Many winters ago, my grandfather lived in Prague. He was a boy then and perhaps, like all boys, a little too apt to be pleased with himself.
On the way to school, my grandfather would pass blackened buildings. He would turn left at the old library and then continue past the little pond where a sad-eyed woman had often lingered, seeing past its stillness into a homeland where she had known love.
The women only lived now in stories his father would tell him on winter nights. But there was often a girl by the side of the pond, a very little girl, a girl whose stillness partook of the secretiveness of the pond.
Only the girl’s hands moved, dropping bits of bread into the pond. Whatever little reaction seemed to come from its depths evidently satisfied her. Or so my grandfather thought, observing the way her shoulders lifted after she had finished her ritual.
One day, my grandfather was more pleased with himself than usual. He was in the sort of jolly mood that resulted in his being scolded by one of the many adults in his neighborhood only too glad to act as a surrogate father to the one child they had high hopes for.
My grandfather crept to the girl’s side and watched as she stood rapt in her task. When she noticed him, she smiled at him shyly. It was then my grandfather pushed her into the pond.
Telling me the story, even in his last years, my grandfather would always wonder why the girl didn’t scream. Her pale face bobbing out of what must have been freezing water, she scrutinized him, puzzlement suffusing the delight that hadn’t yet left her face.
When my grandfather was eighteen, he went to war. This was not his courage. It was the courage of his family. My grandfather knew he had a destiny and that he had to make sacrifices that were not his to make.
A month after he came home, he fulfilled his father’s dreams by following in his footsteps to Columbia.
On their first night in New York, his father took him to see an orchestra. Maybe his father hoped that music would weave for the son he loved and resented a miniature of his homeland.
My grandfather would like to believe that when he looked up at the stage, his eyes fell instantly on the neat figure at the edge of the orchestra, a very little figure, a figure with the pathos of a raven mourning its last supper.
Be that as it may, when the orchestra fell silent, that figure picked up its organ and began to play. It played for less than a minute, perhaps much less, but in that short, beautiful infinity so much like a heart being pierced by a barbed love letter, my grandfather realized he knew what the world was all about. (That he almost instantly forgot what this was is another matter.)
On a hunch, my grandfather abandoned his father in the depths of a hotel armchair and raced back to the theater.
She was standing uncertainly outside. A waif with a plain, earnest face, the hands that held (oh how little they knew it, cruel, cruel hands) my grandfather’s heart tucked deep in a pullover.
“It’s you,” she said to him in delight, “the schoolboy in Prague.”
I don’t think it was caution that caused my grandfather to refrain from mentioning what had happened when they last met. I think he already knew that this woman’s reaction to even the fiercest fire would be bland incuriosity.
“Winter has followed us to New York,” he told her, “Is it frostbite you are courting?”
For a romantic man, my grandfather is decidedly unromantic. His first and last obeisance to Cupid would be gifting my grandmother her Cinderella moment – and a pair of sturdy boots.
Other than that, he gave her his silence. If my grandmother had been the noticing kind, she would have been overwrought by the depths of irritable affection brimming within the hour-long pauses of a man whose brawny hands were animated unbeknownst to either of them by the ancestral memory of a despairing hoe on a barren field.
It was for me that my grandfather saved up all his garrulity, all his reserves of lovely nonsense. I suppose he’d held onto it for so long that it spilled out the moment he saw me wailing in abject terror at the world I’d been exiled into.
His fondness terrified me. And then it became my anchor. He was my Joe Gargery. But I was no Pip. At five, I was already too large to hide behind my grandfather’s economic allotment of tobacco-redolent corduroy from the fierce love of my mother’s fists.
I was a big child. My largeness irritated my mother – it was the innermost, sweetest secret of a Matrushka doll she wanted to hold, not its outermost cover.
Every now and then, I would leave the warmth that cast such a large circle around the shrinking presence of my grandfather and wander forth to peer into the wrinkled tapestry that comprised the face of the living room’s other prisoner.
