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Subway Rorschach


[clock] 5-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Spring 2017


1.

Photo by Neil Shea

In the new city we carry our newborn son down the block and into the subway. His first journey, diving under rivers, piercing webs of pipes and wires, rattling past ghost stations and lunch boxes lost by the sandhogs a century ago. They say in new cities you are given grace—some time in which to believe anything, to dodge blame, to gather memories that years from now will fall like hail on unlucky relatives. Who knows? We’re tired and the kid, this lump, warm and dense as dough, is getting heavy. While the car idles (and before he spits up) a woman speaks to his bobbling head and says, “Mixed-race babies always have that look.”

Already we’re going blind, growing hard. I don’t hear anymore the advertisements lining the station walls, shouting about movies, apps, STDs. They tick by, blocks of color, bits of text, until somewhere on the G line I pause before this poster board. Where once the ads were stacked five or seven seasons deep, all narrative is stripped away, leaving fragments, a butterfly blend, my subway Rorschach.

Suddenly I’m thinking of a man I know who’s walking the Silk Road with a pair of mules. Each dusk finds him entering a border town, or nearing some range of fabled mountains. Along the way he has encountered ancient wells that, over years, have choked with sand. Though he never said it, I know such details bring sadness. What notes he might have heard in their mouths, how clear were those holy waters! Eventually he’ll ascend from the desert to face facts: The walled cities have all crumbled, the caravanserai have been turned into condos. Grain by grain go our stories. At my chest the boy flails a pale fist. His way of saying, Move along.

 


2.

Photo by Neil Shea

In my wife’s dream the mourning dove we rescued was killed, set upon by other forest creatures and torn to pieces while she watched. Somehow in the dream the bird had become unsaved. Somehow it traveled back to the woods, to the trailside, to the fern beneath which it had rolled after leaping too early from the nest. In the dream, all the other animals were there—the fox, the bear, the deer, a hawk, some squirrels and mice, snakes and centipedes, millipedes and snails. Before the slaughter they said, You have broken our one commandment. The dove, shivering, offered no defense. My wife woke up weeping and explained what she had seen. I understood that the dove was our unborn child, and for hours afterward in truth and daylight she could not be consoled.

In my wife’s dream the mourning dove we rescued was killed, set upon by other forest creatures and torn to pieces while she watched. Somehow in the dream the bird had become unsaved. Somehow it traveled back to the woods, to the trailside, to the fern beneath which it had rolled after leaping too early from the nest. In the dream, all the other animals were there—the fox, the bear, the deer, a hawk, some squirrels and mice, snakes and centipedes, millipedes and snails. Before the slaughter they said, You have broken our one commandment. The dove, shivering, offered no defense. My wife woke up weeping and explained what she had seen. I understood that the dove was our unborn child, and for hours afterward in truth and daylight she could not be consoled.

The day my brother found the dove he had been walking in the forest and it stepped out from undercover and presented itself in his path. Unblinking and ugly, nothing but pin feathers and big dark eyes. Confronted by this faith, he hesitated. One does not enter such agreements lightly, and he, like me, is shy in the face of commitment.

Later, at home, he fed it with a bottle for a few days before it took to eating seeds. Weeks passed. The bird grew. Everyone was pleased. Now it is full-feathered and each day my brother urges the dove to fly off and join the others on the power line above his house. What a life awaits you, he says. What freedom! But the bird just sits in the fine grass, gathering color, gaining strength. It makes no sound. It shows no fear. It takes seeds from his daughter’s hand and never dreams of leaving.

 


3.

Photo by Neil Shea

When my son was born we noticed on his bottom a great blue smear, bruise-like, spreading shapeless and vast across the little quivering cheeks. At first we feared it, so unexpectedly dark and dull, so opposite the bright red trial of the rest, and we watched it as one watches weather, for a sign.

It was as though he’d been belted on his way out the womb, rough-handled by some doctor or jittery student or even one of us on that first delirious day. But nurses, drifting through the early hours, knew better. They called it a Mongolian Spot, called it a harmless bloom of pigment, a genetic marker passed down through his mother’s Chinese family. Of course it seemed a joke—the hospitals are full of them. But then a nurse from Ukraine or Russia or somewhere less forgetful tilted her head and said, Ghengis Khan, no joke.

In the nights after I imagined columns of blue-assed horsemen pounding out of those oceanic plains, a double helix of hooves and arrows and rattling armor. I thought, too, of sacked cities and mourning songs, long-forgotten collisions of flesh, every detail the cheek swabs and test tubes can’t tell that we inherit now in pride or silence. Though our son couldn’t yet know any of it or find his place in the shade of that family tree, there he lay on my chest—a messenger sent a thousand years ago, arrived at last and marked by the journey. Enjoy it, the nurses said. It’ll soon fade. Even the darkest ink, set deep, can’t last.


These dispatches are from #VQRTrueStory, our social-media experiment in nonfiction, which you can follow by visiting us on Instagram: @vqreview.

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