In sleep, I discover my poetry and my seven faces. They all look like the woman captive in the mirror but here an upturned lip and there metallic eyes. My skin becomes their stage, their scenes more than often unscripted. It is in my bed that their absence leaves me wondering what my face looks like without them. Eyes closed, searching just behind the lids. Fold my cheek into the pillow, stretch out the eyebrows. If I want, I can mold my face like dough.
We’ve just met. I stretch my brows up toward my hairline, widen my eyes. I want you to know I’m interested, even though the words are dried up and stuck behind my teeth.
You ask me to tell you about myself, because when you asked me out you only knew that I was an avid poetry reader and could name the summer triangle constellations, and I don’t know quite what to say. Suddenly, it’s as if my history is an abyss; I cannot reach in, cannot pull anything out. You stare at me, waiting, and I have to look up at the ceiling so that your eyes do not keep making me forget. I’m so nervous I’ll say the wrong thing that my upper lip is sweating. When I finally settle on an answer, I tell you in short and restrained words that I’m a writer. Inevitably, my voice climbs up in pitch like climbing the tree I never scaled in my parents’ front yard. Time reverses itself—my spine condenses and curves, body shrinks and drags me with it, and once again I am a child, so small compared to you.
Our first meet is short. As I walk away, into a city crowd I can get lost in, my voice returns and mutters with the exhale of stale breath. That wasn’t me, I think. That wide-eyed face tied me up in thick black rope and held me hostage somewhere deep in my stomach. I called up into the hollow of my throat, but my mouth was too far away and the sound only echoed back down to shiver me. Where did I get this malleable, rubbery face? And why did I let it mask me? Why did I wear it during the corporate job interview that resulted in a ‘we’re sorry to say’ email a week later? Why did I cover up my real, cheek-splitting smile when another writer gave me a compliment, so we parted ways at the end of the workshop without cementing a friendship? Now that I’ve been released, I wonder if the next time we meet, my voice will crack the silicone of that face and let me through.
Open-mouthed is the way they meet me. With a book sewn to my nose and a planner marked neatly in black ink—every column brimming with letters. In college, students are often subject to group projects and, always, one student must take the lead and bear the weight of all of them. As the semester progresses, it becomes clear that the boys who don’t come to class, and the girl who schedules our meetings but conveniently misses them, have targeted me as their Atlas, although my shoulders slope and are not built for carrying.
Now that we’ve grown acquainted, I complain to you about my group project, and you notice my flickering eyes and the way my pencil shakes in my hand. Each of their suggestions for our project strays further and further from what our professor described in the assignment. Deftly, I steer them back toward what will work and, hearing their noncommittal ummms when we start divvying up the tasks, realize that I will be completing this project on my own. On a rainy Sunday afternoon, I will camp on the silent floor of the library translating six books at a time into coherent, streamlined notes. I will write a script, giving equal speaking time to each group member, and then construct a powerpoint presentation, and it will earn me an A in the class. Finally, once I am on break after the final exam and reading a novel on my parents’ couch, I will be able to breathe again.
You take my hand in yours, so my pencil has to stop, and make me look at you. It’s going to be okay, you tell me, I can get through it. And when it’s done, we’ll throw a wine-sweet celebration.
“Be careful,” I’ll tell my roommate as she slips on her coat, car warming up outside for the drive. Once again I notice how alike I am growing to my mother. But that worry is shadowed by the sailor’s knot now roping fear into my chest, knowing that she’ll be out with all of those other drivers late on a Friday night. I remember all of the recent accidents: an intoxicated man swerved off into a ditch, a fender-bender that crunched up the front of a small sedan, a ten car pileup. My face is granite.
And she’ll just laugh, “Okay, Mom,” as she slips out into the night. The red digital clock letters: 9:34 p.m. Sighing, I scan the pile of shoes on the mat by the door, now missing her heeled leather boots that leave a barren and muddied space, and shuffle away in my moisturizing socks and elastic sweatpants.
I’ll write you a text message to make sure you’re safe. You’ll respond, thankfully, right away that, yes, you’re staying in tonight and you’re just fine, if not a little bored. I can sigh now and sink into the couch, into the space between cushions.
It isn’t easy to convince me to go out. You have to stroke my spine a little, entice me with wine. But now, we know each other better and the merlot has loosened me up. It unravels my tongue like a new Persian rug and you can see the swirling designs, how they come together and fall apart.
My friend and I are driving the half hour back home from a paint-and-sip event in the city and I’m surprised by how incapable I am of keeping my mouth shut. In the dark, her face is hidden except for the occasional flash of headlights. Her voice is cloaked by the Top 40 on the radio, but I keep talking. The wine has stained my lips red. I wonder, aloud, if the reason it’s hitting me so hard is because I haven’t had a drink in nearly a month. My knees are cold, because the heat hasn’t kicked on, but I’m somehow sweating. And though I worry that I’m annoying her while she drives—for which I apologize over and over—she is laughing, and the sound of the smile in her teeth soaks me in warm relief.
My mother accuses me of being too critical. It isn’t the first time, and I guess I am critical both toward her and myself. She is right; with me, there is no flexibility, and I crack when she tries to stretch me. It happens too often. Without meaning to be, my tongue is sharp and ribbons the roof of my mouth in long, thin strands that redden my lips.
“No, never mind, ” I cut into her sentence. It is jagged and leaves wisps of unfinished thought on either side. “Forget it. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“You’re always so sharp,” she cuts back. She’s in the kitchen, behind the partition so I can’t see her face. I know without even seeing her that she is wrinkling her forehead, pursing her thin lips, and scrunching up the nose she passed down to me.
My mother and I have been fighting. Of course, I’d never act this way with you. It’s easier to be cruel to the ones who love you most because they care about you. It’s easier because they can’t help themselves when you cry in front of them, because to them you’re worth putting up with, because they’ll forgive you. What my mother and I are fighting about, though, is silly. It’s me asking to change our plans and go to the local pub for dinner because I have an eating disorder and I’m afraid to eat rice noodles at the Thai place between the church and the hairdresser. When she wonders why I’m suddenly flip-flopping, my hand is beating my head, stupid, stupid question, and my voice now a stony octave lower mutters “never mind.”
