Onyx Publications
  • The Light Body

    Written By: T. Vojnovski

    © 2021 by T. Vojnovski

It’s women who come to me, mostly. Men don’t carry much: just their mamas, a treasured old grudge, and a couple of girls. The girls never age. You’d be shocked how many guys are walking around with 15-year-olds. And they’re not sitting on some shelf, either—these girls weigh on them.

Still, it’s nothing compared to us. We’ve got eighteen copies of our mothers by the time we’re twenty, the sins of our no-good uncles, even our husband’s mother, for the ones silly enough to marry. After the economy crashed, I saw girls hobbled by whole houses, families so wretched I couldn’t tell who was still alive. 

Then there are the normal things: lost pets, ancestors, sweating men in cars, whole frozen landscapes. One girl back home in Tetovo had a whole pond, drowned sister still at the bottom. 

We carry everything. Ma used to say, it’s bitches who pull the sled

 

During lockdown, we all bled: the landlords, the gelato man with his icy sludge, and the sad gondoliers who drifted all season, barely dipping a paddle. I followed the locals back over the neighborhood bridges and harassed them till they let me into their yards. I only had a split second to grab them before they slammed their gates.

Signora, that man is draining your energy. Let me take him off your back.” Or “A quick spell, amico, for some peace from that lady.”

And they’d turn and hiss through their masks, “How did you know?”

“I’m an energy healer.”

That’s what I tell them: everyone’s heard of energy and auras. Everyone thinks they walk around in rings of colored light.

When the quarantine was lifted, masked tourists came flooding back into the square, ready to touch and be touched, and waving piles of money for it. That was when business got good.  My flatmate Rui and I had signed our lease in high season, when the cruises dumped their passengers onto the Piazza San Marco like a plague of shiny lice.

I can’t explain what I really see, and it’s not my bad Italian. Even at home I couldn’t—not even to my Ma, who was a saint, or my brother Lash, who wasn’t.

There are no such things as auras. Or if there are, I don’t see them. Here’s what I do see: a crowd. Imagine you laid out a bedsheet on the floor and piled everything that bothers you on it. I’m talking old loves, pets, even parts of places. Then imagine you tie the sheet around your waist and drag it all with you, everywhere you go. That’s what we do: drag around a whole attic of people and things. Even babies have sweet little napkins wrapped around their waists. They start out empty, and then they fill up: a pet bunny here, a bad mark there. The collection keeps growing as long as you live, like your nose.

Stupid womanwhat are these people made of? You’ll ask me, and that I can’t tell you. They feel like flesh when I work on them: the people have skin and clothes, the pets’ fur—everything feels as it does in the world.

That’s ridiculous, you’ll say. I’m alone, there’s no one else.

All I can say is: come see me. I don’t lay hands on anyone, but when I work, you’d swear I did. One lady I saw during the quarantine kept whipping around to catch me, but I was always the full two meters off. When I finished, she shook herself and raved: stupendous, incredible, never better.

 

I come from a family of smiths; I’m the only seer. Daddy used to joke that my real father was somewhere in Romania, reading palms and stealing silver. If he was drinking, he’d kick Ma’s chair when he said it. I don’t know when she would have found the time. She was always at Daddy’s side, poking up the fire as he pounded out pots and kettles.

I never said what I saw. But I worked on them, especially Ma. She carried a lady with my eyes and a full purse who just stared at me when I shouted. I thought her ears didn’t work. 

“Mother of my mother’s mother! Give it here.” I had to pry the bag out of her hands and rub the tarnish off her coins. 

  Afterwards, Ma walked easier; her knees stopped hurting. That was how I learned to heal. It’s mostly dusting—I might as well work in a museum.

 

We work in our flat, Rui and I. It isn’t much: two doors connected by the mildewy soggiorno, our tiny living room, and a tinier kitchen, a bathroom, and a box for each of our beds, with blinds that slap in the wind.

My family’s dead, and hers might be. Neither of us bothers with friends: just work, sleep, and back to work. She’s a healer, too, but with massage. She plays rain sounds all day that make the house feel like a forest instead of just damp. 

  Rui carries beautiful things: gold statues, a wooden house full of children. She never asks me to work on her, but when she nods off over dinner, I dust her house and wipe the children’s faces. I liked her right away. From the first night, we were boiling ravioli and complaining about our clients. 

We were hanging one of my velvets over a stain on the wall when she said, “I think Gypsy people have gift.”

The air drained from the room. I’d heard that word a thousand times, but from Italians. I didn’t want to tell her; I wanted to keep eating pasta and laughing about the stuck-up locals. But I felt Ma and Daddy close at my heels. For their sake, for Lash’s even, I said, “Gypsy isn’t such a nice word.” 

Her side of the velvet dropped like a shot animal. She turned to me, eyes wide. “I’m sorry.” 

  I shrugged, but I was glad. “Clients say it.”

“What you say instead?”

“Roma.” We picked up the ends of the velvet again.

“Like the city.” She drove the tack into the wall. 

  “You have Roma people in China?”

“I’m Thai.” Her cheeks turned red and slapped-looking.

“Now it’s my turn to be sorry.”

We laughed. Then we divided up the puffy squares in the pot, cutting the last exactly in half.

 

I can make you lose weight, I joke, and my clients laugh. Everyone wants to lose weight. Even my new client, who’s already thin. And expensive, with a high forehead and a blouse she must have ironed for a week. I can’t tell if she’s old or young: her eyes are tacked in place, but the skin on her neck is loose. She’s hiding the rest of her face under a satin mask that looks like half a bra. 

Her crowd is organized into rows, all lined up for the opera, or school. Even her cloth is silky and tied in a sash. I reach for my own bulky knot, coarse as it comes. Peasant cloth. We can’t change: we’re made of what we’re made of.

“You rent this space?” She looks around, eyes sharp and alert. Recognizing it. It’s the kind of place she’d be in if she hadn’t earned those clothes, that trick face.

I shrug, not going along with her, not telling her off. “Close your eyes for me.” 

She does, setting her bag in her lap. As if I was interested. I step into the crowd she’s carrying and get right up in the faces. They’re packed tighter than passengers on a vaporetto in high season. A normal high season. The one right on her heels is a girl, her body barely lived in. Narrow and long, brown hair varnished like a good table. Heavy, when I lift her. 

“Interesting.” Everyone wants to hear that. I glance at the woman. Her eyes twitch but don’t open.

  This girl is an old self. Women always have a couple: bodies before they were ruined, faces that haven’t paid yet for laughing. But this lady has enough to fill the room. And a bunch of scrawny girls—schoolmates probably, or cousins—in dresses so cheap the fabric creaks. A brown dog with silky ears. The usual grandparents. A smiling woman at a chalkboard: a teacher.

I snort. She wouldn’t smile like that if she were my teacher. Teachers never like us. Miss always gave me 50 percent, even when I had the same answers as the girl who was always first in class. Miss wouldn’t shake Ma’s hand at the roditelska, parent night. She told Ma in front of everyone that I was clean enough and might get work someday, mopping floors in some restaurant. 

 

Ma spat on the ground when she got home. Don’t go back, she told me, but I did, for a couple years. 

I’m going through some old man’s pockets, looking for clues, when I feel the snag.

Lash is shoving someone, a young guy this lady is carrying.

He elbow-checks him, knocking him off his feet. It’s an old move; he always started his fights like that.

I stare at them as they scuffle. This is impossible: they can’t see each other; they’re not made of anything at all.

Most just stand still and let me clean them. A few dance, a few babies crawl — if they were copied that way.

I remember how Lash fought, but that’s not the copy I carry. I have a kind one; he tilts back in his chair, hair just ruffled by Ma or me. But he’s standing now, the chair knocked flat.

I glance at the lady. She must feel it. They’re crashing into the others, snagging our cloths.

She passes her hand over her eyes, like something hurts. “What’s happening?”

“Some rough energy.” 

Imagine all the things in your room started floating, like they do in space. That’s the kind of rule Lash is breaking. And it’s not even Lash, just my copy of him. My copy of him fighting a copy of this guy he wants to kill. It’s impossible; the world doesn’t work this way.

I pull them apart, but Lash keeps shouting. He’s not making a sound, of course, but I can see his throat rattling.

The lady peeks at me. “Who is it?”

I scratch my chin. I always make the client speak first. And second.

“Who’s haunting me?”

I look at her guy, standing behind the girls like a coward. Lash is on the edge of my cloth, smiling now, sweet-talking. Before a fight, his voice always got low and syrupy, like he was coaxing a girl: Come and take it like your mother did. You know you want it. He was right—they always did.

 

“It’s a man,” I say finally. “A brother, maybe?” He has to be; they have the same flute for a nose.

She gapes at me and starts talking. They all do. “He—was in some trouble.”

Brothers always were. Lash was no different. He worked a little, shouted at Ma, and got sentimental after a bottle of rakija. When we slept out in the yard, he wailed folk songs along with the radio, and his hammock shook with him as he wept. 

Sometimes he didn’t come home at all, and Ma had to yell at him the next day while I stared at whatever lady he was carrying. My favorite wore a blue slip and let me comb out her soft black hair. I named her Elizabeth, because she looked like a queen. He must have really loved her, because she was heavy. 

