By RIVER ADAMS
“Miss Val! Miss Val!” A swarm of five-year-olds buzzes around me in the kindergarten playroom. Marni is standing in the middle, feet planted, lower lip sucked in, staring down her blood-coated finger from under her scrunched-up eyebrows as though the finger should have known better. This is leftover hubbub from bigger and scarier trouble in the courtyard, which involved a stuffed monkey, the edge of the sandbox, and a superficial but profusely bleeding head wound, but the ambulance has already left, whisking away the lollipop-loaded victim, and the droplets of blood are being cleaned up outside the courtyard doors.
Marni is what they used to call a tomboy: always up a tree somewhere or in a torn T-shirt, stoic and stubborn and spectacularly copper-haired. She is determined not to cry. I am feeling the heat of a syncopated breath in my ear—it’s Caleb, our zippy class gossip, perpetually astonished by everything he sees. He’s already climbed on the chair next to me and is delivering the news in a loud and horrified whisper: “She tried to save the monkey!”
Blood doesn’t bother me. It’s not one of my triggers. Noise can be a trigger, but I’ve never hit the floor in the kindergarten the way I have at the high school and at the movies, and once on the corner of Park and Sunset, when a street singer’s drum sent me rolling for cover between an ice cream cart and a papaya stand. Here I feel safe even when the ruckus rises to headache-inducing levels. Kids’ voices are good noise.
I wrap a yellow lizard Band-Aid around Marni’s finger, and she bends and unbends it so the lizard wiggles its tail.
“Whoa,” Caleb says. “Can I have one too?”
“I want a dog! I have a dog!”
“I want a butterfly!”
“Band-Aids for everybody,” I declare. It’s so easy to give them what they want—and so little time for them to have it. They’re still living in the Before.
The teachers are back from the yard with the rest of the kids. They are technically my bosses, but they’ve never treated me as a know-nothing volunteer, which is what I am.
We are almost done with the snack—I was sorting out nondairy milks and gluten-free cookies when the bloody finger interrupted me—and the kids are already down on their mats, getting ready to sleep, when the door opens, but immediately they swarm again: “Mr. Andrew! Mr. Andrew! Look!”
“Wow. What happened to my kindergarten class?”
“This isn’t kindergarten anymore,” I say. “This is a hospital.”
“Ha ha ha ha! Hospital! Ha ha ha!” They holler out their laughs and hold their bellies; the four hyperactives throw themselves on the mats and roll around, itching for a chance to cheat nap time. I call them my “roly-poly crew.” I shouldn’t be riling them up before sleep, and I’ll probably hear about it from the teachers, but I don’t care. I just want to watch them laugh.
“I’ll borrow Val for a second,” Andrew announces, and we step out into the hallway.
Andrew Gashi is Lincoln Elementary’s assistant principal and my foster father. He and Karen picked me up seven years ago from a processing center for the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program, two weeks after my plane had landed in America. I don’t remember anything from those weeks except a room and a bed in it, and lying on the bed on top of the blanket. I don’t remember who handled or helped me until the Gashis came into the room and sat on the floor and stayed. They sat there so long that I suppose they bored a hole in my consciousness, and I saw them: two peaceful-looking people, touching knees the way they sat cross-legged, and touching hands as if they could talk through the skin.
She had fat fingers, I thought, and pretty, tousled black curls and a dress like nothing I’d ever seen—like a waterfall, flowing and swirling with greens and blues, weightless. He was thin, round-faced, and round-shouldered, with close-cropped hair, and had a tracksuit on and a boom box in his lap, and they both wore flip-flops—those ubiquitous American flip-flops Mamma had read about in World Traveler, but she’d said they wore them with socks, and these two had no socks. He pushed a button on his boom box, and the room filled with a folk song from the Before.
Andrew told me later they’d just wanted me to hear a familiar melody, a familiar language. They didn’t speak Albanian, so they brought whatever melody they came across—exotic, intricate. Rhythmic. I knew the song: it was a ballad about murder and lost love. Rise, my darling, come out of the grave.
I was watching the Gashis’ bare toes tap against their flip-flops to the beat of the drum, and I must have begun to laugh. They both smiled at first, at me, then at each other, but I couldn’t stop laughing, maybe crying, too—I don’t really know; I just remember sliding into someplace slippery and black, and they had to realize it was wrong, because the next thing I knew Karen had locked her arms around me, and there was quiet. She was unexpectedly comfortable. Soft everywhere. I remember we sat like that awhile, then she rubbed my shoulder and said one of the many English words universally recognizable around the globe: “McDonald’s?”
