The Accident of the Jars
This is a rib of Our Lord Jesus, and this is his left center toe. The rib is wrapped in a fine piece of purple silk and tucked into a beautifully inlaid wooden box. We’ve never seen it but we all know it’s there. But the toe is in plain view for the pilgrims. It’s a shriveled bit that looks like it was snapped off an old knob of ginger. Come to think of it there’s no toenail, and presumably Our Lord Jesus had toenails if he was made into human form. But the most suspect part of the middle toe of the left foot of Jesus being here has nothing to do with the toe but with here. Here is not the middle of nowhere. In fact it is the middle of everywhere, and as well worn as a hallway mat, as border crossings often are. The rows of cars line up on either side and bake in the hot sun waiting to be allowed to pass, while lackadaisical border guards occasionally wave this car or that aside for a cursory inspection. No narcotics, no adults in the trunk. No middle toes of Our Lord Jesus, no hash, no agricultural products, no livestock, no money in excess of an impossibly high amount. Dogs trained to be fierce bare their teeth on their own time, and mostly bask on the hot concrete.
The Chapel of the Toe—even the priests call it that now, having forgotten which saint it was named after to begin with—is close enough to the border station that its walls are always insulated with dust and exhaust. Any meditation there occurs in synchronicity with the horns and rumble of the slowly passing traffic. It’s sixty years old, which makes it the oldest structure I know of in this whole region.
When I stole the left center toe of Jesus it rocketed me to near-stardom along my closely knit circle of friends,
Jar #1: Our Lord’s Toe
but when I took out the toe months ago in an occasional perusal of my box of jars, I realized the names of those friends had slowly faded, and since I last checked, I’d lost half of them. There was Marguerite, who I nursed a crush over for all of high school, but Marguerite what? What was her last name? And Donatello’s sister and I swore during long petting sessions in other people’s backseats that we’d be together forever. It took me three days before I remembered which song she’d insisted we listen to, over and over, while we parked. “Rich Girl,” I said aloud in the jam aisle of the grocery store, “Hall & Oates.”
As an additional perk of his job hot-wiring cars, Donatello learned to pick locks as well. The agreement was that he would stay sober enough for one night to break into the chapel for me and never tell anyone how I got in. This was in exchange for a blowjob once we got inside and got the toe. I wasn’t excited about touching either knob of flesh, but I knew how legendary this stunt would make me. I got the toe in my pocket before Donatello - who was so high that, despite our agreement, he’d never get half as hard as Our Lord’s Toe anyway - started seeing flying bat demons with lurid lemon yellow eyes, and ran screaming from the church. By the time he remembered the deal we’d made and decided to collect on the debt, I had my first lover, who beat Donatello up soundly, apologizing as he did so.
My first lover was a hawk. His feathers spread in blue black tattoos over the ridge of his spine and flung themselves outwards, tight over his wing muscles. They wound down over his thin arms, his biceps knotted into tight cords as he held himself over me. Everywhere that I was round he was a straight line. We collided, bounced off each other.
He said, “You’ll leave here,” and I agreed.
Going to school was a daily emigration. Wake up early, lunch packed, long wait in the foot traffic line at the border, and two foreign busses brought me there, to study their history and read their books. At first the transit there was the least of my worries. But then drugs started filtering through the border like sand through open fingers, and the elaborate rituals of drug-sniffing dogs made the wait longer and longer. The whitest kids at school asked if I had to run, jump, or swim this morning. They asked this every day. But the border was only insurmountable once I reached the school. I skipped whenever possible.
He said, “No, you’ll leave here for real. You’ll live so far from here you won’t remember any of it.” I didn’t answer and he reached down to untangle a feather from the spiny tumbleweed by the muddy river where we sat.
Jar #7:His feather
He was only half right. I was promoted from a summer job carrying boxes to one running errands and mixing paint. This in turn became a summer job as a painting assistant, which became a real job designing sets. By the time the theatre group had its big break and went on tour I was a fixture there, and they took me along. West Berlin was the last point on the tour and the farthest point from home. The theatre owners weren’t fickle; it was enough to claim international status anywhere. They were lured by mouth-watering amounts of public arts funding. The actors were satisfied enough with nightclubs that opened at the same hour the ones back home closed. On closing night the perpetually hung-over cast sipped more Sekt as they scraped off the last of their face paint and started packing up. I’d been sliding out quietly each morning and climbing stairs until I found a fourth floor walkup for less than a hundred a month. I took my suitcase there while they boarded a plane home.
