Free to Read: "Namesake"

“Namesake” originally appeared in Prole in 2017.


Namesake

by Thomas Broderick

“I don’t know why we couldn’t fly,” Ptichka crossed her arms and sighed. We had just finished breakfast in the dining car and were walking back to our cabin. There, in our absence, porters had transformed our beds back into facing couches. Outside, endless fields of mid-summer wheat rolled past at a steady eighty kilometers per hour.

    “We’re flying home.” I sipped the last of my lukewarm tea from a Styrofoam cup. “I told you I wanted some time with you before you went off to college. Becoming an engineer will take a lot of work. You’ll rarely have the chance to see your mother or me." 

    Ptichka bit her lip. “Sorry, dad. I didn’t think.” She frowned and turned away from me. She distracted herself with her phone, typing away with her left hand.  

    My daughter has a thin face with sharp angles. She’s never liked how she looked, and always kept her dark hair long to hide from the world. It’s never bothered me. She looks just like my mother.

    “It’s okay.” Setting my empty cup on the windowsill, I watched the scenery for a while. “You know, there was a day when you were young, about six I think. You asked me why I named you Ptichka. Do you remember that?”

    Ptichka shrugged. “Not really. It means ‘little bird,’ right?”

    I nodded. “I think that’s all I told you then. What if I said that I named you after someone?”

    “Whom?” 

    “Your aunt.”

    “I don’t have…”

    “But you do, baby, you do. And that’s where we’re going. We’re going to meet her.”

#

    "How was your first day at school, Alexander?" Mother and son had just sat down to dinner. Around them, half-unpacked moving boxes were scattered throughout the kitchen and living room.

    “Fine,” Grabbing the glass with both hands, Alexander took a big drink of milk. “Momma, what does father do at work?”

    “Why do you ask, honey?”

    “My teacher said we all should be proud of our daddies.”

 The mother nodded and silently glanced at the third, empty chair at the table. She frowned, but her son did not notice. Though still young, her thin face with its sharp angles added many years.   

    “He works at the factory. That’s why we got to move here. You should be proud of him.”  

    “I am, momma, I am.”

    She put a hand on her son’s shoulder. “Good. Now eat up.”

#

    It was just after dinner when our train stopped at the Kazak border. Armed soldiers boarded, and besides our passports, I showed them my press credentials along with a letter from my boss. They stepped out into the hall to talk. “It’ll be fine,” I told Ptichka. She had never trusted men (or women) in uniform. 

    It was fine.

 Afterward, porters came by to turn our couches into beds. Ptichka went right to sleep. Though exhausted, and the cabin pitch black, I stayed awake for a long time. 

#

    On the rare occasions when he was home, Alexander’s father tried to teach Alexander chess or some other game of strategy that would sharpen his son’s intellect. “This country has too many writers. Engineers, scientists…that’s how a country becomes the most powerful in the world.” Alexander lost another pawn to his father’s rook. 

    “Can’t I do both, father?” Alexander was fourteen, and his bedroom was full of little notebooks stuffed with his poems and stories.

    “Waste of time and energy.”

    Alexander’s father won the game three moves later. For the rest of the day, the man locked himself up in his home office.

    A week later, Alexander received his report card. He had failed Mathematics. He expected his father to scream, to rage, but not a word was said. Only the next day did he realize why.

    All of his notebooks, all of his stories and poems, had disappeared from his room. 

#

    “Are we there yet?” Ptichka had just come back from the shower, and her hair was still damp. She retrieved a brush from her suitcase and started to comb out the tangles. 

    “About another hour.” I set down the morning paper. “I’ve rented a car to take us the rest of the way.”

    Ptichka nodded. Her hair free of tangles, she put her brush away and retrieved her college course guide. I let her read for a few minutes before speaking.

    “Make any big decisions yet?”

    Ptichka furrowed her brow. “I think so. Introductory Calculus, for sure. Chemistry, too. Maybe a physics elective.”

    I laughed. “Too much for me, I think.”

    “What did you study in college, dad?”

    “Oh, I doubled majored in Russian poetry and English.”

    Ptichka grinned and shook her head. “I never got poetry.”

    “To each his own, I guess. No matter what, I know you’ll do great things.” 

#

    It was late at night, and Alexander’s parents were fast asleep. Butter knife in his right hand, Alexander approached the door to his father’s office. The lock gave easily, almost too easily. Alexander swallowed hard. He imagined that his father was standing on the other side, waiting to chastise him, or worse.

    Taking a deep breath, Alexander slid the door open. It was a black hole inside and stayed that way until he found the light switch. The desk lamp came to life.

    There was no sign of his notebooks. The small desk was cluttered with papers: drawings, schematics, notes, memorandum, and blueprints. His father’s handwriting covered every page. Alexander didn’t understand most of it. Yet there was the same name on nearly every piece of paper, a girl’s name that he had only heard his father whisper in his sleep as if the man was caught in a fever dream. 

    The feeling started as a warm tingling on the back of Alexander’s neck. He balled his fists. Tears threatened to fall from his eyes, but they did not come. The ripping did. In less than a minute, he had transformed all of his father's important papers into confetti.

#

    “What did grandfather do to you?” Ptichka sat in the passenger seat of the rented Lada compact. The two-lane government highway in front of us appeared to stretch on into infinity. We were very close.  

    I didn’t reply at first, at least with words. Keeping my eyes fixed on the road, I scratched the right side of my face. Even after thirty years, there was still a pea-sized knot of mended bone halfway down my jaw. 

