Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2014  Vol. 13  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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from No One Is Here Except All of Us

The moment we were in was a hinge—the past swung on one side, the future on the other. Everything that had ever happened led us here, from the very first day onwards.

Ours was a migrating people even in the beginning. The first man and the first woman, set out into the unknown world. Fields were tilled and lambs were born. Begets were begotten, and begotten again. A tribe of luthiers, a tribe of forgers. Winemakers, plowers, sons and daughters.

Out the people went, fruitful, multiplying as they were told. The earth felt the padding of human feet. The tribes divided, God visited in dreams, in deserts, promised land to the ones he had grown to like. Men erected stones as markers, sacrificed calves. All the while, they told the story back: In the beginning there was a beautiful garden, and we were cast out of it, and we began again.

Twice we built huge, beautiful temples to recognize God and everything he had given us. Twice, they were destroyed.

The second temple, like the first, contained a chamber of knives, a chamber of oils and wines, a chamber of lepers, a chamber of wood. The gates were named for Music, Light, Sacrifice, Women, Water and Flames. The structure was made of white marble, rimmed with gold, and it stood for hundreds of years, and our people lived in the valley beneath. It would not be true to call that time peaceful, but from a distance, from this far away, we had allowed ourselves to dream of those days, because the next thing that happened was, an army appeared on the horizon, a swarm of men, sunlight glinting from their helmets, and we did not win the battle. We began to walk away in a million different directions: some went into the olive-green hills, some climbed over the mountains, some crossed the seas. Dunes collapsed under our feet. We slept in the bellies of creaky ships, disembarked onto unknown soil. All the while, we told the stories back, and they kept us alive as a people. Our bodies might have survived without them, but not our hearts.

We began again and again, across the face of the earth.

On a remote island there lived a powerful king with a hundred and fifty thousand subjects armed with sharp spears. The king rode a leopard and his men rode fearsome steeds that feasted on cooked mutton and drank only wine. These men were our great-great-great-great-grandparents. As they brushed their horse’s oil-black manes the king told a story: Once, God tested the faith of our Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his eldest son, and because that man took his boy to the top of the mountain and raised a knife over his heart, God knows that we are true.

In the city of Mecca, our great-great-greats settled down. They refused to eat meat and filled their plates instead with peas, butter, sugar and fruits. They lived in roofless houses and wore silk robes bedecked in long strands of pearls. While they stirred a spiced stew, the mothers told a story: Once, to a faithful man, God said, “Among man, only you are worthy of my creation. Build yourself a very good boat. Use cypress wood and sap, and take two of every living creature with you.” After days and days and days, rain and rain and rain, after weeks and weeks and weeks of floating: a dove with an olive branch in her beak. And the man stepped onto the land, and every toothy, beaked, trunked, whiskered creature with them, and the world, the whole world, was new.

In Ethiopia, the Jews received a strange gift. How it arrived, we do not know—the old men said it was a many sailed ship; the old women said it traveled inside the belly of a whale; the bachelors believed a griffin carried it over the sea; the whores swore it was the fat hand of God himself. In any case, onto the desert walked a savage who had no head; his eyes and mouth were set in his breast. He wore forty clear sapphires. With him came a note from a place called Calicut.

Dear Brothers, We are on the other side of the ocean, but we have not forgotten you. We are always your family. The paper was embossed with an elephant and a tiger.

The Jews of Ethiopia sent a rowboat with six messengers, two spotted goats, a Torah scroll, the paw of a lion and a letter: Dear Brothers, Thank you for the headless savage. He is the most beautiful we have ever seen. We do not know you, but we love you. With the savage chained up beside them, those who stayed told a story: Once, we were slaves in Pharaoh’s land, but we escaped. The sea parted, the commandments were given, and we began again on the other side of the desert.

The rowboat bobbled along for weeks until, nearing a foreign shore, a storm ground the craft to splinters and our great greats were washed to shore by the waves, their Torah scroll destroyed. Over time, they forgot all the prayers but one, which they repeated on every occasion. At weddings they said, “The Lord is One.” At circumcisions, “The Lord is One.” They cut the orange in half, broke a coconut or two. They killed a rooster and said, “The Lord is One.”

In the Caucasus Mountains, high above the Caspian Sea, our great-grandmothers went to the well wearing veils and cloaks in colors as bright as flowers. They carried water jugs on their heads and smoked log pipes. The older women belonged to a special league of mourners. Families of the dead hired the women to fall down in misery, pound their fists on the frozen earth, wail until all ears, including God’s, rang with the sound of what was lost. In the dark, after their tears had salted everything, they said, “Once, after a lifetime of childlessness, Sarah became pregnant at ninety years old, and what did she do? She laughed.”

