Come Back To Me

Elizabeth Hartsig

At Hibo's house this winter we eat rice and plantains and talk about ghosts. Hibo is Somali, and her good friend Margret is Ethiopian, and they both live in Atlanta , grieved by recent conflicts between their countries. Their grief comes out like another feeling. Hibo bangs pots and pans, and she changes the subject.

So let me tell you about the ghost in my refugee camp! —she says.
The ghost in her haunted tent in the refugee camp sat on her chest at night. She couldn't even talk to the ghost to tell it to get off, which she would have done. She couldn't breathe. The ghost was heavy. She wasn't frightened, she was irked—a ghost? She had been through so much.

So Hibo filled out the proper paperwork.

She got a new tent.

We scrape the pot of rice, and for a long time, Margret and Hibo and I talk about ghosts, old ghosts who wobble on the stairs, ghosts who carry their own heads under their arms, and then we talk about rats, how a big rat in your kitchen can sound like a ghost, and we talk about the doors the big rats can open, their careful hands, their competence—the cupboards they rattle through. 

Hibo's a teaching assistant, too.

 

For nine months, I work at this elementary school, in Georgia. I am glad to be here, but that is always just one part of things.

Hassan, a third grader, raises his hand, and when we call on him, he always says,
           
—Come back to me—

With great confidence. He says this every time. I think about this: how Hassan doesn't know the answer, but he still wants to speak. How he knows we will always call on him. He grins, tugs his shirt, and looks away. His hands are things that must go up.

How he understands that there is this contract of faithfulness between us.

Or maybe he knows the answer, maybe he knows the answer every time, and every time, he forgets the answer.

As anyone might—forget.
           
Raise my hand. Come back to me.

 

This was different from my brief life in Idaho, when I lived in a cabin in the high desert. The Frank Church Wilderness was behind the cabin, and I would stand with my back to it, leaning on the stick I carried to whomp the ground, to scare off scary snakes. Dust rose in the sage, all along the lone paths where I went whistling and whomping. That was three years ago. I was taking care of ten chickens and an emu named Squeaky. She was lonely; the first lonely animal I met.

 

In Atlanta, most of the winter, my throat is hot—I squint. Whenever I feel laughter rising in me, I start to cough. My lungs grow mossy and rich, sown with a yellow liquid. I cut a square of a worn soft plaid shirt and blow my nose in it.

The kerchief lives in my back pocket, a land of tiny germs. I keep my hands from waving through the germy air, from touching my nose. But it is hard not to smile—to cough. I work all day in the third grade and walk into my afterschool class and say to the first graders, —Hey! I'm sick.

But all the boys know to kick the soccer balls harder if you seem weak. They are smart. Every day, Daniel says, in his precise way, —Look outside! It is a beautiful day to play outside. Will we play outside?

—Yes, I say, every day. —We will play outside.

Outside, red dirt rises from the soccer pitch. It is cold in Georgia in February. The moon comes above the fir trees at five o'clock.

 

The man I live with is in law school, and often I am in bed when he gets home from the library. I hear him come in through the door, quietly. I've known him for seven years. We built three boats together out of scraps, for scrap-boat races. The first one sank and the third was carried off in a flood.

The teacher I work with—her deft husband works for a human rights organization.

I'm unclear about substantive due process of law, I say to her. We are cutting out photocopies of poems and pasting them into notebooks for our students, so that they can have their own poetry books. This is a violation of copyright.

What matters is how far we go? His scaly friend replied…

—I woke up and realized I do not even know what city he is flying to, she says, and raises her eyebrow at me. She is Welsh. English is my second language, too, she tells our kids. Sometimes I hear her laughing across the room at the computer. It is October. Her husband is somewhere, and she is here in Georgia, white-haired and patient, and he is trying to make her laugh. She has opened an email from him. Cariad, she calls him, and all their children, Cariad.

—I love my husband, she says to the computer.

 

Once I was standing on a mountain in North Carolina, in my friend Cassie's pajamas, calling after her dog. The dog had run down the mountain. There were skinny cows standing knee-deep in snow all down the mountain, and the dog was bounding down, she would go on bounding down forever, down all the mountains.

