by Vivian Bikulege
There is a snapshot in the archives of the New York Daily News of Leiby Kletzky waiting on the street for Levi Aron to pay his dental bill. The Brooklyn boy got lost walking home from camp and the moment was captured by a surveillance camera on July 11, 2011. Leiby waited seven minutes before getting into Aron’s 1990 Honda Accord trusting that the next stop would be home.
I walk my beagle Toby on a path beside the Coosaw River. A tidal creek splits from the river cutting into the marsh forest. We play a running game to the top of a sandy ridge in the South Carolina lowcountry. As I wait for my chubby friend, I catch sight of a white heron wading on stilt legs in the pluff mud, quiet and focused.
A voice in the weeds says “Just a minute,” and the poet, Mary Oliver, stops. She is on her way to blueberry fields and wonders if the voice is from a toad or a June beetle. Her imagination gives life to an image of elves “…carrying one of their own/ on a rose-petal coffin away, away/ into the deep grasses. “
Videos of Islamic State beheadings are available on-line. I consider watching because seeing may help me process what I do not understand. As the brutality becomes part of the global topography in 2014, I remember Leiby. I ask myself, “Why do we cut one another into bits?”
Borough Park is a neighborhood inside greater Brooklyn Borough and home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the United States. The heart of the community is inside a grid between 11th and 18th avenues, and 40th and 60th streets. Leiby met Aron on 18th Avenue. The boy was supposed to meet his mother at the corner of 13th Avenue and 50th Street.
On July 12, I drive south on Interstate 95 to the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport. I will fly to Newark and take a train into Manhattan for business the following day. The one o’clock news reports the murder and dismemberment of an eight-year-old boy in Brooklyn. The newscaster is exact and remote in his delivery of the story. My breath catches in my throat and I turn off the radio.
In her poem The Journey, Oliver writes, “One day you finally knew/ what you had to do, and began,/ though the voices around you/ kept shouting/ their bad advice –”
Hervé Gourdel, a French mountaineering guide, was kidnapped shortly after his fifty-fifth birthday while hiking the mountains in Djurdjura National Park in Algeria. Gourdel is beheaded by ISIS in retaliation for French government air strikes against them. The name Djurdjura comes from the word Jjerjer which means “great cold” or “elevation”. Confronting cold-blooded murder with art, with pencil, or pen and paper, I can elevate beauty over brutality. Disconnected people and places find common ground in poetry.
Who opened the refrigerator freezer and found Leiby’s feet? Where do you turn when you are lost? Why is it I can save no one?
After my meeting on Park Avenue, I attend Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I am late and miss the homily but join the community in the Prayers of the Faithful. Father Tyrrell ends the prayers by remembering “the boy in Brooklyn,” and asks us to pray for him. I am aware, and I remember when I first learned about Leiby on the radio, in my car, driving in South Carolina, and I marvel at being on New York soil, only a subway ride away from Brooklyn and the Kletzky family, and I pray for them. I believe God hears all of us as he watches his theater of fools.
A Carolina wren lifts in short flight from a palmetto to my bird feeder and announces her presence in a sweet warble of notes. A painted bunting, dressed in a feather jacket of red, purple and green, joins the wren. From my chaise lounge I read Evidence, a poetry collection, and search for solace and sanity in Mary Oliver’s verses. My melancholy rises and disperses through the leaves of water oaks as the distant drone of a lawn mower sings bass in summer’s chorus.
From the page, I hear Mary whisper about wolves and broken worlds, heaven puddles for golden finches, and my right to understand that my words were mine all along. The poet does not ask the same questions she asked when she was younger, and hope is a “tender advisement” she leaves behind to wander into a pasture to sleep.
Unlike Oliver, it is too soon for me to leave hope behind. I cannot abandon faith or refrain from seeking love. If I touch pain, I hear better. When I cry over cruelty, I sit shiva with the world.
Beheadings continue, and Japanese nationals Yakawa and Goto are on their knees, in the sand, on the nightly news. I recall illustrations of David hoisting the head of Goliath in my religion class workbook of Old Testament lessons. In the New Testament, after dancing for King Herod, Salome requests the head of John the Baptist, and receives it on a platter. I do not remember that picture in my workbook.
Today, ISIS and the media deliver digital images of headless bodies. Somewhere, a child is a real-time witness, or the executioner, or the child is the act. Innocence is the victim of violence, dying every second, and imaginary elves do not soften death in woodland processions.
What is left of my life needs to read like gentle poetry, days when I blend pain and ink on a blank sheet of paper, revise, and leave behind word cuttings for a white resurrection.
A year after Leiby’s murder, the Kletzky’s have a baby girl, their sixth. Were they hoping for a son? Are they happy, disappointed, or numb? Sometimes, we make love to fill the gaps. We procreate to mock death. We move on.
I get my news in fragments – evening television after dinner, drive time radio, in hotels and airports, local and national newspapers, and texts. It is rarely poetic. I am amazed by the capacity of my heart and psyche to process the shock and sorrow of murder, to acknowledge dismemberment, and contemplate the value of another person as barter in the illegal trade of human organs.
“I tell you this/ to break your heart,/ by which I mean only/ that it break open and never close again/ to the rest of the world.” Lead by Mary Oliver
For now, experience terror as metaphoric heart surgery but respond as a healer. Open your chest cavity to release warmth, stretch the rib cage to welcome beauty, and allow every vessel to fill with love and resilience in response to terror, evil, and to hate.
Vivian Bikulege is a graduate of Queens University of Charlotte with an MFA in creative non-fiction. Currently, she writes ‘Whatever,’ a column for the Lowcountry Weekly published in Beaufort, South Carolina. She is published in the 2009 Press 53 anthology Milspeak, a compilation of work from various writing seminars focused on the military experience. She was one of nine winners of the 2007 Piccolo Spoleto Fiction Open in Charleston, South Carolina. On two occasions, She has studied with Nick Flynn at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida and she is working to complete a memoir.