THE FELT. SOFT, UNSHAPEN, of a violet color. With her slight, almost translucent fingers, Alina holds both sides. Her back is bent, one narrow shoulder is lower than the other, her eyes are glued to the violet fabric; long, thin, tousled hair covers her face. With a pale thread, she stitches two felt pieces together, then says to herself, as though mocking a condescending adult, “Be careful with a large needle. Don’t be clumsy, don’t prick yourself—otherwise there’ll be blood.”
Uttering the last word, Alina grimaces as if she is a blood-thirsty, menacing, mustachioed villain from the movies. With her squinted eyes under plain plastic glasses, freckled cheeks and a missing tooth on the left side, she looks nothing like a bully or bandit—rather, like a sweet, shy ten-year old who wants to be cool. Then she changes roles: “the villain” becomes a touchy-feely, empathetic school counselor with a breathy voice, bright raspberry lipstick and encompassing motherly bosom.
“Blood gushing like a river and no parent to help you. Poor child. Your Papa tried so hard to take care of you when your Mama ran away to Ireland—one only wonders why she went in the wrong direction. It’s usually the Irish who arrive in America, not the other way around.”
Alina stops making faces and thinks that if Mama were here, she’d rush to her with a Band-Aid and a sanitizer. Papa would shrug off the blood, the Band-Aid, the missing Mama, microbes and felt altogether. Seeing scattered pieces of fabric and scissors, he’d also add that Alina shouldn’t bring “these stupid arts and crafts to the car, otherwise it will turn into a trash can smelling of shit.” But Mama, Mama would swiftly close her laptop, kick away a blanket (she always was writing in bed), run to Alina, examine her hand and—and that’s when Alina really pricks herself.
Her stitching is punctuated by ‘oi!’ and by the smallest red stream spreading down her finger. That’s what happens when she imagines her Mama in flesh and blood next to her. “You are so silly, my child,” Alina wants to mock a nun who supervises orphans in a freezing monastery infested with rats, but her tears fall on the uniform-blue, wrinkle-free, stain-free blouse Mama bought for her, on the soft violet felt. Who needs stain-free and wrinkle-free when there is no sob-free and weep-free, thinks Alina and realizes that she has become a smart aleck again. “You funny girl,” Alina squeaks like a parrot now, “What a gift you prepared for Mama—a pen case with teardrops!”
Alina blots the little balls of blood with a tissue, then, with weighted hesitation, makes the right steps, observes the wide-stepped, generous stitches. That’s where Mama will keep her favorite writing instruments. When she is ready to depart for the airport, Alina will hand her this soft violet pouch and Mama will draw her closer to herself. Closer, even closer, squeezing out Alina’s joy and tears together—to detach, to catch the plane, to disappear sky high with her pens and her penchant for festive, bright clothes. To withdraw with her travel bags and travel bugs. To leave Alina alone, only with a couple of things passed to her by Mama’s genes: the ability to move her ears up and down just like Alina’s grandfather and the love for smoked salmon and words.
Being a writer’s daughter, does it mean anything that Alina herself won a contest? She wrote a poem about Life and Death in her mother’s tongue and was placed first among Polish-speaking schoolchildren in Illinois:
Life Goes On
But life goes on
People are getting killed,
People are being left alone,
But life goes on
People are being punished
For things they didn’t do
But life goes on.
And then life stops.
She got a prize: a printed booklet with a winning poem and a heap of free books. Papa, who always had a smug smirk for Mama’s magazine articles and large portraits in local newspapers, stating that Mama abandoned them to become famous, immediately snatched Alina’s booklet, sealed it in cellophane and hid it in the steel cabinet where his dead bluesmen and their dusty Delta recordings were kept. Mama was born in Lodz and often made mistakes in spoken English, so when she read the poem and suggested, beaming with pride, that Alina was a smart aleck, Alina objected, “Calling someone a smart aleck isn’t praise!” Mama asked for permission to quote Alina in her new novel and Alina revolted: writing should be about imaginary things, about aliens and fairies, about foreign spies and if there is life on Mars, not about real people’s sadness and fears—and this poem of hers was so sad! Then Mama asked, “Will you write something happier, then?” and Alina, annoyed by so many questions, pushed her away. When Mama was already knee-deep in the clouds, Alina granted her a yellow smiley. As always, Mama replied with antsy concerns, which crawled all over the online anthill, until Alina squashed them by shutting the notebook’s cover.