    I grasped the steering wheel with both hands. “I was lucky. About a year later, I was selected to attend a prestigious high school in Moscow. In my second year, everything in this country started to go to hell. Around that time, I got a call from your grandmother. My father was dead. She told me it was from a broken heart. A few years ago, I applied for a copy of his death certificate. Cirrhosis of the liver.” 

    In the distance, I could make out our destination. A large dark cube was rising from the Earth.

    “Did you go to his funeral?”

#

    “I’m sorry, mother. The railway here is a mess. I’m sure it’s worse where you are. Please understand. No, I have everything I need. Do you…No. Alright. I love you, too.”

    Alexander hung up the phone. He sighed and left the crowded common room. Around him, the other students were in deep discussion. It wasn’t every day that you woke up in a new country. 

    Back in his room, Alexander put a kettle on the hot plate he shared with his roommate, who was away visiting family in St. Petersburg. Alexander was happy for the solitude, especially now. Drinking tea, he sat down to write some poetry. Maybe that would…

    There was a knock on his door. “It’s Firaya,” a soft voice called out from the other side. “You there, Alexander?” 

    Alexander opened the door. Firaya smiled at him. “Can I come in?”

    “Yeah.” 

    Alexander took his chair while Firaya’s sat on the edge of his bed. She fiddled with the hem of her dark blouse as she spoke. “I saw Alexi in the hallway. He…overheard you talking to your mother on the phone. I’m so sorry about your father.” 

    “There’s no need to be. He was…” Alexander couldn’t finish his sentence. He didn’t want to tell her, at least not yet. He looked up, instead. Firaya met his gaze with those kind eyes that all Tatar women seemed to share. 

    Outside it had begun to snow.

    Alexander took Firaya’s hand, something he had never done before. “It’s beautiful out there. Want to take a walk with me?”

    Her reply was immediate. “I’d love to.” 

#

    Ptichka didn’t have time to comment on her parents’ blossoming romance before I spoke again. “We’re here.”

 "My God," Ptichka whispered as she got out of the car. “It’s massive.” The building towered over us. 

    “It needed to be,” I said, slinging my backpack over my shoulders. Ptichka’s head darted back and forth for signs of other people. “It’s okay,” I touched my breast pocket. “My papers say we can be here. There’s nothing to worry about.” 

    “My aunt, she’s in there?”

    “Yeah. This is her home. Ever since my father’s time.” 

    It didn’t take us long to find an unlocked door. Just inside was a pile of dusty hardhats. I passed one to Ptichka. “The ceiling’s old.” 

    After going through one more side room, we entered the main chamber. Sunlight streamed in through the many cracks that had formed in the high ceiling and walls over the last twenty-five years. It gave the interior the semblance of a gothic cathedral. 

    Ptichka gasped as she looked upon her aunt for the first time.  

    The space shuttle, though dirty, was in near-perfect condition. Every window was intact, and only a few heat shield tiles were missing near the nose. In the corner, I found a tall rolling ladder. I held it steady as Ptichka climbed up onto the right wing. I followed her up. Under my feet, on the wing, dark moss grew.

    Printed on the side of the shuttle was a single word obscured by a quarter-century of grime. Placing my hand on the cool tile, I wiped it all away with a single stroke.

    Revealed was my sister’s name. Revealed was my daughter’s name.

    “This is my father’s daughter.” I left my hand resting there. 

    Ptichka stepped next to me. “But why did you name me after...”

    “His love was unnatural, Ptichka.” I took a deep breath. “My whole life, I've been a writer, a dreamer. I wanted to...restore balance to the universe. At least that’s how I explained it to your mother.” Tears in my eyes, I looked up at my father’s favorite, his only. “Have I loved you, baby?”

    “Of course.”

    “Good.” 

    I fell to my knees and started to weep. Ptichka hugged me as hard as she could, and buried her head in my shoulder. What she said next, though muffled, was church bells in my ears. 

    “I won’t be like him.” She repeated the words many times before falling silent.   

    It wasn’t long until I was ready to leave forever.  

#

    Early the next day, I took Ptichka to a horse ranch near where I had grown up. Just like my mother, she loved to ride. The elderly couple there remembered my parents. The old woman commented on my daughter’s resemblance. Ptichka blushed, and thanked her.

    The couple lent us their gentlest horses, and even packed us a lunch that included a few bottles of chai. For a while we rode side by side.  

    After an hour we entered a shallow valley of fragrant, dark purple lavender. Our horses paused to take deep breaths. 

    Ptichka got off her horse, and I followed her lead. We walked the horses to an area where the lavender was not as thick, and the dirt loose. There Ptichka took off her backpack. Kneeling, she cupped her hands and began to scoop out a small hole.

    “Ptichka, what are you doing?”

    “You’ll see.” 

    When the hole was about a foot deep, Ptichka motioned for me to kneel next to her. Unzipping her bag, she took out a black tile the size my hand. 

    Ptichka grinned as she spoke. “I don’t think anyone will miss it.” 

    Ptichka handed me the tile. It was heavy and cold, something designed to reject all warmth. I placed it in the ground. I could think of nothing to say, so I simply pushed the soil over it. I patted down the rich earth with the palm of my hand. 

    “There. It’s done.” Ptichka wiped her hands clean, and stood up. Slinging on her backpack, she remounted her horse. 

    I lingered there, next to my father’s grave. 

    “Are you coming, dad?” Ptichka took off, her horse galloping as fast as it could. She flew over the field, where I lost sight of her in the glare of morning’s brilliant sun. 

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