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Monday, December 11, 2017

Fiction // The Nothing of History

Fiction // The Nothing of History

March 3, 2014 in 2014 March/April, Arts & Culture, Featured, Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction
2 Comments

Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Fiction

By Lauren Watel

July was Reva’s month to fall apart. She slept through the alarm and ignored her husband’s attempts to rouse her. She showered sporadically. She added bourbon to her morning coffee. She stopped answering email, her cell phone, the door. She arrived late to the summer school class she was teaching and dismissed the students early. During lunch she drove to the Atlanta Zoo to watch a gorilla caring for newborn twins. Reva stationed herself near the observation window, among the throngs of children jostling for a better view, the strollers laden with bottles and bags, the sweating mothers. The gorilla—a sign read, “Kuchi is our resident supermom!”—cradled a sleeping infant in the crook of each massive arm, hugging them to her belly. Reva strained to feel a weight in her own arms, against her own belly, a mild strangled sensation at her throat. As she wept noisily into her hands, no one seemed to notice. The heat and clamor on the human side of the partition gave her a headache, which later she addressed with several swallows from a flask she kept in the back of her file drawer.

Just before leaving her office she indulged in a supplementary round from the flask. When she passed a police car on her way home, she saluted the officer behind the wheel. Was she operating a motor vehicle under the influence? Likely she was. She imagined herself breathalyzed and handcuffed, incarcerated, her car impounded, her identification and her communication devices confiscated, sealed in plastic. At that moment the scenario did not seem unappealing.

As soon as Reva opened the back door, odors of bleach and baking lasagna assaulted her. Miles sat at the kitchen table, bent over his checkbook, bills stacked neatly at his wrist. After five years of marriage, Reva had still not grown accustomed to her husband’s startling physical presence. He was not only achingly lovely of face but well-proportioned and well-appointed, and even now seemed to inhabit an unearthly sphere, like a spirit or a star. Her first glimpse of him, at an Emory graduate student hangout called Paradiso, had constricted her breathing. To spite her own awe, she had stuck her tongue out at him, and he had ambled over and introduced himself. He was getting his MBA, she her PhD in history. He dressed like a European count who played polo, she in thrift-store dresses and men’s wingtips. He occasioned, from onlookers of every conceivable gender and age, expressions of wonder and envy and yearning, she the sporadic quizzical glance. Why he had married her she could hardly say.

“Your passport up to date?” he asked, without looking at her.

She nodded, pouring herself a tumbler of bourbon. Alcohol was a recent diversion, one meant to absorb some portion of the 44,640 minutes that comprised July.

“We’re going to Lithuania,” her husband said, less to her than to himself. “I’m taking the last two weeks in August off.” He worked in Responsible Marketing for Coca-Cola.

“Why in the world?”

Miles scrawled his signature, tearing off a check with grim satisfaction. He was the sole holdout among their friends who paid bills the old-fashioned way. “I want to see my grandfather’s homeland before I die.”

Reva had only a vague notion of a grandfather, a bespectacled Jewish salesman who had died early in Miles’s childhood. “I thought you didn’t care about your family history.”

“I care. Why else would I want to go?”

Reva could imagine a host of reasons, reasons having little to do with the ancestry of the Rubenstein clan, but it was July and she was tired of deciphering his feelings for him. “Do we have to learn any Lithuanian?”

“No one learns any Lithuanian. It’s too obtuse.” Miles curled his lips upward without achieving a smile; he had perfected this expression, which displayed a handsomeness bereft of its customary warmth, during the last several months. “Apparently, everyone there speaks English.”

“Pity,” she said, staring into her own eyes, which undulated across the glossy surface of the scotch. She would have liked August to resemble July, an inaccessible, sparsely populated expanse where it never rained, where no one spoke her language and no one understood her.

