Read No One is Here Except All of Us Online
Authors: Ramona Ausubel
THE BOOK OF SONGS
n my new life, Kayla, wanting the sweet candy of progress, prodded me by pointing to herself and saying the word
over and over. In front of Hersh and Kayla were the ravaged remains of a lamb’s leg. In front of me was a bowl of mashed peas—food for a toothless little girl. I looked at the peas and realized that I no longer found them strange. Stupid human, I thought, stupid animal. Don’t you see how awful this is? But I had simply done what we all do every day: gotten used to how things were. I watched Kayla chirping, “Mother, mother, mother,” and knew that whenever I was ready I could parrot the word back, perfect and crisp. I liked knowing this. It was a treasure I could hoard, and hoard I did until my new aunt began to give up on me.
“Sometimes I think we should take her to the healer,” Kayla told Hersh. “What if she has some kind of problem?” She served herself a new glob of potatoes.
I bounced in my chair, trying to look like a baby who was, at this very instant, growing a little. I wiggled my patent leather shoes. If nothing else, I felt I had earned some acclaim for my performance. Disappointment was so pervasive in my life that I could hardly sort it from any other feeling. Yet I had not considered that Kayla could ever be disappointed in
. Was there something I had forgotten to give up? Some sacrifice I had missed the opportunity to make?
“She doesn’t have any problems. She’s learning,” Hersh said.
I bounced and shook my fists. I tried to make my face sweet and unknowing.
Kayla frowned. I bounced. Kayla rolled her eyes. “That’s all she does all day.”
I looked Kayla straight in the eye and said, “Mother!” Kayla’s hand flew to her heart. She wiped the tears from her cheek, replacing them with a delicate smear of potato. She looked at Hersh and shook her head. That Kayla had food on her cheek and did not know it made me strangely sad. Growing up saves a person none of the tiny humiliations. Forgetting my supposed age, I reached out with my napkin to clean it, but she slapped my hand, as if I were a fly.
“Yes!” she cried. “Yes! That’s me! Mother! Me!” Then, not wanting to perform unless it was going to be a standing ovation, I turned to Hersh and smiled my big, toothy smile and said, “Father!” Hersh in turn put his hand on his heart and wiped the tear from his eye and shook his head and said, “Yes! That’s me! Father! I’m your father!” I bounced in my chair, receiving the accolades.
“Bullfight!” I yelled. “Fire! River! Hunger!”
“Oh, she is learning so much!” Hersh exclaimed.
“Too much! Too much!” Kayla yelled, covering her ears. “I want to be the only words she knows for now. Where did she learn all those other horrible words?”
I cast my eyes to the ground and stopped talking. “She’s sorry,” Hersh said. “She’s too smart for her own good. That’s what happens when we don’t teach her ourselves. She’ll learn all the wrong things.”
“Mother! Mother! Father! Mother!” I tried.
“She’s so sorry,” Hersh said again.
Kayla cried that she wanted my world to be small so that they could keep track of it. “I can protect her from six or ten things. I don’t know if I can protect her from seven hundred or four million things.”
“We teach her to protect
,” he tried. “That is our only job in the world.”
“Mother,” I said quietly. “Father.”
Kayla sobbed as if her daughter had died. Hersh whispered to her what a privilege it was to get to pass the world down, the world as they saw it. In any order, with any particular meaning. “We could teach her that the trash can is the most beautiful of things—or the sapling or the butter knives. She will always live in the world we give her.”
Kayla blew her nose into Hersh’s sleeve. “It’s so hard to be a mother,” she told him. “I had no idea how much I would be asked to give away. Just as I have gotten to know her one way, I have to see her grow into something else. How much am I supposed to bear?”
Hersh’s chair squeaked when he pushed it out to rest a hand on the broad expanse of his wife’s back. “A few minutes ago you were telling me she was too slow.”
“Being a mother is impossible,” Kayla cried. “
. Every single part breaks my heart.” Being a daughter was so hard that I had not considered anything in the future could match it. If I made it through this, I had expected to be safe. But the world was busy inventing new ways to sacrifice every day. A lifetime of them. A heavy stone sank to the bottom of my stomach.