She probably would have said, of course it was okay. She would have understood. She would have rummaged through the folder on top of the fridge with our collection of takeout menus until she found one I could manage. But that question—why. I don’t want to answer that why.
Dishes screech against the tin of the sink. “You never give anyone a chance. You just shut down.” Sometimes I wonder if she thinks I can’t hear her because I’m in another room. But she’s right. This ceramic face is cracked down pale cheek, from eye to jawbone, and she isn’t me. She must keep that missing ceramic shard in her mouth.
Maybe she swallowed it once, because now it’s cutting up my throat and lungs and stomach. My face twists and I imagine the skin of my left cheek meeting the top right of my forehead. It hurts, and I am fighting not to open my mouth. You will hopefully never see this face. This face is haunted and contorts itself, runs liquid over itself. This face wants the Tylenol, but refuses it. This face steamrolls its quivering lips into a long, thin line, bends its eyebrows into concave wells, and drips from all its openings. Only a fistful of people have ever witnessed this face, enough to hold in one hand.
This face thrashes in a hospital bed. This face can’t commit. This face is shadow behind the sun—please, try not to peel the gold back.
If the chisel is positioned just right, I can chip away at the sky and pull the stars down intact. I can melt them down in a great big vat and use the liquid glow to paint—both over and under the shadow. It laminates the page.
While I lie in bed, I let it pour over me, making sure it coats every crack, every pore, every crevice. It helps me sleep. Seals in all of the faces, makes them converge and conflict and I watch them all from a safe distance. I don’t have to wear any one of them when I sleep. The muscles in my face unravel and soften, relaxing into the pillow, the darkness, and night’s untouched canvas.
Someday, when we share a bed, you might wonder who is facing you. It will be frightening, I’m sure. You’ll probably miss me, think I’ve vanished and call my mother up in a frigid sweat to find where I have gone, but then I’ll put on one of my faces and you’ll see I was in front of you all along. You might even be able to see the blue, green, and red of the peony star leaking out of my left eye, and it’ll blend with the white, gold, and purple in your eye. We’ll meet somewhere in the middle, between our faces.
Rachel Britton is a senior English (creative writing) major with a minor in theatre at SUNY Geneseo. She spends far too much time stargazing and continues to search for the perfect cookie recipe.
I tried to pretend it wasn’t there. Paper scrolls bound together on a wooden rod, hung to the wall by a thick white cord. It was meant to be art, images of levitating saints. Mary, the Virgin Mother, is in blue robes standing on clouds, her beautiful face washed of any emotion. There must have been twelve scrolls, with a scene on each side of the paper and the proud consumer could flip between images depending on one’s religious mood. On one page, God the Father reigned triumphantly upon a throne. The throne sat stoutly on a carpet of clouds and the sky behind was blue, flecked with white like a Dutch piece of crockery. God sat with his legs spread far apart, his feet firmly planted on his cumulous carpet, muscular thighs covered by a white toga. He had flowing white hair, thick and curly, and a well-trimmed beard. His skin was tanned and his biceps shapely. Had I been older and more accustomed to gym-sharks and their culture, I would have said that God had glamour muscles. As it was then, I didn’t know the anatomical or cultural terms for gorgeously developed musculature, the rock-hard pecs, the round shoulders, the long, sensual fingers, and strong, veiny hands. All I registered, as a five-year-old, was that God was one hunky old dude.
I stood on my twin bed, wearing a little purple sweater with a kitten silkscreened across the chest. It played with a ball of yarn in a coquettish way, with large eyes and a seductive turn of its head. I cocked my own head as I examined the images and flipped up the scrolls to look at the ones behind. After God the Father, there was the Holy Family: a blonde baby Jesus (alarmingly Aryan-looking considering his Jewish heritage) cradled in Mary’s arms, with Joseph standing next to her in green robes. Joseph had short, curly brown hair and a beard. He looked demure, even feminine, compared to God on the previous page. So was this Mary’s boyfriend? I had heard from my mother that the Annunciation was when God made Mary pregnant with Jesus. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew babies could only grow in ladies’ tummies when they were married. My mother had told me this with great emphasis, and I assumed that marriage was a special time in a lady’s life when she could wake up one morning, ripe and round, and a baby popped out that day like a wonderful surprise. So if God made Mary pregnant, he had to be her husband. I flipped between the scrolls of the two different men and decided if I had to pick between them, I would definitely choose God. Joseph didn’t look like he had much spunk, but God looked like he knew how to push around a lawnmower.
I pinched two pages in my fingers and lifted the scrolls as high as I could, holding them above me like a canopy of grace. I took a deep breath and looked at the scene in front of me. The top of the painting showed the underside of heaven, a hint of clouds, the last hope before despair. The painting lowered into shadows. At the vanishing point, indeterminable shapes dropped and fell, some head first, some with legs spread akimbo, starfish shadows falling into flames the color of Cheetos. The figures trapped in perpetual decent reminded me of pineapple chunks stuck in the middle of red Jell-O; they looked as if they ought to finally touch the bottom but never did. Figures danced around these falling shadows holding pitchforks, arms raised high in cheers. To the very bottom of the painting, curled up and close to the frame, looking patiently out at the viewer, sat The Devil. I assumed the cheering figures farther back were devils too, but this one, closest to the viewer, seemed to be The Devil. His skin was jet black and lacquered, white highlight painted on his shoulders and head to make his flesh appear as patent leather. His eyes were yellow and a forked tail, like a serpent’s tongue, curled upwards behind him. He looked out, but he wasn’t smiling. If he had at least been smiling or grimacing, he would have appeared garish, a cartoonish caricature of a demon. But he sat in stoic elegance, almost gracefully. His eyes, as they gazed into mine, had no message, and it was the fact that he didn’t seem to care at all that scared me the most. In the midst of all these flames, he was as immovable as ice. There appeared to be no reasoning with someone such as this. At least if he howled or bellowed, he would evidently be capable of passion. One could appeal to extreme emotion: scream, beg, and writhe for mercy because the cloven master was himself capable of extremes, even if it was heated hate—but he was frigid.
