The following is from Edie Meidav’s story collection, Kingdom of the Young. Meidav is the author of The Far Field: A Novel of Ceylon, Crawl Space, and Lola, California. Recipient of a Lannan Fellowship, a Howard Fellowship, the Kafka Prize for Best Fiction by an American Woman, the Bard Fiction Prize and other citations, she teaches in the UMass Amherst MFA program.
I Never Had a Problem With You
I grew up thinking there had been a war, and that our soldiers had gone to war to guarantee the democracy. And that there were no disappeared people, that it was all a lie.
Think about becoming a parent and you consider consequences. When you came into our life, we knew we wanted to teach you the world. Even now, we hold tight to the faith that this document I compose will endure later history which has a reckless habit of making virgins out of everyone, a tendency some call amnesia.
Never forget you represented such great hope for your mother but since she died when you were young, she remains a memory barely a shred beyond whatever photographs tell you. That said, who among us can see fate? Consider antibodies’ passage through a vein and how we fail to feel such an all-important passage. Or how we view stars, great and mighty yet appearing to us as mere pinpricks. So much of our knowledge operates in this manner, tempting and unreachable, usually irreproachable.
Did you know dung beetles navigate by the Milky Way? They roll balls of dung before placing on their heads little dung-caps that let them perceive the stars. So many things come down to a person trusting in similar rituals, in magnetism and gravity. Equipped, the beetles make their way as best they can.
From the beetles’ perspective, their family rites make perfect sense. And of course it also makes sense, in eternal fashion, for the young to regard their parents with accusing antennae. It did not take Freud to invent this trick: generations increasingly turn on forebears with the rage of new life. To summon botany over biology, consider the unbent grass that uses the decomposed as mulch from which to derive greater vigor.
You are on your way toward becoming a mature young woman and are, moreover, with child, so I thought it important to hand you, our faculties still intact, a sense of what might be important as you become a parent yourself.
Once I had a lover. I hope this recollection does not embarrass you, now that you are of age, since what child fails to cringe at what an old fuddy-duddy does with his unit after the military dress has been retired, so to speak, a jolly roger brought forth mainly for special occasions, but I have always been proud of how you have conducted yourself, both as a student and at home, not to mention as a blossoming young woman, and hence believe I can speak honestly. Why? From early on, I knew you were a prodigy, most especially at the harp but in so many other domains: you a daughter whom I could press forward to my associates and have you read aloud particular words at one of the many parties your mother and I loved to have, parties filled with associates and colleagues—and what beautiful words those are, words that vibrate around a person enough so that he starts to exist all the more.
To you, our colleagues and associates may have been insects stretching forth long scratchy arms from one of our many overstuffed armchairs, aiming to tug you close to their cobwebs—you told me once you hated the visuals of nose hair, the aromatic spoor of wet dog—but to us our colleagues were cherished company.
For them, and blame me for this still, I would sometimes press you to play the harp. You say now you winced as your wrists turned one arpeggio after another. Yet to me you had the face of an angel, always so good at reminding us of simpler times. When no harp was handy, to our colleagues, it is true, I might say: Ah, look what sophisticated words our daughter can read, how proficient she is. Often, it is true, I’d pick up a random book and there you would be, a shock to the system. You told me years later you hated this as well: how I made you feel like a performing monkey, but who would not be proud of an eight-year-old pronouncing such challenging words as argillaceous, your very first sign of being able to master an original difficulty, your voice carrying such strange and great authority? Your command surprised all of us.
Mellifluous. Autochthonic. Erumpent.
Your eyes flashed afterward, rating your audience. Since you could read any word from whatever technical book I happened to have handy, it is natural you wished to gauge whether we were worthy.
Were we? What I can tell you is that at a young age, you happened to be proficient. I do not share this merely to inflate your ego. Of course not! Nor do I preach speed for its own sake, the burden of the prodigy. Of what use is it to arrive at an end sooner than others? Are we not in trouble because so many leaders appreciate the expediency of future production as a way to avoid acknowledgment of the past? Nor should we disguise the fact that your mother and I were proud, I most especially, that you could take in the advanced ideas of the past and future at such a jejune age.
