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This is a shortlisted story for the 2012 Litro & IGGY International Short Story Award for Young Writers.
When he was a child, he wanted nothing.
He lived in Arzan, a village in the country of Kaseia. Before he was old enough to split wood, he walked to the river each day. He picked up sticks to throw from the bridge two songs away from his house—usually The Moon is a Piece of a Lover’s Heart and The Man in an Underwater Boat, if he didn’t sing too fast. He gave crumbs to birds and candies to children on summer days.
He sang when he walked to keep track of time. He wanted to lose as many minutes as possible, letting time spill from him like water from a bucket. He thought if he lost enough time, if he waited for it to unravel like tightly wound string, everything would stop. Perhaps then peace would come, the restless urge to shake off the sense of chains would leave him.
He liked the quiet sense of releasing something after he had absorbed the feeling of it belonging to him, like holding a mourning dove before opening his hands and letting it go. It gave him a light, sinking feeling, the way a feather flutters to earth when the bird, unaware, lets it go.
He named the types of ownership. Esfira—fleeting belonging that swept across hands like grey silk scarves, found in discarded branches after walks and fresh-baked bread. Ahjab, the warm feeling that settled in his stomach like brandy, stemming from outgrown blankets and the hair that fell away from scissors’ blades every March. Then there was ukram, possession of things as old as the forest and sky—things that had been and always would be. The kind he could not fully grasp, the way his arms could not enclose an oak’s trunk.
And the types of loss: milarmi, the feeling of reaching for something that wasn’t there, of missed steps and gaps. Takehl, giving something for love. Takohn, giving something for duty. Sepov—unnoticed loss, like a button falling out or paper slipping from books. Dursna, discarding unwanted objects. Khaustus, the bitter pang of giving something up.
Thoughts, ideas, and songs were what he kept. Everything else would leave him—his clothes would separate until they were too tattered to wear, and he would throw them away (dursna) for new ones (ahjab). People moved away from the village (dutifultakohn), returning when they feared they had lost too many memories (milarmi).
i’m not sure
let him sleep
The war was a torrential affair between two countries that drew in others, like curious neighbours around a quarrelling couple. Countries picked sides between the two lands that had once been brothers. He enlisted before he could fall in love with the girl who wore lilies in her hair, who met him at the bridge each morning.
He did this so she would not mourn him. He did this because his mother had fallen in love with a soldier and the women said he had stolen her smile, only to have it reappear on her son. Better to lose the ribbon she wrapped around his arm (takehl, for love, in a rice paddy on the way to camp) or her name (takohn, for duty, dropped in the footprints men left behind) than to lose the memory of her lips (khaustus, bitter loss, between hot blood and glassy eyes). Love, his mother said, was a loss that stole more happiness than it brought.
He joined a squadron whose leader did not want to fight, losing the map (careless sepov or unwanted dursna, it was unclear) to vandals. They had gone too far north, the squad would discover later—but their leader decided they were the only army left and declared there would be no war, for what land could fight if their hands would not obey?
So they moved into a village. The leader enlisted his soldiers to build houses, declaring they wanted to live in peace. Some nights, soldiers burned huts to ensure they would always be needed. The ones who wanted to leave claimed responsibility and were exiled. They were given a pack of food and clothing; they never came back.
They did not know how long it was until the war was over; for the squad had crossed the border to neutral territory. A messenger came through the village with news before trundling on to his next destination. The quarrelling countries, like lovers, quietly swept the dead away, exchanging treaties like sorrowful kisses.
He returned to Arzan in a rattling Jeep, temple adorned with a scar from a knife; his hollow eyes drank in the landscape and let it slip out, like a cracked bowl that could not carry water. The village carried marks of soldiers: boot prints and tobacco stains and ashes where houses had been. His mother was gone; she had been ejected from her house because the soldiers needed a place near the river. She sat in the snow, refusing to leave until she became violently sick and feverish. They said when her body was laid on the pyre, it needed no match and burned on its own.
Only the general lived in the house now so he could woo the girl with the lilies. That night, the man with the scar slept on the riverbank; the next day, he took out the pistol he had not used and sang the two songs back to his house. His voice was hoarse; he had almost forgotten the words. The winter bit at his arms, seeking to take everything he had.
The general was smoking outside. He stood up quickly before the shot rang out, arms almost out in surrender. The girl with the lilies ran outside, hair freshly brushed, petals falling from her hair. She screamed and screamed (khaustus). The man with the scar watched her look at him, look away.
