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Fiction

The Run

The Third Component: Part I, Chapter 1

Alison Christy 26 October 2008

www.lablit.com/article/431

Photo Credit: Tim Christy

Everyone knew what Russia was: third world pretending to be first world, muggers and rapists in every alleyway

Editor's note: We are pleased to begin the weekly serialization of an original novel by Alison Christy. The Third Component is the story of Anna Forsch, a scientist at loose ends after earning her PhD, as she sets off to Russia in search of a missing piece of her family's past.

Part I

Prologue

The best Russian poets have written of Petersburg. Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Akhmatova, Bely – no one can say enough about the Venice of the North. This is the home of lavish palaces, elegant cathedrals, carefully engineered gardens, and the manly Bronze Horseman himself. What soulful Russian would bother to write about bleak, political, industrial Moscow?

Moscow is all the things people say it is: dirty, grey, impersonal, cold. Muscovites are indifferent and ambitious and the brusque winter winds cut through the most impregnable leather coat. But under its omnipresent fog, Moscow pulses with an energy that pretty, structured Petersburg can only envy. In this city, people live; they fill the streets, pack into subway cars, shop at outdoor markets, beg and steal and whore, yell at other people who slow them down, love and have babies and die.

Petersburg shows it off but Moscow is a challenge to look deeper: to find the exquisite architecture hidden beneath the city, inside the subway tunnels; to look beyond the armored façade of functional concrete apartment blocks and discover the city’s dainty churches and gorgeous art. To find the entire life built underground, the secret subways beneath subways and secret buildings beneath buildings built for spying on foreigners.

Yes, Petersburg is very pretty, and resembles in many ways a charming European city. But let’s be honest: if we wanted a charming European city, wouldn’t we go to Heidelberg? Or Florence? Or Disney World?

– Michael Perch, We Will Be Sure to Express Your Concerns to Moscow: A Long Look At the New Russia, Houghton-Mifflin, 1999

Chapter 1

Light Exposure Allows Resynchronization of Circadian Systems Following Eastward Time-Zone Transition

Moscow, Russia, August 6, 2000: Anna Forsch is running on the sidewalk along Varvarka Street and there are too many people – grim, black-leathered, smoking Russian people – on the sidewalk, so she keeps darting into the street to maintain her speed. Nothing is more glaringly American than running like this, in her short blue shorts and bright white sneakers, her dark ponytail brushing against her neck, and this is a bad idea. Moscow is a big, dangerous city, thick with smog and corruption, the streets are packed with swerving, honking, stinking cars, and everyone who's been here has a story: wallets lifted on the subway, purses snatched on the Arbat, an unprovoked beating. As a woman alone, Anna should not go out at night, or wear jewelry, or talk to strangers, or take gypsy cabs, or drink alcohol, or stand out in any way.

But her muscles were tense, ringing with nervous energy like the clanging Moscow church bells, and she thought one short jog, a quick one, close to her hotel, might be acceptable, even though she doesn't fit on the sidewalk and her shoes are blindingly white and the old women sitting on benches hunched over in their head scarves stare and frown disapprovingly. She keeps running.

**********

Moscow, Russia, August 5, 2000: Anna Forsch arrived in Moscow at 10:37 local time on an overnight train from Riga, Latvia, where she spent the last four days visiting her sister, Milda Forsch Ozolins. She proceeded in a taxi – whose driver barked at her in angry English and almost certainly overcharged her – to the Hotel Rossiya, the largest hotel in the entire world.

Through the window of her room she saw the city. Even Latvia looked like Europe when compared to Moscow from above: the boxy, exhaust-spewing cars on the roads, the dark insect lines of people around the wide dark river, the curving brightly-colored onion domes topped with thin golden crosses.

The strangeness, the jet lag, all the traveling she had behind her and all the plans she had ahead of her: it was too much. She lay back on the slick brown coverlet draped over the small hotel bed and closed her eyes.

**********

“Are you sure you want to go?” her mother had asked. Everyone knew what Russia was: third world pretending to be first world, muggers and rapists in every alleyway, women snatched off the street and sold to German sex tourists, an evil communist dictatorship faking capitalist democracy. “You don’t have to, you know,” she had said. “Not for me.”

