Russian

3G came to Y-Town. Did I tell you that? All of a sudden everything on the web works. WordPress has become interactive and I can reliably view photos on Facebook. Oh, and I can download music.

Of course, all of this gets expensive if you get carried away, but it expands my world quite measurably. First I downloaded a few songs that I haven’t listened to in a long time that I missed a surprising amount and these made me feel (frighteningly) like me again. These were mostly in Farsi and Arabic. I don’t know why I missed those sings the most.

And then I started noodling around looking up things in Russian. Because I recalled Natalya whispering in my ear, and I wanted to know if I felt any sense of recognition at hearing the language she had spoken to me. I looked up how to write her name in Cyrillic and I don’t know if I recognized that, but it made me feel better to be able to write it that way. I listened to Google translate say a few things and I don’t really know how I felt about that either. After that, I thought I would download a few songs.

There’s this young girl-woman pop star whose name is something like Maksim although if you look that up, you mostly find works by a classical composer of that name. She seems to be about 12, but that’s just the makeup artist’s work. Anyway, I downloaded something of hers without really listening to it first—if I listen to it and also download it, I’ll run through all my balance in one go. But I don’t know anything about the contemporary Russian music scene. This was more or less at random and because Youtube recommended.

I can’t tell you how I felt listening to it. Shocked, I think. Shocked at the sense of recognition. I didn’t understand anything, but it sounded exactly the way language is supposed to sound. I can’t explain that, really.

When I was a teenager, in class 8, we were supposed to create a society of our own, with its own governmental system, customs, language, and so on. I was in charge of language, and worked out a sound system, grammar, and basic glossary for our project. I remember, while I was doing it, this sense of longing for a certain set of sounds, a familiar way of moving the mouth that wasn’t mine but I imagined would feel right.

In high school, I disliked studying French, although I chose to study that in school when almost everyone else opted for Spanish. (When more than half the population in your state speaks a language it does, in fact, make sense to learn it). French didn’t feel right to me.

Now it makes sense to me to think that what I was longing for was the way a language seemed to feel in someone else’s mouth, and that I would long for the language used to tell me that whatever happened, all was well. Whatever went down, I was not alone, and I was loved. I can imagine longing for that language again, even when I did not understand what the language was or why I longed for it. I suppose I did.

The thing about acknowledging the past is that other things start to make a little more sense.

As it happens, I used to live in a somewhat Russian neighborhood. When the city sent materials home to us, they were always in English in Russian, because Russian-speakers were the second-largest language group. I assumed I heard plenty of Russian there, but I don’t know. Maybe I couldn’t engage. Maybe I needed them to be young girls and not elderly men and women (which they mostly seemed to be). Or they had different accents. Or who knows.

I noticed something else, listening to this song: I felt safe. This inane Russian pop song is like a warm blanket, and I feel comforted and noticeably less alone when I hear it.

As it turns out, the lyrics translate this way:

When I die I’ll become wind
And will live above your roof.
When you die, you’ll become the sun
And will still be above me.

I’ll be following you as autumn wind 
around the world,
You won’t realize it and I will whisper to you insensibly:
“Oh, my sun, where are you?” 

But please don’t become the sun yet,
I’ll sing the songs to you from the roof,
I’ll be again the one due to whom you breathe,
It’s only left to become wind.

I’m only gonna wait for your smile
And listen to your recordings,
Take snowflakes away from your eyelashes,
It’s only left to become wind. 

When I die I’ll become wind,
I will cover the ground with the first snow,
I will laugh and follow you all over the world
And there will be no one happier than me.

When you die you’ll become the sun 
And will steal my frost
And mimosa will be in blossom in gardens
And the heart’s ice will melt to tears. 

But please don’t become the sun yet,
I’ll sing the songs to you from the roof,
I’ll be again the one due to whom you breathe,
It’s only left to become wind.


I’m only gonna wait for your smile
And listen to your recordings,
Take snowflakes away from your eyelashes,
It’s only left to become wind.