 

August was Reva’s month to hold things together. In the morning she shut off the alarm, shook Miles awake and headed for the shower. She drank her coffee black. She resumed her various correspondences, responded to phones and doorbells. She rededicated herself to her summer school class, “The History of Nothing,” guiding students through theories of the void, explorations of negative space, the problem of authentic meaning in the modern world, and held extended office hours. She poured the remaining contents of the flask into the toilet, retiring the bourbon to a dusty top shelf in the pantry. During lunch she graded papers about nothingness in The Stranger while eating a sandwich at her desk. Occasionally she tuned in to the zoo’s online “Kuchi-Cam” to watch the gorilla nurse her twins or bounce them gently as they slept. She did not cry; crying was the gateway to other, more acute outbursts—sobbing in public, for example, or throwing up or punching the wall—which were out of season on her behavioral menu, now that it was August. She handed in her grades, packed suitcases, organized travel documents, steered Miles into a cab and onto the plane, reminded him to eat the salad she had brought aboard, doled out his sleeping pill, urged him to close his eyes.

She also learned some Lithuanian, one word anyway: aciu. Thank you. She appreciated the way the word sounded, like a sneeze, except with the emphasis on the first syllable, and said it as often as possible, to counteract the cliché of the entitled American abroad. To the waiter who yawned as he brought Reva an order of cepelinai, a national specialty of potato-sheathed, ground-beef zeppelins that trembled on the plate like a trio of underdeveloped brains. Aciu. To the octogenarian vendor who glared at the tourists sifting through her wares and grudgingly sold Reva a furry black ushanka with a Red Army medallion and pull-down earflaps. Aciu. To the hotel clerk who gave Reva ice wrapped in a towel for a bee sting on her lip. Aciu. To the taxi-driving charlatans of Vilnius, one of whom charged her 50 litas (roughly $20) for a five-minute ride in the rain to the Tolerance Center. Aciu. To their tour guide/genealogist, Regina, who informed Miles that she had failed to locate evidence of his grandfather—He comes, perhaps, from Latvia?—in the Lithuanian State Historical Archives. Aciu. Aciu. Aciu. Appropriate somehow, since gratitude had become a foreign language.

 

The gorilla adopted another newborn infant, which had been abandoned by its mother, a young and inexperienced member of the tribe. Reva watched them via the Kuchi-Cam while Miles conferred with Regina about the next logical step in his search for his probably-not-Lithuanian grandfather. The gorilla managed to hold the three babies simultaneously, nursing them in turn, by all appearances unruffled by the additional responsibility. When the babies slept, coiled snugly in Kuchi’s lap, she folded her arms around them, her eyes shadowed under the hood of her brow. What was that affecting quality in her gaze? Intelligence? Wistfulness? Contentment? Domesticated savagery? A minute disappeared, an hour. Inside Reva’s throat a sharpness took shape, an ache with the impression of solidity and a sour metallic taste, which she swallowed and swallowed until it lodged inside her stomach.

 

Miles and Reva roamed the narrow cobblestone streets of old-town Vilnius, Reva consulting the map every few blocks. They resembled any vacationing couple—holding hands, peering at amber jewelry in shop windows, dodging cars and camera-sashed tourists and young women in stiletto heels pushing strollers. Hiking through a park, they stumbled upon a scenic overlook, where Reva snapped photos of centuries-old buildings with their white walls and red-tiled roofs, the spires of churches needled against a thickening purplish-black sky. Miles stood close to the edge, handsomely gloomy, his clothes elegant and unwrinkled, despite their crammed overseas sojourn inside his suitcase. He had said little since their arrival; even when he spoke, silence shadowed his voice, like an echo or a faint afterglow.

On a bridge spanning the Vilnia River, hundreds of locks cluttered the metal railings—padlocks of all shapes and sizes and varying degrees of rust, with names and dates engraved on their faces. Reva pointed to the locks with raised eyebrows; Miles shrugged, staring into the muttering water. They stopped nearby at a restaurant overhanging the river in Užupis, a bohemian neighborhood and self-proclaimed independent republic with an army of 17. At 7:30 the restaurant was nearly empty, murky daylight still hovering above the horizon.

Miles ordered Degtine—“It means ‘the burn!’” the menu declared—Lithuanian vodka, a double, his eyes red-tinged. “Regina’s taking a bunch of poets on a tour of Jewish Vilnius tomorrow morning. She wants us to tag along. I think we should.”

“Poets?”

“Don’t ask me.”

On the bridge a photographer had set up a tripod, upon which he mounted a camera with a prominently protruding lens. Miles bolted down his vodka, signaled for another. Reva sipped spoonfuls of borscht, to assuage a hunger she hardly felt.

“Think she can find your grandfather?”