We didn’t have cable TV growing up because my mother didn’t want us to be tempted or educated by modern media. Instead, she ordered VHS tapes through the mail made by a company called CCC, which charted its stance as “pro-family in the entertainment industry.” The VHS tapes were a mini-series of lives of the saints. One afternoon, I begged my mom, “Please can I watch a CCC?”
She plugged one in called The Day the Sun Danced: The True Story of Fatima and set up her ironing board beside me. I sat on the carpet at the foot of our large wood paneled TV while the iron gasped steam and sizzled on my Dad’s plaid work shirts. The story of Fatima tells the tale of three children: Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco between the ages of seven and ten in Portugal in 1917. While they were herding sheep, they saw the Blessed Mother and conversed with her. She appeared to the children over the course of the next six months as word spread and crowds grew. On the last day, a crowd of approximately 70,000 people gathered and claimed that the sun moved towards the earth in spirals and zigzags. While the sun danced, the three children received visions from the Blessed Mother and reported on them after. The children reported a vision that the earth opened before them and widened into a large chasm; black shapes fell into a landing of flames. The VHS did not hold back, and I sat with wide eyes as 1980s cinematography showed shadowy, dancing demons leaping among flames the size of a grown man while the bodies fell, screaming and shrieking into hell. The split earth slowly closed and the children returned their gaze to the ever-serene Mary.
My mother put her iron down and said, “You know, Bernadette, more people go to hell for sins against purity than any other sin.”
I turned my attention to her and watched her. What were sins against purity? What was purity? I returned my focus to the TV for the culmination of The Day the Sun Danced. What happened was the usual course of events for a CCC narrative: the little saints undergo persecution for their spiritual communication. Sometimes, they landed themselves in prison or sometimes the town simply pointed their fingers and laughed. Then, a jolly man with a moustache, usually carrying a basket of baguettes, would experience a small miracle; his mystifyingly shriveled hand would plump up to a healthy limb, or his decrepit, barren wife would swell with pregnancy, and they would have a baby and decree that the children were in fact correct, and then the whole town, once again in unity, would sing the children’s praises and become believers en masse. The narratives concluded so simply; faith was a communal experience. If a neighbor believed, why not you too? And the answer seemed to be, okay.
I remember sitting with my mother on the sofa one evening as she read me a children’s story of Samson and Delilah. In cartoon depiction, Samson was a long-haired stallion, a character I would later see repeated in more detail on the cover of Harlequin Romance novels. He lived in a town that had all the tropes of a cartoonish Holy Land, and he was “friends,” my mother said, with a woman named Delilah. My mother liked to stop reading to add her commentary.
“She was a very immodest woman, Bernadette. She would walk around in (and here she whispered) see-through clothing.” She pointed towards our curtains, white and sheer, long panels which flittered across the carpet when she vacuumed beneath them. “Her dresses looked like our curtains.”
We had two lovebirds in the living room, and their cage sat next to the curtains. Out of boredom, they had a habit of nibbling at the curtains until a good foot of the paneling was picked through with little holes. I looked at the holes and wondered if Delilah’s dress would be considered more immodest with holes or if being see-through made it immodest enough.
The story told how Samson was invincibly powerful and men in the town were jealous. His hair was what endowed him with supernatural strength and God made him promise to never cut it as a contract: long hair for strength. I thought of God the Father on the scrolls in my bedroom and thought of his own long curls and figured this made sense. The jealous men in town found out about his hair and convinced Delilah to cut Samson’s hair.
“She managed to trick him, Bernadette, because of her see-through dresses,” my mother explained, speaking softly into my ear.
And so, poor Samson’s hair got chopped while he was sleeping: an image clearly depicted of Delilah, in her sexy dress, smiling wickedly with scissors at the head of the bed while the innocent Samson slept. I couldn’t imagine for the life of me why Samson was having a nap in her bed. Why didn’t he go home to his own bed? But this was not explained to me by my mother or the book. In the end, Samson loses his strength, getting blinded in the process, and when his hair grows back along with his might, he goes to the pillars of the temple and pushes them apart so that they collapse atop him and all the hypocrites within.
Once in a college class, my professor quoted Rilke: “Man is the liar but woman is the lie.” I have since tried to find which poem or letter this quote is attributed to and cannot seem to find its origin, indeed of Rilke or anyone else. Maybe it was her quote and I misheard her. I’m not sure, but the quote itself has stood with me for years. Woman is the lie.
I remember later in my childhood, around eleven, again I sat on the couch with my mother, and she read a different book. At this point, I was quite capable of reading on my own and very fond of the activity, but there is something cozy about having someone else read to you, and so I found myself again nuzzled against her. She read to me a book about a princess who had a pearl that was precious to her. Princes from all over the world came to her and begged for her hand and, as an addition, the pearl too. She meekly refused them all until one prince arrived, led her to a chapel with a priest, and they entered, as my mother phrased it, “the sacrament of marriage.” I remember thinking that the priest looked too modern in a setting of stone castles and capes trimmed in ermine fur. I thought, “He looks just like our priest,” complete with black, ironed slacks, a white cube of Roman collar and a neat little side part. After the anachronistic priest let them go as husband and wife, the page turned to show the princess giving her pearl to the prince, a curved smile planted on his face. Without being able to state it, I had a gut feeling of the symbolism of the pearl and of conflict: “Why didn’t the princess get a pearl from the prince too?”