I’m twenty, but I started my fourteenth year of life in the fetal position and finished it still learning English, which set me back, so I’m just about to graduate from high school. Karen says it’s for the best. She says it takes as many years for somebody to catch up to a new world as they’ve spent in their old one. That means I’ll be fully American by twenty-six.
Karen and Andrew Gashi are my second family. My last family, I hope. They offered to adopt me two years ago—a properly solemn discussion on the living room sofa, planned out from an awkward start to the futile finish. I’d just turned eighteen the day before, and the adoption didn’t really matter anymore, except in the way they meant it, like a gift. A birthday gift at that, and it wouldn’t concern the state, only us, and it would be forever. They knew I’d say no. I think they felt obligated to try. But we decided I’d keep living with them after high school for a bit, start taking college courses and see what happens. I’m thinking early childhood education. Like Andrew.
We are standing in the hallway outside the kindergarten classroom, and Andrew is studying my face. “How’re you doing, kiddo?”
They all think I’m fragile. They think I’m going to stumble across a campfire or a war movie or a folk song or a head wound and collapse or explode or dissolve into paranoid delusion. Have a panic attack. Jump off a bridge. Not that I always mind—it keeps Andrew or Karen nearby, a kind of care net out of the corner of my eye, and, to be fair, I’ve given them reasons to be scared. And I don’t need what my therapist calls “personal space.” I didn’t grow up with it. It’s just that I feel like I’m lying to them: they are standing their unrelieved watch over me, but I can collapse and explode without any help, and there’s nothing they can do to protect me.
“Could you not check on me when I’m working?” I say to Andrew. “It’s embarrassing.”
I can see he wants to hug me. “I’m sorry,” he says. “You’re right. If you need me, I’m in my office.”
He turns to go, head down, and watches his feet in brown loafers as he walks away. I can see his neck with curling black hairs above the shirt collar, all growing toward the jutting, shifting vertebrae. He needs a haircut. My mother’s voice whispers in lulling Albanian into my writhing superego: Go hug your foster father. Haven’t I raised you better than this?
You haven’t exactly raised me, Mamma.
Inside the classroom, the kids are asleep on the mats at random angles, like toothpicks spilled out of a pack. The teachers are in a huddle over the corner desk, stenciling numbers onto colored paper and whispering. I lie flat on my back with the children. Every day I try to imagine what it’s like to run myself ragged and happy and plop down on the floor and close my eyes and sleep. I try to recall it, but I can’t. I stare at the images on the walls, crayon and watercolor, mine mixed with the children’s—faces, trees, and doodles, a family of two-legged cats on purple grass. I stare into the white of the ceiling. White is all the colors, but they’re mixed up, and they wash each other null. Like my mind.
“Miss Val?” Kiko is one of the “roly-poly crew” and always restless at nap time. She’s crawled over to me and stretched herself out parallel to my body, arm to arm, where I can feel her damp, smooth, constantly moving fingers. “Miss Val, what are you thinking about?”
“The other side of the world,” I say.
She turns her head, squishing her nose into my shoulder. “What’s it like there?”
How can I explain it? I say, “Everything there is upside down.”
For the first four years, I had therapy twice a week. It’s once a week now. On Fridays I get to Lincoln early, prep the kindergarten classroom for the day, run over the road to the high school and stay half a day, then come back to kindergarten, help out till 2:30, clean up, and take the bus here, to Peach Street. Big T has a top office in a two-story building, one of these mirror-glass cubes on stilts that reflect the palm trees and the cars in their parking lots. It’s kind of mind-bending to look at, this piece of a world with its own sky and clouds and a wavy doppelgänger of me who comes out when I go in, but everything there is darker and deeper colors, and some of its windows are covered in rainbow rings as though shot up with gasoline.
The rest of the street is all houses—typical, identical, blissfully American. White walls, red roofs, woodchips for lawns with cacti or some other prickly things sticking out of them. It is so clean it feels sterile. Except for the palm trees: their sloughing trunks make me think of diseased skin, and I’m too skeeved to touch them.
This is only a few blocks from the Gashis’. It’s familiar now; sometimes I even like it. It’s sunny. Airy. It’s safe. But now and then the sensation washes over me that this is all wrong, not real, too many bright colors and happy endings, like a kindergarten playroom carpet—or a cartoon, maybe, and any minute now it’ll dissolve into a peppy credit song and a black screen, and back to real life I go.