The thing about recognition is that it makes my life as I remember it feel real, instead of like a terrible story I am just making up to get someone’s else’s attention. It makes me feel a little more that I can be whole and that there is hope for the future.

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Letting go

Remembering the Old Country and the new country, the old beliefs and the new ones, I am reminded that the old belief is that, at this time of year, the barrier between the worlds and the living becomes thin. The spirits of the dead fall through it and begin to walk among us. Vivianne is in some other-worldly and superstitious. She believes all these old things.

And I suppose I have decided that not everything I believe has to make sense.

I have always felt distressed that no one performed any rites for Natalya. She died and was disposed of without any ceremony or ritual and it has seemed to me for a long time that she remains here as a ghost with me because of it. But maybe that is not the reason I sometimes feel her presence. Maybe it is that I cannot let her go, and in my need for her to still be alive and with me, she cannot go wherever she needs to go to be good and properly dead.

I need to step away from the moment of her death into the future beyond that where she is no longer dying but already dead. I know I need to do that for my sake. Maybe I need to do that for her sake also.

There are some ideas I understand now that make it easier for me to do this. I understand now that I am alive when she is not because, in reality, I did not have any choice about my own life. I fought to live, and yet I did not live because of my own efforts. I lived because my father chose to allow me to live. My accommodating and planning and even deception helped me to suffer less, but it was not a determining factor in my physical survival. That was in the hands of a psychopath who did things just because he felt like it.

In other words, I do not need to feel guilty. Neither my life nor her death was my choice. If I could have died in her place, I would have done that. No one asked me. That is one thing.

I also understand that, while her murder was brutal, terrifying, and horrifyingly painful, it was relatively brief. She suffered, but she is not still suffering. Whatever place she might go to after her death is better than the torture of the life she was living. I cannot automatically say that about other people, “They have gone to a better place,” but for her, any place at all would have been better. That is a second thing.

Inside the holy site, there is supposed to be the body of a young girl who was kidnapped and murdered in order to frighten away the demons in the river. Now, the story is that she came willingly. It was not murder, but self-sacrifice, but you know that’s what we always want to believe, don’t we? And the story is that she wasn’t an ordinary girl after all, but a goddess.

Over the summer break, other teachers came to visit me and one of them asked, when the Country X-ers touch their heads to the wall of the holy site and pray, what is it they are praying to? Are they praying to the wall? But I forgot to tell them about the goddess inside. They are praying to the goddess walled up in there alive. Before Buddhism came to Country X, their religious beliefs were based on ghosts and demons, spirits and magic. Their version of Buddhism is undercut with that, and much of what they do has nothing to do with Buddhism, but the old religion that came before it.

At the holy site, I often feel Natalya. I felt today she was with me there. I feel she would like to be there. She always wanted to travel and to see things. I feel when I look at the scenery of Country X—from my window or as I am walking down the road—that she is looking at it with me. But now she has seen it. She does not need to stay.

Right now, I am thinking about the three butterflies—large, velvety, electric-blue-on-black—and I think about them carrying her spirit away with them. I don’t know that that happened, but it’s a nice thought. It’s a thought I want to keep with me. I want to think of her, not walled up in a holy site, scaring demons every day or even in the parking lot of the Travelodge or the Motel 6 or wherever it was that she died, but free somewhere. She is walking in a field of tall green grass now, a field full of butterflies, and she is free. I want to see her that way.

In the present, she is dead and I am alive, but we are both free. I want to remember that. I think it will be better if I do.

Mourning is a strange thing. You can’t rush it. We ritualize our mourning, but when we perform the rituals too soon, they have no meaning for us. I could have lit a candle for her (the way I did this evening) a year ago or a month ago or even a week ago, and it wouldn’t have made any difference. The ritual marks our willingness to let go, but it does not cause it. The willingness must happen in our hearts beforehand. It must come from within.