In Berlin I am an alien in a city full of aliens. The people from here don’t recognize their neighborhoods. The ones who stay stay as travelers.
I’ve never spent so much time thinking about where I’m from as I do here.
My building is nestled in a tall tightly-packed row of flats built decades ago for “guest workers,” who’d been invited with less than a warm welcome and expected to return home as soon as possible. Their children and grandchildren still lived here. I am learning Turkish, not only because it’s more useful to me on this edge of the city than German is, but because the Turks I know love their language. I went to a talk given by a German woman and she said, sarcastically in English before she began, “I’ll make this speech in German before the language disappears.” I have to admit that the idea of learning a soon-to-be-useless language appealed. But a Turk would have said “I’ll make this speech in Turkish because it’s gorgeous.” The speech allows for and even compels wordplay, banter is rhythmic and rough, discordant and melodious, curses are rhyming couplets. It’s a genderless language and I weave through it unhindered, enjoying the freedom of its gaps.
It’s a truthful language, which makes it difficult. There are special word endings to use when telling a story or talking about things that you haven’t seen with your own eyes. One of the countless times I met my lover Murat in a café to smoke and drink coffee all afternoon, our talk turned to the town I am from and he realized before I did that I was using the storytelling endings for the things I described, so improbable the whole place seemed to me.
Jar #18:-mis, -misler, -misiz, -missiniz, -misim
I came home and dropped them by their tails into the jar and sealed them into the box with the others. I own my past, and it will not become fuzzy around the edges just because I choose not to live neck-deep in it.
I was brusque with Murat all evening, missing the long stretches of muddy river and dusty desert, missing the food that could sear your mouth and make your nose run with the charred burr of chilies. He stepped into the shower and surprised me, wound his arms around me and said, “I don’t think I will ever forget the smell of künefe.” I held myself away from him and so he continued, “The men in Antakya would spin the tepsi and pour the thin dough in long narrow strips that whirled from the center in perfectly even spirals. They flipped it up when it was perfectly done and twisted it into thin ropes, like this,” flicking his wrist. He used the storytelling endings and they wove around me lightly without strangling his whole past.
“Why are you using those endings when it’s a mistake?”
“Our childhoods are fables, can¦m. We grow up and become strangers to them, need to be retold them as our families tell and retell their own mythology, their own folktales.”
I buried my face in the curve along the side of his chest and held onto him for a long time.
I didn’t learn the language for Murat so much as I acquired Murat as a part of the language-learning process. I was his sister’s lover when I first reached Berlin, and fell into him the way you fall into a cold shower. He’s deeply conservative, which is to say he’s devoted to his mother, expects to have children, argues in favor of integration and secretly cheers Dortmund over Galata Saray. He expects dinner when he’s here, expects not to take part in preparing it, spies on the neighbors, and takes his coffee black. I find it alluring that someone who describes himself as deeply conservative slides himself into a silvery glittery PVC suit tight as a second skin to dance as a sardine as part of an experimental troupe. Before performances he slowly and methodically shaves down most of the front of himself, summons me to shave down his back. When he dries we roll his scales down over his torso, leaving the bottom half in a roll around his waist, hidden by a sweatshirt for his short walk to the theatre.
When we fight we don’t fight gently. I call him hamsi, the Black Sea sardine, and in his fury he asks me to marry him just so that he can rage at me for saying no. “You always have to skitter along the edges, don’t you? Heaven forbid you belong anywhere, or make things easy on yourself. Why can’t you just be with me and be happy with a little conventionality?” I didn’t know how to answer. It took me weeks to admit that edges have their own comfort that makes anything else seem terrifying, a threat to how I see myself.
I’d just gotten used to living on an island when the global tides smashed our borders down and we discovered we were surrounded by land. I was sorry to see them go. I had come to depend on the walls and was comforted by the idea that on our island the rules could be bent, we defined the rules, we were edgy and powerful and quirky just by being here. We were outside the mainstream, and the mainstream could only claim to support us and send money from far. We didn’t permit it any other way. We were besieged, and didn’t mind it much.
I was as caught up as the next person in the fervent celebration when the wall fell, the champagne offered by strangers in a city that usually hides behind gruff reserve. But I wasn’t alone in the letdown, and disliked being at the center of so much movement again, living in the middle of a freeway. I missed the underlying tension of the pretend island we had been that fed into our creative energy. The untenable nature of the whole situation, the farce of it, made everyday reality seem heightened.