Joyous.

An old man came walking down and nodded to me, and he said, That's a good dog.

 

All this year of schooling, I've read letters. I am stuck on Osip Mandelstam, the Russian poet who died in the Gulag. He wrote once about Sevan Island, which is an island in the middle of a lake in Armenia. Armenia is something Osip used to think of all the time, the way I think of Idaho, the way I think of a blessing of dogs, the way I think of the great horned owl that my friend Audra keeps in her freezer, in a year that she keeps finding these owls, dead, their flecked feathers soft and cold. The way I have been thinking, now, of other things. I think of these things; Osip thought of Armenians.

And thinking of the Armenians made Osip say to himself: Osip, now stay awake, don't fear your own age, don't be sly.

 

I tell my kids they can't check out more joke books from the library unless they start telling more jokes. Then I catch their voices lilting, one child solemn and telling, the other solemn and listening, fidgeting a little. More often then smiling, when the joke's been told, they say, —Oh

They laugh often, riotously or sweetly, at almost everything but jokes. 

For some reason all the jokes are about animals. I hear zebra, hedgehog, duck-billed platypus. The animals all speak, as they did to St. Francis. And there are koalas, falling asleep in the eucalyptus trees, holding the hands of other koalas. Tumbling down.

 

While my friend Naza and I are scooping peas in the cafeteria she tells me how she was in high school in Sarajevo, how the windows of the school were always opened at the end of winter to let the air in. And she and her friends were all standing there, laughing and talking, and a woman in a red hat walked by below, so they leaned out into the cold air and spit at the red hat.

They watched the spit fall, kerplunk, kerplunk.

And they got in trouble.

 

Pariah, who is six, writes me a note. She numbers her arguments, 1-5. Pariah is tiny and she has hair that flies out in all the possible directions. She stands with her hands on her hips, and she shouts a lot in her very small voice. The other kids have a lot of respect for Pariah. The note she writes me says,

1. I stepped in the book.
2. I am not supposed to
3. step in the book.
4. Books are not supposed to be stepped in they are to read.
5. I won't do that again.

She wasn't actually stepping in the book, she was jumping up and down on it, because it was open to a picture of a pterodactyl, and she doesn't like pterodactyls.

 

This year I'm not writing many letters. In my head I am walking toward an old friend, under a gray and white and blue and  broadening sky, across green moss, and I call to her.

What's that you're holding? I call.

—A glacier, she says. She is looking at it.

—Your hands are blue…

—It was cold at first!

 

Dylan, frustrated, bound to his own peculiar logic, shouts out in class.

—Hassan! You don't make sense, Hassan!

—I make my own sense! Hassan says.

Hassan has tiny handwriting, small and widely spaced, like

THE        BIRD            THERE           THE                 ROAD             AND           FLYING

THREW THE HOUSE. 

Through, I whisper.

His handwriting is like the tracks of grasshoppers, who listen through the ears on their sawtooth legs.

 

Because (the Welshwoman and I tell our third graders) is spelled: Big Elephants Can Always Understand Small Elephants. Or, Big Elephants Can't Always Understand Small Elephants.
           
Your choice.

 

One of my third-graders writes: Why does Dylan always wear his coat inside?

One writes: I notice that I am tired this year.

 

There are expectations from the state. The third-graders should be able to distinguish between isosceles and scalene triangles. It begins to seem that nothing is so simple, or simple-minded, as a test score. Luckily if you tell a third-grader that a word is your favorite word, while you are sitting under a walnut tree at recess, they will remember that word. They will repeat it, first to themselves, alone, and then they will spread the word. With children, you should be honest, but sometimes you must also be tricky.

7 times 7 is my favorite. Circumference, is my favorite thing. Pumice is my favorite volcanic rock because it is full of holes, but it floats.

Harriet Tubman is my favorite freedom fighter.

Don't think about the wolves, the skunks will eat your chickens.

The dark places in the sky are always where the mountains are.

And the North Star is the brightest star—look up, it will guide you.

 

Squeaky's mate had been killed by wild dogs, and she paced her corral in Idaho, alone, blue-skinned, head tilted like the earth.

