Which came first, the chicken or the egg? My loathing or his animosity?
He is a wolf, a creature carved from the bowels of the darkness that whispers my name when I’m dreaming. His head is cocked to the right as he leers at me from the stairway. I can see the beads of sweat which have formed from trying to chase me on his forehead, fall slowly onto his arm, and then onto the floor. Silence.
All of a sudden he springs at me and has my arms pinned against the yellow wall. Don’t give up your wings, I remember thinking. Fight! I try to kick him, but he yanks my hair so hard that the colors in the world blur together like fingerpaints. He pulls me towards him and rips my shirt clean through the middle, and then slaps my face. I fall to the ground, and he stands over me, grinning. I’m crying as I yell to my mom. “Stop it!” I beg. “Stop it please, Daddy!”
We stand on the orange linoleum floor, our gaze upwards, watching her dip the cauliflower into the flour, egg, and breadcrumbs. Her hands move with practiced urgency as she lays each piece on a sheet of tinfoil and places the tray into the oven. From the room next door, we can hear the familiar sound of love. The shattering of glass, the smashing of china. The parallel voices of my grandfather and father going up, up, up as they shout bitter words with the strength of years of resentment. I clamp my hands over my ears and begin to cry as if some part of my being recognizes the chronic fear that this fiery abyss will summon.
“Babička, what’s wrong with the oven?” As the acrid smell of burning food begins to fill the air, my brother asks again. If she hears him, she doesn’t answer. Her eyes are closed, and she grips the silver cross hanging from her neck. From the fear of God’s judgement, or for reassurance?
I follow my brother as we tiptoe out of the room towards the basement, where we turn on the tv and watch hours of Slovak cartoons. It’s always the same. The same wolf running in the same circles to eat the same bunny. We understand nothing, yet we keep it on, for the crackling static of the television set drowns out the noise from upstairs.
Later, I find a dusty tin of sweets. We eat cookies for dinner.
The Royal Pine car-freshener is still slowly revolving around its hook by the time the car lurches to a halt at the cemetery. My grandfather’s knuckles are white as he lifts himself from the driver’s seat and walks through the rain to the tombstone.
My little sister asks, “Do you know that when it rains it’s actually God crying?”
“Shut up,” I say.
With my face pressed against the window, I can see his hands begin to shake as he places a fresh set of lilies by his own grave. He strikes a match, which goes out. He tries again, but covers it with his hand and quickly places it into the candle holder. Bowing his head, he places the candle on the grave where his family, my history, is buried side by side. He kneels on the earth and begins his prayers in the only way we know how to.
“Forgive me father, for I have sinned.”
The day I learn my father is mortal is the day the gods watch him fall as his wings finally melt after years spent trying to cradle the sun. When he hits the Earth, the impact breaks his back and his mind, and he spends days in the white room reciting a chant in a cipher only he can understand. As he breathes through tubes and machines, he transforms into a fragmentary echo of his past being. My mother’s shoulders curve inwards and shake.
Up here in this place between light and deepest shadow, the heavens seem to be just a fingertip out of reach. As we near the summit, I look down at the base and picture my grandfather there, leaning on his cane as he waits for us to come down. The mountains are my grandfather’s mistress; during his youth, they would steal him away for a couple of hours, enticing him with the sacred promise of the wild joy of adventure that only something as divine as the mountains could construct. The summit climb is my family’s tradition every time we spend the summer in Slovakia. This year, however, my grandfather said he was too old, so we left him behind to complete our climb.
At the peak, my dad and I stop at a clearing and look at the trees, the mountains, the lakes, the whole expanse of the world beneath our feet. “Look over there! That’s Liptovský Mikuláš! Do you think Babička can see us?” I point to a small group of houses off into the distance and wave.
As my dad shakes his head, he grabs my hands as if in need of assurance. “Wow, it’s so tiny. Were we always that small?”
I pat them gently and say, “Don’t worry, Dad. You were once big to me.”
Sophia H. is a sophomore at Phillips Academy aspiring to study political science. Her work has been featured and/or recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, The Apprentice Writer, and various school publications.