Yours is the image that visits in fitful dreams. Is it because you were my first that you don’t fade at night, when even colors censor themselves to gray? Or have I held back so many clippings of you that your wings can’t carry you off?
The Stasi kept small sniffing jars stuffed with little bits of people’s clothing laced with a hint of their smell: a dash of detergent, a long day’s work, a hint of fish lunch and faded cologne.
Jar #27: Your Shirt.
I warm myself against you in the early morning light until I can’t stay any longer, I try to pull on pants faster than the cold settles onto my skin and fail. I smooth your hair back from your forehead, run my hands along your tattoos to ruffle your feathers and you stir, my hawk. I brush your eyelashes with my lips and leave you alone to sleep in a bit later. By the time the coffee’s brewed I’ve washed the dishes, folded your shirts. The shirt I’ve kept aside I will slip into a plastic shopping bag and carry to the smooth grey building that sits quietly on a corner that’s seen more than a few states come and go, and I’ll give it to a woman who walks toward me with clicking heels and pink lipstick and she’ll thank me and slide it into a jar, mark it with your name and identification number.
I wake and he’s gone, knowing I’ve sold him out again in my sleep.
“What is real about these jars?” I ask myself one day, thinking about throwing them away. Nothing. I uncork the bottle and smell his shirt.
This is a grey city in the winter, a flat low city of one-gear bicycles and people hunched in overcoats trying to catch a bit of light that never quite surfaces. My neighborhood was bordered on three sides by the wall, too boxed in to become a fancy neighborhood. The park in my neighborhood is a series of dirt spaces with tough stubborn clumps of grass spaced very far apart. It’s a park of elaborate graffiti and stone piles. Someone has scrawled Arbeit ist Terror in red spray paint across the length of the station: Work is Terror. Turkish women grill kebabs and kids play football. I started going to the park regularly with my friends who performed there, staging bizarre impromptu shows and calling them experimental. I started painting in the park, putting lush blue-black wings on the backs of the Arab boys who hung out and watched the performances.
I perfected a technique of my own: a smear of cold cream, a heavy layer of power foundation. Once that dried and the skin was minimally protected but still an adhesive surface I could layer on acrylic paint. As I got better, I could paint elaborately detailed work on people’s bodies. Then after sweating, running, dancing, and getting tired, they could carefully peel off the artwork and wash off the powder and cream.
I became a neighborhood fixture, and people would come to me in the park before going to clubs in the late nights. I would paint irregular patches on their necks, chests, arms, thighs, sunken cavities into which I would meticulously layer in the organs, bones, tendons, muscles with small brushes.
“What do you want inside?”
“I want a fat orange tulip instead of a heart.”
“I want green bones with leaves on.”
“I want a picture of my mother on my liver.”
“I want a gash down the whole of my body, with only water and jellyfish inside. No bones and organs and stuff.”
“I want one right here on my shaved head. One clear memory that won’t get fuzzy around the edges. You pick the memory, but it has to be real.”
When I finished, a narrow tunnel into his head led to a small dimly lit chamber with a wooden grill in the back. Behind that waited an invisible man with a catcher’s mitt large enough to catch all the sins I threw through the small holes of the grating that hid him. You couldn’t see him, but I knew he was there. Not only was the painting vague enough for anyone to see what they wanted, but it was a square room and took me all of about twelve minutes to paint. Good beer money for a Thursday evening. My customer unfolded from his crouching position and handed the cash to me.
“What is it? What’s my memory?” he asked as I dropped his coins into my pocket.
“It’s my memory, isn’t it?”
“Not anymore. I bought it, s’on my head now. That’s why I wanted a real one.”
He was so tall that I needed to grab the pocket of his military-style vest to pull myself up high enough to flick up an edge of the painting. It was dry enough to rip it off in one swift motion and he yelped in pain as it tore from his shaved head.
“The fuck? What’d you do that for?”
“You didn’t tell me you got to keep the memory itself.”
“Well, give the cash back.”
“The cash was for my time.” I smiled and he growled at me.
Jar #30: One clear memory that won’t get fuzzy around the edges.
You can’t tell what it is because it’s curled and dried up. But trust me, that’s what it is.
