Once upon a time, there was a magician, and he lived in the forest, and he had an enemy. Or he had had an enemy. Or he knew that one day he was going to have an enemy. So he took his heart. Or his soul. Or his self. And he put it in his little finger. And he chopped off his little finger. And he hid it very carefully, so that his enemy would never, never find it. Aha! though the magician. How clever I am! Now nothing can ever harm me. But much much later, when the battle was over, he went to look for that little finger and found to his grief-- he found--
You can't remember.
Let's start over.
Жил-был волшебник и он жил в лесу и у него был врага...
You wake in the night and there is no you who wakes in the night, there is only the moon: a flat circle that makes shadows. You are a body that knows what a moon is. You are a body that can move, can blink. You are bare feet on bare linoleum. Cold. You are a calculation of stars. A skyline. New York City. A noise you know by memory. Sirens like little birds alarmed by disaster. Horns. Wheels hitting steel plates. You stand at the window. An empty vessel filled by the city. You don't miss being anything. You don't know what it's like. How would it feel to be something?
The space inside of you is large and feels like hunger. You rest your forehead against the pane. Your breath leaves a white mark against the glass. Warm. Transient. A living trace.
People come and go. Sometimes you remember. At first they flicker in and out, day by day. As brief and interchangeable as moths. Moths go with lamps. Are you the lamp? You watch them curiously. You try to make their faces stay.
"Red," you say one morning, and the red one smiles. Or almost a smile.
"That's right. I'm Natasha. You remember."
"Sometimes. Some things."
The color remains when her name is gone. You think of poppies. Cherry cordial. Blood from an artery. A shirt you wore and lost in Ljubljana. Red is a memory. Red has a taste. Like iron in the teeth. Sweetness on the tongue. "Can I just call you--" you say, desperate. "Because I don't--"
"Remember," she finishes. Her eyes are silent. "Yes."
So: "Red," you say.
"The human body is not an engine, Captain Rogers. It isn't predictable. Not in that way."
"You make it sound like you're looking in a crystal ball!"
"We might as well be."
You touch one of the images pinned to the lightboard. A ghostly head. An eye. A brainstem. Photographed by the machine. Every anatomical piece is so vulnerable, still and in relief. The spine: a Meccano set you could dismember. The soft penetrable flesh of the brain. Whose brain?
"Steve," you say. "Is this... is this me?"
You have practiced and practiced to know this man, and yet still, looking at him feels like not-quite-knowing. Feels sometimes too physically painful to bear. The past stirs inside you. Full of absences. An animal with missing teeth. You think: Steve. You think: the smell of clean cotton. Cream soda. Vanilla ice cream. The tock of a ball against a bat, a hand against your face, a cleanly breaking bone, a strap holding you down, electricity--
"Don't," Steve says, and you realize you are shaking. "Don't. We talked about this."
Don't reach into that void of memories.
He's still careful not to touch you, since you broke his wrist. You didn't want to. It was A, B, C: the obvious next sequential action. He had touched you, so... Steve had bitten his lip, but he had not made a sound. He had looked at you, very gentle, with blood on his mouth. "Please," he had said. "Bucky, please."
Now he says, "Those are the pictures from the MRI. You don't remember the MRI. We had to put you to sleep."
You sleep a lot. They put you to sleep a lot.
You trace the circle of one strange eye in the image. You stare at your own head's ghost-like contours. You say, "It doesn't look like me."
You remember a lot. A lot of things. But you don't remember that you remember. You don't remember that you can remember. The language is fucked. There's no word to describe the step that's missing. Red stands in the kitchen, washing dishes. She hums. You whistle along for a phrase. She stops. She asks you a question. You don't know; you don't know; you can't-- but she sees. She purses her lips, looking a little rueful. And then, hesitantly, she sings: "Когда мы были на войне; когда мы были на войне..."
"Там каждый думал о своей любимой или о жене," you finish.
"Но я не думал ни о чем; но я не думал ни о чем...?"
"Я только трубочку курил с турецким горьким табачком."
It's like a call and response. On earth as it is in heaven. You taste dirt between your teeth. Smell the dark winter scent of pines and cedars. Smoke in the air. A soldier laughing: "Вот, Сергеи!" The sky as white as quartz crystal. There had been snow. There had been snow the next day. Someone had once told you a story. Жил-был, it had begun, в лесу...