She considered herself “not a girly girl,” but a sad girl, a geeky girl who felt so close to books that her nose turned into a fescue; she exaggerated her geekiness by wearing shoes two sizes bigger. Why waste Papa’s time when choosing things for herself in the store? She agreed on the very first pair—one without a shoestring, with a slashed price tag. But when Mama saw Alina’s cartwheeling on Skype in those loose loafers, she shipped to her the expensive running shoes with five fingers. Was it to say that she was better than Papa? Alina hid “five fingers” in the garage, behind piled up puffy bags with children’s clothes Papa kept receiving from worried relatives, never having time to unpack.
Alina keeps stitching and crossing out days in her secret diary, keeps stitching and crossing out, holding a needle in her translucent fingers, making the final ten tacks in a pencil case for her mother—then grabbing a pen and crossing out day after day in the diary, every day for one hundred eighty-two days, until nothing is left before her Mama emerges from Arrivals, descending from the skies in a cloud of duty-free airport perfume, carefree, parachuting down in a purple beret.
Moments ago, while Alina awaited at a metal barrier with an array of drawings and inventions to show to her, Papa proclaimed, “If she ever decides to come back and starts running things ruthlessly, without asking me first, I will simply die.” Alina heard morte, morte, morte in a Sicilian accent. Papa is very big and bold like a boulder, and his trousers all bunched up, wrinkled, but his face is freshly washed, shaven, no wrinkles on it. He brings Alina closer, inadvertently crumpling a drawing of three penciled figures together she clutched in her hand, and makes her hear his broken heartbeat. He has no idea about inventions Alina will share with Mama: a floating device that turned into a sleeping mattress and then into a tourist backpack. Or about a warming up costume for climbing that ran on a solar battery. Or a helicopter which soared up once you pulled a string on its handle. He never saw Alina’s crossed-out days in the diary. He says he’ll be dead soon because Mama’s ways are so different. Because Mama’s not satisfied with a cup of tea he brought her every morning; she always wants more he cannot give. Alina heard morte—and then “more, more, more.” She doesn’t want Papa to drop dead in the middle of the page, like her grandfather dropped four years ago. Saying a word—and then ending up wordless forever.
Since he died suddenly, when reading tales in Polish to her, she learned that life was unfair. One word, another stuttering, spaghetti-long word with many “sch” sounds—and when Alina laughed at his stumbling and stopping, glancing up from her growing Lego castle on the carpet, she saw that the grandfather collapsed on the page, a story “Agnieszka—Scrap of the Heavens” under his cheek. A skin-to-skin with a book cover. She became an old soul despite being the shortest one in the class. She knew why we are born, why some suffer without reprieve. All except why her grandfather, a former factory director in Poland, died right after he retired from his job as a Springfield school janitor; why her parents unexpectedly split. Why Papa once threw their wedding picture at the wall, why Mama photographed her wrist with some bruises and visits now only every six months, why they argue about Mama’s wine-sipping habit and Papa’s lack of employment and his credit card debts.
Alina now needs to decide, and depending on what she decides, either her Mama will fly away, or Papa will drop dead. They wouldn’t hold hands this time either as she had hoped. Her drawings of a flotation device which turns into a mattress at night didn’t help, her good grades in school didn’t help, and the gift she prepared for Mama might become totally useless because Papa’s heart is hurting no matter what and he will drop dead if Mama doesn’t behave. But it’s Papa without whom Alina cannot exist, it’s Papa who wakes Alina up every day while her Mama is away, it’s Papa who puts a pink shower cap on her long hair, it’s he who encourages her to write on the glass shower door, while she is inside and he outside, mirror-like, “T’amu Papi—I love you, Papa.” It’s he who knows how to untangle Alina’s tousled hair and brushes it every morning himself for so long that sometimes Alina misses the first five minutes of school, it’s Papa who buys her gummy bears and makes her kiss him for each extra ice cream sandwich; it’s Papa who knows that Alina needs to be taken to science museums and monasteries instead of another visit to Ireland.