Years later, my mother found my diary tucked away and discovered from reading it that I had lost my virginity to a beloved and committed boyfriend. She followed up on this information with weepy phone calls and texts encouraging me to go to confession, to break up with him. These phone calls went on for months. One afternoon on the phone, in the midst of gasps and cries, she said to me, “How could you give yourself to him?” I was twenty nine. My brothers’ virginities were never cried over. In fact, I don’t think anyone, my mother included, really cared. Granted, they didn’t write about the experience in their diaries, partially because it didn’t seem too remarkable to either of them, and for the larger reason, they didn’t even keep diaries. Their sexual experiences were part of boyhood, a chapter in the bildungsroman of their ascents to manhood; mine was a grief, something wept over by my mother, as if it were also hers and she had not been consulted on the subject. Something to be confessed. Something that should terminate the relationship.
Another of CCC’s marvelous productions was a VHS called If You Love Me… Show Me! It was marketed to teens and told a thinly-veiled story of two teenagers who fall in love. He takes her to a look-out in his car and pulls out of his pocket a wrapped yellow condom. The first time I watched it, I thought it was a lollipop missing its stick. The message of the story is that real love waits for sex until it is blessed within the sacrament of marriage. One maternal character in the film smiles as she pours a pot of tea and says, “We decided to save that for our wedding night.” As I grew and moved away from my mother and her couch of stories, I took the term if you love me, show me a little more literally than CCC intended. My experience was a happy one, where love and sex intertwined into a harmonious, instinctual experience of togetherness. My childhood education taught me to mistrust myself: myself as a sexual being and myself as a woman. Delilah was a traitor but at least she showed emotion and action. The Blessed Mother, the only woman depicted to young girls, was completely stripped of affect. I had a pearl which, according to my mother, I gave to an unworthy recipient in an inappropriate way because it wasn’t blessed by a man in ironed black slacks. Therefore, by that logic, the relationship was doomed. I think there was power in the decision. The image of a pearl speaks of commodity, who is the highest bidder? Who is most worthy? I decided that outside of a stone church, and I gave it willingly. I was in love, so I showed it.
I went to Church recently after I woke up with a strange longing to go to Sunday Mass. I get the same ache to occasionally drive by my childhood home or flip through photo albums in my parent’s basement with stickers on their spines dating 1989, 1992. With that nostalgic urge, I opened the front door of the church and sat in the last pew, deliberately several minutes late so I wouldn’t have to deal with the cheerfulness of a church greeter. The pew creaked uneasily beneath me, and I looked out at the sprinkled congregation, sparse between the gaping rows of pews. Many women had their heads covered by mantillas, and the elegant statue of the Blessed Virgin was also veiled. All around me, the luxury of women’s hair was modestly covered while my own hung long down my back as it usually does, and I felt strangely inappropriate, even sensual, despite being bundled in a winter coat, and I was glad again to be so far back. I felt like a voyeur in a world that had once been my center; I remembered the times I brought the hosts or the wine and water up during the Offering of the Gifts. I remembered when I had my first communion, standing in the center of the aisle, veiled, dressed in white from head to toe. My mother had gone to Sears the day before and purchased tiny, white pantyhose so I would literally be in all white. I remembered my Confirmation, countless Saturday afternoons in line for confession, masses where I felt moved, I felt kindred to the message, the organ, the communal responses. But now I felt like I had forgotten the language, lost my appetite for its fervor, lost my nose for the incense.
At the time of communion, the parishioners rose and filled up the aisle to receive the Eucharist. In the Catholic tradition, the faithful are not to receive the Eucharist if they are not in the state of grace, meaning they have committed a grave sin. I knew enough from examinations of conscience before confessions that sex outside of marriage was a grave sin. Out of respect for the tradition, I stayed in my seat and watched as the line inched its way closer to the priest dressed in green vestments, reverently offering each person the host: “The Body of Christ” to which one responds, “Amen.” I watched jealously as parishioners gently chewed the host on their way back to their pews, solemnly lowered the kneelers, and bent their heads. I felt like I was little Bernadette again, from the albums of 1989, 1992, who was denied Neapolitan ice cream for smacking her sister. The message: you behaved badly and now you don’t get your treat. But what is grace if not the undeserved favor of God? If God is everything, can he not see past my sin and welcome me?
There I was, the fallen woman in the last pew, with her long, lustrous hair hanging down uncovered, my lust trickling off of me like oiled perfume. Didn’t Christ come for me too? Even more so, if one reads the Gospels correctly. I wanted to say “Fuck it,” march up the aisle and hold out my hand; “The Body of Christ” and give my “Amen,” but I didn’t. I don’t know if it was fear, shame, or the inertia caused from feeling like an outsider that stopped me. Instead, I walked outside. Away from the incense, the dim lighting, the polished pews; I felt one again with the concrete, the barren trees, and the busy hum of cars. Why must the state of grace be defined by someone else? Even the term itself is faulty. I don’t think grace can be a state because state implies territory, boundaries, and barriers. I believe that grace is fluid as liquid, porous, and permeable, and no sin is strong enough to stop its balm. I was not the fallen woman because my sin, measured against the barometer of my own conscience, was no sin at all. I realized that the Rilke quote struck me so profoundly years ago, and lingered on in my memory, because I instinctively knew it was wrong. I paused and looked down the downtown street, at the liquor store sign, the traffic light blinking red to green, and carefully combed my fingers through my long hair. There are lies, but I am not one of them.
Bernadette Roe is a third-year PhD student at Binghamton University in English and creative writing. Her work has appeared in Caffe Beano Anthology, Streetlight Press, and her poetry chapbook was published by BHouse Publications.
