuit of these faraway notions. Ruchi remains one of the precious few who loves Rivky and Becca equally, as if they are same person. Ruchi loves Becca without looking over her shoulder to worry who’s watching them walk together down the street. Ruchi loves Becca regardless of her bare head, her exposed arms, the obvious immodesty of her wardrobe. Ruchi is able to love Becca even though their paths have diverged because Ruchi possesses an extraordinary and uncommon sense of self, a self that was forged together with Becca in the fires of adolescence and stoked into a pillar of strength by a father capable of loving her. Now, Becca returns to the friend she never lost, as radically different from each other as they appear, to console Ruchi as she sits shiva for her father.

While he was alive Ruchi’s father had been the rav of the little shul on the corner, the very shul where the family now sits shiva for their lost father, where the congregation mourns their lost leader. Every year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Rivky/Becca would feel transformed from her insides out, listening to the rav pour his soul into the davening, his prayers, she imagined vividly, rending the heavens, bypassing the angels, landing directly at Hashem’s throne. The rav was the only human being she’d ever known who could lift her neshama, her soul, out of its earthly confines and allow her spirit to soar. The High Holy Days in Ruchi’s father’s shteeble were, for Rivky back then, the height of religious ecstasy. There was no sin she could commit that would not be forgiven, no good will she could not achieve.

But that was then.

Now, Ruchi implores Becca with tears of love for her gone father, for her precious friend: “Becca. It’s time to make amends with your father. He won’t be around forever. Take a look around you—we are sitting shiva for a man we thought had so much more time. Time will cheat you, Becca. Forgive him.”

*     *     *

Ruchi’s words, their weight. Her pale tear-streaked skin and puffy pink eyes. Her sudden orphan status. All of it, swirling around in the vortex of Becca’s head. She begins to see her father, mortal and limited and not forever for this earth. She imagines him, still and silent and stone-cold, the lone inhabitant of a plain pine box. Her heart skips; she catches a breath. Becca forgets, briefly, his stance on the status of her sinner’s soul. She discounts, fleetingly, the cruelty of his discipline. She ignores, for the moment, his intractability. Becca scours the very depths of her conscience, her spirit, her perceptions of a daughter’s fidelity. After some emotional wrangling with Paul—who, after all, had been on the receiving end of a mere fraction of the whole, and admittedly tries his very best to appreciate the enormity of his fiancée’s misgivings, her ambiguity, her doubt—after arguing and shouting about pride and family and death and ego and being right and the thickness of blood, Becca ultimately secures Paul’s blessing and she finds herself, two weeks before their wedding day, at the entrance to the shteeble where her father prays. The men’s entrance. She swallows a steadying breath and pushes open the door to face a wall of white fringed talleisim, swaying and murmuring. Becca searches the front of the room and notices her father’s distinctive stoop, shrouded, swaying, his face obscured by the ceremonial silver atara wrapped across his forehead, the hum in the room and the rhythm of his swinging prayer shawl almost hypnotic in the stifling heat of the old beis medrash.

Becca gathers her courage. Her voice rings out: “Tatty!”

An abrupt hush. Dozens of tallis-draped men turn to stare in shock at the intrusion, at the woman in their sacrosanct midst. At the front of the room, directly facing the ark containing the holy Torah scrolls, a stooped figure swathed in a yellowing prayer shawl straightens perceptibly. Tatty tosses his tallis imperially over his shoulder and stands like a crowned king, the embroidered silver atara loosely framing the top of his head, the black box of his phylacteries strapped regally to his forehead, the second box of tefillin wrapped tightly around his left bicep, the straps digging deep into his left forearm, marking him indelibly as a man, an observant man, a man of God. Becca, habitually relegated to the world of women across the mechitzah, the opaque divider that separates the sexes, has rarely, if ever, witnessed the glory that is her father in prayer. She gasps at the sight of this king. All it takes is this moment and his silent scowl, and Becca’s resolute intentions threaten to fall away; she is in danger of shrinking back into the little girl she’d fitfully outgrown, the little girl at the mercy of a hostile world. She is in danger of becoming once again the wayward, dissolute, impossible daughter, the intrusion, the disturbance in her father’s carefully ordered, regulated kingdom.

He opens his mouth to rebuke her. He speaks, but the words that spill from him, white-tipped with rage, crash against the sheer rock face that is the backbone of his daughter. And Becca—Becca listens, she listens, finally she listens and she heeds, after years of being told, admonished, scolded to listen, listen to elders, listen to men, listen and obey, listen, follow, observe and heed heed heed the words thrown at her, finally Becca listens to her father and what she hears sounds like a eulogy for a girl named Rivky whose small corpse lies battered, dashed from the cliff.

Tatty speaks, but Becca looks past him, past his harsh words, past his glare, past the anger he spits in her direction. She looks past the crowd of gaping men swathed in traditional prayer shawls, past the men wrapped in the suffocation of ancient things, past the men murmuring their astonishment, their strangled displeasure, past the overheated, overwrought, smothering room lined with antique tomes and threadbare siddurim, worn prayer books that had seen their share of human misery… Becca looks further, ahead, past the motes of dust swimming in banners of sudden sunlight and sees the room renewed, rows of chairs now seated with elegant wedding guests, the fashionable women chattering, glittering, the tuxedoed men smiling, nodding, the dust motes sprouting colored wings like fluttering butterflies. She sees her mother, for years torn into atoms of anguish between her husband and child, their twinned tenaciousness. Becca sees her mother there in the new room, dressed in funereal black yes, her rheumy eyes rimmed with the ghosts of many tears, yes, all of that yes, but there, there leaning on her grandson Ari’s shoulder, waiting to embrace her daughter as Becca stands, beatific, with her new husband Paul under the chuppah, luminous in white beneath the marriage canopy. Becca looks past, and peers closely at her future. She believes she can see the faint flicker of flaming red wings shimmering at her back.

 

Deborah Kahan Kolb is the author of Escape of Light (forthcoming from Finishing Line Press) and Windows and a Looking Glass (Finishing Line Press, 2017), a finalist for the New Women’s Voices Chapbook Contest. She is a recipient of the 2018 Bronx Council on the Arts BRIO Award, and her work has been selected as a finalist for the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Award and an Honorable Mention for the 2019 Glimmer Train Fiction Open. Deborah is the producer of the short poetry film Write Me. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in PRISM, Shirim, Poetica, Voices Israel, New Verse News, Literary Mama, 3Elements Review, Poets Reading the News, Paddock Review, Tuck, Rise Up Review, Writers Resist, Mom Egg Review, and Veils, Halos & Shackles, an international poetry anthology addressing the oppression and empowerment of women. You can find her at www.deborahkahankolb.com.

Vows

As you stare at the photo hanging above the fireplace, you are acutely aware of your wife in the other room, folding laundry. You wonder if she can sense this shift in your life, triggered by what just arrived for you in the mail. Though you’ve never seen her handwriting in English, as soon as you see the tiny block letters spell out your name in the English phonetic interpretation that you’ve adopted in your new country, you know. Yoona left her name off the envelope, but there is a return address. Sugar Land, Texas.

He’s got a government job, you imagine nuna telling Jihyun excitedly, as she often did when she ran into prospective suitors during your single days. As the only daughter, nuna made it somewhat of a mission to find a suitable mate for her siblings, an activity that you and your brothers regard as women’s work. You remember the day she urged you to accompany her to church.

You convince yourself that it is the impracticality of space and distance that is keeping you apart, a mere physical hindrance instead of the dictates of tradition, the expectation of a carefully curated family tree.

“We never went to church back home. Why start now?”

Don’t you know that’s where all the Korean girls are? Anyway, there’s this sweet girl I think will be good for you.”