It’s the building, too—the way it stands on its pillars like spider legs, awkward, spread-out, surreal, lifted off the earth. The parking lot runs under it, making the building floor into the parking lot roof. It’s everywhere here: a car under a house, under an office or a motel—they call it a carport—and every time I look at one, I wait for the massive, quadrangular load to come down and flatten the delicate metal underneath. Just a momentary feeling of wrongness. Because floors are not roofs, and buildings don’t float in the air. They sit rooted into the ground, unthinkably heavy, and they grow, age into it one corner at a time, and their foundations are the dark secrets between them and the earth. Back at home, this rootedness was one of the things I never thought to question, things impossible to change, like left and right and the taste of salt. But on the other side of the world, even the buildings are upside down.
The plaque on Big T’s door reads Leona Talimanti, Psy.D., Ph.D. She is the tallest, gangliest creature I’ve ever seen in real life, with buzzed grayish hair, vaguely identifiable as female because she wears long, swooshy dresses that hang from her shoulders straight down as though they were hiding a skeleton. She doesn’t sit in an armchair; she folds into it, with knees, elbows, and ears sticking out gracelessly in all directions. I call her Big T. For Talimanti. Therapy. And Big Bird.
She calls me Val, and I hate it. It makes my name sound like something my mother didn’t give me—casual, cut off, unrecognizable—and she’s been doing it since the beginning. Karen brought me in for the first time as soon as they got me to foster—I was still dizzy from the planet shifting under me, gaping mouth and broken English. And Karen said, “So this is Val,” and nothing more, and I knew they’d already been talking about me. Not me, though. The American version of me I was meant to become.
I tried to tell Big T once, back then: “My name is Valbona.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Even though I’m in America, I’m still Albanian.”
“Yes, you are.”
That was it. Didn’t stick. I wonder if she knows what I mean by that. I could bring it up again, I suppose, but I can’t stomach thinking about those years, so I swallow and curl my toes and let it be.
The only place where “Val” doesn’t drive me crazy is the kindergarten. Nothing really drives me crazy at the kindergarten: it’s where I rest. The children are so completely engrossed in themselves, and their worlds are so fluid, so transitory, that they don’t care who I am and where I’m from, only that I’m strong. I’m funny. I help. Adults are different.
Big T is good people, though. The corners of her eyes radiate laugh wrinkles, and I can tell she cares. She’s carried me through bad times. It’s just that she wants me to talk about things, and she doesn’t always hear me when I try to. They all want me to talk about it. About it.
“How has your mood been?”
“That’s your favorite answer.”
Then why do you keep asking?
“Would you like to say more about it?”
“Have you had any more thoughts of hurting yourself?”
I’m watching her skirt swoosh off her knee as she crosses her legs. It’s hypnotic, like a pendulum.
I know what she’s asking; it just sounds wrong. Suicide doesn’t hurt—life hurts. And she doesn’t need to worry. I tried it twice, but I was young. Impulsive. And homesick. I did not have the concept of living for the people who love me. I don’t know what to say now, because of course I’ve thought about it. Who hasn’t? Only she won’t get it, and she’ll go into active mode. I shake my head.
“So, Val, what about my idea of interning at the U.N.?”
“Yeah, that’d be an efficient use of my time.”
“I think it would be wonderful. You have a unique background; you’re fluent in two languages, which gives you a set of skills very much in demand. Putting to use the things you know can be important not only to the people you help, but to you, as well.”
I don’t exactly slam Big T’s office door but let it swing shut behind me with an audible thud, and it feels immediately childish. A mini-tantrum. I can sense my mother hovering at the edges of my subconscious, forming words. I’m sorry, Mamma. She recedes.
Behind the door, Big T is probably writing in my chart: Depressed. Uncooperative. Post-traumatic growth. I wonder if she has an inkling of how much cooperation it takes for me to show up on her threshold every week.
For a moment I consider poking my head back in to apologize, then trudge down the stairs, zipping up my backpack. The door of Big T’s building is metal and heavy and goes all the way to the ceiling, and it clangs as it turns with an assuring sense of inertia, finally giving me the chance to slam something.
