This story is selected as Editor’s Choice
13 September, 1993
Mrs. I. Lindstrom
4130 Bedford Rd.
Dear Mrs. Lindstrom,
This is a very hard letter for me to write, indeed I hardly even know where to begin. First of all, I hope you will be able to read my handwriting without too much difficulty. My penmanship is usually much more legible, but the hotel where I am staying, listed on the letterhead above, is far from opulent; indeed, it is far from merely adequate, but alas it is all that I can afford. The three sheets of ancient, dusty stationery which I unearthed at the bottom of a drawer are apparently all I will ever see, and I have much to convey to you, so I must write to you in this impossibly small script.
I wish that I could introduce myself to you properly, but this brings me immediately to my problem: I am adrift. It appears that I have forgotten who I am, and my sole link to my past life seems to be your name and address. I have enclosed a drawing of me, made by an acquaintance. As you can see I have rather unruly, curly hair, which is a dark brown, and my eyes, which my friend was kind enough to draw with a kind of mischievous sparkle, are blue. My face, I think, is not an unpleasant one, though I will leave that to you to decide for yourself.
Do you recognize that face, Mrs. Lindstrom? I’m not sure how old I am, but after many hours of pondering that unfamiliar countenance in the mirror, I would place my age between 30 and 35. I stand about 5’10”, I think, but I’m not sure exactly because everything over here is metric and I have no idea how tall 175cm is. I am thin, but you may remember me with more weight, as the clothes I was wearing at the beginning of my story no longer fit well, but seemed to be made for a larger man.
The beginning of my story is this:
I opened my eyes. It was dark. I could smell, what? Maybe hay, maybe horses, maybe strong coffee, maybe all of those things. My head hurt, a lot. Light was seeping in around the edges of a blind, pulled down over a window. I had no idea where I was. The room seemed to be moving. I saw the shadow of a woman against the light in the window. “Yeerma!” she seemed to be saying. “Yeerma, something, something, yeerma…” and then, nothing.
The next thing I remembered could have been moments later or days, I don’t know. I was opening my eyes again. The room I was in was no longer moving. The window shade had been lifted and a soft morning glow was filling the space around me. It seemed I was in some sort of tiny house, with a tiny stove in one corner, the bed where I lay filling most of the opposite corner, and various tables and chairs, all covered with piles of stuff, filling the space between. There was a tiny door at the end opposite the bed, and one tiny window on each side. The door opened suddenly, and once again silhouetted in the morning light I saw the shadow of the woman I had seen before. Her hair tumbled from her head in beautiful, luxurious sable curls, a perfect hourglass figure in a plain cotton dress, the outline of flawless femininity, the rays of the morning sun emanating from behind her head made me think I was beholding a vision: my own sweet, beautiful Angel of Mercy. “Yeerma!” she cried once again.
The angel stepped inside, closing the door behind her, and as she did I could finally see her face. I did not notice her eyes, which are a fiery black, as if crafted from jet. I did not notice her lips, which are full and soft and crimson. I did not notice her skin, which is tanned and sun-kissed. All I could see, as I lay my eyes for the first time upon my Angel of Mercy, was the enormous wart which sits on the very tip of her nose. I have spent so many minutes staring at that very wart in the weeks since that first day, I could describe it to you in full, Technicolor detail. Suffice to say that it is the sort of wart which allows you to notice nothing else. Even as I got to know my Angel better, I would often have to tear my gaze away from it, or jolt myself back to reality as the conversation around me faded to a dull hum and all I could hear was my own inner voice, screaming, ”Why don’t you cut that f**king thing off?”
“Yeerma,” she said again, walking towards me and offering me a glass of water. Then she began talking to me, in a language I have never heard before, but which sounded to me as if she were constantly trying to cough up an unpopped kernel of popcorn. She spoke to me, though, in calming, comforting, tones, and I understood that she was trying to nurse me, to take care of me; and I was more than willing to let her.
She talked on and on for a while, but I honestly had no idea what she was saying. I began to know how it must feel to be a dog, sitting at its master’s feet as the master blathers on and on about its human concerns. Their ears perk up when they hear certain words, like “cookie” or “walk” or “go for a ride”, but the rest of it is just meaningless babble, as comforting and familiar as it might be. As she talked on and on, I only kept hearing the word “Yeerma” over and over again, and my ears perked up once when I heard the words “Stoneham Mass”, just before I succumbed once again to sleep.
Over the next few days, I slowly regained my strength. I learned, through much finger pointing, that my Angel’s name is, I think, Faina. At least that’s what it sounded like to me. I asked her to write it down for me, but when she did, all she had written was Фаина, and at that point I didn’t know if she had the world’s worst penmanship or whether I had been kidnapped by space aliens, so I just smiled and nodded and continued to call her Faina.
