My speckled hands fade away in the crumbling dirt. I look down as the dust-riddled wind playfully brushes over them creating the illusion that my knuckles, although cracked and red stained, are a never-ending expanse of rolling hills. Each fleshy trough is met with a bony crest; each bony crest, a fleshy trough; and so the mountainous skeletal frame of a man goes on. Even the most practiced illusionist would believe that these hills once harboured laughter and smiles and most of all, love.
I know better however. These hands are not hills. Hills would never find the end of their climb to note their beginning. Instead, a hill is connected to the Earth, and the Earth is connected to all. There is no end, only beginnings forever. My hands have lost all connection sometime ago. Despite the ability to lift barrels of hay, feed a family of two, boost a tiresome body to await the disasters of an early morning, and cradle the same tiresome body into a bed at night, these hands are foreign to me. They are strangers I can never rid of. When I mesh my hands together, trying to look through them, they become a fleshy prison that I cannot see beyond.
Sweat beads propagate over her face like a cloud swelling from impending rain. She pants a moan of exhaustion. The grip on my hand becomes ever tighter with each laborious breath. Her eyes fade in and out. When in, they dance around the room hypnotically. While they dance, she gazes into far corners of the whitewashed room, corners which have not been looked at for years. She says, “This house oh so very dirty. Just look at those cobwebs. So very dirty indeed.” I look, and there are none. There in the corner lays nothing save for the persistence of humanity attempting to perfect geometry. Yet in each little vertex, imperfection abounds. Like a river flowing over a rock, these corners will wear and be reduced down to dust, a testament of the imperfection that humanity can never rid of.
“Why isn’t Grandma here?” She immediately moans after. Grandma is dead. She knows this. Or at least she once did. But regardless of her prior understanding of the world, she whispers to the imperfect corners, “Ah. There she is.” Her eyes flutter out and just as momentary wakefulness was, it passes and she is asleep. A satisfied smile creeps onto her lips. She mutters a question while in the arms of Morpheus, “Where … where did she go?”
Somewhere in between the land of her consciousness and cotton-candy dreams, I find myself. In those few moments of lucidity, I try to make her look me directly in the eyes. I wish I can scream, “Never let me go” but her hands are frail and weak, and if I grab on too hard, despite having the will to hold on to her forever, I will surely break her. Bones will disintegrate, capillaries will collapse, and the woman I love so dearly will become a woman I loved so dearly. If only I could hold her for a million years until she felt my love.
Despite this, I hold tighter even though previously I thought I could not do so. I must. Maybe, if I hold long enough, I can transfer my life force. I have tried kissing every end of her body, from her curled toes to the dead ends of her hair. My lips became a roadmap to her curves, and her goosebumps became the Braille in trying to find her cure. But nothing helped. It seemed that my kisses only transmitted germs and saliva, and she worsened with each one.
Besides, her and I have passed enough of lip acrobatics for a lifetime. But some nights, when her hand horizontally sways towards the floor as if it were a pendulum clock counting down its last seconds, I do wish she could kiss me back. At least that way while our lips pass a secret code only we both know, I can remember a life that we shared together. Yet time grinds forward, and she ebbs away in front of me with a belly as large as the sun. So all I can remember is this; now; the present; a misnomer. For if this is my present in time, a gift I should cherish, then it is a nightmare. It is the gift I never asked for nor one that I can ever return.
Laughter fires off somewhere in the distance. It is a cold, hard sputtering of a snicker. From the harshness of the sound emitted, it sounds as though it comes from a person who has seen the world too many times to ever wish to see it again. I barely notice. These hands, despite being imposters attached to a body that is less than skin and bones, mesmerize me. Somehow the red colour of them smeared against my skin is glowing like a ruby glistening in the sun. Sadly, however, there is no sun. Overcast clouds blanket the rosy-cheeked rays. Without sun, this – this minefield of soon to be coal – is no place for a ruby. My hands, and the gems studded on olive-dyed overcoats and vacant eyelids, are the only rubies around.
I’m kneeling in the mud. Flies fly overhead. As do planes. A scream rings in one ear, a swelling of saliva in another. Such are the common sounds in a world that no longer exists, for a people that no longer breathe, and for an Earth that no longer blossoms. Men bark this way and that, as if their wasted breaths can stimulate growth on a dying planet. They growl at me as well, but their anger is captured in the medium of an incomprehensible language. Despite not recognizing the words particularly, I understand them completely. They are saying, Him. Him. He is the cause of all this. It will be over when he is. Metal strapped to their sides do most of the talking.
