Natasha’s murals

In sixteen years, when glass replaced the plywood boards, Natasha’s murals would find their way to Sonja’s bedroom closet, where they would remain a private treasure for some sixty-three years, until Maali’s great-great-grandson, an art historian, put them on display in the city art museum.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Life: a constellation of vital phenomena

She flipped through the book and found answers to questions no sane person would ever ask. The definition of a foot. The average length of a femur. Nothing for insanity by grief, or insanity by loneliness, or insanity by reading reference books.

Only one entry supplied an adequate definition, and she circled it with red ink, and referred to it nightly. Life: a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Sonja didn’t believe in small talk

She studied while they ate, paying more attention to diseases of the digestive system than to her dinner. Natasha tried to construct conversation with scraps of the day: Did you see the car accident on Lenin Square? What classes did you have today? But Sonja didn’t believe in small talk and answered in monosyllables, a fact Natasha would remember when, sitting at the same table four and three-quarter years later, Sonja tried to convince her of its therapeutic qualities.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Common decency

She shook her head and glared at him with complete disdain.
“Is common decency too much to ask?”
“Excuse me?” she said, but he knew she couldn’t claim affront. Common decency was the one thing he had that she didn’t, and he held on to it as a rare, improbable triumph.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

The kinzhal’s edge

I wonder if Ibrahim’s palms were damp as he walked his son to the summit. Did he tell him they were going on a hike? Did he take water? I think he must have glared at the knife until his reflection was part of the blade. I think relief must have replaced his horror when he unsheathed his knife and recognized his face. He must have known that what he was to do was of such significance it had already become who he was, and so he offered both his son and himself to the kinzhal’s edge.”

Khassan’s head bobbed. He scooped two palmfuls of snow and pressed them to his eyes. Melting rivulets circled his wrists. “Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son isn’t hard to believe. His son was an innocent. It’s so much harder when you know what your son would do to you if he survived. When you know just what would happen if an angel was to grab the knife from your hand.”

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra


When they finished, he peeled off his latex gloves and massaged the pink soreness of his right palm, where the skin between his thumb and forefinger had swollen from the handle’s pinch. Sonja noticed, smiled, and when she raised her right hand he wanted to be back in bed with Ula, where he could pull the covers over their heads and in the humidity of their stale breaths hold the one person who believed he was knowing, capable, and strong.
Calluses covered Sonja’s palm.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra