Invocation in Exile
by Stacey Johnson
If death is certain, only timing unknown, then wait for me where you are living, for I do not know who I am.
In Aleppo there was a boy with a polio who liked to talk. “When I was young,” he’d say, and he was nine. You open your phone: only one or two contacts still living. The others share a name: martyr. Better to do this than risk accepting calls from the dead.
You stay with the ventilator patients until the oxygen runs out, and then there is only the tweet of sparrows, and on cold nights you wonder about the ones in prison: how do they stay warm?
After the blockade, we fried grass in oil until the grass was gone. Doctors performed surgery by the light of cell phones and the kids trying to keep warm got sick from the diesel fumes.
Can you kill now? Mothers played assorted scenarios on loop: If they come for my child, then I will —
You bury the photographs in a place you think they won’t look.
Rockets explode bodies like confetti: here a leg, there a head, there a hand. Open still, you reach for it, even if you can no longer tell what belongs where.
If we met on this shore where I keep vigil, would you know me? Could we sing?
As children we spun with our arms wide open until we fell backwards; we raised our hands, bowed: You who believe, ward off from yourselves and your families a fire whose fuel is men and stones.
Friends that played here, in this blue tent, glowed like whispered prayers across everything I touched. I held them at eye level and we shut our eyes learning to hold through the blasts. After the noise subsided and the shouts and only the dust was left to shatter, the friction of small particles — weightier and less visible than dust — spun in the air between us.
When the walls everywhere have ears, you do not suddenly start shouting when they collapse. Understood, between the silent expanses of our eyes: Shhh. Do not name it. It may shatter.
In its wake, membranes of the living, attached to former names.
We thought you were listening.
We bloomed like poppies among the rubble, and our homes were not yet hit —spinning beneath constellations: here Orion, there Canis Minor, within us the warmth of a recent meal.
We fortified the cities of former splendor and proclaimed ourselves their creators, Ascending from a mute oppression newly expired because a time had come, eyes toward the sun; we held them wide against the glare that burned our retinas through the first blast, and learned how to brace ourselves later.
We fortified the walls of our intentions, and surely these were sacred, because See the child, inchoate belly blooming against the shore of an ocean blue as prayer, as if only asleep.
Shhh, This is how you blur into another.
If hope is continuity, what do you make of the rubber duck in the rubble? The girl is still missing, but the duck grins on.
Once, we cherished numbers. First there were two dead per town; later we shouted with enthusiasm, Only fifty! That’s when you know you have gone, and someone has come to live in your place.
Sheathe what was once known as will and fold up the contents of memory. Place these like folded papers of essential information in the pockets of your children, whenever you move. If they vanish, fold anyway.
I cannot speak his name either; we would meet in secret in a cave.
He knew of birds and history and music. I listened with the rapt attention of a bottled prayer: touch me, finger the wounds of what I have become, and send me back.
I know nothing of birds or history or music but he told me this: The northern Ibis was declared extinct around the time of the first world war, at the moment when man gained new reverence for his capacity to destroy.
Those who have not seen this say, when we arrive, “At least you are safe.” But, no, with death in our faces we learned to tease, What are you waiting for then?
I gazed across his smooth plateau of his shoulders, toward the shadows as he moved inside me, and each spectral gesture took on worth beyond any counterpart in the land of the living, where children know bright colors and the sticky hands of other children, and light, and once a butterfly.
He picked me up from the floor of the cave and handed me back, piece by piece. In pieces I catch myself whispering: give me that illicit dignity again, of touch without lies of safety.
The Northern Ibis reappeared in Ethiopian highlands in the 70’s and in Palmyrus in the years before this war, and now they say that the last of the species has died without mating. And yet:
My nephew knew no names for birds but he could point up and shout when missiles flew over: FROG-7! Scud-B! M-600!
Having known only shelters and curfews and grandparents, one day, he saw another child and put his fingers in the child’s eyes, because surely it must be a doll. The other child, a boy, pushed his face. My nephew pulled back, in dazed wonder, then he laughed in the shocked way that only children can, his mouth contorting like a cry about to erupt.
They say the hour is coming. The sky is obscured by dust. But look, an old man selling oranges, and the Ibis, extinct before and gone again, another ghost on the wall of the cave.
Look closer. He is covered with dust: face, beard, hair, coat. Closer still: see the shine of the oranges.
You don’t get that, after a barrel bomb, unless you take a wet rag and polish each, one at a time.
Exit like this, then: Hold up your hands, surrender to a dusty light, Listen.
Call my name, please. I am not sure who I am.
About the Author
Stacey Johnson is a current MFA candidate at San Diego State University. Her short story “Son of Man” is a winner of the Fulton Prize for Fiction. Her work has appeared in The Adirondack Review, R.kv.r.y. Literary Quarterly, High Shelf, and is forthcoming in Fiction International. She lives and teaches in San Diego County with her daughter, Grace, who inspires everything.