Mongolia, New York, Prague, Krakow

Matthew Salesses


1. You do not know me, never will, but I am your dad. For one night, your mom thought I was exotic. Now you are inside her and I am in Prague. Do not accuse me—you have your family. I am not a part of it. I was something different. You were a matter of luck.

You will grow up and think your dad is someone else.

2. If you are a boy, I hope you are not like me. I was a boy once, the youngest eagle-hunter in Mongolia. My grandfather raised me. We were out in the Steppes, desert everywhere. My only friend was my eagle. My parents were dead.

Later my grandfather gave me my inheritance. I was fifteen then, supposed to get an education, leave my eagle behind. I went to school in New York. Go, my grandfather said, do not turn around. I never turned around.

3. I wish you could see Prague. Here the Charles Bridge, the ruins of Vysehrad, the Castle. No desert. No sand.

I move people up and down the river. I work for this ferry company, One World, speaking Chinese to summer tourists. I talk about things which really are, and which are not, and which always have been. By rule, I am supposed to stick to history—my study in New York.

I have some advice for you, when you become a student. Learn everything. Get answers to the questions you pretend you do not ask.

4. My grandfather taught me how to get an eagle. I got one in a net. I was nine. We watched it swooping down as it swooped down like the wind. The bait was there on the end of the line. The eagle was hungry—those were the eagles that fell for traps, so many starving eagles in the desert. When it got the bait, I was ready with the net.

The eagles could get tangled in the nets easily. My first time, the eagle I caught cried. My grandfather gave me a metal hat for its eyes. I put the hat on its head. It went blind and calm. Then we wrapped it inside a black blanket, extra careful of its wings. I carried the eagle back to my grandfather's house. She screamed at us. She fought hard. My grandfather put a long tube down into her throat. I spit water inside. The water went down the tube. She drank my spit. She was thirsty.

5. I have been in Prague six months. You have been inside your mom. Now I need someone new. Do not get upset—I am alone. One day, you will understand. This is my first date with a Czech girl, Zuzka: I meet her in the King's Gardens, outside the Castle. She is the one who almost looks Hungarian. Black hair, raven bones, smile of a scarecrow. Her black eyelashes flutter suddenly, like the expression, “bats.” We speak English. She says she has never visited the castle for five years. I say I visit everyday. I am walking and thinking about Kafka the writer, I tell her. I think this is the perfect time to show her what she could be like as a tourist in her own city.

I pay for everything: all the buildings on one ticket. The cathedral looks like it shouldn't fit. Like the castle walls are too skinny and it is too big. I imagine you inside your mom. Flying buttresses, the half-arches are called, and gargoyles, the creatures with long beaks and claws. You can see them some places in New York. Here they stick out everywhere, looking dangerous. Zuzka's people had a murdering age, long ago. Prague was the center of an empire.

We go inside St. Vitus Cathedral. A man who could be any man prowls around. He checks tickets for photograph permission. People look up and lose their eyes in the beauty of the ceiling. Then they lurch around when they see their friends or family have moved on. A woman wears her past on her sleeve, like the idiom. She stops people with hats. She touches her head.

I am not religious—and neither is Zuzka, she says—but we are silent like we are religious. We do not talk to each other for a long time. We are inside the cathedral. We are free from the outside world. Her skin brushes mine. Finally we exit. At the Powder Tower, we make out, gunpowder under our feet. We find room for our tongues. I have not lied much the entire date, only about Kafka the writer. The truth is, I do not read him. Maybe I should.

6. Today, my grandfather is probably dead. Eagle hunting is probably dead. The sandstorms are probably hitting the Steppes, desert everywhere, as always. I was born in Mongolia, am some part American, am in the Czech Republic now. Not where I belong.

When your mom told me you were inside her, I think I became in love with her right then. Now, someone else is talking to you through her skin. Someone else is resting his ear against her belly.

7. The first time I fed my eagle, it was tiny strips of meat floating in a bowl of water. She had to take it slow. My grandfather said if she was too hungry, she might eat until her stomach exploded. She looked so proud, maybe too proud for food, but here was the only meat for a hundred kilometers around.

