Read No One is Here Except All of Us Online
Authors: Ramona Ausubel
“So, can I go home then?” I asked.
“Your body has to live here, but your heart can live wherever you like.”
“I get cut in half after all?”
“I’m so sorry,” she said, already turning around.
My stomach churned with confusion and hunger both. Even if breast milk had come out, I was not a baby. I sneaked into the kitchen but found little to eat. I tore the meat off a small bone left in the icebox, put it under my nightdress and took it to my room to chew on in the moonlight. Someone must have seen me, because the next night, they left a loaf of bread and a large piece of cheese out for me, as if I were a rare, wild animal they wanted to befriend. There was a note:
I almost remember who you are and I definitely love you.—Father.
Did I remember who I was? Not well, not really. I made a list of everything I knew.
River, mud, corners, mother, father, sister, brother, cabbage, rain, hair, arms, mountains, farm, hands, yesterday, tomorrow, kiss, meat, plates, tongues, eyes, bed, roof, tree, hunger.
Everything I wrote made me think of four other things. I wrote and wrote until the list took up the whole page, until it was black with markings. Out in the world dogs kept howling back and forth to each other, not in trained operatic voices but high, rough ones.
Spit, babies, snot, spoon, death, dogs, saddle, horse, rain, anger, howl.
I sent a dream to my parents across town. I was sure that it reached them, that at the exact same time we all three saw the scene together: I jumped, did a somersault, whistled, snapped my fingers—anything I could do to make them clap, and they wanted to, they wanted to laugh and cheer, but they could not. They were mute. But they found they could throw their voices into other people’s mouths. They could make Kayla and Hersh say, “Beautiful, wonderful girl, look at how much you know. We are dizzy with love for you.”
In the morning, Kayla was hanging over me like a burning sun. “Hello?” she whispered. “You don’t want to cry for me?” Kayla asked. “Don’t you want to miss me when I’m in the other room?” Dutifully, I did my best to summon sadness into my eyes. I thought of the sound of frogs coming to life in puddles outside the window of my old life, singing for a few wet, warm nights before they were silent and I would go outside to find their dry, flat forms strewn out over ground. I thought about my old father’s clatter when he woke and stood to look outside at the waiting day, while my old mother watched him quietly until he said, “Beautiful out there,” and she asked him to describe the clouds to her.
“She’s crying for me,” Kayla called to Hersh. “Oh, my little girl needs me so much.”
The old world
seemed to have left us alone. No one had floated by in a boat, trying to sell us a canteen made from a sheep’s stomach. No Gypsies had passed through, rattling their wine bottles and singing their songs. Was it because we had succeeded? Because the new world was real? Perhaps. Or maybe it was because, day by day, there were fewer and fewer people left in the countryside. We had not seen the Official Gazette, which published thirty-two laws, thirty-one decrees and seventeen government resolutions against us. We did not see crosses drawn on all the doorways where Christians lived, while Jewish men were made to dig huge trenches in the cemetery. The world was emptied. Anyone who thought about it would have assumed we were long dead or on our way to death. We were forgotten and we were lost and, because of that, the world we made was allowed to go on.
Meanwhile, the healer saw patients all day. People whose anxiety about the old, the new, the broken and the saved was manifested in strange physical afflictions. The healer’s medical knowledge was sorely tested, but he knew that in most cases, all he had to do was provide a confident answer. It mattered very little what the contents of that answer were.
For demon-caused leg cramps, wear an amulet with three hairs from the bad leg and one underfeather of a sparrow.
For nighttime fever, catch an ant carrying a leaf and place it in a copper tube. Cover and shake the tube, saying, “What thou carriest on me, that I carry on thee.”
For fear of ghosts, place four beetles in a pot and pour some good wine over them. Boil for one hour and drink each morning for nine days.
If you forget your own name, if you cannot remember who you are, take your shirt off and drop it down the chimney. Then bury it at a crossroads.
For heartsickness of the unending variety, befriend a dove. Do not catch it, not even so that you can set it free. Just get down on the ground with bread crumbs on your chest and wait for it to find you interesting.
When we asked
our stranger never to leave the square, we had not counted on months of gray weather. Some of the time the rain was heavy, like buckets had been upturned. Sometimes it was soft and sometimes it was just a deep, thick mist. Our water tanks filled up and overflowed and we had to shovel the mud out from in front of our doorways, but the village never floated away, even though it seemed some days like it might. Just when the streets started to become rivers, the rain would turn to mist, the streams would subside, and we would go about our lives under a blanket of fog.
Meanwhile, our stranger sat in the square. She had the coats we gave her and we even built her a little canopy out of a cowskin, which was waterproof, where the blanket had not been. This seemed very smart and kind of us. We sat there with her and asked for the health of our babies and the health of our parents and enough dry wood to keep the house warm, and our stranger wrote these things down for us, her fingers red and her boots soaked through. After praying, everyone went home and wrapped our hands around warm cups of tea, dried our socks by the fire. We had figured a day or two of this weather, a week, two weeks. But on it went.
At night, the stranger came to my window. The hugeness of what was happening was impossible to express, so we worked in a smaller currency. We traded tiny, observed facts. “The chipmunks look like they are enjoying life,” she said.
“Sometimes, when the water begins to boil, I put my face into the steam until it starts to hurt.”
“Some of us are happier than others.”
“I like it when I can feel myself falling asleep.”
“The days are getting shorter and shorter.”
“I am afraid of not being myself anymore. I feel like I’m disappearing or something.”
“Yes,” she said. “I know what you mean.”
The jeweler’s cheeks
were sallow with worry. He had stopped sleeping, and ate only what the stranger left on the plates he brought to her. He was angry with her for being so obedient. If only she had insisted, told the villagers that she would sit during the day but come home—home to his house—at night. After a lifetime of waiting, a companion had appeared out of the heavens for him, dropped down like a gift from God, and been taken away by the petty selfishness of other people.
Most villagers were not aware of his discontent. We were busy worrying about the rain and our own morning-till-nights. Our houses were full of hanging clothes, which left puddles underneath themselves. When we wanted to leave our houses to walk to the shops or work, we made our way along the line of garments, feeling each one, looking for the driest, but nothing was dry. We smelled like drenched sheep all the time, our necks itchy under wet scarves.
Some people began to notice that our stranger was not writing as vigorously as she had been. The jeweler peeked over her shoulder and discovered a soggy list:
Health (mother, father, children, spouse, self, others)
Winning the bet
Next to each of these was a series of notches, one for each time one of us asked for the thing. Money had two rows of lines. We prayed for the health of ourselves more often than the health of our spouses but less often than the health of our parents. Sex was less requested, probably because we were shy, but almost all of us wanted to win the bet. The final category, the one that made us feel terrible, was this: A prayer that what happened to the stranger does not happen to me. Even with the safety of Creation between us and that story, many of us, dozens, had sat down on that old wooden chair and wished out loud that our stranger’s stolen life, her lost children, her mutilated mother remain only hers. That she alone sit out in the falling sky and record our hopeful lives for us.
The jeweler told us what he had seen. He made the rounds from house to house to say that we were leaving our stranger outside in bad weather under a cowskin and telling her how grateful we were to be better off than she was. He told everyone he insisted she sleep in the house from now on. “Also, peace is not even on the list,” he said. “Not one of us has prayed for peace.”
“Yes, but it’s only temporary. We’re building her a palace. We’re praying for peace when we pray for all the other things. We want money because we want peace, right?” the banker tried nervously to reason, while he popped a nut out of its shell and licked the crystals of salt from his fingers. The banker was leaning against his doorframe, each polished button on his vest reflecting the jeweler’s face back at him, distorted and clownish.
“I think we could stand to pray for what we really want, then. But in the meantime, we haven’t built the palace yet and our stranger is freezing.”
“Many nights we invite her into our homes and rub her feet. Has she forgotten?” The banker tossed his shells into a puddle, where most sank but one floated—a boat big enough to save nothing.
