by Nadja K. McGlinn
The nurse in the cubicle where my husband and I got our second shots of the COVID-19 remarked that everyone she’d injected that day had the scar from a smallpox vaccination, meaning we were old—old enough to have still gotten them as children. She noted I seemed to have two of those marks on my arm. I told her the other one was for tuberculosis, a threat still active in post-war Germany where I was born into the land of the former enemy, the daughter of a Russian forced laborer mother and prisoner of war father—flotsam left behind after those years of destruction. The vaccines were administered in an Alpine village, in the dispensary of the US Army base where my father now worked in a Cold-War institute. We lived in the post’s housing area, and I had been transferred from a German school to the small grammar school there. We children lined up, quietly moving step-by-step past the doctors as they scratched our arms with needles and then spread the vaccine on the wounds, marking our generation in a way that was visible all the way to this day.
And now, here we were, a hall full of elderly people sharing this faded tattoo usually hidden under our sleeves. After the shot, sitting quietly in that gray-carpeted University of Iowa hall, we were eerily distanced from each other during the fifteen-minute wait, the staff ready to rescue us from the minuscule chance of going into anaphylactic shock. I studied the handout about other less-than-life-threatening reactions that might come over us tomorrow and beyond. But then I closed my eyes. My mind went to memories I’ve nurtured for years as an enjoyable touchstone for times of stress. The images are always and forever from some vantage point in that Alpine valley of my childhood, usually a sunny mountain meadow complete with butterflies and gentian and forget-me-nots, and the tall yellow flowers, whose stems we chewed because they were sweet. But there is one memory lit by stars beyond our own sun.
One summer night, I went for a walk after dark, heading down a cow path toward the village. On both sides of the path were fields of juicy grasses and flowers, soon to be cut for hay to feed the ladies during the coming winter, those glossy brown cows we watched amble down from the mountain at around five o’clock each day, bells clanging, tails swishing. This night was clear, the stars brilliant, and even the sky itself seemed to glow with a dark velvet fire. Instead of craning my neck to identify the constellations I now thought of as mine–Orion’s Belt of course, and the Dippers–I laid myself down into the thigh-high grasses, rolling my body back and forth to sink so deep that everything but the sky disappeared from view, leaving my world bounded by stems and green spears as tall as trees from my beetle-eye view. And my world changed. Everything changed. The sounds I now heard—I had never heard—a secret whispering, humming, a chirping, a chirricking, and tiny rhythmic popping— an intimate, gentle buzzing speaking to me from a world to which my body had, on my behalf, applied for asylum from my tumultuous puberty-ravaged one, a refuge of fragrant grass and meadow flowers and all the inhabitants it sheltered. I looked straight up into the sky and was overcome by an almost physical sensation of my eyes touching the stars in that moment, aware of crossing billions of miles and billions of years.
What I was touching then may have died a billion years ago, it didn’t matter. In that moment, we were touching each other, all of it, the stars, the grasses, and the bugs, all creatures, including me—the Brobdingnagian in this scene—whom the world of the tiny had graciously accepted. I know the asylum I requested was granted. It’s one of my clearest, deepest memories, and I believe—as truth, not mere fact—it will be there to buzz and chirp at me, to welcome me back, at the moment of my death. That day, with my arm red, and aching just a little, an echo of those scratches from long ago, I mourned for the worlds of memories and wisdom lost as my fellows around the world died and continue to die needlessly by the thousands, lying like trapped rabbits in their beds. I send my silent greetings to those still alive to receive it yet again—this miraculous protection.
Category: Featured, Memoir, Nonfiction