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Fiction

The Quest

The Third Component: Part I, Chapter 2

Alison Christy 2 November 2008

www.lablit.com/article/432

Photo Credit: Tim Christy

Anna, a scientist, doesn’t believe in thunderclaps from God. She believes in choices.

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

Most villages populated by non-Russians went through strict assimilation during Soviet times, and today their diverse cultures have been almost eradicated. The residents of the Siberian island of Krolosk were lucky: somehow, Mother Russia forgot they existed. Literally. In fact, maps from the Soviet period show no evidence of Krolosk at all. At some point, the village simply vanished.

It’s not entirely clear how Krolosk eluded Soviet radar, but knowing how systems worked there we can venture a few hypotheses. Maybe the village was removed from certain maps for security purposes, and no one ever bothered to include it again when they made the true maps. Maybe some official received an order to liquidate the village and relocate the residents to Kolpashevo or some other nearby town, and after his sudden deposition no one ever followed up on his assignment.

But because of this isolation, the village has been able to preserve its culture and language to an astonishing extent. Since Latvia itself was not isolated from the Soviet system for the last fifty years – in fact hundreds of Russians were sent there, often the best and brightest in the Soviet Union since Latvia was such a lovely country – one might actually suggest that the island of Krolosk is now more Latvian than Latvia.

- Michael Perch, “From Exiles to Immigrants: Siberia’s Little Latvia,” published in Turn Left at the Yak in the Road: A Life of Travel, Transit Press, 2000.

Chapter 2

Rapid Taxonomic Identification in Biodiversity Hotspots

So many things were going to happen to Anna Forsch in the momentous year 2000, starting with the catastrophic computer failure called Y2K (never happened), and the publication of her thesis work on yeast epigenetics in a peer-reviewed journal (never happened), and her graduation with a Ph.D. in Cellular Biology and Genetics (did happen, but anti-climatically because of the failure to publish), and, she thought, maybe even marriage to her boyfriend of three years and the beginnings of a family (did not happen).

What did happen was that she received an article, written by a man named Michael Perch, who visited a small village in Siberia. Her mother, who sent the article in the mail, highlighted two words: Laima Lapegale.

So Anna is embarking on a Quest. If nothing else happens in the momentous year 2000, this is something that will: she intends to journey halfway across the world to achieve her goals. She considers herself Odysseus or Aeneas. She is Lacplesis the Bearslayer. But the old heroes were ruled by the dictates of fate: each heroic movement predestined, each thunderclap a sign from God. Anna, a scientist, doesn’t believe in thunderclaps from God. She believes in choices.

When she was much younger, Anna loved Choose Your Own Adventure books, and she begged her mother to read them to her, even after she was old enough to read them herself. Her sister Milda never liked these books – she made her choices nervously, and became very emotional over unhappy endings – so it was something Anna did alone with her mother, who stretched out on the couch with Anna at her feet.

At the end of a paragraph, the reader was presented with options. If you decide to sneak past the dragon, turn to page 26, if you decide to fight the dragon, turn to page 32, if you decide to run away, turn to page 12.

“Fight the dragon?” Anna would say tentatively, chewing her lip.

“Are you sure?” her mother said teasingly, looking at her over the book. “It’s a big dragon.”

“No, run away,” Anna said. “No, wait – fight.” She sat on the edge of the sofa, tense, until her mother flipped to the next page and told her whether they had more choices to make.

The books were better when her mother read to her because the temptation to cheat was too strong when she read them alone. There was always the potential then to second-guess herself, to flip back to an earlier page and change her choice. When her mother read the story she had someone to sympathize with her when the story turned out badly, as it often did; once it was over her mother would close the book firmly, so Anna couldn’t flip back through and agonize over her bad decisions and the choices she could have made to get to the ideal ending. The problem with Choose Your Own Adventure Books was that the reader was still essentially forced into the adventure that the book was about. You couldn’t choose, while reading a space adventure, to go to sea instead and become a pirate. You couldn’t choose to stay home and maybe meet someone special. No matter what choices you made, the story was already written; the options were necessarily limited.

So this was even better than a Choose Your Own Adventure book, because the options were endless. Anna selected her quest from the thousands of possible quests in the world, planned it out herself, and was determined to approach each option consciously and scientifically.

**********

In the chapter “A Guide to Moscow Wildlife” in Michael Perch’s book, We Will Be Sure to Express Your Concerns to Moscow: A Long Look At the New Russia, he writes of a meeting of various expatriots every Monday at the Shamrock Irish Pub. There are, he writes, several reasons that a person might become an expat in Moscow:

1) The person is a Business Man, meaning that he has come to this country to get as much as he can while the getting is good; and right now, in this fragile point of transition, the getting can be very, very good.

