by Sophia Terazawa
2022 Fiction Contest Winner
Lỗ vốn creates a haunting world, full of poetry and mystery, as the different layers of a life are unwrapped in luminous prose.
—Chloe Aridjis, Author of Sea Monsters
Just before dawn, the painter woke to a persistent scratching of the mouse burrowed for winter in an air vent above her studio apartment kitchen. She cupped one ear with a hand, turning her face and then the entire body which felt to her like a glass jar of pins. The painter blinked and, for a moment, allowed this brief slip between clarity and dream: a fisheye view imagined from that hollowed space beneath her ceiling, the entire room awash with silver blues of November, an outline of the nervous creature shifting around in a single shade of graphite.
At 52 the painter was nearly blind in her remaining eye, having lost the other not long after losing her ability to walk a few steps forward without keeling over to the right. While the order of each eye going to her disease was interchangeable in memory, the painter kept stock of colors and every grain of their possibilities. Two versions of blue returned through the glass of her studio window, and this was Ljubljana at the turn of another decade.
In bed, she puckered her lips and felt cold air through the skin of her nostrils. Lingering there was peppermint. Outside seeped in. Inside was a city. Toward the foot of her bed on the windowsill sat a row of ceramic bowls, each alternatively filled with beans and copper coins. The only electronic screen around the studio was a frame that housed a series of digital photographs, none of them with people but figures of mountains and lakes. Draped across her rocking chair was a shawl; by her pillow, an untouched notebook belonging to a friend named Jožef. She struggled now to remember the date of her friend’s funeral, and in doing so, turned to lie on her back. Her mind drifted up once more toward that aerial view of a room through the perspective of a small animal trapped in the ceiling. Jožef.
Jožef, she murmured again. Despite the painter’s lingering vertigo, she remembered those nights of dancing in Palma to the new Kate Bush song about a hill. She also remembered Jožef and their narrow shoulders rolling and rolling at arm’s length apart, in sync, to the amber yellow light. There was smoke from cigarettes and the hours of rain. We were free, she imagined, full of time.
I lived with the painter for about three months before she died. In the evenings after running the daily wash and setting her cookware to soak, I shuffled through her later sketches and, if she was lucid enough, listened to each scroll of an artist’s life in Ljubljana so far away from home. Jožef, toward the end of one of those scrolls, held a mystery for me. I never knew my father, but an account of Jožef and his desires seemed close to it. Balding from a young age, Jožef first told the painter one morning over coffee across the club Palma, it was my decision.
How so, Jožef?
I needed form and clarity.
Jožef stopped to tap the sutured space above his ribcage; beneath his shirt, a highway of decisions led by a conviction to live without compromise. Even his sisters struggled to understand, including little Matija who looked down at her folded hands and mumbled something about tata and what tata, who was already gone to the mines, might think. Continuing: And not certainly the death of this body.
Most of Jožef’s novels started with such tactility, head to the wind, clean-shaven and earnestly bare, without gender. There was a gentle mercenary with a penchant for humming to Tchaikovsky as they slipped under gangrene in Mandelstam’s Black Earth, a cloud of spores, the Andes and four blonde climbers about to kill each other. The arc of these characters did not matter much, reasoned Jožef, for a tragedy was unnecessary, though his later works explored the collapse of concrete buildings and passing sirens, the people becoming less and less so apparent. His last two novels turned to the nameless city, and Jožef resisted where he could. None of the major protagonists had names. All were migrants just like his parents.
In daylight the painter noticed a large mole sprouting above each of Jožef’s eyebrows which also sprouted long tufts of hair which he, too, refused to pluck. This consequently made the young writer appear more like a badger. With every new boyfriend, Jožef quietly judged the number of them who commented on this peculiarity, and this was how the painter with one milky eye found kinship in Jožef. I’m a badger, said Jožef. Badger, meet badger, replied the painter extending her hand.
Jožef’s final novel continued to sit on the painter’s bedside table after I moved in. When she suffered from one of her dizzy spells, I massaged her feet through the compression socks, later standing to drape a heavy blanket across her chest. The painter’s hair had been cropped short, maintaining its black sheen until the very end. Her skin, a deep shade of magnolia wood, grew thick splotches across the tops of her hands and upper neck. The jowls on the painter’s face grew thick. One day, she patted beside her on the mattress and pointed toward a canvas that was propped against the wall by her bookcase.
Metka? said the painter. She had always dropped the t in my name, even in my memories as a child. Mé-ka. Her body was tired, but she wanted to try her hand at the brush one more time. Could I bring an easel? Yes, that one, Mé-ka. The painter was also my mother, but for the sake of telling a story before its immeasurable grief, I knew her only as Juno.
Sit with me, said Juno.
Your tea is here.
Mother and child, I imagined from outside our bodies, like two owls hooting over one another, their voices blending into a twin cadence and pitch. Outside the apartment was Cankarjeva Street, a golden linden tree swiftly dropping its leaves.
In what reality would a rose appear? Juno had fallen asleep again. Metka placed the half-filled mug on her windowsill. Buried in delirium, a labyrinth’s borders crawled with the foliage inexplicably red. Metka, she whispered. The painter was unable to hear the sound of her voice. Metka. An entire studio shrank into that feeling of a sonata or a memory of sonata.