 

Vivianne

Natalya used to whisper into my ear in Russian when she raped me.

Is that what you call it when someone is forced to have sex with you against both of your wills? But she didn’t rape me. They did. Like a gun, she was an object and not a subject, and she was the weapon, but not the assailant.

Today is Dussehra, a Hindu holiday. We get the day off, although this is officially a Buddhist country. This is their concession, I think, to the Immigrants.

My one Hindu friend has gone to visit her husband’s village and I am in an important way alone. Although the Immigrants celebrate all the Buddhist holidays, I don’t think the Buddhists celebrate the Hindu ones. But let’s see. The little girls next door went out in fancy National Dresses this morning, carrying a basket and plastic packets of hydrogenated vegetable oil. They are going to a ritual somewhere.

I think I will spend the day crying.

These days, it doesn’t consciously feel to me that I am integrating parts. I am just feeling. But it is Lana who needs to give nothing away, who needs to not feel anything. And it is Vivianne who misses her friend—not Madame Kay, although I was thinking about that also, but Natalya. I am aware that these things are me: the compulsion to shut everything down, the longing for the person who felt like home to me and the place we built in our hearts together, the despair at living in a world without her.

I think I idealize Natalya. I also think I was 13 when she died. At that age, we tend to idealize people. I feel now exactly how I felt then. I am not distorting things. I am remembering what happened precisely the way it unfolded and I am remembering how I felt precisely as I did.

Small details are coming back to me to these days. I might have the details wrong. I might have made them up. I don’t really know.

Natalya wore an ornate silver cross around her neck, although she came from the Soviet Union, where a cross like that would not have been allowed. There was a small blue stone in the center. I don’t remember her ever being without it.

I remember how thin she was, and that her hair was dyed blonde. I think I will need to remember more.

But in saying I “remember” I am using the wrong word. I remember these things already. What I haven’t done is told myself that I do.

I keep trying to approach the pain of her death. First, directly, by letting myself remember what I saw when she was murdered. Now, by remembering my feelings about her.

Natalya never disgusted me. She did to me the same things men did, the same things other prostitutes did. She did to me the same things that felt humiliating, wrong, shameful, dehumanizing when others did them. But nothing Natalya did could really feel wrong. It hurt, and yet it never felt she was hurting me. She hurt me, and yet she couldn’t hurt me.

If I can let myself see what I remember, maybe I will find some peace with it, and maybe I can find some peace within myself.

So much of healing isn’t about feeling but about knowing I am feeling. It doesn’t really matter if I feel the despair or not. But it matters that I feel the despair while also knowing that I feel it. It matters that I know I feel it, and yet my knowing cannot be forced. I cannot tell myself I feel that way and have that make any difference. I feel it and little by little I start to recognize the person feeling things is me. And, contradictorally, I feel better after that, because at least I can live in a world where I can feel.

My best friend was murdered in the most appalling and horrific way, but I can at least cry over it. Acknowledging her death means I can acknowledge she was ever alive. The freedom I am beginning to feel now is the freedom to be able to remember and to mourn.

But it’s difficult.

The tale

So I told. Tonight, I told the story. I told Natalya’s story. Only slightly, only the basic outline, but nonetheless I told.

I said it aloud.

I think maybe there is one day in a new country when you start to feel you have adjusted. Or maybe this is only the way it happens for me.

I remember that day in India. It was after I had malaria, and was one of the first days I was actually out of bed, walking around and acting like a normal person again.

The group of us—we were students—had gone to someone’s house for tea. I have no idea now who that person was or why we had gone. We went to a lot of people’s houses for tea. Most of them, I think, were somewhat important figures. But the identity of the host was not the kind of detail I was good at noticing.

We were walking back from his house though. That was the moment. The sun was setting. It was dusk, and the sky was a kind of dusty black. Walking down the dirt road of that village in Gujarat, I felt happy and at ease.

Today was like that.