“She’s not giving up. That’s what she said.” Their tour guide had apparently pulled a few strings in Riga and contacted a genealogist associate, who was charged with combing the Latvian State Historical Archives for possible leads.

Like every woman who drifted into his orbit, Regina had taken a shine to Miles. Reva certainly recognized her husband’s appeal—the passion of his ancestral longings had only intensified his beauty—but his renewed need for accumulated female intimacies rankled her. She wanted him to gravitate again toward her alone, the way he had until a few months ago, as if he were a precious metal and she the sole magnetic force that could attract him.

“Miles,” Reva said in an overloud voice.

A bride and groom in white processed across the bridge; Reva’s husband shielded his eyes, though the sun remained veiled by clouds. The newlyweds stopped to pose near the railing, a train of corsaged attendants trailing after them with video cameras and glasses of champagne. As Reva watched through the lens of her camera, the groom pulled a small object from his pocket. A lock. He held it aloft, like a prize fighter, while everyone, including Reva, documented the moment. Then he handed a second small object to the bride. A key, which she waved in the air with a triumphant grin.

“Miles.” Reva stuck out her tongue—a mistake, she knew, but her husband’s dazed impenetrability irritated and scared her.

As the groom knelt beside the bride, the waiter delivered a fresh vodka, which Miles lifted from the tray. His hand, fastened around the glass, looked alien and sculptural. The bride inserted the key into the lock, twisted it with a flourish. Turning to smile at the surrounding crowd, the groom hooked the lock around an unoccupied bit of railing and snapped the lock shut. He rose, dusting off the knee of his white pants with a vigorous slap, and Reva watched his mouth open and shut, open and shut, the bride opening and shutting in response. Finally the bride brought the key to her lips and tossed it into the river.

“Miles?” Her voice sounded flaked and discolored, as if it had rusted from exposure to the elements.

He looked at her, or into her, or through her, or beyond her—did he see her?—a pensive tilt to his head, eyes wet, the onlookers applauding, snapping pictures and making toasts.

“Miles!” Reva swallowed and swallowed.

The wedding procession trooped off the bridge and filed into Užupis, chattering and laughing. Miles gazed into his empty glass. His lips parted, a barely audible sigh, which seemed to rise from the river coursing idly below.

 

The following morning they met Regina on Žydu gatve, Jewish Street. She greeted Miles with an embrace and kisses on either cheek; for Reva, a two-fisted handshake. The poets, arrayed along the sidewalk, conversed in somber tones. A better part of the group was female, Jewish, and armed with notebooks and writing instruments and umbrellas. Before Reva had finished introducing herself, they had already adopted Miles into their company, plying him with personal questions and Coca-Cola Light, a hard-to-find commodity in old-town Vilnius.

Regina waved for their attention. She wore a floor-length flowered dress, a faux-designer newsboy cap over two frizzy braids, and lavender molded-plastic clogs, a well-worn red binder tucked under one arm. As she treated the group to a lengthy overview of Jewish life in Vilnius—known multilingually as Vilnia, Vilno, Vilna, Vilne, Wilna, or Wilno—from the 14th century to the present, she highlighted the city’s former prominence as the most significant Jewish intellectual and cultural capital in the world. Before World War II, Regina recounted, glancing at Miles, who listened moistly to her every word, Jews constituted 45 percent of the population of Vilnius. The city had at one time been deemed “The Jerusalem of Lithuania.” In September of 1941 the Nazis established two Jewish ghettos in Vilnius and subsequently liquidated them, the Small Ghetto in a matter of months, the Large Ghetto two years later, gunning down thousands in a forest outside the city. As Regina reeled off a litany of dismal war statistics—out of 105 Jewish places of worship in Vilnius, one survived; out of 155,000 Jews in Lithuania, 15,000 survived—Reva watched her mouth, which flurried and warped as if it were struggling to escape her face; her heavily accented words began to sound like an obscure foreign language, Lithuanian perhaps or Elvish.

