Masha Shukovich

Things with Souls

She did not sign up for this, when she came to this country. She thought things would be easier. More straightforward. But after all these years, this place is still not home. It even smells wrong. There is no freshness, no sweet relief of a thousand bursting springs after it rains, no smell of the sea, salt, and sand on her skin; only the stench of things once green and young slowly decaying in this godforsaken humidity, much like herself.

She is sitting on the park bench, by the water’s edge, feeding bread to the ducks, even though the sign says not to. She can’t read the sign, of course, but knows what the angry, red, crossed-out circle with a duck in it means. Also, she’s been warned about it before, many times, by her grown sons, who read, write, think, dream, and live in English.

She is alone today, like every day. She can hear the children laughing and playing on the swings behind her, but she won’t turn around to look at them, their little faces bright with laughter as they fly high, up into the air. She doesn’t bring her grandchildren here anymore, now that they are no longer cooing babies in strollers with red thread tied tightly around their chubby little wrists to ward off the evil eye. They don’t speak her language and she doesn’t speak theirs. And so the spell that has bound them together from the day of their birth in some sterile hospital room of this glorious American city, as if the blood that unites them has grown little hands and fingers that interlace and embrace, has now been broken. It all saddens her so, but what is she to do?

She tries not to mourn the loss of her living and breathing grandchildren, but the spirits of her past are growing hungry and loud in her mind, not letting her rest, even at night. They make her cry out in her sleep in the chirpy, bird-like tongue of her mother and her mother’s mother, the only tongue she knows. But there is no one left to hear, and hush them, and lull them back to sleep.

Her gaze is focused on the two ducks that have now drifted closer to the shore, inches from her tiny feet, clad in sparkly blue slippers bearing the smiling faces and giant eyes of Elsa and Anna from Frozen. She doesn’t know them as Elsa and Anna, of course, but she likes their luscious hair and their coy smiles that show no teeth.  She doesn’t realize these are a child’s slippers she is wearing; she bought them because she liked them and they fit. They are blue and sparkly like the sea that she misses so much and still sees in her dreams.

One of the ducks, the pluckier, more daring one, is large and charcoal grey. It glides on the water, its shiny, chocolate brown chest puffed up, its petite green head held up high. The other one is small and brown, speckled, and almost indistinguishable from the brownish-green water of the manmade pond. The small one is timid, shyly deferential to the bigger one, as if it’s trying to occupy as little space as possible. “This one is clearly female,” she nods, knowingly, smiling to herself.

Abruptly, as if from nowhere, a single white and grey seagull waddles over, screeching and flapping its mighty wings. It startles her, and she suddenly laughs, like a child, caught off guard. She has never seen a seagull here before, in this landlocked place that has sealed her dreams away.

This place is supposed to be brimming over with all kinds of freedoms, and yet, she feels so trapped here. Like her lungs have suddenly become too large for her chest and too small for the air she needs to breathe to keep her soul alive. Like she is shut in a perfectly lovely and safe, intricately carved wooden jewelry box, but cannot muster enough strength to push the lid up and let herself out, into the fresh air. In a flash, she remembers a pair of gold hoop earrings that her mother gave her on her wedding day, oh so many years ago. Back then, they were imbued with possibility and hope, and now, they are trapped inside a jewelry box, tarnished, tired, never to be worn again. And her mother is long dead, God bless her soul.

The seagull is still there, looking at her with its small, unblinking, penetrating eyes. She spreads her arms wide to show it that she has no food for it, no tasty morsels hidden in her sleeves. Just these old, tired bones, wrapped in the flimsy sheets of her old woman’s skin, clad in a bright red man’s t-shirt three sizes too large. The shirt has a white Sriracha hot chili sauce logo on it, featuring a regal-looking rooster in mid stride. She knows the shirt is way too baggy for a woman of her minute size, but she doesn’t mind. She really likes the rooster, you see. She can still remember having one just like that when she was a little girl.

