Erbarme Dich…

Summer is cut off, like a slice of bread. You can no longer touch it or speak to it; there’s no point even trying. The neat rows of marigolds—happily yellow flowers, the edges of their petals black, mournful—are blooming in the school flowerbeds. It feels sad to walk up the stairs of the school, even sadder to catch its lingering smell of a floor cloth and dozens of shoes, of the canteen and the renovated classrooms, of dust. Blank notebooks bring on a melancholic mood. The closer you are to graduation, the stronger you believe that all those things are just pointless. Astronomy. Physics. Trigonometry. You put your head on the desk, your cheek pressed against a blank page, and you don’t even stir when the teacher says:

“Listen, Serhiy, I know that your head is heavy. But do try to pull it up from your desk and look at me, please.”

“I guess, I can do without your algebra.”

Actually, no one bothers me too much. Everyone knows I scribble some poetry. The teachers are curious about it as if it were some kind of entertainment. The classmates snigger at it. “Serhiy’s verse just gets worse,” Oleh loves to chant. He enjoys repeating that over and over. But I don’t take it personally. I’m used to reading my poems out loud, facing the grins of approval beneath the empty eyes. I often wonder if anyone needs it at all.

Yet, I win language and literature competitions and take part in poetry recitation contests. So, they leave me alone. I love monkeying around in chemistry class. I just stand up, bold-faced, and start walking up and down the aisles. When the teacher asks, taken aback, “What are you doing?”, I snap back, “Minding my own business.”

I can say whatever I want. Everything is forgiven. I’m an honour to my school. Who else, but me? Ha-ha.

I lie in my school essays. I lie in the competitions. They believe me, though, for I picked up this skill not on the street, but from school textbooks. I know how to write convincingly and keep using the same tricks again and again, but no one even notices that. Whenever I put something in my own words, they’d correct me, surprised. Whenever I read my own poems, they’d praise me, their eyes flat. Laying my head on the desk—last seat, last row, my cheek pressed against the blank page—I promise to myself that I’ll wear only grey and black to school.

Only the village makes me feel alive. By late September, my mom gets tired of acting like a good, caring mother. She gets sick of my gradebook and homework. She no longer cares if my clothes are ironed or makes me have breakfast. All in all, mom loosens the rains. Now I can do whatever I want.

At first, I do it on the sly, then with caution, and, finally, with a bold face. After school, I don’t go back home, but I walk through the meadow to the village. That’s where everything is. There’s no emptiness there. No doubts. I can speak, and my words are taken seriously.

In the evening, Oleh and I sit at the bus stop and talk about serious things. Katka joins us sometimes. She has to be back home by eleven, though. We just hang in there or we make up the fire and light up cigarettes off it, getting our faces burnt. The fire casts a golden glow against Oleh’s bike rims and the buttons on Katka’s jacket. It’s cold outside.

It becomes even colder after I walk Katka home. It feels uncomfortable to trudge through the village under the brooding canopies of trees, with the stars hanging low over your head. The cold village is perched on a hill, open to all. Even the nightfall is not able to shut the unwelcoming gates of the fall, to calm the dogs down, to shake the ever-present horror off the poplar trees or to melt the ice covering its branches. I feel scared walking home. Really scared. The door latch no longer tinkles, like in the summer, but shrieks. There’s no comfort at home, either, for the heating is not on yet. Damn between-the-seasons period. Damn September.

It was in September, too, that I bumped into a Bach CD at the secondhand clothing store where my mom worked. I wasn’t into classical music back then. No, it takes time to grow into it. I was just hanging in there, with a cigarette in hand, switching back and forth between the tracks on the CD player until I happened upon “Erbarme dich, mein Gott.”

It was a bright sunlit morning, pierced by the sounds of violins that took it higher and higher, though until that day I was pretty sure that a September morning is already sky-high. Getting on my feet, I was just standing there, also pierced by the violins, energy spreading out in wide circles from me, the entire world pulsing and melting with the leaves, the tears, the God-knows-what. I stood there frozen, in a state of complete stupor, realizing suddenly all the consequences, reasons, and fatal coincidences, all the phenomena, facts, and judgments, all the secrets and the unspoken words.

I lost that CD somewhere, but then, in ten years, I found that track again on the Internet.  The St. Matthew Passion oratorio. The aria “Erbarme dich, mein Gott”, for alto. It’ll stay with me forever. I’ve heard it performed countless times, in all possible styles, old and new. On a fall morning, I’d stand by the window, a cup of coffee and a cigarette in hand, and play it. The violins would pierce the morning just like they did on that September school day. The performer’s voice would envelop me in velvet. But never again have I experienced that sudden, fatal realization of all phenomena and facts, of all consequences and reasons.

No matter how many times I returned to that place where the black edges of marigold petals had smelled of mourning, where the snippets of my poems had been recited, where I’d walked up and down the aisles in the chemistry class, where the bike rim had shimmered by the fire glow, where my shadow had been frozen forever by the bus stop—the dark waters of the fall had never parted so I could cross them over.

Have mercy, my God, for the sake of my tears! See here, before you, heart and eyes weep bitterly. September weeps, too, for all that we lost, for all that won’t come back, ever, no matter how loud we’d call after it. For that deep well of the fall, whose bottom no golden bucket would ever reach.

Serhiy Osoka

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