photosUncle Larson

by Vanja Artak

The first funeral I ever attended was for a man I’d never met.

She cried when her brother called and told her. I just looked at her, not sure what was being said on the other end of the phone, but after that, still not speaking to me, she continued crying and I knew. I caught her tears with my hand resting in her lap. She bowed her head, and I told her, “Don’t pray, please,” but I knew she wouldn’t. A long silence followed between us.

The funeral was held in a big church, and I asked if Uncle Larson had even believed in God. She said she wasn’t sure, but she’d never imagined him a religious person.

Uncle Larson had died in Kenya from a sickness that had crept up on him, the repercussions of which would later shatter the lives of an entire family. They were all sitting in the church, lined up on the pews, the mosaics of different saints rising and arching above their heads. I looked at them for a while, but I didn’t know any of their names. I couldn’t tell Abraham from Aquinas.

I felt her press my hand as the casket floated past us, carried away by a handful of strength that I wasn’t part of. I stood up and watched the casket slide past me. It was like seeing a log float away on a river.

The only things I knew about Uncle Larson were from the concoctions of photographs, stories, and borrowed memories that floated in my head, and while I did my best to piece them all together, Uncle Larson remained a shred of fiction in my mind, and losing him seemed no different than finishing a poignant story.

I picked up a particular photo of Uncle Larson. His head was askew, his eyes leaning on their own light, blue and pale. It was taken in Kenya, and I realized that he had died a white man there, and I wondered if that had made any difference at all to him.

I picked up another photograph, and his face looked back at me with a fueled despair that saturated my emotions and left me blank. I cut my finger as I slid it along the edge of the photo. I dropped it, then hurried to pick it up before anyone noticed that I had stained the photo with my blood. I crammed it back into the pile of photos in the middle of the table, embarrassed.

Someone would without a doubt notice the blood, but no one would think it was mine, and the blood to them would only mean Uncle Larson, as blood now meant to me.

Long before Uncle Larson’s death, we had made it a habit of visiting this old house at the edge of our neighborhood. It had become a thing in my mind that I referred to it as the cabin, even though it in no way resembled one.

The house was all white and frail, buried deep in a fury of bushes, trees, and weed. It was like a cracked boulder, slowly slipping in the mud. And yet it stood there, night after night, even though the new owners were about to tear it down. It was always with the expectation of seeing nothing but a pile of debris and ruin that we visited, but it was always there, waiting for us; chalky and white, empty and mysterious.

The night after Larson’s funeral, we went to see the house. It was snowing and the pavement and streets were covered by undisturbed snow, and the only sound lingering was that of our footsteps and of an invisible rain. We held hands, fearing the house was gone, fearing that somehow Uncle Larson’s spirit had inspired its brick and mortar to finally come apart.

It was still there. The light layer of snow had covered its orange roof, making it look like a ghost in the distance.

She looked at it and hugged me, and for a minute I had my back towards the house and she was the only one to see it. She shook from the cold, moving up and down my body. I turned around, and she trudged into the garden, fighting the weeds and the snow, and I let her go for herself, and she disappeared in the shadows. I followed her, climbing the stairs to the terrace and the back door. We looked into the living room, at the covered furniture and the worn-out wallpaper, and she tried pulling at the door, a colorful madness surrounding her, but it was locked and she stepped back. On the terrace was a piece of dark, round wood, and when I asked her what it was, she pointed up and said, “It’s a piece of the wood there, hanging under the roof.” She took it and put it in her pocket. I smiled at her.

“How’s your finger?” she asked.

“My finger? It’s all right now,” I said.

“That’s nice,” she said, grabbing my hand. I felt the dry blood on the inside of my glove.

We climbed back down the stairs and out the front gate. There were some magazines on the ground, smothered with snow. Something had cost 99.95. It was too dark to see what it was.

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Vanja Artak is an astrophysicist fugitive from Yugoslavia. When confronted with the cynical fact that “Yugoslavia is dead. You can’t be from there.” he tells them, “Then how come Superman gets to say he’s from Krypton?”
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