Watchful.

 

I press my thumbs into the hollows under the eyes of my Cariad, the law student, Silas. His skin is dark, and the hollows have strange colors in them. Purple browns.  A long time ago, Silas was living in another country, and we were trying to share a language that wasn't English. It felt important to have some other language in common, one we had to newly learn. Sbalordito, I wrote him. The Italian word for astonishment, for dumbfounded. I stare at you in sbalordito! I love this word but I cannot say it gracefully, it comes out like brussel sprouts.

—It is all a mishmash, I say, carefully.

—I think you are trying to put order to things that don't have an order to them, he tells me over the brussel sprouts he's cooked for me on the first day in March. It is snowing outside.

I say, —But there must be an order.

 

I meet a woman named Sarah, who shows me a book she made in Nicaragua. Her Nicaraguan book has an epigraph from Hölderlin, who wrote absentmindedly, or, serenely:

For everything is not glaciers.
The seas and the rivers, too, have their law.

 

After school, the serious first-grade girls focus on the Lincoln Logs. There is a wide swath of scattered logs, a felled forest, and for the forest people, Jayona and Zoree make the wedding logs and the funeral logs. They make Lego airplanes for these people. Each of the forest people will have a Lego airplane to go to the weddings and the funerals.

And Zoree puts a Lego tree carefully on the Lego airplane she has built. It is a white tree, there on the nose of the plane, a tall white tree rising above the propellers. Like a ghost, or a dress. She flies the white tree plane around above the weddings and funerals.

—Why? I say. She shrugs.

—Because it is beautiful, she says.

 

The drawings of children are such strange stars. They draw turtles, and beside the turtles, donuts are floating out of a donut box into the sky.

 

Fatou runs for the monkey bars. Yuri runs into the woods and must be brought back. Ross runs up to me on the playground. He has been running in circles, like the fisher hawk above the river, where? In Idaho.

The second graders have recently created the solar system on the ceiling of their classroom.

Ross says,—Okay, pretend you're from another planet.

I say,—Ross, you look like a fisher hawk!

He says,—Pretend I taught you how to live on earth.

 

—The man was running towards me, and the soldiers shot him, says Eddie.

He graduated from Purdue three years ago. Like Pain Perdu, he says, French Toast, Lost Bread. I graduated from French Toast University, he says. We talk about the African institutions of higher learning where he might have received the same degree, except that he did not go back. He's 25. We teach chess together after school. We are eating burritos after work and he starts to tell me a story. He is laughing.

—During the war, people wouldn't just break into your house. They would throw grenades through the burglar bars to break into the house. They would just blow up your house and grab whatever was left. Once I heard them talking outside my house: Should I throw it? And I said, from inside, No!

He stops talking, and looks at me. His face is gentle. —It's funny, he says.

 

Another time I was talking to someone who had lived in Peru. We were talking about the dogs of Peru. And the man I was talking to said how the dogs in Peru seemed purposeful—that they trotted purposefully and sometimes seemed to be on their way to work in the morning. They sometimes seemed to be getting in line.

 

In the kitchen, my friend Jay says, —This fried egg is perfect! Then he says, —Oh shit. Oh, wait. How do I do it?

 

Once, I was swimming across a lake, because I was trying to remember some things I'd forgotten. It was a wide lake, and it seemed a good distance for retrieval. I was thinking a few different things: that it had been years since I cleaned out a chicken coop, and that I felt my brain had been pickling in a jar all year, vinegary and lost, and also that my brain was so much attached to my heart. I thought of these missing organs, the ones I most needed for perception, and of the old scarf I had worn around my head. Cleaning the coop, laying out the new straw, mending. The noise of the hens.

After a while though, I forgot about that. I was just swimming. There were other things to think about.

When you are floating on your back, swimming becomes about listening. Water is in your ears, you can hear the bottom, and you think about all the things that are swimming beneath you, and the world above. You listen through fish, the whistle of firs.

The clothes you have left on the sand.

 

In Atlanta, Naza and I are walking together, leaning together and talking to keep warm, and in the course of things she says,

But seven years is not too short to wash a speck from a bird's neck.