Red peels your fingers out of their clenched fists. Nail-marks on one palm. On the metal palm: nothing. Her little hands are very fierce. She doesn't speak for a while. Then: "Poems helped, for me," she says. "I knew a lot of poetry. Образ твой, мучительный и зыбкий/ Я не мог в тумане осязать. When I couldn't remember anything else, I could always remember the next line."
You say, "That's how I feel about killing people."
"I know," she says. "I mean: I know."
"Who taught you poetry?"
"Who taught you to whistle?"
"Who taught you to sing?"
"Who taught you?" she counters. She smiles, very small. You look at her and you think that no one has ever taught either one of you anything. Sometimes in laboratories a specimen gets contaminated. Sometimes a seed gets smuggled on board a plane. Things grow where they aren't supposed to grow. You can't wholly contain them once they're gone. The earth is just so given to growing. You don't know how to say this. Words are still a problem. You have so many voices.
So you say, "I didn't know I could sing."
"Can you play the piano?"
You don't know. But you can; you can, as soon as you sit down at the keys. It is wonderful; it is easy and mindless. Almost like killing.
There are a lot of tests. A lot of exercises. What do you think of when you look at this picture? Can you draw a house? Draw a family? Draw a flower? Which one of these words doesn't belong? "I don't know," you say, again and again. "I don't know. I don't know."
Sarajevo, Philadelphia, Dresden.
Bee, grenade, flower.
Mets, Dodgers, Knicks.
Kind, compassion, kill.
Almond, clavicle, orchid.
There's some code, some secret you don't understand. "Flower?" you guess, and, later, "Almond?"
A man's clavicle breaks as easy as a stalk. It is curved under the skin like an orchid. You once felt your own separate from its joint. You remember this clearly. Nothing else: only that moment of separation. There is no pain in the memory.
You look up from the piano and Steve is there. How long has he been watching you? He is neat and freshly washed, his collar crisp, his hair damp. You know, without knowing how or why you know, the exact scent of his aftershave. You have the usual sense of nausea, of incompleteness, a sense that you are straining at your seams. You look away from him and drop your hands.
"Chopin," Steve says. "Prelude number four, in E minor."
"I wouldn't know."
"But you played it. You played it beautifully."
"That's the easy part," you say. "The part without words." It's true. It's true, you think; so much of this struggle is pinning down sensations, tracking them back to the correct memory, like following strings unwinding through caverns when someone has come and tangled them all together. When someone has come and cut half of those strings. You know what you feel, but you can't explain it. You can't put it in words. You can touch things: in various forms of violence. Your hands are how you do your communicating. "What do you call the thing," you say, "the thing that you wind up?"
"A music box."
"It doesn't know how to play music."
"But you're not--" He stops.
You know the next part. You say, "I'm not a machine?"
He flushes uncomfortably. "Well, you're not."
No. The human body is not an engine. You tap one metal fingertip against a key. You say, "I don't know what I am."
"It's okay not to know," Steve tells you. His face is very careful.
But you know. You know that it's not okay.
Steve brings you candy bars. Red brings you flowers. (Natasha. Natasha. You almost know her name.) You don't know what to do with either object. You don't know why this is what they bring. But you can't bring yourself to throw them out. Every object, after all, is a memory: the physical reminder that something has occurred. Like a footprint in the present world.
"You shot me once," Natasha says, conversationally. The two of you are sitting at the kitchen table, playing chess. You play chess masterfully, though you have no memory of playing before.
You tilt your head. You move a pawn forward two spaces. You don't know how to respond correctly.
"I know you don't remember," she says. "But I thought you'd want to know." She lifts her shirt up carefully and shows you the scar, the site where the wound had been. It looks violent. It looks like a crater. You think: she has a lot of scars on her skin. You want to touch it, but you don't know how to ask.
"I'm not sorry," you say, "but I know I should be."
"I think Steve would consider that progress." She arches an eyebrow and unleashes a rook.
"I'm not trying to judge you."
You play in silence for a while. You will win. You always win. You always know the exact correct move. You played with Steve once, but Steve wanted to understand what you were doing. But how did you, he asked, and Why did you, and you could not tell him. In the end you flipped the chessboard over, furious-- furious-- unable to understand your own emotion, contain it, identify its roots. Natasha accepts every move, the way she would accept a sudden rainstorm.
