The following text is reproduced with permission from International Booker-winning translator Jennifer Croft‘s second novel Homesick, first published in the USA to critical acclaim in 2019. It was named winner of the 2020 William Saroyan International Prize for writing, and a Best Book of the Year by BuzzFeed and Times Literary Supplement. It is published for the first time in the UK by Charco Press.
Even though she knows she’s not supposed to, Amy looks forward to tornados
Even in the day the sky gets black, and the streets get empty. The wind pries back the leaves of the silver maple tree, and underneath they gleam.
When it’s a tornado watch they don’t do it, but when it’s a tornado warning, the girls go and get inside the pantry, where they squeeze in among the cans and powders and cardboard boxes and wait until one of their parents says they can come out. The pantry is the only place in the whole house that does not have windows. You have to stay away from windows when a tornado comes because the very thing tornados love best is breaking glass, and if that happens, and you’re sitting for example in the bathtub right below the bathroom window, you will almost inevitably get hurt.
When the sirens start, Amy gets them organised. She has developed a system. Each of them is allowed three toys, not more, and Amy is in charge of the flashlight because Zoe might break it. Zoe always dallies over her dolls, feeling guilty for playing favourites. But Amy explains to her how in life you have to make choices, and eventually Zoe always does, although sometimes she tries to hide things in her tiny pants pockets.
When she gets caught she bursts out laughing or into tears depending on Amy’s face. She always gets caught. Then Amy quiets Zoe, and they kneel down on the dimpled linoleum, pull the door shut, and wait.
Once the door is closed, Zoe’s dolls have conversations. Often they discuss the weather. Amy just listens, lets her own dolls rest, feels her sister’s hot quick breaths on her neck. If their electricity isn’t out, Amy insists the light be off anyway. Slowly she gets sleepy like she does in the car, and just like when they drive somewhere, Amy, unlike Zoe, would rather just not get there, would rather just keep going, would like it if the warning never expired. Then the pantry door will fly wide open, and all across the top of it the frying pan and the strainer and all the knives will glint and shiver like they want to fall. And their mother will reach down and grab Zoe, and then she’ll carry her away.
Their mom gets them ready for all the possible disasters that might ever occur
So she reads aloud the headlines from The Tulsa World at breakfast while Amy and Zoe eat their Cheerios. Sometimes their mom mixes bananas up inside their Cheerios, but oftentimes she gets distracted by all the different disasters, and the bananas just stay where they are on the counter and turn brown and get mushy until she puts them in the freezer. Then the freezer fills up with frozen brown bananas until at some point their dad comes and puts them in the trash.
The girls stay quiet while their mother talks, but they don’t really listen. All they know is that there is always a disaster happening somewhere. Besides tornados there are earthquakes, and plane crashes, and wars. There is an AIDS epidemic, although neither Amy nor Zoe knows what AIDS is. They only know they are supposed to wash their hands.
When she takes her baths their mom reads them articles from Good Housekeeping. She never takes showers because she says she saw a movie one time where the main character got killed while she was taking a shower, and then there was blood everywhere. She likes for the girls to keep her company while she’s in the bathtub.
Sometimes she tells family stories. She always tells everyone the one about the crazy neighbour from down the cul-de-sac who shot his family and then hid in the big tree in the backyard. Their dad was off in Stillwater running one of his workshops on geography. So their mom went and picked his rifle up and prepared herself to do whatever was necessary to protect them. She put Amy under the bed and told her to stay there no matter what, and not to make a sound. No matter what, she repeats, and every time she tells the story her voice gets thick there.
Zoe was still a baby and had to be held. Even though she was a baby she could sense that something was wrong because she would not stop crying, and that made you think, says their mother, about those women in the Holocaust who had to smother their own kids so they wouldn’t get discovered.
Amy and Zoe know the Holocaust was when the Jewish people all got murdered for no reason and dumped into a big pit in the forest.
So their mother had Zoe in one arm, wailing, and the gun in the other. The police were there already and had him surrounded. They knew this from the TV because even though it was literally right there in their backyard their mom knew she had to stay away from the windows in case a bullet came through. The crazy neighbour kept shooting and shooting and even shot one of the other neighbours who had come over to help the police.
Here their mother pauses and looks around every time she tells the story.
But the man who got shot chewed tobacco. And he happened to be chewing tobacco right then. The bullet went in through his cheek at an angle like this — their mother points to her cheek using her forefinger as a pistol — but instead of going on into his throat and finishing him off it lodged in his tobacco!
