Personal Notes of Mina Bayless
“There are things you can’t unknow.” You used to tell me something similar, as did the elders of the church. You can’t remove what you put into your mind–my childhood catechism. I used to think those words were unique, a special lesson from you. Until I read The Road. Until Anders repeated it yesterday. Different stories, same words. What lesson taught you that idea? Being a photographer? The church missionaries? Something else?
You also said if I didn’t know why I was doing something, then why do it? Remember when I stole your butterfly knife & got into trouble for taking it to school? You had said I knew it was wrong so what was I thinking? I don’t know. Then why did you do it? I could never bring myself to ask you the same, question your own choices. Maybe because I knew you wouldn’t argue back, just offer, “I understand that you are angry.” No apology, no acknowledgment.
I went out for air earlier. Too many days cooped up in a closed space with recycled air, dirty shoes, the close smell of bodies overwarm with sleep. I stood on the metal balcony outside the car & breathed in the morning rain. Hills surrounded the track; trees wreathed in sparse light green buds trying to bloom. The air burned my lungs & I remembered again when you came to see me in Seattle.
I had told you not to underestimate the rain. Don’t ever think you can figure it out, I said, because the rain will enjoy ruining your plans. I left for class one morning & you later admitted you left some time after. I came home in the pouring rain & found the dining room window still open. You had coaxed the pane out of its painted lash so we could enjoy the morning air. The textbooks & notes I had shoved to the side were right under it, soaked. The bowl of peach halves you had made was next to the pile, the fruit slowly disintegrating into mush. Some of the pages had blown into the bowl, juice wicking up into the paper. A still life of ruin. I confronted you when you came in later. I knotted my hands to stop shaking. And you cried.
You stood silent for a second & then you beat the sides of your head & cried. You never cried. You had been a wall through the child support hearings, through Grandma’s funeral, through Drew’s daughter Madison being born, through the national anthem at baseball games. Now you cried & kept repeating you had wanted everything to be perfect. You never cried.
The rails beneath me hummed. I leaned over the painted metal railing to watch them & thought, stole from someone, “So runs the world away.” The wheels sang back “Away away runaway runaway.” My pulse throbbed in my temple in counterpoint & I listened with my eyes closed.
Then I heard a click.
Anders stood behind me at the cabin door holding his camera. He smiled. (Smiled?!) He said, “If you aren’t careful, you’ll catch your hair in the wheel. You’ll rival Ms. Karenina.”
Now the train is pulling into Irkutsk. Anders is suddenly talkative, describing what he sees. I won’t look. I study the seat cushions, the nap of the fabric grey with the dust of departed passengers. I trace a scuff in the fabric, breath in fusty air——
He took my chin in his hands & made me turn to him. “Mina,” he said, “Look.” Outside the window, dozens of birds on the wires overhead. As the train screeched to a stop, they rise & take flight.
From the journal of Jesse Quinn Harker, recovered from his personal effects
Irkutsk. The river runnes beside the rain. The birtch trees gather around roads cutting through the growves. Mounds of coal silt beside dirty fuel tanks parked on the rails. A cluster of yellow flowrs strewn with cassette tape. (Where can you get cassette tape anymiore?)
Russia is hard and beautifull, a mother who has endured moch. Memories live broken under the current moment, like ruins beneath a new structure. The new buildings and faces hold something of the old. Here is the plaza in the dusk, holding the memoree of three boys daring each other to chalk the fountain. There is a club pounding with house music, built over a cafe run by a husband and wife. Maybe they’re daughters dance there. A street performer who looks like my old contact Natashya, her with the grey eyes, red hiar and the scar on her tempel. Layers and layers of lost time.
After I drop my bags at the hotel, I go out into the city. I want something to chase. I picture Mattias with me; one look and he would laugh, “Let’s see what the night brings us.” I follow two workmen, curious to see what bar they’ll go to. One says to the other: She is upset, throwing things, wanting to know who this number on my mobile is. It is my cousin, I tell her, the one who moved to Petersburg. He has done so well, he wants us to join him. But she does not care. All she knows is that it some strange number and I cannot convince her, eh?:
His frined laughs. The first man goes on: I slept on the couch that night. There is no living with her! I leave for work today and come home. She is sitting in the living room, very still, looking out the window. I come in and try to speak to her. She says nothing. I come closer; there is something in her lap. At first I think, Oh ho, she has cut out the front of her pants. She has done things like this before to tease me. But something is wrong. This is too dark, too spiky. Then it moves. I say to her, What is that! But she is still quiet, not moving, except her face. She smiles and says, It is only a hedgehog, nothing more. Now I ask you. What do you think that means?:
The two men walk on, but I stop, remembering something I try often to forget. When Loara was still young. Summer at the pool with her and her mom. I saw her by the locker room entrancce talking to a boy. I think nothing of it until she shifts her weight. In the crease of her thigh, near the edge of her suit: small dark curls. I see her with every part of me. The same way I know that boy is seeing her. She laughs, he moves closer and then I am pulling her away through the entrance, throwing a towle around her ass. I hiss at her all the things her mother has not taught her about boys. She tries to pull away and scrapes her bare feet raw on the concrete. I don’t care, anything to make the pit in my stomach stop falling. A gret Eye peering inside me, knowing what I think. It all comes back so quickly I have to lean against a wall. I stare into the setting sun, blind.
I wander on to the plaza. It is dark. The fountain statue is tarnished green: cherubs clutching clusters of grapes around a woman in mid-stride, carrying a sickle and a sheaf of wheat. The restaurant before me is sealed quiet. Behind the windows, people laugh, eat, serve wine, argue. Another memory. When Ben was born, there was snow in the desert. I wanted to keep it for her. I took the Leica out and shot the landscape at dawn. No apeture could capture the quiet, the silence of snow on sand that keeps you from moving, from breathing. Stunted briers wrapped in white. Sun spilling over the virgin mountain. The water in the canal wrinkled with thin ice–the water itself a small blessing. It was a good shoot because afterward the world was so bright, I knew I was tied to it, even to strangers. When she was old enough, the photographs would be Ben’s. Tell her how you could know the right way to see the world. Hope I could give her something of that day. then the marriage ended. The pictures disappeared while moving.
The only sound comes from an alley, where someone has left the kitchen door open. Shouting, plates clatter. Then something else, irregular scratching. I walk over, my eyes adjust to the shadows. A fox scavenging in the trash. I raise my camera, when suddenly he looks up. We freeze. Something dangles from his mouth, his nose moves. Then, slowly, we creep away from each other.
Written by Mina Bayless
They’ve already burned you, Daddy.