Margarita Meklina is a fiction writer and essayist born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia. She came to the United States as a refugee in the early 1990s and lived in San Francisco until summer 2015. She received the 2003 Andrei Bely Prize (Russia’s first independent literary prize, which enjoys a special reputation for honoring dissident and nonconformist writing) for her short story collection Battle at St. Petersburg and the 2009 Russian Prize, awarded by the Yeltsin Center Foundation, for her manuscript My Criminal Connection to Art. In 2013, she was a finalist for the “Nonconformism” prize for her novella “Cervix” and in 2014 she was short-listed for “NOS,” a prize given by the fund of Mikhail Prokhorov for “new social trends” in literature. Meklina’s articles and short stories appeared in “Flash Fiction International” (W.W. Norton 2015), “The Brooklyn Rail”, “Wreckage of Reason II”, “The Conium Review”, “The Cumberland River Review”, “Gather Kindling”, “Fiction Fix” and many other publications. She writes in two languages and lives in Dublin.
By Margarita Meklina
In May of 2010 an exhibition entitled “Habitats” opened in San Francisco’s Presidio Park. Works by designers and sculptures of various countries corresponded to dwellings for one or another species of flying, scampering, or crawling inhabitants of the park – wasps, foxes, hawks. Presidio is also where local environmental artist Zach Pine gives classes to children and adolescents. The celebrated Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, who spent the 1980s in New York but now lives in Beijing, was concerned about the fate of the Western Screech Owl, which is widespread throughout the plains, but which, for some reason, has not been sighted in San Francisco in ten years. I visited the park that August and jotted down my impressions of the exhibition. They took the form of a short story only five months later, on January 11, 2011, the day I added the final period to the text, and the next morning, on opening the New York Times with a single click of the mouse, I discovered that on precisely that day, Ai Weiwei’s Shanghai studio had been demolished. The authorities, who disapprove of the avant-garde artist, had long threatened to wipe his studio – which had cost roughly seven million Yuan to construct – off the face of the earth, but had promised to wait until the Year of the Rabbit had begun, on February 3. The demolition of Weiwei’s studio on January 11, on the very same day I completed “Habitats,” took him completely by surprise.
A rectangular banner hung on the circular exhibition hall. Frida walked up and had a look. The words “You Are Here,” printed on it in decisive orange pencil, gave her hope. Not Frida, of course, but Rita. By not articulating her /r/’s the American way, she threw off, and simultaneously scared off, anyone wanting to get acquainted. To the question, “Arita?” she replied, “Yes,” all the more quickly to disengage. And even when they verified, “So it’s Frida?” she nodded. She acquiesced to any name.
Bending myopically and scoliotically, she read “Playground 4: Natural Materials, Fun Children’s Activities.” Then, the first letter of her name fluctuating, she walked for a long time, past crumbling structures under permanent repair, past houses of indeterminate colors, where the areas in need of touching up were circled in light blue, past tractors that were out of date, and even out of place on a Sunday, past locked portable toilets, past a pale gray, four-story building, with the fire stairs torn away at the third. Suffering from topographical cretinism, she turned her attention to a sign on the door: “Grounds Police.” A signpost pointing back. Right by the road. Plot 31. Easy to get to for seniors, though.
The sun blazed down. Her son and daughter shuffled along in tow. The unsociable Frida wanted them to learn to play with other children.
There was a pile of cones and brushwood in the clearing, under the numeral “4.” The girls were weaving things out of sedge grass. The boys were holding up an unsteady table, fashioned out of a stump and trimmed aspen branches. Frida’s little son and daughter didn’t know what to amuse themselves with. They stood over beside their unfamiliar peers; the latter were digging in the sand. When they were done, they took out their lunches. Sandwiches with bits of earth; a white bun pressed into a black hole with the heel of a shoe. There was a man with a bare pate close by, talking about himself. “I’m a cavalry-man,” he explained to some women, who were rubbing lotion onto their reddening shoulders.
A little boy in a stained and soggy t-shirt, who’d plopped down beside his mother, sat drinking out of a flask she’d handed him. The rest were climbing posts and rocks, like ants. “My head hurts.” The mother replied, “But you’re so proud of yourself – look at all you’ve built.” Her son repeated, “But my head hurts so much.” Again the mother said, “You’ve accomplished so much today! And now sit in the shade for a while and rest.”
The boys had finally steadied the table. They’d barely turned their attention from their woodworking to the rocks, when it fell over again. The girls had improvised a hut; they all crammed into it, knocking the fir branches off the ‘roof.’
In keeping with the adults’ plan, the children were learning to commune with nature.
Nobody was looking up.
After adjusting the bucket hat on her son’s head, Frida noticed a pair of senior citizens holding a map. They walked straight up to the playground. Myopically and sclerotically studying their guidebook, the old folks were trying to figure something out. After a brief discussion they looked up, laughed, and continued on their way.
Another pair of seniors walked up. These were wearing bucket hats, same as the children.
Arita-Frida raised her head.
Up on the tall oak tree, beneath which the man was telling the women all about the lives of horses and soldiers, there hung an array of vessels. They were reminiscent of ceramic circuit breakers, clay goggle-eyes of enormous proportions, gigantic floaters.
By the time Frida-Arita’s eyes had made their way to the ninth, and last, bluish-white vessel, she was dizzy. Here’s where a decisive orange pencil would come in handy, to stick into the ground and lean back against, as if it were a staff. There were people, who could draw arrows to misdirect others, as well.
At the entrance to the park she, too, had taken a guide to the unusual, open-air exhibition, although she was afraid that because of the children’s project she wouldn’t make it there. She took it out and immediately noticed a star beside the numeral “4,” meaning that this very clearing, where the children were getting to know shaggy, gnarly and knotted nature, was the site of an art exhibit.
It was entitled “Hollows for Owls.”
Frida recalled an interview she’d recently read.
The fifty-five-year-old sculptor Ai Weiwei was saying how he’d never wanted children, he simply lived life, sculpting miscellaneous objects, but when his assistant accidentally became pregnant by him, he was supportive. “Well of course have it,” he’d told her. “Owls,” he said, “are a unique symbol in China. They sleep with one eye slightly open and everyone’s afraid of them, whereas I’ve revered them ever since my childhood . . . So I made these hollows for them, replicas of vessels typical to the Ming Dynasty. Let them come!”
Frida surveyed the flaxen-haired children seated on the tree stump. She looked up at the vessels; amid the living foliage, these ancient Chinese exotica looked as alien as a bare-metal stent in a coronary artery. Weiwei had made an opening in the bottom of each of them. The owls would definitely be cozy in there, but they were nowhere in sight. Hollows for owls, of which there were none.
“How is it that nobody gives a damn,” Arita thought, “that nobody in the clearing has raised their head and seen this remarkable oeuvre by ‘the Chinese Warhol,’ an offbeat, contemporary master . . .” The sun blazed down. The vessels hung from the branches. The owls concealed themselves from human eyes . . . A few miles away, in a town named Colma, hidden away, in a white sack, deep down beneath the concrete and the reddish-black soil, with his shock of red hair and hundreds of unrealized dreams, lay Rita-Frida’s father, like a bright installation in a gloomy museum, like a hybrid of earth and plastic, in a coffin, padded with dusty-violet felt.