Issue Thirty-Eight - Summer 2021

Ancestral Song

By A. J. M. Aldrian

I stood on a pedestal, looking in the mirrors of my life and lives before me, reflected. And I waited, cocking my head, attempting to understand how I got to this point and why.

This was supposed to be an unaffected visit to my grandfather’s home. Now I was dressed in the marriage gown of his dead wife.

“Try it on,” he said, egging me on. “I’d like you to have it…see you in it.” I put it on, for him. I was always desperate for his approval, his bright blue eyes staring at my reflection of her. I, the eldest and first to wed, would inherit it, as I would everything else of hers.

The wedding gown was white once, now deeply yellowed and blonded. It is entirely lace, with pearl buttons along the bodice. It covers all of me, from the floor, to my wrists, up to my neck. The gown is itchy, but I manage, I glance at my reflection, I am barely eighteen and incapable of handling myself, or admiring myself, yet staring at my image I am haunted by my own hollow beauty. My dark eyes meet his eyes in the mirror. “You look just like her…”

I frown.

He looks down, weary at his rough hands, caked with age. His lips parted and puzzled.

He doesn’t finish the sentence, but I imagine his next words. You’ll end up just like her…

I smash my head into the mirror.

There was a portrait of a naked woman in my grandfather’s große Fachwerkhaus that is no longer his. It hung beside an WWI Austrian war helmet and immigration papers from 1938. My heritage wrapped in a few vital items. They were dusted and verboten to touch, yet I did as a girl anyway. Especially the mysterious photograph. For the woman does not face the photographer, she dances with a brown mare holding its reins, and faces the setting sun over a great golden wheat field. She has long brown hair and a face that I have never seen. She is entirely faceless. Yet as a girl, I touched her image communing with it, through time, the Divine, hoping it was the woman I imagined her to be as a child. The woman I knew nothing of.

Grandpa was born in America after his poor-ish family traveled the sea, fleeing the Nazi invasion of Austria. Grandpa had one older brother and a mother, who I knew not, and a father, Derf. Fred, really. Frederick. The names have always stuck in the family. My sister carried a similar Germanic spelling, Kyra. Grandpa goes by his middle name because he was bullied in school for being too Germanic. Yet I too go by partially my middle name, I hate mine too. Cursing our ancestors for the obvious choice of traditional names in hopes of preserving any memory of Vaterland, in a place that turned out to be worse than the regime we originally ran from. Derf is painted too, yet you can see his elderly face, old and rusty, like Grandpa, with looks of massiveness and melody that only one of the Aldrian family can carry in their mind.

When I asked Mom where we were from she would say, “It’s just like The Sound of Music,” which, inevitably I watched a billion times with her, as it remains the favorite film for us both. I searched for an origin of self there within that story, climbing those green, rocky mountains, across the Swiss border, seeking freedom, seeking America.

Mom sang Edelweiss to me sweetly in German when I was young and when I couldn’t sleep. There, a breathy and hidden sorrow in her voice, both of us wrapped in the heaviness of tepid white sheets, weeping. Her arms around me, rocking me as I was trying to recall a world I did not understand, attempting to grip onto her and dig my nails into the memory of the melody.

When I asked Mom about her mother, I heard many stories. How at our old stud farm where the cabin now stands, the faceless woman would sit out in the sun and read until she was diagnosed with cancer that ate away her skin. In Milwaukee, Mom would point to spots surrounding the old Victorian home she grew up in, saying, that is the old stables and that is where she hid her pantyhose before school. That is the very window from which her elder sister dangled her younger sister. The window Mom points to is outlined red and three stories up.

“That is where Grandma made bread with the power out and this is how she made granola.”

These morsels of information I held onto like a beggar with breadcrumbs, of an old life in another time. For with them, I began to piece together the rest of the story, the rest of the song of my grandmother.

“This is where I would sit and wait for your Grandfather…when he never came.” She stares, head cocked at the velveteen window seat, curtained and shrouded. The silent place of her childhood loneliness, immaculate, much like Grandpa’s other homes but passive, unaffected and full of mourning. Dust particles still drifted in the direction of the window seat, but disappeared with the morning sunlight. Gazing between Mom and the space, I heard a whispering melody that dragged my heart into my stomach.

We are all abandoned and sincerely unaffected by our ghosts.

I was like her, that woman who escaped this world. Faceless forever, Grandma. I was to be the one to inherit her insanity.

When I was a teenager, Mom sat me down on our brown velvet couch. We still lived in the big house before the fireplace that was left unburning, leaving the dark, night-lit room a frozen cold. She tried to hold me again, tell me the truth, this time with no pretty songs.

She was upset and told me the therapist was concerned about me. That I may have that disease of the mind that runs in the family. That they’d be watching me. And she was crying, why was she crying? Nodding and crying she looked as if something — suffering and time — had beaten her long ago. Her eyes full of longing, she gripped me tight. I gazed at her, in awe, knowing she never cried, except about her mother.

