Here Am I – Jonathan Shorr

When one has dreamt that one has died,

what is there left to dream about?

–Pierre Janet


I have a bead-shaped scar on my neck; it looks like a teardrop.

I didn’t know my dad well; he travelled a lot. I feel like I knew him, but I mainly only knew him from what people have told me about him. He travelled a lot. He knew people from all over, and they knew him.

I have some clothes in my backpack. I have a pair of dice; I have a page from a book;  I have a letter; and I have my sheep’s horn. I know things mostly from gossip, from what I’ve heard. And inferred. I don’t know which parts are true, which are lies, and which are wishful thinking. And from the letter. There’s no return address on the letter. I knew he was an old man; I could tell by his handwriting.

I had to carry a tray at first, but lately I’ve been allowed to carry my food to the table in my backpack. I’m worried about Mom, I said. Not myself, but Mom, I said. Don’t tell her while she’s driving; she’ll crash the car, I said. Don’t tell her while she’s in the kitchen; she’ll cut her own throat with a knife, I said. My prize possession is a sheep’s horn. I don’t remember when I got it. I’ve kept it with me since I was a kid.

I was in a cab. It stopped. I sat there. The driver said “24.60.”  I sat there. “24.60,” the driver said again. That second time he said it, I knew he wanted money. It was in my pocket. I paid him and got out. I closed the door. He opened the window. “Your backpack,” he said, pointing. I opened the door; there was a backpack on the seat. I took it. I carry things on my back, in my backpack, never in my arms; I don’t know why.

Don’t think ill of him, they said to me.

I have not spoken since I returned. Did I speak before that?  I don’t know. After it happened they wrote to my mom. I know they were worried about her, but they seemed even more worried that she’d think ill of my dad. Sometimes I think it was my fault. I didn’t have to go with him. I didn’t have to carry the wood up to the campsite. I knew what he intended to do; I didn’t have to lie there. I didn’t have to believe him. They told me it was from the snake bite; they told me that after the snake bit me, my father had to make a cut there to get the poison out.

I have tried more than once to kill myself. Just now I’m in a regular ward, but I know I’ll have to go back there. Someday I’ll try again.

He’d changed his name; I remember that. I don’t remember it; it happened long before I was born. But I remember them talking about it; I remember the pictures and the letters and the immigration papers with that other name on it. He wouldn’t talk about it, except to say that that person was dead and that place had never existed. Sometimes when I don’t have my backpack, I put it in a plastic grocery bag, the kind that has handles. I put my arms through the holes; I carry it on my back.

He was an old man even then; now he’s older.

When I can’t sleep, I read my page from the book. I read about George, with his gun, standing behind Lenny, talking about the rabbits. I don’t know who George is; he seems like a nice man, though, the way he talks about the rabbits. I don’t think he seems like a killer. I think he must have had a good reason. People knew him; they looked up to him. Not me. He returned without me. They said he told them I was fine, that I’d be along shortly. In fact, he didn’t know where I was. I know she didn’t believe him; I know she knew something had happened.

I went inside, up the stairs to my room. A woman yelled at me and a baby cried. I closed the door of my room because of the noise. I didn’t remember anything that was there,  I didn’t recognize my books, my clothes, my pictures. I took the picture off the dresser, the picture of my mother and my father and my baby sister and me and my dog. I sat on the bed, looking at the picture. I couldn’t remember my sister; I couldn’t remember my dog. Police came in; they were holding guns. I put my hands over my neck.

I string beads. I string beads all day sometimes. I string tear-shaped beads. I make necklaces.

I was sitting on the bed in my room—It wasn’t my bed; it was no longer my room or my house. I was looking at the Star Wars sheets. It’s not a confession, what he wrote me; it’s not an apology. Maybe it’s an explanation. Not explaining how it was an accident, how the knife slipped. He said he’d lived a life of sacrifice, that this was the culmination of that life. Explaining how he had to do it, how much he didn’t want to, how much he believed that it would work out for the best.

I don’t remember where I got it, my sheep’s horn, but I know it’s important. I know because of its sound. There was no snake bite. He said we won. He said we passed the test. He said that now we could rest; now we could feel safe. I’ll never feel safe. I was much too old for Star Wars sheets; that’s how I knew it wasn’t my bed. But they made me cry.

My mother died before I got back. No one told me. Grief, they said, grief at having lost her son, they said. I knew that wasn’t it. I knew that it was grief, but the grief that comes from betrayal, from being no longer able to trust. I carry in my sheep’s horn the sound of my mother crying. As if my mom wouldn’t think ill of someone who tried to kill her son.

Except for the food, it’s not so bad here. I don’t mind it. It’s the sound of the terror I feel when I even read the word “father.”  As if they wouldn’t think ill of their father if he tried to kill them. It’s the sound of love I feel from my father, whoever he is, wherever he is. Except for the food, it’s not so bad here. I don’t mind it.

When I was 14 my dad tried to kill me. I have a bead-shaped scar on my neck; it looks like a teardrop.


Jon Shorr returned to his own writing after retiring from a career as a teacher. His published work includes magazine feature articles, short stories, and creative nonfiction. He currently produces and hosts a weekly podcast for Passager Books, a publisher of work by older writers.

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