It had been in my family for as long as I could remember, for as long as anyone could remember, this heavy, ponderous thing, this inheritance. Its origins seemed to date back to the black and white parts of history, the eons that blended into long expanses of time where the stories of entire generations were reduced to single utterances. Maybe it came to us at the very beginning, coded into our DNA before even the start of recorded history, when some ancestral life form emerged from the primordial soup and slowly, awkwardly, stretched its way towards dry land, acquired legs and lungs, survived the extinction of the dinosaurs, and ascended into the trees. Or perhaps it was acquired soon afterwards, just as a related hominid stood upright for the first time, and began to wonder, began to dream. Maybe that's when it all really began.
In some of the tales I have heard, its presence is recounted within the walls of an ancient city where burnt offerings ascend to the heavens in thick columns of dark smoke and the fate of the world seems to rest on the shoulders of priestly men with long beards who mumble incantations and stare into the sky with glassy eyes that plead for deliverance. But then, as the city is razed and its stone walls crumble, out it goes, the inheritance, carried on the back of a great-great-great (and on and on and on and on) grandfather who, along with other broken, bruised refugees, weep their way into exile. The sparse and incoherent stories that follow tell of roaming, of settling for short periods of time, of picking up and moving again. And still, somehow, hidden within those shadowed places of memory, there is the dim flicker of the inheritance as it is transported across entire continents.
There it is again centuries later, during seemingly happy, peaceable times, revered in a quaint home that overlooks the Mediterranean Sea on the edge of the Iberian Peninsula. It’s from here that we can see the sun rise on one edge of the horizon and set on the other as it hangs over the sails of passing ships that magically descend into some distant unknown. The breeze coming off the Sea whispers to us, and its words are familiar because these are the whispers of home. But then our musing is interrupted as the mobs begin to roam and the church bells chime so loudly that glass and bones are shattered with each toll. It is another long-lost relative who, in the great confusion that ensues, salvages the inheritance and caravans with others from the decimated community to the outskirts of a forest on some nondescript field in an unsettled part of Eastern Europe.
Decades later it will be rescued from the fires of a pogrom in the western part of Russia after the local landowner decides that the inheritance is dangerous, and that the people with the strange customs and the funny costumes living within the borders of his estate have something to do with the death of his only son through strange, savage circumstances that will only be correctly identifiable much later, in a more civilized age, as tuberculosis.
Another flash of time and the inheritance appears in the home of a cobbler in Minsk who himself doesn’t quite understand how it has come into the family or why he should be held responsible for it, but accepts his lot with resignation the same way he accepts that he is a cobbler because his father was a cobbler, and his father’s father was a cobbler, and his son will also be a cobbler, because that’s just how it is. Except that the son doesn’t want to be a cobbler, he wants to be an attorney. And perhaps he would have become the family’s first attorney if not for the fact that no university accepts him. So one morning he grabs his hat and coat and goes out as if it will be just another day of hustling for a ruble, which is the situation he has been reduced to. It is later that evening that they find his body hanging from a bridge that runs across the Svislach River. The inheritance is discovered in his inside pocket, pressed against his chest and folded up like a suicide note. It feels warm to the touch even though his body hangs there for hours, swinging in the wind and the rain that falls heavily that day.
Another stain, another blemish, and still the inheritance is passed along, making its way to a house outside of Moscow where it sits on a wall, mounted in a beautiful gilded frame. The wealth of the frame, of the house in general, tells us that in one short generation the family has experienced some financial success and they are proud of it. But we have little time to enjoy this good fortune because we soon begin to hear the distant sound of rifle fire that pounds and ricochets until it is at the front door and shoots through the lock, until boots stomp through rooms with parquet floors, muddying oriental rugs as callused, proletariat hands tear down tapestries and portraits and smash delicate porcelain china with the grace of a child stepping on an ant hill. The inheritance is ripped from the frame and discarded as a thing without value in the glorious new Motherland. We watch as my great-grandmother, only a little girl at the time, scoops up the inheritance and hides it in her housedress, her tiny heart beating against it, and her skin sensing something tapping back to her, as if another heartbeat drums in response.
To the west, decades later, that same girl is now a mother herself. The inheritance that she has saved is there with her and life is illuminated by two flickering wicks that slow waltz in the draft seeping from the cracked windowpane that her husband, my great-grandfather, has promised to fix but hasn’t gotten around to yet. It is said, she tells her children, that a flame represents a soul, and just as it takes a single flame to brighten a room, it takes just one soul to brighten the entire world. Her children are too young to understand, but they smile and they nod with deference to their mother. What she doesn’t tell them, as the red flags with the white circles and the black crisscrossing lines are unfurled on the streets that the room with the cracked pane looks down on, is that a single flame is also all it takes to ignite the entire world, to immolate it. Within months, the inheritance burns with the bodies. It is later covered by dirt inside a mass grave that has been dug across all of Europe, like the intricate root system of a hanging tree that sprouts its gallows wherever the climate is welcoming.
