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February 23, 2015 Fiction

Russian Fathers and Russian Sons

Hugh Smith

Russian Fathers and Russian Sons photo

I don't know what I think, because I am human. Humans think but they don't know what they think. Sometimes when a human says “what are you thinking” to another human, the second human says “I don't know”. Other times the second human gives a proper answer: that is called lying. Sometimes the untrue answer is “I am thinking about you”. I think people are more likely to be thinking about chairs or animals than thinking about me. If people are sitting down in zoos, I don’t even approach them. For halloween I dressed as a chair and four people thought about me, or said they did, but they were lying too.

Chairs don't lie. That is why I like them but why I cannot love them: they are not human. You don't sit on people. Grandma taught me that. She didn't teach me anything else, because she died before I was born, but my mother said grandma used to say that: “You don't sit on people.” She didn't mention chairs but whenever I think about what she said, I think it is more an explanation for the existence of chairs than an ethical principle. The only picture which I have of my grandmother shows her at the age of two in her own mother's lap. I suppose it must have taken her some time to decide that sitting on people was bad.

If chairs could speak, they would say “sit”. If chairs could think, they would think “chair”. If you were a chair I would sit on you and put all the other chairs upstairs in the loft in a pile and I wouldn't care if they turned into moss. I wouldn't even know if they had turned into moss because I would never stand up. I like how your skin feels, you see.

When I was younger I confused the words “oak” and “ochre”. I blamed autumn for this. I also blamed autumn for winter. My mum said that whatever comes before is what makes whatever comes after it come. So I blamed her for me and autumn for winter. I realized years later that she was asking me to hate my grandmother, but I'd been doing that all along anyway. She was to her grandmother as autumn was to winter, and I was the spring which blamed them both. I asked her what my grandmother looked like when she was old and said “a dead tree”. That was when I first got interested in trees. They were taller than the people in my family, and there were more of them. They didn't pretend to die when I touched them. I could sleep in their shadows with half my friends: there was only enough space in my father's shadow for two children, and my brother and sister always got there first. Most of the time he was at work anyway. When someone said I was living in my father's shadow I thought they didn't know how much time he spent at work. I didn't know what he did at work but I didn't think he was manufacturing his own shadow. When mum drove me once to see his factory, all the shadow was going into the sky, and he wasn't the kind to let what he wanted get out so easy.

There is a lot to be said for growing up on a farm. Like “we grew up on a farm.” There is even more you can't say: silence was the rule. If my dad caught me humming he'd call me horse for a month. I couldn't explain why I was humming: there was never any music, because silence was the rule, except for the animals, but animals haven't invented music yet. They haven't even invented humming. There isn't much involved in cleaning a dog, so I'd always end up filling my mind some other way. Music filled my mind better than cleaning a dog, and after the first few times, I could do it with my eyes closed. When I closed my eyes I could hear the music in my head better too. But Dad would be cleaning the cows on the other side of the field, maybe with his eyes closed for the same reason mine were, or maybe so he could hear if I hummed. As soon as he did, he would shout “horse”. It wasn’t easy. You try cleaning a dog without inventing music when you dad never wants to chat. Then he’d go to work but he’d write horse on my hand before going and strap my hand in front of my face. I couldn’t clean it off because my other hand was tied too, and it was written about 1cm or so further than my tongue could reach so I couldn’t eat it off either. He said “Don’t try it son. Only animals eat words”.

That’s the story of what happened to me. It’s the story of why I’m here and why I’m not there, and why I don’t know where there is. It’s the story of a man and a boy and a man and boy. It’s also the story of a horse, which is a word but also a kind of animal. And I have to go now.

image: Tara Wray