I soon learned the meaning of “Yeerma” and of my connection with you, Mrs. Lindstrom. After days of sitting like a patient dog and listening to Faina drone on and on, entranced by the carbuncle on her nose as she fed me, shaved my face, and wiped my brow with cool water scented with lavender, it began to dawn on me that “Yeerma” was my name, or at least it was the name which she had given me.
Forcing myself to lift my eyes from the tip of her nose to meet Faina’s gaze, I pointed at myself, asking her, “Yeerma? Me? I am Yeerma?”
“Yeerma! I am Yeerma! OK!” she cried, running over to a small chest across the room. She came back with a pair of blue jeans, a T-shirt, and a pair of beat up sneakers, and I understood immediately that these were my clothes. She reached in to the pocket of the blue jeans and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper, inscribed simply with your name and address: Irma Lindstrom, 4130 Bedford Rd., Stoneham Mass.
Now, losing one’s memory is a funny thing. I cannot tell you where I was born, the name of my mother, or even if I am married or not. But I am fairly certain, even now, that “Irma” is not my name. Some remnant of the old me remains, insisting that Irma is a woman’s name, and despite all the uncertainties in my life right now, I do know that I am most definitely not a woman.
So, by way of the elaborate game of charades which had become the means by which Faina and I communicate, I managed to convince her that my name was not Irma. Then, what is my name?, she seemed to want to know, after 5 minutes of pointing at me, shrugging her shoulders and giving me quizzical looks. I turned to the pile of clothes, my only link to my identity, for answers. I found none. The pockets were empty, save for the piece of paper bearing your name. I unfolded the T-shirt, which had been laundered but still bore some iron-colored stains in spots, and saw that it read “FRANKIE SAY RELAX” in giant block letters across the front. I searched for meaning in those words, and, finding none, told Faina that my name was Frankie. “Fronky!”, she said to me, kissing my forehead. As she tucked my old clothes back into the small chest, I drifted back to sleep. Frankie say relax.
Over the next few days, as I regained my strength, my world began to widen. I learned that the tiny house I am in is actually a wagon, a horse-drawn Gypsy wagon just like in every storybook you’ve ever seen about little innocents being kidnapped by a traveling circus. And this wagon is only one of a group, eight wagons who collectively make up a traveling show. I began to meet other people, too, as Faina brought them in to shake my hand, call me Fronky and talk to me in their incomprehensible babble.
One day, soon after I had regained enough of my strength to step outside, I had gone behind the wagon to relieve myself, when for the first time I heard someone speaking in a language which I understood.
“Oh, Lydia, Lydia, have you seen Lydia?
Lydia, the tattooed lady-” I heard someone singing nearby.
The sweet sound of English washed over me like a cool stream on a summer day. “Hello? Hello?” I cried out to the air around me, desperately trying to fasten the too-big blue jeans around my waist. I ran out from behind the wagon, through the blankets which were hanging out on a clothesline to dry, and ran smack into Mad Trevor. Mad Trevor looks to be about 80 years old, with a wrinkled, gap-toothed face which makes me think he’s always about to snatch the hat from his head, slap his thigh and exclaim, “There’s gold in them thar hills!” He’s only about 5 feet tall, so I nearly knocked him over as I came running out through the laundry.
“Do you speak English?”, I asked him.
“I not only speak English, I am English, squire!”, he replied, giving me a sweeping bow in the process.
I was so overjoyed to finally hear my Mother Tongue, to be able to communicate at last with another human being, I hardly knew what to say or what to ask first.
“I’m Frankie,” I said. “Can you tell me where I am? Do you know what has happened to me?”
“Lucky for you, squire,” he answered me, “I’ve an audience with Her Majesty this very evening. I shall present her with a complete list of your concerns.” Then, picking up a length of rope which had been on the ground at his feet, he said, “Please inform Lady Grantham that I shall be in the drawing room.”
It was then that I realized that although Mad Trevor and I speak the same language, we are seldom having the same conversation.
Over the next few days, through hours of torturous charades with Faina and rare moments of lucidity with Mad Trevor, I managed to learn a little bit more about my situation. This little band of wagons had found me by the side of the road, beaten and battered but still breathing. I was, apparently, in Germany, as I learned that we were making our way to Hamburg where they knew of a field where they could park the wagons and perform their show. According to Mad Trevor, Faina and the others were either from Estonia or were the surviving children of the Romanov dynasty. To be honest, they didn’t appear all that imperial to me, least of all with warts the size of my little finger popping out on their faces, so I figured Estonia it was. No wonder I couldn’t understand them. Who even knows what language they speak in Estonia?