Lash’s teeth were always hurting, but he wouldn’t go to the stomatolog or saw between them with thread like Miss showed us. Instead, he carried a packet of needles to jab into his gums. I could tell his mood by the one he chose: fine when he was pleased; thick when he was cranky, ready for a fight. 

He let me watch, sighing when he was done and swishing rakijia around his mouth.

“Fuck, that burns.”

  It was a man’s job, like hammering out a dzezve, a Turkish coffee pot, for patching. I’d watched him do it a thousand times, in thick gloves that snuffed the sparks. I loved to watch the red hearts of the pots glow in his grip.

One night he came home, stumbling and smelling sick. I was still awake, working through my mother’s ancestors as she slept. By then, everyone knew I had the touch. 

“Never mind that, Fen, come here.”

He showed me the knot on his gums: I was to punch him and knock out the pointy dog’s tooth. It was nothing, he said; it was already loose.

I balled up my first and ran at him, but I couldn’t keep my fingers clenched. He shoved me, making me trip, and began to insult me. “Bitch, kurva.” Whore. “You can’t heal anyone.”

For that I found the strength, such strength I never knew I had. It ran through my arm, liquid and metal. I connected, knuckle exploding that spongy red bubble.

Lash spat out the tooth, laughing already. 

He carried me for a few days while my hand healed, but it was a smaller me, a few years behind. 

 

 The lady’s Italian is breaking. She’s not from here. She’s from somewhere east, like me: somewhere poor. 

“Does Macedonia mean anything to you?” I’m careful; I say it the Italian way, with the ch at the center. Just a word I’ve fished up from the spirit world. Not home.

She sits up as if I’d shocked her. Her eyes fix on the velvet covering the wall as if there’s a message hidden in it.

“I see a death,” I add. Death, sure. But I see everything else, too: the high forehead, the accent. She’s Albanian, Kosovar maybe. Her brother was one of the boys who came into our selo, our village, to gun us down. We weren’t who they were looking for, but we were easy to find. We made enough noise, with our yard full of metal. 

She gives up on my velvet and looks me over. “Where you from?”

 

“Napoli.” 

I’ve been to Naples once. I liked the crowds and dark faces and the families living all over their porches, laundry right out for you to see. Everyone up in each other’s sweat, everyone carrying a million people. Neapolitans remind me of my family, the way we fought with each other. With the neighbors when they tried to cheat us. 

I let her watch me for awhile. Then she asks the question they all ask: “What does he want?”

The truth is, he doesn’t want anything at all. The people we carry aren’t ghosts. They’re us—our own headaches with different names and faces. But nobody wants to hear that about brother Frank or ex-lover Rodica. They want to hear that burning his clothes will quiet his spirit, that garlic planted under the window will stop her draining the soul. They want work. And if she’s brought a thick enough wallet, I’ll keep her busy for a year.

She’s confessing to me. I wish Lash could see—the real Lash—because these times I really do act like a whore. I soften my eyes; I make sounds in my throat. I put my hand on the client’s for a minute, like I want to lift her sad, hard life right off her. 

“If he went out, he was drinking, and if he was drinking, he was fighting. At night Mama and I pushed the kitchen table across the door to keep him in.”

“It’s normal.” Daddy was always paying out bribes to the family of some guy Lash knocked down. Some girl, sometimes. 

When she tells me how her brother broke down the door, I nod. When she tells me how he got drunk and left with a friend’s gun, I keep nodding. When she tells me which way he and his friends went and what year it was, I lift my hand off hers so quick she forgets it was ever there. 

 

That summer was twenty years ago: she must have been a girl, like I was. I look from her face to her brother’s and back. I know him. I saw him that day when I ran out to the yard to see who Lash was tangling with. If her brother cared enough about her to carry her, I might have seen her that day, too. 

But they were boys, and selfish, so they carried almost no one. I was the only witness. I watched Lash wriggle free and grab a pot from the forge that had just started to wobble and redden. And in a swift, beautiful move, he ran up on that brother and clanged him on the head. I’ll never forget the smell: like fat in a pan. 

“He hurt someone, I’m sure of it.” Her fingers stroke the table, shaking. 

I say nothing. Her brother had screamed like a cat: she needn’t think he’d picked us off that easy.

“Killed someone.”

His scalp was still whistling when he got hold of his gun and opened the red center of Lash’s head. 

I nod again. She’s silent for a long minute. I watch her brother spit and scratch his head. His scalp is whole: she doesn’t know what happened. She must never have seen him again after he left. 

“What can I do?” Her hand is open, fingers twitching like an animal waiting to die. 

I don’t answer. If she’s serious, she’ll ask twice.