 

There had been, for some time, a pain in my chest, and I couldn't think what it was. Until Silas points out that in the evening I hunch so closely over my books, I am clearly causing myself this.

This, bruised bone.

 

In Language and Culture, we speak Farsi.

—You are walking down the street in Iran, okay, Savanna? I think you just got your hair braided. And you—Lupita? What are you doing today in Iran?

—Today in Iran I am eating ice cream, says Guadelupe.

—Okay, I say. —And you see Savanna.

Lupita and Savanna smile at each other.

—What do you say?

—Salaam! they say. —Chetori? Khoobam.

And how are you?

 

Osip Mandelstam, in a letter, writes about an old man, swimming around the island of Sevan in Armenia.

An old man racing a younger man in the waves: the old man falters, and the island is too steep to offer a resting place. The light breaks against the rocks. There is no boat to rescue him. Just shavings of wood, and fish scales, and salt, all scattered around a boat that lies unfinished in a stony field. But the old man, he lives! He is revived by a bottle of cognac.

And the children on the island of Sevan, who torment sheep—they catch hoof and mouth disease, from tainted milk cans.

And they all fall back on their pillows.

 

If you are a child who has been hurt, and you are trying every day to get better, you will sometimes stand on the playground in the red dirt under the pecan trees and close your fists and your eyes, even after everyone has left, and I will kneel beside you and start to tell you a story. Because—I want you to breathe more slowly now.     

—Once there was a girl named Ayeh. She always wore green sneakers. And Ayeh was very good at multiplication, and drawing kitchens. She drew lots of kitchens. Someone was always cooking. She never forgot the oven, or the toasters. She knew how important a toaster was, so there was always a toaster in the kitchen. And one day, a bird flew in the kitchen door. Because, you drew the door open!

—What color was it? you say, slowly. 

—It was all the colors, I say.

 

When I was a child, I did not think of how all this would all happen—how all that has happened, would happen.

My family went to visit my distant relatives in Prague. The woman who played the piano in a concert hall, the old man who drove a blue car, quickly, the woman who hid people during the war, the children who offered us orange jam for our bread when we woke each morning. While the four of us were on this trip, we climbed a tall tower in a park. My father, my brother, my mother, and I. Go back down, my mother told me, now—at the top of the tower. I had spit from the top. Kerplunk.

—I love you, my mother said. —But go.

 

In the hour we take for Science, Emani keeps a careful, blunt record. Observations and Conclusions. The Fire Went Out.  No Bacteria Grew. Wind put the fire out. I swabbed a clean place…

 

When there are pirates in the news, Kelai says to us at lunch: —The Americans killed them, easy.

 

Nazdar, from Kurdistan, who loves spicy Cheetohs, writes in her writing journal: I became an old woman because I didn't listen to myself.

 

Four years ago, my grandmother and I were talking. I was looking into a valley far below. My grandmother has very dark eyes. Her voice was distant. There was a school down in the valley, and I could see children starting to run. They left the school, and they ran.

This winter, in Illinois, she's taking a bath, and she calls me in and says, look at my feet. I look at her feet. They are like gnarled mushrooms. All her life, she's been very strong. I say, —The bathwater's cold. She says, —Do you remember that banana? And she laughs. I go and put her towel in the dryer, so she will be warm when she wraps it around her feet.

In December, she shows me a tin full of perfect skipping stones. —I have been collecting these, she tells me dryly, —forever. We walk through the wild behind her house to the Fox River, our toes cold together now in the snow along the shore. I catch my breath, and she settles into the business at hand, pitching stones across the ice. An old woman in black boots and a white cap.

Her eyes narrow. She leans and lets go.

 

Miss Byers says, —I have never had to raise my voice in the classroom. She is talking to us about the older students, the high school students she teaches. Her hair is braided in neat bridges. One tooth is crooked like mine. This is only her second year teaching, and she talks to us quietly about the number of students she has with parole officers. She believes, as I believe, that gross—criminal—disparities in education are an issue of civil rights. Miss Byers also says she knows she has only one more year of teaching in her, because otherwise she is going to punch a child in the eye in her classroom.

