by Heather Rick
Nadezhda kept candles burning before an icon in her kitchen and offered a prayer when we came in from the rain. Jesus dreamed atop the fridge in a wooded frame, high cheekbones and oblong almond eyes bleeding mercy into her dirty little Bucktown walk-up. I imagined the smell of peasant vodka on his breath, the black etch of Soviet prison tattoos on his prayer-folded hands. We would dry off with her old threadbare towels and sip our liquor under his gaze, in the cool root cellar gloom of the little kitchen. Nadezhda would cross herself before it, in the Orthodox way, counter-clockwise from the way my Catholic great-aunts did it. I thought of those mustached Acadian women who brought me milk chocolate bunnies and plastic eggs with little gold crucifixes in them on Easter, who crossed themselves and intoned “He has risen” as ham and green bean casserole and carrot cake were passed around on wobbly paper plates. Their Jesus was a crude working man like their husbands, men with missing teeth and criminal tendencies. Men without mercy or softness. Nadezhda’s Jesus was different, but I still couldn’t pray to him. I refused to press my lips to the wood to where the paint of his face was rubbed thin by generations of lips. He was simply an emissary from a world I’d left behind, the Poles and Indians and Acadians of my family who’d folded their work-worn hands in prayer on two continents.
“It does not matter, he watches you, even if you do not return the favor,” Nadezhda said, gesturing to the icon with her glass. “That’s God’s job, to just be there.”
“That’s nice,” I said, “but for Catholics, it’s all guilt and obligation. God’s an awful duty, like visiting old relatives in a nursing home or getting up in the morning and going to work for minimum wage.”
“Well then,” Nadezhda said, throwing back the last of her vodka and putting one of her thick wheat-smelling arms around my neck, “it is a good thing you are not a Catholic.”
Any knowledge of ancestral religion had been translated through the sticky filter of America, where everything is cheap and big. Bright packaging, flashy advertising, a quick rush, a surfeit, and a hollow experience devoid of nutrition. In our arrogance, we have decided that God too must be an American, that surely he speaks in the bombastic language of thunder-crowned mountains and the flooding of holy rivers, that divine retribution manifests in hurricanes and mass shootings and planes flying into buildings, grace blooms in holy images appearing in fast food burgers and broken windows. Just like God was some outrageous character in the TV show that is America.
That summer I was reading a Qur’an from the library, one that felt too much like a Bible with its leather-bound weight and King James-style translation. But the chapters had titles like “The Spider,” “The Star,” “The Sun,” “The Moon,” “The Dawn,” “The Cow,” and “The Ant,” which seemed a reminder that God speaks more often in small quiet ways, in the language of birds and trees, the laughter of drunks, in qualities of light and shadow and water. There was “The Calamity” too. The Arabic word was “al-zalzālah” which could also mean earthquake or convulsion. I liked the way the word felt on my tongue, those z’s that were like tectonic plates splitting apart, the l’s that lilted stinging as drunken kisses. It spoke of a day when “the earth throws up her burdens from within,” which is what it felt like, all of it – sex and conversion and depression and immigration, this outpouring of inner tensions, convulsions that destroy and create. God was in that too.
But I am, after all, merely an American, rhapsodic and overdramatic, weaving eschatologies out of library copies of sacred texts and drunken hook-ups beneath the painted eyes of an icon. Perhaps I too may be forgiven.
“Tell me about Russia,” I’d ask the dark, as we sunk into her couch, listening to the rain outside and feeling the heat and the alcohol melting our bodies together. It wasn’t her stories, so much as the melancholy romance of the Slavic world which I asked her to invoke. This romance spread like a nuclear fog across the landscape of my imagination, the Russia and Poland I absorbed from the gestures and accents of my father’s family, the books by Bugalkov and Miłosz that I read on the El. There it was always a January of grey winter-wheat fields, of brooding ashy skies, a land of winter so like Chicago. Maybe it was the fog of ancestral memory, enveloping the entire Slavic world, everything east of the Danube, the land that gave me my thick muscular peasant-woman legs, my predilection to alcoholism and cynicism, my taste for cabbage and vodka and revolution.
