In a language few people speak anymore, there is a word called samsara. Its meaning is uncertain. Some say it is about cycles of repetition. Others associate it with the consequences of actions, leaving an echo through lives that start over and over again, as though there is an etching in the fabric of space that records our deeds. In all the world, in every tradition, no child has ever been named samsara. No parent gives this name to their child. Children are born every second. Lives start every moment. But samsara is just a word in a language that few speak, or ever will.
Emily was last with a man six years ago. He’d told her that he was going to the army, but she saw him again soon after he got her pregnant. He was in a bar, with his friends, playing pool. When he spotted her, he stopped and nodded, and she wondered what war he had been in, how far away he had gone. She still wonders about that war. But she has never seen the man again.
Ross Casey was born in a small hospital, attended to by a doctor who had delivered thousands of human beings. Ross Casey is the real name of a real child, but Emily does not remember the name of the doctor. She can see his face, wrinkled and kind. The way he handled the child and gave it to her, as she lay in the bed. Ross Casey is a real human being that Emily produced. The child was healthy, though small. He coughed after he nursed, and a dribble of milk came out of his mouth.
On the street where Emily is walking, ambulances wail. It’s as if every ambulance in the world has converged here. She is listening to music as she walks. Two days ago, she had sent Ross to school with a sandwich and a container of grapes. She had not known if he would eat them. He hated grapes, or so he said. But when he’d come home, he’d put his arms around her and told her that he’d eaten them, that he’d loved them. He thanked her with a kiss and ran to the park, as Emily stood there with the warmth of her son on her skin.
Emily was last with a man six years ago. In that time, she’s had three jobs. Her parents, who live in Chicago, have helped her out. And Emily, despite the things she hasn’t gotten right, has found a way to make Ross love grapes.
Sara was born in Spain, grew up in England, and has lived most of her life in North America. She dreams of oceans when she’s not working in a jewelry store or going to clubs. There are oceans, she’s heard. Real bodies of blue water that connect everyone in the world, places she would like to visit when she’s ready. She has a man, or did, she’s not sure which, as she dances in the club. She drinks at the bar. She moves her body without thinking about it.
Years ago, she fell in love with her professor. His name was Dr. Antje. She’d sit near the front of the class during lectures, staring at him, hardly taking notes. Now and then, he would look at her, as though wondering what he could get away with if he wanted to, knowing that it would be easy. Sara would go with him, wherever he wanted. She would say nothing. Reveal nothing. But as many times as he’d looked over, he never took the offer.
When Sara gets home from the club, her phone rings. It’s your cousin, her mom says. It’s my brother’s son. He’s been miserable, and reading so much stuff online. It’s made him crazy. He is crazy. He got a gun, Sara. He went to a school, Sara. A school with little kids, not one older than twelve. He chained the doors and walked to the classrooms, and then he started shooting. He let the teachers live. Didn’t care about the teachers, Sara. He shot the children, as many as he could before he ran out of ammunition. The police took him alive, Sara. He’s in jail. Your cousin is in jail.
In the tradition of samsara, Ross is reborn. He doesn’t remember what led him to this new existence. He had been in school, he thinks. He had been looking forward to his lunch, a sliced turkey sandwich and grapes, when a young man had opened the door and started shooting. His classmates had jumped from their desks and hidden under tables. But not Ross. Ross had stayed in his chair, and the shooter hadn’t paid him any attention until he was done with the others. Then he’d come to Ross and shot him in the head.
Ross is a bee. There are not enough of us in the world, he thinks, as he flies. On the edge of a petal, he meets another bee, and they kiss. Wings hum, flattening against each other. Fingers, like once he knew, entangled as once they were, as a drop moves along the petal towards them. It touches them, encases them in water, as though they are underwater, in an ocean. Wings hum, like fingers only freer, like lips – as with honey – only sweeter. They try to breathe as they lie on the petal, in that drop of water. Later, he flies alone as stars slip like snowflakes, and a wind made of water sweeps over the land. Here, I am important, he thinks, as he flies. Here, I am reborn.
Afterwards, of Emily’s three jobs, she was only able to keep one, and that because the man who owned the grocery store had pity on her. Two months later, she was arrested for public drunkenness, and the police just let her go. You’re free. We won’t detain you. You’ve suffered enough. And Emily had wanted to tell them: what makes you think I haven’t suffered before? Or maybe I’ve brought suffering to others, and that’s why this is happening? Maybe that’s why Ross is gone.
