BY ROSE LEMBERG
In December of 1990 I left Luriberg, with thousands of others. They’d never call us refugees; not even immigrants. ‘Repatriants’—returning to their own land; but that felt wrong to me, still does—how could anywhere else be my land if I had never seen it, had never before crossed a border? They said we didn’t know anything, that we would learn better; and they loaded us on a train, and off we went—behind grates, behind guards. I never returned to Luriberg.
Except that I’ve never left Luriberg. There is no need to go back.
In summer and early fall, Sinang made a game to run through the city. He looked for sculptures of lions that hid in green growth in the parks, or in the passageways between the buildings. On Market Square, a slate-gray merchant house was crowned with another lion; the book between its paws read, "I am the guardian of the sea." There was no sea nearby, and the river, the former livelihood of the city, ran shallow, sighing.
On Sinang’s tenth birthday, grandmother gave him a small notebook and a pencil. He sketched hesitantly at first: here, a part of a green slate roof; there, a stone vignette above a window. Buildings trapped sunlight between them, and shadows of the window-grates formed lines on old discolored walls. He learned in time that other people, too, engaged in secret adoration of the city: he ran after Academy students, hoping to catch a glimpse of their sketching assignments; he peeked into the canvases of artists who stood, heron-like, in contemplation of columns and towers.
Just before grandmother fell ill, she took me again down the hill, down the narrow cobblestone road that ran alongside Stryjski Park. Very few people walked there—no cars, no trams; the place always appeared deserted. When I peeked through the park’s wire fence and beyond, through the arms of the maples, I imagined a whiteness—swan feathers, swans swimming in the lake. On the left of me, a wall of smooth gray slate. I wish I knew what it meant, when I was thirteen; but there had been a river in my city some fifty years ago, a small river that ran underneath the old Jewish theater and disappeared, into those other lands where the music could still be heard.
Sinang’s grandparents lived in a gray apartment house on Glassmakers’ Street. There were no glassmakers in Luriberg, but stories told of a caravan that had arrived here, centuries ago—wagons after wagons driven by tawny horses, their manes tinkling with tiny glass bells of blue. Glass bubbles of chartreuse and vermilion were tied to the roof-beams of wagons; each held a shimmering light like a candle. When Sinang would close his eyes tightly, he could almost see their passing—the glassmaking people, laughing softly, conversing among themselves in a language that chimed in the air and jangled like fragments of broken, still lustrous carafes. Grandmother said that the Glassmakers were commissioned to make a bell of sea-green glass for the city’s council tower. Sometimes, not very often, Sinang would find a piece of extravagant blue-green, curved glass buried deep in the soggy autumnal soil of Stryjski Park. He did not know how the bell came to be shattered, but he knew a whole bell would make a voice for the city, make the houses speak to him. He’d tilt his head and hold the glass fragments to his ear, imagining that voice—but the shards had long ago fallen silent.
Grandfather died in winter; I was only seven. In the last hour before the end, my mother sent me out to the other room. I lay down on the floor, my face to the painted wall, and traced shapes with my finger: dancing houses, all with tails and legs that pointed in different directions; a bell of glass; the greatest lion of all, the one that lives secretly in the city and rotates the universe; and three stick figures: a grandfather, a grandmother, and me. I erased myself and drew another, an architect boy with a sea-green name that chimed and echoed like the shattered bell. Finished, I stared at the invisible lines until my mother came in to whisper in my ear: "Grandfather passed away."
That winter, Sinang turned twenty. The city coughed resolutely, suffering from serial colds. He lost his job with Buran: too dreamy at the drafting table, he paid no attention to bathroom planning. In his last days at work, Sinang sketched buildings that rose in front of his eyes, structures of poured water, frozen ice. He drew spires and spiky towers, and bulbous monastery roofs that gleamed blue under the falling snow. He drew an enormous ice dragon, its back and wings a playground for children. Outside the office window, the city kept trying to yield to the season: gloomy rain mixed with snow as it fell, intermittently tepid and cold. The city did not speak to him.