“We are already so used to having a miracle with us that now she’s soaking wet and we don’t care to dry her off.”
Shame was a feeling that arrived all at once. The villagers had gotten away with everything so far. The stranger was like a communal pet and everyone figured she was lucky to have been adopted by us, to have the square, safe and clean, to live in. Now that our selfishness had been pointed out, we figured we did not deserve even one good thing on the earth.
So the village agreed to take another vote. Most of us did not want to turn our own house into the temple, even temporarily, even when the idea was floated that it must be a very godly thing to do. Where would we say the thing that was too private, too quiet a desire to bring even to the ears of God?
“I would do it,” the jeweler said, trying to sound as if he had only thought of this now. As if he had not racked his brain for a way to come home to the stranger each evening.
“Nah,” the old men agreed. “Too small. Too full of junk.” The jeweler bit his cheek.
“I could add a room,” he tried.
“It’s not really fair, anyway. What if you get closer to God than the rest of us? We don’t want any special privileges,” the banker said.
The jeweler was jittering. So taken had he been with the image he had sprung of the stranger in the low light of every evening for the rest of their lives, seated at the window with a book on her lap.
“What about the barn?” the butcher asked. “I’m sure the animals wouldn’t mind.”
“You’d choose the barn over my house?” the jeweler mumbled, his forehead turning red with shame.
The barn did not smell
like a house of God, it smelled like the house of goats—their buttery oil and their stamping hooves and interested mouths. The horses swished their tails and looked at us with eyes that seemed to be melting. The chickens tucked themselves into their nests or walked nervously around.
“Welcome to the holy temple,” we joked, kicking shit and hay. Our stranger dried off with some rags we had brought and sat down against the wall. “Thank you,” she said. “This is better.”
The jeweler got to work making the stranger’s bed and setting up a pile of carefully folded shirts from his own closet for her to wear. He thought ahead to the day he would come to switch them out—clean for dirty—only his plan was not to wash the ones she had worn, but to ball them up and sleep on them.
The rest of us took stock of the big room. At the far end, the animals had their quarters: shelves for the dozen chickens, a pen for two horses. The four goats walked freely around. Heavy-coated sheep were left outside, their oily wool beaded with rainwater. We smelled them when the wind shifted. Small windows, probably never washed, ringed the walls. Floorboards creaked with every step, and the high ceiling was festooned with ribbons of dust, like a celebration planned by ghosts and spiders. My first parents and I found reasons to silently brush up against each other, and when we did our skin felt lit up. I was still supposed to be a baby, and could not tell them about the family-shaped hole in my chest.
The greengrocer and the weaver moved the crumbling piano into the barn from the healer’s house, where it had sat since we had dragged it up from the river, its chest full of the other washed-up things. The piano smiled on. The weaver pinned the map of the summer sky to the wall above it. We had a temple. We were happy, in spite of the lack of ebony, of leather, of soaring arches.
Igor apologized for keeping our stranger out in the rain. My mother—Perl, I told myself to call her, the name she was given by her mother, the name she was called by everyone except her children, which I no longer was—apologized to the stranger for telling her we were glad not to have suffered as she had.
“I’m glad you didn’t suffer that way, too,” our stranger told her. “But thank you for saying sorry.”
The animals chewed and shuffled, nosed at the hay. It seemed we were already moving too quickly. We were at the beginning of time just days ago and already we were apologizing. We thought it would be years before we would have had to start saying sorry. Perl and I knew the truth before the rest, that if hope was the first feeling, regret was the second or third.
“Can I say a prayer, and will someone else record it?” the stranger asked. Perl took out her notebook. “I pray that I am empty enough to hold you all,” the stranger said.
“You are,” Moishe said. “Enough, I mean. You have to be. You are the reason we believe.” It was exactly what I would have said if I could speak.
“I will try. I pray.” Perl scribbled it all down and ripped the page out. She folded it carefully up and handed it over, like a secret we knew but wanted to keep anyway.