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Bedtime Coming of Age Inspirational


Ari, Odessa, Ukraine

Time Past

Papa does not take you to Mama’s funeral / he swears a death like hers cannot be honoured / so, he makes arrangements for father and son / You will live in America, in New York / Papa tells his sister you will stay with her / and his affairs will take as long as they take.

And the world turns inside out \

as if there’s a you outside and you inside \ watching.


it’s dark when titka comes / willing you to eat, speak / her weight lands beside you on the soft mattress / Papa has not yet come / you’re still in Odessa / strange, she does not touch the boulder between you / see how it pins your arms / pushing you both apart / it’s as if small stones are stuffed in your small mouth / and you long to tell her / but your tongue will not move / you try squeezing fingers beneath the boulder / seeing if she has grip / enough to yank you back / through to the fluid world that flowed from Mama / but her round belly kicks / she wants no part of you / you hear her sigh loudly and the mattress lifts / you will her to be more mama than titka / but she never does leave the door ajar for you


does she not know how thick-fast shadow creepers spread / darkening wallpaper / ‘til there is no room left / how you must bunch the edges of the bedsheets / to trust you are still here / a real boy in a bed / how you must not follow where the shadows go /

have you been there, Mama? / you recall asking once / and her covering your hand and answering / yes, and that’s how I know / For you not to go there

headlights of passing cars make shadows pounce down hard / like metal on metal / crushing the ones below / but on clear nights, shadows only look tired / as if wrestling too long, they cannot reconcile / Mama taught you that word / Re-con-cil-i-a-tion / how it meant to bring back together, she said / so, she and Papa could never reconcile / but that’s not you and her / who were never apart / you prefer to think in this way of shadows / who only forgot how to be together / then, the darkness parts ways / and loving voices and words trip over themselves / to get into the room / and you’re hearing humming / sinking ever deeper into your mattress / you softer than butter / hmmm, that’s when you hear best / Mama’s voice and Gigi’s, your Papa’s mama/ rushing in to tell you what to remember / and while you go nowhere / you can still be back there

/with them / wherever there once was…

hmmm, Love, Mama says, one day / while riding a bus from somewhere wet to dry / is a word folk dish out / to measure out their pleasure or displeasure / there is not a thing you can say, think or do / that can make another person feel your love / People will feel what they will feel, she tells you / brushing your fringe from your dark eyes with her thumb / This is not said cruelly but to release you / from having to be the one to make her happy / For the longest time, she warns not to love her / knowing that another soul depends on her / on what she feels, kills her…

           step off the bus, you go see Papa’s mama / Gigi’s peeling potatoes with a sharp knife / over a hot wet pan / you’re telling something to Gigi and Mama / both sets of eyes on you / women are scared of me, you say / they don’t look at me the way they do others / with me, they become stone / they harden / when I move along the street, they flow away / 

           nonsense, Gigi tell you / two things scare a woman: grown men, and themselves / but then Mama murmurs / Oh, the Oracle’s here / if women go still around the boy, she says / cupping your face gently / he must pay attention / to what it is they do not wish him to see /  

           groaning, Gigi repeats / just two things scare women: grown men and themselves / later, when you’re returning home with Mama / she speaks to the wet streets / and flickering streetlamps / who are the only ones really listening / there’s always good reason / not to want to be seen /

           So, you begin to pay attention to girls / Fridays, you queue with Mama at the butcher’s / watching the butcher hand raw meat to a large girl / who is his new helper / it’s her task to wrap meat / she’s younger than the shoppers who come and go / her face rounder, softer / too soft, many neighbourhood women complain / you think, somehow, they think they are whispering / eye level with her hands / you peer through the clear glass / as long fingers smooth paper, coaxing the meat / deftly folding edges / ‘til each one is a gift / a loud chorus picks up / What’s the holdup? So slow! / What do I pay you for? / The butcher shouts at her / To daydream? / he stands so close she must feel breath on her neck / how strangely the dimpled girl’s fingers now move / all slippery, and uncooperative / you look up at Mama / for her to see the girl’s fingers change substance / more clay than flesh and bone/

           before you can make sense of a thing like this / a vexed voice overhead / Please tell your boy not to dirty the shop glass / You look up and the dimpled girl is scowling / Mama grips your shoulder / and you both drop away…

