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I.

1985, we stole fistfuls of change, slipped fingers into jean pockets and cup holders, mined pennies from the asphalt. In school, the nuns lowered their papery eyelids. Ethiopians are dying, they said, and offered us build-your-own UNICEF boxes, corner to corner, flap into slit. We watched videos of the suffering, the frottage of polyester uniforms on our thighs.

Already the nuns had schooled us in tragedy. Pompeii after lunch once, a slide show with a dead dog still wearing its collar. Dead astronauts, Jessica in the well. Over the years, they mastered their delivery, lips apart and together. We wondered about them, about their bedrooms in the convent, their vanities. Imagined each one sitting in a stiff chair, moving a plastic comb from scalp to ears. Butch hair and sallow cheeks, transfers to jungle schools where snakes insinuated themselves into shoe boxes. Most of the nuns kept their suitcases by the door. The one that told us about Pompeii, she was about to disappear to Antigua.

Their eyes rolled over us. We want you to write letters to the children, they said. Be neighborly.

We’d seen the famine every night on TV, between Diff’rent Strokes and Solid Gold. Just look at those people, moaned our parents, bless their hearts. We pressed our bellies into the carpet, not understanding what we were seeing. Flies drinking people’s tears.

Now there was silence at school when we polished the steps, silence instead of times tables. We wrote the letters in our heads, on our knees. Dear Someone. Some of us told them about Jesus, drew little crosses. Marcus told them he was going to Yellowstone with his parents and whitewater rafting with a guide named Reem. We wrote about our dogs and little sisters. Even after we stuffed letters into the boxes, we still kept writing them, as if the Ethiopians could eat the paper. Month after month, we asked our parents for dimes and trips to Hardee’s, stared at the candles that the nuns warned would make us sick.

In another year, the nuns would show us a video about human reproduction. Blue amniotic fluid coursing from a woman’s legs, past a purple cabbage head. We screeched, vowed to seal our girl parts. The year after that, they’d warn us that taking birth control pills didn’t really stop anything. Sex still meant babies, conceived but chemically aborted, tumbling out with our period matter. We began kneeling in the shower, sifting through clots for homunculi.

After the boxes were full, we wrapped them with tape, put them on a window sill with our milk carton bean plants. Forgot them until our parents found them, the famine no longer in the news. The letters were embarrassing now. Solid Gold? We had started plucking our eyebrows, and Marcus, who had never gone whitewater rafting, had dropped out after 9th grade, robbed a McDonalds, got out and robbed another one.

Our parents poured the money into penny jars, into their cup holders for fast food runs. Gas prices were killing them, bless their hearts.

 

II.

The nuns showed us everything but the frescoes with penises. Pompeii. The dead pig, the collared dog, the couples shielding each other from ash. A slide show. They explained that it was all plaster, but despite our religious education, we couldn’t comprehend how something could be made out of nothing. In 1985, we thought we were looking at mummies.

Believe it or not, the nuns said, lips apart and together, there was time for letters.

Ad 79. In Misenum, Pliny the Younger writes letters about his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who will never read them. Letters not about the future, but about Pompeii, this day in August, the shards of wine jars, ash over graffiti, figs puckering at the market.

After Pompeii, the nuns said, there will be Ruiz. After that, Papandayan. Kelut. Ruiz again.

 

III.

In 2005, we use phones to write letters to our children, wherever they are. Out late, panties off, drinking from red plastic cups. Barbecue chips and beer fizzing, we share our secrets with them, sprinkling baby powder into the nautili of their ears. Punching buttons, we tell our children we know they’ll become the kind of people we want them to be, ferreting out character in sixteen-year-olds who could just as easily grow up to kill people, dump their bodies behind sand dunes, as they could become Hugh Jackman.

We realize that the worst thing is that they’ll stop loving us. Yes, they could. Believe it. No one knows the future, bless their poor little hearts.

 

IV.

 

AD 79. CAVE CANEM. Beware this dog of Pompeii, the nuns told us, who can see the future as far as the next man coming to the door. He guards The House of the Tragic Poet, red limning his eyes, white hackles, but he is not humorless. He wears a jaunty red collar to show he is loved in his private hours, quick to flip over, kick rapturously. If you scratch him the right way, slow and deep in the V of his chest, he will talk to you. Beware indeed.