They banter continuously that I am a pestilence, a disease, the scum that coats the sides of the most atrocious gutters, and the gunk at the bottom of their shoes. I was the reason that trench foot was ever so rampant. I was the reason that not all battles were victorious. My biggest crime though, despite causing a world that will never blossom again and despite staining my own hands red as if this ruby allure was something I desired, was that I was a human. A special kind of human. The worst kind, that is.
But I never asked to born this way. In fact, I never asked to be born at all.
Suddenly, she wakes up. It was a particularly long sleep, one with fits and endless tossing. The night before, she threw up continuously, and regardless of my best efforts to wash her face, droplets of insoluble vomit stain her once porcelain skin. She looks at me almost sorrowfully, perhaps expecting for me to say that she is beautiful. But with a crown of bile caked across her face, I can’t bring myself to do this. What a horrible man I am. What a horrible human life has shaped me to become.
Her mouth opens slightly and a flake of an upset stomach floats like a boat in the wetness of her lips. Teeth beam themselves into full view as she wriggles her tongue into all shapes and forms except the one necessary to produce words. Desperately, she clicks and clacks her tongue like a rock striking flint to produce fire. But if there is fire in her lungs, it stays there. Even if she wished to quote the Law, she wouldn’t be able to. Nor would she want to anyways. Her calls to God went unanswered, and so, she didn’t use His calls to her.
But she continues on breathlessly. Her eyes swell out from their sockets. Her hands tremor and shake. Such pain riddles her body all for a few words to linger from her rosary lips like prayer. In this fleeting moment, while her and time both fade before me, I realize that for that she is mine again. I recognize her persistence, shear will, and unquenchable fortitude. I rub her the frame of where her shoulders should be in encouragement. I kiss her all over, even the areas drenched in vomit. I love her again, if only for a little while.
She continues her tongued balancing act and a smell of piss and blood strikes my nostrils. It overwhelms me, and congeals with the already sweat saturated air. This only makes the room’s musty stench worse. She remains oblivious to it. I presume it is all exuding from her anyways. I look, and underneath her garments, it appears as though water is flowing, or if anything, leaking. I look back at her terrified and confused. I am helpless. I have no idea what is going on. She nods, and then looks at me, grabs my hands, and in a tremendous effort that must’ve shook the stars from the night sky as both the universe and I began to cry, she whispers “Love always.”
As soon as those words leave her lips, she begins to tremble, cry, and laugh. It is a chilling combination of sorts. Her face remains perfectly calm despite the earthquake racing through her veins. Then, all of a sudden, she stops. Not a sound escapes. The room becomes a vacuum of painful echoes. She is dead.
But in the wake of death, comes life; for only from the rubble of destruction can creation be built upon. Her stomach flattens, her heart stops, and a blue baby screams its way into the cold, harsh world.
I look around. What seems like millions upon millions of men surround me. They comprise the nearly desolate, flat landscape. From above, it would probably look like they were ants crawling around. Do I know any of these men? All; none; some, by different variances at different times. But such an answer doesn’t matter much with planes overhead. All that matters is what each men is doing. Actions, not labels, make the men who they are. So, some men stand along the edge of a wide hole, starring into it. Others have dug the hole and now stand in it. Others sit. Others lay. Others have become what all human become: fountains.
In the hole, I recognize some of the faces. Their names call out to me, even though their voices do not. Josef, Jove, Michal. And so on. Good, good people. They lived modest lives. Josef, waterlogged in a wave of mud, was a blacksmith. Jove, a tailor. Michal, a child. That was all lifetimes ago. Those ways in which they lived before, filled with unique obstacles and unrelenting aspirations, are no more. They all only have one path now; one lifetime, so to speak. To follow it, their mouths gape open involuntarily and flies buzz around their teeth.
The other men I do not recognize, but they gazz at me regardless. Their eyes display horror, fear, and anger. For what, I am not sure. Some men, however, do not need a reason to be angered. Like apes, they are slaves to their instinct. The rationality they purport to carry is a lead weight, and on the wrong shoulders, it will having crushing results. Under its indomitable influence, men drink. They fight. They holler and hoot. Now, following the trail of the rationality’s lead weight, I see that rationality has caused the men to follow by virtue of their obedience.
