THE MIRROR CITY, An excerpt
A text by the 2013 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow Aurora Brackett
There was a shop like this in his neighborhood and he half expected to find Mr Gershowitz behind the counter, but instead there was a girl. Asleep with her eyes open, she didn't look up when he walked in so he circled the place, touching the glass surfaces of bins, looking in at kasha, peas, flour. The shop was no bigger than a train car. Walls lined with wooden bins. Small shovels hanging from pegs. Burlap sacks on the floor. And at the back of the store a few half empty shelves – tins of beans, of fish, jars of pickles and preserves, some hammers, a couple of pots. He picked up a can of sardines and walked to the front. The girl took his money, still in a dream. She had smooth, pale skin. Her blonde hair was tied back in a long braid and her forehead was high. A little downturned mouth. She looked like a doll in her high-necked dress, the sleeves too short and tight.
"Thank you," she said, when he gave her the money. Yiddish. A near whisper.
He sat on the front steps and opened the can, and then remembered he had to pee. He'd had to go through the whole interview, but was too intimidated by the factory owner to ask. He carried his open can of fish carefully back into the store and approached the girl again.
"Can I use your toilet?" he said. Now his cheeks were burning, not because she was pretty but because he felt like a kid at the front of the class, asking permission.
She led him up a narrow staircase, cluttered with empty flour sacks and into an apartment. There was a woman on a sofa frowning in her sleep in front of a window, a bookshelf, thick wood floors. The room was warm and seemed to smell of the woman's sleep. Red curtains made the light in the room pink, the quilt over the woman's body reminded him of something he'd seen before, what was it? The streetcars below sounded far away. Color, the whole room was saturated with color. The girl pointed at the bathroom just inside the door and held a finger to her lips. She smiled. The place a thick and heavy dream. In the bathroom he splashed water on his face and looked in the mirror. I am here. He told himself. His boots on the floor. Hartford, Connecticut. A shop called N. Moshinsky Dry Goods. America. But something about the woman's sleeping body – he felt he could have been a small boy, his own mother on the couch
We came across the ocean to a mirror city. The river goes along the length of it like it goes along the length of our town and men go walking, not in furs, go walking in their suits to work along the river and women do washing here in the river like they washed there in the river, always these flags of slips and dresses hanging from branches. Nothing different but their throats, flutes tuned in a new register. There were grey soot crows at home in the snow and here the feathers shimmer blue, black flash in the light. I caw and my sister laughs. This is how we are now, songbirds repeating sounds. Hello, hello
moth-er. But mother speaks in Jewish. Her children, birds in the room. Say: what is your name. Say: teacher, teacher. Faigelah, not that kind of bird. The mirror town. America, Connecticut. Say Connecticut.
Charlie cries. It's too hard. I can't! Teacher. Sam. Brother. Say my name. Abraham.
Not that one, the new one. The mirror town where his name is my name and my name is his. My brother and sister and I on the bank build paper boats like we did at home, from Papa's newspapers, the same print, the same letters, the same worries about tsars and kaisers. Say kaiser. No. Don't say it. Fold the page in half and turn up the corner like this. Charlie cries. I'll do it for him, Rose says. Charlie's always crying here. He wants his name. A bird, a crow, a bird came and stole it, trailing it from its beak.
Tell me how, he says to me.
Fold it like this, my boy.
He pushes her hand away. My brother makes a funny little sideways boat. "They're going the wrong way," my sister says.
"Are we on the other side of the world?" Charlie asks. Rose says yes.
Look in the mirror later, and see if your face is the same.
He didn't want to be a man. In the hospital for a month he flitted, a bird, from room to room. When she visited he took her arm, Let me introduce you to the prison, he laughed. Do you like it here, too Sam? And her brother, squeezing her arm, Don't I like it everywhere? In every room there were three beds, the men in the beds statues. Smoking and staring at the ceiling. They are taking pieces of our brains, Sam said, but I keep my head sewn shut. He called their names. This is Jasper, who used to be Moishe. He had a boat. A man with grey whiskers wearing his hat indoors and a suit of pajamas looked up, smiling so slowly it seemed to take effort. Dobry den, he said and she nodded, curtsied.
Joseph from Austria who likes to eat paper. Everyone has his purpose, Sam said. I'm here to listen, Rose. They say all Jesus ever did was listen.
"Don't let Mama hear you talking about Jesus."
He ran his fingers along the dark wooden walls, his own room, three beds. A man named Michael, another named Cal, like California. "Our castle of sadness," he said. The building was enormous and white, a mansion that had belonged to a railroad baron, surrounded by green lawns, gardens. They went outside into a maze of tall bushes and played a game of hide and seek and he asked where Charlie was and she told him no one knew she was there. They wouldn't have allowed it. "Who paid for my vacation?" he asked and she wouldn't tell.
The river is going the wrong way, she says and I say no, it has switched sides. It used to be in the west and now it is east. We play a game. Stand outside in the road, Rose and turn towards the water. Walk that way. Pass the tracks, the church, the civic buildings, pass the path of horse carts, grand carriages, pass into the park, lawns and trees and there is a bridge and
Here it is! Rose says.
But this is not our river. Walk for a hundred miles, pass into farmland, cattle huddled over feeding pans and horses in the shade, creeks and streams, and red barns and grasshoppers, and a river, a river, a wide and old river that cracks the country in half. Do you know West, Rose? Do you know that a compass is a magnet, that the needle pulls, do you feel the needle cut through the center of your body? That pull. It isn't just gold, metal, magnet, needle, I want. It's West. We have already come this far.
But that isn't our river either, she says. That is the M-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i. Write it in your schoolbook my sister. We won't be able to say that word for years and years. It stretches too long for our mouths to hold.
All he did that time was try to board a train without a ticket and they sent him to a hospital. He said he was going to California and would pay them when he got rich. He said he was small and would sleep up with the baggage. He brought nothing with him but an apple. The train conductor and his stewards had to carry him from the train. "They swung me up, up and out of the compartment door, two boys had my legs and one my head, like we used to with Charlie," he said. "Swing! – " and let him go. "I never fought them."
But the constable said he had, said he bit a steward and made ladies cry. Their father had to go to the police station alone. He didn't understand the papers he signed. Uniforms meant soldiers. His son was in trouble with soldiers. When they brought him to see Sam, their father closed his eyes and prayed, a melody he'd made himself. And not knowing what to do, the three policemen closed their eyes. Sam told Rose he could have run then.
It was just the five of them and the door was open. He could have, but it was so much to see, his father's sculpted face, his body rocking as he davened in front of the officers, their heads bent, hands hanging at their sides, and his father's voice, an oboe, amidst the sound of typewriters, footsteps.
Aurora Brackett lives in Las Vegas, Nevada where she is a Ph.D fellow in fiction at UNLV's Black Mountain Institute. She is a recipient of the San Francisco Browning Society's Dramatic Monologue Award and the Wilner Award for Short Fiction. Her work has appeared in Nimrod Quarterly, Eleven Eleven, The Portland Review, Fourteen Hills, and other magazines. She was an associate editor of Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives, which was published by Voice of Witness/McSweeney's in 2010.
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