HOW CAN PEOPLE SAY a person is washed up when just getting to shore is a victory?
Ever since we found the letter, we never stopped asking our father about it, only one sentence clear.
One of those crumpled old-fashioned aerograms, pale sky with dark-blue cursive, stained as if by a huge damp thumb, its alphabet curled and almost unreadable, having swum through eras, the confession inside making the envelope, sent from an impossible place across the water.
My father loves to sing:
Confession makes the listener
and funny, that song played in my head when we found the letter, folded and almost the opposite of scherenschnitte, a word our father oddly taught us in two languages, paper dolls, sagome.
My brother had the same devil thought, asking, Should we cut it up into sagome?
Bloating himself with authority and how helplessly I loved how he can always do our father one better, eyes filled with knowledge just imbibed from book or screen. My brother holding the letter out of reach, aloft, continuing the joke in pure replica:
Sagome—our father intoning—comes from the Greek sekoma, for standard weight, counterpoise.
My brother who always cracks me up, I am forever his best audience, since between us we make up a million families, each other’s counterpoise, our listening twisting, because who else truly cares, we have always been paper dolls, sagome, rotated only temporarily.
I will never say my brother is gone.
If you cut dolls from the long computer roll our father brings home from his lab, you can make a whole family from one piece. The paper never ends, so from one accordion fold you can make an entire civilization pop out, serrated dots on the edge.
My brother pointed out that most old-fashioned things depend on taking turns. Little weather people, back and forth, pop out of our father’s Austrian weather clock. Our wide computer paper folds in a do-si-do as the square-dance caller would shout it out in our nearby park’s dances where people with legs shiny with sweat, legs I think of as chicken-grease legs, go crazy in the summer, taking turns in rows, fists on hips, around a partner’s back.
The aerogram so much like our family: the pause in our father carries everything he has buried, our father a researcher who cares for the new when around him hovers a silence stale with the past, impatient only when we interrupt.
That old-fashioned computer paper unfurls, its fold half the information, like our father who expects a margin of silence after he speaks, always offering some kind of receding shore toward which you just keep swimming.
Either he never understands or he is deep, who knows? Float in his margins but maybe he only gets jots and bits washing up, no one really knows other than that he loves when roles stay clear. We mostly obey what we think he likes, and mostly he stays himself, yet that letter rinsed his face into a new father, young, barebone, remonstrating.
I have no clue, I can’t remember—our father actually stuttered, pushing the letter aside.
So of course, whenever he seemed halfway undistracted, we used to ask:
Why do you think that letter said
NEVER GO TO DONGO
and he fell silent, still our old father.
What my brother and I were doing when we found the letter, our favorite sport: improvising with limited means.
Wrestling some fort made from dusty red sofa cushions easy to hide by the time our father came home. Cushions meant for couch not floor, he would recite, my brother already imitating him as we pulled up the last cushion and found that paper snub-nose airplane peeking up, as if shoved into the cracks, someone in a fit of anger or shame.
Fun fact about our father: he never shows anger.
A simile: he is like the old-fashioned train set he gave us years ago, the one that smells deliciously as if always hot from some destination, warm engine oil. Once we laid down the heavy steel tracks, so hard to press together, my brother always made it run on time.
When our father’s time is impossible to enter. Little, I wished to stay forever with the train and its clatter inside the pine-cloud forest of our father’s aftershave.
To be fair, it sounds like the butt of many bad jokes. Dongo, dongle, donkey, dongoberry, please don’t be a dingbat.
A dot on a lake, Dongo at the base of a mountain in Italy, wartime, some trail that dead-ended inside our father if we asked. Fact: our father’s father was born near Dongo.
Of course sometimes we pushed to hear more about Grandfather Albert.
Problem being that if you look up Albert Albertini, you find only his birthplace (region of Como), his research (Maryland), his time (after the war).