BLINK and the voices BLACKEN / Strange, the voices and pictures know when to stop / as if rooms could whisper /’ Someone was Coming’ / and, just like that, walls go back to being walls /  and you’re crawling on knees / towards the bedroom door / like the baby you were / pressing your cheek against the cool wood, you count /… one… two… and there it is… / a knock at titka’s door / her voice greeting someone / could it be Papa coming for you at night? / an unknown male’s voice answers / the man is sent away, and the front door closes / long past grown-up bedtime / you slip into hallway/ where there’s a band of light at the base of a door / and walls don’t breathe so hard / two shadows at your feet / you hear the name Ava / this is your mother’s name / titka’s saying how Ava had no sov-ren-tee / showed no inner re-strayn-t / how she gave herself away to everyone.

           Little fool. She allowed that boy to bare his soul all over his face. No one survives this world with an unguarded face and outstretched arms.

           now two voices speaking / the man must not have left / he wants to know how much longer you will be there / she tells him to come again when coast is clear / and still, you remain crouching low to the ground / gripping knees tight so no part can slide away / Are you the coast? 


many days and nights pass before Papa comes / time enough to wonder / why’d shadows fight so hard? / Is it because for shadows to claim their place / they must kill or be killed?

You turn ten. There are no candles.


Driving away from the old neighbourhood one last time, you ask Papa whether your aunt will come visit you both in America. Papa says Never and tells you how the whole family has disowned her; you included.

From a young age, you have understood your father owns you; that you were only on loan to your mother. It makes sense that your father’s family would own titka too. What surprises you is titka’s new owner. An unmarried woman, she is now owned by her unborn child. You had no idea there were adults who could belong to their children. The possibility terrifies you. Does that mean you did a bad thing? And that you let Mama get swallowed up by the thing no woman wants you to see?

Staring at your pale reflection in the car window, you will that boy not to cry.

As the car beetles along, a lady will occasionally look up from her bags, or her children, and catch you staring. So many women, old, young, not so young; moving fast, slow, but none idling. No, today is market day, and already the vendors are packing away their produce at the end of a long day, and still there is fish to be bought, bread to be buttered, supper to be made.

Before, the same women would have looked away but, today, the ones who encounter your gaze stop and stare back, and then, only slowly do they look away, as if seeing you reminds them of something which they had forgotten and they stare down at their own feet, absently, for the answer.  Mama’s voice repeats how you must pay attention to what it is women do not want you to see.

What is it? You wonder, tapping your small fist against the handle. Once, you would have walked these same streets together, your hand in Mama’s. Now, the metal handle is all that holds you in place.

           You say none of this to Papa, for Papa is not Mama. With Mama, you could be in her silences; with Papa, you must be the silence. Stuck in traffic, your father’s driver knows to be silent too. It is very important that you all keep quiet as Papa speaks on his cell phone with important clients because to be an important man, it is okay for other people to use your services so long as you have people you can tell what to do. Your father doesn’t tell you this; but you are learning. His brother, the butcher, may be an important man, but your father can be an intimidating one. You once heard someone describe him that way, and without knowing what the word meant, you understood. The butcher counts because people need what he sells. Your father wins because he makes people need him.

Up ahead, there’s some kind of holdup and dozens of people stall like shop mannequins on the sidewalk. Grimly, the people who keep moving glare back at the ones causing the obstruction. You look across to Papa, who he is back on his phone; then across to the driver, but the driver is craning his neck, figuring out how to go around the hold-up. Curiously, you observe how every person who has stopped is a man.

           “What is it?” Your father demands of his driver. 

           “The eclipse, Mr. Tkachenko. They’re waiting for the eclipse.”

Sunlight in your eyes, you mind the shaft of light between the old town hall and its neighbouring red brick building. You can’t be sure what you’re looking out for; only that your answer is not here, in this car, it’s out there, in Odessa, in Mama. Your hand slides along the cool, metal handle of the car, and you wish it was Mama’s hand holding yours. And a possibility emerges, what if Mama was mistaken and women are not hiding from you what they do not want you to see but are scarred of you minding what it is they’re not seeing?