Nuna gives you the rundown. Jihyun is twenty-two. Been in America for less than a year, by way of her older brother who owns a dry cleaning business in Chicago. The third daughter of a farming family from Nonsan City, 120 kilometers north of your hometown, where you left Yoona behind. You acquiesce. You know this is the way it works.

The last time you saw Yoona, you were sitting on the outdoor steps of the student dormitory at the private university in Gwangju, your hometown. You stare down at your lap as you tell her that hyeong, Older Brother, is able to bring you to America. “After everything,” she says, “you are just going to leave?” You think about the events of the past spring. Storming the city square, Yoona’s hand in yours, high on the sense of solidarity, the knowledge of doing something big, as you joined your fellow students and townsfolk, chanting, singing, Ari-Ari-Rang. Then the bullets. The screams. She must know that it is not safe to stay, that you cannot pass up the opportunity to start a life in America. You want to tell her that you will take her with you, that you will wait for her. Instead you reach for her palm, silently communicating that you had tried, that if the world wasn’t the way it was, you would be asking her to be your wife.

“I won’t allow it,” Ahbuhjee said when he learned of your plans to ask for Yoona’s hand. “A daughter of a divorcé is not suitable for our family.” You can’t imagine living a life separate from her while existing in the same space, knowing that even if you were to run to the opposite corner of the country, she would still be just a few hours drive away. And so you decide to leave. You convince yourself that it is the impracticality of space and distance that is keeping you apart, a mere physical hindrance instead of the dictates of tradition, the expectation of a carefully curated family tree.

After five years of marriage, your dinnertime conversation still resembles that of two strangers at a party, forced into awkward small talk because they don’t know anyone besides the host.

Jihyun is a good wife. She excels at making your favorite food from back home. Every day when you come home from work the table is already set with a steaming bowl of sticky rice and soondubu or some other jjigae, the broth still bubbling in the claypot. Or, if the weather is nice enough to open the windows, samgyeopsal, thick, slick slices of pork belly, grilled right on the table and wrapped in romaine picked from the garden. Once a month, she takes a giant steel basin outside to make kimchi, squatting on the concrete patio in the backyard of your suburban home, kneading salt and gochujang into the cabbage leaves.

After five years of marriage, your dinnertime conversation still resembles that of two strangers at a party, forced into awkward small talk because they don’t know anyone besides the host. How was work? How was your day? The food is delicious. As soon as you finish your last bite, you stand up, go to the living room to watch the news as she clears the dishes, washes them by hand even though you have a working dishwasher.

The photo that hangs above the fireplace is a candid shot from your wedding day, the two of you facing each other against the blurred backdrop of the church’s altar. Neither of you are smiling, as if in deep reverence of the words of God being expressed through the pastor. But you know the real reason. For her, because the flowers are late, and for you, the overwhelming clamor of the mantra you’ve been reciting in your head since that day you first set eyes on the woman standing before you. She is not Yoona, but you can learn to love her.

You shove the letter into your briefcase, taking extra care to jumble the numbers on the combination lock. You plan to read it in your car tomorrow, in the safety of the parking lot of your office. You know Jihyun will not sense anything out of the ordinary, for perhaps the letter did not change anything at all. For you always knew what you would do if this day were to come, the day where one of you traversed an entire ocean to bridge the space that had been keeping you apart. You knew this before you hid the letter in the briefcase, before you slipped the ring on Jihyun’s finger, before you boarded the plane nine years ago onto the twelve-hour flight that would bring you to where you are now.

 

Dhaea Kang is a singer-songwriter and emerging fiction writer from Chicago, IL. She has been dealing with her seemingly endless songwriter’s block by channeling her energy into writing stories.

When Light Is Put Away

Mr. Edwards calls me out tonight. He found another first-calf heifer in distress. The third one in as many years, bleeding and panting, eyes rolled back to whites under his flashlight. I sit on the porch steps putting on my mudders, cursing my stubborn joints, already knowing the likely outcome. Even so, I don’t dally. I don’t even bother locking the place up. Ain’t no one coming all the way out here to do me harm. Especially when I keep the place lit up like I do. Folks have accused me of doing it on account of being an old lady living out here alone. But I’ve never been afraid of country living. Now my girl, she was always foolish afraid of the dark, so leaving these lights on is my way of showing her I’m still right here.

I haven’t been practicing in years, but Mr. Edwards don’t like to call the new vet if he can help it. The new vet lives closer to town and has a new wife, both obstacles to swiftness even in daylight. But at 2 a.m., when cold darkness turns seconds into eternities, that’s too long to wait when he can see the calf halfway born and my light is on anyhow.

On my way out to my truck, I can hear coyotes yip-howling. My girl used to feed them ever so often if my hand wasn’t around to stop her. I’d try to reason with her how feeding wild animals just gets them killed. Either they stop fearing people like they should, or they stop knowing how to take care of their own. No matter the way, it destines them for unnecessary suffering. She was gone not long after we had words about it last, so I can’t argue no more with her now. It’s been near eight months since the last time she took meat out to the tree line. By the sound of it, the pack has pups now.

I did things the right way, and in the end, I didn’t make excuses. The weak ones never survive in the wild. Nature sees to that, one way or another.

Inside my truck, it smells of stale cigarettes. I never smoked, but my girl liked to show me she could be different than I thought her. The metal ashtray is full of her butts, pink lipstick stained. Never could tell if she took it up on account of pressure from others, or to look harder than she was, but I was never fooled. Mothers never are; we know the nature of our children. I check to make sure I have my bag, though Mr. Edwards should be prepared. I tap the rifle mounted behind my head like I do every time I get behind the wheel. I turn the keys in the ignition. The engine grumbles at the late hour, but she runs.

*     *     *

At the farm, I can see the figure of Mr. Edwards hunched over in the distance. The muck sucks at my boots and I have to be deliberate to keep my balance. I don’t look around, but I can feel animal eyes follow my path. At my heels is a yellow barn cat. I click my tongue to draw it closer and offer a quick scratch. It considers me, but scatters away from my hand when I bend for it. Cats have some of the best instincts if you ask me. My girl never did care for cats after her own ate three of her kittens. I tried to warn her. She’d been inviting her friends after school to peek and poke at the litter. Momma cats will eat them babies before she’ll let nasty strangers get at ‘em. It’s their God-given instinct. But my girl never would listen to me, even when I was trying to keep her from hurt.

When I was young, I didn’t mind the night work. Now, trudging in the dark field, I wish these farmers would stop calling me, but I know they won’t. Not until they’re dead or moved out. After that, I’ll watch the farms get sold off to men with bank accounts big enough to parcel the land into tiny squares of empty promise and open floor plans. I’ll sit on my porch in a rocking chair with a rifle, and keep them at bay until I’m dead, too. Ain’t no one desecrating my property, uncovering things best left, not while I’m alive.

I see when I’m close enough, it isn’t Mr. Edwards but his girl Jamie, her hair tucked under a hat. She stands when I’m close enough, but this kind of call doesn’t demand neighborly handshakes or ask-abouts.

She says, “Hey, Ms. Meeks.” She makes room for me to kneel down and inspect the situation.

“How long she like this?”

“Found her this way half an hour ago, maybe a little more. Somehow got out of her birthing pen.”

The calf’s snout is beginning to poke through, but not enough, its eyes still in the black well of its mother’s body, pink nostrils pushing and sucking for air.

“I tried to clear the mucus, but we couldn’t get her head out no further without some help. Dad went to call you and then see about getting some better lights out here.”

“Look here,” I say, so that she points the flashlight in the direction I mean, “the forelegs are out, but they’re crossed. Means the shoulders are wedged in her pelvis.”