My problem is, somehow all the adults in my life—Big T, and Andrew and Karen, and my English teacher—they all think this is what I know: A language. A European culture. A set of skills to be utilized. And they try to turn my foreignness into an advantage. Of course, they don’t call it that. They call it “background.” Or “experience.” And they think that putting it to use can help me reconcile my American and Albanian selves. They tell me that what I know is unique and in demand and can make me a career. And I should talk about it. And write about it. And make money on it. And I don’t.
I don’t want to write about what I know.
I don’t want to talk about what I know.
I don’t want to know what I know.
I know two things: There and Here.
I know three things: Before, During, and After. Though lately I’ve been thinking that those, too, really are two things. Because the During is becoming, with every year, less and less of a thing and more and more of a dream. Strange, disjointed, and short. Maybe it only seems so because the Before is becoming a precious memory, and the After a long and now familiar routine. The thing in between is just a nightmare, a break between two lives. A change in directions.
But it’s the one thing I know. The short, disjointed dream is where I live.
I know one thing.
Or maybe it seems so because the start of it is hard for me to pinpoint. Only the end is easy.
I had time to turn thirteen before the nightmare consumed us. I lived in Krushё e Madhe, a nicely sizeable village for my part of Kosova. In a house. On a farm. With my mother, father, and two older brothers. With what they here call “extended family” numbering in the dozens. Like normal people.
My life was filled with school, work, and play, like that of most children on the planet. Tiny victories and even smaller disasters. The smell of burek and, on sweaty summer afternoons, the chirping of flija batter over coals. Drawing pitiful little pictures for my mother’s birthday, secretly proud of how good I thought they were. Chasing Avni down to the river, or running along the railroad all the way to Xёrxё—a raucous and barefoot pack of us. Avni would balance on the rail on the ball of his foot and do a pirouette. The kids would holler and laugh and try it too and fall off the rail. He’d wink at me. Avni was not quite two years older: my brother and my best friend.
I was born too late to know the Yugoslavia of Tito or to understand its disintegration, and the political unrest that accompanied the entire time I was alive I perceived mostly as the order of things. Such was the world—turbulent—and Kosovar Albanians had a place in it barely precarious. One must fight for balance in a turbulent world.
I don’t really remember the events of the mid-nineties beyond my farm and family, just a vague sense of mounting tension, the adults’ conversations abruptly ending at the sight of the children. They were protecting us so we could live our lives, and we did. But I remember the appearance of the Kosovo Liberation Army in the village. They smelled like degreaser and lube oil and rubber, and they came and went in groups of a few on the roads to Prizren and Gjakovё—tall, smileless, and camouflaged—and brought with them a wartime nonchalance around weapons and an entirely new vocabulary. By age eleven, I could tell a Zastava sniper rifle from a Kalashnikov. When I turned twelve, the adults no longer hushed at my approach, and my world filled with the names of new people and places, and they too came and went. Jashari, Gllogjan, Tropojё…. It would soon get worse.
KLA brought the war and an end to my childhood. A slow dissolution of the Before.
I remember rumors pouring in, then refugees. Mostly they walked right through to Prizren—or North, making their way to a safer haven in Prishtinё, too many to remember them all. I remember a woman who carried two sacks on her back, each nearly the size of her. They were tied with a rope slung over her shoulder, and she gripped the rope in one hand, periodically hiking it up, and with the other she held on to a child’s hand, and he held another, and that one a third. They were two boys and a girl. Like us. But the oldest couldn’t have been more than eight.
I didn’t notice then how all talk became about the war. KLA advanced somewhere. KLA retreated. KLA in the North. The Serbs shelled KLA strongholds in the villages. It was autumn. There was fighting in Prizren, and the roads became unsafe. I remember the sudden appearance of the bizarre orange KVM vehicles on the highway: European “Kosovo Verification Mission.” Bright like infants’ rattlers and tiny alongside the tanks, they whipped our little ones into a chasing frenzy and raised the adults’ eyebrows.
“Ceasefire enforcement,” somebody said from behind my shoulder as we watched the tail of an orange-specked military caravan snake into the woods, and I heard the man spit. “What ceasefire?”
KVMs zipped by the village for a couple of months and disappeared, leaving behind an anemic memory of an impotent existence.
I remember the winter. I walked in on the adults’ hushed voices late one evening and stopped in the doorway because I heard my mother cry. That unmistakable sound, your mother’s tears, the terror of which is second only to your mother’s scream. I heard “Reçak.” And for the first of many times, I heard “massacre.” They saw me and stopped talking, as they hadn’t done in over a year. Father ordered me to go to sleep, and his voice was ringing. I didn’t sleep.