I watched her. She gobbled it down. She tilted her head back and it disappeared. It looked beautiful going into her mouth—like it was going home. I promised I would never let her be hungry again.

8. In truth, I met Zuzka yesterday because I got this email from home. Daniel. He pretends we are still college roommates pretending nothing matters. He says the world is so small he saw your mom in the Korean market below his loft in the Village. What was she doing there? Why was she shopping for vegetables so many blocks down from your home on the Upper West Side? You must be big now. Daniel says your mom waddled in and picked up a tomato.

He writes this too easily, like she is not carrying a part of me, like you are not mine. A tomato, he writes, like I did not fail to make her leave her husband. He says he will visit me in Prague, he already got the ticket—is the city really cheap? He has heard the girls are pretty.

The coffee server passes behind me and sees the English on my computer screen. Who am I, she wonders. My brown skin and my foreign foreign language. She does not ask do I want a drink. She ignores that I am there. Maybe she is embarrassed. Maybe she thinks I should leave. I imagine her future life—with fire, and very visible (but painless) burns.


9. I run my tours and wait for Saturday. Saturday, I will see Zuzka again and forget about your mom. Thursday, this old Chinese couple hold each other and I hurt for what I do not have. They smell the same, like they still take their showers together. Their two old bodies naked and wet. I do not know what to do.

How many countries have you been to, the woman asks eventually. I tell them to guess. For some reason, my passengers never guess so few.

Her husband kisses her cheek and I feel like they are stabbing me.

I am restless. I am leaving blank pages, story of my life. I am leaving a blank page here and moving on.

10. My grandfather said keep my eagle by my side always. He said she was finding my smell inside her heart. Eagles will never have more than one master, he said, eagles when they accept you will stay loyal. Later the eagle will hunt for you. It will bring you its food as its gift. Then you are an official eagle-hunter.

I spit on the eagle's food before I fed her—this was so she would know me. When I tried to pet her, though, she turned away. She bristled. She did not know me, not yet, my grandfather said. I wanted her to know me. My grandfather said we would feed her always the same time, every day. Then she would be used to those times. She would look forward to them. Eventually she would like the Steppes, desert everywhere, be thankful.

11. On the last tour on Friday, the day before I see Zuzka, I think about you again. A little Czech girl gets on the ferry with her mom, just the two of them and ten Chinese, and I wonder, are you a girl or a boy? The daughter speaks English and her mom looks off into Prague like I could never know the city as she does.

The daughter asks do I have a girlfriend, and then why am I doing tours, like she is wondering who am I really? Her questions interrupt my history. I look at her face and think of other possible faces. She says something in Czech, and her mom smiles. Boys will be secretly in love with her in five years. I hope she does not break their hearts, but I also hope she leaves them and not the other way around. I speak English for her, as I am writing now, for you.

If you are a girl after all, when you meet your first boy, please do not think he will be your last. He will not. You must be strong enough to stay and strong enough to leave.

12. Zuzka takes me to a bar near And'el, very expensive and Czech. I buy drinks that cost an hour tour. She wears billowing sleeves, has beautiful wrists beneath like the masts of flags. Her friends arrive like judges and I buy drinks again, and a third time. I look eye to eye, toasting nazdravi. I can learn this, I think. I can be a catch.

When her friends leave, I tell Zuzka I want to walk beside the river. Just her and me and the Vltava. She says I try too hard. Her body slopes down boobs to ass, and I wait for myself, for my sexual energy. Her eyes are this blue swirl. She is throwing this beauty in my face, her fingertips like smoke. It is true I try too hard. I am afraid of her. I tell her I do not want to take advantage of her drunk.

13. In my boyhood, I slept in my grandfather's bed while my grandfather slept on the floor. My eagle sat beside me, her metal helmet over her eyes. I liked to listen to her breathing. The music those great birds breathed was the same as the sound of wind. My grandfather said when my eagle had a nightmare, she swung her head. When I had a nightmare, I kicked. I hoped soon she would no longer need the helmet. She would stay next to me, looking out, or looking at me, and sleep.