Everyone always likes that part, which the girls don’t understand because they know that tobacco will kill you too, and besides they see this neighbour all the time sitting out on his porch spitting out his black juices into a big tin pail, skin and bones and ragged-looking, that ugly old scar on his face.
But Amy hates the whole story. She can’t remember being alone under the bed, but she’s heard about it so much she can picture it, so much so that sometimes she has dreams about it: Zoe orbiting around, crying, out of her reach.
In the end, the crazy neighbour shot himself, and then he died.
When a tornado happens at their grandparents’ house, day still turns to night and the leaves still get upside down and the cars still disappear, but they also get to hide in the hall closet, which is full of their dad’s old games from when he was their age
It is hard to imagine their dad being their age because their dad is gigantic, more than six feet tall, and he has a bunch of gray hair, which their grandparents make all kinds of jokes about when their mom’s not there and everyone laughs because they say it must have been because of her his hair went grey. Amy and Zoe are not supposed to tell their mom about these jokes, and they don’t.
When they’re in the closet at their grandparents’, Amy lets them keep the light on even though Zoe is too little for a lot of the games. They play with the dominoes, but Zoe misses the point and knocks them down before it’s time to. They play with the marbles, but there’s not that much you can do with marbles on a small square of scraggly carpet. If you roll them around they’ll just get lost.
Zoe always wants to play Operation, which is where you have to remove the diseases out of Cavity Sam with a pair of tweezers. You have to be really careful because if the tweezers hit the sides of Sam’s cavities where his ailments are, his nose lights up, and he buzzes and you lose the game. But Zoe loves the lit-up nose and laughs and laughs, missing the point, asking Amy for permission to mess up one more time.
Their grandparents call it getting sprung when they’re let back out of the hall closet, and the reward for getting sprung is pop and cookies. Amy and Zoe are not allowed to drink pop at their house so at their grandparents’ they drink all of it they can, and then they jump and jump on the enormous bed upstairs until they’re ready for their grandmother to read to them, and then they collapse into all the great big mismatched pillows and spread out like they’re making snow angels and follow along in their heads because they always choose the same stories, and they know them all by heart but still get scared each time their grandma switches to her witch’s voice, like when Hansel and Gretel get lost. Then the girls straighten up, hands at their hips under the covers, and Zoe scooches over to her sister’s side.
Amy has taken one Polaroid picture of each room at her grandparents’ house, including the garage, the backyard, and the front yard, and two of the staircase, since they don’t have one at home
One is a close-up of the white metal railing that has a big S with a moustache on its waist between every other bar. The bars look like candy canes that have had their stripes sucked off them and their heads chopped off. The other one shows Zoe sitting sulking on the middle step, overshadowed by the big bright light behind her where the bathroom door opens onto a window that lets in the sun.
In the four years since she’s had her camera, Amy’s taken fifty-one more pictures of her sister, seven of which feature the dog Santa gave to Zoe last year. The dog is a scruffy Scottish Terrier with a black plastic-looking nose. Like Zoe, the dog is wild, and Amy suspects it is a bad influence, eating things off the floor it knows it’s not supposed to, like dead bugs and Silly Putty. Amy knows for a fact that Zoe still eats the dog’s treats even though she has told her not to more than a million times. But in her camera Amy discovers a way of civilising both creatures, of teaching them to sit still. They even learn to play dead. Amy takes her pictures carefully because the film is not cheap, making the dog and her sister pose for ages till she gets it just right.
Afterwards the dog trots off to chase some imaginary thing and the girls wait while the picture slowly comes out. Amy lifts it by the tip of the hard white strip at the bottom and waves it gently in the air as the colors begin to bubble out of the shiny gray. Without realizing it the girls both hold their breath.
Every time Zoe asks if she can have the picture, but Amy never says yes. Sometimes Zoe cries, but Amy is never persuaded by tears, and her confidence in her own judgment regarding what is for her sister’s own good is total. This way they will have the pictures forever. If she gave them to Zoe now, Zoe would inevitably let the dog have them, and then they would get chewed up and destroyed, like when the birds in the forest eat the path that Hansel made for him and Gretel to go home.
So Amy keeps the pictures inside a secret manila envelope at the bottom of the drawer where she stores the arrowheads and fossils she collects at camp.
Ordinarily the girls only have secrets that they keep together, from their mother. This is the first secret that exists between them.
Every summer the girls go to Camp Waluhili with their mom, who works there as a counsellor
It’s for members of the Camp Fire Girls, which is like Girl Scouts only different. The girls are technically too young to go when they are five and two and six and three and even seven and four, but their mother promises to watch them like a hawk. You have to be careful at camp because it’s full of poisonous things: snakes, spiders, scorpions. Some of them can kill you.