I also learned, over those days, that I had a skill. I could sew. One of the men, a juggler whose name I cannot begin to spell, but which sounds like someone suppressing a sneeze, had split his trousers, minutes before giving a performance in a small village in the forest. “Give them to me,” I insisted, realizing that I might as well be jumping up and down, saying “Dingo’s got my baby.” So, I resorted to the kind of acting-out which Faina and I had gotten so proficient at, and once I convinced young Abchoo that I wasn’t saying “Drop your pants and dance with me”, he handed me the torn trousers. Faina brought a needle and thread, and without thought I had mended them in just a few moments.
A clue, Mrs. Lindstrom? Do you know a tailor, perhaps?
As we made our way closer to Hamburg, and news of my sewing ability spread through the little troupe, I began to learn that I was to meet someone named Aleksandr, and that I was expected to tailor a piece of clothing for him. I learned that Aleksandr was someone not so much respected in the camp as feared, and when people spoke of him they seemed to lower their voices and look over their shoulders a bit as if in fear of drawing his attention. I also learned that the task which was about to be given me was nearly an impossible one, a long line of seamstresses had been unable to please this Aleksandr.
“What am I to make for him?”, I asked Mad Trevor one afternoon as he fed the horses, asking them if they found the Burmese climate agreeable.
“Pantaloons!” he answered. “You’ve got to make a pair of pantaloons for old Aleksandr, and he’s got three legs!”
I reminded myself never to ask Mad Trevor a serious question again.
It was two days later, as we finally pulled our little caravan into that field outside Hamburg, when I learned that I would finally have my meeting with the mysterious Aleksandr.
After supper that evening, Faina walked me to the door of a wagon, which I had never entered before that night. It was the finest wagon in the caravan, brightly painted and festooned with tassels and little jewels which still sparkled in the dancing light of the nearby campfire. Faina motioned for me to go in, and then pulled her shawl tight around her shoulders and walked away quickly.
I cautiously entered the wagon, and as my eyes adjusted to the warm, flickering light inside, I saw before me the most beautiful man I have ever seen. He sat in a chair, more like a medieval throne, facing me, one elbow resting on the armrest, the other hand raising a goblet of dark, blood-colored wine to his lips, He wore the pants favored by horsemen, his black boots still on as he stretched luxuriously across the throne. His hair was long, a dark chestnut brown which fell from his face in soft waves. Beneath heavy eyebrows and dark, lush eyelashes, his ice-blue eyes smiled at me nearly as much as his soft wine-stained lips.
At that moment I understood why Faina’s carbuncle interested me more than her perfect hourglass figure.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Fronky,” he said, in a deep baritone voice which already had me fingering my jugular and absentmindedly wondering if it was going to hurt. “I have been hearing much about you.”
“Happy to meet you, Aleksandr,” I said. “Mad Trevor had me a little, well, apprehensive. He even thinks you’ve got three legs!”
Aleksandr’s face immediately lit up with mirth, a wide smile revealing perfect white teeth and his blue eyes sparkling with what seemed to be their own light. He laughed.
“Oh, no, no, Fronky,” he finally said. “I am not Aleksandr. This is the great Aleksandr.” He motioned towards a small cage in the corner.
How do I describe what I saw? A hideous creature within, small, low to the ground, perhaps the size of a raccoon or smaller. It was mostly gray in color, except for its narrow, elongated face which was white as if painted up as some kind of nightmarish rodent clown. It had an angry little pink nose like a freshly picked scab, and one, just one, tiny little expressionless black eye; and as my eyes fell upon it, it opened its mouth to reveal rows of razor teeth, and hissed at me menacingly. Aleksandr had three legs.
“Then who are you?” I asked, shuddering, turning back to the man in the throne.
“I am Piotr.” he answered. “I am Aleksandr’s caretaker.”
Over the next few minutes, as I found myself dreamily swooning and being drawn into his eyes, Piotr explained to me that the Great Aleksandr was an opossum, at one time the most famous and legendary performing opossum in all of western Estonia. Entire villages would turn out for their performances, eager to see the amazing Aleksandr the opossum as he rode horses, performed rope tricks, and even juggled five tiny acorns as he rode astride a galloping Arabian. Among the members of the troupe, Aleksandr had gained the status of a sort of god, a charmed being who could lead them from the obscurity of their mountain villages to fame and fortune on the gilded streets of western Europe. Disaster had struck a few months earlier, though, in a disastrous confrontation between Aleksandr, a retired schoolteacher and an angry Doberman Pinscher, which had left Aleksandr without one eye and one leg, and the retired schoolteacher without a dog.