Of course later you blamed us for having encouraged you to skip a grade, swallowing time, as it were, but what were we supposed to do with you showing cleverness back in kindergarten? The teacher with the mole and slit skirts told me she often left the classroom with you in charge, reading to your fellow pupils. To that kind of child, what does the mundanity of first grade offer? You charge us for how you hold your pencil, never trained in banal cantilevering. And accused us for the meekness in your second-grade classroom that made you find it less embarrassing to sit in your seat and urinate, a small puddle spreading its shame, rather than leaving to sign your name outside the bathroom which both boys and girls used. That you were timid about signing your name stunned me. This was hardly a trait associated with my family line or the daughter I knew, the one with whom I now share so many fond memories, the one with whom I never had any trouble. How surprising then to learn that you carried your wet balled-up underwear back and forth in your satchel for weeks before stowing it in the back of some drawer marked miscellaneous, a word you pronounced with such lisping sweetness, a mark of your advancement.
But to return to the point, once I had a lover, before I was with your mother, of course, for all that your mother liked to say I was a great admirer of others, to which I ask are women not set down around us? Would you tell someone in a rose garden to close his eyes or at the seaside to stop breathing salt air? Everyone ends up with a particular menu of tastes. My own point here is that this lover to whom I refer liked me to slap her a bit and also to yank her hair once we were between the sheets. I suppose I should say when we made love, since your round belly shows you, too, have arrived at an unblushing stage, having disported with one of the young men with whom I have spied you, boys with such large Adam’s apples it is clear you must have, as a girl growing up, appreciated one of your neighbors, one of those gangly boys for whom all energy collects at the throat.
To return to the point: I concur, making love is no blushing matter. Of course in my era we were idealists. In folk songs, girls and women were flirty but during our meetings so impossibly earnest, and how hard it was to understand these two aspects living together. Suture together a red-hot wriggly bonobo bottom to the bespectacled head of Karl Marx and you can imagine how we boys felt. If we rookie surgeons managed the suture, we enjoyed what came once we had executed enough healing on that pesky mind-body dialectic, making our subsequent wriggling a healthy part of the new philosophies with which we stuffed ourselves.
At such times, if one coupled with a flitty girl who turned out to be capable of earnest delivery, one felt oneself a lion of the nation, the loin of its future. If you didn’t live through our times, this line of reasoning may be hard to understand. But our flutes and guitars, the fitful gyrating along with our chatter about the new world order, all of it served as a vine up toward the bedroom and let us know we helped a good system ascend toward its historically inevitable triumph. Not to linger on this point too much but say you were a man with full-blooded sympathies, it is natural that after you lay with enough Trotsky admirers, you knew you formed part of the national pride, so admirable and sporting. To any female you needed promise little, each a fertile seedbed into which you might bequeath the pearl of patrimony while also trusting no seedbed or pearl would betray our collective good faith, none of us thinking that one day we might have to become individuals all over again, knowing the pain of the adolescent forced to take matters into our own hands.
Of course, on the cusp of full masculinity, you can also imagine how hard it might have been for a young man like myself who already guessed what sacrificing to dedicated adult commitments might mean. Grow older and all branches become more singular. As if to become older means you start climbing an upside-down tree only to realize you now cling to one hefty trunk: the trunk has become your fate and only amor fati will be your limp consolation.
So imagine how I was, still early in my climbing, on one of the branches of that upside-down tree, still foolish in feeling this branch could lead anywhere, much as one begins a document like this, something particular to both writing and life: one begins thinking the branches could lead anywhere only to find oneself on the trunk of a particular conclusion. I climbed since I was an ambitious corporal, to be sure, and I had a lover, older than I was, more experienced, not that her flesh was any the less supple, only that her experience was so much greater that I wanted to plant a flag in it. And she, too, wanted me as a conqueror, this woman who liked me to do her like a dog. Does this seem a quaint notion, now that people are into, as they say, so many different sorts of acrobatics? She needed me to yank her hair back and then murmur words from our former dictator, the one from whom publicly we were happy to be free but who still ruled our bedrooms.
I do not mention this to make you wish to throw down this guide in disgust, though I begin to realize that this might not be a story I should follow to its logical conclusion. Again, it is merely that as a man of advancing years it has become incumbent upon me to share with you the wisdom I have collected, especially now that you might need some advice about parenting, one of the horrible new words to which my generation has had to accustom itself. We did not know about parenting, we just became whatever we were.