She puzzled me, this one, so much a suggestion of softness in her plain black dress. Mine was a family of impatient, angry women – the men didn’t count, woven into lifeless effigies like so many dead bookworms by the volumes in my father’s library – and she and I got the worst of their acid tongues.
Sometimes, when my grandfather was snoring away, his glasses falling off his nose, I would scream into the odd little woman’s ear. It never fazed her. She would examine me carefully and then nod in approval of some entirely mythical virtue in my rebellious person.
And then she would reach into the folds of her dress and bring out a very little thing – a lonely knight, an angry clay raven, or a tiny dictionary that translated German to Spanish. The woman would examine these treasures briefly before pressing them into my moist palm with a nod whose fierceness was very diverting.
As I grew older, I realized my father’s library was not the kingdom of Heaven. His love’s impotency was one with the frailty of the human nature he railed against from the pulpit of his overflowing worktable. Worse, my grandfather didn’t have all the answers.
I grew to anger. I think I scared my poor grandfather. My mother and my excess of aunts saw my innate surliness as something meriting surveillance – they reduced me to a subject who only gains coherence through continual observation.
That I could fashion my own narrative was something the woman reminded me of. I would sit by her side or rest my hot head on the frozen lake that was her lap. She would hold me there with pitiless softness till I was quite sedated. She drew out the thoughts that threatened to blow up my mind, looked over them blandly, and then dismissed them.
My grandmother died when I was fifteen.
My grandfather broke his heart traversing the confines of our genteel home in search of my grandmother’s precious silence. He died a week later.
I, too, left Prague for the chillier embraces of Columbia. The overwhelming female component of my family demurred at the thought of my being let loose on the denizens of New York, but, for once, my timorous father put his foot down.
In New York, I was happy; perhaps too happy. My mind realized my ungainly body was no confine for its airy invincibility. It bounded to and fro. Sometimes it came back, more often it didn’t.
I was driven from the graduate dorms in the Bronx to Columbia by a rotation of sullen drivers. That is, all but one of them was sullen. This man, about fifty, was possessed of a sunniness that annoyed me.
Until one day, somehow attuned to the dark cloud that settled increasingly on my frenetic mind, he decided to tell me about his life. He, too, was from Prague. He’d worked for Microsoft in his youth.
Those days, I didn’t talk to anyone. My mind was its own lover and such an exhilarating, if demanding, lover it was. But still, I made it a point to sit next to the driver from Prague, who more and more seemed to me a divinity spun out of rough cambric.
One day, after a week of sleepless nights, I had an epiphany. I turned to him in the van and said, “I suppose the best way to become a woman is not to try at all.” He kissed me then and I felt the wise tautness of his cheek against mine.
“Maybe,” he said, “But I think you should rest now, eh?”
Eventually, I was made to rest. I became part of a white world whose silence was not my grandmother’s embrace, but a cacophony that tortured me. My mother and an army of aunts came to see me. They were very gentle. Their gentleness hurt me.
I returned to Prague and let their anxious love become my prison. But I became my own prisoner instead and subjected myself to intense torture till, quite broken, I was ready to escape again.
Back in New York, I realized it had been divinity I’d seen in the driver from Prague. His gentleness, hard won, was the cross he’d held for the world. It was in those moments my grandmother held my head in her lap that I had been closest to God.
I was an exile still. I no longer needed to be. I worked hard on my interrupted graduate degree and, in my spare moments, wandered the streets of a New York the sun never seemed to reach, for a sweet silence to which I could submit my entire being.
I only found that silence when I stopped looking. Holding my daughter in my arms, her little face slyly humorous as it peeked up at mine with resignation (ah, this worried mother who is a prisoner of my wicked ways and all my scheming attempts to thwart Fate), I had no illusions. I was merely holding her, but it was she who kept me chained on the ground. And looking down at her, I felt all that troubled, urgent love that is sanity shatter my mind into a quiet happiness.
Adreyo Sen is pursuing his MFA at Southampton College.