by David Siff

1. The Dog in the Dark

Nothing makes sense in a room dismembered by moonlight. There is an owl in the closet, warbling soft as a pigeon's throat; the sound of traffic on the parkway takes your skin like seaweed in shallow water, there are words all over the floor from last night, Prince Andre ashamed of bathing in a muddy pond with all those naked soldiers, Jim Rice just standing there with his hands on his hips refusing to look at the gamer disappearing over the Monster heading for the Mass. Pike. "David, your father...." I can't feel the room. Mother and Jenny are there, standing in some corridor. I don't know where he is, disappeared sometime between an ambulance and a relentless eye of white light in an emergency room. No one can quite figure out where he went. I stumble downstairs, in and out of a mine field of Hot Wheels cars and tracks. I know where he is. The dog's eyes glow in the dark like a wolf. But she licks me when I bend down and touch the floor with my forehead. Once to the east, once to the west, once north, once south, he's there somewhere.


2. The Blessing

My daughter Ellen has a question: "Is Grandpa really in that box?" "Not really, maybe he's that butterfly over there or the way the sun feels," I say, wishing the box would be placed above ground where he can breathe. The blessing is three centuries older than the cemetery, the words as stark and incomprehensible as the soul's passing. The soul dies with the body. Like Abraham and Moses and Ginsberg's mother. Yisborach, v'yistabach, v'yispoar, v'yisroman, v'yisnaseh, v'yishador, v'yishalleh, v'yishallol, sh'meh d'kudsho, b'rich hu. The body stinks after 24 hours. But then why is it still breathing?


3. The Origin of Language

My father taught me to speak in signs, maybe because he learned early that words were only shapes to fill lacks. His mother in childbirth nearly drowned him in the blood of her own death. Glub glub. His first words. His father, the renowned Dr. Ziv, stood on a box in a warehouse on the eve of the Revolution so the other Mensheviks could see him. Light bounced off his naked skull like arrows launched into the room. "Ben," he said, when the boy was just nine and finally fluent in English, "We're going home." Home? In Russia, my grandfather got on one train going west, my father on another going east. They missed each other's signals in September. They found each other in November. They fled from the Whites and the Reds, they huddled at nights in strange rooms where the beet and cabbage stink of samovars crept under the doors and stung their nostrils, where the walls had ears and bloody hands. They lay side by side in bed and tapped each other's foreheads to communicate their needs. "Papa, I'm lonely, Papa, I really gotta shit."

He taught me his tricks. How, when a moron was on the phone and wouldn't get off, to wire your jaw shut and roll your eyes into your skull. He taught me that Heifetz was the cure for epilepsy, Browning for ulcers, Tolstoy for the Big One, and Stoly for all the rest. Whenever he wanted attention, he'd just collapse in the middle of a room like an old boardwalk hotel brought down by dynamite, folding in upon itself in a great cloud of dust. "Ben! Ben! Ohmagod!" Then he'd open an eye and laugh. A week after he died, I dreamed we were driving in my car. It was noon on a perfect, cloudless day. New green of willow trees. Wands of golden forsythia and clusters of bright dandelion buttons.

"Beautiful," I say.

"There's a storm coming," he says.

Three months later, rummaging through an attic, I turned up a birth certificate that said I wasn't his.

4. The Flight

Once, a long time ago, there was a boy who fell into a deep swoon from which he was unable to awaken. Neither the ministrations of his anxious parents nor all the doctors and wise men who were consulted could rouse the lad from his stupor. Over time, the wise men concluded that a curse had been visited not only on the family but on the kingdom itself, one whose meaning was yet to be revealed. What was unknown to the parents, the physicians, the wise men, all who were deeply concerned over the import of such a case, was that the boy all the while was learning how to fly. This he did in a series of strange dreams, where he was counselled how to lift himself into the air. His teachers were many: a lowly finch, a mighty crow, a wise old owl. Each time he flew, he learned something more about the currents of winds, the updrafts and downdrafts that swept him along. Most of all he learned things about himself he had been oblivious to in his waking state. For example, he came to understand that there was something in his feet that enabled him to simply lift up off the ground and surge into the air. He could feel his way to this peculiar sensation just by walking along and waiting for the precise moment to overtake him The feeling rose in his feet, up the back of his legs into his hips like the delirium of being rubbed by his mother after a bath or tasting the sweetest syrup he could imagine. He learned that the body he had always assumed was earthbound was secretly connected to air currents which would always support him whenever he truly committed himself to flight. This was the key. He had to believe with all his heart and soul he could fly. Any doubt, even the smallest, would leave him fastened to the ground as though spikes had been driven through his shoes.