Earlier that morning while Miles slept, face buried in his pillow, Reva had discovered a blank video screen on the zoo’s website. Operation of the Kuchi-Cam had been temporarily suspended, “for the comfort and well-being of the animals.” After a focused bout of surfing, she landed on a blog run by a zoo-crazy high school student, who was providing frequent updates on the blackout. “SUPERMOM ROBBED!!!” read the latest headline. Concerned that three babies were straining Kuchi’s caregiving capacities, her handlers had tranquilized the gorilla and removed the third infant from her custody. They planned to restore it to its rightful mother and resume streaming Kuchi-Cam footage as soon as the maneuver was accomplished. Returning to the blank screen, Reva rubbed her stomach, where a bulge was forming, a loose assemblage of gravel. Gravel hunger, jagged and pitted. Gravel dread, bent like a staple. Gravel sorrow, dust-fine. When she shook Miles awake, he looked relieved to see her, just for a moment, and then turned to the wall.

“Here was once located the house of the Vilna Gaon.” Regina pointed to an empty lot. On its edge stood a statue, a bulky, cartoonish head with a beard shaped like a hoop skirt, mounted on a rectangular plinth. The Vilna Gaon—“The word gaon signifies ‘pride’ or ‘splendor’ or in modern terms ‘genius,’” intoned Regina—was a renowned 18th-century scholar of Talmud, Torah and Jewish law, an ascetic and polymath who advocated study of the secular sciences and rejected the extremism of the Hasidim. Nearby on Žydu gatve: the Great Synagogue of Vilnius, the Synagogal courtyard, and the Strashun Library, which once housed one of the largest collections of Judaica in Europe. None of these had survived the occupying forces—the Nazis and the Soviets who followed. Regina flipped through faded photographs and drawings in her red binder, to give the poets an idea of what the area might have looked like when Jews and Christians had peacefully coexisted. “You must close your eyes,” she said with a sigh, “and imagine.”

She led them down the street where kosher butchers used to practice their bloody art, the street where the “Help Through Work” Society trained Jewish teenagers to be tailors, dressmakers, hairdressers, the street where a small group of resistance fighters barricaded themselves in a house in September of 1943 and fired at Nazi soldiers. Most of the Jewish streets had been renamed, some had been demolished, the Jewish cemeteries had been destroyed, and many of the buildings where Jews had lived and worked had been razed, newer buildings constructed in their places. Instead of streets and buildings, houses of worship and hospitals and unions and schools, not to mention the Jews themselves, or even their corpses, were plaques. A few scattered dozen of them, mounted high on walls or in other inconspicuous spots, commemorated the neighborhood’s former inhabitants, their bygone edifices and institutions, their offerings and sufferings. Reva dutifully photographed each one while Miles looked on in pained, reverent silence.

“I didn’t know there were so many forms of absence,” said one of the poets, a middle-aged woman with a cap of curls and a crooked smile.

As the group peered up at another plaque—this one marked the former Judenrat building, which housed the Jewish Council in the Large Ghetto and where 1,200 Jews were sentenced to death in the building’s courtyard—the air suddenly liquefied, beaded, downward-pelting and chill. Regina calmly popped open her umbrella, and the poets followed suit; the crooked-smiling woman shifted sideways to cover Miles with hers. Ducking under the eaves of a linen shop, Reva pressed a finger to her lip; the bee sting had faded to a dull twinge. The catalogue of Jewish affliction and vanishment was overwhelming and oddly tedious, lunch several hours away, and Kuchi was possibly still unconscious, floating insensible in the ether, and alone. Rain rushed the cobblestones with a silvery hiss, as if the old city were a ship sinking into the earth. Then abruptly it stopped, and the sun shook free of the clouds and the group shook free of their umbrellas, shuttering them and stamping their feet, and the tour continued.

“Mgrandfather hated rabbis.” Miles was sitting at the foot of the bed, staring through the parted curtains at the families dining in the hotel courtyard.

Reva curled herself around him, stroked his hair. “Why?”

“Apparently he tried to make a go of it in the kosher meat business, but the rabbis wouldn’t bless his meat unless he bribed them. Well, he couldn’t afford the bribe, so he went out of business. After that he decided all rabbis were crooks, and he spat whenever he saw one. Never set foot in a synagogue again.”