The girls always nod when she says this, but they don’t really care. Now that they are eight and five they run around and around the meadow until they fall down in the bright yellow flowers and laugh and laugh until they can’t breathe.
Amy learns to tie knots, and she is good at it. She learns directions, and she tries to get Zoe to repeat after her: north, east, south, west. You can remember it by saying: never, eat, soggy, waffles, she tells her, but Zoe can’t remember all that yet. Amy learns how to build a fire: you put together three pieces of wood in the shape of an A, which is easy to remember, and then you put tinder all along the middle part, but not too much because fires need air. Their mom doesn’t let her light the fire, but they sit there with the older girls and eat the s’mores together. Zoe likes to smear the marshmallow on Amy’s legs instead of eating it. But then she asks for more.
The girls learn to swim. Amy’s long body slips into the water like a fish thrown back. But Zoe keeps sinking and getting water in her nose. They give up. They do somersaults in the meadow instead. They play hide and seek. When it takes too long to find Zoe, Amy calls her name, or she says, A to Z, A to Z, over, like a Walkie-Talkie, and then she says that it is time to take pictures. Amy takes pictures of Zoe in the trees. She fixes her sister’s long light hair that gets tangled when they play. Sometimes she only pretends to take pictures.
In the sun Amy gets freckles, and Zoe turns brown. Together they try and count the freckles on Amy’s left arm: twenty-seven, or twenty-eight, or twenty-nine, because they always lose count. The right arm is impossible. Amy and Zoe examine their elbows. They ask their mom what elbows are for. Their mom says to bend their arms. The girls try to do cartwheels in the meadow, but they can’t because of their elbows. Zoe tries harder than Amy.
Amy has Zoe help her look for arrowheads and fossils. Zoe finds plain rocks and brings them to Amy to ask if they are fossils. Amy knows all about the Cretaceous Period and that we don’t know what color the dinosaurs were so they could have been all the colors, even pink, even hot pink. Hot pink is Amy’s favorite color, although she pretends it is blue. Amy’s favourite dinosaur is the brontosaurus. Amy explains to Zoe that arrowheads were what the Indians used to catch food back when Indians used to live at Waluhili, too. Every summer they find at least one arrowhead, but it takes a lot of work, because arrowheads are little, and you have to look hard between the grass and underneath the dirt.
The fossils are seashells because in the old days all of this was underwater. Sometimes there are fossils with the imprints of different sea plants. The seashells look just like what seashells look like today. They know because their grandmother collects them.
Their mother takes them fishing. There are many words that don’t mean what they mean, however, like when their mother cleans the fish they catch. Amy boycotts the results, refusing to eat anything but s’mores those nights, threatening to run away if forced. Zoe does what Amy does and takes the opportunity to eat more s’mores.
Sometimes the girls play games with the campers like Red Rover and tug of war. The older girls like to have Amy on their tug of war team because Amy never lets go. Even if she ends up getting dragged through the mud. Zoe is better at Red Rover because it is easier for her to go berserk, become a human missile, and being so little still, she can often take them by surprise and break right through.
Amy is allowed to learn archery. Zoe complains until something comes along to distract her. The camp teems with butterflies, birds. The older girls stay up late telling ghost stories, but Amy covers her head with a pillow because she likes to wake up when the birds wake up. Sometimes you can spot a bluebird if you’re out early, or even a tanager.
Amy takes a picture of the little red suitcase Zoe uses to run away from home
Zoe runs away from home once or twice a week. She takes the dog and goes and sits beneath the pear tree that every year at the tail end of summer produces inedible pears that their dad picks up and throws away. The pear tree is in between the front yard and the backyard, a no man’s land, where Zoe believes that no one will think to look for her.
She whiles away the fifteen to twenty minutes it always takes her to run away from home playing with the plastic animal figurines she has packed and distributing provisions evenly between her and the dog. To the dog she gives the brown treats, which are flavored like lamb and vegetable. For herself she reserves the green treats, which are chicken. The peanut butters they share.
On the side of the suitcase containing the figurines and the Milk-Bones is a little drawing of a girl in front of a white picket fence. Above her float the words Going to Grandma’s.
But the picture Amy takes does not show this, because what interests Amy is the things the suitcase contains. So while Zoe is in the bathroom Amy snaps it open and lays it splayed atop their rumpled constellation-print sheets. She points her Polaroid down but can’t fit it, so she gets on the bed and stands over it, points, and pulls the shutter swiftly with her forefinger.