“No way! Over my dead body!”—Papa does not let Alina go with Mama to Poland either. It’s because only Papa knows how to drive—Mama is so much in her head that she hardly notices road signs, she fails to read maps. If Mama takes Alina to Poland, they’ll end up with some drunkards or with her deranged friends. Only Papa can give Alina a stable life, a normal life with a school, a life with comfortable housing, a life with lemon juice in her hair to scare lice—and if Mama does things the way Papa wants, there is a chance she can join them again. At the arrivals barrier in the airport, Alina is terrified that she might choose Papa to be alive but Mama to be perpetually in the sky, in the air between Ireland and the U.S., between Sligo and Springfield, neither here nor there, visiting but not staying, landing but not settling down, flying but never resting—all this since Alina must avert death!
It’s that death which she wrote the poem about. It’s death that made Alina feel sick, made her nauseous after visiting the cemetery. White letters were deeply engraved on the stone slab, with sand in their granite silhouettes. She lay down on the letters J, A, and N, and listened to the leaves’ whisper, imagining her grandfather Jan saying something to her. When he was alive, he’d exclaim in Polish to her so Papa didn’t understand, “He could at least work as a driver!” Papa dragged her away from the grave explaining to her that he wanted to protect her from too much emotional anguish.
And now it’s up to Alina, Papa says, to see how Mama behaves during this visit and make this important decision if they should allow her to return and let her sleep in the large bed (but Papa’s condition is that he must sleep in this bed too, whereas Alina should go back to her own room, because that’s what usually happens in normal, regular families—Papa craves to have this normal family once again and that’s why Alina needs to decide).
Before her departure to Ireland, Mama was invisible, but at the same time—everywhere, with her cradling care, cocoons of warm clothes, carrying groceries. Whenever she came home from work, Alina continued running through the maze, a springy strong online character “Arnia” who overcame any problem. Mama would arrive at the door like a mule with a heavy load and prod Alina to help, but Alina would stay glued to the screen because Mama was always there, like air. There was no need to breathe her in specially. But Papa—Papa no, as soon as Alina heard him opening the door, she’d rush toward him down the stairs—otherwise he would be upset.
Her parents were very different.
During her previous visit to Illinois, Mama brought such a beautiful dark blue gown with silver sparkles from Ireland for her tenth birthday. They could play crazy disco again! Jumping on the bed! Turn on discarded, disgraced—in July—Christmas lights! Throw up confetti in the air! Ah, those short sleeves, softness, simmering dragonflies flying out of Mama’s suitcase and landing on Alina’s lap!
When Alina woke up the next day after Mama’s arrival, the sun was already sitting on the dress. Instinctively, in one fluid movement, she put it on. Levitating, glowing in her fairy attire, she glided downstairs to show it to Papa.
“Why don’t you remove your pretty dress,” as soon as Alina entered the kitchen, in all her new glory, Papa suggested. He was again at the Ticketmaster Website. Although Mama pointed out that they didn’t have money, Papa would buy as many tickets at Ticketmaster as he could afford, to resell. Because he studied Latin, Greek and Philosophy when he was in a private high school in Syracuse, it would be a shame if he wasted his talents stocking shelves in a supermarket as Mama suggested.
“There is an entire afternoon before the celebration. Do you want to ruin your dress?”
Alina obliged. Papa, with his massive belly, was like a monument to himself. Impenetrable, solid. When someone was around to see, he wanted Alina to run toward him, while he prepared a heavy hug in advance. And if he noticed that Mama looked—and Mama’s co-workers in the parking lot looked—he ordered Alina to repeat their ritual. And Alina would retreat to the end of the parking lot and start running toward Papa again, while he’d open his arms, catch her and throw her up in the air. Quick release, seeing the sky—and then returning to earth, to his endless embrace.
