This is where I want to be born:
Kicking and drowning face-down in a pool of cosmos,
in a body woven by sparrows from sticks and straw.
I want to live with birdsongs fluttering in my chest,
pray to a bone jutting through the sky,
in a land where leaves unfurl
and teach me their silver dew of song.
— From Nativity, Daniel Blokh
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky…
— From The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock, T.S. Eliot
Let me paint a picture for you: A boy runs down a road, headphones in his ears, gasping for breath. His feet press into the sidewalk, pebbles scattered with every footfall. He glances at each house he passes, muttering the words to the song he listens to under his breath.
Soy un perdedor;
I’m a loser baby,
So why don’t you kill me.
He laughs to himself. Sends a text. But the next songs catches him, and he puts the screen down. He listens:
Sometimes I can’t believe it;
I’m moving past the feeling again.
He wants to crawl into those lyrics. He wants to go fast, run until the words swallow him in their melody. He wants to dissolve into their sweetness.
But it’s evening, and dinner is getting cold at home. He runs back. By the time the song peaks at its final chorus, he’s at home, eating and watching some movie, his eyes taped to the screen.
You know who that boy is.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
-Elizabeth Bishop, One Art
The call came at midnight seven years ago, just as I was pretending to fall asleep. I heard Mom talking, but couldn’t make out what she said. After a while, she hung up and came to wake me, but I was already standing at the door, listening. “Babushka called,” she said.
We drove through the night, every street and building taking on a different face in the darkness. I was only in 2nd grade, so this was the latest I’d ever been out in the city. Mom and I talked to avoid thought, each of us believing we were comforting the other when we were truly comforting ourselves.
When we got to her apartment, Babushka was leaning against the fridge, falling. Something about her looked lopsided, and her speech was slurred, words stumbling from her mouth. I tried to look up at her face, but instead, my eyes caught on the thin string of spit that dangled on her lip. I watched its silver stream as the ambulance came, as she was wheeled away, and afterwards. I watched it as my friend’s mother drove me to her house, as she gave me a stale sandwich and turned on the TV, after she led me to the bedroom where I would stay for the night. I watch it even now in my sleep.
Solipsism: the belief that the only truth of the world is that you exist. “I think, therefore I am.”
I am nine.
Dad and I lie on the lawn as the music starts up, the plucking of a guitar, the early stirrings of a voice. A crowd of talking people surrounds us I take a bite of my pizza. That night, listening to the music, Dad tells me he is lonely. I have seen it hiding in him for many years, but now it is on the surface. The music booms. I try to comfort him, but part of me is scared. I see myself growing into him.
Every day, someone new slips from Babushka’s memory: her neighbor, her best friend, her son.
It doesn’t phase her much, but the rest of us notice. Mom notices most of all. It’s a disconnect, she tells me. Memory is detaching itself from person, then person from name. Dad tells me that Babushka should become accustomed to this, get used to slowly losing herself bit by bit, accept living in an unraveling world. I imagine what it must be like.
We wait to see who’ll go next.
Dad nearly yells by the time I’m done with my sentence.
He holds back as always, but I can see the anger on his face in the rearview mirror, feel the car go faster. Its motor roars across the highway, and I hold on to the seat belt, a little scared of the sudden acceleration. It takes me awhile to realize what I have done, to understand that it was not what I said that angered him, but the language I used to say it.
Red light. The car stops abruptly. Green light. He presses the gas harder than usual. I try the sentence again, in Russian this time, but I stumble, forget the word for store. A car nearly pushes us off the road, and my Dad slams the car horn. We sit in silence for a while, and I look out the window as we drive, reading the names of the passing stores and cafes. I try to remember when this imbalance of language began, recall the first time a friend asked me how to say some swear word in Russian and I couldn’t remember the answer.
“Do you understand how your family feels?” he asks me after a while, in Russian. His voice has thawed a bit, but he still frowns. “How it feels for your parents and your grandmothers and sisters? To see you forget our language?” I nod. The car slows down a bit, but I bite my tongue for the rest of the ride, grip the seat belt with both arms. Just to be safe.
I had pet rats for a few years.
We thought they were both male, so we called them Sherlock and Watson. Then we found out they were females. Because my family used extremely gendered names, instead of Sherlock and Watson, we called them Shirley and Ms. Watson.
On the night Shirley died, I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t. I knew something was wrong. She ran frantically around her cage, making loud squeaks and sounds I’d never heard before. I saw her cry.
The night before, we had gone to the vet, who put her in an oxygen tank for the day. When we picked her that morning, they told us there was nothing we could do.