Avoid his bad side, his eyeteeth, when he’s pressed himself to the ground. He barks mutely to warn of disaster, Vesuvius sputtering in the early morning, waking the chickens out of their straw. He barks for the man, Vesonius Primus, still asleep in the house. Barks as the heat cooks him, barks as his legs scramble through twenty feet of ash. He barks with the chain still attached, the grommet of his jaunty red collar searing his neck like an old woman’s cameo that he will wear forever.

Before she left for Antigua, the nun told us this: The only thing God guarantees is that there will be more of this around the bend.

 

V.

Nuns long gone, we watch television for our tragedies. Before Japan, there is New Orleans. After New Orleans, Haiti. After Haiti, Philippines.

March 2011, Daiichi a bruise, sparking whole cities and towns. No time for letters, people slip out in minutes, children from the corners of their desks, leaving their leather satchels behind. Couples wake from a nap, untwine, and leave their beds. Tiptoe through warm, glowing mud. They are fossils and they don’t even know it.

Twenty-seven years older than we were for Ethiopia and we still watch, hands against our bellies, unable to understand what we are watching.

Okuma is abandoned, Namie abandoned, but their street lights cycle. Grass is only beginning to push through the asphalt. The dinner bowls grow mildew, and a pig sups rotted fruit and candy bars until it falls asleep, head against a dead woman’s basket of groceries. A cat crouches inside a dryer, bony shoulders pricking through her skin.

The Haruspex says: The human brain has a limited capacity for sustained tragedy.

We cut photographs out of magazines and put them in envelopes, time capsules our children might be better able to deal with in 2050. Fukushima, a fistful of dog fur. A duckboard of words across dark water.

 

VI.

2010. No one writes letters anymore, but the prison has old fashioned rules. Once every six months, we send a letter to Marcus in jail. Marcus from school, who still remembers us. In the letters we never talk about God, we talk about technology. The future. When you get out, we write, you should know there will be no more Best Buy. CDs are almost extinct. We send sketches of an iPad. We send him a picture of Yellowstone.

The nuns would be aghast, sweet Marcus, in jail. He once made a model of the Nativity with tongue depressors.

His family writes him, about the baby, her fat legs, she’s saying puppy now. They tell him they still love him. They believe he’s only in jail because he fell in with the wrong crowd, even though it was his hand that twisted the old woman’s arm, held her down. They believe he eats food packaged in recycled boxes of rat poison, and they speak to the guards about it, who laugh.

“Your boy sure know how to snow you.”

Marcus studies the drawing of the iPad. On his fingers are self-made letters: IDGF.

I don’t give a fuck.

 

VII.

2011. We take the train to New York. An old woman boards after we cross the river. Coke stains on the wall near her cheek, oily fingerprints along the window. It’s raining and she holds a bag against her chest. Inside is a tiny dog, wrapped in blankets. The woman cries the whole way to Manhattan, tears rolling into her lap, where they’ve made a stain on her skirt in the shape of a wing.

It rains on us until we’re under the ground, hot air and filth on our faces, hair rising. Up and down stairs, past street people, past menus, past ripe fruit. Our raincoats stick to us. Through the Dominican parade, where a busty girl festooned with plastic flowers hangs from a bodybuilder’s bicep. Our umbrellas bash their umbrellas.

At the Discovery Center, almost everyone has come to see the Harry Potter exhibit, groups of boys with jagged lines down their foreheads. We snake through, ushered by a girl with a walkie-talkie. Pompeii this way. We wait and smell our sweat, trapped under the raincoats we won’t pay five dollars to check.

Finally, a standing room-only movie theater, where we remind our sullen daughters to turn off their cell phones and watch their little sisters. A voiceover runnels into the void, two thousand years ago, and pink light flushes a simulation of Pompeii, plain faced women with braids around their heads.

This is what they’ve been telling us about, a “new immersive movie experience depicting a timelapsed representation of the explosion.” A representation of bodies that are the absence of bodies, plaster casts in the shape of agony. We are two thousand degrees away from this. Fog machines churn out plumes, the floor buckles, and the pre-recorded noise of Vesuvius rumbles up like a bad smell. After this, in the dark, is the barking of actor dogs.