And even though their steadfast loyalty is a virtue, I am now at the mercy of men just following orders, and I have never been more afraid.
“Daddy. Daddy.” A juvenile voice chimes breathlessly. The words lap themselves around the silence of a rural farmland, breaking it into cheerful echoes. Barley fields sway in the reverberations of the voice that is carried by the wind. “Come find me.” The voice lightheartedly calls out again. A cheerful giggle ends the command, as if to signal an ellipsis of never-ending happiness.
On command, I remove the two mollusk shells covering my eyelids. They congeal with my eyebrows in a sticky, painful emulsion. A few eyebrows are lost as I cleave off the shells with bitter force and resignation. I’d of much rather preferred that my battered hands were covering my eyes, but the voice wouldn’t hear of it. It knew I wouldn’t disobey the Law.
As a result, it whispered the sweet nothings of words uttered long ago under the avalanches of sand, “All that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you.” And so, I had abominations masking my eyelids.
Oh, what silliness. Breaking the Law by touching mollusks. But I must do so for these are the things I would do for the voice, my daughter. Most of all, these are the things I would do for love. Even though we are apart now and my hand has let go of hers to play this game, it feels as if her fingernails are still painting their loving stroke against mine.
Throwing away the shell of the man I used to be – full eyebrows and all – I go out to search for her. In the expanse that is the golden barley fields of Vinnitsa, Ukraine, she could be anywhere. Like a tiger stalking its prey, she could lurking amidst the golden foliage. Or maybe due to her cheerful alacrity, she could be like a puma shadowing itself amongst the shade. The possibilities were endless. They were meant to be, however. I wanted to make my daughter feel like she could do anything. Nothing was ever discouraged, even at the expense of cloaking my eyes with the “abomination” of the Law.
Sometimes, however, even the Law can be bent for the people you love or at least, for the people who love you back. I think that is the Ten Commandments summed up in a sentence. If not, then here is the summary: love always. A woman once told me that.
I know this true because despite that woman, I once got so close to God that I could lean over and brush her hair, or play dolls with her, or fight an imaginary battalion of goblins. But we chose none of these options. Instead, God drew a poorly drawn heart on our dining table. Usually, I’d have gotten mad but for some reason I didn’t. Maybe it is because the lines were haphazardly constructed; the frame of the heart appeared as if one could only shake the table, it would whisk away. Red crayon bubbled within the poorly constructed organ. God looked at me, then back to her drawing, and said, “Daddy, look: the Ten Commandments.”
Underneath the mercy of the sun, the mud dries itself underneath my fingernails. These foreign hands similarly bake and crust. My knuckles, regardless of their ancient wrestling match in the dirt, can no longer create the illusion of hills. Flat wouldn’t even be an apt description of them. Instead, the corpulent hills that once were deluded enough to believe that they could cradle laughter forever had turned into earth, and that earth had turned into mud, and that mud had dried, and only from dryness does the dust rise. Now, the dust of my hands whistles in the wind, chanting a lament of unrequited desires, forgotten names, and lost love.
Someone in a tempestuous-voice was whistling along with the dust in the wind. As the person chimed along with the wind, it was as though the person believed that they were an accompanist to such misery. If they were, then they were doing an excellent job for the person had a piercing whistle. As their shrill coalesced against the wind, the echoes of the past must of been distorted. It seemed like time itself shook to a foundational stop because this whistle took command of everything else. The planes that flew overhead were quiet. The flies that once buzzed around could not be found. Oddly enough, the whistling was steering my way.
In a few infinities and back, the whistling reached me. Somehow, this sound belonged to a man. It was horrible to think that anyone could ever sire such a sound. He was cloaked in black suit, although it did not appear to be his suit by any means. He seemed unused to wearing it as he shuffled around attempting to find just the right fit. It folded over his arms and hung over his legs. The shirt collar was much too large, and the whole suit seemed to fit him like a circus tent. He looked unhappy. At no point was there any harmony between himself and the suit. To be honest, it looked as though he had found his clothes in a poor man’s trash can.
And yet despite his appearance, he looked much better than I did. He flashed a grisly smile at me as to confirm this. His teeth were coated in black tar. I knew why he had come. Here was just another man following orders. Just another man living according to his virtues. An impenetrable blackness oozed from his lips.