But I didn’t want to hear that. On that last day, at six in the morning, I finally convinced my family to take her to the vet again, to stretch her life, extend the inevitable. We placed her in the movable cage. A minute after we put Shirley in, her breathing slowed. She died alone in the cage, looking at us through cold bars.
Determinism: The philosophical theory that every event, including human cognition and behaviour, decision and action, is determined by an unbroken chain of prior occurrences.
One day in my mom’s car, she tells me that she had a sort of “gentleman suitor” back in the day. He sent romantic messages, arrived at her door with flowers and words of love. He travelled across the city for her. But she couldn’t stand how he ate, and so she turned him down.
I can hear the regret in her voice as she tells me the story.
Later that day, I hear my parents from my room.
“How was your day?” my dad asks her in Russian.
My mother grumbles something, then returns to silence. I creep into the hallway. Dad hugs her from behind, plants a kiss on her neck. She is unresponsive, and after a while, he quits and sits down.
“What did I do wrong?” he asks. She walks out of the room.
My parents are in their late fifties, and I know – at least I think I know – that they won’t divorce. I know they’re ready to feign happiness, just so I won’t have to go through a divorce. Sometimes, though, I wish they would part.
My mother has never told me the story of how they met.
Our second rat died during the day, in our arms.
Two months of treatment and occasional convulsions had gone by since it got sick. But it died in a very different way than the first one. I didn’t cry after it happened.
Dad, on the other hand, went into a depression that lasted for over a year. He cried some evenings when he got home, and Mom got so angry with him that she vowed to never have a pet again. She was annoyed because it was only a rat, nothing but an animal, and its death was enough to incapacitate him. But I thought I understood.
Some days, Dad would call me into the kitchen. He would tell me what he remembered of the rats, how we would take them out, let them run around and play with our hair. How soft and small they were. Like children.
He told me he wanted new ones.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a nightmare. I can only recall one night, a few months ago, when I awoke at four in the morning, sweating and holding my blanket. I remember a hound’s eyes, the feeling of claws digging into my chest.
I’m unnecessarily sentimental. Yes, I admit my crime. I think sappy thoughts when it’s getting close to nighttime, search for forgotten languages in the barking of dogs. I wonder if snakes feel bad, having no arms.
Or, maybe I’m not sentimental, but curious. I wonder if humans invented melody, what the world what be like without it, if Nietzsche was right when he said, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” I wonder if compassion limits us, if heritage defines us, if I belong in this country. I wonder. Sometimes, when I buttdial a stranger on my phone, I think it’s finding me someone to talk to. Before I hang up, I want to say into the phone:
“Hello. My name is…”
The boy runs.
He runs from his country. Flags raise behind him as he runs, shirtless men yelling about their American honor through mouthfuls of burger and patriotism. He runs from the consumerism in which he was baptized.
He runs from his family. He doesn’t recognize them. When he turns his back, they seem to become dogs, all fury and sound at his heels. He loves them, but they hold him firmly, too firmly. Their love controls, contains. He does not want to be contained. He runs.
He runs from the country in his blood, the family in his blood. Bare feet pressing against the gravel, he runs from himself.
It hits me one day when we were outside: I’m taller than she is.
It’s not just by a little bit. I have a head over her, and she looks up at me when she says hello. I’ve long since noticed the roles reversing in my family, my siblings starting to teach my parents and take care of them, my parents doing the same for theirs. But I only now notice that I’m in this cycle, too. My arms are suddenly long, my shoulders are expanding, everything is growing, stretching, blooming with time.
I ask her how she’s doing, and she tells me about her day, talks about the weather and tells me how she’s still trying to learn English. But I’m not listening. I can only stare at her, her body turning from soft and plump to thin and frail. I must be growing, I think, age’s hands pulling at my body, stretching me out. That’s what made the contrast. Maybe I’ll stop being a short pasty boy. I’ll show them. I’ll be like one of those professional wrestlers, all big and tall and glorious and intimidating. With time, I think to myself, I could outgrow the rest of my family.
I don’t consider that Babushka may have grown down.
Utilitarianism: The belief that the moral impact, or utility, of an action outweighs the action itself; the end justifies the means. An idealogy that can both save and kill. The idealogy of apathy. A knife hidden in a scalpel.
America, I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
I was born in a land that is not my own,
baptised in oil and taught to drink gold.
Born already buried in light
that I cannot scrub from my skin.
Here, the sky bleeds,
veins unhinged by careless fingers.
They shave the receding hairline of the stars.