14. All weekend, I get no text or phone call from Zuzka. I plan a trip. I do not want Daniel to see me here, in Prague, on my ferry. I decide to go to Krakow, farther east. I will travel alone again. But at the last minute, I do not think it is over with Zuzka. I buy two tickets. I decide to act like what I said when we were drunk was true.

I send an email to your mom. Heard from Daniel you are waddling. Maybe these days you are craving tomatoes. I am still in Prague. I am thinking about what you said to me: It was just one night, you said, but you knew I would keep you at a distance. Also, you had a husband. But one night was not enough to understand me—like you said—so different than yourself. I just was thinking, maybe you wanted to hear from me. Where you are is not without phone or internet. Who our baby is is not so different than me.

I have some advice for you, my daughter, my son, if you are so different. Stand in the middle of the desert for fifteen years, and you will know me.

15. I taught my eagle to hunt as a teammate. She should catch food, my grandfather said, and she should bring this food to me. For training, we used dried corn in rabbit skin. She was supposed to fly down and attack it, then leave it “dead,” then hop onto my glove. I was supposed to give her real food—this was her reward. Good for her was good for us both. My eagle, she did not do this. She grabbed the rabbit skin, then flew after me, angry it was a fake one. My grandfather had to help. One week passed before she trusted me to feed her.

16. Wednesday morning, Zuzka calls at last. She says she doesn't remember much, she was too drunk. I do not believe her. I think she is giving me this chance.

That night, we go to a club somewhere. She is dancing on the stage. I am below. Old songs are singing, like all of the past is in there. I reach out. I do not think of you. I ask her to go to Krakow with me. She pulls me up to her. The lights are hot red, hot green, hot blue. Then what does she do, she cups my balls. In front of everyone. I look around, thinking: help.

Almost two o'clock, there is a fight, and I am in the middle. How, I do not know. People pushing, drinks falling over, people falling over too, like dominoes. Falling and falling. In this moment, I know where everyone is in the club. I know where I will go if I must run.

Zuzka gets us in a cab and then drops her head on my shoulder like a bomb. We are together, going to my apartment. I think, where is my sexual energy? Her hair scratches my neck. But then there we are, in bed, and I surprise myself. The sex is okay, I am an okay catch.

17. I trained my eagle to sit on my hand. I had the job to improve her balance. She sat blind on my grandfather's rolling pin. The rolling pin was covered with rope, so she could grip it in her talons. I rolled it back and forth. She tried to stay on. I was supposed to do this for four hours. After two hours training, I got so tired, the desert everywhere and hot and windy, I had to fall asleep. I was nine years old. When I awoke, my grandfather stood over me, sad-eyed, my eagle gone.

18. When you are older, I hope your mom tells you about me, but do not come to find me. I do not know where I will be. When my parents died, I looked for them, walking all over the Steppes, desert everywhere. I thought if I walked far enough I would reach the ocean, where my grandfather said they were resting. I saw the bones of an eagle, instead. Something, or people, had picked it clean.

I cannot promise what you will find, or where you will end up, if you look for me.


19. Thursday, we are up early, Zuzka and me. I think maybe your mom is gone from my heart because Zuzka smells like Zuzka. She hears me cooking pancakes when she is in the shower. She comes out, my towel around her. She sniffs the air. I picture her nose if it wriggled off her face. The fun we would have chasing this nose! She says I have a grace period for bad sex if I keep cooking for her. I know she is lying, but this is nice to say. I laugh. I look at her wet hair, all this hair I almost forgot girls have.

20. After my eagle disappeared, my grandfather talked to me seriously. True eagle-hunters must have patience, he said. True eagle-hunters must be as loyal as their eagles. I felt my broken heart apart like two wings.

21. I met your mom in a library, a normal place, a quiet place where she was loud. I was reading and she came over to my table.

But actually, I was the librarian. I asked if your mom needed help, I thought there was something she couldn't find on her own. Later, she said women were supposed to be the librarians, long hair to take down, glasses to take off, uptight personalities to unravel, and men were supposed to fantasize.