You watch her face: calm and still, like a painted angel. You remember killing a man in a gallery room. It had been very quiet and filled with light. A dark angel on the wall had averted her eyes. You had used a garrote. No blood had been spilled. You had been so aware of him as a separate animal. You had held his body close to your own, almost as though you could push yourself into his skin, push yourself into the human body you no longer owned. And then after--
You don't remember.
Natasha watches you. She doesn't ask.
"You keep bringing me flowers," you say after a minute. "But they always die."
"That's the point of flowers," Natasha says.
Stark-- a sharp voice, a flat smell of metal-- comes to ask questions. He does not stay still. He always, always has to pace. Your heartbeat picks up as you track him. He speaks very fast. He expects you to respond. He talks over your head, directly at Steve. There is something aggressive in his voice. You think of gunfire, ammunition belts fed into machines. You are already starting to not be someone. A, B, C. Раз, два, три. Your body knows how to slacken, go dreamy and passive till the next time a man hands a weapon to it.
Fingers snap in front of your face and you mechanically break them.
After that there is a lot of shouting.
You wake up.
You wake up drenched in sweat.
You wake up
and you are a fist clenched around this thought:
I will not let them send me back again.
You lash out, but someone is wrapped around you. Someone is holding you, holding you in. You want to claw and kill; you want to snap bones like sticks. But the smell of him stops you: cotton, clean skin, an old note of cologne, something with citrus. You freeze. You don't know what to do. You breathe in and out in gasps.
"I'm so sorry, I'm so so sorry, I'm so sorry," Steve is saying. His voice is muffled at the back of your neck. "I'm not going to hurt you, nobody's going to hurt you, nobody's going to send you back."
You don't believe his words. But you believe his body. You believe in his skin against your skin. You don't know how to explain it in words.
His face is wet when he presses it to your shoulder. "I'm so sorry. We would never, never do that to you. I didn't think-- you let us sedate you before, and-- I didn't know."
You stay very, very still in the circle of his arms. It's the closest you have been to a living human being in--
His heart beats against you.
"Why now?" Natasha asks you, later.
You look away. "Before," you say slowly. You stop. You think. About the language. You think about the words. "Before, there was nothing to be afraid of. There was no me to send back before."
She doesn't say anything for a long time. She is making tea: pouring water in a long line over a glass canister of leaves. The smell rises up, smoky and dark, undercut with something sweet. You can't name the scents. But they are all of them warm.
"I think you're wrong," Natasha says. She sets the tea on the table. "I think you've always been you. In some ways. If the river runs dry and is filled with new water, it is still the river."
"That sounds." You don't know what it sounds like. Dubious. "I don't like it."
She shrugs. "So?"
After a while, you say, "But the new water is still. It's not the old water. And it can never be."
"No. But we're not talking about the water. We're talking about the river."
You think about it for a long time. You think about your body. When the others are asleep, you prowl the floor. Your footsteps make quiet cat-like sounds. You are haunting the house. You are the house that is haunted. You are the ghosts in your own house. You feel the dead in these hours of silence. They are with you under your skin. All those brief souls stuttering alive and then gone. The murderers, the men that you have been.
After Stark, it's: back to the tests.
The doctor says: "Can you tell me the last time you felt out of control?"
The doctor says: "Can you give me an example of a time when an action had a consequence?"
The doctor says: "Can you tell me a story?"
You say: "Once upon a time, there was a magician, and he lived in the forest, and he had an enemy. Or he had had an enemy. Or he knew that one day he was going to have an enemy. So he took his heart. Or his soul. Or his self. And he put it in his little finger. And he chopped off his little finger. And he hid it very carefully, so that his enemy would never, never find it. Aha! though the magician. How clever I am! Now nothing can ever harm me. But much much later, when the battle was over, he went to look for that little finger and found to his grief-- he found--"
The doctor says: "What did he find, James?"
You say: "He found that he had forgotten where he hid it. And he knew that he would never ever get his heart back."
The doctor says: "That's a very sad story."