 

I used to be a fool; I used to swallow everything. There was a girl at school, Vi, who used to ask me to play. The other girls were happy to let me twirl my end of the jump rope forever, but Vi always said, “And now Fen,” and I’d leap in and show off. I didn’t know any better. I could really jump; I did turbofolk moves so fast even the snotty girls would clap and say Brava. Vi was clean, so clean I learned new ways of being clean from her: her knees, under her nails, even her school desk—she touched it up with the pink guma at the end of her pencil.

None of us were carrying much then: short capes with a pet or a hazy, smiling baba. But Vi had a full cloth, the size of a grown woman’s. She dragged her mother on it—a big, pushy tiskachka Vi could never jump high enough to shake. 

On her birthday, Vi stopped at my desk. “My father’s taking us for a picnic tomorrow. Will you come, Fen?”

Ma sucked her teeth when I repeated the invitation. “Did she ask you twice?”

“Twice?”

“If not, she’s making a joke of you.” 

Vi didn’t ask again. But I thought I saw her looking back for me as they headed up the mountain.

I carried her for a while, light and delicate as ceramic. She rang like a bell when I dusted her. 

 

“What can I do?” the lady repeats. 

 She does mean it. She doesn’t just want to light a candle in the duomo and run off. She wants a project. Some are like that; most forget me until the next time they feel heavy and sad. She’s got an easy life, of course. Except for running or hot yoga or some miserable diet. Rich women like to suffer; it’s an adventure for them. She’s been here two hours, and she’s on my nerves, so it’s going to cost her. The people who really need me are the ones who can’t afford me. Who chase off their ghosts with chicken bones and never heard the word aura in their lives. 

“Let me step back into your aura.” Before I get rid of her, I want to see if the world is working again. And if it’s not, I want to set Lash on her brother one last time. 

He’s ready: he lunges onto her slippery tarp and cracks the brother on the knees. They fall, and Lash straddles him, like he did in the yard. They might be making love, until Lash starts throwing punches.

I see the lady wince, but I keep my eyes on them. Her brother elbows and claws, trying to roll away. Lash fumbles around for his mitts. I don’t carry a forge, but I know what he’s doing: feeling for the heat. For the half-melted pot that’s not there.

The brother gets to his feet. He’s sweating, but his gun is still on his shoulder. I step back before he can reach for it.

When I speak, my voice is polished and hard as a river stone.

“You want to finish his business, I’ll tell you where to go.” I stare at the space above her head, picturing our yard, grown over with weeds. She’ll have to start in Skopje, get a car. Easy for her.

“When you find the forge, fall to your knees and kiss the earth. Dig some scrap metal from the ash.” I eye her clean fingernails and try to think of something worse, something dirty. 

“Draw blood and mix it with the ash. Do it morning, noon, and night for three days. Your burden will get lighter.” 

I put the directions in an envelope, like a prescription. “Call when it’s done.”

           Her forehead smooths, and the skin around her eyes relaxes. She’ll do it. She knows how to pay a debt with her body. 

 

Rui and I are watching a movie on our tiny couch when my phone rings. Only our arms touch: no legs, not even the flab that’s climbing onto our waists now that we’re eating gelato again.

I curse, as if I’m absorbed by the car chase. 

“I’ve done it.” No hello, like a person in a movie. No Is it you? She might have the wrong number; I might be anyone. But I know her voice, so I congratulate her. She tells me she feels lighter, much lighter, as if she’d bled out hot lead. 

“I felt it. That boy’s brains there on the grass. And a woman.”

This cheap bitch, tacking more people on. She’ll want free advice for them, too.

“What woman?”

“I don’t know, but her perfume smelled like roses.” 

I glance at Ma. She’s standing with her mother’s mother, looking down at the floor like she can see through it. My uncle used to bring her rosewater on his way through Bulgaria. She’d have taken a whole bath in it, if she could. 

“She was by my side, I’m sure of it.”

Rui stands, shaking the blanket into a slippery rectangle. Something mean travels through me with the draft. If this lady wants more work, let her have it. Let her press that wax forehead into the ground and plead with Ma’s dust. 

“You’re not with someone, are you? Some man?”

“No, my husband thinks I’m with my sister.”

“Good. You need to be cleansed for this.” I try not to snort. She’s eating it up. “Tomorrow, go at dawn to the church at — selo. I’m seeing a grave there, the lady’s name —.” 

She reads the details back to me, Ma’s name a raw whistle in her mouth. 

“Press your lips to the name. If you feel her release you, you’re done.” 

I make my way down the hall, past the soft rain sounds at Rui’s door.

 

In the morning, I can tell she’s done it. Ma and Lash are lighter already: not smaller, but lighter. Like pots heated and beaten out thin. 

But how, you say, when they’re just copies, when they’re not made of anything at all?  I told you before, I can’t explain it. It’s not a science. I can’t measure any of it. I can’t tell you how many grams they lost. Or how that kiss, that blood, got to us. Or how we knew it was ours.