Hersh said to his wife, “Come with me into the day. Let’s show our beautiful girl where she lives. Just us, her mother and her father, her very own parents. One thing at a time.”
My uncle took me into his spidery arms. Kayla popped open her big black umbrella, which turned the rain into a percussion instrument, a drumbeat building up to the revelation of the world. On the street, Hersh said, “This is a street. You have seen it before but you wouldn’t have known what to think of it. We use it to get from one place to another. We carry the rocks from the mountains and we lay them down to walk on. The horses walk on them, the bugs walk on them, the people.”
“A bug, a mountain, a rock, a person—you’re naming things that she does not know. She can’t understand anything you’re saying,” Kayla scolded.
“A rock,” he started, and knelt down, put his hands on the street. “This is a rock. My hand is touching a rock. This is a hand. Fingers, these are fingers. To touch is when you put one thing against another thing.” He touched me on the arm. “This is touching,” he said.
I nodded. “Touching,” I repeated obediently.
We had made it no farther than the first corner of the first street closest to our home, and still we were surrounded by so much that it was almost impossible to know where to begin.
“You haven’t said about the mountains or the horses,” Kayla prodded.
“The mountains are huge mounds of the earth. The earth is everything, the earth is the earth. The horses are what make us a living, because people, that’s us, we like to ride on the horses to get places. We go on the horses on the streets and end up somewhere new. I make the saddles so that it’s easier to ride. The saddle is made of leather, which is the skin of another animal. Not the skin of a horse, because that would be cruel, but the skin of a cow.”
“Where do people go on the horses?” Kayla asked.
“The mountains maybe, the sea. The sea is where the rivers go, the rivers are what feed the sea. The sea is hungry for the rivers. The people do not live in the sea. We like to visit it, to go inside, but cannot live there. It’s because of air. Air is what we breathe.” He breathed loudly to demonstrate. “Like that. That is breathing. We have to do it or we die. Dying is the end, maybe. It’s either the end or the beginning. It always happens, even if you are very good.”
“Hersh?” Kayla asked. “I think it’s too much. We don’t have to tell her the bad things yet.” But he kept on, he could not keep anything a secret anymore.
“When you die you do not breathe. When you do not breathe you die. If you were to jump into the river and swim for a very long time until you got tired, you would start to sink down, and when you could not keep your head up in the air anymore, you would take water into your body and that would be the end of the breathing. You would sink to the bottom. The bottom, the dirt, is the last place to go.”
I nodded at Hersh in understanding. “The bottom,” I said. This was something I felt I understood. It felt good to be given back the words with which to describe my world. Like being paid. I imagined all the conversations I would be able to have with my new words.
“Please stop,” Kayla begged.
“But flowers and trees grow out of the dirt. It’s what makes all other life possible. It’s the earth, the earth which is everything.”
As Hersh talked we all slumped lower. We did not stand straight, but felt the weight of all the words, of all the things, of the ways all the things were the same and different from all the other things. Nothing was safe. Nothing was free from a name or a place in the world. If we wanted to start naming, we would have to never stop.
“When you say Mother it means Kayla. When I say Mother it means a woman who is dead. She died but I did not die yet. I have to keep living, to take care of you. No one has a choice about this. We do not decide when we die.”
We slumped so low we had no choice but to sit on the side of the road, in a puddle under a willow tree. We leaned against one another. Kayla put her head on Hersh’s shoulder, I put my head in Kayla’s lap, Hersh leaned down to the ground. Kayla did not protest anymore, she just listened half-eared to the accounting. Hersh kept talking quietly, lost in the maze. And I kept exact track, trying to remember what I was allowed to know now.
“A choice is what your mother and I made when we had you. We asked for you. To ask is when you say please. To say is to use your mouth to make words. Words are what we say. We is all of us. We are all we.”