It was a clear memory until I moved the jars under my bed. I decided having them out on a shelf was ridiculous and self indulgent. Maybe I should have a more presentable, and yes— even conventional— space here, since evidently I can’t belong anywhere. But as I was moving them three fell through the bottom of the worn cardboard box I’d stored them in; Jar #16: My Mother’s Tears flooded Jar #48: Real Gobi Desert sand, scraping away the clear memory in Jar #30 in a tiny landslide. It was as close to a catastrophe as I could imagine. My memories can’t be trusted: I can’t remember the exact shape of the scar on my mother’s left hand, I don’t know Marguerite’s last name, my father’s voice on the phone surprised me last week, I don’t belong back home anymore, and Murat is right, I don’t belong here. By the time Murat came to pick me up I was in hysterics. He’s most efficient in times like this: He made me hot tea and carefully scraped the Gobi Desert mud onto a paper plate to dry, slid the once-clear memory into a new jar, and kissed my forehead. “Can¦m benim, now that clear memory’s even more personal to you because no one else can casually pass by and see it, unaware of its value. And a mother’s tears: Those you don’t forget.”
It wasn’t long after the accident of the jars that I decided to return the toe. The idea of the jars had begun with the toe, stuffed into Jar #1 and set carefully on my childhood desk so that every time I saw it I flushed again with the victory of having stolen it. Why not capture other memories? It had been alluring, of course, but now I needed to reclaim my memories, needed to destroy the jars one by one and know that what was in them and all of the memories attached to them wouldn’t fade. Or maybe I needed to let them fade and then see who I was once they did.
I was scrambling eggs one morning when it occurred to me that there might be a grain of truth in the toe: I certainly wouldn’t be obsessing over it if it didn’t embody some of the powerful wanting of the faithful, who fly and crawl, stumble and queue to glimpse a bit of flesh, yearning for a true memory of the Saint. The toe sits humbly displayed to tens or thousands to create for them a memory they never had, a small rush of the personal that makes their belief seem like more than just a series of other peoples’ stories. I was repeating an age old genuflection, kneeling in front of the relics of my own life in hopes that in the dark of an early morning my memories wouldn’t sound like other peoples’ stories.
After admitting this possibility, I was consumed with guilt for having the toe of Jesus. My buried inner Catholic sabotaged me at every turn. What if I were condemned eternally for taking a holy relic and stuffing it in a jar in a box in Berlin? What if Our Lord Jesus wanted his toe back? What if our Lord made shit happen so I’d have to bring the toe back? I started worrying each time I imagined a new catastrophe.
When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer my father called and asked me to come back for a visit. I was sure I’d given her cancer by stealing the toe. I was being summoned at her expense. I’d return for my overdue first visit and I’d return the toe; a double penance.
I took the toe out of the jar and wrapped it in a muslin shroud. I shook the marijuana out of a small wooden box and wrapped it in tinfoil, left it in the knife drawer where Murat would know to find it. I laid the toe carefully into its new and improved casket, kept it in my carry-on. The last thing I needed was to get this far and then have Lufthansa lose the toe of Jesus just before its return and my redemption.
I had planned to go by the chapel first and return the toe in order to curry the favor of Jesus that I could then carry to my mother, but instead of finding my way home I was shocked that everyone in the family had come to meet me at the airport. They’d shuffled into a crooked row, shoulder to shoulder, and waved even though I was only a few paces away from them. I’d never felt like such a stranger. My mother looked wonderful, after I’d braced myself in case she’d aged decades since I’d seen her. She slid off her hair at the dinner table and everyone cackled. I missed them more intensely sitting at the table with them while they laughed than I’d missed them the whole time I’d been in Berlin.
I visited the hawk, told him that he’d surfaced in so many of my dreams lately.
“Oh yeah? Do we have sex and stuff?”
“Mostly I leave you. Sometimes I kill you and occasionally I pass information about you to one secret service or another. That kind of thing.”
He laughed, “Oh that kind of thing.”
He lied to his girlfriend about who he was with and where he was going, asked if I wanted to go away together for a weekend. I asked only to see his wings again, and he grimaced, unbuttoned his shirt at the top and slid it back over his shoulders to show me the rough scarred gash of skin where wings had been. “Jacinta didn’t like them. Donatello, the dickhead, got me passed out drunk and took them off with a belt sander. Was in the hospital for a week with no skin left at all.”