Pressing down on the handle, springing open the car door, it is the most natural thing for you to step out, know the cool air on your arms and face, and run.

Darting, racing, zipping in and around the spaces between pedestrians’ bodies, your lungs feel so strong, like your chest could knock buildings out of your way. Surely, everyone else can feel this power in you.

The sky never felt so big.

Lowering your gaze from sky to tenement tip, you have some sense of a figure turning each corner ahead of you, running ahead of you. That’s not possible, though.

Yet, with every turn of yours, you get another fleeting glance of the figure high above your bare head, each time, some different body part, a foot, an elbow, long swishing hair. It’s a girl. You swear it. Your mother was once a girl. Might she be guiding you home? Calling you back. Calling you not to forget her. To never forget.

The light is changing so fast, like the shadows had escaped titka’s and were burrowing through the city; the world closing in, making the space between your skin and you ache. Hunted, you are both human and animal. You break into a sprint, elongating the distance between you and your pursuers. The pressure feels immense, right behind the eyes, and your legs ache and your throat’s dry. Above everything, a dark crescent in the sky and still the figure trails along the ledge, the soles of her feet the last thing to disappear around the last corner. Until you turn onto yours and Mama’s street and stop.

           Two hundred meters ahead, there’s the front of the apartment building you once both called home, and blocking the entrance is your father. Somehow, he has got ahead of you, anticipating your end point, and, behind you, the heavy pounding footfall of the gaining chauffeur. And there’s you, stalled, stone still, between what once was and what will be. 

Close your eyes and hold your breath.

Time is catching up so fast, panting in your ear.

When you open your eyes, you can’t even be sure you have, because a muddy darkness has removed everyone and everything.

Has the darkness always been here underneath everything?

          What are mere seconds to other onlookers is a life sentence to you.

How long can a boy hold his breath?

You hold yours until you feel the heat again on your eyelids and see behind your closed eyes a re-colouring from blues to yellows. Shielding your face from the piercing shaft of light coming between the buildings, you dare look up. With the darkness whitening, the figure way up high on a ledge arrives at a perfect stand-still.

           Biting your lip, pinched to the spot, you take in every detail of her. She has the form of a girl only a few years older than you, and the flesh of a clay figurine - tinged a clayish-green - like some half-formed thing with which the Maker is taking his time.

Yet, watching her leaning into the sun, her face tilted, there is such a firmness in her expression, that when she lowers her gaze, seeing you seeing her, she ceases to be otherworldly, and becomes what she is. A young girl standing perilously high on a ledge. A young girl whose ceramic skin is mottling, in the sun, into flesh tones, like new-formed birthmarks, and she’s gracefully turning her arms over, curiously one way and then another, marvelling at what is happening to her, and looking down once more at you, a mere boy, with such an expression of wonder how she got up there. Not beseeching you to get her down so much as to join her, maybe.

Breathing her in, all you know, is that there is a you and a her; and that you’ve never felt so much muchness inside of you.

You shudder at the gentle brush of something landing on your left shoulder. For a moment, you imagine it is her fingertips and that she, or you, can stretch so far as to touch one another from a great distance.

Relaxing your gaze, you peer down at your left shoulder, at the fluttering wings of a single moth landed there. You tingle at the sensation, only for an almighty hand to land on your other shoulder and wrench you around. You know what this; understand it even. Your father’s fury.

When you dare look back up at the ledge, one eye swelling shut, the girl has vanished. As Papa marches you to the waiting car, and an awaiting America, not once do you look down at the bruising clayish-green of your arms but, you know, without looking, that your bruises are the colours of a girl standing on a ledge calling to you. 


Eight hours later, you land in America, and yet you’ve been travelling for sixteen.

Where do the other eight hours go, Papa?

America is the future, he answers, staring way over your head at everyone else in the terminal.

Oh, you gasp, understanding somehow that your future is somebody else’s secret to keep.

December 03, 2023 12:49

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1 comment

01:22 Dec 14, 2023

Interesting, but difficult for me because I've never encountered that type of punctuation or non-punctuation?


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