Once, when Mama was still living with them, he dropped Alina at her office and was ready to leave. Mama had already taken Alina’s backpack and held her hand, but Papa motioned Alina toward him for another hefty hug and farewell kiss, so Alina ran toward him and held his extended hand through the window. Suddenly the car jerked forward. Alina felt the earth shudder. She fell next to the car door, not understanding why Papa started driving away and heard, “Stop endangering the child, you are such a Narcissus!” But Papa said that his shoe slipped off the pedal, and the next day Alina won the Spelling Bee, because she had checked the unfamiliar word in a dictionary.
Papa looked nothing like a daffodil.
When he fasted for fourteen days testing his will, his slacks started drooping and Papa held them up with a belt, squeezing sagging skin under the trousers’ folded fabric on his waist.
Mama once commented, “You should get a nice suit, to get a good job!”
Papa objected. “Nobody dresses well in this country.”
Papa was born in Sicily and Mama in Poland, but they met and married in the U.S.
Papa’s words were like a wall. You can’t go around them, so Alina went up to remove the beautiful dress. Mama looked radiant when Alina put on her gift—but her face changed expression, a shade of pink turned into a shade of gray, when she saw Alina come back in a t-shirt. That’s when Alina followed her, tiptoeing on the stairs with her spy pen, and heard Papa’s retorting, “She shouldn’t have any chic clothes. Why do you keep bringing things? People will think that we are rich! She’d better wear old stuff—then we’ll get gifts.”
Papa knew how to reason. Too bad he was often overlooking details. It was Alina’s aunt Lucyna who noticed that Alina always had the same socks with black crusty toes, the same shorts size “6Y” even though she neared ten.
“Are you going to the symphony in these smelly sneakers?” She spread her hands, widely gesticulating as though trying to catch a soccer ball.
Raised in a different—dinosaur—era in Poland, she was a journalist working for a communist paper. Writing about crops and successes in agriculture. What did she know? Apparently, nothing about Alina’s Papa. The last time they traveled to Oregon to see the full eclipse, Papa had to purchase a second set of sleeping bags, because the first one was buried under baby clothes, old strollers and batteries for the car somewhere in the garage (“the black hole,” as they called it).
The aunt bought a rainbow of new socks. A pleated skirt. A plush pink hoodie. A striped sweater dress. But the next time Papa brought Alina to the symphony and a sleepover, Alina again had her arms sticking out of her old shirt.
“Are you a World War II orphan? I got group discounts for the entire Polish community to attend symphony hall, and they wouldn’t believe I can’t dress properly my own niece! Where are those clothes?” To say that Aunt Lucyna was aghast was saying nothing.
Alina wanted to wear the dress given to her by her aunt, but every morning, before showering, Papa already had all her clothes prepared—a shirt, panties, socks, undershirt lying in orderly fashion on the bed—recalling with its silhouette a smaller version of Alina herself.
“She should have a choice,” Mama insisted but Papa always replied, “No time in the morning for choices; I hardly have time to brush her hair! We are always late!”
“She should brush her hair herself. And why do you keep the house a mess? The money I send should be enough even for a cleaner.”
Mama. Papa. When they argued when Alina was younger, she took their hands and joined them together. Sometimes, they kept their hands locked and walked like newlyweds, blushing. Then Alina beamed as though she was officiating over their new wedding. But now that Mama had left for a sales job in Ireland and hardly conversed with Papa even on Skype, Alina didn’t try to intrude. All she could do was stitch.
With the needle, Alina pricks her skin, where the thumb joins the index finger and where she is double-jointed just like her Mama. Alina puts away the unfinished pen case so that it doesn’t get dirty. Puts the needle next to her thumb, right in that place that is so similar to her mother’s. Almost identical. Closes her eyes. They are tightly shut now. Pushes the needle, imagining that it’s her Mama’s hand. Pricks her Mama’s skin. Alina is in pain, but she pushes and pushes. In the needle’s eye there is a pale, almost invisible, thread. The needle goes through. Alina clenches her teeth not to make a sound. Like a tortured spy. She pushes the needle through and, fumbling her way around like a blind person, finds in the empty space in front of her, near the kitchen table, Papa’s meaty hand. By closing her eyes, she chooses not to see how big and bulging he is. Just like a boulder. When Alina pricks his hand, he jumps up in surprise and shouts as if she’s crazy. “Sei mata!” he shrills. He is so threatening when he is enraged, but Alina is used to it. She stitches the hands of her parents together.