“You’re going where?” John had said, when she called him because they were trying to stay friends and a trip to Siberia was something you would tell a friend, and he said it in that voice that was surprised and a little bit annoyed, like this was just the kind of irritating thing Anna was always doing.

Her sister Milda said, “You’re so lucky, I wish I could come with you.” She couldn’t, of course, because she, unlike Anna, had a smug collection of responsibilities: a job, a husband, two sons, a third baby on the way. She said “Be sure and take lots of pictures when you’re there.”

Her brother Corey said “You know this is crazy, right?” As if he were normally the sensible one.

**********

Leaving the Hotel Rossiya posed certain difficulties. The largest hotel in the world was essentially a small town enclosed in a huge cube of glass and concrete. Restaurants, bars and hair salons, clothing stores and a post office occupied the first floor, along with a pharmacy and a gynecologist, a bowling alley, a movie theater and a library. If Moscow were destroyed, Anna considered, the thick concrete hotel might survive, like a cockroach: the last vestiges of humanity would be contained within this pricey mini-Russia. The halls were long and the elevators were confusing and didn’t stop on every floor. It took some time for Anna to find herself outside.

She walked to Red Square, like any tourist, and there they were: the Japanese in a large cluster, clicking their cameras; the American couples in shorts and sneakers, turning their maps with furrowed brows; the pale, plump German men in purple shirts; the slim, nationless teenagers wearing sandals and hiking backpacks. According to Michael Perch (We Will Be Sure to Express Your Concerns to Moscow) the bright St Basil’s Cathedral was constructed above the grave of Basil the Fool for Christ, a Robin Hood character who robbed from the rich to give to the poor. The vivid domes of the church, striped in red and green and blue and yellow, looked like artificial ice cream cones in a children’s toy.

She stood in the square and looked up.

Aunt Lidija had brought teacups with her, from Latvia to the German DP camp and then across the Atlantic to America: two porcelain teacups, fragile and chipped. When she was little Anna had held those cups and imagined her grandmother holding them when she was little. It was still just a cup, a piece of fired clay, hardened dirt; her own granddaughter, pressing her hands around the rim of the same cup, would glean nothing of Anna either.

The cathedral was quiet.

**********

In the backyard of their childhood home in suburban Chicago, Anna and her sister Milda used to play a game they called Siberia. They pretended to fish through holes in icy rivers and to build houses while the Russians watched over them with guns. They shivered despite the sun and huddled together under bushes for warmth. After months of backbreaking work in the gulag the girls always escaped to a nearby town where they could buy dresses for themselves and gifts for their relatives back home. Then they’d smuggle themselves onto the train that carried them back to their Latvian homeland, where (if there was still time before dinner) they would be caught by the Russians and sent back to Siberia.

Milda, the older one, the pretty one, liked to make their Siberia game as easy as possible. She caught imaginary fish as soon as her imaginary hook touched the imaginary water, and the fish collected beside her in a huge pile. She built houses in seconds, elaborate houses with spiral staircases and secret rooms where they could hide. “Whew, there’s another house,” she would say, waving her hands. She smuggled imaginary berries and candy into their home so they wouldn’t have to eat pine needles and raw potato skins. “Look!” she’d say. “There’s a bridge to town and no Russians watching!”

“But the bridge is on fire,” Anna would add. “And I think there might be Russians over there in the forest.” She labored over her pretend houses, hammering and sanding and lifting, and writhing under the whip of her overseer. She found holes in the quilts Milda managed to stitch together from scraps, and became desperately ill from Milda’s slimy, contaminated fish.

When Anna actually did eat pine needles – a huge disappointment, she thought they’d be full of rich, piney flavor like a Christmas tree but they were bitter and sticky – Milda ran inside and told their mother. And their mother, who somehow had never noticed her daughters’ fantasy about life in a gulag, was horrified and told them to stop. So for a while they played Little House on the Prairie instead, which was fun because Anna got to run around and be naughty and Milda got to stumble around blind.

**********

Now Milda lives in Riga, Latvia, right in the center of the precious Old Town, in a newly renovated Art Nouveau apartment. Their new floor was blond hardwood, the walls smooth and white, light streaming in through Venetian blinds, the bathroom tiled, crisp and polished. It could have been an apartment anywhere in Europe. “You should have seen it before,” Milda said. “Like a cave.”