The rooster was her playmate. Her friend. They would root together for little black beetles in the sandy soil behind her parents’ decrepit little whitewashed house all day long, working silently, side by side. She would build miniature houses for the beetles, from which they would inevitably and frustratingly escape. She would bury the ones that had died in elaborate ceremonies involving fragrant wild flower wreaths and scraps of fabric stolen from her mother’s loom. Sometimes, her rooster would attend a beetle funeral exhibiting the appropriate degree of moroseness and quiet melancholy. Other times, he would grow hungry and impatient and end up eating both the terrified mourner beetles as well as the deceased, resting motionless, innocent and unsuspecting, in their miniscule tombs made of sand and wild flower petals.

She would wake up each morning upon hearing his call, and together they would greet the dawn. Then, one day, her grandmother decided that the rooster was too old and too useless and a waste of perfectly good grain he was gobbling up each day. But in reality, her grandmother was just tired of eating fish.

So her grandmother caught the rooster; carried him, struggling and trembling, his red crest and brown feathers shiny in the morning sun, over to the old tree stump in the middle of the yard; and chopped his head off in one swift swing of her sharp little hatchet. Then her grandmother plucked, gutted, and cleaned the carcass, and made it into a thick, greasy soup, rich with aromatic herbs. The whole family praised her grandmother’s dish, but she, her very own granddaughter, refused to eat it. And when her grandmother tried to force a spoonful of it down her reluctant throat, she vomited all over the table and her grandmother’s angry, gnarled hands. She was sick with fever for days after that and didn’t get out of bed until there was no trace of that soup left in the house and no remnant of its pungent, sickening smell left in the air.

Her rooster’s name was Red. She should have listened to her mother and never have named him. “Naming an animal gives it more than just a name,” her mother had warned. “It gives it a face and a soul. And it’s very hard to eat things with souls.”

She sighs deeply as the memory dissolves and rests her gaze on the pond. The sun is in her eyes now, but still she catches a strange reflection in the water for a split second: that of a small, hunch-backed woman, wearing an oversized red shirt and a headscarf, her face so lined that it looks like a once shiny, but now long-forgotten, withered apple that was lovingly placed in a child’s lunch box, but was instead dropped by the trash can and never eaten. And as the breeze ripples the water again, and she can only see the jagged, amorphous forms of trees and bushes lining the park mirrored in it, the realization hits her: she’s looking at her own reflection. “When did I ever get so old?” she wonders.

A sudden clicking sound attracts her attention. It’s the seagull, now perched on the back of the bench she’s sitting on, snapping its long, sharp beak. “I don’t have anything for you,” she declares firmly. The seagull lets out a high-pitched shriek, clearly skeptical. “Shoo!” she cries, as if talking to a dog, or a chicken, or a petulant child. The seagull doesn’t budge. It keeps staring at her with its beady eyes, as if it’s privy to things she cannot possibly see or comprehend. “I had a bird once,” she mutters. The seagull cocks its smooth, white head to one side, as in contemplation. And so they sit there quietly, together, the seagull and the old woman, their reflections mirrored in the still water of the pond.

The sun is setting now and the shadows of trees are lengthening. It’s time to go home, she realizes, so she stands up, smooths her long black skirt and her red shirt, and shakes off a few breadcrumbs that had fallen on Elsa’s smiling face when she was feeding the ducks. As she stands up from the park bench, stretching her numb limbs, the seagull perks up, too, spreads its wings and rises up in the air, slowly, lazily. It flies over to the swings, now devoid of children who are all gone home for dinner, and waits. “What do you want from me?” she asks, maddened by this insolent bird. The seagull stares back at her silently, brazenly, shifting its weight from one pink scaly foot to the other. It looks so out of place in this landlocked city, an absurd, bizarre, alien creature that clearly doesn’t belong.

Exasperated but also intrigued, she walks over to it, and plops herself heavily on one of the swings. She’s so tiny that her feet clad in sparkly blue slippers barely graze the ground below. She looks, questioningly, imploringly at the seagull. The seagull stares back, silent. And then, without warning, the wind picks up and moves her swing ever so slightly forward and she suddenly knows why she’s here, and why the seagull is here, both of them so far away from the sea where they belong. So she stretches her skinny little legs patterned with purple spider veins, clutching firmly at the chains that keep the swing tightly bound to its frame, and she lets herself go, with a child-like, gleeful shriek, her voice mingling with that of the seagull, a little girl once again. Free. Flying.