Miles drifted back into humid silence. As far as Reva knew, her husband hadn’t set foot inside a synagogue since childhood, nor had he attended Hebrew school or studied his Torah portion. His few Jewish-themed reminiscences of that era, of his cousins’ bar and bat mitzvahs, involved drinking contraband scotch with his older brother at the parties afterward. He referred to his religion only in passing, as an interesting article of trivia, just as he occasionally mentioned the undefeated season of his ninth-grade junior varsity soccer team. This was something Miles and Reva had always shared, the marginal role of Judaism in their upbringings. Every few years, as if on a whim, Reva’s mother had polished their menorah, lit the candles and recited the prayers, a Christmas tree glittering in the background.

“Miles, are you going to be Jewish now?”

“I’ve always been Jewish. So have you. Our mothers are Jewish, so that makes us Jewish. That’s Jewish law.”

“You never told me you believed in Jewish law.” Had the seed of a Jewish identity burrowed inside him at birth and lain fallow all these years, only now pushing tendrils into the open air? If spiritual awakening operated this way, why hadn’t it shuddered to life in Reva? Perhaps her soil—her soul?—was arid and barren, and nothing planted there could flourish.

“Maybe I do believe. Why not?”

“It’s just…you never…I didn’t realize….”

“You of all people should understand. You’re a historian. History is important, isn’t it?”

“History is just a series of stories. Please, Miles, you know this. It’s very unstable. Look at Jewish Vilnius. Thousands of people, a whole culture, hundreds of years in the making. Then, poof. Nothing. A story and a bunch of plaques.”

He stared at her face as if he were watching her through glass, his lips curling up at the edges. “Well, I need the story now, okay?”

Now. A foreign country. An obtuse language. A city of plaques. A body with hidden scars. “Okay,” she said.

“Thank you.” Miles held her hand, raised her knuckles to his lips.

Nine months ago, Reva had joined him for lunch at his new favorite restaurant, which specialized in upscale comfort food. As usual, several waitresses fluttered around their table, refilling their water glasses a little too often, sneaking them extra rolls and delicately plated offerings, artisanal cheeses and housemade flatbread and thimbles of soup. Miles had held her hand, kissing her knuckles one by one, and rubbed Reva’s globe-shaped belly. “Look.” He was smiling—a wild, radiant, messy grin—at the sight of Paradiso, the dive bar where they had first met. “We’re across the street from Paradise. Doesn’t it feel like that?” She had closed her eyes, held her breath, tensed every muscle, to lengthen the moment, to persevere on its inner edge, on the verge of an excruciating joy.

A man paced the perimeter of the hotel courtyard, a swaddled bundle in his arms, while the rest of his family ate. “Have you noticed how many babies there are here?” Miles asked.

Reva nodded. Babies. And young mothers. She had seen the mothers everywhere, strolling into grocery stores and banks, parked at sidewalk cafes, gazing rapturously at their cell phones, sunning themselves along the river, waving foraging bees away from their sleeping infants.

“Regina told me there’s huge incentive from the government to have children, so a lot of young women get pregnant out of wedlock. Two years’ parental leave, 100 percent of your salary the first year, 85 percent the second. Isn’t that something?”

Reva nodded again.

“Do you think if one of us had gotten two years’ parental leave…?”

Shaking her head, her lips to his eyelids, “Don’t,” she whispered.

 

Two days later and still nothing from the Kuchi-Cam. The student blogger, however, had undertaken a zoo reconnaissance mission after school and posted his findings. “SUPERMOM TO THE RESCUE!!!” screamed the day’s headline. After shooting Kuchi full of tranquilizers, zookeepers had removed the infants for a detailed physical examination. In the process they had determined the genders of the twins (one female, one male) and of the third infant (male). Unfortunately, the latter’s mother showed no signs of awakening maternal attachment when her child was returned to her. Kuchi, for her part, resumed nursing all three infants, and zoo staff members resolved not to intervene again, despite their professional reservations. Contests to name the babies were forthcoming.

Late that morning Reva and Miles boarded a mini-bus, where the poets greeted them like a celebrity couple, with cheers and blown kisses. Regina had good news: Her colleague had discovered evidence of Miles’s grandfather in Riga. If Miles and his wife could extend their trip an additional week, Regina could accompany them to Latvia, survey the archival materials with them, and guide them through what was once Jewish Riga. Regrettably, she added, Latvian efforts to memorialize the country’s Jewish population had not been as scrupulous as those in Lithuania; as a result, traces of the city’s bygone Jews were easy to miss. Yes, said Miles without glancing at Reva, they would go.

