A Surchildby Yuriy Tarnawsky
Through the sound of water flowing, as if through that of lips whispering softly in my ear, I could hear the voice call my name, stubbornly, over and over, flying high up into the sky, not finding me there, then diving down toward the earth and spreading out along it to look for me among the houses, trees, and bushes crowned by the shiny, new, still not fully formed leaves, to finally find me perched on the trunk of a tree leaning over the water, my favorite spot for watching it slip away into the mysterious, longed-for unknown.
As always, having done my homework first thing on coming home from school, rushing, in less than half an hour, I had run off to the river to pursue my imaginary life there until they called me to supper. But it wasn’t a call to supper—the sun had still not set and the voice wasn’t a woman’s or a child’s but a man’s, it sounded like my father’s. My heart sank and my stomach cramped because I knew the news wasn’t going to be good. He had come home early from work, so something extraordinary must have happened. But there was no point avoiding fate. Sooner or later it would find me, so I might as well face it right away. Closing my eyes for an instant and giving a deep sigh I tore myself away from my only friend, the river, and wearily, like an old man, dragged myself home.
He wasn’t waiting for me on the porch as I had expected but I found him in the living room busy putting some things into a pile which, again with a sinking heart, I noticed were my clothes. He stopped what he was doing and spoke to me. He said he had to reveal to me that I was a surchild and since I was about to turn eleven it was time for me to leave. I wasn’t surprised by what he said. As every child does I had feared I belonged to that class of unfortunate beings and thought I had seen signs to this effect all along but I never was sure. One always hopes for the best for how else could you go on living. But as he gave me the news I realized that indications this was so had been there clear and unambiguous for a long time except I had been merely refusing to acknowledge them. Now they gave strength to what my father had told me and there was no point in denying it or protesting what it implied. No exceptions to this were ever made.
My father got a little gray suitcase out of a closet—(Had it been gotten expressly for this purpose?—Very likely so.)—and put my things in it. There was room in it for more but he wasn’t going to put anything else. Still he wavered.... He was going to give me something else after all. He opened a drawer and got a picture of himself and my mother and went to put it in the suitcase. But then he stopped himself. He explained he shouldn’t do it because this would make it harder for me to forget them. He put the picture back in the drawer and got another one—of me, taken last summer, sitting on the trunk of the tree I had just gotten off and staring intently into the water. I must have seen something interesting there at the time but I don’t remember what. He said I could take it along and laid it on top of the things in the suitcase. Then he closed it and gave it to me. It felt light in my hand—carrying it wouldn’t present a problem even for me.
We had to leave that very moment, he explained. My siblings—brothers and sisters—had all gone off with their friends and my mother was busy in the kitchen, so I couldn’t say good-bye to them. He stood still, facing the door, obviously waiting for me to make the first step. I walked to the door, opened it, went out into the hallway, walked up to the outside door, opened it, and stepped outside. He followed me, closing the doors as he passed through them.
A trace of dusk had started to show in the air as we walked down the path to the street in front of our house and as I glanced over my shoulder at the home I was born in it looked cozy against the still pale sky like a person comfortably ensconced on a sofa under a warm blanket. I would never see it again! We came to the street, crossed it, turned left, walked the short distance to the footbridge over the river, climbed the steps to it, walked over the bridge, climbed the steps on the other side leading to the street above, got onto the sidewalk, and turned right, in the direction of the center of town.
There were few people in the street and no traffic, so we crossed it at an angle and proceeded along the sidewalk on the left. The door of the big stone church of St. Ignatius was open as we passed it and I could hear singing coming from the inside. It was May, the month dedicated to the Virgin, and the usual vespers services devoted to her were in progress. Female—mostly girls’—voices predominated and I thought that some of my sisters were very likely there; they had always been attracted to the formal aspects of religion. In the vast dark space I glimpsed, high up on one of the walls, part of an inscription in large gold letters chiseled into polished black granite, “DOM”, obviously for “DOMINUS”, probably part of the phrase “GRATIA TIBI DOMINE” (“Thank you, Lord”)—I couldn’t remember for sure. In the nearby park the carousel could be heard playing. It had opened recently. Shrill children’s voices—shouts of joy—would pierce from time to time through the wistful music.
