What is it like to lose everything? Younis was first asked this question by a well-meaning development worker, a friendly young man whose specialty was working in war zones. They sat across from each other in cheap plastic chairs beside a bomb-scarred house that served temporarily as a hospital. Just for a chat, he had been told. Just to see if he needed help, to see if he could be helped.
“It must be so difficult,” said the man, whose face was serene, “to wake up one morning and see that life as you knew it has ended, that so much has been destroyed.”
Despite his youth, Younis sensed immediately that the man was trying to get him to do something dangerous. His first instinct was to play it off, to make a grim joke of it—the house was getting old anyway; destruction as a form of camouflage; at least now we don’t have to maintain the roof—anything to deflect the course of the inquiry.
But this would not do, he sensed, not with this man who sat across from him, this friendly man with his placid, expectant face. So how to answer?
Should he talk about his shaking hands, his trembling limbs, the ringing sound in his ear, his blurred vision? Should he describe his physical injuries, show him his wounds, the rudimentary stitches, now nearly ready to be removed, underneath the bandage on his forearm? Should he discuss the numerous times, after he fled into the mountains surrounding the village, that he stood at the cliff edge, wind rushing up into his face, and nearly felt himself take a step off, unconcerned whether he fell or flew?
Or should he talk about—and this was what he found to be the odd thing—the blessing of it? The surprise of finding himself alive, finding himself connected to life. Should he talk about the days after he ran into the mountains, about feeling surrounded, even in that barren place, by life? About the plants that seemed to vibrate with it? Butterflies and rock mice and ants and caterpillars and snow hare and everything he looked at, even the stones, seemed alive. On the mountain he once came face-to-face with a dark falcon riding low on the thermals, wind whooshing through his feathers, and felt one with him, felt peace, as though just by watching the great bird, just by following his example, he could stretch his arms and lift his feet from the ground.
Or should he say that the thing was now part of him, defined him, founded him, that he could no more describe its effect than he could describe being born?
What is it like to lose everything, they ask. The question takes various forms, and that day, sitting in plastic chairs beside a shattered house, he developed his one and only response. ”What is it like to lose everything?” asked the man, the stranger who was there to help.
And Younis fixed him with his pale green eyes and said, “What is it like not to?”
He has a memory, or thinks he does.
They are on the train, the old colonial line running alongside the river to the capital. He lies on the wooden, time-polished bench and rests his head in his mother’s lap. Thinking he is asleep, she has draped a loose muslin cloth over his head to cut the sunlight that flickers at them through the passing trees. They are going to meet someone, his father, he thinks. Every so often the wind puffs through the open windows and billows the soft cloth, startling him with a strobe of sunshine, like the bright end of a run-out movie reel.
On the station platform, they stand under a broad roof, which is supported by riveted metal beams, and the engine whistles out a last burst of steam. When the fog clears, a man stands as though he has been waiting since the station was built. He is dressed strangely, in Western clothes, jeans and a starched button-down shirt. His face is freshly shaven, and he carries a backpack made of rough canvas. He takes something from one of the pockets, a little square parcel, carefully wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine, and hands it to Younis’s mother, who tucks it quickly away into her shift. It is this he remembers, this package, this passing of something important between them. He has so many questions—Why is he dressed this way? Why has he shaved off his beard?—but when he turns back to ask, the man has gone, disappeared into the throng outside the station gates.
Other things must have happened. They may have stayed a time in the capital, he and his mother, lodging in a cousin’s whitewashed spare room near the bazaar. Maybe they bought figs and lamb for their supper, and sipped sweet tea purchased from a vendor’s cart. Perhaps, when they heard the call to prayer in the evening, they wandered over to the turreted mosque, washed their feet, and knelt down on the worn rugs. Surely at some point they took the train back home, up the river and into the low hills. But if they did any of these things, as they must have done, he can remember none of them.
And it is this that makes him suspicious, makes him wonder: Maybe it didn’t really happen. His inability to remember large parts of the experience makes him question all of it: the carefully wrapped parcel, the riveted beams on the platform, the clean-shaven man who should have worn a beard. Maybe it is all just something he heard about or read much later, his imagination filling in the details and making it his own, something he saw one time, something from a film.
He changes his name on the airplane. Somewhere over the Atlantic he assumes his new identity. The flight attendant hands out white-and-blue landing cards, and he borrows a ballpoint pen from the woman sitting next to him to write out his new name—J-O-N-A-S—in the space provided, right next to the space that gives his age: fifteen. Thus named and dated, he signs the card underneath the paragraph explaining that he waives all his legal rights by doing so—his right to counsel, his right to privacy, his right to oppose deportation. He suspects this will cause trouble; he does it anyway. At customs he will be interrogated for hours, kept in a white room with a veneer-top table and steel folding chairs until someone from the Friends International Assistance Society shows up to bail him out. Or later, at his new school, he will explain to anyone who asks—the math teacher, the English teacher, the assistant principal, the head principal—that legally his new name is a direct translation of his old name, even though he feels intuitively that this is not quite true. He knows that the law and the truth are rarely the same thing.