<<The Pilgrimage |Self on the Straßenbahn>>
It makes complete and utter sense to me that all life began with the jellyfish. Abigail and I are in Berlin’s Zoologischer Garten, the first sun-filled day we’ve had in this country, our final hurrah before we fly home. A minuscule, gelatinous, squishy mass of life thrusts its way through a vertically cylindrical tank of water, propelling itself onward forever. It pushes forward, pulling itself in before throwing itself out, the entirety of its life sustained within that millimeter membrane. In my mind, the universe spreads across that astral plane, stars like the twinkling bubbles of air and dust within the tank. I want to put my hand to the glass, to experience the world which we inhabit. I step closer. The tendrils drooling in its wake pulse with creation and flash with destruction. Another step. Every thrust forward is an inhalation, an exhalation; a birth and a death. One step closer. My breath fogs the glass and my nose scrunches. I touch the tips of my fingers to the tank. I picture one of the guards coming over, “Was machst du denn?” they’d ask. And what would I say? “Ich gucke einfach.” I’m observing the universe from outside the universe. No, I’m just looking. My forehead presses against it now, glasses squeaking from the strain. The jellyfish pushes itself onward through infinity.
I perceive a rumbling at the center of my being, something being shaken into place. Above my vision is an older vision, and the pages of Haruki Murakumi’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle appear. His characters, Toru Okada and his wife Kumiko, visited a similar aquarium in Ueno, Japan, an aquarium also displaying jellyfish. Toru grew sick watching them and couldn’t understand how Kumiko appreciated them so much. To his question, she responds, “I don’t know. I guess I think they’re cute.”
“But one thing did occur to me when I was really focused on them. What we see before us is just one tiny part of the world. We get into the habit of thinking, this is the world, but that’s not true at all. The real world is in a much darker and deeper place than this, and most of it is occupied by jellyfish and things. We just happen to forget all that. Don’t you agree?”
As I focus once more on the jellyfish before me, I recall just how much of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle resonates within me still. Kumiko, so far away, continues, “Two-thirds of the earth’s surface is ocean, and all we can see of it with the naked eye is the surface: the skin. We hardly know anything about what’s underneath the skin.” And I think she’s right. This book shook me when I first read it. It grabbed my shoulders and thrashed me about at times, pushed me along its pages with a gentle ferocity. Each word would lift off the page, enter my mind, and fall back down onto paper. The jellyfish floats on. The universe shrivels and expands.
It is morning. The next day, presumably. Abigail and I are asleep. The wild covers have been thrown about, the window vertically ajar. Outside a bird, somewhere, somehow, emits its call. It is distinct, unnatural, and yet entirely organic. Its cry: a harsh creaking carried by the wind. The rasping sound of the world reborn. The world’s spring has been wound for the day. Or, I have been woken by Abigail’s cough.
We set about packing our bags. One of our suitcases we have aptly named Jennifer because it is of the Jennifer Lopez brand. She’s falling apart. Absolutely dilapidated. She will not survive the trip, of this we are sure. This is her second time in Europe, and how she has made it this far we cannot know, but we do not question. It’s some work of the fates, some miracle. We would duct tape the damaged bits if it would do anything (if we had duct tape) but all we can do is hope.
Berlin is closing around us. Neu Wulmstorf, Hamburg, Germany, France—Europe folding behind us into memory. Each step we take away from our apartment is a removal, a disconnection, a dying. We are homebound. The freedom we have come to breathe on this continent dissipates as the fogs of Neu Wulmstorf, the rains of Hamburg, the great overcast of Deutschland.
The sun shines now, and yet we must leave. Lyrics to a Revolverheld song, Hamburg hinter uns, repeat in my head, “Wir lassen Hamburg hinter uns/ Machen das Leben wild und bunt,” but we already left Hamburg behind us, Berlin joining her. Hamburg has been hinter uns for quite some time, and when we will meet her again we cannot know. Where we are going there will be no Seine, there will be no Elbe, no Spree, the only river will be that of traffic. “Hier gibt’s viel Stau,” my host father would say in that clunky Niedersächsisch on the drive into Hamburg, all of the words rolled into one low monotone mumble, each on top of the other like the cars, bumper to bumper.
In Berlin, we’ve managed to reach the spotless Straßenbahn. One suitcase contains our clothes. Another is near bursting with books. The books outweigh the clothes. Why we have entrusted Jennifer with our precious books, we will never understand. We have sacked every librairie and Buchladen we could find and will return to our monolingual motherland with the glory of Babel piled between our arms.
We stand out in the morning crowd. Two stressed, sleep deprived Americans mumbling German to one another. The stares glaze over, finding their respective windows and objects of scrutiny. Once we’re settled, we toss bits of English into our conversation and mourn over our impending departure, but we don’t speak much. There is a difficulty pronouncing the truth of the situation. I want to speak as much German as I can, to get it all out while there are people whose ears it will not fall empty upon. I want to read every street sign, every advertisement. Never will the announcements over the loudspeakers leave my mind. Austieg links. Austieg rechts. I want to hear them, want the railroad from the Newark Airport to New York City to feel as relaxing as the Deutsche Bahn.
Our suitcase rolls around on the streetcar, and I wrap my legs around it in the aisle to keep it from falling. Within are books in French, German, and some English because we couldn’t resist the temptation of fiction. They are ours. Nobody can touch this suitcase.“Entschuldigung,” I’d quickly mutter if anyone dared lay a finger on her. The movements of this tram are akin to that of a slow washing machine, and that perceived circumference becomes Toru Okada’s deep, damp, waterless well where he sits in contemplation. I too sit, eyes closed, allowing the movements to drench me as I attempt to retain my gravity. Toru sits in the black, trapped: “In the darkness, I pressed the fingertips of one hand against the fingertips of the other—thumb against thumb, index finger against index finger, and the fingers of my left hand ascertained the existence of my right hand.”