He shot her. He married her. He left.
he’s not the same anymore
the plant’s dead
The inside of the apartment glows stiffly from the television. He disentangles himself from the couch, winding the bathrobe around his waist. Makes his way to the bedroom. Climbs in between sleek cold sheets and lets his warmth pool into his bed.
His breath rattles through teeth. His shoulders instinctively want to move, shiver heat back into his bones, like a body anticipating hiccups that have stopped. He looks at the ceiling. Holds his breath. Wonders how long he spent sitting on the couch – sometimes he tries to count the seconds but stops, afraid he will lose his breath in the string of numbers.
Outside, the traffic keeps him awake. The window is angled and sharp and is not like the window back home. But nothing has been like home. He cannot remember it.
Nobody from Arzan reported any murder; they counted the general’s body as one of their own, mistaking his smooth face and uniform-clad body for the young man who had left them all those years ago. When they brought the body to the girl with the lilies, she covered her face and sobbed, so they knew it was the boy she had loved. Nobody recognized the man with the scar, for the winter wind had stolen his youth alongside his mother.
So he left for America, which was different, new. The streets were paved and shadowed. People shouted, words pecking each other like irate birds. He worked at a bakery and slept above the shop; the owner’s six-year-old daughter taught him English. On his days off, he went to the library, awed at all that the books contained. He felt sure they could always find what he wanted to say.
One day, he felt a hand on his shoulder. A young woman leaned in and asked, Is it you? Her short blonde hair curled in at her ears; he stared at it, stilled his fingers from reaching out. He did not know how to tell her she was beautiful; he opened a book and tried to find the right words. She was speaking in a language he did not understand. He shook his head.
Her face wavered. I understand. Maybe it hurts to remember your language.
He held on to the word he understood: remember.
I remember, she was saying, when we were on the lake—you said, the mirrors will tell us we are in love. She laughed. Silly, but I remember. You said love turned people inside out, and only in mirrors could we see our true faces. Smiling shyly, she took him by the elbow and led him to the one-stall restroom. They stood side-by-side and he dropped his eyes, careful not to look at the man across from him. She drew his lips to hers while he shut his eyes, careful to ignore the couple across from them that kissed like they could not breathe, like they were creating a memory that never existed.
In Arzan, he never truly saw his face. Sometimes on clear days, he could see it in the river or puddles of water after heavy rains. America was different – people walked across shop windows and drifted through the bathrooms like water wraiths, dancing out of the dripping pipes.
Mirrors, he thought, stole from you—stray eyelashes, skin from bitten lips, almost-forgotten memories. The mirrored man had a scar on his temple, a white gash that pointed to the corner of his eye. They said eyes were the windows to the soul; he was afraid if his soul saw someone so similar, it would escape to live in silver sheens.
She broke away and said, How did you escape? How did you find me?
Her eyes flickered over him.
So the war is over. We’ll have to catch up, she laughed, kissing him again. He tasted memory on her lips, sweet like honey, like a love that died beneath a broken building, an affair in a country he had never been to, mistaken identities.
He kissed her. He forgot her. He married her.
Sometimes he met people in the streets who followed him home. They were always missing someone—a father, a lover, a friend. He could see their raw need to be recognized as they pleaded; America was strange, full of ghosts that needed permission to haunt you. One day a young man clutched his arm and pulled him in the direction of home.
Dad, Dad, what are you doing outside? The doctor said—and he replied, I’m sorry, who are you? and the young man shook his head and the man with the scar blinked and thought he had found a mirror—he jumped back and the young man’s face shifted into an expression he did not recognize—Dad, I’m sorry—No, no, young man, it’s all right, I hope you find your father. He waited for the ghost to unlock his apartment.
He smiled in gratitude, picking up a book and placing it in the refrigerator. He moved a half-filled coffee mug to the cabinet. Turning around, he found a stranger in his room. His smile vanished—get out! he cried. He picked up a bar of soap from the table and threw it, residue digging under his nails. The stranger left, forgetting to close the door.
He opened it. He locked it. He embraced his son.
He is sitting in a house he doesn’t believe in. Outside the snow howls. His hip aches. He stands up slowly, reaches in, and pulls out a leather wallet. He studies the picture; a man with a scar stares back at him. A familiar feeling tickles his neck, a forgetful word, a word that feels like missing a step on a staircase.
He gets up. Stretches. Paces. Through the window, the storm flickers past. A faint song reaches his ears, playing from across the street. It echoes in his ears as he leaves in search for someplace to go.
A memory comes back, stinging his eye like a fleck of snow:
The wedding. Her father gave her away; her mother had died years ago. Her hair reached her shoulders; it danced beneath her veil like uncaught sunlight. They waltzed while songs played, even when the music’s beats collided with slow legs.