But which war? The second before the apocalypse, dinglebat, my brother said. The one that deposited Albert Albertini in America, where he ended up working at a hospital. But don’t you think it’s strange our grandfather was a doctor who also did research?
That’s not what doctors do?
No, dinglebat, his new name for me, and I didn’t mind his brother splaining, he couldn’t help it, he knows almost everything, especially about people and their jobs.
Once he made a whole list of jobs for me and our father found it funny enough to magnify it into a poster at his lab. He brought it home and framed it:
Santa María navigator
Brother a list maker, a lover of order.
Army master sergeant
Say there is a tattoo along someone’s arm; my brother wants it to fall and trace the sinews.
Petting a cat, he wants the fur’s nap to lie flat. Our friend visits and my brother makes the hamper swallow every last dirty sleeve. Pleased when a bus schedule stays punctual to the minute, startled when facts jump the line. And so can recall dates in history, reeling them off as if from an unfurling parchment scroll, careful to note discrepancies between our father’s words and actions.
A doctor-researcher, my brother kept ruminating, a different day, the two of us using holey nets to save frogs by the gully near our condo where empty plastic bottles float. Doctor-researcher, as if the family trade is being passed down.
Like we’re watchmakers. But you have the good traits, you’d make a better doctor.
Who heals who? he said, distracted, a frog leaping from his net.
For once I got to imitate our dad: Whom.
Our father’s punctiliousness and zeal, his quirky enthusiasms, his general oddity never limited itself.
On take-your-kids-to-work day, my brother nudged me. Look how happy he gets.
Our father, handing us mammoth lab coats with a half smirk, the light nestled in the hollow above his mouth—my brother knew the word, philtrum. Eyebrows arched, philtrum spotlit, our father about to let us in on an amazing secret.
Having kept some of his young-boy wonder into older age, though it only came out about certain things.
Important to study something from afar.
Only now do I think that my brother’s question—How could someone be a doctor and a researcher?—explains part of what just happened.
We pushed but our father would never share that much.
I say we thought I was the one who pushed.
Tell us anything, we begged. Why not Dongo?
A secret becomes a cave. Your imagination fills it with stalactites and crystals and you might get future treasure if you could just slink past dread.
Amateur sleuths, of course we loved being like all the detectives we had read in books, Encyclopedia Brown, Harriet the Spy. We deduced, inferred, we focused our line of questioning.
Fact: that snub-nose blue letter forbidding Dongo had been sent from his father in Maryland to our father at some address in Boston.
Further: Grandfather died long before we showed up.
Whoever our grandfather had been—a scientist with dark, haunted eyes—he clearly knew how to create beautiful lettering. Our father kept only one photo of himself with his father in his middle desk drawer, an odd halo around his head.
Ambiguity: our grandfather photographed in front of the trash cans in the hospital where he worked on what he had only told our father were unusual cases.
Picture our grandfather holding up his one son in front of the hospital’s trash cans, our father a six-year-old stick, uncomfortable, legs hanging, looking motherless, that strange halo around his head.
Our mother had vanished while his mother had died of pneumonia when he was five: no pictures beyond the newspaper notice.
These facts we fingered, the way we and our father were linked in basic motherlessness.
And of course the loss of his mother made pneumonia our father’s greatest fear, a sign of tenderness. Half a mile from our house, leaving his version of New England, we always sneaked off the unnecessary hat or scarf, the cold on our cheeks making us that much more alive.
Once my brother said, always accurate and rueful: Our family treasure is not having a mother.
Who ever fully admits to their own family’s oddity?
And what father uses his first name in such a formal way? All my twin had to say: Look how our grandfather signed both the photo and the letter:
YOUR FATHER, ALBERT
as if being a parent were also some kind of made-up identity.
Mostly when I go after our father, my brother retreats into what I used to call his small silence, one of many.
He knows so much but his face, confident when it is just the two of us, turns meek and lost.
