Marcela pinched the corner of the afghan as if to fold it, lay it atop the bed, and leave the room. It was morning, which meant it was time for something. She thought a while, dumbfounded again at the misery of forgetting. Whatever it was involved plates and knives, and those white things her husband — he was a priest (his beard reminded her of that) — kept in the refrigerator. She let the afghan fall from her hands and sat back down on the bed. She was tired. Whatever pills they gave her made her tired, as if she’d been swimming all afternoon and gotten too much sun. In such times when the present eluded her, the give and take of a day at the rectory, the prayers, she remembered her childhood in Slovakia. It was called Czechoslovakia then, the Soviets were in charge, and there was a river that abutted the village in which she lived. Her husband’s father had been a priest too, and also had a beard. His name was Slava; Slava meant truth. And truth — like God — was something to believe in.
One believed in the Soviets because one had to. One read the Communist newspaper because there were no others, and one drank the vodka and plum brandy on Christmas Eve because that’s simply what was done. But for Marcela now there was no simple. Everything she did meant making sure the steps were taken one by one. The folding of the afghan in the morning was a complex task, and brushing her teeth, and wondering where her husband was, which always came later. He was always up first, always doing things away from her: the homily for Saturday night and Sunday morning, the Scripture, the wine. He was studying or reading, preparing for a funeral, a wedding, or visiting a parishioner in the hospital. The priest had a name, her husband had a name, but it wasn’t Slava; it was something different, something she never would’ve forgotten were she well. It started with an M, a word like Miracle, a name like hers. She was Marcela, and Marcela the girl in Czechoslovakia had been blonde and beautiful. The picture albums told her that.
The albums were her refuge. They pointed out to her the way things used to be, which to others were the way things are. There had been no other men except Miron, for that was his name. One man, one river rolling warmly through the village. One mother, one father, one pair of light eyes looking back at her from the mirror. The albums told her they were part of her, and mattered as much as the sunlight that came through the rectory’s small windows. That sunlight, she knew, was the same that danced upon her grandfather’s plum trees, the same that filtered through her bedroom window when she was seven and deciphering certain passages in her Prayer Book. The sunlight a constant: it had been there, was there, and would be there through everything — the illness that made her forget, the rituals of religion she gazed at from a distance, her husband’s moods. He was her husband, and seemed to be in charge of things. People came to him. People asked questions, old women and men, and when he worked he looked serene. Priests mattered, she knew. A priest was a man people trusted. She trusted him when he called it an illness of the brain and not of the soul.
Marcela worried about her soul. She knew the body was one thing and the soul another, but in certain moments they became one: when she held the squirming grandchild on her lap, when her hand clutched the spoon to stir the soup, when she rose from her pew to take Holy Communion from her husband. He was her husband and the priest, and at times she wondered how he could be both. They called him “Father,” but he wasn’t her father, not his father. How time upends things, she thought, how time — such a strange parade of variations and nuisances and loss — twirls into absence. He drank coffee after Liturgy and shook hands while she shrunk away into her desolation where memory reigned: it was called Czechoslovakia back then and in the river small fish urged themselves forward. They had somewhere to go, some square of shade to attain, this rock or that rock their shelters, and she watched them. The current didn’t move her. She was young and strong and she moved it without trying. And now she had to try — she had to think — to do the simplest things: cooking, arranging her husband’s special clothes, the long gowns, the caps, the accoutrements of the Catholic faith. Her soul resided in those things, and in them it was able to remember even if her brain could not.
Marcela’s brain remained in that far-off place called Czechoslovakia. That’s what it was called. That’s where the river was that flooded in the springtime, and that’s where the lovely old men with lined faces strolled sullenly through the streets. That’s where time was, and she lived those hours of girlhood again and again in dim rooms in a rectory in Ohio. The rooms were growing dimmer, she thought, and would dim even more until they lost their meaning forever.
Carl Boon is the author of the full-length collection Places & Names: Poems (The Nasiona Press, 2019). His writing has appeared in many journals and magazines, including Prairie Schooner, Posit, and Washington Square Review. He received his Ph.D. in Twentieth-Century American Literature from Ohio University in 2007, and currently lives in Izmir, Turkey, where he teaches courses in American literature at Dokuz Eylül University.