Contemplating the work and likely outcome makes me sigh.

I ask, “Has she been having regular straining still, or has she gave up?”

“She’s been trying real hard. Just no progress. She started resting more. That’s what worried Dad.”

It’s good the heifer is flat on her side. Standing means a heavy calf can rest too low. I stand and look for a sign that Mr. Edwards is coming with extra light, but the night is dark except for the halo beam of Jamie’s flashlight. I worry for a second that she’s not fit for being witness if the heifer or the calf die. Lord knows I haven’t the patience for her being sentimental. Unlike what I tried to do right with my girl, the Edwards ain’t never raised Jamie to appreciate the world’s natural balance. But I never took the Edwards for having the right instincts for doing what was necessary.

“Think we should try and get her up? Move her back to the barn?” Jamie asks.

“Don’t you think if she was able your dad woulda already done that?”

Jamie shines the light back in the mother’s eyes but turns it away quickly. Her own eyes look tearful, but it’s hard to tell in the dark. Mr. Edwards never did see her weakness, like to say instead she was a sensitive girl. He confessed they stopped keeping chickens years back because Jamie would cry for days any time a fox stole a meal. No way to prepare the girl for the real world, if you ask me.

I say to Jamie, “If she got herself out here then it was her intention. Things are set now. You clean her and get her ready?”

“Best we could. Dad had the kit you gave him last season with the sanitizer. He applied some of the lubricant, too.”

My girl never wanted to help me at the clinic or on my calls, though I didn’t give her any choice in the matter. That’s where I’m different from the Edwards. I did things the right way, and in the end, I didn’t make excuses. The weak ones never survive in the wild. Nature sees to that, one way or another.

“You back home now with your folks?”

“Nah. Still got another year, this is only my spring break. I’d planned on going to Cancun like most girls my age, but…” She shrugged by way of explanation. When she speaks, she sounds like my girl used to when we talked, resentful but pleased with herself about it, too.

“Well, Mexico’s no place for a nice girl anyhow. Your kind tend to go missing down there.”

I say this knowing already she won’t listen to reason. It ain’t nothing but wasted breath on my part.

“I don’t know that Stone county is any better,” Jamie says, but then adds real quick, “I didn’t mean anything by that.”

Jamie says this, but no more. Folks are good when it comes to not asking about my girl directly. I never reported her missing, but folks noticed her gone. I know people assumed she was old enough and ran off on her own and I see no need to correct them. My girl ain’t the first in these parts to disappear, for one reason or another. She won’t be the last. I tell folks, if they press, that she’s out west. That’s true enough.

People, animals, they’re all about the same really. Some fight it, some welcome it,” I say. “You learn in the natural world dying isn’t always a cruelty, many times it’s merciful.”

We both look toward her house, waiting.

Still no sign of Mr. Edwards. The heifer gives a long, low moan. I see Venus low in the sky. My skin prickles. There’s not much time left before it’s too late for the calf.

“You still studying to be a nurse, like you thought?” I ask.

“I don’t know. Thinking I might take a year for the Peace Corps before I figure it out.” Jamie shifts her weight, and the flashlight shines on the flaring nostrils of the calf before she switches it to her other hand. “My dad says the Peace Corps is for hippies and I’ll just go off and get malaria or, heaven forbid, AIDS!” She says the last word drawn out so I know she finds it ridiculous.

“He’s thinking of your future. Not many places around here see the Peace Corps as job training.”

“Who says I plan on staying around here?”

“You’d be best not to stray too far,” I say. “The world won’t show no concern for a girl like you.”

Jamie half laughs; I figure she thinks I’m too old to know the truth of things. I pretend to check the supplies Mr. Edwards has placed on the tarp near the heifer so I have a moment to swallow the rest of my opinions. I’m certain he’s left her unattended for too long, that she’s grown far too weak to survive the pain that is surely coming her way. Only one thing left I can do if I want to be of service. Sometimes it’s better to take a life when you know the kind of suffering that’s around the corner. Most people know this deep down, but that’s why they come to me. They just don’t have the stomach for it.

“You ever seen an animal die?” I ask Jamie.

“I think you’re forgetting I’m a farm girl,” Jamie says, only I know hearing about it at the dinner table from her dad is different than watching living eyes go empty.

Jamie shines the flashlight into the blinking black eyes of the heifer like she heard my thoughts but, even if she did, she don’t know my memories.

I ask her, “How about a person?”

I hear a tractor start up, its lights pointing west, then watch it turn slowly toward us. Jamie doesn’t answer my question.

“People, animals, they’re all about the same really. Some fight it, some welcome it,” I say. “You learn in the natural world dying isn’t always a cruelty, many times it’s merciful.”

She stays quiet, both of us waiting for the tractor.

“Many times it’s an act of love,” I add.

Then she says, when Mr. Edwards is likely close enough to make out our shapes, “Do you ever get used to it? Putting animals down?”

“It don’t ever get easy, if that’s what you’re asking.” The tractor is nearing, but we’re standing just outside the reach of its light. That place at the edge where it always seems darkest.

“But I remind myself the hard thing can be the right thing. When you know you’re saving ‘em from a worse hurt.”

If she answers, I don’t hear it. It’s an old tractor and it’s loud. It drowns out our voices and the moaning of the heifer. It occurs to me it would drown out the sound of most anything, if need be.

I reach over and pull her away from the heifer, away further from the spotlight of the tractor lights, but only a step or two from where I imagine Mr. Edwards will need to turn the tractor to position it right.

“May I?” I ask and hold out my hand for the flashlight.

I reach my fingers in and around to the crest of the calf’s head and stretch the tissue of the hymen slowly. The heifer bellows in protest. Jamie is looking only at the calf, its nostrils still spitting out air, fighting for breath.”

She holds it out and I take it. I squat and use the light for a quick scan of the contents of my bag, even though I know what I brought. The tractor is nearly to us now. This might not be the reason Mr. Edwards called me out, but it might be a kind of calling just the same. I figure what needs to be done will be easier in the dark, so I switch off the flashlight.

The ground is uneven, and it can be easy to stumble. To accidentally fall. So, when I stand, I grab hold of Jamie. The tractor turns. It’s so close that the burning gasoline stings my eyes and they blur up. The pull of my weight on her arm catches her off guard. She begins to lose her balance. I need only a second more, another surprising shift of my weight. It was this way with my girl. Nature presenting an opportunity ripe for mercy. That’s what I’d be doing for the Edwards.

The lights of the tractor give a spotlight on the heifer. I’m drawn to her black bovine eyes. They are wild with panic. Her hooves kick in the air, useless to do anything but announce her fear. Her calf is trapped inside her body, dying, but she also sees the monstrous machine barreling toward them. I recognize that terror; all mothers do eventually. The world only grants us two choices.

But Jamie is stronger than I realize. And the heifer, in her flailing moment of fight, steals the extra second I needed. Jamie’s grip pulls me back. The tractor rumbles to a stop at our feet.

*     *     *

Working under the hot lights of the tractor, I push my gloved hand into the heifer. The calf is a tight fit. I’m surprised to find the shoulders aren’t stuck as I’d figured. It’s only that the heifer’s hymen is thick and resisting. The pain of the calf caught in the thickly woven tissue was so great that the heifer stopped pushing. Like she would rather kill her calf with her own body than feel the hurt of it ripping free of her.

“She don’t want to let it out,” I say to Mr. Edwards. “It’s too late.”

“No,” Jamie says. “We just need to pull.”

Mr. Edwards looks to me, “Do I need the chains?”

I can see he’s decided.

“Nah,” I say. “Chains won’t make a difference at this point. We’ll pull and let nature decide.”

Mr. Edwards crouches down on the tarp he’s laid for the delivery and hands me the lubricant. Jamie crowds in, bumping the bucket of hot soapy water her dad brought from the house.

“If you want in here, your hands better be clean,” I say to Jamie.

She looks me in the eye. “I washed ‘em before I came out. When Dad said he needed help.”

“You give ‘em another quick scrub in the bucket anyhow.”

The heifer grunts, her tongue foamy at the edges, her body hot to my touch. She ain’t fighting no more, but she ain’t gave up either.

“I just grab its legs?” Jamie asks. I can see sweat beads on her upper lip from the heat of the tractor lights.

I nod. Mr. Edwards doesn’t say a word. He stands up and moves back to make room for Jamie to position herself at my side.

I reach my fingers in and around to the crest of the calf’s head and stretch the tissue of the hymen slowly. The heifer bellows in protest. Jamie is looking only at the calf, its nostrils still spitting out air, fighting for breath.

“Now, on my word, you’ll pull one leg at a time, back and forth.”

I can feel Mr. Edwards hovering, likely calculating what hangs in the balance. I say to Jamie and to the heifer, “It’s gonna take all your strength. You best be ready.”

She nodded. Her eyes full of fight. “I’m ready.”

*     *     *

Back home, I park my truck in the same deep dirt ruts. Out west on my property, sitting silent in my distant dark yard, is a crumbling stacked stone well. For the first time in eight months, I can’t bear to look to it. I find Venus again. Years ago, someone on the television said that with the right telescope, the planet Venus would appear reddish brown. “Just like my hair,” my girl said to me. Proud the way children are over trivial connections. “I don’t care what the other girls say about my hair now.”

My truck door creaks in protest as I open it. It’s late, or very early, and there is no sound except the occasional trill of a tree frog. I walk toward my house, unable to blink away the memory of my girl’s eyes gone wild with panic, her useless kicking. That day we were pulling up buckets of water from the well. The garden near burned up from the sun. There was a man, she said. He said he loved her over the computer. She said she was leaving for California, no matter my say so. She said she already bought her bus ticket.

I had no choice.

Only, what about the heifer? Under those tractor lights, I witnessed how her instinct would have surely squeezed the life of her child if not for Jamie. I knew this truth the second that calf sprung free. I watched Jamie working her finger into the calf’s nostril, teasing a sneeze out of the calf to clear the mucus. Her pouring iodine and alcohol on the calf’s navel. Her sitting the calf up and counting its breaths. Walking back across the field with Jamie at my side, I felt turned about inside. I fumbled for Jamie’s hand again, hoping she could help me find my way back.

At home, walking across the yard to my door, the damp spring air chills me. I cup my hands over my mouth and blow warm breath into my fingers. I can still smell the blood on them. The screen door slaps behind me, but I make certain I hook it shut. I turn out the porch lights and I lock up the house door—both bolts.

Inside, the rooms are full of night, save the kitchen where a light’s glowing warm above the stove. I walk past it out of habit, only to turn back and switch it off. The Lord may have created the light, but sooner or later, we all face our own dark.

 

Heather Luby grew up in the Ozark Mountains, running barefoot and writing stories. Her work has appeared in Word Riot, JMWW, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Bartleby Snopes, Shotgun Honey, among others. In addition to being a writer, Heather is on the editorial​ board for the Midwest Review and teaching with the Continuing Studies Department of the ​University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is also the former managing editor of The Citron Review. Heather holds an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is represented by Bill Contardi of Brandt and Hochman Literary Agents.

Hiatus

[translated fiction]

Tala drinks her coffee in bed every day. She gives free rein to her thoughts, allowing a breathing space to think, to remember, to plan, or just to be.

Nadim looks in her direction. “You don’t need to come with me to the airport. It’s too early. I’ll take a taxi.”

“No,” she responds. “I’ll be ready in a few minutes.” She notices his frozen smile and hurries up. It was one of the earliest things she had noticed about him. That inauthentic smile that told her he did not approve.

She shrugs her shoulders stubbornly. He told her once that he loved her intransigence. She took that for the compliment it was intended to be.

Tala doesn’t know why she is insisting on going with him. She hates airports. She sees them as worlds in suspended animation, places and times that are boring in their repetitiveness. She knows that the trips are important to publicize his book, but airports accentuate her feeling of being in a state of perpetual waiting.

She understands Eliot’s Prufrock so well: “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons…”

“I’ll make some coffee. I just want to shake off this headache.”

“There’s no time for coffee, habibti. Hurry up.” She could see the smile forming. He had called her habibti, my loved one. Clearly he was upset.

The kitchen sink is filled with plates and glasses from last night. The kitchen will be clean in his absence. She will not cook. A salad and some cheese are enough for her. She does not like to waste time in the kitchen. She will do what she wants without worrying about being observed, judged, or expected to be a person he created in his image.

She wondered when she had bartered the transparency of her emotions in return for this sallow phase devoid of longing or anticipation. He had been the sanctuary to which she resorted to avoid the boredom of the mundane. She had discovered the aesthetics of the universe with him, so why did she hold him solely responsible for the chasm that now separates them? Did she not also step back for fear he would let her down when he saw her dependence on him?

*     *     *

In the garage, Nadim gets into the driver’s seat as he always does when he is with Tala. He does not like Tala driving when they are together. As they merge into the morning traffic, he says, “Just what I thought. Traffic is very slow at this time of day…”

She turns ​on the radio in the car before he has a chance to complete his sentence about wanting to leave the house early,​ and how she had​ delayed him.

She decides that silence between them is better. It hadn’t always been like this.

*     *     *

“To extrapolate from your analysis, Nadim, this existence of ours is absurd because it is based on binaries.”

“Well, think about it, Tala.​ Within us we hold both the thing and its opposite. Part of us is God-like, capable of creativity and love, and another part of us is a depth of darkness that results from the pain and frustration that we have buried inside us.”

“I know just what you mean! Reminds me of something I read once: A blind man does not know darkness because he has never seen light.”

“There you go: binaries.”

*     *     *

At the airport, she stands aside and watches him as he waits in the passenger check-in line. He does not look at her. It is as if he is already gone. She is distracted by the sight of all these people around her. She puts her hand in her pocket and pulls out a piece of paper, glances at it, then tosses it into the recycling bin.

As he finishes checking-in, she sees him scanning the crowds looking for her. She waves to him, and he smiles, walking toward her.

But he is somewhere else, thinking about other things that have nothing to do with her.

“You do not need to wait any longer, Tala. I do not like farewells.”

She shrugs her shoulders stubbornly. He told her once that he loved her intransigence. She took that for the compliment it was intended to be. She took pride in the clarity of her thoughts, and her ability to express them. She found now that she was less and less concerned about his likes and dislikes.

“I will not say goodbye, Nadim,” she says. Nadim comes up close to Tala and brushes away a lock of hair from her forehead. He starts to hum a verse from Abdel Wahab’s classic song which both of them loved, “Her eyes taught me how to love her, but love can kill.” Tala laughs. That song had once made her imagine she was dancing on the edge of a magic chord left in her heart by a rebellious god.

She feels nothing now. She returns his look with another, showing no joy, no grief.

Tala looks for something to say. She remembers how the words had flowed between them. She remembers their conversations, their words coming effortlessly, needing no clarification.

When did she forget how to speak to him?

He often provoked her with the subjects he chose. She would google the facts so she could find the fodder that would allow her to hold her own in their interminable discussions.

Her thoughts flashed back to one of their early conversations full of passion and absolutes.

“You’ve read Ezra Pound, of course.”

She did not reveal that she only knew the poet and critic by name.

“You must recall his famous letter to Harriet Monroe in 1915, in which he referred to his quest to make the arts an authentic guide that enlightened civilization. In his literary criticism, T.S. Eliot discussed the connections linking poetry, civilization, and society. He underscored the importance of being inspired by the past without being limited by it, and at the same time, to create worlds aligned with modernity…”

 

They sip their coffee in silence. She watches him as he settles the bill for the coffee. She loves him in jeans. He looks younger, like she had known him twenty years earlier.

He continued to hold forth, and she kept silent, except for the occasional comment, for fear that he would ask her a question that would expose her ignorance. He seemed to intuit her discomfort and changed the subject.

“As for us, Tala, well just look at us, we copy and emulate at best, but where is our creativity? All we have is the silence of graves.”

“By us you mean we who live in the East?”

“How can it be otherwise in a society that persecutes thought and prostitutes the arts? The East is in a state of clinical death, my dear Tala. It reminds me of a poem by Khalil Hawi, ‘Lukewarm ashes here, hot ashes there … but ashes to ashes.’”

*     *     *

“Now how is that headache?” asked Nadim. “Ready for a strong cup of coffee?”

“Always.”

“At least I will make up for that coffee I deprived you of at home…”

Nadim takes Tala’s arm and leads her to the nearby café. Once there, he takes his hand away and puts it into his pocket.

They sip their coffee in silence. She watches him as he settles the bill for the coffee. She loves him in jeans. He looks younger, like she had known him twenty years earlier.

She says silently, “I want to embrace you so that my body fits inside yours and we become inseparable.”

Instead she says, “Long journey. I hope you can sleep a little bit.”

“It’s hard to find any comfort in the seats. They are so narrow that I feel I have to compact myself.”

She remembers a conversation they once had.

“Think about it, Tala, music is the result of the silence between notes. In the same way, we have to learn how to listen to the silence between words. The hiatus creates words that have a hidden rhythm. It reflects the shadow of the truth or its absence.”

“How do we embrace this knowledge of pain with less sadness, Nadim?”

“We allow our hearts to be vulnerable. We feel the wound without fear of grief. It is fear and not sorrow that is the opposite of joy.

*     *     *

“The pressure in my head has eased. This coffee is magic.”

“You’re always tense, you just don’t know how to soften your reactions to things.”

“Is that how you see me now, Nadim? You used to say you loved my spontaneity, and my desire to find hidden truths.”

“And I still do. All I want to say is that you should try to give yourself a break.”

“Do you remember that line by Adonis? ‘There is no power on earth that can compel me to love what I do not care for, or to despise what I do not hate.’”

He looks at his wristwatch and says, “I better go. I also don’t want you to be late for work.”

“Oh, I have time, don’t worry. I’ll finish my coffee and then go.”

“Oh, sorry, Tala, I did not notice you hadn’t finished your coffee. Of course I’ll wait.”

“You do not have to, you’re right, it’s better to go to the gate early. The lines will be long.”

She rises so as not to leave him room for hesitation, and hastily embraces him. “Take care of yourself, Nadim. You’ll call me when you land, right?”

“Of course I will.”

He walks away. She watches him hand his passport and boarding pass to the security agent. She wills him to turn around. He does not.

She follows him with her eyes as he moves away, becomes smaller, disappears.

She orders another cup of coffee to take away, and moves to the glass façade that overlooks the tarmac. She watches the plane take off, and follows it until it disappears into space.

She does not understand the mysteries of how an airplane, carrying hundreds of passengers, is here one moment and gone the next. Had Nadim been here, she would have asked him.

“The clamor of my feelings is compressed into a tattoo which is carved into my heart.” Tala heads for her car, fumbling blindly for the keys in her bag. Did the keys stay with him? If he has her keys, the spare set is in the apartment. She takes a deep breath and rummages once more in her bag. She finds the keys. She sighs with relief, delighting in the feel of the keys. The sense of touch is so often discounted.

Tala gets into the car. She settles behind the steering wheel, enjoys a quiet moment of freedom. Free from his presence, free from the weight of his absence.

صمت الكلمات

تشرب تالة القهوة في الفراش، ككل صباح، فترة محايدة تتسلل فيها أفكارها دون تتابع، تتذكر، تخطط، أو مجرد أن تكون.
يلتفت نديم نحوها ويقول: “لا داعي أن تأتي معي الى المطار، ما زال الوقت باكرا.. سآخذ تاكسي.”
“لا، سأكون حاضرة خلال دقائق”. وتنهض بسرعة حين تراه يبتسم تلك الابتسامة المصطنعة التي لا تخفى عليها والتي توحي
لها بأنه غير راض. لا تعرف لماذا أصرت على الذهاب معه، فهي تكره المطارات، عوالم معلقة بين الأمكنة والأوقات، مملة
في تشابهها. تدرك أن سفره ضروري لترويج كتابه، ولكن المطارات تزيد من احساسها أنها دائما تنتظر، تعيش حياتها تنتظر..
تفهم جيدا ما رمى اليه تي اس اليوت في قصيدته “أغنية حب لألفرد برفروك” حين كتب: “ مضيت أقيس حياتي بملاعق
القهوة”.
“سأعد ركوة قهوة طازجة، لعلها تخفف من هذا الصداع”.
“لا وقت للقهوة يا تالة، هيا يا حبيبتي أسرعي”. تلاحظ تلك الابتسامة الباهتة على شفتيه وقد دعاها بحبيبته، لا بد أنه في غاية
التوتر.
تنظر الى حوض المطبخ وقد امتلأ بالصحون والأقداح التي تجمعت منذ ليلة البارحة. سيبقى المطبخ نظيفا في غيابه، لن تطبخ
شيئا، السلطة وقطعة من الجبن تكفيها… كل هذا الوقت الذي يضيع بلا معنى.. ستفعل ما تريد دون أن تشعر أن هناك أحدا
يراقبها، يحاكم تصرفاتها، ويتوقع منها أن تكون انسانة صنعها هو، على صورته.
متى قايضت شفافية أحاسيسها بهذه المرحلة الشاحبة التي لا شوق فيها ولا لهفة، رغم أن نديم كان المعبد الذي لجأت اليه من
رتابة اليومي، وأنها، معه، اكتشفت جماليات الكون؟ ولماذا تحمله وحده مسؤولية هذه الهوة بينهما، ألم تبتعد هي أيضا خوفا من
أن يخذلها حين يرى مدى حاجتها اليه؟
يدخلان الكاراج، ويجلس نديم في مقعد السائق كما يفعل دائما حين يكون معها. تسترق النظر اليه لا تغفل عن وجوده وهو يقود
السيارة في زحمة السير.
يقول: “هذا ما خشيته.. حركة السير بطيئة في هذه الساعة.”
تدير راديو السيارة قبل أن يكمل كلامه ويلمح بأنه كان يود أن يغادر البيت باكرا ولكنها أخرته. الصمت بينهما أفضل. لم يكن
الأمر كذلك في السابق.