Her parents came down from Chicago and stayed with her, but she didn’t want them. Her friends came to her apartment and sat on the couch, not sure if they could hug her, as she sat on a wooden chair and stared at them. Emily hadn’t been with a man in six years, but she found men in those months. Many men, who wanted any part of her they could have, except for the ravaging, black despair that was just beneath her skin – in the places they never looked, in the spaces they never took.
Twice, she tried to die, and both times, she was sure that it had happened. That when her eyes opened, it would be in a different life. That it would be rebirth. Both times, reality had returned instead, the truth of what had happened to her child, and she’d snapped back to the life that she was still living
For Sara, there were memories of Judd. The cousin who had, when he was fifteen, kissed her at a wedding reception. The gym had been turned into a dance floor, and they had been together there, but they had wanted more than arms around each other. The kiss had been awkward. It had been regretted. She still remembered that kiss, her first one, with the boy who was now in jail.
She had pictures of them together. She flipped through them on the screen, of this boy with the curly hair, the straight frame. The dark eyes so kind and caring, the lips she had tasted long ago. This is the worst summer, she thinks, as she stares at the photos, and a phone rings unanswered. As people giggle in the hallway outside, and a wind like a current at the bottom of the sea looks at her through the window, staring at this brown-haired girl, before climbing in through the pores of the mesh to surround her. Arrest her.
He couldn’t have done it, she thinks. Judd Regan James, a boy of nineteen. With those curls and the straight frame, could not have done it, she thinks, as the wind swirls around the beauty with the brown-hair.
He could not have done it, she says, as she walks outside. At the bus stop, she found a quiet sky and loneliness. Along the river, the smell of wine. Atop the bridge, the touch of cold iron as though it knew it, too: not this boy. Not this way.
Samsara is an undercurrent. Its strength is in its agility. Samsara has twelve arms, and can climb up a building. It can plant a flag atop the highest mountain, and sip tea on the peak as it throws snowballs over the edge of the world. Samsara clings to the wings of airplanes as they soar, and occasionally leaps onto the backs of rockets climbing into orbit. Samsara has a house on the moon, made of soft petals that it remakes with its twelve arms into any shape it wants. Samsara walks on blades of wheat, cutting across the fields as the threshers hum, and picks at the rust of water towers that were built in another generation, two generations ago, when Samsara was just as old as it is now, and the water towers gleamed with fresh paint, people marveling at how they could send water back into the sky rather than just receiving it from the clouds.
Samsara flies with little wings. It curves through the dense forest, a snake or the river that carries it, a ripple or the falling that birthed it. A waterfall on rocks of gold. A moonbeam on a wave of snow. Twelve arms long, and ten thousand years old, Samsara is born where we never look. It rustles near the end. It lifts us and propels us along, to somewhere else, but Samsara has a memory, and so do we. So, in the end, do we.
Emily meets Sara in a club. Emily is drunk, and dancing with a man whose face she hasn’t bothered to look at yet. Sara is nearby, dancing alone. They go the long wooden bar, and stare at the messages people have etched into the surface. Men ask them to dance, but they say no. Instead, they drink.
The lights of last call are blinding. On the sidewalk, they sit and talk about fate. Emily talks about Ross, little child of the grapes. She talks about the funeral, where she’d felt like she was being lifted out of her skin by all these arms, maybe cobwebs shot by spiders from the nearby trees, trying to prey on her because she was so weak. Emily cries, drunk.
Sara, she of the Judd who could not have done it, puts an arm around this broken girl, and wonders what has brought them together on this summer Thursday night. In all this big city, why would they have met, the child gone, Judd Regan James in jail for the rest of his life? She puts an arm around Emily, and tells men to go away. What can be said to this shuddering, crying woman on the sidewalk? Sara remembers words she has said to herself many times. And she whispers them to Emily: no, it’s not true. It’s not true. This could not have happened. Don’t you know that it’s impossible for things like that to happen? That it’s impossible for people to do those cruelties, especially to children?
Emily asks her what she means by that. I was at the funeral, she says. I gave birth to him in a hospital. I just don’t remember the doctor’s name. You don’t remember the doctor’s name? asks Sara. That is odd. Let me take you home.