The Straßenbahn rolls onward towards the S-Bahn, which we must take to reach Schönefeld Airport. One hand I clutch around Jennifer, ensuring her safety, one around Abigail, ensuring her existence. My eyelids veil the truth from me, and with an inhale I’m outside the streetcar. There I sit, washed in thought as the rains of this country have doused me. I hold my fragile needs in those two hands. Books and love. Words and comfort. Language and her. A silence sits in the sliver of space dividing Abigail and myself, and neither of us can utter the words to smash it. “Words are just words,” I want to joke, but I watch and feel the grip of my palms; I know the contents of Jennifer and that words are not just words. Was it Emerson who said language is fossil poetry? That each word was once a poem of its own? He was right about that one. I swallow the joke and savor the sour tone it’s left unspoken on my tongue. Too gentle is the truth of it to wield against the silence. In the richness of the word, I find selbstverständnis and hold my breath on it. Self and Comprehension fuse together to forge the self-concept. This moment, this singing moment, signifies me; she and I lugging those suitcases through the streets of Berlin. Here we are, surrounded by the lives living in another code, and we can decipher it. German and French being lingua francas, but think of the dialects. Think of the borrowings, the stolen speech, the lexicons from town to town, person to person.
Abigail and I have more books than we will be able to read in the next decade: French, German, English. Words of all the same building blocks, the same LEGO bricks. Those beautiful variants of that same alphabet—accents and umlauts making the script all the more rich. Though Murakami describes destiny as a thing of the past, detached from the here and now, if I would declare eighteen years of cumulative experience to amount to a single instance of being: this is that instance. It is the consistent addition of past selves which amounts to the current self, and this current self will determine the next me, and shed my skin to breathe that self free. Now I am this, and this self is one I’ve climbed towards since I first learned hallo, since I found my first stories. Books, words, language. Surrounded by everything that will determine the life ahead of me, and I am the catalyst for all to come. I choose which words to speak, which to write. I inhabit my own vertically cylindrical tank, my own universe, my own bubble of existence. My palms press against the cool glass, eyes wide behind my glasses, staring out at the world in awe. I turn away. I propel myself onward through infinity.
Matthew Cullen is a self-proclaimed word-lover/addict, always tinkering with phonemes and smashing them together until the words pop to life. He doesn’t write to escape the world, but to fade out of it, if just for a little while.
The place where the miracles happened is totally paved over. Everything is clean and painted white – probably for viewing purposes. You couldn’t miss a miracle, standing out against all the white. I try to imagine how it must have been in 1917, but all I have to go on are the pictures from the pamphlets, printed in fifteen different languages – Welcome to Fatima.
As a child, this was always my favorite religious story; the luminous lady who appeared on the thirteenth day of every month in the Cova da Iria fields. I liked that the Virgin Mary had appeared in Portugal, where my dad was from. I liked that she had appeared to children. I liked the smallness and dirtiness of the shepherd children, with their baleful orphan eyes and their musical names – Jacinta, Francisco, Lucia. I used to mouth their names and study their picture, printed on a laminated prayer card – two young girls and a boy in black and white, very young. I guess I thought it would mean more to me than it does.
Towering fifty feet above our heads is a modern, stylized crucifix made of red plastic. Lego Jesus on His Lego Cross (cross sold separately). We stand and look at it for a while. If it’s meant to inspire something in me, it doesn’t succeed.
Cutting through all the white concrete is a path of dark gray tile, very smooth. People travel along it on their knees in scattered, shuffling clumps. Some carry rosary beads. Others wear kneepads. You can follow their slow progress down the concrete slope, around the chapel, and up to the sanctuary. We watch them knee painfully past us, lips moving silently.
My brother doesn’t believe me when I tell him that some of these people have walked here from their homes, hundreds of miles away, but my dad confirms my story.
“They come from all over Portugal,” Dad says. “They walk and then when they reach Fatima, they go on their knees. Your grandmother came once when she was younger.”
“Is that why Vóvó’s knees are so messed up?”
“No,” Dad says. “That’s just because she’s old.”
After we pray in the chapel, we wait on a long line to buy waxy, overpriced candles. There’s a woman begging amid the candles. Dad hands her a couple Euros. It’s a good place to beg, he concedes. Prime real estate.
Another line, then, in front of an enormous pyre of open flame. We wait our turn to step forward, hold our hands above the heat, and touch our wicks to the candles already burning there. Then I find an open slot to wedge my candle in amid the others, leave it to melt stringy and white into the fire.
You are supposed to stop and say a prayer, but I am being crowded and my brother’s candle won’t light, so I have to help him, and then we are moving away from the pyre.
I wonder if they collect the melted wax and use it to make new candles, recycling people’s offerings to the fire. I don’t know if that’s how wax works, and I don’t ask. I like the idea, the circularity of it. It makes me feel filled up in a way the rest of this place doesn’t.
We’ve come to Portugal because my grandparents can’t come home.
Or maybe that’s me being egocentric. Maybe their home is Portugal. My father was born there. When he was a baby, they moved to America without him. He followed later, once they were settled, and Portugal followed them, too. It lingered in the dim, wood-paneled kitchen that always smelled like foreign food. The hanging glass lamp that rattled when low-flying airplanes from LaGuardia passed by overhead. The crinkly, plastic-covered couches. The heavy accents. The tilde over the a in our last name.
Probably, they missed it. That’s something I’ve never thought about before. Once they retired, they started spending the summers in Portugal. Five years ago, they went to spend the summer and found that they couldn’t come back. The doctors said it wasn’t a good idea. My grandpa’s Alzheimers is too heavy to carry across an ocean. So now we are coming to them.
Murtosa is a small town on the coast. The roads are twisty, storybook-narrow. Everything is tiled and patterned and bright. The last time we visited, my grandparents were only there for the summer. I was ten and terrorized by the huge number of stray dogs roaming the little farm town. I was scared to leave the gated yard. Now, I dread having to go inside.
I am afraid to see what’s happened to my grandpa. Even before they left, before he got so bad, I didn’t like to be around him. I felt embarrassed for him. It felt wrong to nod at his senseless, circular stories and feign interest— humoring him like a child. That was five years ago. I think we are all expecting the worst.
Dad calls it our Portuguese pessimism – expect the worst, and at least you’re never disappointed. Mourn when the boats go out, in the event that they don’t come back.
“It’s the kind of trip you have to take sometimes,” Mom tells us in the airport. “It will mean so much to your grandma.”