“بناء على تحليلك هذا الوجود عبثي لأنه قائم على الثنائيات.” ويقول: “نعم يا تالة، حتى نحن في داخلنا الشيء ونقيضه لأن
جزءا منا الهي قادر على الابداع والحب، بينما الجزء الآخر قابع في عتمة الداخل نتيجة للألم والاحباط الذي دفنناه في
داخلنا”.
“أفهم ما تقول، مما يذكرني بجملة قرأتها أن الاعمى لا يعرف الظلام لأنه لم ير النور.”
“تماما.”
في المطار، تقف جانبا تنظر اليه وهو واقف في صف تسجيل وصول المسافرين، لا ينظر نحوها.. كأنه رحل فعلا.. تتلهى
بالتفرج على الناس .. تضع يدها في جيبها، تتلمس ورقة قديمة تسحبها، تقرأها، تتوجه نحو سلة المهملات، ترميها… تعود الى
مكانها.
ينتهي من اجراءات تسجيل الوصول وتراه يبحث عنها، تشير اليه فيبتسم ويتوجه نحوها، غائبا عنها، يفكر في أمور أخرى لا
علاقة لها بها.
“لا داعي لأن تنتظري أكثر، لا أحب الوداع”.
ترفع كتفيها نفيا وعنادا.. قال لها مرة أنه يحب عنادها وتشبثها برأيها. أفرحها ذلك الاطراء اذ أنها تفخر بوضوح أفكارها
وبقدرتها على التعبير عما يختلج في ذهنها. لكنها لم تعد تعبأ بما يحب أو يكره…
“لن أودعك”..
يقترب نديم منها ويرفع خصلة شعر انسدلت على جبينها.. يدندن لحنا لعبد الوهاب كانا يغنيانه معا: “جفنه، علم الغزل، ومن
الحب ما قتل.” تضحك. مقطع من أغنية كان يثير عوالم راقصة في مخيلتها وكأنها ترقص على حافة وتر سحري تركه اله
متمرد في قلبها، ولكنها لا تشعر بشيء الآن.. تبادل نظرته بأخرى لا فرح فيها ولا حزن…
تتذكر كم كان الكلام ينساب بينهما ولا ينتهي… متى نسيت كيف تحدثه؟
كان يفاجئها دائما بالمواضيع التي يختارها، يستفزها، فتهرع الى غوغل تفتش عن المعلومات حتى تجاريه في نقاشاته. تتذكر
حديثا جرى بينهما، واحدا من جملة أحاديث مفعمة بالأحاسيس والمطلقات.
“أنت طبعا قرأت شعر ازرا باوند”. لم تقل أنها تعرف الاسم، وتعرف أنه شاعر وناقد، وهذا مدى معرفتها به. “لا بد أنك
تذكرين رسالته الى هارييت مونرو عام 1915، والتي يشير فيها الى سعيه لجعل الفنون دليلا مسلما به ومصباحا للحضارة.
الأمر الذي تناوله تي اس اليوت في نقده الأدبي حيث يناقش هذا الترابط بين الشعر والحضارة والمجتمع، وأهمية أن يستقي
الشاعر من الماضي دون أن يقتصر عليه، وفي الوقت نفسه يخلق عوالم تتماشى مع حداثة الحاضر”.
ويسترسل في الحديث وتبقى صامتة الا من تعليق هامشي، خائفة أن يسألها سؤالا يفضح جهلها. ولعله حدس ذلك، فيغير
الموضوع حتى يتجنب احراجها.
“أما نحن، فأنظري الينا يا تالة، ننقل ونحاكي في أحسن الأحوال، ولكن أين الابداع الخلاق؟ لم يبق لنا غير صمت القبور.”
“تقصد نحن في الشرق؟ “
“وهل يكون غير ذلك في مجتمع يضطهد الفكر ويعهر الفنون؟ الشرق في موت سريري، مما يذكرني بمقطع شعر لخليل
حاوي:
“رماد فاتر هنا، رماد حار هناك… رماد برماد “.
“ كيف وجع رأسك يا تالة؟” ما رأيك بفنجان قهوة قوية؟”
“دائما”.
ويضيف ضاحكا: “على الأقل أعوضك عن فنجان القهوة الذي حرمتك منه في البيت.”
تضمها ذراعه ويقودها الى أقرب مقهى . يرتشفان القهوة صامتين.
تتأمله وهو يدفع ثمن القهوة .. تحبه بالجينز .. يبدو أصغر سنا، كما عرفته منذ عشرين سنة..
تريد أن تقول: أود أن أعانقك، أن أدس جسدي داخل جسدك لا أنفصل عنك.
ولكنها تقول: “الرحلة طويلة، آمل أن تتمكن من النوم ولو قليلا”.
“من الصعب أن نجد أي راحة في هذه المقاعد التي ضاقت لدرجة يضطر المرء فيها أن يتكوم على نفسه”…
“ يجب أن نتقن الاصغاء الى الصمت بين الكلمات، كما الصمت بين الأنغام يصنع الموسيقى…لهذه المسافة بين الكلمات ايقاع
خفي يعكس ظلال الحقيقة أو غيابها “.
تتساءل: “وكيف نحتمل هذه المعرفة بحزن أقل”؟
“بأن تبقى قلوبنا طرية، ونبقى قابلين للجرح دون أن نخاف الحزن. فالخوف، لا الحزن، نقيض الفرح.”
“خف الضغط في رأسي… ان للقهوة مفعولا سحريا”.
“أنت متوترة دائما، لا تعرفين كيف تخففين من ردود فعلك على كل شيء.”
“أهكذا تراني يا نديم؟ كنت تقول أن أكثر ما تحبه عفويتي ورغبتي في ايجاد الحقيقة المغيبة.”
“لم أقصد ذلك.. كل ما أردت قوله أن تحاولي أن تريحي نفسك قليلا”.
“أتذكرين هذه الجملة لأدونيس: “ما من قوة في الأرض ترغمني على محبة ما لا أحب، أو كراهية ما لا أكره.”
ينظر الى ساعته، يقول: “لعله من الأفضل أن أذهب …لا أريدك أن تتأخري عن عملك”.
“أمامي متسع من الوقت لا تقلق. سأنهي فنجان القهوة ثم أذهب.”
“عفوا، لم ألحظ انك لم تشربي قهوتك بعد. طبعا سأبقى.”
“لا داعي، معك حق، الأفضل أن تتوجه الى قاعة المسافرين، فالصفوف لا بد طويلة.”
تنهض حتى لا تترك له مجالا للتردد، تعانقه بصورة تلقائية، تقول: “انتبه لنفسك، ستتصل بي حال وصولك، صح؟”
“طبعا صح.”
يمضي، تراقبه وهو يعطي جواز سفره وبطاقة صعود الطائرة لرجل الأمن، تأمل أن يلتفت وراءه ليراها.. لا يفعل.
تتابعه بنظراتها وهو يبتعد، يصير أصغر، يختفي…
تطلب فنجان قهوة آخر تحمله معها وتمشي الى آخر الفاصل الزجاجي المشرف على المدرج تنتظر اقلاع الطائرة، وتتابعها
بنظراتها حتى تتلاشى في الفضاء.. لا تفهم ألغاز الوجود الغامضة، كيف كان هنا، كيف لم يعد.. لو كان نديم هنا لسألته…
“ صخب مشاعري يخفت في ملف مضغوط وشما مدقوقا في قلبي”…
تتجه نحو سيارتها، تبحث عن المفاتيح في حقيبتها، هل بقيت معه؟ ماذا ستفعل في هذه الحالة والنسخة الثانية في مكان ما في
البيت… تسترد أنفاسها حين تتلمس يدها المفاتيح في قاع الحقيبة، تفرحها الاحاسيس التي تولدها حاسة اللمس التي تغفل عنها في
معظم الأحيان.. تفتح باب السيارة وتجلس وراء المقود، لحظة هادئة خالية من كل شيء… خالية من حضوره، خالية من وطأة
غيابه…

 

Mishka Mojabber Mourani was born in Egypt and has lived in Australia and Lebanon. She is a graduate of the American University of Beirut, where she also taught cultural studies and leadership courses. She speaks five languages. She is the author of a poetry collection, Lest We Forget: Lebanon 1975-1990. Her short story, “The Fragrant Garden,” appeared in Hikayat: Short Stories by Lebanese Women [Telegram], and Lebanon Through Writers’ Eyes [Eland]. Dar An-Nahar published her Balconies: A Mediterranean Memoir. She translates from French and Arabic, and she co-authored a bilingual poetry collection entitled Alone, Together [Kutub] with Aida Y. Haddad. Her piece “Once upon A War Night” was published in the Exquisite Corpse anthology by Medusa’s Press, “Fatma’s Fate” in The Studio Voice, “From its shore I saw Jerusalem” in Your Middle East, and “Stone Walls Do Not A Memory Make” in Rowayat. Her short story “Crossing the Green Line” appeared in Slag Glass City and “Aleri” In Sukoon Magazine. Her short story “Amira’s Mirror” was included in the 2018 anthology Arab Women Voice New Realities. Her writing deals with war, memory, identity, exile, and gender issues.

