Its plump, dusty-white feathered body sits atop the pond like an inverted iceberg, as the lindens fringing the field shed their seeds onto the hardened soil. The swan lumbers across the surface with no particular urgency or direction slowed by the entropy of a late August afternoon, the laughed shouts of children plunging headlong to dinner, diverted to bathrooms for the cursory sprinkling of unholy water, the beast drags its haunches upward straining against the gravity of too many moments pecking the grains cast at it by the children. Its head breaks the surface of the pond and inches downward in through the green glaze until snatching its target at the end of the allotted moment, like the child’s toy with its colored fluid, it swings back up on its axis, and inches away, its dive complete.
The young boy climbs gingerly aboard the rusty metal seat, a lattice of peeling enamels, telling the years as rings of trees, and drops the bar across his lap, a wave to cousins denying the tingle in his bowels as the wheel begins its rhythmic interrupted rotation, and the sky summer gray, approaches. The wheel turns slowly, the cacophony of little girls rings false against the fading note of a carousel. He rocks gently, mindful not to lean into the baleful eye of the operator, and glances down counting those awaiting their moments until he hears the grating of metal and he slides to the side, as his cage begins to dangle, the bar greased by the sweated palms of a rider, and then the shriek of agony torn loose from somewhere beneath his riveted eyes fixed on the asphalt rushing to break him. He lifts his arms out vainly searching for the genetic memory of flight. He strikes with the sound of the plastic barrel striking a pier, his dive complete.
Once it was fur hats men on horseback swords and torches our villages casting a faint glow falling into dying embers, here, one whose skull bears the mark of the hoof, there an old one who would go no farther.
Once it was a helmet tanks for horses flames contained in crematoria cities taken for the deserving we, merely ashes shoveled into a pit, here a tooth, its gold torn free and cataloged first the old ones who could go no farther.
And so we have learned, we in our kippot we in our planes and if you do not hear we will give you the holy fires of God you and your villages a faint shadow and so much vapor, so much ash carried on his holy breath for we have learned well and we have fused these words in our minds, never again.
First published in The Right to Depart, Plain View Press (2008)
I have two mothers, now both dead, I have three fathers, one unknown, one buried outside Washington and one lost in a corner of his shrinking mind. I am growing older, I have aches and clicks and pops and groans, which each remind me that I am aware and alive and that isn’t a bad way to start a new day.
As a child I lived next door to a calendar, but not the kind mother always hung on the wall next to the refrigerator, two, one for school events and the obligations attendant on parenthood and the other for holidays, and adult social events, the important one she’d say when she thought we couldn’t hear. My calendar was Mrs. Kanutsu, the woman next door, or more accurately the aromas that would waft from her kitchen foretelling the Greek Orthodox holiday about to arrive, only a few hours after she insured that I approved of her latest creations, all of which were replete, redolent with spices my mothers would never dare use. I liked Christmas most of all, even though I was wholly Jewish then, for it meant she would let me help make the phyllo, knowing I would soon enough be rewarded with a large piece of baklava that strangely never seemed to make it all the way next door
They finally used the word or one near enough to it and she was not surprised, she almost welcomed it. You can grow jealous of those with a depth of faith that a sentence of months or perhaps less is received with grace and a smile, a nod and a statement “I’m more than ready to go home now, back to my husband.” I hope I will show such equanimity when I am told my time is quickly drawing to an end, but I am left with great faith in myself, and that may not suffice as I prepare to slip away into oblivion.
The path meandered more than he remembered but he was the first to admit his memory was never his strongest suit. It didn’t help that he had consumed two margaritas at lunch, and even he didn’t believe the excuse that this was a slow day for him, still sober at two in the afternoon. But he wandered the path, for that is what paths were there for he was certain. He had no idea where he was going, and realized that he would have no idea when he got there. Still he had great faith in mathematics, that was his training, his brilliance,such as it was, and he knew that if he merely wandered aimlessly without thinking, he would eventually cross his own path, bump into his former self and they, together, could devise a plan to find their way precisely they were intended to be.
It wasn’t exactly what you wanted, but you probably wouldn’t have been all that upset. It was all about you, but not for you, that comes later, and we know you’ll be pleased. This one was for some of us who needed this to be able to keep going, to keep from looking only back, into the darkness that is our shadow. He said it was a celebration, and it was that, and we put on our best faces, hid our tears as best we could, and as we stood in the cold air in the cemetery, we only wished it over, and when the sun appeared suddenly, we knew you wished that as well, but in your case, it was more likely that you wanted us working on the party we will soon throw for you and that one, too will be for us, but among the things we miss you for, was your willingness, you desire to share.
I was twelve at the time, would have chosen to be anywhere but there. I hated visiting her at home, but this took my disgust to a whole new level. We were never close, never would be, she so old, so old world, so unlike anyone I had known, so like the women sitting outside the old hotels on South Beach waiting for a wave or death, whichever first flowed in, life having long ebbed. The room as I remember it was barren, bleached to a lack of any color, the bed a white frame, white sheets, a small white indentation staring up at the ceiling, up at heaven, and everywhere what I imagined were steel bars through which we and the doctors and nurses could pass, but which held her tightly within, serving out what remained of her ever shortening life sentence.