Suffice it to say, of course, as I rose in the ranks, aspects of my position became distasteful. It was announced to me, for one thing, that I had to leave the older lover in the dirt, without ever seeing her again: she never believed that such injunction came from directly above and not from my own distaste for anything farther below, in other words, her age reeking a bit too much of the grave. Paradoxically, soon after the discharge of my lover it happened, as a condition of my administrative role, that I came to be in charge of how people disported themselves between the sheets. Of course we didn’t refer to the duty in this way. Rather, having ascended to a post in a cultured ministry, a post I had coveted, I found myself handling the question of nighttime behavior and was asked to come up with a new code of morals for the nation, something quick and slangy enough that people could recall it easily, something to use as a sort of dowsing rod when making a choice affecting our national hygiene, if you will, and so of course I said: Remember Our Traditions, since one of the first logos we had as a nation back when we were first forming ourselves in the more modern way was the man in his broad hat taking the woman by the waist, the woman in her peasant dress swung about. This man in his elegance, our fellow of the logo, looked as if he would have voiced our motto to sons preparing to leave for our factories and battlefields, heading out to storm the world, just as the woman, the mother of our nation, appeared with the cant of her head and outflung arm to have advised her daughters in similar fashion.
Remember our traditions. What those traditions were does not, in truth, need much plummy articulation: enough to invoke this glorious house of the past in which we were not merely peasants married to the dirt but rather gallant wielders of tradition.
And it is not just that this motto now appears on all our billboards and official correspondence, having been taken up with a spirit I could not have foreseen, even if there is that unfortunate resultant acronym, ROT, given the gothic cast the designer gave the first of each of the letters, so that we are ROTting away on every official communication and children see this ROT in their classrooms, but rather I see now that as a father I might tell you to follow this advice at least a bit more than you are presently: remember our traditions.
A few years ago you began asking in a manner I can only describe as querulous about some inconvenience you felt in the fact that we maintained no photo albums of you in your early years, in contrast to the tottering weight of those we amassed ever since you were three.
Every child feels the indignity of what a parent occludes, and what can I tell you, dear one? Your mother was a great one for amassing albums in general, to be sure. But what comes to mind is that you never asked about other items more relevant to your future, such as the case of Michael A., a man who showed the wrong kindness to a group of infidels in our government. What happened to poor Michael? He let dissidents dine at his table, his children play with theirs, and then one day, Michael failed to show up at his office. A hint of poisoned chicken was bandied about, a mention of foul play by a maid, and still one could find no trace of him, not the slightest whiff. What do you say about someone like this?
He was duped into his end, a smokescreen which, thanks to the protection of our family’s tradition, you have never had to fear.
As I consider it, our troubles, yours and mine, began recently on the day when you looked at me strangely during an official lunch, when you sprang the question on me like one of the feral cats your child self so pitied: What if I had never been your father? What kind of thing was this to say as I was about to ascend to my magisterial functions, soon to walk up stairs that wiggled so inopportunely, up to the podium where I would place a ceremonial wreath around the neck of a popinjay, of course, a strutting man whom it was hard for me to celebrate, whose tail feathers have always been too hefty for the scatter of thoughts in his vain little head. It occasionally falls upon me, however, that I must celebrate the undeserving.
The opposite of such moments of unworthy celebration—and I could string a wreath with them—was always you. Do you know I could have had a birthday for you every day of every year we had together? Do you know all the times I held your head to my chest and stroked your hair? That I so painstakingly learned after your mother’s death to use my brute thumbs braiding your fine girl’s hair, no easy task for a man who, back in our darkest decade, had his hands hammered by unscrupulous interrogators?
How can you then turn to me and ask me such a question, at such an unwieldy moment?
Do you know it was your question that pushed me off my balance? I aimed for equanimity but tripped on those stairs, and as I looked over my shoulder, you seemed to be choking down a giggle, your face a mirror of what I saw in the popinjay’s smirk.