In Spain, the Queen said to our great grandparents, “Please, open businesses and lend money.” And then, a little while later, she said, “Look at you with your bills and coins. You are dirty, and I want you out.” So our great grandparents changed their hair, hid their candelabras in the closet and nailed crosses to the wall, though their beliefs had not changed. They became Señor Henriquez, Señora Estrada. They drew maps, joined voyages across the world, traded for Inca gold and Amazon women. Sometimes they were safe and sometimes they were rounded up and killed. Sometimes they were in the king’s care and sometimes they were at the end of his dagger. They prayed, they worked, they escaped.

Someone said, “You are dirty and strange and I want you out,” and our people crossed the river. There they were told, “Your kind are not welcome here,” and they switchbacked the mountains. At the top of the highest peak, the locals crossed their arms and shook their heads and our great-great-grandparents continued on.

For hundreds of years: a little peace, the weeks marked with ritual, with work. Babies born, circumcised, feasts eaten, an extra place setting at the table for the prophet, weddings conducted, temples lit with lamps. Great-greats became greats became grandparents. They said, “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

And then an accusation in Bucharest, another in Sofia—Jews Sacrifice Christian Child for Ritual Purposes—and the mobs tore doors down, emptied the houses of valuables and killed the leaders, burned those who retreated into the synagogue. The survivors packed up again, went deeper into the mountains, settled down, marked the weeks. Life was like a parenthesis between catastrophes. Each time, they had to decide which to rebuild first—the temple or the cemetery. The stories of terror came from every direction. Cossacks in the north, our citizenship revoked in the south. The cities were not safe, the towns were worse. One ruler expelled all the Jews across the Danube, but when the Ottomans on the other side turned them back, the ruler said, “Oh, just drown them,” and that is exactly what his men did.

And so, the little group, our heavy-headed and tired grandparents, the few to survive the latest pogrom, walked with their pairs of goats, sheep, dogs and horses for forty-one days from the town of Iasi through Bukovina. The grandparents brought languages and coins from all the places everyone had lived—Spanish pesetas, Italian lire, Austro-Hungarian kronen, Polish zlotys, pieces of Ottoman silver, Yugoslavian copper, ancient Syrian gold and new Russian paper. They had German curse words, Polish love songs, English poems, Hebrew prayers and Yiddish scoldings. They had wandered and traded, wandered and traded, and they had been filled up with words.

They passed hamlets and hovels, Gypsy encampments and many roads that would have taken them back to the city. The rolling hills were bright green and dotted with yellow wildflowers and green pines, brooks and meadows. Even in pain and heartbreak, the grandparents commented on the beauty. For the last six days, descending the far side of the Carpathian Mountains, they saw no one. They passed through the reddish scar of an old forest fire. In front of the grandparents twisted the muddy Dniester river, and in the oxbow below they saw the first village in nearly a week. It would have been an island if not for the road just wide enough for a cart at the opposite end.

The grandparents crossed an old bridge, two by two. The instant the last of them had crossed—goat herder and two goats—the bridge sagged below the surface and snapped in the middle. They were here to stay. There was a small wooden sign, and in white paint the name of the village: Zalischik. And on this almost-island, there were empty, falling down stone houses. It was a leftover place, a forgotten place, and the grandparents looked at it and thought, Forgotten, yes, let us be forgotten. Let us be alone. They saw fallow fields and plenty of water for irrigating, an old granary and a deep well. The emptiers had already completed their mission here—the Jews and Gypsies had been expelled, taken care of. The map marked with an X, done. The circle of land was theirs to settle, a new world. They put their heads down, turned the earth, and began to plant seeds there.

For twenty years, they lived like forgotten people. They were a long way from any other villages, and farther still from any cities. The only way they knew they were alive was by repeating the stories again and again: the first man and the first woman, the great flood, the plague of frogs, the plague of blood, the plague of darkness. All the stories were stories of wandering, of being lost, of starting again. Meanwhile, the grandparents repaired the fallen-down walls, stopped up holes in the roofs, replaced missing street cobbles and stuffed all the mattresses with dried hay and horsehair.

My mother and father were born. My uncle and aunt. The banker, butcher, widow, greengrocer, future wives and husbands. They grew up, learned to tie their shoes, mend a curtain, harvest potatoes, tally the month’s ledger. They were taught all the languages everyone knew—the whole world on their tongues. They got married and had children of their own. Their parents began to grow weak and forgetful. On a sunny spring afternoon, my mother’s parents decided to go for a swim in the river, and their soft old bodies were not strong enough for the current, and they were carried away. A funeral was held in the cabbage field, and prayers were repeated. The healer told a story: Once, in the depths of despair, the prophet Ezekiel was carried to a field of old, dry bones, and Ezekiel spoke the name of the Lord, and the bones rose up, and skin covered them, and they were alive again. Always, another beginning.