We lay back on the ground. We put our heads on the stones, the stones from the mountains, the mountains from the earth. The earth from the bottom. All of it soaked with rain, puddles tugging the fabric of our clothes.
“God is also what we all are. God is more than anything. More is more. Anything is God. There is no way to say God without saying Everything.”
The rain hit us on our skin. The stones rounded our backs. The calling of a dog was answered by the calling of another dog. We closed our eyes and Hersh and Kayla did not say words for a long time. They breathed. All that happened was everything.
“I give up,” Kayla said, closing her eyes. “There is too much.”
“We have time,” Hersh told her.
“We have nothing. We need help. Hire all the teachers you can so Lena knows how to protect herself against every awful thing in the world. This child will never grow up if we don’t.”
I closed my eyes and prepared for the next wave to cover me.
The Committee for What We Have and Where We Have It
was made up of the barber, the greengrocer and the greengrocer’s wife—who had appointed herself an auditor because she insisted any accuracy in her husband’s work was due to luck, not diligence.
The Committee for What We Have and Where We Have It found that some people were coming up short. Without outsiders to sell his jewelry to, the jeweler was struggling. The banker’s piles of coins were smaller because money was not being saved up but constantly traded. Yet when the jeweler proposed he learn to help grow and harvest wheat instead of repair watches and set gems in gold, we hated the idea. What good was a little town without a friendly, nearsighted man from whom to purchase gifts to mark the moments of our lives? Women refused to imagine their days without that window display to dream over, and men had a hard time knowing how else they might express their ongoing devotion. While it was true that nothing new entered our village—no money, no clothes, no fruit—nothing left it, either. The plants offered new seeds, and evidently enough sunlight filtered through the clouds, because the plants kept growing. It would be sufficient for all of us, if we managed it right. We voted to pay everyone enough in bread, in meat, in milk, to continue to do the jobs they were put in our town to do. Instead of money, we traded goods. The banker’s job began to include keeping track of IOUs—for this pair of earrings made of rubies, which the greengrocer wanted for his wife, he would deliver a basketful of vegetables at the start of each week for three months. For the service of making sure everything was fair, the banker was given a little of what everyone else earned.
Once they had catalogued and remedied shortfalls, the Committee for What We Have and Where We Have It set to work on a map. They paced the edges of our village, feet one in front of the other, toe to heel in a jagged circle. Their finding was that it took 10,034 of the barber’s feet to circle the village. That number tickled us. A total, an exact and complete measure of the space we occupied. We asked the Committee for What We Have and Where We Have It to measure more. The banker was found to have the biggest house but the smallest windows. The chicken farmer had the smallest house but the tallest door.
When they had measured everything big and logged it, the jeweler, whose whole life had been lived based on miniature objects, begged them to find a way of measuring things that were small. They devised two new lengths of measurement: the length of the barber’s left first finger, and the full moon of his thumbnail. The Committee for What We Have and Where We Have It grew tired of being chased with unmeasured brooms, butter dishes, baby shoes. They voted among themselves on a rule to measure things only at the start of each month when the moon was new. The rest of the time they would draw a map of the village and keep an inventory of all our belongings. At the end of one week of counting they showed us the first list.
Zalischik, Population: 102
Baby Shoes: 53 (26 pairs, 1 single)
Full-Grown Trees: 190
Vegetable Gardens: 49
Wedding Dresses: 25
Precious Gems: 32
Fake Gems: 299
Once the physical things were counted, we wanted a census of the rest of our lives. After some time, the Committee for What We Have and Where We Have It marched out of the back of the greengrocer’s store where they met, and posted a new list on the statue of the long-dead war hero in the middle of the town square. The greengrocer’s wife said, “The list is too long to post. Here are your top ten. No further items will be added at this time.” We crowded around to read it.
Overbearing Mothers-in-Law: 11
Regrets in Matters of Love: 1,987
Regrets in the Matters of Money: 200
Secret Crushes: 6
Overdue Apologies: 712
Objects Believed to Be Lucky, but Not Proven to Be So: 353