Not Everything Was in My Father’s Will
My father left me a CD with nothing in it and a record of all his closed accounts. He left me a hole in which to deposit old birds, the bust of the uncle he hated, old newspaper clippings of ads for clothing lines he was selling, the transistor radio he pressed to his ear to hear the ballgames, tales of his early days tossing feed to the chickens and chasing after the cow that wandered off into the field, the words to songs he no longer remembered, but still tried to sing. He left me a bridge to Paris the size of a chipmunk and a deed to a parcel of land on Mars. He left me the lingering scent of the Wildroot Hair Oil he combed through his thin wavy hair every morning. He left me the shadows inside his closet, waiting for the venetian blinds to be opened at dawn. He left me three pairs of glossy black wingtips and the sound of their shuffling over the sidewalks. He left me a leather jacket that held the shape of his round belly pressed against its buttons. He left me an envelope of Kennedy half dollars, each a talisman against curses and bad luck. He left me the country of hope floating in his brown eyes, the broken tree of his Hungarian ancestors, his favorite cliché about the past, “That’s ancient history”—and his hunger for heavy stews.
My sister stole a memory of mine from my house and took it home, hidden in her coat. I couldn’t remember the memory, but there was an empty space on the sideboard under the window. “Give me back the memory,” I said, standing outside her door. “And I won’t report you to the authorities.” She let me in. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “Why would I steal a memory of yours?” It didn’t take me long to find the memory, a blue jar sitting on the glass stand between two chairs. When I picked it up, she looked puzzled. “This is my place,” she said. “These are my things.” “Not true,” I replied and unscrewed the lid. Emptiness wafted out with its stinging scent. Now I remembered something I had wanted to forget. I screwed the lid back on quickly and set it down. “That’s my memory,” she said. “You shouldn’t have opened it.” “Then what do you remember?” I asked. “Nothing—it’s gone because you let it out.” And as I stood there, angry at my sister, the scent of the memory evaporated, and all I could remember was the jar, and now that belonged to her.
We seemed as permanent as ancient rocks or mountains. Bathing in streams, we delighted in sin and outrage and paid tribute to the spirits of trees and rocks. We didn’t want to be God or even to destroy him. But his face was a cloud raining down on us. Imagine our surprise when Noah marched the animals in pairs into the ark and locked the door, laughing at us. Imagine our fear when the fires spread and the great flood came. When we swam into the flames and rose toward him as a sweet smoke, when we fought the waves until our strength gave out, when we climbed the rocks only to be thrown back by the harsh winds—He promised us immortality, but we were only a list of names carved into dust.
I gave up the hens and all their eggs. I gave up my honey and all my hives. I emptied my bank. It was not enough, so I printed more money, but soon that was gone, and the printer broke. I emptied my drawers, my seventeen coin jars, my wallets. The investments and insurance accounts were already gone. I pulled out my pockets, emptying feathers, salt, and crumbs Next I gave up the smart TV, the computer, and all my furniture. I gathered up everything in a big box—not enough. I gave up my last hidden dollars and the children of my last hidden dollars. I even gave up the carton of milk in the refrigerator and the ice in the freezer. I gave up the last half box of cereal in the cupboard, the last box of pasta. I took a photo of the house and all its empty space. I took a photo of the dust streaming in the light and the last filaments of the webs in the corners of each room. I walked out to the garden. The flowers had fallen. The fruit had rotted. Only the debt grew.
The Singer Who Lost Her Voice
The singer lost her voice, and though her lips were perfectly shaped around syllables, only breath came out. For seven days she remained silent, gargling salt water to soothe her throat muscles. When she attempted to sing again, her voice wouldn’t sound; no matter how much effort she exerted, she couldn’t coax or force it out, so she made an appointment with a specialist, who nodded knowingly, winked at her, and told her not to worry, that her voice would come back when she didn’t expect it. After a long period of time, she didn’t expect to hear her own voice anymore, so she thought that as the doctor predicted, it might return. Yet it didn’t. Then she went to a healer, who poured warm oil down her throat. The oil soothed her throat; there was more silence. She found a witch online, who said it was a curse. The witch created a spell to remove the curse that had stolen her voice. “I can see your voice in the air flying toward you. Can you see it?” The singer shook her head. “Open your mouth and let it in.” Something might have flown in her mouth; she didn’t know. She closed her eyes and sang; her song was soundless. The palm reader traced the deep grooves of her palm and said, “You will sing again, but first you must live like a bird.” What did that mean? Build a nest and live in a tree? Eat only seeds and nuts? learn to fly? She moved her arms as though they were wings. She ate her food in small quick bites. She puffed out her chest, threw back her head to sing, but couldn’t even produce a whisper. Then she found a guru who had the answer. The guru prayed and chanted. He burned incense. “Go home,” he said. “Drink this tea every night and chant these words, and you will sing.” Night after night, she drank her tea and chanted the prayer silently. Then one night, she stood in the mirror, a glint in her eyes. Her voice would return now—she was sure of it. She began to mouth one of her favorite songs. White butterflies streamed out, landing on the glass. Then out came rays of gold dust particles and hidden fears. The mirror clouded, then cleared. The song fell back into her throat like water swirling down a drain. She walked out of her home and looked up at the clear white moon. She steadied herself, inhaled the darkness and from her lungs and chest she pushed a song out with all her might. Thousands of sparks flew into the air.
Jeff Friedman’s new book, The Marksman, was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in November 2020. Friedman is the author of seven previous collections of poetry, including Floating Tales (Plume Editions/Madhat Press, 2017) and Pretenders (Carnegie Mellon University Press (2014). Friedman’s poems, mini stories and translations have appeared in American Poetry Review, Poetry, New England Review, Poetry International, Hotel Amerika, Flash Fiction Funny, Fiction International, New World Writing, The New Republic and numerous other literary magazines. Dzvinia Orlowsky’s and his translation of Memorials by Polish Poet Mieczslaw Jastrun was published by Lavender Ink/Dialogos in August 2014. Nati Zohar and Friedman’s book of translations Two Gardens: Modern Hebrew Poems of the Bible, was published by Singing Bone Press in 2016. Friedman has received numerous awards and prizes including a National Endowment Literature Translation Fellowship in 2016 and two individual Artist Grants from New Hampshire Arts Council.