As soon as I read about the albatrosses in the Times, I thought of my big sister. Natasha.
“Natasha—albatross ty nasha,” Aunt Lyuba would sing in the communal kitchen, slinging blobs of wheat porridge into my bowl with the cornflower border. Each time she’d shuffle the bowl from the stove over to Natasha-and-my table, her felt slippers would catch on the peeling linoleum floor, and I’d worry about my breakfast. But Aunt Lyuba never slipped.
My mother and I are on a chlorinated river that’s somehow simultaneously the Amazon, Congo, and Nile, floating languidly so we don’t run into the boat in front of us and “don’t scare the wildlife”: the kind of joke the Disney guide, in his safari hat and over-pocketed explorer outfit, keeps making.
I could tell you, If I wanted to, What makes me What I am.
But I don’t Really want to— And you don’t Give a damn.
—Langston Hughes, “Impasse”
There are two cops from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department standing in my grandmother’s kitchen. We are all gathered around the kitchen island silently negotiating the power dynamics. Two Black women, two White cops. The cops have come to collect the details for the report, but I’m doing most of the talking. Grammy bears witness.
I walk slowly, each step sinking a little into the ground. With every footfall, a puff of ash curls upward, dusting the top of my boot and disappearing into the soft stillness of the day. It is a clear day with no clouds, but the air around me has a gentle haze, a film that sometimes resolves into particles, pinpoints of ash in a slanting ray of sunlight. It has been two months since the fire, but the rising ash and the smell of smoke are strong, stinging the back of my throat and settling into a familiar ache in my temples.
We pass a lighthouse and you tell me the legend—
a seer, an emperor, his daughter, the snakebite;
the tower he built to keep her at the edge of the sea—
when an old woman passes us on the ferry,
sniffs us twice, You are in love, I smelled it!
and last night on the island, over fresh fish
and a pitcher of ice-cloudy raki, I asked how
many words for love in your language:
I was once in a denim skirt and cowboy hat, spilling milk in a grocery store. How many songs did I learn to sing I was the fool? I am a fool. I know I have been a fool— these are the early future concepts out of which I turned into myself.
At an artists’ collective near the Polish border about an hour from Berlin, I’d been taking a break from translating texts into English, a task I once enjoyed but was beginning to resent, as I was beginning to feel invisible—or was it burnt out?—in any case, I was glad to get away for a few days: it was my first vacation since I-don’t-know-when, and I’d begun to feel my soul was spent. Over lunch on my last day there, a woman from Seoul who went by the nickname Hae—a transliteration of the word “sun” in Korean, she said—asked what the word in German was for “soul.” Actually, the woman sitting next to her asked, but the woman sitting next to Hae came from Spain and was shy about her English, so when she directed the question at me I heard the word as “sol”—we’d spent the week speaking both Spanish and English—and said, in reply, “Sonne.”