We went to the local holy site, my friend and I, as we always do. There are boys who also come every evening, just as we do. Small boys. They come with their mother. They were picking clover flowers. You could hear the river.

And I thought, “Maybe it is okay for life to continue.”

That was the moment when I felt completely happy and at ease here. And I think that also made me want to speak.

So after our rounds, I began to talk. I told my friend about Natalya. That I think of her when we come here, because she would have liked to see this. And that she was murdered. That I saw her murdered. And she was murdered by my father’s friends.

I said all that.

In the car, driving home, I realized I had never said any of that before. I have written it. I have told all of you. But I have never once said any of it aloud. Saying it aloud is telling. It is really telling.

In some way, when you tell it can also seem as though you are telling yourself. It felt that way to me. I told my friend, but I was also telling me. “Here, this happened. It happened to this person. It happened in this way.”

When you tell the tale, you cannot so easily deny it later. In telling, the story becomes real, both for the listener and for the teller. So today the tale has become real for me in a more profound way. “Yes, this happened. Yes, I lived through it. Yes, I have the scars inside from it.”

I have been thinking the last few days that a part of me remains in denial about really everything that happened to me as a child, all of the trauma, all of the horror. And because of that, I am sometimes not very realistic about what I plan to do. I know I need time on Sunday just to think some things through. But I will also think I can mark tests. I cannot. One evening, I will realize I need to be flexible and decide to spend time working with some emotions that have come up. Later, I will regret that I did not mop the floors—as if I have forgotten that that was a deliberate choice based on my priorities.

The telling was for that part. That part needed to hear me.

“Yes, it happened. All of it happened.”

Lately, I think I have been coming to grips with the idea that it all happened. It all happened to me—to just one person. There is a horror attached to multiple events and to a pattern of behaviour that is different from the horror of a single event. I am horrified that my father’s friends murdered a young girl. I am more horrified that I saw it. But I am horrified to the point of speechlessness that all of it happened: that I was sexually abused by my family, tortured, trafficked, forced to witness a murder, ritually abused, and subjected to mock executions.

I cannot cope with so much horror. It seems the world cannot cope with so much horror either, or at least it should not be able to. And so I find myself wishing everything would stop. I wish life would stop. I wish the world would cease to function. Because how can it function?

And yet it does.

In saying aloud that Natalya was murdered, that I saw it, that my father was an accessory if not a co-conspirator, I am allowing the world in some way to continue. I am saying, “This happened. It is over now, and we have come to a different place.” I don’t mean, “It is over and done with. We should all put it behind us now and forget.” I don’t mean that. I will always remember. The memories are etched into my mind as if they had been put into stone.

But while I told it, I was in the holy place, talking to my friend about Natalya. There were boys picking clover flowers, and wind washing over the growing green grass. There was a river swelling and rushing over the rocks. I was there and not in a hotel parking lot under the streetlights.

Now, Natalya is no longer being murdered. She has already been murdered. I have seen it, and grown up, and lived to tell the tale.

I have lived to tell it.

This also means that I have moved beyond it. I am someone these things happened to, but I am not those things that happened.

And I am in a different place also. The world has moved forward and I have also. I am here. Now.

And I did not break

The last two weeks, I have felt a pressure inside so great, it seemed like I would break. I think now it was the literal feeling of the body’s fragility. I think it was the sensation of a body breaking.

The rest of the memory came to me today. In my mind, I saw again how Natalya died.

They dragged her down the stairs, partly by the hair, partly shoving her, partly pulling. Three men. I don’t really know who these men were. They might have been men I knew. One of them could have been my father. Somehow, who it was didn’t seem important. Only what they were doing. What they were going to do.

She was screaming in Russian.

In the parking lot, they began to beat her. First, with fists, and then with something else. Pipes maybe. I don’t know. It was getting dark then. I couldn’t see. Her teeth began to scatter over the ground.

When she fell, they went on kicking her.