Of the numerous plastic animal figurines in her collection, Zoe has chosen one elephant and a family of giraffes. Then, in addition to the small box of Milk-Bones, there is a toothbrush, one sock with a friendly-looking shark that prowls the ankle, and a framed five-by-seven photograph, black and white, of Dorothy holding Toto up to her cheek, the two of them gazing off into the distance. The photograph takes up a massive percentage of the space inside the little red suitcase, and Amy wonders why her sister takes it when she runs away from home, since it is just a piece of someone else’s junk they got at a garage sale.
Then Zoe comes back from the bathroom and catches Amy red-handed, still standing over her stuff, and she screams and hollers like a wild banshee until Amy offers her a piece of tropical fruit punch gum.
Amy takes pictures of everywhere they go
They go to Lincoln, Nebraska, for their family vacation, and Amy takes pictures of the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History. Zoe always wants to be in the pictures, and usually Amy says yes, but on occasion, Amy says no. Then Zoe cries until someone else takes her picture in the same spot. Amy on the other hand does not like to have her picture taken and rarely smiles when she is urged to pose.
Amy likes the dinosaurs but not the stuffed owls, which she says are disgusting because they are dead. Amy knows the dinosaurs are dead, too, but it’s different because they’re almost more like rocks. Zoe makes a face when Amy says the word dead or the word disgusting. She sticks her tongue out and scrunches up her little nose.
Their other grandparents live in Kansas in between Oklahoma and Nebraska, but their mom says she does not want to visit them on the way back because they’re assholes. Their dad says not to say bad words in front of the girls.
They go to the Porter Peach Festival in Porter, Oklahoma, and Amy takes pictures of peaches until the dog runs away, and they all have to chase it. But when they’ve caught it, they all get to eat fresh peaches with vanilla ice cream. Even the dog eats peaches. They are all sweaty and smelly and filled up with sugar. Amy and Zoe and their mother sing camp songs the whole way home until their dad turns on the radio.
At the Tulsa State Fair Amy takes pictures of the roller coaster and the stands selling corn dogs and cotton candy and of Zoe with cotton candy like spider webs in her hair. Zoe cries until their dad buys her some more cotton candy to eat. At the Fair there is a petting zoo where the girls get to feed farm animals, but their mom has to take away the food sometimes because Zoe likes to try the little pellets of alfalfa herself. At these confiscations, Amy howls with laughter, and Zoe’s eyes get wide.
At the real zoo Amy learns to stand like a flamingo, one foot in the crook of the other leg’s knee, and she can stand this way in silence just observing the birds for as long as it takes Zoe to run around the prairie dogs a dozen times.
They ride their bikes in the parking lot at the Tulsa Teachers Credit Union three doors down from their house when it’s not business hours and their dad can take them. Their dad still rides his old green Schwinn with the baby seat on the back even though neither one of them is a baby anymore, and he calls it Gone with the Schwinn to their mom whenever they are heading out. Then they have races around the big post in the middle of the parking lot and from the dumpster to the main doors. You have to get up onto the sidewalk to win.
Lately Zoe keeps talking about getting her training wheels off although Amy keeps reminding her that even with them on she always manages to find a way to topple over, and if she hadn’t had her helmet on she could have killed herself a thousand times or gotten another concussion, and besides, Zoe is only five and a quarter, and Amy is almost eight and a half and just got hers off last year. But Zoe doesn’t care and keeps on talking about it.
Amy always has to remind Zoe repeatedly about everything. Like to drink the rest of her juice and to keep her shoes on and not to water the bonsai in their room so it will not drown like the last one. It is exhausting taking care of young children. Usually their mom and dad are too distracted so Amy does it, even though it leaves her barely any time.
They go to Tahlequah for the Inter-tribal powwow, and Amy takes pictures of real teepees, tall as the sky. The Indians wear leather dresses with leather strings and turquoise beads and feathers and circles that symbolize things. The Indian children get to wear feathers, too. The Cherokees have lots of different symbols to mean different things. Amy wants to learn them all. She begins to invent new symbols for her and Zoe only, so they can write notes to each other without their mother interfering.
Their mother has told them that once one of the other counsellors at Camp Waluhili got bitten by a black widow, and the venom spread so fast they had to cut out part of her leg. So she had a hole in her leg, and she kept secret things inside it, like messages. Now Amy twists this story around. To send and receive secret messages you don’t need to be poisoned or have any particular place. What you need is a secret system, a network of secret shapes.