You say: "Maybe that's not the whole story. Maybe he didn't chop his little finger off. Maybe he didn't even put his heart in it. Maybe his enemy came along, Fee Fi Fo Fum, and chomped his little finger right off his fist. Maybe the magician was just so fucked up by it that he made up the whole thing. Because if his heart was in his finger, he could get it back. Otherwise he was just fucked."
The doctor says: "We don't appreciate that kind of language."
In your bedroom is a drawer filled with candy bars. "Almond Joys," Steve had said. "You used to like Dream Bars. But now they don't make them." You tear the wrapper off one and take a bite. Coconut and chocolate. It's too sweet. It makes your teeth hurt. Have you eaten coconut before? Have you eaten chocolate? No immediate memory stirs. You press against the cavity until your head aches. Something has been stolen from your body. You feel the intrusion: the broken windows, the rifled cabinets, the furniture left broken or askew.
You pitch the rest of the candy bar in the trash, and take a shower for what feels like years. Lately you cry a lot. You cry in the shower. You curl up in the corner and let it shake through you. The doctor had said, "It's very standard. Neural connections being reforged. We see it all the time in traumatic brain injuries. Your brain is still figuring out what's normal."
In the dream you are walking through a neighborhood you know. You walk the same obsessive route over and over, trying to etch it into your brain. Past brownstones, under subway tracks, past Russian cake shops, past the butcher with his slabs of raw dead meat. Past the comic book store with its bell that jangles. There are lines of washing hung out over littler streets, billowing as though filled with ghostly bodies. But the buildings are empty, and so are the streets. No one is alive here, except the shadow you are chasing: someone little and light-haired, who darts along alleys, half-invisible and always a block ahead. You have no voice, or you would call out to him-- tell him to stop, stop, stop, please! But you know you are already, already too late-- that you will never reach him-- that he will leave you alone-- alone, alone, all all alone--
and you wake up screaming, "Steve!"
and Steve is gathering you carefully, sleepily against his chest, wrapping his body around your body, forcing you with all of his weight to feel safe.
"I'm here," he says. "I'm here, I'm here."
"But I'm not, why can't I ever be here--" You breathe noisily. Your voice is cracked with tears.
"Shh. Shh," Steve says. "You're here. I promise. I've got you."
"Not all of me, why not all of me?"
"All of you. I promise," he says.
A test: you are in a room facing the one with wings. Sam. The one whose wings you broke. Sam.
"Come on," he says. "Come on. Fight me. It's cool."
This is the idea. They want you to fight him. Steve said, It's okay. We won't let him get hurt.
A punch is a note you play, a key on the piano. The first word of a song. It tells you the other words.
Last night: Natasha cooking in the kitchen. Feathering cilantro into soup. Singing, singing, her same husky voice: "Я не слуга ли я верная..."
and you answer an octave lower: "Посылочка не скорая?"
"Сусек хлебушка выела?"
"Kолодезь воды выпила?"
Steve sits at the table, reading a tablet. Listening. Just listening to you. "Hey," he says. "You wanna try something? Okay, okay, but you have to promise not to laugh."
You don't know how to laugh. You don't know the physical motion. But you know enough to know you should not say this.
"Remember, you promised," Steve says. And he ducks his head and starts to sing. "That old black magic has me in its spell... That old black magic that you weave so well..."
You don't think about it. You join in. "Those icy fingers up and down my spine...The same old witchcraft when your eyes meet mine."
The smell of old beer. The creak of floorboards. A record spinning on a gramophone. Rain falling on the brick streets of Brooklyn. Bridge lights glowing in the night air. A snatch of memory and that's all, that's all. You chase after it, but it vanishes. Steve is still singing.
"Stop," you say. "Stop."
You're crying. You're crying again.
And now: another song that you can follow. You plunge into it. You fight mechanically and without thinking. Blocking. Kicking. You have no weapons. You are a weapon. You watch yourself from a distance. You could break his neck. A Meccano set you could dismember. But you don't. You don't. You can't.
It's very fast. You bring him down. He lies there, panting. You put your knee on his sternum, in the center of his chest. You look into his eyes. His living eyes. You can see, there, all of his humanness. It used to be a thing that you took from people. But it ran like water out of your hands. You could not hold onto it. Not ever.
You remember blood slipping over your hands. The heart was still beating. The blood was still pumping. The knife moved in meat. This was the rest of the song. This was what they wanted. This was how it went. Air stopping. Life ceasing. Sliding knife through muscle. Scraping bone. The limbs jerking. The lifelessness. The chord resolves.