Even though they aren’t alike. Even though Mama’s ways are so different. Even though Mama, despite her disinterest in Papa’s musical idols, joins them each year on a picnic blanket at the Grapevine Bluegrass Festival. Even though Papa, saying that Mama chose chapbooks over a child, once waited with Alina at the back of the Polonia bookstore while Mama conversed with her readers.
Papa would talk about history, the First Temple, the kings, the Book of Kells, the land agreements. When they flew to visit Mama in Ireland, he kept driving through relentlessly long roads to take them to monasteries. In a field, he talked about Christianity, standing in the muddy soup the color of beans, soaked overnight in the rain. The fog hid crosses and stones. Alina was frozen, but Papa was fascinated by monks and by moss. Mama just had surgery on her hip and couldn’t follow them fast enough to see everything but Papa wanted it all: the Cliffs of Moher (because of the vaporized fog, they only could see pictures in the visitor’s centre), the Giant’s Causeway (Mama’s crutch kept slipping on the stones so they left her behind), he wanted the entire Irish scenery stew. Alina would rather stay in Mama’s bedsit a bit longer and play with her landlady’s dog Ferdinand instead of shivering in a cold car, but Papa said, “No way, not over my dead body.” He didn’t waste even a minute in her rented room, booking hotels and using credit cards to buy food in pubs.
Mama—Mama would just read different books to Alina. Books and hugs were her specialty. But Mama left. L-e-f-t—these are the letters that comprise the word f-e-l-t. Alina, so adult when writing “Life goes on,” is totally lost when her Mama’s smell, molecules, mellow talk are missing, gone beyond the ocean, dispersed in the Irish air, with its green pastures. It’s these pasty pastures that hurt. It’s those sugary sheep that Alina can’t stand now. It’s those hills that make her cry and lock herself in the bathroom. All that grazing and gazing. Those sheep are not free anyway. They are all marked. Alina remembered how near the monastery they all ran away from her, with their blue, green and pink spots, like punks. Not letting Alina photograph them and getting mad, just like Papa would get enraged when Mama photographed her scratched hands and bruises.
And when this morning Mama again comes to the mirror, concentrating on creams and on her looks right before they take her to Departures, Papa asks, “Alina, do you think we can take Mama back?”
Alina is silent. She needs to make a decision. For now, she decides to hold onto the pen case, to give it to Mama when she completely comes back, not when she again departs for her sales job in Sligo. Alina murmurs to herself, “My child, think hard!” She knows that upon her decision Papa’s happiness depends, Mama’s coming back depends, and Alina’s stable school life depends too. As well as Papa’s lemon juice and no lice in her hair. “All regular normal activities,” as Papa usually says.
But if Mama comes back, it means that Mama’s leather belts, Mama’s pens, Mama’s panties will be in disarray in every room. Her papers strewn on the carpet. She wouldn’t hang her towel on its hook after taking a shower, but she’ll leave it downstairs in the kitchen where Papa would have to pick it up. Papa would have to supervise her as though she were a child, because she is absent-minded with her avant-garde novels and it’s only Papa who knows how to keep their household in absolute order. She’ll sit next to the bathtub with Alina immersed into the bubbles, herself immersed in a book but from time to time she’ll check that Alina is safe. She’ll let Alina freeze apple juice to make a popsicle—and things will turn chaotic. She’ll help her make a cake following instructions in a children’s magazine—cacao on the kitchen counters and on the floor—and Papa will have to clean after them. Mama will also let Alina melt cheese on top of a tortilla—and it will take Papa several hours afterwards to scrub the gooey stuff off the microwave walls. And Mama will let Alina ride her old princess bike outside of their apartment—and her bike will be removed from its hook on the wall and never be put back. Will Papa be able to bear all this? Things will be chaotic!