But there are survivors, and somehow, a surviving son who will one day become my grandfather discovers the inheritance in the rubble. As his young eyes dart quickly across the gray landscape, sensitive to the true, grotesque potential of the living, and primed to identify danger in everything that is not dead, he sees the rusting edge of something old, forgotten, sticking out of the seething ground. As he pulls on that edge and lifts it, he notices how heavy it is, much heavier than it had ever seemed while he was growing up with it, his mother’s prized possession. With the sweep of a hand across its surface, he wipes the ashes aside and watches as they are picked up and carried off by the wind. He decides to keep it hidden, and sews the inheritance into the inside lining of a suitcase as he slips over borders and eventually plows west on a large steamer. As he stands on the deck of the boat and lets the saltwater air fill his lungs, he realizes that he is the first of our family to cross an ocean. He wonders what this means, if traversing such an expanse means anything at all. He considers the possibility that he is simply passing into a reflection of the same world that chokes and retches behind him. Several decks beneath his feet, the inheritance trembles from the vibrations of the boat’s motors.
New York is a punch to the gut, a gasping for air in claustrophobic shoebox apartments, in the thick steam of sweatshop rooms, in the acrid air that marries smokestack chemicals with the garbage that gathers in gutters. And still, there is more life here than there has been for a long time, carelessly but lovingly entwined in the multilingual shouts of street vendors, the intricate shapes of the scowls he encounters on the subway. The inheritance is here as well, but it has been relegated to a dark space at the back of a closet. Perhaps it is too painful for him to face on a daily basis because of the memories it recalls. Perhaps it has become just some tacky, old-world relic that is embarrassing for a new immigrant to display. Or perhaps it is all a terrible lie, nothing more than the collective delusion of generations who projected their vision of the world onto the inheritance and imagined it as something it never was and never would be.
My mother, who grows up in that home, recalls the inheritance being brought out on special occasions, if only as a subtle reminder of where the family came from. My grandparents warn her not to tell anyone about it, explaining that they want to prevent any possible ridicule she might endure. It is, after all, such a silly thing, something that it will be difficult for others to comprehend. But my mother is curious and rebellious and decides one day to take the inheritance with her to a friend’s home. She slips it into her schoolbag as she leaves the apartment. It is only later, when she returns in tears, that she begins to understand. She places the inheritance back into its hiding spot and her parents are none the wiser. Months pass and when they ask her what happened with that friend that she always used to spend time with, my mother just gives them her innocent smile and announces that people change, they grow apart, and my grandparents are surprised to hear such mature words coming from a child’s mouth.
My grandfather tells me the things he remembers which he feels comfortable speaking about, the legends that have been passed on to him, and my mother tries to fill the gaps in his memory, which keeps getting worse. There are some photographs, but the timelines they cover are sparse and the brooding characters snapped in focus are often a mystery to all of us. The inheritance is eventually passed to me, and I find it interesting, in a purely objective, scientific way, that we’ve had it for so long.
I grow up, little by little. I go to college, I get a job, I get married, we have kids, and there comes a day when, cleaning out my basement, I come across the inheritance. It has grown dusty, tarnished with age. Some pages are torn, some edges are scuffed. A gash runs across one side and another side swells, as if stained by water centuries ago. It is a sad-looking, ancient thing, and I wonder what possible need I can have for it, what possible purpose it can serve after all of these years. Because I pride myself on living lightly, not weighed down by the stuff that shackles us in one way or another, I take it to the curb and leave it there along with some other boxes.
I forget about it until that evening when my son approaches me, a panic rising in his voice as he asks about that forgotten thing I have left out with the trash.
Don’t be upset, I tell him, I will get you something even better, something new and shiny that will be all your own and you will trace your story and the story of your family with it.
And before he is even able to respond with deep, troubled cries that seem to emanate from some long ago time and far away place, I feel a sickening emptiness.
Once he is spent, his face a red, cheek-burning mess of tear trails, he stands there and stares at me across an expanse that stretches for millennia. Somewhere in the distance, beyond the silence in the room, we hear the garbage trucks carting everything away.
Ruvym Gilman is a short story writer and playwright. His short stories have previously been published in the compilations "What We Brought Back" and the "Warren Adler Short Story Contest Winners." Two of his most recent theater projects include the plays "Doroga" and "Covers." "Doroga" premiered in New York in 2012 and was later staged in Boston and Detroit. "Covers" premiered in New York in 2013 and was later staged in Moscow, St. Petersburg (where it won the award for “Best Production” at the ArtOkraina Theatre Festival), Montreal, and Philadelphia. Ruvym is currently working on a film-version of "Covers" and a novel about how humanity is impacted by man’s arrival on Mars. When he isn't writing, Ruvym works as an attorney at a non-profit in New York.