They sent us paperwork, to leave; invitations from Israel. Each invitation would be enough for a family, but we had duplicates, all from people we did not know. We didn’t want to go to a place we knew nothing about, oblivious about the world beyond the Iron Curtain. To return, that sounded too much like someone’s unfortunate joke, as unreal and jagged as the rest of our lives in the last days of the Soviet Union; but it was too dangerous to stay. America wasn’t receiving.
My father filled out the papers and stood in lines while mother, with pursed lips, sorted the box of my late great-grandmother’s dresses. We weren’t allowed to take anything, but mother squirreled away buttons, multicolored and translucent—each held within it a story of its dress, of nights great-grandmother stood in line expecting fabric to be brought in with the dawn—and this one, here’s where she’d accidentally burned through a sleeve and embroidered an insert to hide it, and then all the customers asked for the same.
The buttons were stolen in transit, of course; nothing remains to me, except a folded sheet of handwritten music, my grandfather’s. He’d made some mistake and wanted to throw it away.
One day in March, Sinang took his last walk in Stryjski Park. Playful showers of rain scattered the visitors like pigeons. A teenage boy ran past by him, pushing a unicycle through the quickly forming mud of the path; two spotted dogs followed, barking indignantly. Sinang registered voices, colors—but there was no cohesion in the outside world. People appeared to him like branches that rotted in the frost and bloomed. All shapes had jagged edges.
He strayed from the path and swished through the wet up the hill, where the ancient yew-trees protected him. He chose a spot at random, and crouched down; tore out patches of grass, uprooted the early dandelions that had only started to yellow. He took out a toy spade and dug around feverishly, but found not a memory of blue.
When I was eighteen, I worked for a few months in an architect’s firm in Tel Aviv, first to help with some paperwork, then—after my drawing skills had been accidentally discovered, I began coloring house renderings for clients. The houses I left plain, but tree after tree, I colored them blue like the bell—palms and acacias and bougainvilleas—all blue, and the clients frowned and argued among themselves about the outrageous unrealness of the color. They always asked for more; they couldn’t get enough of this art.
Sinang walked around aimlessly, stopped at last by one of the brooks that ran through the park. It was memories that brought him here, of the snow melting into the streams. Grandmother had held him by the hand. How small he was back then—six? nine? Together, they released a small boat into the meltwater. The boat was made from a matchbox, but it did not sink; bobbing, it sailed downstream, until it disappeared from view.
Shall I tell you how they loaded us into the wagons, or how we spent two days locked behind bars in Budapest? Shall I tell you how we slept on the floor in Tel Aviv Airport, because there was nowhere to go, nowhere at all, and people who sent us invitations did not answer phones, or were already sheltering others? A week before that I had lain, banished from the other room, on my grandfather’s old chaise; I muttered to myself to drown grandmother’s screams, faster and faster, in all the languages that did not exist.
Truth is, I have never left Luriberg. I never ‘returned’ anywhere. I never lost my languages, I never hungered, I never stopped drawing. I became an architect. I found all the shards of the broken bell, and colored them together. My city spoke to me, from underneath the ground, from catacombs and manholes it whispered in all the voices of children perished in the great war, it sang to me the cadences of the old glassmakers. Grandmother is still alive.
Grandmother turned, not wanting to share the last tears, and disappeared into the apartment. The door closed. Sinang stared after her; finally he too turned and walked, walked out of his childhood. Down Glassmakers’ Street he went as if he knew the road, or if the road knew him, and walked him. Now he understood how they traveled just so, how they stirred wagon after wagon; and the fresh smell of tar in the air and the animals talking, horse-like, tawny, one beast to another beneath the swaying glass lanterns. There was no city behind him.
Rose Lemberg was born in Ukraine, and lived in subarctic Russia and Israel before coming to the US for graduate school at UC Berkeley. She now lives and teaches in the Midwestern US.