Châu “Juno” Trương moved to the new city a day after turning nineteen. Her passage had been paid for, the student visa secure in her green pocket purse, an address to the university scribbled twice on separate pieces of paper in case she lost one of them. She’d arrive only for love, and the young painter from Hanoi was on the run.
When she looked at that face in her new passport photo, the earliest sign of milk in an eye was barely there glimmering up at her, but Juno ignored it. She had a wide nose, which jutted out suddenly like a spinning button on its end, and a low forehead, unconventional by appearance even to the north of a country where her family had lived for eight generations as jute harvesters. As a child, she recalled her mother often calling her an endearing term akin to the bottom of a lily pad. She was dark, too, especially between the webs of her fingers where the sun didn’t reach, yet as Juno observed her new home from the bus, the thought of light and shadow skimmed her mind. Instead, she lingered on the similarities between the countries. Here was a bicycle. A bench of two people concealed from above the shoulders by an umbrella.
At the time, the painter’s possessions included very little: three changes of clothing, a single pair of red shoes, a handheld mirror belonging to one of her older sisters, and an acceptance letter to the Academy of Fine Arts in Slovenia. She was the first of her country to ever set foot in these halls of Professor Marija Horvat.
Marija and Juno had started corresponding after meeting at the Hanoi College of Film and Performing Arts a few years before this. The young Vietnamese painter was featured in a small documentary by one of her peers, and it caught the attention of the visiting scholar.
Your paintings… started Marija in French.
Yes, answered Juno in her careful post-colonial dialect.
How long I have painted? Let me think.
Juno waved to her friends who were leaving the screening room. The art institution was just founded a year before in 1980. It started with a building, an abandoned hotel previously reserved for the French planners who had operated the city’s educational system like players on a chess board. There were rumors of an elite society invited into that space, though rumors stopped at art and the making of it. As a result, this new college had an air of sensibilities fraught with the kind of discomfort not immediately obvious to a non-Vietnamese audience. What the students produced, for instance, appeared as some homage to their predecessors of craft: a nouveau glance here, the buttoned tuxedo in a getaway car, references always, of course, to Paris, but there was something in this irony of imitation that never fully translated on screen; so the painter, referring to Picasso, avoided looking at the camera while mentioning his name, which was also mistakenly perceived by the visiting professor Marija Horvat to be an act of humility.
Have you considered training? More?
No, answered Juno with a polite smile.
Marija nodded and suggested they begin exchanging letters that summer.
Dear Marija, at the center of my dream, is a labyrinth… walls of kudzu inexplicably red. Before this, an outline of a rose… Let me sketch it for you, this rose.
Châu, many thanks for your letter… May I call you Juno? When I left Hanoi, you were strongly in my mind like the spiral turning and turning. Thank you for the rose. It clarified an image of the dream. I woke up before writing to you. Saying, Juno.
Did you know that your namesake was a consort of Jupiter, the archetype for warmth? That warmth stood for everything. Maybe goats led to slaughter by their shepherd.
Near the marble fountain in my city, I found an egg. Inside this egg was a total sum of possibilities. You were also in my dream.
Dear Marija, let me tell you about a museum in Đà Nẵng. Inside there are sculptures of our Cham people. One of them, I remember clearly. It is a stone altar from the early 11th century. Above the pedestal is another stone in the shape of a large cosmic egg. This stands on a cylindrical base. It is carved from limestone. Around the base is a motif of many swollen women’s breasts. To worship becomes an act of mothering.
Dear Juno, drinking a warm glass of milk. Cheers to you!
Marija felt an ice dart bloom to a hundred darts in her chest. The word repeated back was like a wink, or so she perceived in the careful slant of Juno’s handwritten cursive. Both women crossed a private language shared in correspondence. Marija thanked her eight years of textbook French and her bilingual desk thesaurus, while Juno, with one hand against the stone of a narrow bathing stall in Hanoi, emptied her mind. Water dripped from the bucket which emptied from a larger pail; the spigot in the wall, tapping and tapping. She thought of the egg in Ljubljana, a city of no image in her mind except maybe it was like Paris. Maybe.
Years later after deciding to share a flat, Juno would tell Marija of this second dream. You were like a lantern, Marija.
Is that so, love?
Yes. Yes, Marija.
Juno pushed the top of her head into the woman’s chest and folded up her knees. You were there, Marija. You were holding a giant egg, the egg of my people.
At the marble fountain, a heavy stone glistened with recent rain. When Marija found it on her way home from the market, she hesitated before struggling to lift the thing into her shopping bag. The brown egg felt like a dragon kicking around, and it reminded her of a river. When she dried the egg with a towel at home, she had a sudden recollection of the grotto she visited in Vietnam earlier that summer. A monument was there made of limestone. Upon the grooves were characters she couldn’t read, and no one was around to translate. Upon her mouth was the rush of air. I had to breathe, she wrote to Juno. I had to breathe, but I couldn’t breathe.
Sophia Terazawa is the author of WINTER PHOENIX (Deep Vellum, 2021) and the forthcoming ANON (Deep Vellum, TBD 2022/23), along with two chapbooks, I AM NOT A WAR (Essay Press, 2016) and CORRESPONDENT MEDLEY (Factory Hollow Press, 2019), winner of the 2018 Tomaž Šalamun Prize. Individual pieces appear widely in journals and magazines, such as, The Offing, New Delta Review, The Iowa Review, and The Rumpus. A graduate of the University of Arizona MFA program, Terazawa served as Poetry Editor for Sonora Review.