A passage from Garth Greenwell’s “What Belongs to You”


From Garth Greenwell‘s supreme, human and deeply moving debut novel, “What Belongs To You“, comes an abridged outtake that I cherish:

I’m bored, he said, skuka mi e, it’s a long trip, I want to do something. His grandmother sighed. It’s not so long, she said, other children manage to sit and to be good. I’ll never sit, the boy cried, squaring his shoulders, and he repeated the word never, nikoga, separating each of the syllables, throwing them like little punches in the air. I laughed, I couldn’t help it, and the man across from me laughed too; even the grandmother smiled, it was too charming to resist. The boy looked surprised at our laughter, as if he had forgotten about us, and then he glanced at each of us in turn with his enormous smile, thrilled with the impression he had made. Only my mother was left out, and she reached urgently across to grip my arm, asking what he had said, wanting to know before the moment passed. And then she smiled too, looking first at the boy and then his grandmother, laying her hands in her lap and settling back against the bench in a peculiar way she had, as if it were all just too much for words.


There was a camaraderie among us now, a warmth that made us more than strangers, and the boy felt it too, I thought, so that his sense of his kingdom spread from the little seat, expanding to encompass the entire compartment.


The woman pulled out more food for him then, and the rest of us returned to our reading, though I was hardly reading at all, I was watching the boy with a fascination I didn’t understand. There was something electric about him, as he sat chewing his sandwich, looking out the window, a charm beyond mere loveliness. He was still for a while, lulled by food and by the heat, which had grown more intense as the afternoon wore on, but soon he was restless again, climbing up on the bench, then onto the narrow ledge of the armrest, grabbing with both of his hands one of the metal bars of the luggage rack.


My arm, he said a moment later, as if remembering, it really hurts, and he held it out to her as she took it again in her hand, gently this time, looking concerned, saying Let me see, and then yes, it’s very bad, I’m afraid we’ll have to cut it off, so that suddenly he was giggling, twisting away as she leaned in, still holding his arm, and began to tickle him. He was all joy now, the tears barely dry on his face, and after a moment at this game he ended draped across her lap, his arms cast about her, a posture so sweet it was almost painful to see, as it was painful to see my mother, who watched them with such longing I had to look away. I could remember a time when we had touched like that, my mother and I, when I sought out her presence and her touch, too, and I wondered where that ease and openness had gone, and why they had been replaced with such stiff discomfort, a sense almost of taboo that kept me from making any answer to her expressions of love. I felt for the first time how cruel I had been, when I had stopped answering her calls and e-mails, which grew increasingly frantic until they fell away. For a time I had been lost to her, and she couldn’t have known I would return. They stayed like this for some time, the woman and the boy, with his arms around her and her hands resting on his back.


As we joined the line of people getting off at the last stop before Sofia, I looked once more at the little boy, whom I felt I would never forget, though maybe it wasn’t exactly him I would remember, I thought, but the use I would make of him. I had my notes, I knew I would write a poem about him, and then it would be the poem I remembered, which would be both true and false at once, the image I made replacing the real image.

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