I run from this country of soggy technicolor in breakfast bowls,
run from the children drinking coins through juice boxes
and calling themselves Americans, run from its god of symmetry.
I run from a country
that has been braided into my flesh.
I run from myself.
The American Dream swallows my nights.
When the music starts playing, the entire venue dissolves into its rhythm.
I walk into its grasp. Around me, a couple kisses, a drunk dude yells, a girl dances to the song. The music breathes through us. It is the one thing we have in common. It is our god.
I look into the lights, let them suffuse me.
This is the power of song, to swallow the listener in its melodies and words, to make someone disappear into it. I could ask for nothing more.
Stoicism: A philosophy that believes that one should prepare for the worst, should abolish all hope, should be ready for betrayal and hate and unsuccessfulness, but should know that in the end, you will be okay.
When Babushka moves to her new apartment complex, she stops smiling for awhile. It takes some time for Mom to seem happy as well, and once a parent has given up the appearance of stability, you know something’s gone to shit. The moving process is long, and the relocation seems to tear something in Babushka’s memory. It’s never been uncommon for her to forget things, but now it takes a sharp turn for the worse. She wanders aimlessly as we bring the new furniture in, stopping only occasionally to ask what this place is and why she’s there. Her mind is a record on repeat, the same questions coming through her again and again. She seems lost.
Her first night in the new place, she calls Mom several times. I don’t hear why, but from what I’ve picked up earlier that day, I can assume she is asking why she’s in this place, how did she get there, where did everyone go. Maybe worse. Maybe she asked about Dedushka.
She calls again the next night, and the night after that. But Mom gets some of the other Russian people in the apartment complex to come visit her, and after a while, she seems to calm down. Her smile returns, and eventually, Mom’s does too. But still, neither of them are the same.
A month later, Babushka tells me something she’d never said before, but would often say in the next few years. “I’ve always been the caretaker, surrounded by people to worry about,” she says to me in Russian. “My students, my children, my grandchildren.” She forces a smile, her eyes nearly fading behind her wrinkles. “How did I suddenly become the one who is cared for?”
Absurdism: The belief that our world is built upon undefinable chaos, and that any attempt to explain this disarray is futile.
In the rain, our city dissolves. Specks of grey float through the water’s murky belly, headlights blink through the haze. Cars speed by into the blindness. A lady runs across the street with a bag slung over her back. She laughs as drivers honk at her. I smile as I see her. Dad plays The Knife:
I’ve got a new story now, and it goes like this/
I took my hand out of my pocket, up came a fist
The music sounds like a slow sigh stretching through the endless highway. Dad stares ahead as he drives. After a while, he interrupts the silence between us.
“Living honorably,” he says in Russian. “That’s something they don’t have in American culture. Knowing each day you wake up that you could die the next, and not going mad in the process. Living honorably.”
I think he’s a little drunk.
When the rain clears up, we speed down the highway. This time, I let go of the seat belt. The car’s speed feels like a guilty pleasure, hurtling down the highway in a metal comet, lost in the movement.
We’re on the way back from my the anniversary of my mother’s friend’s husband’s death. My father tells me that the man had known that he was terminally ill for years, but only told his family a month before he died. That, my father said, was living honorably.
As he talks, I look out the window. I smile. Sunlight streams through the clouds, reflected in the rain’s mirror. It paints the city gold.
Every 7 years, all the cells in our body are replaced. I used to be a different person.
My years at my old school seem like a blur.
I remember only little salvaged scraps: paint spilling across wet paper, children hollering and speeding across the playground, the wafting scent of soft, fresh muffins, tether balls rivaling the sun. We were never quiet; we were giddy, in the way only kids could be. Most of us had known each other since first grade or Kindergarten, which might explain why we were so hostile to other arrivals.
But in second grade came a girl who we didn’t mind as much, me least of all. She ran amongst the fastest, and her eyes seemed carved from the sky. On her birthday party that year, I gave her a note explaining my undying 2nd-grade love for her. It took her five years to respond no.
On the 8th grade graduation of their class, I’m called to read a speech for the entire crowd. I look down and see my old teacher, tears welling in her eyes, and I’m scared. I want to say that I remember the day my teacher announced she was leaving, that I remember shouting and crying and scarily little behind that. I want to say that I feel like an utterly different person from the one I was before, replaced entirely, born into an old body with some memories left behind in it.
But I don’t. I say this:
“I remember running through the woods and yelling at the top of my voice, remember dripping a honeysuckle’s gold nectar onto my tongue, remember wet dirt and red walls where I found myself.”