I took her hands in return, old, thin, stretched skin. Mom’s hands shook and she pleaded. She spoke words verboten and they poisoned her mouth as they whispered out.

“When grandma took herself, she took the cat too…the cat too…”

At eighteen I finally saw the Austrian mountains and lakes and hills and valleys, I finally understood our differences and our echoing similarities. When we ran nach zu Hause from America, I thought that I could escape it all like my ancestors before.

Kyra and I wanted to. We climbed a high peak on a muddy rainy day, when Mom had her eyes off us. Along the journey, the earth was wet and the sky dim. Together briefly we sat in shade of greenery, resting for water. But my eyes refused to break from her as she told me again the wicked stories of her mind. My desperate need to protect her and keep her happy helped us move on to the rest of the mountain. I took her hand, and up we went.

When we reached the peak waved back to Mom, joyful, celebratory. Mom yelled for us to get down. We waved back to her at the outpost. It felt like we were children again, having forgotten the feeling so long ago. Our feet crooked and slipping in the mud beneath us, near falling, I still looked up and saw her smiling face. We gripped desperately onto each other so neither of us would fall, and we would escape to this Vaterland together. And from this view, gazing over the mountains and valleys, a wet wind in our faces. The world was quiet, the pain evaporated for a moment, and I knew out here we could forget ourselves. But on the way back, after we slipped down, falling into the mud and giggling, ruining our jeans.

She asked me, ever somberly, if I was alright and I nodded. Kyra nodded, too. Her delicately, youthful face darkened with hardship. I asked if she was okay and with a slow uncertainty, she turned away from me and nodded, carrying only that mass of memory on her back.

I watched her walk back down the path to the outpost, thankful for this vacation, as it was a welcomed escape for both of us, away from hospital visits and in-patient treatment for her.

I wish I had told her I would hold unto her forever. So she would never fall again.

Was this an unaffected visit? Impulsively, I wondered, pausing to search through the bright green grasses and edelweiss dotting the earth. I walked behind my younger sister, in the shadow of the mountains, and I swear I could almost hear them singing that sad melody of home. Die Bergen singen…für immer. That old immigration song.

Kyra and I suffer its melody in different ways, and are both attempting to live through it. Both trying not to be transfixed by its sickness, like Grandma was some time ago. How long? I still don’t know…

Later, I received the only correspondence I have from the faceless woman, from the youngest daughter, my aunt. A book of lineage, southern French on my Grandmother’s side, with names I otherwise would not have known. A yellowed and beaten notebook with a rose on the cover, all I have left of her other than the photograph on the wall. A mystery journal, so perhaps I could speak with her in some tangential way again, some sort of magic, like before with the painting. I treat the otherwise impartial object with a reverence often only used for relics of the ethereal. I recall running my fingers across the dilapidated cover, knowing she held it once, she controlled it, it was her story, her song, mine to keep.

Yet when I first read it, I wept, unable to comprehend its mystery. Unable to piece together the whole song, with still only fragmented pieces of the melody, rhythm and tempo. Again wrapped lonesome in blankets, whispering madness and music to myself, shaking, trembling, rocking like I was a young girl again. I gripped it to my chest, trying to understand, how, why, when…did she go?

There are not always answers to things. Songs can’t always be sung to their completion.

And the thing about carrying weights of history on your shoulders is that you will sometimes break down and die. Whether it be by pills and a cat or a broken bloody mirror, it will happen.

From The Book of Unaffected Visits: as it’s written in black or blue cursive, much like my own handwriting and includes poetry. At least I know where I got it from. Poetry that sounds like my poetry, yet reads in fragmented, repeated lines. It speaks, sings with its own melody, and echoes in this hollow body of mine, shaking me to my core.

“The heart of the matter is
That we are all accomplices
We all contribute
To our own destruction…”

And I wrote, before I knew her;
“The mind is predetermined to destroy you.”

We were both right.

In her wedding dress, when I was eighteen, I was already dying inside. Too many hospital visits, too many lonely dangerous, drunken nights, too many cuts, bruises and scrapes hidden under the lace. Dying like her, Grandpa may have been right as I stood dumbfounded, glaring back at myself in that ghostly, fragmented mirror. I pulled back, my fingers still lingering on the broken glass, dripping with blood.

And I finally saw her face, through the blood of my own. It dripped down like rose petals on the glass and along the lace of the gown. Her face is an echo of mine, yes, but different, older, wearier, hungrier. Like a poltergeist always sent to haunt me. Here I was a perfect image of her, yet she was successful in her prophecies of destruction and I am not. Her ghost could not control me anymore. My native, broken, unaffected visit.

I ruined the dress, covered it in blood and never wore it again. That faceless woman of the painting, of my magic, of my dreams, were me and she was gone.

It was good to return to the Austrian mountains and listen to that song once again, to remember it. The sorrowful, ancestral song of the faceless woman gone can’t transfix me anymore, not like it used to.

Copyright 2021 Aldrian