Sifting through the options in my mind, I leap into the barley fields. My young daughter is certainly hiding herself in the golden fields that match her golden hair. She has an affinity to the seemingly endless nature of the fields. She’d much prefer if I said “endless fields”. In her mind, words like “seemingly” were just a slew of syllables and letters harpooned together in order to waste space on a page. “Emptiness has to be filled up with something,” She’d say.
But she couldn’t understand where does this something end, especially these barley fields. Before we began the game on this sunny, harmless day, she asked, “Do these fields really go on forever? Because I always walk and walk and walk, and I can never reach the end, no matter how close I feel to it.” I grin back at her curious face attempting to crunch the answers of infinity, “Even if we cannot see the ending, that doesn’t mean that there is none.” She stares perplexed. “What if I can almost taste it?” I let out a chuckle. “Nothing is more strange than infinity, and what did I tell you about putting strange things in your mouth? Besides that, it would probably taste bad. Like millions-upon millions-of-human-souls-tirelessly-trying-to-and-failing-to-understand-it kind of bad. “
“Is that worse than Grandma’s cooking?” She shyly squeaks, embarrassed by the slim chance that she may have innocently offended her Grandmother. Laughing, I answer, “Worse.” At that she becomes afraid and goes galloping off on the horse of her imagination into the barley fields. She fades away into the rosy sunlight, and it looks as though she might very well be the first person to find “the end”, despite my warning.
Remembering this, I saunter into the fields as well. My clumsy feet attempt to mimic her little steps. If I was a true parrot, my feet would rhythmically pound in the fertile soil and bounce around on gravity itself. Left, right. Left, right. And so she would continue on weightlessly. However I am only human, not a parrot. As a result, my feet are like anchors splashing into the water. They trudge through the life-giving soil and up root potential barley plants. With a tsunami wave where my feet should be, I am left only with the desolate ruins of construction and the ever-lingering question in the aftermath of destruction, “How is that divine daughter of mine related to me when she can float and I can only sink?”
With that thought on my mind and the silence of the game of hide-and-seek as my company, a blistering scream swells in the distance. It is louder than anything I have ever heard in my life. It causes my heart to halt. It belongs to a woman. A girl. An angel. My daughter.
My knees weaken in the sinking mud. Like my hands, the mud is an inharmonious mixture of redness and darkness. It appears as though the colours have attempted to mold themselves together with an elemental promiscuity. Swirls met shapes, and curves met lines, but despite the natural forces best effort, darkness and redness was all that the mud could be. Nothing more. Nothing less. The man with the ooze dribbling from his lips stares at it, then to me, and lets out a ghastly chortle. I probably look like a pig lathering itself in this mixed mud. He spits into my face, and his saliva drips into the redness. Unlike the mud, the saliva blends effortlessly.
For some reason or another, this mud, despite its unmixable ingredients, has value some how. History – the story where men fight over things they think they own – constantly sings this tune. War has been waged over such mud. Lives have been lost on top of it. Even the fountain of redness is a testament to history’s tale. But while glaring into the blackened drool of the man pacing in front of me with a parachute for a suit, I wonder why history must be so.
A memory flutters into the blanket of my thoughts and I am brought back to a time that seems ancient: two weeks ago. With my daughter resting her head against my lap, she wonders about the war ongoing in Poland and expanding into Ukraine. She asks innocently, “Why are people fighting, Daddy?” Unfortunately, there is no innocent answer, even though my hand is leaving long trails of lingering love in her hair. I try to dodge the question as I have never been in a war myself. “Mostly because one country badly offends another.” I say.
She closes her eyes, and scrunches her face into question mark. “A country? But that doesn’t make much sense. A river in one country cannot offend a river in another. Nor can a forest, nor a farm, nor a field of barley.”
“You’re right,” I say, “but the people of the country, those that give its name and rules and reason, they become offended…”
“Then why have people come into Vinnitsa? I don’t feel myself offended. Daddy, we’re simple folk. And so are the men who invade us. I have seen some of them in the major city. They are scared. One of them I saw was a shoemaker. Now why would a shoemaker want to attack us?”
“Simple or not, they have become invaders. But perhaps that is too harsh for it isn’t the men who invade exactly, but the rulers who commandeer the men, and thus, it is the rulers who are ultimately offended. They tell others that they are offended and then these ‘simple’ men attack as ordered.”
“But who would ever offend them? They have everything they can ever want already.”