And then they raped her. All three of them. One by one. “Natalya! Natalya! Natalya!” Someone was holding my arm. I couldn’t go to her. I could only stand and watch.

My father cut out her eyes. I went then and held her, so broken. I kept on screaming.

We went in the hotel after that. My dad washed his hands. I took a shower. After that, he raped me.

In the car, driving home, I said I wouldn’t do this anymore. He could kill me the way he had Natalya. I didn’t care. But I wasn’t going to service anyone anymore. I would just lie there still if he tried to force me. No one wants that.

So then when we reached home, he hanged me, the way he used to when I was smaller. I didn’t struggle. I woke up again on my own bed later. In clean clothes. In the end, he did not let me die.

After school today, between laundry and circumambulating our holy site, I remembered this. It came easily, like a movie, but full of feeling and reality, although I can’t stay in this memory. It is too difficult.

But I know what happened now. I know and I did not break.

Lately, I have also felt a struggle inside to talk, as if there were things I must say. There is no one here to really talk to. I don’t know anyone all that well. The people I am close to are all too far away. Nonetheless, I felt that there were things I must say.

This is what I needed to say. That sense of struggle is gone now. I have told someone. I have told all of you. More importantly, I have told myself. I have told myself what happened and I did not break.

Murder

I saw Natalya die.

I didn’t realize this. I thought I had only learned about it later, but the memory came popping into my head last night, the way memories do. I was brushing my teeth.

I cannot remember it very well. The memory is there, and it is very vivid and clear, but whenever I think of it, I feel like screaming. It is too terrible to watch, and mentally I turn away. I don’t want to turn away, but I do.

I remember men dragging her down the concrete stairs of the Motel 6. And I remember her screaming.

I cannot remember very much after that. Only blood.

They cut her after she was dead, with knives. They cut her as if they were not merely trying to kill her, as if they were not only murderers, but as if they were butchers. Butchers of human beings.

In the mornings, when I have time or when I am able to make time, I go to the local holy site and walk around it. I walk around it and I chant and I think of Natalya. Natalya would have wanted to come here. Natalya wanted to travel. She wanted to see places.

Natalya, can you see this? Are you here?

Natalya, in the evenings, the boys make crowns of flowers out of clover blossoms. Can you see this?

Natalya, the children bow when they greet me. “Good morning, madam,” they say. “Good afternoon, madam.” Can you see this?

The old people have started to smile at me, like they know me. “Kora?” they say. And make a circular motion with one finger. Yes, I am going to Kora. I am going to walk in circles around it. That is what they are asking. And it seems to make them happy that I do this. Natalya, I made it. I grew up.

Natalya, why did only one of us survive?

Mourning Natalya

Yesterday, we had a school worship service. The whole process lasted the entire day—from before I arrived at 8 am until 5 pm, when important guests arrived for dinner. So I was at school for nearly 12 hours.

I’m starting to understand that what causes most of my difficulties now is that the childhood torture created an intense reactivity. And my reactions are also confused. I have strong, mixed, and sometimes mystifying thoughts and feelings about a lot of things. So arriving at calm and clarity takes work and effort. It also takes time.

Days like Saturday’s worship service mean hours of coping with non-stop confusion and reactivity. Before dinner had even begun, I felt so exhausted I wanted to cry.

We have a half day on Saturdays anyway. Sunday is the only full day off from school, and it’s difficult for me sometimes because there isn’t much time for me to make sense of myself or my experiences. It’s even more difficult when the days are extended for one reason or another—like Saturday’s worship service or a football match in the evenings. It means there isn’t enough time to rest and recharge before the onslaught of having to cope with the world again.

But at least I have this much.

I know the other volunteer teachers are using their Sundays to explore their new environments, to make friends, to have fun. I am just trying to manage and make sense of everything I have had to suppress or set aside to get through the week with some degree of functionality and sanity. I am beginning to be able to accept this as being my life, instead of wishing things to be other than how they are, or trying to pretend I do not need to do this and then having the consequences of denial catch up to me later, or even seeing this as a character flaw or a weakness that needs to be overcome.

