Much later, when her name is Sarraute, she will call them tropisms, these little inner movements. Tropisms, the word botanists use to describe how flowers turn.
        For now, she is Natacha Tcherniak, most call her Tashok, her mother calls her Nathalie, her father calls her Tashotshek or sometimes Pigalitza. “What does that mean, Papa?” She begs him to tell her. “Pigalitza!” he cheers for her. “What does it mean?!” When he says it’s the name of a little bird, her insides flicker up. She is six. She must live in Paris with her mother. He is a chemist in Russia. She does not see him often. Grown-ups are always teaching her words, but she has never heard them name the rapid inner movements that are the secret source of life. Every night, she tells her mother to swallow a dust mite because that is how babies are made.
        The tropisms are too quick for her to catch, like fairy fish dashing through the aquifer as she looks down through a well. Except they are not below. They are with her. They scatter when she is scolded. They listen even when she does not.
        In Paris, the page of her picture book where the man named Uncle Tom dies is pocked and loud to turn, she has cried over it so often. When her mother reads it to her, her voice is bored. Natacha would rather just listen to the crinkle of the page. In another book, there is a terrible picture: a thin tall man, all kneecaps and nails, green coat plucked up by a strange wind, and scissors big as swords in his hand. One night her mother decides Natacha has had her last nightmare and retrieves sewing scissors to cut out the page. Natacha begs, she hugs the book with the terrible picture to her chest. “Fine then, we’ll glue the pages… There, now you won’t have to see your nightmare man anymore.” But she feels the heavy double page when she turns the book. And the book always opens there. 
        Once she was very bad. She announced to the Swiss woman she would slash the silk settee. Ich werde es zerreissen. I will slash it! She’d found scissors in the woman’s basket. Some Swiss woman taking her to see Papa. Nein, das tust du nicht! But she did it. The scissors were steel and the settee was blue silk or blue satin and some loose-fleshed gray thing foamed from the slit.
        In Kamenetz-Podolsk at her Uncle Grisha’s dacha, there is a garden she will think about her whole life. She will think about the yellowish stems they—the girl cousins, neighbors, a young boy and another her own age named Petya—burst between their fingers and stain themselves with. She will think about the grass that sometimes cuts their thumbs, how she learned to make it squeal. She will think of course of how the flowers turned and turned back to face Uncle Grisha’s sun. She will think of a gift Nyanya weaves her, a crown of daisies, that permits her, so long as she stays solemn, to lead the procession, a funeral for a watermelon seed.
        Most people realize the tragedy of life at the very end, but she knows it already. All children are foreigners, for they must learn life’s customs, and they do, they learn them masterfully. They hold their hands behind their frock coats and turn on their heels and wonder, wonder not just philosophically, how it is they lost, or never had, a native land.

Mark Mayer’s first book, Aerialists (Bloomsbury 2019) was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize. “Amidst” and “Via” are from his new manuscript About, Above, Around: 50 Prepositions. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing in the MFA program at the University of Memphis.