When the curtains part, we’re met with plaster bodies on platform slabs. A child in a tunic, a pig, a spray of gold coins. We wander around looking for the collared dog, thinking how weird it is that we miss the nuns.

An emo girl texts near the skeleton collection from Herculaneum, her face hidden behind giant sunglasses. Nearby the plaster lovers embrace, shielding each other from ash rain. So um, the girl crackles over her shoulder to someone. Did you see the fucking dog?

 

VIII.

In the future, our children will tell us we give them too much bad news. That we have become the nuns we once hated, our hair short and graying, our faces mannish.

It’s true that we never turn off the television. Syria now. Somalia this time. Pirates in the sea, flies drinking people’s tears.

Look at these Japanese ships, we tell them, sailing across broken grass, backyards. Look at the naked men sitting on buckets, hosing themselves while their wives tidy cardboard kitchens. These two dogs, gone feral, snapping the air with the last of their rage, all that fills their bellies, black and luminescent. Lips apart and together.

What you think about expands, our children say. Bless their poor, stupid hearts. We don’t bother to correct them. We don’t know that they’ll grow up to be good, that they’ll hold on to anything, to their sisters, to their lovers, to the world.

Sometimes, in the shower, when the blood runs down our legs, we still look for a tiny person in the drain, and we ask her, Are you sure, then, you want to be born?

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Elizabeth Eslami Elizabeth Eslami is the author of the novel Bone Worship (Pegasus). Her work has appeared in over a dozen journals, including G.W. Review, Minnesota Review, Crab Orchard Review, Matador Travel, and The Millions. She’s currently at work on a collection of short stories and a second novel. You can visit her website at www.elizabetheslami.com

21 Responses to “Eight Jokes for the Unborn”

  1. DB Cox says:

    This piece was mesmerizing. I found myself nodding my head, and mumbling in acquiescence from beginning to end.

    Thanks for this.

  2. Elizabeth, So glad I found you on Twitter–or did you find me? We don’t care. We know we are connected in the bare saying of the unsayable.

  3. Greg Olear says:

    Wow.

    [Bookmarking for when I do the "best pieces of the year" wrap-up in December].

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thank you so much for that, Greg! And for including BW in your stack of books. I’m officially adding “dick lit” writer to my bio, by the way, and if it helps to move any books, I’m giving you 10%. :)

  4. Amazing, chilling, wow, wow, wow, oh wow.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thrilled you like it, Robin. It was a big ol’ sprawling mess for such a long time I never thought it would see the light of day.

  5. Matt says:

    Lovely.

  6. Really compelling, Elizabeth. Particularly haunted by Marcus. And as a fellow Catholic school survivor, I relate for reasons beyond the literary realm. Looking forward to reading more of your work.

  7. Becky Sain says:

    You are fucking brilliant.
    (I hope the nuns don’t read that.)
    Every time I read you, I imagine you reading it aloud… I can hear your voice in my head and I’m completely mesmerized.
    Did I mention you’re brilliant? :-)

    • Elizabeth says:

      I don’t know about all that, but I do think I probably managed to horrify the nuns a very long time ago. And I know that you are an amazing writer and an amazing friend, so thank you for that gift,

  8. A friend asked me this morning what I’ve been reading, anything new, and I said that because I’ve been writing fiction I’ve been rereading gorgeous things as inspiration. Walcott’s Omeros. Ondaatje. Naomi Shihab Nye. Now I think I’ll reread this piece when I sit down with my blank book and pen. Needless to say, I love this!

    • Elizabeth says:

      I know exactly what you mean. Have been doing that all week with Ben Percy’s Refresh, Refresh. Needless to say, if anything I do makes you want to write more — and I’ll get to read it — I’m so happy I’m doing cartwheels.

  9. angela says:

    Love this, Elizabeth. Just started getting back into reading TNB. So glad this was one of the first I read.

  10. JSBreukelaar says:

    Standout piece. Hallucinatory in way only reality, only beauty can be.

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