As the driver meandered through traffic on the outskirts of Vilnius, Miles conversed with the middle-aged poet about her Lithuanian great-grandmother, whose generosity and toughness had inspired a trove of family lore. Reva snapped photograph after photograph: the silver chain resting on the back of the driver’s thick neck, their tour guide’s profile framed in the rearview mirror. The thought of Kuchi emerging from sedation—the crooked smile of the poet across the aisle—and discovering the absence of her babies—the gray Gabardine pulled tight over Miles’s knee—ignited the emptiness smoldering in Reva’s stomach. A dark hair caught in the split seam of the seat back. A smudged fingerprint on the window glass.

The road leading into the Paneriai forest cut through thickets of evergreens like a thin scar. As the bus pulled into an empty parking lot, the chatter of the poets died away, and Regina tucked her red binder under one arm. Once disgorged from the bus, the group walked along a paved pathway, trees stretching on either side out of the lush summer grass. They paused at a memorial honoring the 70,000 Jews who had died in the forest, their bodies heaped into pits originally dug by Red Army soldiers for fuel storage. Regina picked up a pinecone and recited a prayer in Hebrew; many of the poets placed stones at the foot of the memorial. Reva snapped pictures: the faded outer rim of a lone puddle, her husband’s shadow spilling like ink over the bricks.

The group followed a pathway further into the forest. After several sharp bends they reached the first pit, an enormous grassy crater bordered by brick and encircled by forest, tranquil, bucolic, ethereal, like an abandoned landing site on a distant verdant planet. As the poets lined up along the treeline, Reva photographed their feet, Miles’s imported loafers darkly lustrous among the sneakers and sensible walking shoes. Reading from her binder in a hushed voice, Regina described the Nazis’ method of mass extermination: Jews were transported to the forest by train or in trucks or on foot, told to undress, herded to the edge of a pit in small groups, shot, and covered with sand. The poets cried and embraced, Miles in their midst gazing into the treetops.

The second pit was deeper than the first, a stone retaining wall crumbling around its periphery. At the bottom, a wheeled contraption made of wooden planks and metal scaffolding, hinged in the center and propped on three concrete blocks. “Ladders like this were used to make huge piles of the bodies of the killed people which were to be burned. A 2004 replica,” read a bilingual plaque. In anticipation of the advancing Red Army, Regina recounted, the Nazis commandeered 70 Jews and 10 Soviet POWs to exhume, burn and pulverize thousands of bodies buried in the pits of Paneriai, in order to destroy evidence of the Germans’ mass murders. These 80 men lived in the bottom of one of the pits, chained at the waist and ankles. Miles leaned against a tree, his forehead pressed to the bark, eyes closed, as if he were trying to regain his balance. While the poets took shots of the plaque, the ladder, the crumbling stone wall, Reva photographed the weeds and wildflowers rooted between stones.

At the third pit, three sets of stairs descended into a wide, grass-sloped basin surrounded by a coronet of dense foliage. The landscape glowed a bottomless green, as if imbued with a supernatural phosphorescence. “According to eyewitness accounts,” Regina murmured to the poets gathered at the foot of the stairs, “children from orphanages were shot on the edge of this pit.” Silence moved over them like an incoming weather front. Reva focused her camera on the pinecone, which resembled a sleeping baby animal nestled inside Regina’s fist. As she pressed the shutter button, she tried to recall if they had passed a bathroom along the way. From the edge of the pit arose a muffled, brittle choking, a rasping, like ripping fabric, with a jagged pulse, as if the forest were struggling to breathe, but it was Miles struggling to breathe, lips clamped shut, Miles staggering backward away from the pit, hands over his mouth, Miles making the thick, animal wails that seeped through his fingers.

Regina reached him first, pressed a tissue into his hand, twined an arm around his shoulder. As she spoke to him in low, soothing tones, Miles gazed at her with gratitude and relief. Reva envied her husband, wished she, too, could cry now. How could she fail to be moved by such a vast, collective suffering? She was Jewish, after all, according to Jewish law, and her history was waiting for her, and those were her people, and they had died terrible deaths here, thousands of them. Something inside her, that burgeoning seed, must have been missing, because their pain barely penetrated her, as if she were crossing a meadow of glass in thick-soled shoes. Yes, she could summon a remote sympathy, the same sympathy she felt toward Armenians and Rwandans and Native Americans and Cambodians. If only she, like Miles, could connect to that other pain, that larger, grander historical pain, perhaps it would dwarf her small, private pain. But history was nothing compared to this pain, which was merely personal and yet dwarfed everything.

