Light, you think, is a fragile thing, a rare, breakable thing, something that you are so very lucky to hold for the few hours each day when the sun finally rises slightly higher than the line of the horizon, and then higher and higher still, slowly, over days and weeks.
You marvel at it as it throws glitter onto the white plains, and the crooked skinny iced over branches, and the dangling still grey-from-all-the-coaldust icicles, and you shade your eyes at how brilliantly blinding it is, and you hope that this year winter doesn’t bleed into May, and that you’ll have enough time before the streets run dirty and gritty and charcoal grey to enjoy it, the light, as it pours into your window in the morning, as it bounces freely, child-like off the snow and the glass and the pale walls.
But it does anyway, and you think of it, the light, as soft as silk, and fragile; cracked porcelain, translucent, transient, gone.
And one day, in a summer, cold and gray and drizzly, and in a place you’d never been to before—a fairy-tale place by the Baltic with much too short a name for any place Russian—you walk into a cathedral.
And you are twelve and an atheist and invincible.
And you had just watched a strange young couple kissing right in front of the cathedral—kissing, and kissing, and kissing and holding hands—and you blushed and you wished there were no light at all, so your great aunt couldn’t laugh at you for blushing.
It is dark inside; darker than it ought to be in a place this large. And you scan the impossibly tall, dark ceilings, unadorned, but for the largest organ you had ever seen, brass tubes gleaming in the light, cast in sharp-edged streams through the stained glass windows.
And you know then that it is never soft, the light, but exacting and harsh and the color of blood, and sky, and betrayal.
And you know, in that moment, and you are only twelve and you are not supposed to know any of it yet, but you do know, and it’s the color of blush when you kiss for the first time, and it hurts to think about it, so you don’t, and you think that maybe Pontius Pilate had the headache after all, from all that light.
And you hear Bach for the first time as it spills through the darkness towards you from the gleaming brass, rendering you silent.
Polaris in Miniature
It’s the waiting that hits all the raw places. You recall, distinctly, watching her as she waits in that in between place, the alone space between ending it all and climbing down from that roof, face redder now from embarrassment than the cold, eyes narrowed at her father’s face, also red, from too many drinks for too many nights for too many years.
Her arms go up and down, slowly at first and then faster, a swan, testing its new wings for the first time. The wind picks up.
You see her see you.
The stairwell stinks of human piss. Dark, dank, narrow. You squeeze your small frame, finally, gasping through the tiny hatch at the top, lungs expelling the too fast flight to the top so that she, on the roof, doesn’t have too much time in the in-between, in the waiting.
You slide down, unwittingly, your boots’ slippery soles not catching on the newly fallen snow. Her arms are covered in it now, the brand new white of it, and they are moving ever faster, in time with the increasingly frantic screams of her father, the belt wielder.
You skid to a stumbling stop behind her. You hear her hear you. She turns, brown eyes boring into yours, burning with anger, no lights in them. A shake of the head, wordless, arms frozen mid-swing.
And you see it then, the sky reaching down to swallow her, darkly but softly, reaching down to take her away from the misplaced commas in her story, the inverted tears she cannot bite back, the purple welts on her skinny back and neck, not ever, not ever low enough to be hidden by the ugly brown dress of her uniform.
You see her fade into the inky blue-black, graceful and long-limbed, stretching her arms towards the one star we all shared, the one thing we share still.
Through the in-betweens. Through the waitings.
You know you were very little but not very small. You know this because you weren’t wearing very much, and your naked belly had folds in it, and the sweat that collected there tickled unpleasantly, and you scratched yourself with dirty fingernails. You know they were dirty because the old woman who called you Mikita, though it was never your name, told you about the dirt.
You weren’t so little that you didn’t know she called you by the name that wasn’t yours, but you weren’t so big as to question it, and you really didn’t mind what she called you that day because she gave you that fly swatter and put you in charge of the flies.
It was a very big thing of red rubber and a wooden green handle, splintered and scratched, but the rubber part felt new and heavy in your hands.
You smiled at the old woman, and you were just big enough to know that she was your grandmother, but not so big that you knew that you had the same eyes because she forgot to give them to your mother, who was the oldest, but not so old that she ever forgot your name. And you remember thinking that day how lucky you were that you had more names than anybody, and thinking, too, how lucky you were to be in charge of the flies.
And one day, many, many years later you walk into a room that doesn’t smell like a room someone is dying in is supposed to smell, because you are not so old yet that you’d done this before, and your eyes travel over her hands, smaller now than you remember, and dark, and you notice that her fingernails are clean. And for some reason it makes you smile, and then you are sad for smiling, because her hands weren’t ever clean before, and they smelled like garden soil and earthworms, and because somehow you know, you know that now they don’t smell like anything.
And she looks and looks and looks at you, and you put your hands in your pockets, because suddenly, you don’t know what to do with your hands. And you wish you weren’t dressed the way you were, the adult way, and you wish you didn’t dye your hair a bright, unrecognizable red, and you wish and you wish and you wish she’d still know you, by the old wrong name.
And you see it, the whisper of a memory in her eyes that are still the same as your eyes.
And you see yourself as someone old and wrinkled and tired from all the digging in the soil, and all the missing your children, and all the knowing and then not knowing your grandchildren, and the constant remembering and forgetting of everybody, you can see it in those old eyes looking at you as if you are someone she once knew, someone she loved.
And you let her do it then, let her call you by your mother’s name, her first born girl who looked nothing like you, who is nothing like you, and you smile at her smiling at you, and hold the too-clean hand in yours, and tell her about all the people you don’t know.
And you hope and you hope and you hope.
You are the first to hear it, the faint wail of the wind, hollow, and tinny, the wrong note on a french horn, and you know, can tell somehow that this storm will be different from all the ones before it, for you, and not in a way you’d want, but there isn’t a thing you can do to stop it.
The noise is louder now, more singing than french horn. You rush to the window that you’d claimed years ago, the one you’ve stood at staring at the white plains, unobstructed, all the way to the line of the horizon you could almost see a smudge of.
You watch as wisps of snow that look like smoke now dance slowly upwards from the ripples of white, the ripples that to you have always been frozen over waves of the Arctic Ocean, and there is a hole in your belly, a hollowness you can’t explain, but you know, you know as you stand there watching the sky turn indigo, and it’s too early in the day for it to do that, but it does so anyway, and you watch the wisps meld together into something you can’t quite name.
And you can no longer see that drift of black smoke in the distance, the smoke that to you had always been there, waiting until you were old enough to take you away, your very own icebreaker.
The wind rattles the window for a brief moment rendering the picture outside blurry, and you can almost pretend you are dreaming it, imagining it, as you always imagine things, and they are blurry at the edges, the things you dream.
And it hits you, hard and sharp, and the wind is no longer a song, but a booming, rattling thing, a breaking thing, and you can’t see anything in the too fast too fast too fast dance outside, and you want to turn away, but you can’t let yourself, because somehow, and nobody told you, but you know…
You are watching your ocean die.