Is it a betrayal of their memories that I remember all these things? That I retained my senses in the Before, even in its dying throes—and I can tell the world about the refugees shuttling between villages, about KLA, about the shellings and every stranger, even about the ridiculous “clockwork oranges”—but I cannot tell the world how my family died?
It was March 25, 1999, the day my Before completely dissolved. I had to look up the date. Amidst the din and stench of the tent city in the Kukёs refugee camp, only days later, I didn’t know when it was. When I was. Where I was exactly, or why. Didn’t want to know. A British doctor held me by the chin and shined a light in my eyes, and an interpreter asked me again and again simple questions. Things I was supposed to know. What was my name? Where had I come from? When had I left home? Where was my family?
I remember better now: things, images, moments, but not really in order, as if the shells that had started falling onto the village that afternoon somehow shattered the structure of time—tiny, misshapen, jagged-edged fragments, always missing something in between. As if the fires set to our homes by the Serbs consumed and melted my mind, and the hot wind tore apart and carried away the charred pieces of my memory the way it did our books, our roofs, our blankets.
I assembled the bits according to some temporal logic of a narrative. How it was supposed to have happened. And I store them this way in my head.
I remember the woods: running, then hiding. Or maybe the other way around. The sounds of shelling and the smell of smoke. Zamira kept shushing the baby. Trembling earth. Freezing night waters. The Serbs combing the woods: close, then far.
No. The other way.
They were close. I remember the boots of the soldier who stood over us and that he had no face: a mask. I thought, He has no face. He smelled like degreaser and oil. And rubber.
People were shuffling. I remember my mother hanging on to my brothers, clutching at their shirts, one with each hand, wailing. Soldiers pushing the men aside with the barrels of their rifles. One of them swung at my uncle, and he crouched.
I remember them walking away, looking back at us. All our men. I couldn’t find my dad in the crowd. My brothers were holding hands, and Avni craned his neck and tripped on a root. It was noisy from screaming. The Serbs were barking at us, “Go! Go! Go!” It was deafening. Mind-numbing. “To Albania! Go!” I remember somebody grabbing my hand and dragging me along through the woods. It wasn’t my mother.
I don’t think we went far: the morning was still early. I saw a shred of a cloud tangling in a pine’s branches, like leftover fog against the clearing sky. We couldn’t have gone far. Did we circle back, or did it happen so soon that we could hear?
When the rifle fire started, I remember thinking: KLA. I remember thinking KLA must have brought weapons for our men. I remember stopping. But there was no KLA, and it didn’t sound like a firefight. It wasn’t in bursts; it just kept going and wouldn’t end. It just kept firing, and it went on forever.
Or maybe it only seems so now.
It was noisy.
I remember women running back all around me and picking up children, somebody falling, somebody holding somebody else back—I don’t remember who. I heard my mother scream, and I ran to her. I think.
I remember the trunk of the tree I was hugging when I saw the Serbs. The trunk was thick and rough, and it was warmer than the ground, so I stuck my fingers into the cracks of the bark to warm my hands. They were far from me, across the field, and they walked around an outbuilding, and I couldn’t hear what they were saying. Their AK-47s hung over their shoulders, as if they were safe now. As if it were over. And I didn’t know why. Didn’t want to know.
When they walked away, the flames went up behind them in two columns, on each end of the outbuilding, straight up like a triumphal arch, and then thick, greasy smoke. It squirmed in the wind and scattered and blackened the sky, then bent down low to the earth in a sudden gust and hit me in the face.
I know one thing.
This is the thing that I know.
The smell of burning men.
There wasn’t anything after that. After that is the After.
It appears that I walked across the Albanian border in a stream of refugees, in the place where my people must have crossed, but days and days later. I think I remember the forest.
I am told that most of my people went back home—not my mother. She is considered “missing,” and the last I have of her is the sound of her scream that cuts through rifle fire.
I am told that our women buried our men. That what happened in my village is a war crime and got into the Western press and serves as a warning to the world and an indictment against the powerful who did this to us. The people who say that seem to think that it makes me feel better, and I let them.
It’s been seven years. I ended up in America, and life here is life, just like anywhere else: school, work, and play. Once a week I go to therapy to assure the people who love me that I don’t plan to drink the drain cleaner. Once a week I go to kindergarten and watch the kids draw pitiful little pictures and tell them honestly how good they are. This is the life I live. It’s just not the life I know.