The phone ringing. Her voice: I’m coming home. She always called before she left work; he pictured her walking to the car, rubbing her feet as she removed her heels. Her feet against the pedal, the slippery ice beneath the tires, the white powder that refused to yield. He lost her to the winter, its desolate snow and whispers that melted when you listened.
It was years after they had married, after he had learned enough English to lie. Have you changed your name since the war? she asked, and he nodded. Have you ever loved anyone else? she asked, and he bought her a bouquet of tiger lilies.
For an anniversary, they were to visit the country where she met the stranger he was pretending to be. He could not bear her happiness, chattering about the cities, the language he could not speak. He confessed where he was from, who he had been. He was sorry to have deceived her. Confused, she asked him what Kaseia was and he said, My country.
There was fear in her face. You were born here, she said. So he did not need to lie anymore.
He lost her to the winter, always the winter: the crystals had reflected her beauty like a mirror and hungered for her, stolen her for its own. He knew this like he knew when a stranger was in love. He told the police she had brown hair worn in a braid. He told them who he was not. Apologies, he said, but is it a crime to impersonate a lover so I will not be lonely?
They buried her. They burned her. They closed her case.
could have died
not my fault!
After the funeral, he thought that would be it; khaustus would descend and leave a burnt taste in his mouth. But there wasmilarmi: forgetting how her hair fell against her shoulders, her laughter when tipsy, her scent after an afternoon nap. Sepovdescended, gripping his shoulders like a hasty vulture, waiting to pick apart the carrion of his memories, and he gritted his teeth because he had not held her, had not cradled her in his arms and felt ukram.
The woman who took care of him after his wife’s death looked so much like her, but older; wrinkles clustered at the corner of her eyes on the rare occasions she smiled. This was her mother, he thought. It could not be his wife; her eyes were too tainted with sadness. The way she looked at him made him wonder if he had ever broken her heart.
He treated her with deference, not letting her see his grief. One day he woke up to find her beside him; in shock and disgust he pushed her away. Your daughter’s memory! he shouted, covering himself, while she huddled in the corner and cried.
We had no daughter.
I married her, he said coldly.
Oh, remember me, she said, touching his scar. He pushed her away.
He believed his memories were not lost, but stolen. So a new loss was formed; vakyrt, forcible taking. He watched riots on television, fires consuming buildings and mothers clutching bloody rags to their chest. He made up memories instead of words – remembering first meetings: laughter in a dusty meadow, or two shadows flitting through a forgotten street.
So he lost what he thought he could not lose—ukram, his thoughts. Memories crumpled, creasing with the line between truth and lies, sodden with scrutiny. They scattered—his mother into the girl with lilies, who froze while baking bread, the owner’s daughter into the girl who followed him home from war, and they married beside a pond whose tiger lilies wilted.
He weakened. He waited. He lost.
In sleep, he spoke to a void. He remembered the man he shot, mourning him as a treasured friend; how tragic it was to die in a fire, he thought, how tragic it was to lose. Memories filled his head like rising bread. He walked through a library whose books detailed a history of loss. He waited patiently for his mind to be soaked in remembrance. Names were jealously guarded, stories about their origins built and broken like houses of cards.
He awoke with a name on his lips, but it vanished before he tasted the first syllable. With a sense of sureness, he put on his robe with shaking fingers, humming. The window was bright, dust motes waltzing between panes.
On this day, he received everything, but soon realized he had been tricked and had nothing, for he had always measured the worth of everything by what he did not have. Everything was heavy and unforgettable; it weighed on his mind, clamoring to be counted. So he set about the task of assigning worth, but quickly ran into problems—how many pounds of bread were a child’s tears worth?
In this way he lost his sense of right and wrong, forgetting to bathe because he could no longer discern whether the smells he gave off were pleasant or foul. He rocked in his chair and counted, skipping numbers the way the wind bounded between trees, letting tea spill from his lips. Ghosts tiptoed through the house, but he paid no mind—so long as there were no mirrors, he was safe.
the moon is a piece of a lover’s heart
the sun is a mother’s song
and together they sing
what a beautiful morning
and Kaseia, Kaseia, we will love
Lin Wang is fond of writing poetry and reading prose. A graduate of the Alabama School of Fine Arts, she is currently a student at the University of Alabama. Her work has been published in various literary magazines, including Inscape; the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts; and the 2011 edition of Ice Diver, the annual New Zealand Poetry Society anthology. She dreams best in June and writes best in October.