As the weeks had passed, Piotr had been caring for the injured creature, first nursing it back to health and then training it, once again, to perform. Now, as we entered the big city of Hamburg, the time had come for Aleksandr to make his return to the world stage, and to lead the ragtag group of performers to their destiny. All that was needed was a costume.
Reverently, Piotr stood and walked to a table across the small room. He picked up a box, which I could see was filled to overflowing with money, and moved it aside, revealing a small quantity of sumptuously dyed, embroidered fabric. “this is the fabric,” he said, “which you will use. You have been sent to us to clothe our little Aleksandr in this beautiful fabric, to cloak him in Glory as he leads us to our fortune.”
“Umm, okay”, I answered.
“I will leave you to your muse,” he said, handing me the fabric and nodding towards the hideous creature in the corner. Without another word, he let himself out of the wagon, and I myself whimpered just a little bit as I heard the door click shut.
I have discovered that I have the ability to sew. I can repair a lost button, a split seam, a frayed hem. Unfortunately, that does not make me a designer, least of all a designer of pantaloons for three-legged one-eyed ornery opossums. But there I was, in the fine wagon of a fine man whose fine people had rescued me from the side of the road, so the least I could do was try.
I grabbed the fabric, along with some tailor’s chalk, a measuring tape, and some straight pins which I found on the table nearby. I approached the cage in the corner, trying the best I could to appear more reverential and adoring than horrified and repulsed, which was what I was actually feeling.
“Umm, hello, Your Possumness,” I said. “You certainly are, umm, worshipful. So, I’m just gonna open up the door to your cage here and see if I can-”
At that moment, the unthinkable happened. Just as my hand entered the Mighty Aleksandr’s cage, he reared up, hissing at me again in one-eyed fear and rage. Suddenly he sprang towards me, his horrible teeth bared as he stumbled towards me in his lopsided three-legged run. Before I knew what had happened, I looked down, to find the warm blood of the awful creature running over my hand: he had impaled himself on one of the pins in my hand and had died on the spot.
I had just killed Aleksandr, the marsupial demi-god who was worshipped by the little Estonian circus cult I had found myself in. Now what do I do?
My options seemed limited as I wiped the blood of the dead opossum off of my hands with the embroidered fabric. Visions of Estonian acrobats tumbling after me with pitchforks in their hands, not to mention Faina and her wart chasing me down with a hatchet, filled my head. I had visions of Piotr as well, but they had nothing at all to do with warts, pitchforks, or hatchets. I scrambled for a plan. My panicked eyes landed on two things: the box full of money and a unicycle propped up in the corner.
I had stuffed my pockets full of stolen Deutsche Marks, but I had no idea how far that would get me because I have no earthly idea how much a Deutsche Mark is even worth. I had snuck out of Piotr’s wagon, with the unicycle. I could hear Piotr talking to the others. He was either telling them that Fronky was about to make their dreams of greatness come true, or that the Great Aleksandr was demanding a human sacrifice, I don’t know which. I snuck out past the circle of wagons, and climbed onto the unicycle.
Funny the things you can do when the chips are down. Mothers lifting cars off of their children, that sort of thing. There I was, on a dark road beside a field in Hamburg, Germany, with a pocketful of stolen Deutsche Marks and a dozen mad Estonian circus performers about to discover that I had murdered their hideous little leader. After a few false starts and a couple of scraped knees, I learned right then how to ride a unicycle.
Riding a unicycle requires one thing, Mrs. Lindstrom: balance. Above all, you must find that point where you are neither falling backwards nor leaning forwards, that place where you are perfectly poised in the here and the now. And as I rode along on that dark, foreign road that night, riding towards the bright light of a strange city, my hands empty but free of bonds, I found my balance. I am a man without a past, and with an uncertain future. I have no passport, no papers, and I’m not sure exactly how much money I just stole. But I am here, I am present, and I am balanced atop this goddam unicycle and riding for all I am worth. I started to laugh.
I am about to run out of room so I must end my story. I spent a couple of days wandering the streets of Hamburg, not really sure what I was looking for. The only German I can speak is “Sprechen-zie Deutsche?”, which means “Do you speak German?”, which is a completely useless phrase to know when you are actually in a German city. I finally stumbled on this place, the Hotel Absteige, in a rather seedy part of town where I figured I could afford the room and they wouldn’t ask too many questions or require too many documents.
And so, Mrs. Lindstrom, that is my story. I hope you know me. I hope you recognize my story and that you will send word. I am not sure how long my stolen Deutsche Marks will last, but I will wait here at the Hotel Absteige until the funds run out.
And perhaps my face is one you’ve never seen, my name is one you have never known. Perhaps that piece of paper in my pocket was there by some totally unrelated quirk of fate. Who knows? But worry not, Mrs. Lindstrom. I am adrift, I am afloat, but I shall not be pulled under.