“Come, they have kept the Paneriai Memorial Museum open especially for our group,” Regina announced, shepherding Miles back up the stairs, the pinecone still resting inside her hand.

 

That evening Kuchi coverage had been resumed. It was early afternoon in Atlanta, and August sunlight saturated the habitat. The gorilla sat leaning against a boulder, two babies napping in her lap. Miles had fallen asleep shortly before dinner, his eyes still swollen. He was curled on his side, fully clothed, arms folded tightly to his chest. Reva took off his shoes, pulled the comforter up to his shoulders. No sign of a third infant. Perhaps his mother was nursing him somewhere offscreen. Kuchi’s face passed momentarily into shadow and back into sunlight. The gorilla stared straight at the camera, as if she sensed Reva watching her on the other side of the screen, the other side of the ocean, and a damp hollow opened up below Reva’s ribcage.

As Reva navigated to the high school student’s blog, the hollow widened, along with a sense of foreboding. A new headline—“R.I.P.”—and a linked article, which reported that, aside from the third baby’s below-average birth weight, nothing could explain its sudden demise. Although young, inexperienced gorillas sometimes refused to raise their offspring, deficient mothering had not caused the death of the unnamed newborn. “We observed Kuchi taking excellent care of the infant,” said Dr. Maria Crane, vice-president of animal health.

Reva closed the computer and the hollow continued to expand, as if an enormous stone had fallen inside her, sinking slowly to the floor of her belly. She lay down next to her husband, crossing her arms over her ribs. The hollow rippled outward, pressed against her skin, swelled into her chest. Beside her, her husband’s face in repose—so lovely and delicate, lashes feathered over his cheekbones, mouth slack. The hollow surged through her throat and into her mouth, breaking over her lips, vibrating her breath with a force like heavy rain. Tears slid into her mouth, but she did not make a sound.

Miles layered himself against her shuddering body without waking. Through the blur of her tears, his lashes seemed to sprout minute black leaves peppered with buds. He called out faintly from a subterranean cavern of his dream. Reva pressed her wet lips to his and shut her eyes, as if she could join him there in the dream, on the edge of a scenic overlook, in Riga, his grandfather standing on a threshold, arms outspread, September rolling in like a tide, a luminous dream September, where everything was made whole again and the dead, however small, clambered out of their pits and the tiny black buds blossomed. Reva opened her eyes. A bee had flown in through the cracked-open window. It hovered around the curtains, alighted on the ceiling, crawled along the molding, took to the air. Knocking against the glass again and again, it finally found the gap between window and sill and wound its way into the twilight, a small, dark speck, almost indistinguishable from dust.

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2 Comments
  • Marilyn Newman 18:58h, 28 March Reply

    Ms. Watel,
    Enjoyed reading The Nothing of History. I, too, made a trip to Lithuania to seek my father/grandparents shtetl, etc. With all that is available on line, I wonder why Miles didn’t do research prior to going. He could have easily established that Latvia was where he needed to concentrate. BTW, wonder whether Regina is the real Regina Kopilevitch who is the foremost tour guide/researcher in all of Lithuania while Alex Feigmanis is your go to person in Latvia. Nonetheless, the story reminded me so very much of my own travel to both Lithuania and Latvia.

    • Lauren Watel 14:30h, 11 April Reply

      Marilyn Newman,
      Thanks for your comment, and thanks for reading. Yes, Regina is the real Regina, who gave us a wonderful tour of Jewish Vilnius in the summer of 2011. I was not aware of Alex in Latvia, but I’m glad to know there’s someone who fits the bill. It never occurred to me to have Miles do research online before he went. In my envisioning of the character and the situation, Miles planned the trip and the search for his grandfather as a distraction and an escape from his personal grief. He essentially handed himself over to Regina when he arrived abroad, as a way of letting someone else make decisions for him. In some ways it didn’t matter whether or not he found his grandfather. He just wanted to get away, both literally and figuratively. I hope this answers your question. Thanks again for reading the story.

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