Shifting Shadows: Alina Character Sketch
The world is a box. The world is a shadow. Shadows climb up from the ground, stretching taller the closer they move to me, until they are as big as the sky. The world does not have shapes, only shades of black, gray and white. The world is cold: the cold bars that keep me in the crib, the mattress is cold, the bars on the window, and the glass behind the bars, are cold. The cold makes me shiver. The world is noisy. Alizabet talks; she tells stories. I am not Alizabet. Auner screeches. I am not Auner. But I make noise too. “Nani, nani,” I sing this song. Every day, sometimes all day. Some days, it’s the only thing I say at all. I don’t have a mother. I don’t know what a mother is, unless it’s Alizabet.
Nani, nani, puilui, mamii
Nani, nani, puiul mamii,
Puişorul mamii mic,
Facete-ai, maică, voinic.
I run a bony hand over my face, my fingertips brushing my thin eyebrows, over my nose. Auner lets me feel his face; he likes touch. I like feeling things mostly because feeling something means it’s real. I’m cursed. We all are, that’s why we’re here, but me, especially, because I’m the only one who can’t see. What is red? Alizabet says red is when people throw things. She says red is the sound of mad. Blue is the opposite. She says blue is when everything is quiet and she’s telling us a story. Yellow is when I sing and clap my hands. Or maybe, she says, yellow is when Auner pockets an apple and splits it with us. Yellow sounds like it would be my favorite. My hand falls from my face, gently slapping Alizabet’s side. She doesn’t move, but I know it’s her because I recognize the feel of her hip bone.
Shades shift, new shadows creep. I turn my head towards the darkening grey. I bounce twice, my arm lifting in the air and falling, my palm flat as it hits the mattress. Alizabet moves. The air changes when shadows come. My sightless eyes get big as saucers, Alizabet forgets to breathe, and sometimes she shakes. Auner used to screech, but he stopped that after the beatings; now, he says he taps his middle finger against his thumb. Auner only has one full hand or he’d probably tap both fingers.
“It’s a boy,” Auner whispers, the sound barely making it to my ears. We’ll get smacked if we are heard. The shadows linger, stopping. I hear others shifting, my heart beats quickly. Shades shift again, I can tell they move closer to us. Quiet sniffles tell me the boy cries, but I don’t hear any tears. The banging of skinny knees against the rails, the scuffling of Auner moving, shadows shifting tell me the boy is being placed with Auner. The big people yell “Quiet!” even though no one makes any noises. Their shadows creep away, leaving light behind; the click clack of the door shutting behinds them makes my nerves rattle.
“It’s your number,” Alizabet offers, her voice thin and frail. “The numbers on your shirt; it’s your number now.”
“It’s your name,” Auner adds.
“Mine is 92. That’s my number,” I pat my chest, my fingers lightly scratching my bare skin. The new boy, he has clothes, but only because the new ones always have clothes. The first time he soils them, or he gets hosed off, they’ll throw the clothes away, and he’ll be like us.
Sniffles answer. Alizabet moves, her body tugging the edges of the mattress. “Don’t worry,” she says. “It’s not really your name. If you tell me what it is, I won’t forget it, and I won’t let anyone else forget it, either.”
Silence. More scuffling sounds, the squeaking of the bed as he lies down, turning away from us.
“Can you speak?” Auner asks.
The new boy doesn’t answer back.
“What’s his number?” I ask.
“One. Oh. Seven. One oh seven.”
“But that’s just a number. He’ll tell us his name,” Alizabet says quietly. I can’t see her, but her shadow sits in the corner of the bed, closest to the railings, closest to Auner’s bed. Alizabet cares. She is the only one that does in this place. She’ll get the boy to tell her his name; I know she will. I didn’t tell anyone my name, either, when I first came. I thought if I said a single word, they’d cut my eyes out of my head: that’s what they said they’d do. So, I was like the silent boy, I didn’t talk, either. I just laid on the mattress, sucking my thumb, until I started making noises. Noises scare everybody here. Only silence is allowed. If there’s noise, there might be a beating, and you don’t have to be the one making the noise to get the beating. Alizabet huddled up behind me, and put her hand on my back. It was the first nice touch I’d ever had. She told me I had to be quiet. She told me she knew I was scared. She asked me my name, again, like she had when I first got here. I grunted, softly at first, then louder.
“If she don’t stop, I’ll hit her,” some strange boy’s voice came from not far away. Alizabet patted me. “Do you like to sing?” she asked; it made me quiet. “I’ll teach you a new song.” Her voice trembled as she sang, “Nani, nani, puilui, mamii ; Nani, nani, puiul mamii; Puişorul mamii mic; Facete-ai, maică, voinic.” The melody quieted me. “What’s mami?” I whispered. “Mommy.” The quiet was loud, but I was only quiet because I was singing the strange song in my head. I didn’t know what any of the words meant, but I liked the melody. And Alizabet’s voice was calmed me.
“Sing nani, nani,” I say softly.
Alizabet sings. It calms everybody, even the older ones. The new boy doesn’t speak, but I know he’s listening. The sound makes pictures race through my mind, pictures of the first time I heard her sing it. I cross my arms over my chest, my fingernails biting into the flesh. I am number 92; that’s what they call me, if they call me anything at all. There are lots of us here; I don’t know all of their names. Alizabet does. She knows our numbers and names, she knows what will calm Auner when he screeches, she knows what 61 needs when she starts banging her head against the wall. Alizabet keeps track while we lose track. Lose track of time, lose track of names, lose memories.
Time stretches. Sniffles, coughs, a sneeze, rattling bars, the sound of urine against the floor. Shadows shift from light to dark. The new boy’s legs are restless against the mattress, his belly growls. Alizabet’s singing stops; the silence grows louder. The new boy whimpers and I hear him rolling; the creaking of the bed and the lengthening shadow tell me he sits up. “E–E—E – li. Eli.”
Alizabet perks up. “Eli? That’s your name? I’m Alizabet.”
“Why do you talk like that?” Auner asks, his voice curious, not mean.
“What – wh– what’s it m-m-mean?”
“What’s what mean?” I ask.
I answer, “It means mommy.”