The plane’s motion nauseates him, and in an effort to relieve it, he looks out the Plexiglas oval at the blue void below, the gently curving skyline. Occasionally, he spots an island riding the dark sea, marked by a puff of white cumulus. In the plane, he finds it easy to imagine himself floating between two worlds, two existences, each of them true, but does not yet realize that this is a feeling that will never completely leave him.
The female flight attendant has been joined by a skinny, dark-haired man, and together they wheel the clanking metal food cart down the aisle, passing out foil-covered trays, plastic utensils, and plastic, foil-covered cups of distilled water. The action is polite and efficient. Jonas’s meal is chicken and some sort of yellowed rice, which he eats with a voraciousness that seems to embarrass his seatmate, an elderly woman with large eyes and an open face.
The airplane lavatory smells of disinfectant and dry air, and seems to aggravate the ringing in his right ear. A sign on the wall warns him that he may be fined three thousand dollars and sent to jail for damaging or disabling the smoke detector. The notion that a smoke detector might exist in the bathroom of an airplane, much less the impulse to damage or disable it, had not previously entered his mind, but now that it has, he wonders how punishment might be exacted, were he so inclined. He has fifty dollars in his pocket, and a small duffel of clothes in the hold, both of which have been given to him by the society, the combination of which constitutes the entirety of his worldly possessions.
Back in his seat, he looks again at his name, written in block capitals in the demarcated spaces on the landing card, and he underlines it with the borrowed pen. The woman, who is sitting on his left, near his good ear, has fallen asleep. He puts the pen down on the tray table and looks at the long, pale scar running up the dark skin on the back of his arm and under his rolled-up shirtsleeve.
“Where did you get that,” the woman beside him had asked.
“I fell off a mountain,” he had said.
He is beginning to feel claustrophobic in the sealed, pressurized tube. He is tall, constantly mistaken for being older than he is, and his knees knock into the back of the seat in front of him. He can’t get comfortable, can’t stretch out, and for a moment he fights off a wave of panic. He is surrounded by plastic and metal, which confine him to a predetermined form, a standard that does not comfortably fit him. He pushes his knees again into the back of the seat in front of him, and its occupant shifts, pushing back against him in a kind of warning.
Eventually, a bell dings, and he feels a sinking sensation in his stomach and legs as the plane begins its descent. He fights off another wave of nausea as he folds up his tray table and is told by two different flight attendants to incline his seat. He explains, in nearly panicky tones, that it is broken and that it will not incline, and after this explanation he is left alone.
The ground rises up to meet him, and he feels himself jolted forward, pushes himself into the back of his chair as the plane slows forcefully. When the plane turns from the runway, the gently rolling landscape scrolls past his window like a diorama. How lush, how green it looks! Ivy climbing the massive, broad-leafed trees, the atmosphere so thick with humidity that he can see it. And then before he realizes, the plane has rolled up to the gate, and there is a rush for the overhead luggage, and a wafting of heavy, wet air as the door is opened, and they are in the aisles, pushing forward, and he has trouble getting his feet underneath him, trips on a blanket someone has left on the floor, grabs a seat back for support, and it is happening so fast he can’t believe it, and he stumbles off the plane and into his new world.
The last time he saw his village he was five thousand feet above it.
Sometimes it comes back to him at a word, or a sound, or a scent, and he can see the faint trace of smoke rising toward him like a prayer. From this height he can see the village’s broken shell, its careful, jigsaw delineations—yards and orchards and streets—scratched and blurred like a sand castle set upon by a toddler.
Paul tells him that he tends to dissociate.
Jonas goes to see Paul once a week, as he has done since the high school became concerned that he might have been suffering from the results of something traumatic, something they couldn’t handle. They suggested that he go see Paul because Paul was someone who knew about these things. Paul had experience. Paul could help him.
Actually, it was slightly more than a suggestion. “We can get a court order,” they said, “but we prefer you go voluntarily.”
They have been meeting regularly ever since.
During these meetings, they talk about the state of his mental health, which Paul has called, on more than one occasion, “pretty good.” Paul has bushy hair and a goatee, and he looks a little bit like a young Karl Marx, an effect amplified by his tendency to explain things in the somewhat dry tones of an economics professor.
“Dissociation is a normal reaction,” says Paul. “It’s a defense mechanism. And given the circumstances, a certain amount of mental decompensation is probably also to be expected.” Paul doesn’t seem to understand that this is gibberish until that fact is pointed out to him, and when it is, he tries to make a simplified explanation.
“I know it can feel like touching a hot stove,” he says. “Your reflex is to pull your hand away. Your psyche is trying to stem the pain. But to deal with it, to get past it, eventually you are going to have to leave your hand on the stove awhile.”
On his desk, Paul has a little silver statue on a marble base. It has sort of a funny shape which is hard to describe, like a wave or an ellipse. Paul tells Jonas that this statue may be used as a focal point, a device to bring him back to the present. It doesn’t have to be the statue, he says. It could be anything: a candle, a piece of wood, a lamp, a ball or knickknack, anything, really, but he likes to use this statue because its shape is open to interpretation.
“You are here now,” says Paul. “The past is gone, done. Your memories can’t physically hurt you. But we need to explore them. We need to understand what happened.”
And then they talk.
Excerpted from The Book of Jonas, ©2012 Stephen Dau. Published by Blue Rider Press. March 2012.