Mom is always looking for moral lessons to deliver. She tackles the world like a scholar annotating a classic novel, pulling out major themes and underlining significant exchanges. Usually I understand it; I am always trying to make things mean more than they do. This time I quietly wish that she wouldn’t voice her reluctance. I would prefer to pretend that this is a pleasure trip, sixteen days spent in the home my Dad grew up in. It’s fifteen minutes from the beach. That’s what I tell my friends. Not the rest of it.
As we sit on the beach, fifteen minutes from the house, Dad points to a buoy out in the water, near the horizon. If you drew a line straight across the ocean, he says, we’d hit the Jersey Shore. This is an ocean we know. We’re just on the wrong side of it.
We watch an old, brightly-colored fishing boat come back to shore, dragging an enormous net behind it beneath the surf. That’s something I like about Portugal – history is so physically present. We walk along the waterline to watch the boat come ashore because Dad says it’s worth seeing.
The sea starts to sizzle with panicked life, silver bright, as a tractor wearies its way towards the dunes, pulling the boat up the beach. The tractor grumbles and lows like the fleets of oxen that used to pull these nets ashore.
Overhead, a spiraling cumulus of seagulls is forming. My brothers yell and duck and throw stones at them, but they part and come together again, hungry. The tractor pulls the boat and the boat pulls a net, wriggling with life, up the shore.
Dad says that this used to be an incredibly dangerous job. Portuguese wives would stand on the shore in their mourning clothes, weeping and tearing their clothes as they waved their husbands off to sea, a kind of pre-mourning ritual. I imagine they hoped that the tears they shed, the clothes they rent, would stave off death for another day. I imagine their tears as food for a hungry thing, salt water offerings to the sea.
The fish come slithering up the shore, caught.
My grandfather isn’t as bad as I feared. Mostly he sits on a lawn chair in the open garage in his blue-striped pajamas, vacant but content. If you smile at him, he will smile back. It’s probably just instinct, but he likes it if you nod along as he speaks incoherent Portuguese. The only phrase I recognize is esta bien over and over again – it’s good.
I smile and nod and say, “Yeah. Bien.” When a fly lands on his arm, I shoo it away.
We sit for hours, him watching the clothesline sway in the wind, me watching the patch of skin between his socks and his blue pajama pants. I am mourning him before he has gone.
My grandma hangs laundry and picks lemons in the backyard. She limps badly, up and down the stairs, as she takes my grandpa to the bathroom. At night, I sit in the kitchen with her and watch her rub medication onto the swollen rounds of her knees. Their little brown dog runs the length of the driveway, back and forth, yapping furiously as two olive-skinned boys lead a horse down the street.
I like to be here. I am not as sad as I thought I would be. It’s only when I think about leaving that I feel sad, thinking about the two of them sitting side by side in their armchairs. Him talking nonsense as she rubs her knees, her cooking elaborate meals, then cutting the food into little bites for him, watching him eat in silence. He can’t leave the house and she can’t leave him alone, so they stay home now. I think she must be lonely.
My grandma’s English is still very good. She asks questions about college and shows me funny videos on Facebook. She marvels at how tall my brother David has gotten. She protests when my mom tries to do the dishes.
“Susan, you don’t come to do more work. This is your vacation.”
My mom dismisses this and starts soaping up a pan. “You work too hard already, Lucinda,” she says. “Relax for a couple minutes.”
Vóvó doesn’t put up a fight, which shows how much her legs must be hurting her. She peeks into the living room to make sure my grandfather is still in his armchair, watching a soccer game with my brothers. He mostly sits quietly, but when Ronaldo scores a goal and my brothers cheer, he does too. I wonder how much he is understanding, how much is muscle memory.
Mom is trying to convince Vóvó to get some help around the house. A neighbor already comes twice a week to do some cleaning and mind my grandfather while Vóvó runs to the grocery store, but Mom insists that she needs more help.
“What if you fall in the garden and can’t get help?” she asks. “What if Dad falls on the stairs? He’s too heavy for you to catch him. The doctor said you need to rest your knees or they won’t get better. How will you ever get any rest when you’re following him around all day? You can’t even leave the house.”
“I don’t mind work. I like to take care of him,” Vóvó says.
“You’ve got to take care of yourself, too,” Mom protests.
“Is not forever,” Vóvó says. “Then I will come home.”
She says that a lot. It surprised me the first time I heard it, the bluntness of it. She doesn’t say it sadly or hopefully. It’s just a fact. Her Portuguese pessimism. Things are deteriorating quickly. That’s the reason we’re here, after all, after five years of baseball schedules and college orientations and being too swamped at work to take off so much time.
There’s a noise from the living room. My little brother Eddie comes to the door. He’s wearing the Portuguese soccer jersey he bought at the market. He’s worn it every day since he bought it, despite our mockery.
“I think Vôvô needs to go to the bathroom,” he says, only twelve, a little bit embarrassed.
Vóvó gets to her feet, knees bending unwillingly.
“Let me,” Mom protests, but Vóvó shakes her head and limps to the door.
“Is not forever,” she says again.
There’s a little, glass gazebo built on the site where the apparitions are said to have occurred. It houses a small altar and a fleet of benches made of light colored wood. We find a free space to fit our sweaty, American bodies and then we sit. Mom prays. Maybe the rest of my family does, too. I don’t know for sure. To ask would be to betray myself. Surely if I really believed I wouldn’t be asking at all. Is this just muscle memory for you, too?
I put my head down, play-acting at something I don’t understand. I don’t pray, though I wish I could. I think I would find it comforting. But I am distracted – first by my brother’s fidgeting, then by the shhh-shhh sound of kneepads on the tile floor
I crack my eyes and watch an old man round the altar on his knees, back bowed, lips moving above his rosary beads. He moves slowly and with obvious effort. I wonder if these last few meters, the last bit of his crawling pilgrimage, are the easiest or the hardest part. I try to imagine how fervently and wholly you must believe in something to walk so far, to crawl on your knees across the white pavement, but it’s not something I can understand. So instead I think about how sore his knees must be.