I hadn’t braced myself for this, and ran my hands over the rough knobby scrape of glossy white back and tried not to cry. I pressed my cheek against his spine, murmured, “I still have one of your feathers.”
“Just one you untangled from the weeds by the river.”
He grinned. “You remember things that I’ve forgotten and I’m the one who lives here. I don’t even notice the place half the time, I’m so busy getting by.”
At the end of that day sitting by the river I’d told myself, “I’ll never forget any minute of this day,” and I visited it in the years between the way you’d visit a relative in the hospital; with a combination of longing and sadness, not sure what to make of the fading edges that inevitably appeared. I didn’t tell him that the first time I saw him again he seemed shorter, and thinner than I’d remembered. His face seemed different; it took a day or two to really recognize him again. I couldn’t say all that, so I shrugged and said, “What’s Marguerite’s last name?”
He thought for a long while. “No idea. She lives over on the flats and I don’t think I’ve seen her since I’ve seen you. That whole group you hung out with drifted their own directions.” When I imagined them all together I realized I was recalling a photograph that I’d pinned on my wall last spring in Berlin.
I called Murat from a payphone with a drugstore phone card that ran out in four minutes. We’d broken up already, but I woke him up at three in the morning and described the town sprawled around me, my family, the hawk. I couldn’t fit too much of it into four minutes, and the storytelling endings made the sentences longer, and harder for me to put together.
It was a full week before I had time to wander over to the chapel and make my offering. It was starting to seem more like an offering to myself than to the chapel, an act of penance allowing me to trust my own memory, unanchored. I was to leave soon, and was hesitating, tempted to extend my stay a few days, knowing at the same time that leaving while wanting to stay would be far better.
The chapel was shorter and dirtier than I remembered, as through the traffic exhaust was scraped on with trowels, so heavy it caused the whole building to hunch. I was curious what they would call the chapel now that it was toeless. A priest stood expectantly beside the open door, in robes that looked faded, the cuff of his right sleeve frayed. I was stabbed by guilt that I had stolen their relic, the compelling identity of the church itself: I’d plunged them into destitution.
“Eighty cents to enter the Chapel of the Toe.”
“Chapel of the Toe?”
“The left center toe of the Lord Jesus is here. One of his ribs, too. But the toe is the most blessed. This is a reliquary, not really a chapel. Eighty cents.”
I was mute with shock. It was still the Chapel of the Toe. And charging admission? To go see a toe that hadn’t been there in years? They probably made up some story about it being fragile and have been charging everyone to see a closed wood box. I handed over the money silently and walked directly to the front of the chapel, my steps echoing in the quiet dimly lit space.
There was a box with a red silk liner, propped up on an old hymnal and inside was a new toe of Our Lord Jesus. It looked almost exactly like my toe, but this iteration was a bit thinner and more curved; more like a small toe than a left center one. Damn it, it was ginger, I was sure of it. Had I been worried all this time about a ginger knob? Or had I been worried about the real toe? But surely if my toe were a fake they wouldn’t take the real one out of a vault and display it, knowing the danger of theft existed? What if I’d driven them to this, to this false-toe manufacturing simply to support their livelihood? I argued back and forth with myself.
I took out my small wooden box and slid the top back and looked at my toe of Our Lord Jesus, compared it with the one on display. Neither one looked like toes, but what does a two-thousand-year-old toe look like? That was the doubt they’d been counting on the whole time, wasn’t it?
I glanced quickly around and no one was near me, I lifted the glass lid of the case. I reached over to touch the clearly fake toe of Our Lord Jesus and it was hard and shriveled like mine. In a heady rush of impulse, the impostor toe was in my hand. I nestled it beside the questionable toe in my box and walked out squinting in to the bright light that bounced off every bone-dry surface around me.
Jar #41:The Second, Impostor Toe of Our Lord
I set the box of toes beside the meal tray after I’d finished the bland food rations I’d been given and shifted in the narrow airplane seat. How would I get rid of the jars now? Or should I get a decent wood box to organize them in? The man next to me looked at them with a startled double-take and then tried to ignore me, became unconvincingly engrossed in the in-flight magazine. I sipped my second half bottle of wine from a plastic cup and examined them, part of me wanting to surrender them with the multitude of plastic bowls on my meal tray, but knowing I couldn’t. I held them aside when the tray was removed, set them next to each other to scrutinize again.
They were both fakes, weren’t they?