Sara walks with Emily, and tells her repeatedly: no, it’s not possible. It didn’t happen, and I know that to be a fact. It didn’t happen, because it was an untrue story. A fiction told because so many of our stories are so so old. Your Ross? This little boy you are talking about? He didn’t exist. He was never any boy at all. You don’t even recall the name of the doctor. But I remember him, says Emily! I dressed him in brown because it looked good against his blue eyes. I let him fall off his bike, so he would learn. I played music for him, so that he would wonder. I packed him lunch every day. I have his things in my apartment. They are everywhere.
Sara asks her if she’s sure. Drunk, Emily leans against a bus shelter. She is sweating.
The next day, Emily meets Sara in the park, and they sit on a sun-soaked rock, staring at people. These are cavepeople, they determine. These are Neanderthals going about their business, having stolen clothes from stores they looted in the mall. Pretending to be human, wishing they could be, as the two girls sit on the rock. He never existed, says Sara, sure of it. But but but… says Emily, the rock warm. That child? returns Sara. No way. Ten days later, they are in the club, where Ross never existed. They are in a restaurant, where Ross never had been. They tour the city, all the places where Ross did not exist.
Emily was last with a man six days ago. He had been rough with her, dismissive, and had stolen a bottle of vodka from her apartment. In the last two days, she’s emptied the little bedroom next to hers, of its contents. She barely recognizes the items as she puts them in the boxes. Toys. Clothes. Drawings of a woman and a little human being. When she’d finished, she’d walked the boxes one-by-one to a dumpster a few blocks away.
Back in the apartment, the little bedroom had been plain. She’d thrown a mattress on the ground, and after that, any time Emily had known a man, she’d known him there. On that mattress. When Sara had come and asked her what she did in that bedroom, Emily had shown her, as though she’d understand. This is the bed where I lay with men. This room that is otherwise empty, always has been. No one has ever lived here. Certainly, no child. Sara nods and tells her that she is right. That this is exactly the thing she has to do.
When Emily’s parents had come to visit, they’d wanted to talk to her about something she could not remember. Get out. Go back. Stop talking to me about this stuff. Don’t touch me. Go home. And they’d climbed into their truck and driven off, calling from the road as Emily found a man and lay with him on that mattress, in that little room.
Emily and Sara had gone to the jail, where Judd Regan James would spend the rest of his life. They’d been led into a small room divided by a plastic partition with small holes. Sara had talked with her cousin, so beautiful and young, his eyes dark and creamy, like he could absorb the pain of every single person in the world. Sara had put her hand on the glass, willing him to slip through the holes, to recreate himself on the other side, where she could take him to freedom.
Emily had watched them talk across the plastic shield, and she’d loved. There had been love in her heart, she was sure of it. When she’d been a child, and had seen a butterfly land on her handlebars as she’d ridden down the street. When her parents had put her to bed after a long night and a drive that had been longer still, under a blanket warm with the stuff. She’d been sure of love, just as she suddenly loved Judd Regan James. In that small room, her heart had burst with love for this young man, who could have been hers in a different life.
On the way home, Emily had told Sara about love. I’ve had it, I know it. In her apartment, as Sara put arms around her, Emily was sure: there’s been love here. Creeping about on the ceiling, visiting here and there, a multi-armed beast often found swimming at the bottom of a wine glass or surfing on a sunbeam. It’s been here.
Sara put her arms around her friend and said: maybe that’s true. Maybe you just believe that because you have to believe something. But there’s no sign of it in this apartment. I don’t see it anywhere, do you? Emily looks up, and Sara continues: you’ll love something like I love Judd Regan James, someday. Someday, you’ll love like I do.
In the garden, on a bough, rests a bud. It’s been unopened by the summer heat, and maybe it simply will go back to sleep and try again next summer.
On the highest mountain of a snowy pole, Samsara drinks tea, then discovers an impossible creature. It’s a bee. The thing flits between Samsara’s twelve arms, shivering in the icy wind.
On the edge of an escarpment, Emily hangs her legs over the gulf. There’s a forest in front of her, and trees above, and somehow in the span of all this existence, there’s a space carved out for her. Her heart is bursting. It’s bursting with warm air, living things, and a land that looks like it’s been reclaimed from the world to be buried under a carpet of trees, the trunks gathering around the edge of a lake that she can’t see, but knows to be out there. I’m full of love, she thinks, and ready to give it. I just need someone to walk into my life. Maybe it could be a child. A young, beautiful boy who puts arms around my neck furiously, and hates grapes even though I know he could grow to love them one day. One day, anyway.