People in the Grasses

Renee Gladman
Illustration by Laura Padilla Castellanos

The following excerpt is from the fifth book in a series of novellas set in Ravicka, a tiny country located somewhat untraceably in eastern Europe, whose citizens—the Ravickians— communicate through an elaborate orchestration of language, ceremony, and mild to extreme calisthenics. The novels explore various mysteries within Ravickian culture and daily living, such as buildings that relocate themselves, invisible architectures, an underground original city, and an unnamed crisis that causes resi- dents to flee and produces spontaneous rubble. This new novel fol- lows intricately threaded stories of lovers, families, elders, cultural workers, discoverers, and art makers, set upon Ravicka’s most hon- ored meeting ground: the Grasses. Previous titles in the series are Event Factory (2010), The Ravickians (2011), Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge (2013), and Houses of Ravicka (2017).

–renee gladman

“space moves and gets wide and contracts and pulls people in, pushes them out, just kind of stands still sometimes, forgets itself,” said crossing the plain, and we weren’t talking about objects in space, the enormous objects built in a moment, collectors of time: you spend your day in them, in one, moving between floors, departing for an hour, returning, departing for three hours; leav- ing one, going into another, calling one “The Pouissart,” another “Talérnics,” many others with names of various origins, many for- eign, many inconsequential, without reference; you just say where you’re going, and I take the word in my body; I never asked its history, I rarely asked, but it wasn’t the enormous objects that at first moved, just our notions about location. We’d say, Over there the density, here sparseness, here the hills, here the great plain; there, more density behind that, the “flat wall” and here the dens- est, downtown; we’d talk about our neighborhoods: I’m in Mohaly, water city; I’m in Sahaly, bridge city; Rab is in Sürat, circle city. You walked the streets surrounding Fallender Hill, the blue-black mountain, talking about Verdic. Everything was dense, but on top of that things were spread out. You had this plain, but underneath sprawled the Old City, which went on without people talking about it, which harbored and evolved, most certainly grew as we grew. It didn’t need to give reports on itself and didn’t haunt the upper streets, and maybe didn’t call the buildings out of their loca- tions as I think it did, though not to itself, not below ground, not among the cathedrals, just out of the center, perhaps to make a new center, something people wouldn’t be able to find immediately, some space for our future: because a city couldn’t convince another city to fix itself; it could steal that city, talk it out of its grounds. No one I knew thought of Old Ravicka, but all the while as I aged, as I went to school, then graduate school, as I began to write novels, as I rode the trains and buses, writing novels, writing about the trains, as people came into my life, I felt it smolder; we all did but we called it different things. I remember Rab wanted to play music all the time; Letic talked about the water of his childhood, “Water took over everything,” said looking out the window, said flailing, said drinking coffee from a traveling mug, dressed in a navy-blue wool suit; out of town now. You grew up in a city above a city that went on and was warm from its own infrastructure and passed that gate that led to the park that led to the bridge that led into the cas- tle from which, if you found the stairs, you descended: you were there. Bodies hustled there, it was known, but I couldn’t put faces to them or time, or any of the usual customs. I tried “hello, the house” at the gate, on the sly, when I was very young: I used my voice; I used my torso; I dragged the right foot in my cartwheel, as Dis Lokije had instructed, had told all of us when we asked, which we only did when we had her alone, all of us believing she was from somewhere else, thus probably there—the old city, old, deep underground place. What it meant to not think about a place was different from never going, but it was a delicate subject between generations and between lovers and between a teacher and her stu- dents, between scientists and artists, architects and bookbinders: for everyone “not thinking about” was a vast, ever dividing activity in relation to that city below ground, writing its history on top of ours, taking our city’s name. And you couldn’t even blame the Basharac here: this was our problem, we—someone—made this divide, required thresholds, named bridges after them. For a long time, though, when we talked about space moving, it was purely description; we were establishing a geography or perpetuating one that had been designed for us in the previous century; we were still getting used to the names they gave us for what parceled space, for what ran between, for what lay horizontally everywhere, for how we divided the above from the below, the luminous from the nearby rough formations. We grew up trying to trace the itineraryof these elders who stumbled about devising language, wanting the body to be a pen; it was as if these figures had been born out of a part of the day where distinctions in the geography were their sharpest; they had a different concept of space, saw it move, put numbers to it, said “buildings,” said “night sky,” and I grew up between the day and the night, in the middle room, and eventu- ally inherited this responsibility. The elders assigned me a task that only one person did at a time at twenty-year intervals: I was to take the names they had devised for the different acts of space—how it moved, where it moved, what it took in its possession—and write recursive descriptions of those spaces, noting for each passing day or by the hour, the half-day (it was hard to see space in the smaller increments, those that often eluded the “strengths” of the eye— moments, partial moments, the fragments that surrounded us); I was to note the particularities of space changing, and at the end of my tightly organized passages I was to place numbers, solutions to equations; I was to draw semblances and enactments of space in medias res, catch it changing. I used my eyes, as I was doing now, between sleeps as the bus crept across the plain, and later I used instruments of my own design.