Farther along we passed stores that were still open—grocers’, that in the summer would have boxes of fragrant, as if artificially perfumed, fruit arranged neatly in them—plums, peaches, cherries, apples, pears—but now only the early vegetables—radishes, scallions, salad—probably grown in hothouses; bakers’, with rosy-cheeked rolls sending forth their fragrance, like babies their joyful presence, through the open doors into the street; butchers’, redolent with smoked meats, tantalizing as fancy pastries; pastry shops, smelling of vanilla and chocolate, with customers seated at little round marble-topped tables engrossed in consuming the delicious choices they had made. Some of the owners or workers in the stores waved at my father as we walked by and he in a friendly fashion waved back at them.
I knew where we were going—to the town square, to get a cab. There was a line of them parked along the sidewalk in one corner of the square, their drivers gathered in a spot, chatting, while the horses dozed with their heads hung down. My father walked up to one of them and asked if he was willing to go for a ride out of town. He readily agreed and gave me a furtive, embarrassed look, apparently understanding what was happening.
We climbed into the cab, my father whispered something in the driver’s ear, and we drove off. At first I sat up straight, looking around, enjoying the view from my seat, for I had not had many occasions to go for a ride in a cab. But when the cab turned the corner into a street my father pushed me back against the cushion, got a piece of cloth—a wide, gray band—out of his pocket, and tied my eyes with it. He explained to me I must not know where I was going so that I couldn’t come back. I understood—knew—this and offered no resistance.
We drove for a long time, at first along cobble-stoned streets, as I could tell from the sound that the horse’s hoofs and the wheels of the cab made on them, then along a road paved with crushed rocks and sand, and finally on plain dirt. From time to time my father would stand up and whisper instructions in the driver’s ear.
The band wasn’t tied very tightly around my eyes, so I could see a little from under it as I threw my head back. I watched us drive through the center of town, then through the shabby Jewish quarter with its single-storied homes with weather-beaten walls and dusty windows tightly shut up, some right along the street, others behind broken wooden fences; then the suburbs with sparsely spaced homes, whitewashed, surrounded by dark, spacious orchards; and finally open fields.
A couple of times my father pushed my head down, telling me not to look, but eventually gave up. What I could see would be of no help to me.
The air got fresh out in the country and smelled of plowed fields and new vegetation. We drove on and on, first this way, then that, my father now giving the driver instructions openly, without getting up. Finally he told the man we were there. The cab stopped. My father put the suitcase in my hand, took me by the other one, and helped me out. He told me to move forward and led me off a short distance. The road was soft under my feet. My father spun me around a few times, faced me away from himself, told me to count to one hundred before taking off the band, bid me luck, and ran off toward the cab. In a few seconds I heard it drive off at a fast pace. The driver cracked his whip and yelled at the horse.
I started counting. Getting to thirty was easy. At around seventy it got to be a drag. By the time I got to eighty I couldn’t wait until it was over. I got to ninety in half the time it had taken me to get from one to ten. At ninety six I had my hand on the band and had started to turn around. At ninety eight I pulled the band off and stood with it hanging down in my hand. It draped along the dirt road as if trying to join it.
There were gentle hills everywhere, with plowed fields like soft blankets carefully spread over them. In some of them the vegetation had started to come up, looking unnaturally green against the reddish earth. The road I stood on was crossed by another one about ten paces ahead of me. Its end disappeared behind one of the hills in the distance. The other road did the same on the right and the left. The cab was nowhere to be seen. It must have just hidden behind one of the hills. I knew neither which way it had driven off nor where it had come from. There were no homes nor signs of people anywhere. I clearly faced west because the sky ahead of me on the horizon was pale. It got progressively darker—bluer—toward the zenith. There was still no moon but surprisingly high above the earth, amidst the dark blue, the evening star already shone bright. It looked unnaturally big and I turned away from it, bothered by it as if by a diamond digging itself painfully into my skin. Before me the road disappeared in the darkness. It seemed that just a few yards up ahead was a solid black wall—I wasn’t sure whether a dense forest or the night.
Tarnawsky is a bilingual American/Ukrainian writer, born in Ukraine but raised in the West.