I don’t hate his silences because into them you can tunnel and still know what is going on.
You can reach inside them. I almost always manage to shake him out.
Forlorn, pale, my brother has huge blots for eyes, same as our doctor grandfather.
Haunted eyes almost too full for taking in more.
But if our grandfather’s gaze stiffened in pride and judgment, my brother’s eyes welcome, only darkening with inner storm. Our neighbor tells me he is far more sensitive than I am, which I didn’t need to be told, I know things trouble him differently.
If my brother were here, I could ask.
Sometimes I have needed to rouse both brother and father into truth but each requires a different method.
My techniques so different from my brother’s. Why can’t you tell us? I kept dogging our father who looked back with opaque affability, depths hidden. Once you plunge, you sometimes hit a warm current.
On the ocean island we go to each summer, I do all that is humanly possible to swim past the waves.
Enchantment shimmers on the horizon, an illusion of calm toward which you angle.
My twin stays ashore, below the shaded hillock where our father sits riffling papers, our father with mantis legs stretched out under our big maroon sun umbrella. Our father prefers this isle because few outsiders come but why do outsiders matter when he spends time in the shade with one of two sets of glasses perched on his head like an insect seeing past and future?
Riffling papers about receptors in the brain. Sometimes he looks out at the horizon, less frequently at us. So what if he doesn’t like our insect-glasses joke? One more thing my brother and I have kept our shared domain, though the water is always only my world.
Maybe our father has never realized there is a moment when tides shift and the shimmer slips into choppy nearby white, the undertow a magnet, when all haze goes, the contour of each wave so specific and sharp that I must not swallow, trying to slow my sped-up heart. Moments when I wonder whether my arms will hold out. Against the family religion of no religion, the shimmer sharpened, my whole body corkscrewed into panic, I choke and have prayed. Please get me back to them. Even my brother doesn’t know. Thank you for my life. It is amazing.
Always one moment.
Please. Get me back to shore, I will be a better person.
When probably no one but my brother watches me, not even the tower-bound college boy playing lifeguard from behind his smooth sealskin chest, too busy with flirting to track my life.
Please, I will be better. No one knows.
Our father has great faith in tracks.
That he can put us out like trains thrust toward the future. When no kid runs on loops.
Take the swimming classes he took us to one summer. As if he could just plunk us down into an icy local pool filled with loud kids and wet-rat hair with proud high-school kids ruling over us with silver weaponized necklace whistles bouncing their strut and always praising my swim skills, painfully, over my brother’s.
To praise me over him: another of my father’s mistakes.
Summers I spent with knock-knees clamped in a short summer dress over socks awaiting our camp bus, sitting on the porch and looking up at the tree trying to teach some unruly bird, either a phoebe or a white-throated sparrow according to our neighbor, not to call my name over and over but to include my brother in its good graces.
But the bird always insisted on singing my name.
I was too strong for my own good, my father sometimes said, watching me get my swim stuff together. Glad you’re getting some of that energy out.
And yes I was a strong swimmer but never dragged myself back onto our summer beach without knowing this time could have been the last.
Coming to shiver near him, hunched in the rough, thin towel our father preferred because it dried faster. The way he noticed my return each time was to joke with the same note: Look who washed up!
A historian could say the first day that began our unraveling started after I had swallowed too much water and the undertow tugged too strongly when I finally said back to our father:
People call someone washed-up when they don’t realize that just getting back on shore is a big victory.
Startled, our father looked at me over his steel glasses. Washed-up, he repeated slowly.
I won by getting here.
For one second we were exactly that close.
He patted me with the unscarred hand, his own mute way, bladder wrack bloated with feeling. You know when someone loves you. Our father also knows nothing. He stayed on his loop, an echo and palin drome, and if he were someone else, what he said as if a question would have been a taunt: Getting here, you won?
This story appears in our fall 2023 issue, Conjunctions:81, Numina: The Enchantment Issue.