But deep in his swoon, the wise men of the kingdom concluded that only by banishing the boy and his family to a distant country would the gathering effects of a curse that had obviously descended on the land be lifted. There was much heaving and sighing, hand wringing and lamenting over this determination because the family was well loved and well connected, a family given to good deeds and selfless sentiments. But there was no disputing the judgement of the wise men. The parents themselves, sadly but nobly, affirmed the judgment that to serve the greatest good banishment was probably necessary.

But just at the point when the officials of the kingdom gathered for the ceremony of exclusion along with a fleet of chariots, ox-carts, camel caravans that would carry the family and its possessions into exile, the boy, prompted by an admonitory warning from a raptorial Secretary Bird, opened his eyes and sat up. He looked around at everyone, then explained to his parents and to the gathered delegation of officials what he had been doing in his sleep. There was a great stir--but also great skepticism. The wise men pointed out that human beings were mortal and heavier than air and quickly concluded that the boy's illness, though he was now conscious, had dangerously progressed and that the order of exile should be quickly carried out.

"But look," the boy said, getting out of bed and padding around the floor until, all at once, he was in the air, circling around the people in the room. He flew round and round over the heads of his parents, over the heads of the wise men. 'Whee! Whee! Whee' he cried, using the very words of one of his favorite teachers, an undersized but brilliantly loquacious Tern. In all he was aloft for thirty-seven seconds before an overpowering urge to urinate forced him to set down. He made sure to appoint himself in a perfect landing which allowed him to raise his arms in exaltation like a victorious gymnast and then to bow deeply to everyone in the room before heading off to the water closet.

Needless to say, the order of exile was rescinded. For three days following bells were sounded throughout the kingdom and the day of the flight itself was then declared a national holiday.

5. Crazing the Surface

Its been nine months since my father died, a full gestation period. My composition has a wondrous birth in it, full of calculated mystery: rising signs, hours, minutes and seconds connected as surely as cables supporting the grace of great bridges to all the planets, lights and nodes which, in turn, are connected to this simple certificate of birth. Fate tapped me on the shoulder in the Year of the Rat when Nixon was bombing Cambodia. If it hadn't been for Nixon I never would have turned to astrology; if I hadn't turned to astrology I would have never wanted to know my birth time, if I hadn't wanted to know my birth time, I would never have looked for that certificate...but the words race like fire from tree to tree, burning up everything I think:

you have the hands, Ellen has the hands.

but you don't drink and all of them do...

Hands. Drink. One is a noun, one a verb, each with a history, a family. There are 91 variations of the noun hand, as in out of hand, show one's hand, throw up one's hands, hand out. From the Icelanadic hund, the Gothic handus.

My son Ivan has his face and his name. Name, namus....Face, facia, facies. 47 more definitions. The front part of the head from the forehead to the chin leaves you face to face or flying in the face of or putting on a face for the faces that you meet or, even more mysteriously, winds up 40-feet high on a movie screen. This one I can no more resist than I can keeping my hand out of a bag of popcorn when I am scrunched up in the dark of a theater with my face lit by the screen's shine. Talk about surfaces. My father had 55 faces for 55 movies. In his very first, believe it or not, he's knocked up Katherine Hepburn and broods through a tragic lifetime waiting to see the child he's never seen; then he's a miner, commando, rancher, gambler, big businessman, mad bomber, child molester, and husband of the year. He's Athos, loaded to the gills, he's Charles Bovary, he's Andrew Johnson, 17th President of the United States. He was cremated five years ago, face and all.

Three hours to get to his sister's house. This is what I know: the strips of grass on the edges of the Parkway are baked out even though it's June. There's a blaze of leaves like autumn where they've sprayed poisons to keep things neat. It's nine months, the time it took Napoleon to drive deep into the heart of Russia. I've vowed to put Tolstoy aside and all of Russia, too, same as Dr. Ziv once did, but it's an old habit, hard to shake. The army and the people are starving, all the curtains have been stripped from the windows, the laughter, dancing, and French repartee have vanished from the salons of Petersburg, but Kutuzov, that wily, one-eyed, vodka-sodden pater-familias is just biding his time, waiting to spring the trap that will devour these tourists... the past has burned up, here comes the wreckage of the future. The signs are blazing everywhere:

Academy Award.
Southhampton 26.

Benjamin H sitting between Jenny and me, wearing a sportsjacket, a jaunty boutonniere, carrying on in French as though he's Maurice Chevalier. If I understand my French, he's saying something about the old bitch turning us away without even an offering of hors d'oeuvres.