“I’m not so sure about that. Rulers are people with wants, needs, and aspirations. Many leaders have not had a war up till now. And every leader needs at least one war, otherwise they would not become famous. Only famous people find themselves in the history books.”
“So the only reason for war is to make history? Why not peace instead? Wouldn’t that be nicer to write about?”
“Dear. I am not sure. To me, war is a kind of sickness. No one knows why it starts, and no one in particular wants it, but then all at once, there it is.”
“I don’t feel sick.”
“Either do I, but the world does… ”
And as the memory begins to wilt away, bombs fire off in the distance, men are forced to huddle into trenches, and leaders check in on the battle when the smoke has cleared and the blood has been poured.
I race through the fields, indifferent now to their life-giving prowess. My life, or at least the life I have given, had belted out a scream. Did she fall off a tree? Did she find a dead rat? The possibilities seemed endless, and despite wanting exactly this for my daughter, I willed to be a hypocrite of my own accord.
Silence once again overtook the fields. Even as I push by them, not a sound escapes the brushing of barley bristles against my skin. The sun continues to pour its rich, indifferent smile. Every day it does this. It rises without request. It sets without consent. Most are happy with this pattern. Usually I am. But today, when fear has sublimed into the shadows of my heart, the sun is a nuisance. It illuminates a field golden, yet it forgets that gold only has value if humans make it so.
Most of the time, they do. These golden fields in particular are something both cherished and desired by men. They provide both wealth and happiness in equal proportions. When tending them, however, I try to not bother with such lavishness. To me, these fields have provided me with just enough life that I can survive. My hopes are that they will continue to do so. Then they will be past down to my daughter, and she will pass them down to whomever she wills. That is happiness – generations upon generations of love. The money they produce isn’t. Truly, the barley fields understand this relationship; the relationship of love, that is. That is why they have grown so beautifully full this summer. Yet as I quickly trek through them, they seem to shy away from my loving touch.
Perhaps it is because of my missing daughter and her scream. My one wish was to make her happy, and loving her is how I made her so. But without her now, who am I to love?
As this question floods into my mind, a second scream stings the air, and this time, I can feel the sound entering my pores. She must be nearby because my hair stands on end like a porcupine attempting to protect itself from a lion. I run to the source of the sound and unintentionally, to the source of my worst nightmares.
It seemed that while running, I must’ve reached the end of the barley fields. There was no more of the familiar pricking of stems against me. I didn’t notice this earlier. Barren earth met my feet, not a sea of yellow oats. It was an odd realization, but in its untimely fruition, I could finally answer my daughter’s question, “What did the ending taste like?” Standing there in unfamiliar grounds, the ending tasted like sadness. Because a few feet after the border of the field ended, and the barren earth began, was a man slogging around in an olive-dyed overcoat, an empty shell that even a shellfish wouldn’t climb into, and my daughter’s yellow hair stained red.
He finally stops pacing. It seemed as though he has made up his mind. With the millions of eyes upon him, he steps behind me. His hat sways a bit as he shuffles his feet into position. He is serious. So, so serious.
I think that’s why the world is how it is, and why I am kneeling in the mud, and why humans can become fountains, and why others can become stiff as a board, and why others continue toil around as if they were kings of the Universe. Seriousness, not any other human or any other reason, is the cause of most problems. The words of a gay man swim unto the desert of my lips, “Humanity takes itself too seriously. It’s the world’s original sin. If the caveman had known how to laugh, history would have been different.”
Maybe I would have been different too. These foreign hands may have never let go of my daughter’s hand. They should have been strong. They should of harboured her laughter, but now, as they graze in the dirt, all they have are the memories of her painted unto them. I have not washed my hands since the moment after I picked her up from the ground on which her life had everlastingly ended, and death had everlastingly began. She looked beautiful.
A flash blinds me for a moment. The man behind me prepares himself. Metal grinding against metal happily chimes along. It prepares. It hisses. The man rolls one of his sleeves and attempts to dab the black ooze from his lips. A flash blinds me again. I stare directly into it. I clench my foreign hands into a fist. I whisper my daughter’s name.
This picture is known as the “Last Jew in Vinnitsa”. It displays the virtue of men following orders. It displays death. It displays a man who, although his name is unknown and life is forgotten, will be remembered forever. For only when the clocks stop, does everlasting have any meaning. Infinity begins when we end.