I know Miss Byers is not nuts, because she has correctly identified others, like the administration, and the systems of numbers, and the machinations of Average Yearly Progress, as nuts. She says she will end up punching someone in the eye with the same gravity and clarity that she uses to tell us how best to listen to a child, and how best to care. She hopes to go into policy, so she can change the policies that create the situations that have made it impossible for her to stay a teacher.

 

In poetry, one of my third-grade girls writes: And so I am thinking—I am thinking—what do I do now?

 

I knock on a farmer's door in Maine, where I have been, distantly, looking for work since February. Fog rolled from the sea has stubbed on the fields. My boots are muddy from the previous farm. An apprentice answers the farmer's door. He is young, maybe just twenty, his hair dark and choppy beneath his hat. He takes his hat off and runs his hands through his hair and half turns to me, half turns away. He puts his hat back on. It's six in the morning.

—We could walk with some coffee? I say, so there's something. A small plan. I feel my age a little, and the strangeness of it, the wish to be kind, a scarcely older person trying to put someone who shares my decade at ease. I sit at a table. There is a silver pencil sharpener on one of the kitchen's support beams, and this puts me at ease.

—If I'm out of sorts, the boy says, —it's because I was up half the night boiling sap.
           
—I was up late, too, I say. And he makes me a careful cup.

Later, we are standing in the snow-soaked stubbled field, and I point out the top of a parsnip that's rotted and ask if it's because the field tilts to us, tilts rainfall and snow, and the boy smiles and pulls a clean, whole parsnip out of the ground and tells me to take it home. To Georgia.

So I hold the parsnip for hours as we walk around, setting it down carefully by the seedlings in the crop tunnel, setting it down carefully by the barrel washers, setting it down carefully next to my cold cup of coffee and picking it up just before I go. The boy apprentice shows me where he sleeps, a nest of blankets lofted above a table, an old guitar. The sheepdog allows us in the barn. There is bleating. Though it's dark in the rafters, the light from the snow through the open door is in the ewe’s wool and in the hay.  Here, the apprentices spin the wool and, as the boy says, they meat the lambs.

When I go, the parsnip in my lap, my car is stuck, and we have to push it out. Then he stands looking at me as I drive all the way to the road.

 

Paul Auster wrote: And each night from the silence of the trees, you know that my voice comes walking towards you.

 

This year, for my birthday, my Cariad bought me a hiking pack. For Valentine's Day, a sleeping bag for very cold temperatures.

All year he has been preparing me for some journey. Not a journey he’ll be taking with me—just one he has, in all his thoughtfulness, equipped me for—so that eventually what I’ll hold dear is not Thou, Cariad, but this list. To be compassionate, to be kind, to offer grace. I used to think of these things as a steadfastness. Quiet, not so full of movement, of a possible volatility.

Not some code of being that is searing, spurred by loss.

 

—I want to fast, Sakinah says.  She is eight. Her scarf, which covers her hair, has many sparkles. She fasts. When she writes stories, she writes them all down a page. She uses no punctuation until she has reached the end of the page.

Sometimes, she repeats herself endlessly: I learned about crystals and I learned they were crystals and the crystals I learned about they are crystals. She sweeps all the food up in the cafeteria, the small and large mashes that could be stirred on the floor with a spoon into an orange paste.

There she is, across the room. The broom only a little bigger than her.

 

Once I wanted to live in Greenland, and now I try to imagine waking there, where, in the first nights, there would be no old friends. Or: no one to sing with, in the dark around the fire.

 

A stone sounds different then ice sliding across ice, which, ice across ice, will rise an eerie music. A quavering, a fiddle bow drawn across a bent saw blade, a loon without a loon. The song of a tiny-tracked ghost grasshopper.

Hassan raises his hand. He looks at me. He smiles.

I call on him.

 

—And what will you do in Maine? My Welshwoman asks me, frowning into the cupboard.

I cook the parsnip. Brown butter. It burns.

I hang garlic in the barn in September.

The children keep the ball close to their feet.

Once, putting the chickens to bed, we whispered to each other.

 

Thou, dear heart, you are fur, a dark hat—

There is no order to it.