When Anna first went to visit Milda there, nearly eight years ago, Milda’s tiny apartment looked like the room in the Hotel Rossiya: the thin twin bed with its headboard of shiny brown particle-board, the peeling pale wallpaper, the mangy orange colors in the floral carpet and the upholstery of the chair. They bought smoked fish from old women in outdoor markets and beer in plastic jugs and pulled an old card table up to the bed, sitting on the edge of the bed as if it were a couch.

But this airy, renovated apartment matched Milda: her pale blond hair, her manicured hands, her bright gold earrings, the blond wine she poured into their glasses. “The first toast is to you, Anna, Ph.D!” she said.

It never made sense that Milda stayed. She was only supposed to stay for a year. Anna was supposed to be the one who moved to Latvia. She was the one who did well at Latvian Saturday School, who liked the old stories, who went to the festivals and sang Latvian folksongs. But then Milda moved there first, and she met Janis, got married, had kids, and that was that.

And now Milda was the one who knew more about Latvia, about the politics and the language and the little farming towns around Riga, and where to eat and what to buy and what to bring over from America. Milda was the one with a Latvian husband and a Latvian job and Latvian children.

The Latvian husband, Janis, is slim and balding with a wide smile. “So now you have a degree in biology, Anna,” he said. “That is wonderful! We need many biologists to help cure diseases.” He applauded; from anyone else the clapping would seem sarcastic. “So what will you do now?”

“I don’t know,” Anna said. She turned her wineglass and looked at her fingerprints.

“But you will apply for jobs soon?” Janis kept grinning, mercilessly. Milda put her gold-ringed hand on his arm and rubbed lightly.

“I don’t know,” Anna said again.

“But surely you must have some idea,” Janis insisted. “A little vacation, and then?” Milda murmured something. “No, no, I am not worried,” Janis said, still grinning. “I just think, you must have some idea.”

“No, none,” Anna said.

“No idea?” Janis said. “You have no idea?” He kept smiling, showing two rows of yellowing teeth. “So tell me, what are your options?”

“Janis, please, she doesn’t want to talk about it,” Milda said.

Silence.

“You could work at a university,” Janis said. “Or pharmaceutical company, yes?” He turns to Milda. “She will not just throw away this degree, is she?”

“I might,” Anna told him. “I might just throw it away.”

They sat in silence.

“I just think – ”

Milda said, in Latvian: “You said what you think. She doesn’t want to talk about it right now, okay?” There it was: Milda, using Latvian as her private language with Janis, as if Anna couldn’t understand, as if they hadn’t gone to Saturday school together, as if they weren’t sisters who had spoken that as a secret language with each other.

Milda ran her fingers through her light blond hair and smiled at Anna. “So what do you want to do while you’re here in Riga?” she asked.

**********

In Moscow, she runs harder. Let the Russians stare, she thinks. Suddenly, in an open square, she runs straight into a flock of pigeons, a whirlwind of feathers and noise, and instinctively she throws her hands up to cover her face. And then she steps on something, disgusting and slippery, and she feels her ankle turn under her. Pain rockets up her leg and she drops down over her ankle as streams of people flow around her, dark outfits and stern faces, not stopping, not looking, not reacting. But their lack of reaction is better than Anna could have hoped for. They don't seem to notice that she has suddenly become fragile and vulnerable.

She stands up carefully and surveys the square. She is an idiot, plain and simple. There is no one to call, no one to ask for help. Even if she could get a taxi, she has no rubles and no way to explain that she would pay the driver later. In a foreign city, where she doesn't speak the language, she should have avoided anything that could possibly result in injury. She knows better than to cross against the light, or sky dive, or drink tap water, or do anything dangerous at all. She knew better than to go jogging.

She begins her long, slow limp back to the hotel, berating herself at each hobbling step, at every twinge of pain from her ankle. This is it, she thinks: she has traveled to the other side of the world only to be turned back by a twisted ankle, a cold twist of fate. Now she’ll never make it to Siberia. “Excuse me.”

The man speaking is American, indistinct: white skin, brown hair, normal height, weight, T-shirt, jeans. And she recognizes him immediately – though not from America.

{Continued next week}