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Seven Losses of Na Re

Rose Lemberg is an immigrant from three countries. She holds a PhD from UC Berkeley, and teaches Nostalgic and Marginal Studies somewhere in the Midwest. Rose’s short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and other venues. Her poetry has appeared in Apex, Goblin Fruit, Jabberwocky, and other venues, and has recently won the Rannu competition. She edits Stone Telling, a magazine of boundary-crossing poetry. Her website is roselemberg.net, and her blog is rose_lemberg.livejournal.com.

My life is described by the music of mute violins. When my parents married, my great-grandfather, may the earth be as a feather, ascended the special-guests podium, cradling the old fiddle to his chest. "And now the zeide will play the wedding melody," they said. "A special blessing," they said, a sgule, a royal blessing. But the bow fell from his fingers.
When I was born, my parents couldn't name me. They wanted a name na Re, which means "beginning with the letter R," after my great-grandmother. She was born Rukhl, the brilliant daughter of a penniless shlimazl cobbler. As the revolution fumbled all archetypes, they called her Rakhil'ka; a kind of ironed, bronze-buttoned, bright-Soviet-future Rukhl. Later even Rakhil'ka became too bourgeois, and my great-grandmother changed her name to Roza, Roza like the beautiful Jewish communist in the propaganda film Seekers of Happiness. They banned that film long before I was born. And by the time I was born, Rakhil'--or worse yet, Rukhl--was a name never to be uttered in polite company. Roza was reserved for aging fat Odessan fish peddlers with a mole on their upper lip.
In addition to Roza, my parents rejected Regina (pretentious), Renata (pretentious), Rimma (low-brow), Rita (uncultured), Raisa (worse than Rita), Rina (too Jewish), Roxana (too Ukrainian), Rostislava (too Russian), and Raya ("I just don't like it").
Na Re bypasses names--bypasses the rest of the sounds that would make me too pretentious, too low-brow, too bourgeois, too communist, too Jewish, too goyish. The letter R doesn't have a history. The letter R does not remember Stalin.
All letters of the alphabet remember Stalin. The repressions started before 1937, and lasted long after. They took my grandfather because he was an historian.
History and memory are not the same. History must be written, made, organized. Memory is herded on trans-Siberian trains, memory disappears in labor camps, memory pines and withers from hunger, memory freezes under fallen lumber, memory thaws and erases all traces. My grandfather remembers. He was composing a dictionary of Russian synonyms in his head, and this is what kept him alive. He couldn't compose history there. Or since.
Snow: blizzard, frost, permafrost, firn, cold shower naked on the snow (see also under punishment), snowstorm, graupel, rime, ice, névé, gale, absence, my little girl is safe elsewhere, whiteout.
They let my grandfather go in 1965. Stalin was dead, and so was Beria. My grandmother, Roza's daughter, had prostituted herself, so grandfather believed, because he no longer remembered their little girl. And after the shouting was done, my grandmother became opaque to him, thawing like absence over timber, buried under Siberia, gone. History is events and processes, history is rustling archives. It's oral interviews conducted inside the safety of the future, protected by course assignments and gleaming recording hardware. Memory compacts the permafrost under skin. When skin thaws, we are left with nothing.
My grandfather is leaving--forever leaving, taken away by people who come at night. They say only four words. Always the same. S vesh'ami na vykhod. Roughly, it means, "Get your things and get out." One small bag. They always come for you at night. In 1937, they came for me, and missed by some seventy years. I keep a small bag with basics under my bed at all times, just in case. Cigarettes--although I've never smoked--the labor camp currency to trade for food or paper.
My grandfather is leaving--forever leaving. In 1965 he is taken away by people in ghost overcoats, so familiar they have become his family. He has no family. He is an orphan of snow in which to bury himself, to find a way back to the packed bag under the bed and the sleepless fear and my grandmother's breathing warmth by his side.
History is not like this.
My mother left when I was five. She is an architect of permafrost. They dig deep--to bury the foundations, she says, so strong under the snow they will persist even when the Earth sheds all water, that great thaw that will make past pain run in rivulets and be absorbed into the newly pliant Earth.
She is digging for her father.
She doesn't want us to mention his name. I have a letter at least. He has nothing, only the concrete foundations hammered into permafrost, the night people who forever come for you.
When the Germans came, my grandmother sewed all her jewelry into the underside of a white comforter cover. She had a dozen of those, embroidered white on white with snowflakes, flowers, little stars. She packed her bag--before the evacuation. She left with the bag, clutching her treasures--her mother's, aunt's, grandmother's--baubles bought by sweethearts, husbands, mothers who starved to save for a sliver of a diamond, a scrap of a golden watch. Back then I love you meant a little piece of herring to last all week, it meant enduring cold and staying up all night to sew an extra pair of pants for sale. My grandmother stitched the family I love you's into the comforter cover.
She didn't want to talk about how it got lost.
Sometimes I imagine her running after the ghost guards in her nightgown at night, crying Take it! Take it! for that's how the story takes shape, that you must exchange your treasures for life--and if they bypass your treasures they will take your life, perhaps to return it later, mangled, memory-less; and it will leave again then, leave for good, that life-shaped emptiness that gnaws and cusses at its tormentors: the wife, the child. The should-have-never-beens.
Or perhaps my grandmother exchanged the comforter for bread on the long flight away from the war, from where the sirens wailed; or perhaps she simply took the wrong comforter, her I love you's trampled into the earth under the growing heap of bodies.
When my grandmother died, she left me her wedding ring, the only thing that didn't go into the comforter. She left a little paper scrap attached to it. "For my na Re," it said.
I do not want to talk about it.
My grandmother wanted to protect me. She spoke Russian to me--purer than permafrost, rigid like her husband's dictionary of salvation. But her father the fiddler taught Yiddish to me in secret. Gedenk! he would say. Remember! He had his heart packed in the violin case and ready to go, but they never did come for him.
Grandmother found us one day, huddled in the corner of the sofa, whispering forbidden warmth, stitching each other to life with thin threads of memory.
The next day my grandmother took me to the speech pathologist. A woman named Rimma, another never-be-Rukhl like me. "Open your mouth," she said kindly. With anonymous instruments gleaming silver and frost, she scraped my language out.
Everything goes. Rings and languages. Grandparents and bedding. Parents and selves. Names. Even the memory of loss is lost at last. Even snow. Even skin.
We are careless and fumbling. We slide through life--bypassing history, curling memory into smoke from the cigarettes packed for emergency visits from ghosts in the night. S vesh'ami na vyhod. Get your things and get out. When the guards came, they could not find me on the list. Na Re is not a name. So they took my little bag, carried my I love you's away to starve, to freeze, to lose their minds, their speech, to work away the years. And only the ancient fiddler stays behind, a patriarch of loss, fingers numb and weeping in the cold.
Everything thaws. Even my mother's Earth-deep construction.
Only that which isn't remembered can never be lost.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

Author Comments

This story was inspired by my family history, and the two years I spent living as a child in the former GULAG town of Vorkuta.

- Rose Lemberg
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