We were establishing a geography or perpetuating one.

In the midst of which, an open fold spread toward the neighboring country in a slow question, fanning left and right toward the train stations Hilayli and Hilayli, encircling the families of Ravicka, their festivals, their endeavors: Rab and Letic writing histories; the trio drawing the first maps; Jandovine practicing solo for voice; the Lejacs, the Cartajûs, everybody sipping something, eating out of homemade paper bags, and meeting here, all over, as a daily ritual of being part of a story that couldn’t be written but which itself contained many that could. We came by bus or train, in all weath- ers, from every square of the city, performing the stakingpareis essential to the health of our language: you laid things out; you dug your feet in; you walked the periphery of your desired spot and called out the names of those present, pausing for each per- son’s response (Mama’s “get some,” louder than everyone, becom- ing her moniker for that season, for that arrangement of bodies; Jandovine next to us talking to himself in his own arrangement, remote and strange, coveted); first you called the names of those with you—your group—and then you called upon your neighbors, the groups you were bisecting (it would be rude not to acknowl- edge the interruption, how you have altered space), their responses differing in length from your intimates: you needed to know their plan for the day—when they arrived, who they were expecting, what would be the nature of the day’s activities—were they writ- ing, were they playing a sport. If there were tensions between one group and another (Jandovine had a minor dispute with Sido), both parties had to perform an experiment in the interstitial space, elaborate and public: starting from the ground Jandovine lifting his pelvis with his head and feet remaining on the ground, saying “always,” saying “plenty was then,” wondering “if being in the day was nearing, was diaphanous,” and Sido moving swiftly beneath the bridge of him, removing all rocks and bramble, rolling the r of eirimjil, and all of us involved feeling something release in the environment, a divide forming, a quiet water filling the gap. We sat down and organized our snacks. All day in the grasses we made these constellations: the three of us, then some meters away Jandovine, then more meters on the other side of Jandov, Kesasi’s ever-growing family (Ilil and her cousins, babies last summer, in the center, drawing circles on thick brown paper, and the new babies now in baskets, none belonging to Kesasi but rather to her sons and daughters; the sons and daughters in their own encamp- ments on the other side of the road); Kesasi’s schema being inter- vened by Frondeim’s arrival, now reading the eleventh volume of a series, shouting out his favorite words, and Duder Rejaldar in counterpoint. Others made spirals of our afternoon in that season, in that arrangement of three: Mama, me, Sido, and these families of Ravicka were the map upon which the trio (not ours) drew; we were one map laid upon another map (the grasses) on top of other maps that sought out time and choreography: what a body did five years ago on that day in the spot where Bernard now lay sleeping. The stories of the grasses moved between generations, cohering at certain times of the day, becoming mappable, then dispersing, leaving filaments at the edge of space; our conversations ended there too, where a collective dream picked up again about dusty novels, about bodies crossing terrain, falling down, bodies putting names to things, at one point trying to shave the grasses. We lay with our novels tucked under our heads, burrowing into stories we all knew, but everyone looking for new entrances; our history was full of novels being written in public, between sleeps with bread in your mouth, novels usually about other novels, where maybe you recognized a woman folding white sheets on the top floor of an old house, a trio of women sitting to draw, though this wouldn’t be the same trio who were alive in the moment of our reading or writing (our lying back looking through the grasses, spying Aron and Hadan—what are they doing, building something); it also wouldn’t be people who were dead. In a sense, there was always a trio of women; since the very first ululation of air across the plain, since the very first crack of atmosphere, of motion among the ground’s objects, the things flying, there has been a trio of women drawing, an Aron and Hadan, all time divided and meted out among the novels, the dreams, the paragraphs, and not just those that we carried and manufactured, but also those that we inherited and we passed on, sad to say, even those we imported: we gave out time to other languages, to neighboring countries, to Bashir, of all places. You recognize a person in a novel because someone has per- formed the dividing pareis on her; someone wrote her name down on a piece of paper and handed that paper to another person in full regalia, observing the “thus splits,” until the second person handed the paper back to the first: it had been read.

Renee Gladman is a writer and artist preoccupied with crossings, thresholds, and geographies as they play out at the intersections of poetry, prose, drawing, and architecture. She is the author of thirteen books, including One Long Black Sentence, a series of white-ink drawings on black paper.
Originally published:
December 1, 2021


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