Slavic women had a tough beauty like Chicago itself—lipsticked and scarred, immigrant grit ground into their makeup. If the French-Indian women on my mother’s side were mustached behemoths, those Catholic aunts whose mouths were perpetually pinched into beaks from the cans of beer they were always greedily slurping down, poverty and obesity rendering them callused and unfeminine, then the Polish ladies of my father’s family were like an assortment of hard candies wrapped in bright foils. Sweet and tooth-breaking tough, adorned in the plastic-cheap, foil-bright fashions of the lower-class Eastern European émigré – knock-off designer purses from Chinatown, teenage-tight blue jeans, eyebrows plucked and crayoned in, second-hand fur coats reeking of thrift stores, animal-print dresses, leather heeled boots, lipstick-smeared cigarettes, hair bleached nicotine yellow or dyed smoky industrial dark as my image of Poland. And underneath those gaudy foil wrappers you never knew what flavor you’d get – dumb and sweet as a cherry Coke like Auntie Claudia or harsh and tough as sardines and beer like Mumsie, my dad’s mom.
“You’re not really listening,” Nadezhda would laugh eventually. “You are off in your own head.” And she would bring me back to America and the rain and our bodies. Her mouth tasted like vodka and her hands always felt soft and supple with prayers, no matter what they were doing.
There came a week at the end of July, as summer roared towards its apex, when the rain and thunder shattered like a calamity over the city. The great iron heart of the Midwest just broke and the skies convulsed over us for days. Skyscrapers bent their heads in mourning while the streets swam salty as if with blood or tears. The city quaked, whether with the passage of El trains or the wrath of God, I could not tell. I started wrapping a scarf around my hair before I left the house, to protect my hair from the rain, but I knew that I would not remove it once the skies cleared. It also protected my soul from the grit and sadness that sifted down onto my skin whenever I stepped out into the city.
“I like it,” Nadezhda said. She reminded me that women in Poland and Russia covered their hair, too, when they were very old or very pious.
My depression was both eschatological and meteorological. Depression in a foreign city is always something like a vacation. In the newness of Chicago, the shapes of buildings and bridges took on the gentle geometry of sorrow, the faces on the train inhabited by my mysterious grief. Street signs and traffic lights leaned like neighborhood matriarchs on the porch of my discontent. Any city can become foreign in a moment—strangers shove the lances of their eyes into your flesh on the street, a stop missed on the train and suddenly you’re in a part of the city you’ve never seen, sun or snow piling the cruelty of weather onto your shoulders, and your thoughts turn to suicide and martyrdom.
But the city is also full of hidden saints and prophets. Riding the train home from Nadezhda’s, I painted these faces on the El: the mean-eyed visage of the dirty-jacketed homeless man slouched on a mid-morning blue line train, the lonesome vulnerability of thin girls in tight pants and tall boots, the beautiful waste-scape of the city sprawling and tumbling outside the windows. In the faces of the sad bums crawling into the subway to escape the rain, I saw Nadezhda’s Slavic Christ. I wept for the world along with Christ. No calamity can last forever. Soon the rain would break, the sun and heat would resume, Nadezhda and I would drift apart and forget one another, I would forget my depression, forget the Polish women whom I was too American to ever truly emulate, forget the weeping Christ.
The rain was clearing as I got off the train and the air outside the mouth of the subway was floating with hazy golden specks. An atom’s weight of good, an atom’s weight of evil.
About the Author:
Heather Rick is a New England-based writer and former student of the Fiction Writing Workshop at Columbia College Chicago. She holds a B.A. in religion from Smith College and will be pursuing her masters at Harvard Divinity School this fall. Her work has appeared in over a dozen publications including Steam Ticket, Fourteen Hills, Slipstream, and The Cape Rock.
About All Accounts:
All Accounts and Mixture is an annual online feature celebrating the work of LGBTQ writers and artists. For this series, we seek work from authors who self-identify as “queer,” while acknowledging that this designation is subjective and highly personal. Our goal is to provide a forum for writers whose voices might be mis- or underrepresented by the literary mainstream.