I’m plodding down the sidewalk toward my foster house, past the neighbors’ carport, stepping on every crack so that it bisects my foot exactly in the middle, then the cement blocks darken, and I stop to look up. The sky above me is thin and clear and perfect, except for a single shred of cloud making its way across the sun. It looks normal, innocent even—a cloud. But it too is upside down. The cloud and the carport and I, we are antipodes.
Karen is home already. Apron on, sleeves rolled up, she is chopping salad on the kitchen island and stretching her neck to read from an enormous case file, which is spread out all over the counter by the wall. She’s a contracts attorney, and I hadn’t appreciated until about two years ago, when it dawned on me to ask, that mine wasn’t an entirely typical foster family. Andrew has Albanian roots, and they got certified as foster parents just to take me in. I am their contribution to the Kosovar effort.
Is it ungrateful to their labors that I still secretly hope a truck will come out of nowhere and flatten me against some wall? So that it’s nobody’s fault. Is it a betrayal of their love?
I know what my mother’s whisper would say. When I come close to an intersection, to a cliff, to the water’s edge, she begins to stir inside me. I look both ways when I cross the street.
How many refugees get a life wrapped in the plush American dream complete with a white picket fence?
“How was therapy, Vally?”
I hate “Vally” even more than “Val,” but it’s too late to start this battle. Besides, if anyone has earned the right to call me what she will, it’s Karen. After the first year, when I oscillated between fury and catatonia. And the second year, when I was ramming my head into the wall. And the third year, when I tried to cut my wrists with scissors. In the fourth year, it was pills. That they didn’t hand me over to an institution is still a thing I am attempting to comprehend. If they could raise me, I can teach. Maybe I can even be good at it. Plus, those doodles on the kindergarten walls—I think they keep my head in one piece, too.
“Normal.” Karen rolls her eyes into a cartoonish half swoon. “Of course. What was I thinking?” For a few seconds she studies me while I pour a glass of orange juice. “Did you write anything this week?”
“Not you, too!”
I drink the juice. Slowly. What if they’re right? What if there’s magic in the telling of the story? Am I just running from some part of myself, like they think—between a truck and a wall?
She chews her thick, glistening lip, throws a piece of cucumber into her mouth and crunches it, shows me one, and I shake my head. “What about drawing it?” she asks.
I know Karen always hoped I might start calling her “Mother”—and she knew I never would, like she knew I wouldn’t want to be adopted. She’s sensitive to it, that I grew up with a mother. Whenever she introduces me to someone new, she always says, “My foster daughter, Val.”
“Can I move that closer to you?” I reach for the file.
“Mm-mmm. I don’t want to get any schmutz on it. Andy will be home soon, and he’s bringing a chicken. Dinner in an hour, okay?” She sticks out her cheek and gestures that it demands to be kissed, pointing at it with her wrist to keep pruney, dripping fingers away from her face. It is comical, and she is all plump, rosy from multitasking, and a little sweaty. A dark, curly lock sticks to her cheekbone; I slide it into place and kiss her. She beams, nods, and goes back to chopping and reading. I drag my bag upstairs and dump out my notebooks on the bed, tuck myself into the chair behind my desk, knees to my chin.
My sketchbook gapes at me with an open maw, vacuum of white, empty paper. I could draw it. It’s all pictures in my mind, really. I could grab one, capture one, and splay it out on the page, and it will be ugly but honest. Scratches on the glass. A wrong thing in the wrong place. A crack in time. But maybe they know something I don’t know. Maybe it’ll help.
I imagine a scene. I could draw it. I can’t. It’s not real. It’s not two-dimensional. It’s not still. It’s not formulated. It’s like death: inevitable, indispensable, ubiquitous, but impossible to face. When you do, you no longer are.
Instead, I doodle. It’s a kitten. It looks pitiful. I’ve been drawing a lot of animals lately, playing with ideas for picture books. This one isn’t cute—mangy, rawboned. Disturbing. I make it wet and cold. I draw a forest around it, and a puddle. The kitten on the page sticks its paw into the bark of a nearby tree and looks east, at the white paper edge.
River Adams lives in Massachusetts with family; works as pianist, writer, researcher in the humanities, and translator from Russian; and is pursuing an MFA degree in creative writing at Emerson College. Adams’s short fiction has appeared in The Long Story, Descant, and other publications.