justira ([personal profile] justira) wrote2009-10-04 11:35 pm

[Weekly Words] Creative Nonfic - Withering

Part of my weekly words project!

9/28: 309
9/29: 322
9/30: 361
10/1: 311
10/2: 311
10/3: 374
10/4: 341
Week total: 2,329
Running total: 13,180

I haven't really been feeling the fannish writing recently, and I am quite tired of tossing of drabbles on Sunday nights.


This is a memoir I originally wrote in late 2003 or early 2004 -- in high school, in other words. I posted it a few years ago largely untouched, and dug it up again recently for non-quota-related reasons. I thought of it again this weekend, and decided to polish it up a little and post it here.

I've actually been considering doing a series of memoirs like this.

Well, anyway. I welcome any thoughts, of course.

Title: Withering
Feedback: Always welcome.
Word Count: 1,100 or so
Summary: Poppy flowers remind me of God, and of my father's secret withering.



Poppy flowers remind me of God, and of my father's secret withering. I once tried to take some of the fragile red flowers back to Moscow from our home in Tajikistan, pulling them carefully out by the roots and cradling them gently on the rickety plane ride home. They died quietly, wrinkling and withering around the edges, the petals folding inwards like broken hands around their warm red centers.

I was very young when we lived in Tajikistan — two and three years old, nearly four by the time we left, after I had woken up one morning to find that my mother had gone to America— the first I had heard of that venture. Perhaps it was that morning that has kept memories of Tajikistan fresh in my heart through the decades since. I recall the dry, dry mountains that I would clamber about on, my father casting a crisp, watchful shadow in the searing sun. I'd gather old shells there, dusty and cracking — seashells, I thought at the time, from when the mountains were underwater ages and ages ago. I liked to hoard them in my room, secreting them away from the cat, although she wasn't all that interested. I remember her fur, soft and orange and sun-warm, smelling of the bruised apricots that littered our small yard. There were cherry trees there, too, and mint, growing in wild profusion around the edges of our little garden. There were all kinds, with soft leaves and sharp green scents, and I would sneak illicit sniffs when I was supposed to be pulling the weeds.

There was the market, which smelled wonderful: herbs fresh and dried, warm naan bread, the dusty smell of donkeys. My father would take me along, in his khalat, with his hair long under his simple keffiyeh. I had always thought he looked great, just like a native, skin gone dark in the sun; dark hair, dark eyes.

There was the river — the Surkhob — that ran close by our house, boiling with muddy froth. Little whirlpools sprang up in the fast currents, and I would watch them and poke them with sticks until I was found out, lashed with my father's belt, and told never to go there again lest I fall in.

And there were poppies. The city we lived in, Gharm, was walled, and I remember venturing outside the walls and finding a swathe of red clinging close to them, huddling in the shadows. They were beautiful and soft, nodding their heads sleepily in the light breeze. I loved them.

I had little love for God.

I remember little of God in my life — religion has never been much of an issue in my family. Very vaguely, I recall my father being baptized. Young as I was, the memory clings to me because I was convinced they were trying to drown him. I raised a huge stink, squalling and blubbering, and my father had to be rescued, dark hair dripping down his shoulders, before I would calm down and allow the proceedings to resume.

Besides the traumatizing near-drowning I was forced to witness, I remember only one other occasion on which God entered my life. That was the death of my grandmother.

I was a child; I didn't understand. I knew there would be no more scratchy, hand-knitted sweaters. And I realized, with a child's dim worry, that my father was slowly withering inside.

My father is a quiet man, reserved in a way that comes off as cheerful rather than morose. Dark-skinned for a European, he was born in a warm, sunny place by the sea, in Ukraine. He has always loved the sea, and the mountains. His hands are big and clumsy-looking, but he loved to use them. With those hands he drew dreamy little structures on stray pieces of paper, built me slides and playrooms and shelves, comforted me when I was young enough to let him. He has a soft, smiling voice, the kind of voice that soothed away my fears in the dark and brought tears to my eyes when I sensed sorrow or weariness behind it. I might not have understood why, but it upset me just the same.

He has never struck me as a religious man. Excepting the baptismal debacle, my family has never displayed any symptoms of theism. We have an old icon depicting the Virgin and Child in that flat, unbeautiful style typical of long-ago periods in Byzantine Europe. We use it mostly as a bookend.

I was mildly surprised, then, when my father returned from Ukraine and asked quietly for the family to join him at church. He looked worn and old, with a palm-sized welt on his shoulder from the heavy bag carrying his dead mother's possessions. She had died quietly of leukemia, from exposure to Chernobyl. My grandfather would die soon after, alone and blind in a hospital room.

We went.

We didn't know where the nearest church of our denomination was, and I was bored in the car as we cruised around Los Angeles looking for the address from the worn-out Yellow Pages. When we did find it, I thought it unremarkable, its bell towers soot- and smog-smeared and its stained glass windows dark and unlovely from the outside.

My father lit candles and stood quietly. I suppose he prayed. I fidgeted, uncomfortable with the sense of heaviness in the air, the cool hush I've felt since in every house of God. I felt it then, for the first time: a fleeting impression of forgiveness and rest, a peace, a calm.

Otherwise, I felt nothing. I was too young to understand death or faith, or mourning, or my father's sorrow at being half a world away from the graves of his parents. Now, years later, I can understand better the withering I saw in him then, the bowing-in of the shoulders, the lines of pain wrinkling and shriveling the skin around his mouth. Now, I feel a cold foreboding at the memory, and don't want to imagine my own face and distant eyes sometime not too long from now.

He was quieter for a long time, and his hands seemed too heavy for him, hanging limp at his sides. He still uses those great brown hands, but for a long time they seemed too big for him, as if he were shrinking back to the size a child, lost and alone. I'm reminded of the poppy flowers that I had tried to harvest and smuggle back to cold, wet Moscow. They wilted quickly in that dirty, sunless place, far away from their bright home, their roots on the mountainsides of Tajikistan.



lassarina: I'm not coming out until the stupid people have gone away.  ....I can wait all day. (Default)

[personal profile] lassarina 2009-10-05 04:36 am (UTC)(link)
This is beautiful.

I like the poppies tying together the beginning and the end, and I totally agree--there IS a cool hush in the house of God (whichever God that may be), or at least in the houses I've been in.
xparrot: Chopper reading (Default)

[personal profile] xparrot 2012-04-07 04:08 am (UTC)(link)
This is lovely, the imagery and the emotions...I have such a hard time distilling my own life into writing, I admire anyone who can!