You flinch back. You crawl off Sam's body. You vomit. You are shaking. You feel sick, sick, sick. You don't know why. There is no emotion. Just a memory that you don't want inside you. You can't get it out.
Natasha says: "Shh, shh."
"No. Of course not."
Sam is joking, laughing. He's alive. There's so much livingness in him. You catch his eyes. A flash of seriousness. He nods. You think he knows that you need to see. That you need the proof: there is no way you could destroy him.
You say numbly, "I could have. But I couldn't. I couldn't."
"No," Natasha says.
Once upon a time there was a magician, and he lost his heart. Maybe he put it in his little finger and chopped it off, and hid it, and couldn't find it again. Maybe a monster came and ate it. Maybe it was a little of both. "Alas!" said the magician. "How will I live without a heart?" And the answer came: The human body is not an engine. At first the magician didn't understand what this could mean. Then he felt it in his chest: a new heart growing. Cell by cell. Little by little. He said, "But it will never be like the heart I lost."
And the answer came: "No. The heart you lost is not the heart you need."
Some days, still, the words are simply gone. You wake and you're not sure if you are yourself. You're not sure what being a self is.
Steve sits with you. Makes you cups of coffee. Lists off stops on the BMT with you, like a song. "Bay Ridge."
"Bay Ridge Avenue."
Or Natasha, implacable, smooths the hair back from your face and sings "Ой, да не вечер."
Or, like today, you simply sit at the piano.
Words have to come with a voice. Words have to come from a self that is making itself heard. Music is a current that moves through a body. It needs nothing except a pair of hands that work. For a little while you can let yourself not be a person. The music clicks through your music-box mind. Note by note. The relief is huge.
Steve sits on the sofa and watched you softly. He has that look. That look you see whenever he watches you play. A kind of hunger that doesn't make you feel frightened. Something too gentle for the terms you know you to use. You say, tentative, guessing, "You like--"
He says, "You never played music, before."
You frown. You feel confused. "So you don't--"
"I like it. Seems like it makes you happy."
"No," you say instantly. Then: "I don't know."
"Don't know what?"
"Don't know how to do that. To be happy."
Cream soda. Vanilla ice cream. The tock of a ball against a bat.
A low voice singing, husky, in Russian. Cherry cordial. Cut flowers.
Steve's laughter, swelling to fill a room.
"When I look at you," you say, desperate, "I feel-- I don't-- "
"It's okay. It's okay, whatever it is."
He sits beside you on the bench. He touches your shoulder. He's still so careful. With his large body, it's ludicrous. You let him wrap his heavy arm around you.
"When I look at you," you say, "I want to be more. More."
He doesn't say, I want that. He doesn't say, I don't want that.
He says, "I want you to be happy."
He says, "I want you to be happy. That's it."
Steve humming in the kitchen. Natasha reading at the table. Not poetry. A novel in French. Dishes clash. White steam billows from a pot. You smell oregano. Basil. You're better now at naming scents. There's a bottle of wine breathing dry fruit over the counter. Wine in the glass from which Natasha sips. You sit and watch her. Her sharp fingers turn the pages. She lifts her eyes, catches you looking. She smiles at you.
Outside, it's raining. Autumn. Wind scrapes past the buildings, throws fistfuls of water. You can remember seeing rainstorms before. You can remember worse rainstorms than this. You remember. But you are glad to be here, in the warm yellow light. Watching Steve move in his clumsy way around the kitchen, singing badly under his breath: "Driving in your car, I never never want to go home..."
Natasha rolls her eyes without looking up. "How embarrassing," she says.
Steve throws a dishcloth at her. She catches it one-handed. "Embarrassing," she repeats.
"Hey! See if you get any food."
"You're lucky I'll eat your food, Rogers."
The back-and-forth of their banter flies over your head. It is warm and familiar, and you feel yourself smile without meaning to. You didn't know you could smile. You thought you would have to learn it. You didn't know it was inside of you. But here it is, in your body, that first shift, that first step. A chord resolves itself, and the note is unexpected. I don't know how to do that, you had said. To be happy.
But: oh, you think. Oh.
You do, you do, you do.