The next day, as you know, not satisfied with public humiliation, you came upon me in the kitchen where I was having the maid make the kind of soup you once loved, the one we made whenever you were sick. The one for which I had to go to the local butcher’s where he owes us some favors, his house having been passed over in many recent storms, for which he now bestows upon us massive bags of bones he promises come solely from grass-fed beasts of our plains, the bones with an architecture so large and misshapen, they are almost humanoid, truth be told, and now take up all the room in the freezer another fellow in our district gave us as a small gift at your last birthday.
Is it true—you dared ask, as I was showing the maid how to stir the soup from the inside of the pot out toward the rim—was my mother one of the journalists who criticized you?
The maid, an alley cat who speaks only the indigenous language, someone with whom I communicate in a pantomime, averted her eyes, sensing something disgraceful was transpiring.
I should have asked you a more serious question: Do you enjoy defiling the memory of your actual mother this way? Or rather, can you guess how many have been destroyed by rumor-spreading car- rion lit upon the remains of our nation’s hopes?
Do you know how deep my heart is? I asked before turning back to the maid.
The heart doesn’t kidnap you, you said too quickly.
I have long believed every man has something to offer any scene of confrontation, yet it had not become clear to me what my donation might be.
I don’t know what you mean, I finally said.
Love doesn’t hide or hurt you, it doesn’t lie to you all of your life, you said, love is something else.
Brush your hair! I tried, posture stiffening. We’re going to be late.
You then went into a vile recounting, lies you saved up for such a moment, saying we had killed so many subversives we might have murdered journalists you mistakenly believe are your real parents.
You then pressed upon me a photo of two rebels you said you believed were your parents, given you by that awful friend of yours who likes to channel misinformation. How horrifying that you chose to believe such sources, when is it not ultimately a parent’s job to instruct a child?
Real parents? I said, wishing instead that again I could hear you voicing with such sweetness those words from your past: autochthonic. Erumpent. We had that as a language, but what could I say back to you? Popinjay, miscellaneous, virulence. Mainly, I could not support any more vileness. I grabbed the soup ladle from the maid, gave the broth a determined stir and turned on you, my voice modulated to match our circumstances. You know, dear, I said, certain friends have given you the wrong ideas.
At which it would be charitable to say that you flounced out of the room, leaving me with the maid turned back to her pot, making one of those horrifying aboriginal gestures that could mean benediction, protection, or curse.
It was then natural for me to decide I could no longer stomach the official function to which we were meant to go and instead went to my room with its comforting morocco walls and gold-studded chairs, a room in which I could pore over a well-guarded black book, because of course there does exist one concerning you, its supporting documents neatly tabbed and placed in archival lamination. And so since one day you will find this secret black book, since I have not burnt it, an inhumane course of action, I thought it might behoove me to write you now, to help you understand some of the issues parents have.
For one thing, as any parenting book will say, the one I intended to write at the outset of this branching narrative, parents must work to contain the emotions, violent or otherwise, of their children. Hence it falls to me to gently correct your version of events. Were I to abstain from such repair, you would not qualify as my daughter and I could not claim to be your father.
To begin with, what you call kidnapping we call salvation, as in our saving a person from an unfortunate situation. What in your temporary blindness you call abusing power might also form a righting of collective wrongs. You might have had life in an orphanage, which then would have become your own upside-down tree trunk, all your possibilities narrowing, such little life cleaving to this trunk. Instead I gave you our life. And yet can also recognize the beautiful flash of anger in your eyes, one which can lead to justice or truth. You are too young to know how rarely they coincide. This document, then, shares with you some of what you wish to know. You have not spoken to me since our conversation, believing it an admirable use of your life energies to keep smoldering. If you still think you should call those two people your parents, I am sorry, as I happen to think every person ends up in a cage of beliefs. Still your words return like an unwelcome report. Why is there no birth announcement, you kept on, eyes black voids, your hair so similar to my late wife, your face so much mine. The maid might as well have not been there in the room with us. As you leaned toward me, I was all that mattered to you. And if I loved you with great heat in that moment, with something I have never been able to conquer rising up, it changed nothing, especially how you smelled then, such a clammy, dank girl, my daughter a girl so much of the grave, I had to repress my revulsion, the only word emerging on my lips being the one that made you leave for good, one on which you made your first triumph: argillaceous.
From KINGDOM OF THE YOUNG. Used with permission of Sarabande Books. Copyright © 2017 by Edie Meidav.