One tiny piece of yesterday was a memory of Veronique. There is a teacher here in Country X with a voice something like hers, and speaking to her over tea yesterday brought the memory of her back to me.

Veronique’s name was not really Veronique. It was Natalya. I don’t know why I felt the need to give her my own special name. Maybe I wanted to claim her as my own in some way, or maybe Natalya was not really her name either, but the kind of name adopted by or given to sex trafficking victims like a brand name—something to make you exotic, appealing, sexy. Something to make you sell better. And so it did not make any difference.

But I remember two things about Natalya very clearly now: I loved her and she was murdered.

I read about her death in the paper. I think it was one of those notes on the back page: Mutilated body of unidentified white female found dumped in shallow water in City Y.

Maybe that wasn’t her. But I never saw her again after that. Other explanations for her disappearance are possible. Perhaps they moved her to another location. Maybe she was found by Immigration officers and returned to her home country. But at 12, when I read the two-line report about it in the newspaper. I was convinced they had murdered her. My reaction to someone’s voice over tea on Saturday is rooted in that conviction. Whether the conviction is correct or not.

Natalya was a victim of gross human rights violations. In all likelihood, she was deceived by mercenary human traffickers who promised her a job and a life of promise in the United States. Or maybe she was out-and-out kidnapped. But she did not come here to be a sex worker. No one does.

Once she arrived, however, she was sold to sex traffickers and remained at their mercy until they killed her. It’s not an unusual story really. It isn’t unusual, either, that her pimp forced her both to perform in pornography and to work the streets. I don’t think it was even unusual that she performed in pornography that featured sex acts between women and girls designed to be sold to a male audience. She wasn’t the only young woman I performed in pornography with.

But I don’t remember the others with any clarity. I remember Natalya. I remember her because she was kind. If you are forced to, in effect, rape a child on screen you can do it in a few different ways. You can do it harshly, because that child is even more vulnerable and powerless than you are and the child is someone to take your anger out on. You can do it in an entirely dissociated state, as if neither of you are there, because the horror of what you are doing and of what someone else wants you to do is too difficult to bear. Or you can do it with some concern for the child and her suffering, in spite of the fact that you are also suffering.

Natalya did it the third way.

I don’t know that we saw each other aside from our hours in front of the camera. I don’t recall whether we interacted in any other way aside from the sex acts we were forced to perform on each other. But touch can be immensely communicative, even if we did not actually speak and could not understand one another’s language. Natalya’s touch said, “I do not want to hurt you.” It said, “I care about what happens to you.” Above all, it said, “I understand you are there. You are real to me. You are not merely an empty shell of a bod that exists only to be used.”

I don’t think that is an easy attitude to have while you are being exploited in one of the most dehumanizing and humiliating ways possible. I think it is an extremely difficult one to maintain. But Natalya did that for me.

As a child, I don’t think I knew many people that decent or that humane. When she was murdered, it felt to me as if the last really good person had been snatched off the face of the earth. When I recall her now, I am overcome by an old sense of despair, as if there really is no one and nothing to live for any longer. It isn’t true, but feelings can be like a time capsule, letting us know exactly how we felt in the past.

I am getting better at coping with despair. I am beginning to be able to mop the floor while feeling there is nothing else to live for. I can make lunch while feeling that I cannot cope with life any longer and everything hurts too much. I am grateful for that. It means I can fully experience my feelings without having my life fall entirely apart. I can keep up a little at least.

At the same time, I want to make something good out of this. In a very literal sense, Natalya did not survive. I did. I think when you live through a horror that others do not, there is an internal pressure to live on their behalf. Natalya never made it out of the game, let alone to Country X, and there is a sense that I am here for her sake as well as my own and that experiencing my own freedom fully is the best way to allow her to be free as well.

* This post was written almost two weeks ago.