Homesick for Another World
Copyright © 2016 Ottessa MoshfeghISBN: 978-0-399-56288-4
All rights reserved.
A BETTER PLACE
I come from some other place. It's not like a real place on Earth or something I could point to on a map, if I even had a map of this other place, which I don't. There's no map because I the place isn't a place like something to be near or in or at. It's not somewhere or anywhere, but it's not nowhere either. There is no where about it. I don't know what it is. But it certainly isn't this place, here on Earth, with all you silly people. I wish I knew what it was, not because I think it would be great to tell you about it; I just miss it so much. If I knew what it was, maybe I could make something like it here on Earth. Waldemar says it's impossible. The only way to get there is to go.
"Waldemar," I say to my brother. "How do we get back to the place, to the thing, whatever?"
"Oh, you have to die. Or you have to kill the right person."
That's his answer now. For a long time he thought only the first part was true, but over time he's thought long and hard and figured out that there is a second way. The second way is much harder. I don't know how he figured it out, but thank God for Waldemar, who is so much wiser than me, though only a day older. I took some extra time to come out of the woman. I had doubts, even so early on, about this place here on Earth with all the dumb things everywhere. It was Waldemar who persuaded me to come out finally. I could hear his cries and feel his little fists poking through the woman's skin. He is my best friend. Everything he does, it seems, he does because he loves me. He is the best brother ever, of all brothers here on Earth. I love him so much.
"Well, I don't want to die," I tell him. "Not yet. Not here."
We talk about this from time to time. It's nothing new.
"Then you've got to find the right person to kill. Once you've killed the right person, a hole will open up in the Earth and you can just walk straight into the hole. It will lead you through a tunnel back to where we came from. But be careful. If you kill the wrong person, you'll get into trouble here. It wouldn't be good. I'd visit you in prison, but chances are slim that the right person will be sitting beside you in your prison cell. And the prisons they have for little girls are the worst. There, the only way to the place would be to die. So you've got to be really sure about the person to kill. It's the hardest thing to do, to be so sure about something like that. I've never been sure enough, and that's why I'm still here. That, and because I'd miss you and I'd worry if I left you all alone."
"Maybe I'll just die after all," I say. I get so tired of it here, thinking of how much better it is back there, in the place we came from. I cry about it often. Waldemar always has to soothe me.
"I could kill you," he offers. "But I'm not sure you're the right person. But wouldn't that be great? If you were?"
"That would be ideal!" I say.
I don't know what I'd do without my brother. I'd probably cry even more than I do now, and take poisons that make my brain weak and my body tired so I wouldn't even have the strength to think about the other place. I'd try to poison the place out of my mind. But I doubt that's even possible. Some nights I hate it here so much I shake and sweat and my brother holds me down so I won't start kicking the walls or breaking things. When I kick the walls, the woman gets angry. "What's going on up there, children?" She thinks we're fighting and threatens to separate us. She doesn't know about the other place. She's just a human woman, after all. She gives us food and clothes and everything, as human mothers like to do. My brother says he's sure the woman is not the person he could kill to get back to the place. I'm not so sure she's not my person. Sometimes I think she is. But if I killed her and I was wrong, I'd be sorry. Mostly I'd be sorry for Waldemar.
One morning as we lie in our beds, I say to my brother, "Waldemar, I think I know who my person is." I don't really know. I am still sort of dreaming. But then I think up a name to say. "His name is Jarek Jaskolka and I'm going to find him and kill him, mark my words."
"But are you sure?" my brother asks.
"I think so," I say. And then, suddenly, I am sure. Jarek Jaskolka is the person I have to kill. I know it in my bones. I am as sure about Jarek Jaskolka as I am about the place, and me and Waldemar being from there.
"You must be completely sure," my brother warns me. He rises from his bed and lifts the blanket over his head like an old lady going to the market. His face becomes dark and his voice suddenly low and frightening. "If you aren't sure, you could get in trouble, you know."
"You look like a witch, Waldemar. Don't make me laugh at you," I say. Waldemar doesn't like to be ridiculed.
"If you kill the wrong person ..." he begins.
But I am sure now. I can't go back and pretend I'm not. I have to return to the place somehow. I miss it too much. My brain hurts and I cry all the time. I don't want to be here on Earth for one moment longer.
"It's that damned Jarek Jaskolka!" I cry. It is just a name I've made up, but it is the right name, that I am sure of. I jump from my bed. I pull the string to lift the curtains. The room where Waldemar and I sleep looks out into the forest. Outside, soft gray clouds hang between the trees. Some silly birds sing a few nice notes. I miss the other place so much, I want to cry. But I feel brave. "I will find you, Jarek," I say to the window. "Wherever you are hiding!"
When I look at Waldemar, he has gone back under his covers. I can see his chest rising and falling. My brain hurts too much to try to comfort him. And anyway, there is no comfort here on Earth. There is pretending, there are words, but there is no peace. Nothing is good here. Nothing. Every place you go on Earth, there is more nonsense.