Every few weeks, a man would come to deliver a piece of mail sent from a brother, sister or cousin in a faraway place. The letters contained news of births and deaths, pogroms and survivals, escapes and resettlings. Each spring and each fall, a few men would pack the cart with provisions to trade—lambs, turnips, cabbages, wool sweaters and socks knit by mothers and grandmothers, saddles hammered together—and set out into the world. Two weeks later, the cart would return with different provisions—sturdy canvas sacks, cotton pants for the men and cotton dresses for the women, wooden toys for the children, glass bottles for keeping milk, wooden buckets for storing butter, the sprout of an apple tree, ready to be planted, and a newspaper.

From this, the grandparents knew that a war began, raged, quieted. There were photographs of jagged shards of bombed-out buildings in Germany and tired Austro-Hungarian soldiers in Sarajevo. The grandparents recognized the places, having been to many of them. All the while, on their near-island, the days did not change. They kept repeating to themselves one word: Forgotten. We remember the story, they thought, but let the story not remember us. Let us hide here until we are safe. And we had been, until now.


The healer cracked his knuckles and let his head hang heavy toward his chest. “No one in this room remembers learning to set fire to houses?” Regina asked.

We all shook our heads.

The old man who used to cut our hair wondered if perhaps we should start at the beginning and try to figure out where things went wrong: the same careful logic of hunting down a lost key. “This morning,” a teenage boy tried, “I woke up and nothing was different. I ate breakfast and watched a crow hop across the grass.”

“Yesterday morning,” the weaver’s mother said, “I arranged all the cups in the house by size and nested them perfectly in the cupboard.”

“Three weeks ago today I turned forty-one and I gave myself a pair of gold earrings to celebrate,” said the widow who lived at the edge of the village.

“I remember,” said the jeweler. “They looked pretty on you.”

“Last night, like every night, I dreamed I had a baby,” Aunt Kayla said.

“Last night, like every night, I dreamed you forgave me,” Hersh said under his breath.

The stranger swayed gently back and forth, a branch in the wind. I kept looking at her, waiting for her to say or do something. For a long time, all she did was listen.

We could remember many things about this year, and many about the year before, but no one could figure out the long ago.

“When we first arrived on the earth, did we like to swim right away?” I wondered. “Or did we have to learn to like to swim?”

We wished someone had made a drawing of that first human swimming. We wished someone had made a drawing of the scared ones, huddled on the shore. We must have been awkward and funny to watch, lumbering out in the dark, trying to find our way back to the holes where we slept. And it was only a guess that we slept in holes—it was possible we used to be better at climbing trees and maybe we had beautiful nests in all the crooks made out of tangles of our own hair.

“No,” the banker insisted, “God created man in His image and the garden was perfect and we were naked but we weren’t ashamed, and then there was the tree of knowledge and the snake, and the apple.”

“That’s just part of the story,” the widow said, licking her lips.

“We might have had wings first,” I said.

“We might have eaten nectar,” the banker’s wife said, smiling.

“We might have been able to talk to deer or eagles. We might have been much better at loving,” Uncle Hersh said.

“But what if we’ve always been the way we are? What if we have always been scared and mean and beautiful exactly like this?” I asked. “Good and Evil, banishment.” The stranger’s cloudy eyes rested on my face. Their sorrow was so deep and wet and they chilled me.

We covered our faces and we cried.

“What else is going to float down that river?” my mother asked. Elsewhere, the rest of the world, unfolded like a giant map in front of us. All the other villages along the river, all the mountains, all the seas, all the cities. What had been blown up? What had been saved?

“I have a brother in America,” the jeweler said again. “Maybe we should go there. Run away.”

“The English and Americans are turning ships away. We’re too late,” the healer told him. On our map, the light of those faraway countries was snuffed out, leaving two great big, dark holes.

“We could go to Warsaw,” the butcher said. The healer drew an X over each eye with his fingertip. Poland turned dark.

“France has sometimes been friendly. Or Turkey?”

The healer’s eyes looked like they were sinking into his head. As if they were too tired to stay afloat any longer. “We would have to cross all those other borders.” Romania fell into shadow, Bulgaria, Hungary. Elsewhere might not exist after all.

The widow rolled her eyes. “Don’t you get it?” she asked. “We are dead men. We are through.”

“We are in the precise center of this continent,” my father whispered. “We are marooned.”

“And we are the plague,” the healer said, his eyes closed. Our tiny peninsula, a pin-head on the big map, was soon the only lit spot. Everything, everywhere, everyone else—extinguished.

“Should we build a wall? A barricade?” the greengrocer wondered.

“With what? Mud and cabbage?” his wife mocked.

I was in a room full of grown-ups who had no idea what to do. None of them. We were completely lost and helpless and my heartbeat turned irregular and I had to close my eyes and concentrate on breathing.

