1st Place 14-17
The Way the Pages Turn
by Monica Nederend
When I was little, I enjoyed winter. I loved the mad dashes inside and outside between meals. I loved the shine on the snow, the water dripping down my sleeves. Running and huffing and puffing up and down hills. I loved it. I loved it all.
These days, though, I mostly stay inside. When I go out, I tuck the mittens firmly over my jacket, neat and clean.
I’ve heard it said that the ocean is truly the least explored place on the planet Earth. If that is true, then my attic is an ocean: maps of worlds long gone, old bronze elephants, crusty wool clothes. In this way, it has its own kind of mystique.
But still, the attic would not be exciting for many people. There are no secrets bleeding from the floorboards, no treasure maps wrapped within the walls. When I was little, I used to go hunt among the shoulder-padded jackets, the mouldy old romance novels, looking for secrets. I learned quickly that the remains of ordinary people are not as electrifying as a certain seven-year-old might have hoped.
And so the attic was left alone again.
The remains remained, though. Everyday pieces that made up people, people who were born and lived and had died.
The diaries were some of these remains. I discovered the collection a few years later, on a dull March afternoon. I saw through the cracks of ancient glassware a row of cabinets lining the length of the attic. And behold! Inside were diaries from all different people in my family. They were leather-bound and paper-backed and hard-covered and written in washed-out pencil and red pen and blue pen and fountain pen, and half of them were from before 1981. Some of them are in different languages. I still can’t read them, but I like looking at the letters just to see the shape of them, seeing how thoughts look in German or French or Dutch.
When I first found the diaries, I was too little to read the cursive that occupied most of them, but I still didn’t leave the attic for hours. I scampered back and forth trying to see where I fit in to the picture. Some of these people were so old I didn’t even know how they were related to me, but somehow they are. Somehow they’re family.
Somehow they’re mine.
Stefan’s diary was one of my favourites. It’s old, written in a fumbling, foreign cursive. I found the look of it strange, but also beautiful. It is hard to describe why. Perhaps because it showed that language not as translation from English, but as a singular communication in itself through which someone lisped their first word, through which they sang. Through which they dreamed.
I showed the diary to my Gran. She said it was Slovak, but she never learned to speak it right. She said, “No, I can’t read it.” But I still asked. I said to her, “Maybe just little? Just one word? One word-that one. What does that mean?” She said, “Sokol. Falcon.” She said, “Milá, he has a falcon. He calls her Draza.” She said, “Give me a minute. Maybe, maybe.” She ran her hand, withered and leathered and spidery, over the page like she could rub the words right off, like somehow that would make it more real.
Gran opened her mouth again, she took a little breath, but let it go, a butterfly batting away on the wind. And then she read the diary, and she said something like this:
I took Draza to the forest, for a practice, the first time I’d taken her out without the jess. The air smells good, here. It smells full of life. We walked down our little path, and Draza was calm and held her head high, like she could see right through the hood, like she was ready to go, ready to fly. We came to the meadow. I held the little piece of bloody meat high, and let her loose – and she flew, and flew, those wings clean and straight and dark. It was the most beautiful I’d ever seen, that.
Ma told me that Draza means “loved one.” When she said that I just laughed and laughed, because I thought, didn’t that just fit her so perfect? Because everyone loves that bird, she holds her glossy head high and lets you preen for her. They all fell in love with her. But gave me a nice whack on the head with her wooden spoon, don’t laugh at your betters, she said, but I ran right out the door, into the shining, waving sun, and I couldn’t see right, but I think she was laughing, too.
I am back in the attic again. I take Stefan’s diary to Gran sometimes, and she’ll read it to me. We sit still and lose ourselves.
There are new ones on the shelf, though, Great-Auntie Petunia and her ripping, hellish memoir of the Blitz when worked as a nurse. You read it, you can practically hear the glass flying. You read it, you can practically hear the sky cracking in two.
There’s something in those pages that’s kind of alchemy. Something that cannot be found in lotions, or in the hands of a plastic surgeon. The words are it: the thing that lingers, that preserves, that remembers.
A wind hushes through the attic. On the floor, the diaries shudder through their pages. The sound is like beating hearts, or beating wings. Something rough, breathing, alive.
Alone in the cold, the pages turn, but not one of the diaries shuts.
My grandpa had a sort of closed-in sundeck in his condo. It was very drafty and cool and filled with light. On a long pine shelf (sound familiar?) beneath the window there was a long row of diaries that my mother’s mother’s father had written between the ’20s and the ’40s. When I was little, I liked looking at them. So the story was loosely based on that. – Monica Nederend