Alina thinks and thinks. She needs to make a decision. She closes her eyes and sees two hands, a male’s and female’s stitched together. It was she who stitched them together. Perhaps that’s why Papa asks her to decide—because Alina has already decided. Alina leans toward “yes.”
After Mama’s departure, Papa interrogates her again. “Did Mama behave well during this visit?”
“Yes, she behaved very well,” Alina earnestly answers.
“Do you think she’ll fit our lifestyle, school and home, home and school, with nothing out of the ordinary and none of those women with shaved heads and long-haired men she invited to her crazy parties she called ‘Craters of Creativity’?”
“Yes, I think that she’ll be able to fit.”
Alina repeats “yes” several times and closes her eyes. Her stitching is helping her case. Alina is sure that once she said “yes,” things will go much faster and Mama will come back and she will stay. But the days pass and nothing changes except that their hands are stitched now. Except that now Mama’s fate depends on Alina. Except that Mama is now tied to Papa with a pale thread. Nothing changes. Mama goes on her plane and she flies away to her Ireland, to her sales and the cold slovenly slush, to her shivering sheep.
One week passes. Mama does not come back to the U.S. The second week passes. Mama is still far away, on Skype, in Sligo, on a blurry screen. Is Mama a pixel? The third week passes—Alina takes out her scissors but then, after thinking, she puts them away. These are metal scissors with blue plastic handles that Mama bought her for school. Alina remembers an airport’s metal barrier and Papa’s words: morte, morte. The fourth week passes. Mama still does not come back. Didn’t Alina say “yes”? She forgets that she had used the blue scissors to make paper costumes for her theatre performance and looks for but cannot find them again. It turns out that Papa put them somewhere and forgot where they were, but he says that now “they are in place,” “everything should be in order” and Alina “should not scatter things.” Indeed, they can’t even walk in the dining room because of all the bags and all the piles of unwashed clothes that need to be sorted, but at least a couple of things like scissors, spoons, and shower caps should be in their place.
The fifth week passes. Alina finds out that Papa hadn’t put the scissors in their place; they simply fell and later were pushed under the fridge. The spongy dust under it looks like pale, purple moss. Alina does not feel like talking to Mama on Skype anymore. She is surprised that Mama doesn’t know anything about her school life and keeps asking questions. She shrugs her away. The sixth week passes. Alina stops crossing out days in her secret diary; it hurts her to think that she has to go again over one hundred eighty-two days. The seventh week passes. Alina again takes her scissors from their special place in her room. Unwraps the pen case that she didn’t give to Mama during her visit, in the hope that she’ll present it when Mama comes back to stay with them permanently, to sleep with Papa in their large bed.
Now, with the scissors, Alina cuts the pen case into small pieces. Destroys all the tacks, all her generous stiches, hacks hours of her work, severs a thread. Covers the room with pieces of the violet felt. Then she takes the broom and sweeps the floor, putting all the violet pieces together and hiding them in the corner. She gets a new book and starts reading it, but occasionally she looks in the corner and sees the leftovers of the pen case. She feels like picking the pieces up and somehow recreating the pen case for Mama, because it was nice, but she knows that now nothing is possible. The eighth week passes. Alina turns her back to the Skype’s screen, despite Mama’s pleading, holds the scissors in her slight tiny fingers and, knowing that this way Mama wouldn’t see what she is doing, she cuts, she cuts, she cuts with her small fingers the pale thread that ties together two adult hands.
Photo by Donal Power
Margarita Meklina is a bilingual author born in Leningrad (the former USSR). She came to the US as a refugee in the early 1990s; now she lives in Ireland and California. Recently she was awarded The Aldanov Literary Prize for her novella Ulay in Lithuania that was inspired by her meeting with famous performance artist Ulay and his stories about the artworld. With Anne Fisher, she co-curated “Life Stories, Death Sentences,” a folio of LGBTQ+ literature translated from Russian and, together with The Brooklyn Rail/In Translation, facilitated a multilingual reading in New York City, to coincide with the 50th Anniversary of Stonewall riots. A prize-winning author of six books in Russian and two books in English, she is now at work on a volume of fiction about Dublin and a novel which addresses the notorious Russian law against homosexual propaganda.