22. Leaving Prague, the train rumbles as if over butterflies. How else to explain it—a little floating, a little crunching. We move out from Hlavi Nadrazi to the countryside of metaphors. Metaphors are passing my every window. Metaphors are sitting in every seat. Metaphors sit between Zuzka's lips. I see the metaphors wanting to meet me, to shake my hand, to feel if I have a firm grip.

Bits of smoke and gold in the air, and Zuzka alights on my arm. I hope that she is sleeping; I have to think. I am remembering what is left behind.

23. Day after my eagle disappeared, my grandfather took my hand. He led me to the window. Look, he said. I started to cry. She had returned home. To me. She was sitting this place where she was fed. Last week, and then the next five years, she was fed there. Maybe I had not failed. Not my grandfather, not myself. She I had failed but she forgave me.

24. We get to Krakow, Zuzka shops until I can book some hotel. I should have found this before. But it is easy to find a place now. It is easy when are you finding a room for two, a couple, and you know you will spend money. I am trying not to think investment.

Later, she calls from in the square. I come out from the hotel. She is in a thousand people, and I find her. I don't call her, and then there we are, together.

We believe in the same things. That a city, it lives and breathes. That men and women, they fit naturally together. That this union, it does not scare us.

We eat some place we are hoping is traditional. She speaks for me—these Slavic languages. She tells me of her nursing school. Sounds warm and fetal, that hospital care, her care. The cheese of the pirogies sticks inside my mouth. I yawn and turn away, thinking choking. I think if she is perfect she can save me. She can save me in our corner and nobody will know.

When I left your mom, I told her I would give her three chances to keep me in her life, in yours. The first was this meeting to tell her I was going. The second was our kiss goodbye. The third I said I would keep until she could not resist me. She said this would never happen, and when I said what about when her husband saw the baby's brown skin, she said she had already told him what was coming. The truth, her trump card, like in the game, hearts.

25. One day, I will go back to America. But I do not know if you will want me then. Maybe I can never be your father. Maybe I lost my chance.

26. Zuzka and I pass some churches in the dusk, then we are on to the Gestapo cells. Some thin teenager leads us down, into this basement where people stopped and were tortured and then went on to Auschwitz. He gives us a translation of the markings on the cell walls.

What can Zuzka say to me? We let the walls speak. Ghosts have scratched their nails here: existence, specific places, prayers, definitions, people, what-if people, people who wondered, people who they wondered about. Zuzka sways, shakes a little, walks a little, looks at me. Through the hallway where the doors would be shut and locked.

People who wondered who are we when they died.

Is she seeing this? Is she too scared of disappearing?

27. I want to tell you, those years before I went to study in New York, I told my eagle I would be something extraordinary. I told her like I was a tree that could build itself into a boat and sail off. I told her like I would build into a building somewhere safer. I told her somewhere like under the feathers of this whole strange world.

You will never read this.

That night, after my eagle returned, I imagined I was sitting on her wide black wings, flying away with her. I imagined the wind in my face, my eagle flying me out into endless fields, endless rabbits, hunting. I reached down and masturbated for the first time—I didn't know what was I doing. I didn't know about sex, or masturbation, or how to do either. With some instinct, I just lifted up my manhood as it lifted up itself, and felt how different that part of me was from the rest. I put my hand out for my eagle and, surprised to feel shame, I stroked her feathers.

28. Now I look at Zuzka in the other room, and I think, what else there is to say? She too is feeling the emotion of the disappeared, as someday you may, too. I stand alone, in this last cell, reading on the wall a message from some M.

“Lucia from Gorlice was with me in the camp 6 December 1944 in Kobylce near Bochnia I have fallen in love with her.

Re-reading, I can see their love so clearly. I can picture him, in this little room, writing to someone who herself knows, deep inside her, that he will never return. She is as close to me as she ever again would be to him. He will disappear. He will promise to return when they both know he cannot. He will promise; he will be far away; he will go on to Auschwitz; but she will stay forever on this wall, where I will find her: his words the only place their love exists.