For breakfast the woman gives us bowls of warm fresh yogurt and warm fresh bread and tea with sugar and lemon, and for Waldemar a slice of onion cooked in honey because he has been coughing.
"Jarek Jaskolka," I whisper to remind myself that I will soon be far away from this place and all its horrors. Every time I say the name out loud, my head feels a little better. "Jarek Jaskolka," I say to Waldemar. He smiles sadly.
The woman, hearing me say Jarek Jaskolka's name, drops her long wooden spoon. It skitters across the kitchen floor, dripping with the tasty yogurt. She comes at me.
"Urszula," she says. "How do you know this name? Where did you hear it? What have you done?" She isn't angry, as she so often is. Her face looks white and her eyes are wide. She holds her lips tight and frowns, holding me by the shoulders. She is scared.
"Oh, he is just some person," I say, batting my eyes so she cannot see the murder in them.
"Jarek Jaskolka is a bad, bad man," the woman says, shaking me. I stop blinking. "If you see him on the street, you run away. You hide from him. Jarek Jaskolka likes to do bad things. I know because he lived on Grjicheva, next door to my house before they tore it down for the tramway when I was little. Many girls came away from his house black and blue and bloodied. You have seen my marks?"
"Oh no, Mother!" cries Waldemar. "Don't show her those!"
But it is too late. The woman pulls her skirt up past one knee and points. There they are, marks like swollen earthworms, enough of them to make a lump from the side, the poor woman.
"Jarek Jaskolka will do the same to you," she says. "Now go to school and don't be stupid. And if you meet that bad man on the street, run away like a good girl. And you, too, Waldemar. Who knows what Jarek Jaskolka is up to now?"
It is usual for the woman to get in the way of good things I want to do.
"Jarek Jaskolka made those marks on the woman, but so what?" I ask Waldemar on the walk to school. "What's so bad about some measly marks?"
"You don't want those marks," Waldemar answers. "You'll end up like Mother, always angry. She only has bad dreams."
"But I have bad dreams already," I say. "All my dreams are about this place here and all the boring, stupid things and people."
"You take it too hard," Waldemar says. "Things here aren't so bad. Anyway, what if the other place is no better? You could go back there and be just as troubled."
"Impossible," I say. But I wonder. "What do you think Jarek Jaskolka did to the woman? How did the marks get there?"
"There are things men do. Nobody knows. It's like a magic act. Nobody can solve it."
It doesn't sound so bad to me. Magic acts are easy to solve. There is an old man in the town square who eats fire and makes the crows that mill under the big tree there disappear in a puff of smoke. Any fool can see that they've just flown up into the branches to hide.
"Will you help me find Jarek Jaskolka?" I ask Waldemar. "I really want to get out of here. Even though I'll miss you when I'm gone."
"I'll try," he answers and frowns. He is angry at me, I can tell. When my brother is angry, he plucks the poison berries from the bushes on the road and puts them up his nose. Everybody knows that's where the brain is, up the nose there. Waldemar likes to poison his brain that way. It makes him feel better to do that. I myself like to swallow the poison berries like tablets. So because Waldemar is plucking berries, I pluck berries, too, and swallow them one by one. They are soft and cold. If I snag one on my fang, goop spills out and tastes bitter, like the poison that it is.
At school we sit at different tables. At chorus I can see Waldemar's mouth moving, but I know he isn't singing the song. When we file out of the big stone church, I ask Waldemar again. "Will you help me find him? Not just for me, but for the woman. Maybe if I kill him, the woman won't be so angry all the time. It seems she holds quite a grudge."
"I won't help you," says Waldemar. "And don't try to cheer me up. You'd better think of a way to kill him when you find him. I'm not going to help you do that."
Waldemar is right. I'll need some kind of knife to kill Jarek Jaskolka with. I'll need the sharpest knife I can find. And I'll need poison. The poison berries from the bush make our brains just a little sleepy, but that is all they do. If I make Jarek Jaskolka eat many poison berries, maybe he will fall asleep, and then I can kill him with the knife, step into the hole, and go back to the place at last. This is my plan.
On the walk home with Waldemar that day after school, I fill my skirt with poison berries. I look like a farmer girl holding my skirt up like that. I tell Waldemar to fill his pockets with berries, but he says they will get squished, and anyway, I have picked enough to kill Jarek Jaskolka already.
"Really? This is enough to kill him?" I ask my brother.
"Oh, I don't know. Don't ask me." Waldemar is still so angry. I don't blame him. I try to sing a funny song as we turn the corner and cross the town square, but Waldemar covers his ears.
