Grandpa would call us down with his weak and withered voice. Like a thin stream of steam, rising up the stairs. Heads and limbs of adopted siblings appear in stairwells and doorframes and suddenly we’re one hungry monster, tripping down hallways in slippery sock feet, pinballs to our impatience. And there he is. Sergeant Rory—Grandpa—sitting quietly in an armchair, as if as natural to our living room as a lamp or old rug. Ears hanging down like a Sherpa’s hat. We secretly touch the parts of our own face that we know keep growing even after everything else in our body has stopped. Sergeant Rory has told us stories of friends he’s known, older than him, eyesight and speech all but gone, with ears and noses down to their knees.
Today, Grandpa has a canvas bag, crumpled on the floor next to him, with a rectangle poking out inside. We take up spots around the lounge room, settling in crannies and planes like fallen rain, and as we settle back, Sergeant Rory begins a story. He tells us it’s not a story that runs from middle to end, but rather appears in many places at once. He leans over the arm of his chair and reaches into the canvas sack. In his brown talon fingers is a leather book—a photo album, he says. A few of us groan; this is what other old people do, not Sergeant Rory. We don’t want trips down memory lane. But Grandpa holds up a finger, growling at us under his breath. He looks at us, each of us in turn. His eyes tell us this photo album is very different.
When we’re all quiet, he clears his throat, in that way we all know so well. It’s like a bullfrog, we say to ourselves, shaking our heads like it’s something we hate. But we all secretly approve, because the Sergeant’s throat is a bell signifying an exciting beginning.
Prascovia, Grandpa tells us, is what I like to call a dying country.
We all shuffle forward, our ears straining, trying to get comfortable. The position we’re sitting in now will be the position we’ll still be sitting in when the story’s finished, hours later. This much is certain.
Sergeant Rory opens the photo album, but instead of turning it up and around for all of us to see, he keeps it in his lap, peering down into it with his old green eyes. Prascovia, he says, is where I was born.