Early the staccatos swelled, the jalopies trundled through the eigengrau, martins and peckers perched on wires portending the resurrecting sun. Windows jittered in the cold, and outside the red, blinking mast laddered up the azure-turning sky. Watchmen tinkered with their rusty panels and disappeared into silent folds. I woke up on the sofa in the parlor facing the green glow of the incandescent crucifix above mother’s bed. It waned like the moon in the morning. Occasionally, whirring airplanes flew low with their wheels down headed for the airport’s runways, shaking the houses in their cold silence. She’d face the ceiling on her bed, muttering a prayer, then descend into her loose sleeping robes. Feet sweeping the carpet, she’d examine the children splayed on the floor, my sisters and I, sometimes our cousins, carried a lantern and trudged through the creaking door, then through the hollow hallway.
We all descend from someone ancient, and contrary to what is generally believed in the West, they never leave us. Whether you are mystical or logical in nature, the idea sticks. For the former, ancestors spiritually guide us from beyond the grave. For the latter, science now dictates that we genetically inherit their memories and phobias. Either way, an ancestor is someone who passes on information—be it through stories, values, behavior, DNA, or supernatural means—and what distinguishes a good ancestor from a bad one is the quality of this information: a good ancestor hands down wisdom, a bad one gifts us with their pain.
My mother is a bad ancestor and her mother was a bad ancestor too, and if I can’t be a good one, I’d at least like to be better. I come from a lineage of mothers who did not want children. Mean women, selfish women, indifferent women who resented where they came from and had no idea how to nurture what they’d created. Women who buried their aborted babies in the backyard. Women who abandoned their children to others. Women who raged without really knowing why. Absent women who felt unwanted and unloved and unconsciously groomed every last one of their descendants to experience the same.
“The Ruins” is Josh Calvo’s regular dirge for sundry Aleppos of memory—all real, all lost, all his. “The Ruins” is a term borrowed from pre-Islamic poetry, in which “weeping over the ruins” is a favorite gharad; the word gharad, which literally means “purpose” and roughly corresponds to genre, is used to indicate not so much a poem’s theme as the driving force behind its utterance. “The Ruins” is the title of both the series and the first piece in the series. Josh Calvo, who is first and foremost a true writer though he also translates from Hebrew and Arabic, among other languages dead and alive, can be reached at this email.
Then the rains washed over the ruins, like a book whose text is written and rewritten….
— Labid (d. 661)
For reasons he has kept to himself, Hakham Abraham Yeshaya Dayan–—born around the turn of the nineteenth century in Aleppo, and risen to become a rabbinic leader in its Jewish community, authoring several religious and scholarly books which have now become obscure, the world to which they are addressed having disappeared and the city in which they were to be read and applied having become in the hundred years since he lived unfathomably and irreversibly unrecognizable—decided suddenly, with the dawning of what would be the decade before his death, that the time had come for him to walk along the walls of his ancient city in search of signs from its long history. For want of some sense of his inner motivations, of what he beheld in his mind whenever he tried to see Aleppo in times he cannot have known, of what image of the city as he knew it over his own lifetime had been building itself in his memory, I can discover little more than he himself has admitted—or that has, by chance or by force, admitted itself—into his words. The nineteenth-century Hakham would not have needed to describe the impression left in mind by what he could still see outside: like the feeling of what remained of what once was: or the music of the undead voices of those who lived before: the cold stone of a synagogue surviving in the walls of a mosques: or the distant echoing of King David’s cavalry and Mongol horses heard faintly, aloft the wind from faraway mountains. And now that the Aleppo he knew has smoldered and will never again be seen, what remains are only these silent words by which it will never be described.
let me remember you
we mold differently,
with phone calls we don’t want to end
what we don’t know how to do,
is walk away
i have known you
for introducing me to nature trails,
and each tickle of a touch
evokes the treks shared
From “The Little Light that Escaped”
But I remember.
The scent of sun and ash, a taste of resin, blame. Summers across slanting floors and smiles like sickles for thoughts of flight. Abandoned streets and a feeling of sinking. Makeshift holes not far from the sea; closer in, the cicadas’ hum the whirl straight up to twilight’s hem, brittle wings which brought no breeze while all the rest were busy drinking, swallowing the searing-eyed, searing-tongued prophets and seers, and jaundicing into the yellow silence of the years. The tonal monotony of the land.
Days passing, just out of the reach of the sun. Days passing, in a basement room, watching the arc of the sun through a small square of sky. Tides of no turning. Blocks of light mosaiced while the slow days tasted of mineral, copper, rust.
These are the times that sell men’s souls.
–THE BOOK OF DERIVATIVES®
In the beginning, a mother let go of a young girl’s hand.
–THE BOOK OF DERIVATIVES®
Let’s start with a few things we can all agree on.
We can agree that Vaughan does not know Marsha and Marsha does not know Vaughan and that neither of them knows Eric, who does not know them either.
And we can agree that, though Vaughan would probably recognize Marsha, particularly if she were wearing the fuzzy sweater and knit cap she had on in the video, Marsha would not recognize Vaughan, though she has probably heard of him, and neither of them would recognize Eric (who would not recognize Vaughan, but like Vaughan and for the same reasons, would probably recognize Marsha), though, if Vaughan checked his website’s logs, he would find Eric’s metadata and could follow Eric’s digital fingerprints around online, but it would be a one-sided relationship because Eric doesn’t have access to any of Vaughan’s info.
We can also stipulate (and I’m sure they would all agree on this) that aside from being involved in this matter in different ways, there’s pretty much nothing they have in common. Marsha’s an art historian and single mother from Tulsa who now lives in Southern California. Vaughan’s an IT guy based in Memphis who travels 220 miles there and back each weekend to attend his hometown high school’s football games. Eric works for the Post Office in Dayton – which his old college friends consider a piss-poor place for a guy with a theology degree to wind up – and spends most of his nights reading eschatology or philosophy or wasting time online as a low-risk day trader.
“Rizwan, it’s you, it’s you. Is that you, Rizwan?”
“Yes, it is me. But who are you? I know your voice but I can’t put a face to it.”
“Ah, never mind. Your father… your father has been looking for you. Where were you? What took you so long?”