Aida Haddad was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and lived in Greece before moving to the US. She graduated from the American University of Beirut with a degree in Arabic literature. She taught Arabic as a native and foreign language. She has published her short stories and articles in various outlets, such as An-Nahar, Al-Hayat newspapers, Ghurba magazine, Cultural Studies Quarterly, Al-hakawati, Almukhtar, Mitra, World Bank blogs and others. She is the co-author of Albayati: Prometheus of Arabic Poetry. Together with Mishka Mojabber Mourani, she co- authored a book of poems, Alone Together, in both Arabic and English.

 

Beyond the Waters of Time

You dip the sugar-speckled Parle-G in your tea and take a bite of the mushy biscuit, savoring the milky memories, watching the rain peter out to a mizzle in the garden outside the verandah where you sit in your bamboo cane chair. After the incessant spells of kalbaishakhi showers, the earth smells of rain, as it does every April. You let your thoughts travel back to April seven monsoons ago, then the previous, and then the previous, your mind a train stopping at every rain-soaked station. Every monsoon, the gulmohars in your neighbor’s compound burst into wild flames, and the clustered modhumonjori—their vines draping the arch of the iron gate outside your yard like crimson shawls—unfurl, leaving a lingering fragrance, the rain washing the dust from their tremulous, heart-shaped leaves. The aroma of mustard and poppies wafts into your consciousness; every April, when rain would patter against your sleepy green-shuttered window, Piali would cook her signature preparation of steamed ilish, and every meal of fish and rice would lead to languorous afternoons spent listening to Salil-da on the cassette player.

You pour some tea into the gold-rimmed saucer and slurp, the taste of cardamom on your moustache. Some of the tea spills on the front page of The Statesman and puddles in a brown pool on the chief minister’s shirt. You re-read the headings—“Thirteen persons shot dead by police at Youth Congress rally,” “Mamata Banerjee assaulted,” “Vince Foster’s death linked to depression,” “Louis J. Freeh to succeed Sessions”—and you sigh at the unpredictability and tumult in the world. Your neighbor’s feral calico has been wandering your garden again, and she enters the verandah, rubs her flank against your thigh, and you offer her some of your biscuit which she refuses. You sip the last of your tea, soggy dregs of dissolved biscuit clumping at the base of the cup. Then you rise to your feet, your knees cracking, and make your way to the glass-fronted book-cabinet beside the mirror that is now speckled with age. You reach for the second shelf and extricate a grainy photograph from between the yellowed, bethumbed pages of an anthology of Jibanananda Das’ poems, which you stuff into the pocket of your kurta. It is a photograph of Piali as a young bride draped in a banarasi saree, a mukut crowing her head, her forehead patterned with kumkum and sandalwood paste. Memories lap at the shore of your mind’s eye, and as a wave of sudden grief builds and threatens to break, you tame your thoughts, forcing them to recede into the sea of placid sadness whence they have risen. Looking into the mirror, you fix your hair—whatever is left of it at least, the sparse silver streaks running thinly across your bald head. You adjust your horn-rimmed spectacles, pick up your walking stick from the alcove, unplug the pedestal fan, and hobble your way to the door.

 

You inhale a drag of your cigarette, let the smoke linger inside your frail chest. It has been seven years since either of the boys has visited; it has been seven years since the funeral.

 

Outside, the sky is still slate grey, the massed clouds brooding, bloated with rain. Sparrows twitter and cheep on the guava tree that reaches up to your terrace. The money plants that Piali had grown ten summers ago now entwine the trunk and trellis the red-brick walls. After closing the latch of the rusty gate behind you, you walk outside and fill your lungs with the rain-laced air. Prasanna—the newspaper boy—greets you, and you say “hello.” Down the street, beside the bazaar where Piali would haggle over the prices of fresh vegetables every morning, you stop by the little tin-and-wood kiosk. The shopkeeper, sitting behind a row of grubby glass jars full of savories, smiles and hands you a box of Silk Cut without you having to ask, offering his daily tidbit of local news, as usual: “Didi has called for a rally here in Golpark.”

“Yes, I am aware,” you reply as you take out a cigarette, your hands quivering, purple veins prominent against your paper-thin skin. “This has become a weekly affair,” you add, lighting the cigarette with the burning end of a braided coir rope that hangs at the side of the paan-shop like a limp brown serpent. The shopkeeper hands you your change, but you refuse. “Buy some sweets for the kids,” you say, and continue down the footpath. Thunder mutters somewhere in the distance. The gullies and sewers around you are rivulets of turbid, swilling water. You stop by Bimal-da’s porch and peep in through the window of his blue bungalow, the slatted panes ajar. You see him on his rocking chair, slivers of mosambi-colored sunlight striating his white dhuti-kurta. He sits slumped, his eyes half-closed, the morning daily on his lap, his spitz asleep like a shaggy rug by his feet; the sight is a daily fixture, and stopping by his house a daily ritual; one you have performed religiously for the last forty of your seventy years, ever since Piali and you moved to South Calcutta from Shyambazar when Tirthankar was five and Shayak just born.

Bimal-da seems to be immersed in stupor, but when you rap on his window once, and then twice—his dog’s ear perking up at the sound, its limp tail twitching—Bimal-da rises as he always does when he sees you, his face brimming with happiness, and he comes to the window slowly, a twinkle in his eyes that are cloudy with cataract. “Hello, Arun-da. Good morning,” he greets in English. “Shubho Noboborsho!”

“Happy New Year to you too,” you reply, reciprocating the Pohela Boishakh greetings.

“How are the boys?” he inquires. “Are they visiting in the winter?”

You inhale a drag of your cigarette, let the smoke linger inside your frail chest. It has been seven years since either of the boys has visited; it has been seven years since the funeral. Ever since Tirthankar and Julia had their second child, they’ve been busy raising the kids, only calling from Atlanta every other month to check in on your health. And Shayak? He is a senior partner at a consulting firm in New York and is focused on promoting strategy and growth in Asia-Pacific. Unlike Tirthankar, he’s never considered settling down and starting a family of his own; his job, his business travels, keep him preoccupied. You feel pride well up at the thought of the big man Shayak has become, and this pride momentarily overwhelms the other feelings tamped-down inside of you. You wonder what it’s like in that foreign continent they now call home; you’ve only ever seen fragments of it in postcards—the streets lined with gold and vermillion-red leaves in the fall; the steel and glass buildings towering into curlicued clouds; the park with the dancing musical fountain where Tirthankar had proposed to Julia; the Ferris wheel across from the park. You think of your grandchildren, of the grandchildren you’ve only ever seen in the photographs they occasionally send you; you picture their mops of cherubic golden locks… Their eyes cerulean like distant seas… They’ve got Tirthankar’s features, though… The dimpled chins… Piali’s chin…

“I am looking forward to seeing the boys,” Bimal-da continues, his spitz waking up from its nap and panting in the humid heat. He still calls your sons boys, even though they are grown men now. “And Tirthankar’s boys as well. They must visit Kolkata! This is their home, too.”