When my brothers ask Vóvó about Fatima, her hand moves to her knee with a wince, like she’s remembering.
“I went with my church,” she says. “Your daddy was very sick when he was a baby. I prayed for him. I promised if he got well, I would make the trip to Fatima.”
We all look at Dad, surprised. He didn’t tell us that part. He grimaces.
“It worked,” he jokes.
“It works,” Vóvó agrees.
Jennifer Galvão is a junior at SUNY Geneseo, where she is studying English literature. She is enthusiastic about chocolate milk, dangly earrings, and the book Ella Enchanted. She is a Pisces, which explains a lot.
Geologists will tell you in intro classes that divergent boundaries are straight lines, dividing one side of the earth from another. Geologists will also tell you, when you’ve spent another year or two studying science, that they’ve lied.
The Mid-Atlantic Ridge isn’t a neat line where a bridge can connect two continental plates. It’s messy. The boundary jumps across the island, striking it through with valleys. It creates a transition zone. A place where the land is both North American and Eurasian, but also neither one by itself.
I understand, of course, why science and English have to be separated on school grounds. It would be difficult to teach the concept of birefringence alongside a discussion about the purpose of poetry. It could be done. I know it could be done, but that takes time and planning and work.
Rocks line the edges of the desk I write on. Icelandic basalt. Pennsylvanian sandstone. Devonian shale. And tucked away in a labeled bag, I have two small rocks from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Little baby rocks, whose vesicles are not filled with dry moss. I only take them out occasionally to remember and remind myself of the messiness.
Of the transition zone where two different things are the same, and have been the whole time.
I like to think of hematite as a dual mineral.
Hematite is a mineral that expresses itself one of two ways: 1) as a reddish-brown, earthy mineral and 2) as a dark metallic, somewhat blocky mineral. Other than luster and, occasionally, habit, the two types of hematite act the same. Hematite will streak reddish-brown. Hematite will be around 5-6 on the Moh’s Hardness scale. Hematite will always have the same birefringence and chemical formula regardless of how it expresses itself.
My friend usually has candles burning when I go over to her house at night. I think she likes the light and the petal-soft feeling candles provide. My friend tells me that she’s probably psychic, but she says it in the way that makes me believe her, even if I don’t necessarily believe people can be psychic.
In the candle light, under the pattering of rain on the skylights above us, she takes out a box of tarot cards, calculates my life path number, and sets to work deciphering the card.
There’s a lot of “hums” and “mmms” and she covers her mouth as she thinks.
And finally she says, through all of my reincarnations I have always faced a split of passions.
A: I am metallic and grounded.
A: I am the scientist who writes poems that imagines her body as a rock, and I am the writer who experiments with similes made out of scientific fact.
A: I am the all-female crew of the people best fit for the job.
A: I am tired of my insecurities.
A: I am hematite piling on Mars body.
The classification of minerals is only helpful in terms of human understanding of a portion of the universe. At the end of the day, hematite doesn’t need to be called hematite. Peanut butter doesn’t need to be called peanut butter or hnetusmjör or anything in particular. There is no inherent good in classifying people by their menstrual cycles.
We exist as spectra and transition zones.
I am insecure in science, yet take the classes anyway. I am insecure in speaking, yet decided that my passion will include placing words together on a page, knowing one day I’ll have to read aloud in a room to a group of people that do not know me intimately.
Earth is the only planet not named after a Greek God, which is another way to say that Earth is the only planet not assigned a particular gender, which is to say Earth does not exist on a binary, which is to say, I think that’s how it should be.
Elizabeth Pellegrino is a senior English (creative writing) and geology double major. She believes that storytelling and asking questions are the two most important lessons every writer and scientist should learn. Additional lessons would include: poetry 101, rock hammer safety, how to survive the eruption of a supervolcano, and a discussion on whether tea-making actually helps the writing process.
Q: What color powder does the mineral make?
Streak: streak is the color you get when you rub (or streak) a mineral across a piece of white ceramic. This property is both a function of hardness, (many hard minerals like quartz will have no streak,) and the color of the mineral, (sulfur looks yellow and streaks yellow).
“I could never do that,” my
friend says when I mention
the science lab I’m in. the poetry portfolio I have due.
“That’s too much
for me. I’m not
enough to do that.”
I used to think I’d find myself in Iceland. That flying across an ocean I had never crossed before, actually seeing the landscapes that were set as my computer background would unlock my insecurities. But then, maybe, I just wanted to hear the language I tried to learn spoken by a barista holding three lemons, who was trying to tell us not to plug our laptops into the outlets on the ceiling, because doing so would short out the entire building.
The food labels in the grocery store in Reykjavik were in Icelandic, which surprised me at first. I mean, a jar of peanut butter looked like a jar of peanut butter regardless of how the jar is labeled. It took a second though—a short time where the jar of peanut butter wasn’t peanut butter anymore. It was hnetusmjör. In that moment, between when I read hnetusmjör and saw the peanut drawn on the jar, I felt like the world and my perception of the world had shifted out of alignment.
As if, you were Schrödinger, lifting up the lid of the thought-experiment box, expecting to find that the cat is either dead or alive, and instead you find that it’s still both and the laws with which you observed the world through were wrong.
An English professor visited my college to give a talk about a volcanic eruption to geologists. I met him in a poetry classroom, where students asked him “how do you write about science?”
And he said, “well, you have to translate it, right? You have to take what the scientists are saying so that the everyday person can understand it and make sense of it.
I asked Nick what he thought of that, and he said that it’s the same way getting new students to understand science. That you have to use analogies, similes, to help students understand topics. You can tell them that the Mid-Atlantic ridge is like a Snickers bar. The crust breaks, while the mantle stretches out forming a caramel rope. Then they learn how to talk about the brittle crust and ductile mantle without the use of similes.