The Open World

Ann Tashi Slater Click to

Ann Tashi Slater’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Painted Bride Quarterly and American Dragons (HarperCollins, 1993). Her translation of a novella by Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas was published in Old Rosa: A Novel in Two Stories (Grove, 1989). She earned a BA in Comparative Literature at Princeton and an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan. She lives in Tokyo, where she teaches American Literature at Japan Women’s University and is working on a travel memoir set in India.

The Open World by Ann Tashi Slater

The long summer twilight filters through the leaves of the birch trees in the front yard, throws lacy patterns on the yellow walls of the bedroom. In a jar next to my bed, the fireflies my brother and I caught earlier in the evening crawl up and down the glass, their light gradually fading. The dormer window, an eye onto the open world, frames swallows winging past. Through the wall, I hear my mother crying, my father’s low tones. But this is better than last time, when they fought in my room and I pretended to be sleeping. And it will be better than next time, my eighth birthday, when I will fall asleep to the sound of their arguing and wake to find that it’s snowed during the night and my mother is gone. Giant icicles hang from the eaves, break free and plunge into the drifts. Until I leave for college—and even sometimes now, at twilight, or just before I wake—she is heels clicking down the sidewalk, a dark-haired woman turning away to light a cigarette.

You and I met in Bangkok, there to report on the refugees flooding in from Myanmar. It was a year later, when we went to Havana to write about people who’d tried to escape, that we found out I was expecting. I’d filed the story and you’d finished taking the photos; we were talking over lukewarm Cristal beers in the dingy, deserted hotel dining room. “In spite of how things might seem, history doesn’t have to repeat itself,” you told me.  We went walking along the Malecon promenade next to the sea. A storm was rising: clouds scudded across the sky in the time-lapse photography that was one of your specialties, the illusion of quick forward movement. Waves crashed over the sea wall onto the road. Move back, a policeman shouted, es muy peligroso. But we stayed where we were, you with your arm tight around me, telling me everything would be all right, the salt water cascading over us, starfish and seaweed tangling in my hair, the hair of a woman washed up from a shipwreck.

I live alone now in Japan, a place that suits me, an island country of walls made from stone, frosted glass, paper screens, glances, what is left unsaid. I couldn’t write any more about the nomads of the earth, so instead I travel around Japan reporting on mountain fire festivals, regional seafood specialties, the best traditional inns. Winter is my favorite season: the mournful song of the yaki-imo sweet potato vendor winds through the streets; snow slips with soft thuds from the stone lantern in the garden; rows of red-aproned jizo statues at the neighborhood temple are visible through the bare trees. The bodhisattva Jizo protects dead children as they travel through the underworld, the temple priest told me. It was as if he knew I’d decided to have the abortion after we returned from Havana, or like he knew something about my past, the way summer can turn to winter. Every day at twilight an old woman, her hair still black, shuffles up the stone walkway with an offering for the jizos: a pinwheel, candy. The priest has never seen her, but I know she is there. In the long hours of night, when I can’t sleep, I visit the jizos and make my own offerings: a lullaby, or sometimes just words. Salt, snow, firefly. Then I walk the city, lose myself in the indigo canyons of evening.

The last time I saw you, we were at the apartment you kept in Paris, the walk-up in the Marais where you stayed between shoots. Blue storm light spilled in through the tall windows; children ran laughing and shouting in the park, their calls twisting away in the wind, voices from my childhood. You talked about communication, about love and trust. I turned away, lit a cigarette. Stared into the lowering blue. Why hadn’t I kept quiet? You’d always said we could weather anything and I’d wanted to believe you, but the ties we have to other people were, after all, too tenuous. The understanding hopelessly incomplete. A random memory swam around, surfaced. “In Havana, I learned that in Spanish there are different words for ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ wall,” I said, turning to face you. “Pared means inner, and muro is outer.” You gazed at me with . . . compassion? Pity? Hatred? After a long silence, you said, “There’s a wall around your heart.” I saw the wall then: stone, encircling, with ramparts. Sightseers walking along the top, marveling at the great pulsing heart at the center. Shaking their heads in wonder, murmuring to one another: Who ever really knows what we are capable of accomplishing? But you see, that wall is a good thing. Some people don’t realize that we need walls to survive. Without them, we’re animals set free, huddling together in the middle of the open plain; we’re words begging for the form of a sonnet, a prayer. It’s something I’ve always known, a lesson I’m lucky to have learned early in life.


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