Yid

Look at my Father’s hands. Flat, fleshy spades, golden bands slid over swelling knuckles. I cannot imagine my Mother ever wanting those hands on her body, but the loneliness of women is chilling. Many will do anything, no matter how grotesque, to end it.

Look at my Father’s eyes. They are still sharp, and they drift and settle, drift and settle, like snow. They carry about as much warmth. He watches the door to see who enters and who leaves, lazily assesses people walking past the window, but when he looks into your face his concentration is absolute. He is scanning your words and expression for a chink into which he might slip the blade. He is less menacing these days. The backs of his hands are crinkling with age and his eyebrows are turning grey, but an old wolf is still a wolf. Blunt teeth can still puncture and tear. He grins, showing me those teeth.

‘You wanted to talk about the family history?’

I sit up straighter in my chair, my spine fairly gasps with relief. ‘You know I said I was going to do some digging? I found quite a few records with the name, mostly up near the Russian border. Some Holocaust survivors.’

He idly stirs the spoon in his coffee, it is strong and bitter brown. I think it must hurt to drink it.

‘And?’

‘And nothing, really. They’re in the Jewish census, too. A couple of Polish POW records.’

‘Hmm.’ He stares into the near-black liquid. I wonder if he can see his face in it.

‘Well, keep it down.’

‘The prisoners of war?’

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‘No, the Jews.’ His eyes flick back to my face. They are a milky, clouded blue, as though cataracts might be blooming underneath the colour. I might think that were the case if they hadn’t always been this way. His nose is bulbous and red from drink. Once, on one of his rare visits since his infamous abandonment of me in Manchester city centre, he was so drunk he relieved himself in my bedroom sink.

‘There was talk of an rather infamous French Jewess, and of course your great-great-grandmother, but she converted to Catholicism, you know.’

I did know. My Grandfather’s memoirs tell of ‘That high, dark lady with the veil who was so in love she converted to our faith.’

‘What about cousin Jakub? And Dawid?’

He shrugs, grimaces. He was not, so far as I knew, an anti-semite, but then it was years before it was disclosed to me that he was a clinical sociopath, too. An ex gun-runner. A man with skeletons in the hold. Scorched earth spinning around a dead sun. ‘A lot of these sprawling Polish families have Jewish and Catholic branches.’

‘Same tree, though.’

‘Aren’t we all?’

I concede the point. ‘The First World War records are interesting. It’s there, too. Lots of Bavarian soldiers.’

‘German soldiers? Really?’

I nod. He bursts out laughing, drawing the curious gazes of other diners. He has what I believe is known as an infectious laugh, warm and expansive. People turn towards it like sunflowers to our star, unable to repress the sympathetic curling of their own mouth. It is utterly at odds with the rest of him, and I wonder how such a precise machine came by such a human attribute.

‘Oh! Oh, that’s wonderful! Oh, he’d have been heartbroken!’

He is speaking of his own Father. Tortured in the G.U.L.A.G. Suffused with painful honour and corrosive hatred. A hundred nails scratching against the inside of a jar.

Zdzisław is still rocking with laughter. ‘A bunch of Kraut bayonet-bashers and Jews, all mixed up with his noble Polish blood and his precious Catholic sentiment, oh, he’d have been furious!’

I am staring at the backs of my own hands. They feel the cold easily, it is winter now and they feel stiff, swollen and raw. They look old today, the skin is too thin. Sluggish blood beneath.

He breathes deeply, becomes serious. ‘You know he used to walk miles everyday to go to school. His brothers couldn’t even read, but he traded everything he had for books. He used to read them in the attic when they were all farming potatoes.’

‘Yes, I know.’ I have a picture of him somewhere, this complicated, displaced man. Skin the colour of strong tea. Serious eyes. Thin little spectacles. I wonder at the boy he must have been, walking until he dropped for the printed word’s particular magic. I imagine him squinting as his eyesight failed him young. I imagine the ridicule from his stolid, dirt-stained, practical brothers.

My Father is rolling one of his disgusting, liquorice-papered cigarettes. He taps it thoughtfully against his lips. ‘Fourteen miles every day! And for what? Books!’ He shakes his head, chuckling. ‘What a Pole! What a Yid.’

Vampire Hunting in Paris

There are places in this world which split you open, in awe, joy or sorrow; gardens, ruins, stone circles. There are cities that cleave you like a ripe fig; alive and all millipede feet and heavy breathing. They are aware.

Paris is such a city for me. A great leopard with filthy paws, Paris unpacks my loneliness with my shirts and shakes it out.

