Awl
World Literature Today|Winter 2021
“Awl” is from a series titled “Words I Did Not Understand.” Through memory—“the first screen of nostalgia”—and language, a writer pieces together her story of home.
Alina Stefanescu

1 I heard a shawl for a house, a light awning made from silk or impermanent materials. I go by the sound, what it asks of the mouth when one holds it. The awl doesn’t wiggle; it adopts the mouth’s form. This is what teachers do when they discover the marvel of vowels, I tell my daughters. The vowels attach to objects, and every time those vowels come together, the object appears.

2 We are in Birmingham, pretending to tidy the house for weekend guests. The guests are real, due for arrival, but the tidying is insincere, closer to tweaking, a tiny rearranging of details. Because I love words, I love music that manhandles them with reverence. The Gregorian monks on my mom’s playlist chant words we can’t discern from the background. I listen for vowels, or the objects they fondle; those heavy, lumbering parts that want to be repeated in chorus. This is a litany, I tell my daughters. I make a hark motion with my hand.

I know litanies often go nowhere, or get stuck inside vases where women rearrange flowers to fill a hole, which may be a god that stopped speaking in complete sentences.

The monks ah and om. I rearrange flowers around the vase’s emptiness, to make the emptiness look fuller, lusher, voluminous. This is what gods do, I tell my daughters. This is the work of saints, filling and arranging empty vessels with eye-catching significance. A god that stops speaking is senseless, or lacking senses. History is the story of how gods will do anything for attention.

3 I am in Tuscaloosa, scripting my way through high school. Like a rabbit, I read the room disguised as a forest. I track tree bark for signs of antlers. It is a skill honed by prey. The immigrant is trained to know her place as a fetish, oddball, or comic uplift for southern friends and their heritage. If anything, I am here to serve as a testimony to this nation’s incredible generosity. I thank strangers for opening doors by habit. I am naturalized into infinite gratitude for the aberrance of not being born here. Watch what you say in English, warns my mother. People can hear you.

People don’t remember the past. But they never forget when you say something that offends them. This is the unspoken obligation: every word that comes from my mouth must affirm your liberties, your hot dogs, your latest plastic fashion piece. That level of power, to determine what the vulnerable dare to say, that is your heritage.

4 I am in Bucharest. For three euros, the baba sells me a communion-maker, its wooden cross engraved with Greek letters. The magic words burned into the flesh of the tree. It is cursed, the dominant baba says. I slip it into my backpack and sidestep the ptuie-ptuie her friend leaves on the dirt near my feet. It is useless, the baba warns. If you use it to mark communion, it will be cursed. I believe her.

I am fascinated by the distance between a blessing and a curse on broken flesh. I am twenty-five and pregnant, unmarried, incubating the first bastard in my family tree. I am here for my grandmother’s funeral; to pay my respects to the woman who cared for me when my parents fled to the United States. It is a relief to be surrounded by Romanian vowels, their warm intonation, their curses and threats. I am trying to remember the girl I wanted to be.

But she is never available. Remembering is not knowing; it is not a form of knowledge so much as a filmstrip. Memory is the first screen of nostalgia. Memory is a brick that gets heavier when carried. Memory is not the truth of what happened. I know this from watching adults argue over memories of what the dictator said.

The baba warns me that terrible consequences will result from letting the evil eye touch my baby. A baby is so easily ruined, she rasps. No ring on my finger. A sign of the cross to guard her from what this girl who paid money for curses might want from the scene.

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