So she makes Zoe practice drawing the symbols for dog and home and mom and dad and grandparents and hungry and thirsty and Cruella De Vil and Garfield and Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy and Target and radio. The symbol for dinosaurs is a dinosaur because Amy can’t think of anything better. Zoe practices diligently at first and then goes off to play with the dog, leaving sloppy scrawlings all over the floor that Amy picks up, emitting a slow sigh she has learned from their grandmother, the gradual deflation of a balloon.
The night before the girls go back to school their mom tells them what sex is and reads them a story about a woman in a car crash off a bridge
Good Housekeeping says if you crash your car off a bridge you should rescue your husband from drowning if you can, because if you have a husband you can make more children, whereas if you rescue your child you’ll only ever have that one. Their mom thinks about that a lot. What she would do if they got into a car crash off a bridge. The girls begin to practice how long they can hold their breath when they are alone in their room.
Amy is the tallest kid in her grade, and the fastest, and the best at math
She comes first during roll call and gets only straight As. Their school uses a Japanese kind of math called Kumon that lets you do however many problems you want in an hour. Amy likes to do a lot of problems without making mistakes. All the other kids disappear when she starts doing her Kumon. All she is aware of is those numbers. She loves numbers and letters and practices to improve her handwriting every evening at home.
One day in the middle of long division a hand reaches inside her bubble and attaches itself to hers. Amy gasps without meaning to. She looks up and sees the principal.
Most children dread the appearance of the school principal at their desk, but Amy is so well behaved that it does not occur to her to worry. When the principal asks her to come outside with her please, Amy politely declines. But then when she sees the stunned scandalized eyes of the principal she sets her pencil down.
In the back of the ambulance, her sister has been taken over by a ghost
Their mom gets as strong as a superhero and holds her down. Amy doesn’t understand what could be happening. A few minutes ago she was still inside a bubble, organizing numbers, and now her sister has been taken over by a ghost. Amy and Zoe had always assumed it would be fun to ride in an ambulance or a fire truck or a police car because you would get to go fast and break all the rules and not stop at any lights. But now Zoe isn’t Zoe, and everything is wrong. Zoe throws up but doesn’t know she’s throwing up, so the throw-up just drips down her chin and onto the lavender-colored dress that used to be Amy’s favorite, and the lady who works for the ambulance mops it off her, but Amy fears the towel will scratch her sister’s face.
Zoe’s eyes, always big and brown and sparkly as the campfire, are white. Her body jerks to one side at a rhythm that is not a human rhythm. Amy screams, Zoe, Zoe, Zoe, but Zoe isn’t there. Their mom gets angry and says to shut up because she’s making everything worse. Then every fibre of Amy’s body screams, in silence. Zoe, Zoe, Zoe.
The ambulance takes them to the pink hospital by their grandparents’ house
Amy recognises it when they all pile out. This isn’t where they went the last time, and this time Zoe and their mom run away into a secret room where the nurses won’t let Amy go. Amy is told to sit and wait.
Amy sits and waits. She tastes like salt, and the wet neck of her t-shirt sticks to her skin. She squeezes and unsqueezes her hands in her lap. She looks around and sees the room is full of dirty people yellowed by the light, not sitting up straight. She would like to go look for her sister, but she is scared that if she doesn’t sit and wait they’ll never let her see her sister again. She looks down at her hands, whitened at the knuckles, splashed. The old man sitting across from her begins to cry, and Amy’s own eyes dry up, and she would like to hold the old man’s hand, but she is scared he might have germs and scared that if she doesn’t sit and wait she’ll get in trouble, and then they’ll never let her see her sister again.
Amy knows exactly what she would do if they got into a car crash off a bridge
She would unbuckle her sister’s seatbelt and then unbuckle hers as she was simultaneously rolling down the window on her side of the car. Then they would swim out the window holding hands until they got to the top of the river. If it is winter Amy knows for a fact that she can simply kick through the ice because there is never all that much in the middle of the river, only around the edges
Jennifer Croft won a 2022 Guggenheim Fellowship for her novel Amadou, the 2020 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing for her illustrated memoir Homesick and the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for her translation from Polish of Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. She is also the author of Serpientes y escaleras andNotes on Postcards, as well as the translator of Federico Falco’s A Perfect Cemetery, Romina Paula’s August, Pedro Mairal’s The Woman from Uruguay, Olga Tokarczuk’sThe Books of Jacob, Sylvia Molloy’s Dislocations, and Sebastián Martínez Daniell’sTwo Sherpas. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and a PhD from Northwestern University.
For Charco Press, she has translated Federico Falco’s A Perfect Cemetery (2021), Sylvia Molloy’s Dislocations(forthcoming 2022), and Sebastián Martínez Daniell’s Two Sherpas (forthcoming 2023).
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