Secular Humanism: The belief that reason and justice are the principles of life, and that truth, meaning, and morality are different for every person.
My Babushka and Dedushka moved to America in 1996, four years after my parents did.
They were torn, my mother explains. Babushka had taken care of my older siblings since they were born, and she loved my Mom, but her entire life was in Russia. The only country she knew, the friends she had for most of her life, the language she taught and loved; she had to leave it all.
And she did.
This is the time she forgets most often, her move to America. She remembers her first love, her old home, her favorite students, but she forgets why she came to this country. She tells my mother that it’s like something fell out; she remembers Russia, remembers America, but forgets what came in between. It’s strange how memory works, taking the saddest moments away from you, pocketing them and running away. Memory is a healer who mends until the wound disappears, as though it never existed.
I was the only one in my family born in America.
The week before her birthday, my mother gets a call from Babushka several times every day. “Have you forgotten to invite anyone?” she asks. “I think we’ve forgotten.”
They day couldn’t come sooner, my mom, my dad, and I go to visit her right before the party to celebrate, bringing cake, fruit and some wine. She barely takes any of it, still asking the same question, her mind returning to it over and over again. “Did I forget about anyone?” Like I said before, a stuck record. It is only after I ask her to read me some poetry that she calms down, her mind settling into the pages as she recites. By the time her friends come, she has been subdued. She still worries too much to enjoy the party, but for the first time that week, or maybe longer, Mom gets a little break.
Still, I wonder what it must feel like for her, to watch her mother’s memory slowly unravel. I wonder if I’ll have to feel that one day.
Sometimes paranoia’s just having all the facts.
-William S. Burroughs
You know what? To hell with kissing, making out, all that bullshit; all I need is to hug someone. When I hug someone, I can let go of my weight, let someone else hold me. I can let go of myself. This is my biggest value in life, my greatest goal: To let go of myself.
When my sister visits Babushka, they go upstairs, where the piano stands. My sister plays some piece from her book of sheet music, and Babushka takes out a few poems, reads them along with the tune. She tends to bring the same poems every time, but my sister and I don’t point it out, because her readings are marvellous anyway. She finds herself in song. Her worries seem to melt, and the poem pours through her. She remembers them sometimes, putting down the papers and reciting them for memory:
I know tales from many countries
Of African maidens, of warlords’ passions,
But you have been breathing in the fog for too long
To wish to believe in anything but rain.
Later, she tells me and my sister about the war. She was only a girl then, but she could remember going to hospitals, reading poetry for the soldiers there. She tells us that she loved it.
I can hear it in her when she reads to us now, see it in her eyes, full power and fury, as though she were reading to a crowd of hundreds, all of them ready to applaud.
The tape starts to play.
I see a look of sadness in Mom’s eyes as it flickers to life, an image of a family sitting at a table. I recognize my brother among them, then my uncle, then Dedushka. It is Babushka’s birthday, maybe 20 years ago.
Everyone turns to face a piano in the corner of the room, at which my sister sits, only a young girl. Babushka stands by her.
I look at her face, nearly wrinkleless. Her grin is warm and youthful; her smile nowadays shadows it, takes the same form, but worn down, weighted. It resembles my mother’s.
Someone starts to play the piano, and Babushka sings, the entire family caroling along. I watch their mouths form around the language, the words seeming to stream from deep within them, from something greater than them. They are tied together by something that I am forgetting, and I understand now why this angered my father so much in the car.
I watch the tape. I watch as Babushka, grinning, loses herself in the song, her voice overpowering all the rest. I watch her forget the world; forget the worries of memory, the troubles of the future and the past, and not because of dementia or old age or confusion.
This time, she forgets because there is no need to remember.
The boy slows. His feet shuffle. He falls.
His head hits the road, but not hard, not hard enough to do anything but bruise. The boy rolls over to look at the sky. Its walls peel around him, colors dripping down its walls.
He slips his hand into his pockets. In one, he feels an envelope; in the other, a slip of paper, a pen. He takes them out.
In the middle of the road, he begins to write.
One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.
This is where I want to die,
miles away from sam and his golden hands.
This is where i want to die,
sky staining my bare feet,
planets peeling under my nails.
This is my hunger:
to dive through the sky,to dissolve amongst it.
This is how I want to be born.
-Excerpt from Nativity
Daniel Blokh is a 14-year-old creative writer living in Birmingham, Alabama. His work has previously been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing awards, Cicada magazine, Gigantic Sequins, and more. He enjoys reading, chilling with his friends, and watching really, really bad movies.