Just then, the stranger’s voice came clear and strong, “We start over.”

“We already tried. We can’t remember how we got where we are,” Igor reminded her.

“That’s not what she means,” I said, surprised to understand exactly. “She means, once upon a time, tomorrow was the first day of the world. The very, very first. The earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. My heart continued to flutter like a bird caught in a chimney.

And the stranger looked up at me and her gaze was so sharp that everything else in the room came to a perfect stop. She took my hand and held it for a long moment. The feel of her palm was like worn leather, thick and sturdy. “Land is limited—the space around us occupied, but no one can limit belief,” she said. The stranger looked around the room, “We need a story,” she told the villagers, but she was looking at me. “When there is nothing left to do, and there is nowhere else to go, the world begins again.”

“No one exists but us and God?” I added tentatively. “Everything is still to come?” She let her eyelids fall shut and nodded. I could see her eyelashes darken as she began to cry.

The moon that night was a cut in the sky and our slippery eyes reflected it. Could we put our hands out and hold back the rush of time? All the things we had invented—the wheeled, the wound-up, the pulleyed—now irrelevant? The others peered at the stranger in her battered body. They listened for the shriek of thieves at our door, for wild, sharp-toothed animals. They listened for the raving river but could not even hear it slither past.

What they did was so simple: they nodded. The stranger and I nodded back.

Before this blistered world caught up with us, we nodded. Before the wreckage of a hundred broken cities landed on our banks, before we were swept away to some far away sea, before the sky filled with silver wings and everything below turned to fire, before the tiny candle flame of our home, the last flickering light on the map was put out, we nodded. Desperation to believe joined the terror still thrumming in our chests. If we wanted to survive in this story, we had to tell it that way. We swallowed hard and waited for a reaction from the heavens. At that exact moment, while the rain turned all the leaves outside into tiny drums, made landfall and twisted its way to the river, while the animals huddled in the barn, while the slender moon stood as a reminder of light amidst its opposite, right then, nothing happened. The earth did not shake us off.

We were alone there, floating on a sea of black emptiness—all the chapters unwritten.

“The beginning of the perfect world,” I said.

“The beginning,” the stranger repeated. “The world that is beautiful. Let there be chickens. Let there be trees. Let there be us. Let there be safe places to stay the night.”

“Let there be rest for older brothers,” Igor said.

“Let there be love,” the jeweler said.

“Be fruitful and multiply,” Kayla smiled.

“And what of the things I remember?” my mother asked.

“You don’t,” the stranger said with her eyes closed and seeping. “There are no such things as dead children. No such thing as burned up.” Those girls with their pockets full of eggs were not dead, had not lived, had never been born, had never grown inside of the stranger’s body. She had never been a mother.

“It’s the night before the world begins,” I said. “Everything is getting ready. Everything is waiting to be alive.”

We lay down on our sides. We listened to what had not begun.

We did not see the rain flood our cemetery and dig the bones of our ancestors up. We did not see their ghosts climb into our trees, onto our roofs, into our beds. Nor did we hear the ghosts of the stranger’s children begin to leak out of their bodies and into the mountain air full with the sharp pepper of wet pine needles. We did not hear the squeal of the radio in the airplane as the pilot made his way home. We did not see the person on the other end of the radio draw up notes about the flight, the tested bomb. We did not hear our river slip across thousands of miles—through cities feverish with lost wars, and villages trying to stay quiet and unnoticed; through fields of sunflowers, fields of wheat, apple and plum orchards; alongside vegetable gardens, pastures, train-tracks and front doors where mothers dangled the feet of their perfect new babies in the river, both of them smiling because the water was cold, while fire in the house promised heat. Until the river finally met, with a desperate, gleeful rush, the ocean.

In the dark of a room that did not exist yet, a yellow room with a swinging pendulum of a gas lantern in the center of the ceiling, with the red coals of a fire slowly going out and rain sheeting the windows, a room that was absolutely quiet and shielded from even whispers of life outside—hunting, searching life, all the world’s armies fading into the distance—my village and I curled up on the floor. We had refused to give up hope, and though we all knew that no incarnation of the world had ever been safe for us, no matter how beautifully God had tried to build it, we allowed ourselves to believe in this one. Perhaps, we hoped, at the last possible moment, we had made something perfect.

I began to speak. And God said, “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years.” We held hands, we hummed, we listened, we prayed. Some people put their lips together. We let the spit from our mouths dry in crusts on the curve of shoulders. It did not matter whose shoulder or whose mouth. We were a pile of unborn babies together, rolling in the knots of one another’s limbs, being kissed and caught and found. And let the lights in the firmament of heaven give light upon the earth.

And we hoped that it would be good.  end

[From No One Is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel, copyright (c) 2012 by Ramona Ausubel. Used by permission of Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.]

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