"Sorry, Waldemar," I say. But I don't feel sorry. Sometimes Waldemar loves me too much. He thinks it is better I stay with him on Earth, rather than be happy in the other place without him. "When you die, we'll be together again," I say, trying to console him. "Or maybe you'll find your person to kill. Don't give up." My legs are cold as we walk the rest of the way home. But I have so many poison berries. I am happy. "I'll make poison berry jam," I say. "I've seen the woman do it with cherries."
"She will never let you use her pot," Waldemar says. He looks at me. I know I could persuade Waldemar to help me make the jam, but I don't want to. When he is angry with me, I feel he loves me even more, and that feels good to me, even though it also feels so bad.
When we get home, the woman is outside hanging wet clothes on the line of rope between the trees. I imagine the marks on her thighs again. They are like welts, like slugs crawling up her leg. My thighs are like my arms. They are just skin and flesh with no marks. They are clean blank skin and flesh. Nothing is ever going to crawl up them, not ever, I decide. I'd die before I let anyone give me marks like the woman's, I decide. Even if they are just marks of magic. I hide my skirt of poison berries behind Waldemar as we pass and wave to the woman. We go inside the house. I pull a big black pot from the cupboard and fill it with the poison berries.
"How do you make jam, Waldemar?" I ask my brother.
"Add sugar and cook it for a long time."
"Oh, I love sugar," I say. "I'll do it tonight while the woman is sleeping."
"You better not taste too much of it. Don't forget, when you cook it, the poison gets stronger."
"Will you help me remember, Waldemar?"
"No," he says and puts a few more poison berries up his nose. "I have to sleep at night. If I don't sleep, I feel sick during the day. I don't like feeling sick at school."
"Oh, poor little Waldemar," I say, mocking him. I swallow a few of the berries and drag the pot into our bedroom and hide it in the closet.
When the woman comes back in from hanging the clothes, she says, "Go play outdoors, children. Waldemar, go run around while the sun is still shining. Urszula, go and be energetic. You look so serious. You look like an old lady. Go out and have fun. It's good for you."
"I don't like fun," I say.
Waldemar snorts and goes outside to play. I want to play with Waldemar, but I have to stay in my room to guard my pot of poison berries in the closet. If the woman finds it, she'll start asking questions. She'll get in the way of my killing Jarek Jaskolka, and then I'll be stuck here on Earth with her forever. I can imagine what she'll say if she discovers my plan. "There is something wrong with you, Urszula."
"No," I will tell her. "There is something wrong with this place. There is something wrong with you and everybody here. There is nothing, nothing, nothing wrong with me."
And anyway, I still have to find Jarek Jaskolka. I can't kill him if I don't know where he is, after all. While Waldemar is still outside playing, I go to the kitchen. It smells like cooking rice and parsley.
"Hello," I say to the woman. "Jarek Jaskolka, does he still live on Grjicheva?"
"Of course not. Unless he lives in a hole in the ground. All the houses got torn down there. I hope he moved very far away. His sister is the lady in the library."
"That big fatso?"
"Don't be cruel."
"I think I need a book to read," I say.
"Then go, go," the woman says angrily. "I don't know what you're up to, but remember what I said about Jarek Jaskolka. Remember the marks. But go, do what you want, as if I care."
"You're angry at me now because I want to read a book?"
"Urszula is Urszula," is all she says. She leaves the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron, and goes outside to watch Waldemar build a tower of pinecones. The woman is mean and stupid, I think. The entire world is stupid. I find a sharp butcher knife in the drawer and take it to my room and hide it in my satchel. I kick at the walls for a while. Then I start off for the library to find the fat sister of the man I am going to kill.
"Jaskolka?" the fat woman asks. "I don't use that name anymore. What do you want? Why are you asking?"
"I'm just curious. What happened when they tore your house down for the tramway? My mother lived on Grjicheva once, too."
"Whose daughter are you?" the fat lady asks.
"My name is Urszula" is all I say.
"Those houses on Grjicheva were all poor and ugly and it's a good thing they're gone now or else they'd just crumble down over our heads and kill us."
"Kill you?" I ask.
"We moved to a small apartment near the river, if you must know."
"You and your family? And your brother?"
She puts down the rubber stamp in her hand and closes the book on the counter. The sunlight through the windows falls on her face as she leans toward me.
"What do you know about my brother? What is it? Why are you asking me these questions?"
"I'm looking for Jarek Jaskolka," I say. The lady is so fat and lazy looking, it seems not to matter what I tell her. "I have to kill him."
The lady laughs and picks up her rubber stamp again. "Go right ahead," she says. "He lives up the street in the house across from the cemetery. He'll be pleased to have a visitor. You can't imagine how pleased he'll be."
"I'm going to kill him," I tell the lady. She just laughs.
"Good luck. And don't come running back here full of tears," she says. "Curious girls get what they deserve."
"What do you mean?"
"Don't listen to me."
"I will kill him dead, you know," I say. "That's why I'm curious."
"Do what you can," she says. "Now be quiet. People are trying to read."