Your thoughts still and settle like sediment, come to rest on that word—home. You think of what home means, and what it means to leave a home to find another. You feel… No, you know somehow, that you will never see your boys again. For this home that was once theirs, is, to them, like an island shrinking, shrinking, as one leaves an island behind and drifts, unanchored, out into the open ocean; an island shrinking until it is a speck on the horizon behind, an island finally disappearing in the distance.

They always promise to visit. “Yes, Bimal-da; I believe they will be visiting in the winter,” you reply, smoke hanging in the air like the hope of your children’s return.

You spend an hour on Bimal-da’s porch, talking about his granddaughter’s wedding in Delhi.

“The wedding is in Saket,” Bimal-da informs. “They are jewelers from Lajpat Nagar. I am happy that Subarna is going into such a cultured family.”

You remember Subarna as a little girl, with her lispy voice and her cascading curls; you remember how Shayak and Subarna—who is six years younger than him—would go knocking on neighbors’ doors collecting chanda together during Durga Puja, would serve khichdi and chana dal to guests as bhog on ashtami, before dressing up and performing skits and songs during the evening festivities. You share Bimal-da’s joy at this new chapter in his granddaughter’s life, but at the same time, there is something that is eating away at your insides like a colony of white ants.

“I can now die in peace, Arun-da!” he says dramatically, to which you reply: “Why do you speak of dying, Bimal-da? You are a young man still!”

 

The tops of the trees lining the park are seen wearing mist’s gossamer like a shawl. In the gathering dark, a middle-aged man teaches his son how to hold a cricket bat, and you wonder whether your grandsons play cricket.

 

He laughs and then insists: “Please try your best to make it to the wedding,” and you want to say that yes, you will, but you’d rather not commit to promises that you can’t keep. You leave, but you make sure to turn around and see him standing on the steps of his porch with his furry white dog, make sure to wave goodbye. You linger outside stores selling exquisite shawls and rainbows of stoles, glimpsing Piali in every window. You stop briefly outside a boutique selling handloom sarees in brightly-colored hues and you recall how her eyes had lit up like terracotta lamps when you had bought her the parakeet-green cotton saree for her sixtieth birthday. She always did love hand-spun cotton. A pack of pariah dogs wrangle and gambol down the street. A coconut vendor in a threadbare loincloth is pushing his rickety wooden cart, calling out “daab, daab.” You continue walking till you reach Southern Avenue and then stop at a shanty selling deep-fried fritters—eggplant, onions, chilies. A rotund woman sits on her haunches on a gamchha, coating the vegetables in gram flour with hardened hands. You ask for aloor chop, and she drops pieces of potatoes into a large cauldron, the oil crackling and spitting. Crows caw from atop the blue tarpaulin sheet covering the shanty; some peck at rubbish below that is heaped beside the gutter.

“I hope you are fine and taking care of yourself, Arun-da,” the woman inquires as she sprinkles black salt on the potato fritters and hands them to you in a newspaper-bag full of puffed rice. “I do not believe that, at this age, you have too many days ahead if you go on smoking like this.” She laughs as she says this, her teeth stained red with gutka. You nod in acknowledgement as you hand her some coins.

“Any day could be anyone’s last, Madhu,” you lament, and then, straightening your walking stick, continue on your way. You stop by Vivekananda Park, and spend the afternoon watching the local boys play football in their colorful nylon jerseys as the sun climbs lower in the sky. You watch them kick up dust, and memories of your own sons and their Sunday games now bloom like bougainvillea in the muted nebulous orange of the evening. Thunder rumbles again, and the rain that has been gathering at the hem of dusk now breaks forth, a few drops striking your skin—cool, calming. The tops of the trees lining the park are seen wearing mist’s gossamer like a shawl. In the gathering dark, a middle-aged man teaches his son how to hold a cricket bat, and you wonder whether your grandsons play cricket. Does Tirthankar teach them cricket, just the way you used to teach Tirthankar how to field and wicket-keep on Saturday mornings after he would feed the rabbits at Safari Park? Or does he teach them that other game—and you grapple with your thoughts to remember the name of it—that looks like a variant of cricket, that they play in their country… Baseball, they call it? You wonder whether your grandsons play sport, or whether they prefer to stay indoors instead, watching television or playing board games or coloring with crayons. That’s all you can do, really—wonder. They must have grown up now; they are probably bigger than what you remember of them from the photographs Julia shared two years ago. You wonder whether they refer to Piali as dadi or thakuma, or as grandma. How often do they think of her? Do they think of her at all?

 

You shuffle toward the Dhakuria lake, its swollen waters glistening in the diffused twilight glow. The rain begins to come down harder now, falling in sheets.

 

The day is closing, and the muezzin’s call to prayer can be heard wafting across terraces and mingling with the sounds of cymbals and conch shells and aarti bells. Darkness descends over the city like a veil, and you decide that it is time to move on. The heady scent of milkwood-pine laces the air. A melancholy moon has risen in the east, as pale and porcelain as Piali. You finish the last piece of your aloor chop and pick up your walking stick but, instead of turning back to return home, you wait for the juddering yellow taxis and the wabbling blue buses, the cars and motorbikes blurred by the vaporous rain to halt at a signal, so you can cross the road toward Rabindra Sarobar. Horns blare and trams clatter and chime over the trill of birds that are preparing to roost for the night. You look up into the shadowy canopies, imagining the chittering fledglings who, very soon, will leave their nests, never to return. It begins to drizzle again, and you feel grief stir and rise in waves. It was there, down the road, right beside where the jhalmuri-seller now squats in the dirt that, on the evening of Pohela Boishakh seven Aprils ago, in the back of an ambulance, Piali’s heart had stopped. They could have saved her; you were only minutes away from AMRI Dhakuria—the hospital where they were rushing her. But there was a bottleneck in the traffic up ahead, caused by a procession that the CPI(M) had called for, truck-loads of party members hooting and chanting slogans and waving red flags emblazoned with hammers and sickles while your wife clung to her life and then, when she couldn’t cling to it any longer, died in your arms. The rally made headlines the next day, but you were left alone in this world to mourn her memory. At least she had you in her twilight hours, in her twilight years. There are those that have no one.

You shuffle toward the Dhakuria lake, its swollen waters glistening in the diffused twilight glow. The rain begins to come down harder now, falling in sheets. You can no longer hear the city’s din, just the rain strafing the streets, clamoring against tarpaulin roofs, beating against the lake’s dark surface. The only other sound you hear is Piali’s voice calling to you from beyond the waters of time. You feel a drenching cold that seeps into your clothes, into your very skin, followed by a serene, immovable, half-submerged solitude; the waters murmur in soft whispers, a sighing and a swishing. Tomorrow, if they find your body, the news of your death will reach your sons and your grandsons who will never meet their grandparents but will know of them through stained, sepia-tinted photographs. Tomorrow, if they find your body, your death will join the other headlines on the front page; then again, maybe it won’t, and will only make a snippet in the corner of the third page, because today’s rally will take up most of the first.

 

Bhavika Sicka was born and raised in Calcutta, India. She holds a BA in English from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi University. She is currently based in Norfolk, VA, where she is pursuing an MFA at Old Dominion University. She has been a finalist for The Times of India‘s Write India contest, and her work has appeared in Arkana, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Crab Fat Magazine, The Punch Magazine, and The Bangalore Review, among others.