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I couldn’t tell you why. It might be the long streets tapping with the ghosts of a million famous footsteps, making me long for the past, a trick of nostalgic light. It might be the solitude, having no one to share the breath of this city. It might be the swarming crowds; each citizen an arrowhead, focused, determined. I merely wander cluelessly from my moorings.

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The romantic in me can’t have it both ways; I love the solitude, the melancholy. Watching the moon rise over the Seine, I know the glimmering perfection of the moment would be lessened for me if someone were to run up, laughing, and clasp my hand (Really? Are you lying?). My most profound and bittersweet moments are only experienced alone. The city winks back at me from silver-plated water. She understands. She embraces suffering like a martyr, a mistress of mansions and garrets.

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I am fortunate enough to catch Vespers in Notre Dame, the call and answer of prayerful melody; a vast aviary of devoted birds. There is one woman close to the altar, decked in blue and white like the Virgin. She raises her hands in ecstasy when she sings, she is transported beyond her body, her hands full of stained glass light.

I wonder at her life when the music stops. I wonder if carrying such a faith, she is ever lonely, too.

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I walk slowly through the streets back to the hotel. My train leaves for the South in the morning, there’s no point ghost-hunting my heart in this place with one turn of the clock left. I need more time! Paris lets me know she will be here when I need her, she sends a gentle rain to freckle the long avenues. The smell of wet pavement rises, mingles with the frankincense still tangled in my hair; they say when a holy scent follows a prayer, then that prayer is heard.

Letters to Christ I ~ All Things Bright & Beautiful

Dear Lord,

These letters have been many years in the writing, pieced together from old journals and half-hearted scribbles on the backs of till receipts and napkins; the last 16 years have been one long trial by fire; white-hot iron placed in the hands. Or a witch’s dunking, sink or swim, guilty either way.

I was going to become a priest, once. I wonder if that makes you laugh, the thought of me in the pulpit, wielding broken bottles in a spiritual war zone. Given the Revs and Fathers I grew up watching it’s clear near-terminal alcoholism isn’t actually an impediment to serving you in this way, but perhaps it’s just as well I passed on the opportunity. We still talk, you and I, and I still try to place my light in a candlestick so that it may shine rather than smother it under a bushel, but it’s not as your devoted cleric in a robe of crow-black lifting chalices to Heaven, it’s as a girl, just a girl, just a girl…

Back then, I was a willowy wraith haunting an empty chapel, I would spend hours sitting on the hard, polished pews talking to you, reading the lives of the saints, the poetry of the great mystics, listening with my headphones jammed over my ears to Hildegard Von Bingen’s Canticles of Ecstasy. Perfectly still and content like a slice of eccentric ivory in that cool, dusty vault. I spent so many hours in there, listening to the blackbirds warbling through stained glass, that I got to know all the ancient dead under their marble slabs by name. Sometimes I still dream of that church.

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Perhaps I’ve been scared to write these letters because the things I see don’t slip neatly into a collection box. They are profoundly shocking even to me sometimes, I am overwhelmed with a Love that is like an ocean with no floor; I could not use you as an excuse to judge or hate anybody, how can anyone? Whatever the supposed fulfillment of the laws of Moses, you taught nothing but Love; Love unbound from the mooring of our egos; Love unfettered by society’s judgement: who is worthy, who is better, which sinner deserves redemption, who is and is not allowed to sit at life’s long table. The Old Book is blood and vengeance and fire, but where you walk the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, and white lilies like the Magdalene’s hands spring up from your footprints in the dust.

How ludicrous it is that two thousand years after your death loving your neighbour as you love yourself is still so radical, so subversive, so likely to bring down the wrath of today’s Pharisees. But then, how painfully ironic that condemnation and cries of heresy so often follow acts and teachings of pure, transcendent Love. Do you recall the Amalricians? Burned as heretics in the 13th century for preaching that ‘all things are One, because whatever is, is God’? When does a critic separate the artist’s work from the artist themselves? When blood and sweat and insomniac hours and that fierce, burning need to birth some new creation, focused and loosed like an arrow, have directed every brush stroke? Perhaps I too am just another pantheistic heretic, seeing God in all things bright and beautiful.

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But since those days breaking like troubled storm clouds over my younger self, I’ve not lost faith in you, even when I have abandoned myself; when I have been gutter-drunk or full of futile rage or twisted, weeping, in the bedsheets like someone hanging in chains. When I am crushed up like slaughterhouse bonemeal at 4 am after 4 am after 4 am and wondering why me. There has always been that still pool in the eye of those storms, where we talk. Where the words of another great mystic of another desert faith come back to me:

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Until next time, I suppose. For all that I have and all that I am, as always, grazie mille Lord, a thousand thank yous.

~ Amice