2) The person Wants to Help, and intends to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, save the whales, cure the lepers and finally unite all of Moscow in a big group hug; and right now, in this fragile point of transition, the Helper feels very, very needed.

3) The person is a Student. If graduate, then the person is here to delve into the information that is kept closely hidden by the secretive and bureaucratic Russians. The Graduate Student can be recognized by his or her perpetual frustrated scowl. If undergraduate, then the person is here to “experience Moscow” and will drink a lot and have a lot of sex with locals and other expats. The Undergraduate Student can be recognized by his or her perpetual blissful smile.

4) The person “always wanted to live in Moscow” and now teaches English or writes for a newspaper. These people could be filed under miscellaneous, as they have various reasons for wanting to live here: some argue that Russians appreciate jazz music/punk music/rap/modern art/classical ballet in a way their own compatriots never did; some (men) choose Moscow because of the numbers of attractive and willing young women who populate the city; still others have read Anna Karenina and decided to admire the Russian soul. One woman told me she chose Russia because, with all the cheap vodka and cigarettes, she could finally afford to maintain her manic alcoholism.

The expat table was obvious to Anna as soon as she entered the pub. The way they laughed, the way they moved, the shape of their faces when they spoke, their colorful clothes: any field biologist could tell you they were not Russians. She sat at a table a little away from them and ordered a beer.

She didn’t come to Moscow to meet Americans she could have met at home. It was just that the predictable dark wood and kitschy souvenirs of an Irish pub sounded so inviting, especially after her exhausting day trying to find her way around Moscow and returning to her hotel room to hear the phone ring, and then, upon picking up the receiver, hearing a thickly accented woman’s voice asking if she wanted a girl.

It was normal for her to be tense and a little unnerved. She was all alone in a very strange country that had murdered her family members. She was alone in one of the biggest cities in the world and had just been solicited by a prostitute for the first time in her life. It was natural to feel isolated and high-strung. It was normal to be a little more emotional, to seek out a comfortable environment, surrounded by people who would understand you if you needed help.

The young girl at the expat table with the large blue eyes and the almost embarrassing air of eager innocence: she must be a Helper, Anna decided. The man in the nice shirt drinking whiskey: probably a Business Man. The plump kid in the sweatshirt was probably a student, undergraduate; and there were others she was less sure about. The man at the end of the table looked mid-thirties, too old to be a student: she decided he was Business. He was as indistinctive as an American man could be: white skin, brown hair, average height, average weight, and yet she knew that he was an American. It was something about his face, she thought; and she thought that maybe the man sitting next to him had a British face. She hypothesized, as she sipped her beer, that speaking a certain language all the time caused you to move your mouth differently, so that eventually your muscles built up in such a way that your face was actually altered, and the face you presented to the world actually reflected your nationality. It was true, however, that she hadn’t had any dinner yet, and that these hypotheses might be derived from the alcohol in her bloodstream. Further experiments were certainly warranted.

The British man must be Business as well. The woman sitting on the other side of the bland American man had high cheekbones and a full upper lip that made her look French. Her bare arms were thin and angular, she had knotted a scarf around her neck, and as she smoked she stroked the indistinctive man’s forearm with her long fingernails. She would be a miscellaneous, Anna thought. She probably loves the Russian soul.

The nondescript American man left eventually, with the French woman. Anna left too, her stomach heavy with fried fish and chips that were soothingly indistinguishable from bar food at any Irish pub in the world. She felt scientific and proud to have watched the foreigners without joining them, without becoming one of them. She was just a biologist, calmly observing a distant species that had very little to do with her.

She went back to the Hotel Rossiya and lay awake on the thin mattress, watching the light from her window throw shadows on the walls.

**********

But then Anna made the choice to jog through the dangerous Moscow streets, and when her ankle turned it was clear that everything had changed.

“Can I help you?” the indistinctive man asks. “You look like you need a hand.”

She recognizes him immediately from the expat table, and she squints at him for a moment, wondering if she could convince him that she doesn’t speak English, wondering if she could get back to her hotel if the man were to turn and walk away.

It occurs to Anna that if she believed in predetermination, in thunderclaps from God, then she would always know her choices were the right ones.

“I twisted my ankle,” she says. She shades her eyes with her hand, trying to hide the impending tears. “I’m trying to make it back to the Hotel Rossiya.”

{Continued next week}