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A beautiful soul

The Third Component: Part I, Chapter 8

Alison Christy 14 December 2008

www.lablit.com/article/448

Photo Credit: Tim Christy

The difference between science and art is that science is somehow inevitable

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.

Chapter 8

Phenotypic Divergence in Allopatric Speciation

After an hour or so at the Tretyakov Gallery, Anna forgets why she is there. Or she starts to wonder why she is there: did she want to see the history of the Russian people? To understand Russian culture? Why look at paintings in person that she could find in books back home in America? Why look at paintings at all?

She is starting to lose sight of the works themselves and to think too much about the day-to-day work of painting: the first outline of the figure, the filling in of colors, the careful addition of lines and detail. Here is a brush stroke, a dab of red on a woman’s cheek, created by a brush held in a human hand, and while that stroke was placed the human was breathing, thinking, digesting, conscious of his own body in space: in short, existing. There is evidence that all of the artists, and there must be hundreds, featured in this museum existed. And then there were the others, the non-artists who admired, who decided that something was beyond the capabilities of the average human being, who put the anthills built by other people in cold quiet rooms with tiled floors and careful lighting so that people like Anna could walk through and see it all.

These people, all of them, succeeded: their paintings made it into a museum. Which is more than Anna can say for anything she has done.

The difference, she thinks, between science and art, is that science is somehow inevitable. If one person fails to discover something, if a scientist is killed in a gypsy cab on the way to the Tretyakov, then others will eventually put the pieces together. No one is ever alone in realizing a scientific problem and considering solutions. But no one except Tolstoy could write Anna Karenina. So are artists more precious than scientists, more valuable? She is willing, at this point, to say yes.

She is starting to get distracted by her own reflection on the glass over some of the paintings: a blurry, flattering reflection of her eyebrows and hair and a bit of light at the tip of her nose. And Marina, too, reflected beside her, a little taller, her shoulders distinct and pointed, her mouth pressed together tightly.

“Let’s go get a drink,” Anna says, and Marina turns in an instant, ready to leave.

**********

At the Academy of Sciences Café Marina orders vodka for two with a carafe of tomato juice. They have gone to this café for the view from the balcony, which Marina swears is the best view in Moscow: Gorky Park, the Kremlin, the white and gold glinting dome of the Church of Christ the Savior, the sweeping metal memorial to the satellite Sputnik and the shining metal statue of Yuri Gagarin, standing muscular and stiff like a superhero. Rows of cars move around beneath them like toys, and they can hear church bells in the distance, loud and low.

As soon as they sit down, Marina lights a cigarette. “If I do not smoke I get very fat,” she tells Anna, blowing smoke carefully upward without moving her head.

Her slender wrists poke delicately out of the arms of her blouse and her hands are beautiful, bony and animate. Anna tries to picture her fatter, with flesh added to her pointed chin and filling out her drawn cheeks. She tries to imagine how Marina would look if she had grown up in America: her hair thicker and shinier, her teeth straighter and whiter, her mouth somehow fuller, her smile a little faster, a little easier.

Marina clinks her glass against Anna’s. “To our new friendship,” she says. She apologizes for sobbing in the lobby of the Tretyakov. “We Russians, you understand, we are a very passionate people,” she says, waving her cigarette. “One minute singing, next minute fighting, next minute crying.”

Anna laughs, and says that she, like all Latvians, is the exact opposite: hard-working, but restrained and very, very polite. She smiles at Marina, who raises an eyebrow.

“So you think you are Latvian?” she says, tapping her cigarette into the ashtray. “But you grew up in America.” Marina smiles to herself. “No, no, I understand. You mean the krov – the blood, this polite Latvian blood – is in your veins. I have heard such things.”

“It’s not just that,” Anna says defensively. “I was raised Latvian. We went to a special school. We sang all the folksongs.” She wonders if Marina is picturing her as she might look if she had grown up in Soviet Latvia: her cheekbones more prominent, her neck thinner, her teeth crooked, a cigarette held between her thin fingers, her makeup elegant and polished.

“Of course, I understand,” Marina says, smoking calmly. “Myself, I think you become the place you live in – that the land becomes a piece of you.” She shrugs and sips her vodka. She says that she knew Anna was American the moment she saw her. “You said nothing, you did nothing, but I knew. It was in you. And if you were a Balt, I would know that too.” She lifts a red fingernail. “But, if you were a Balt born in Moscow, then I would call you a Russian. I see these things very clearly.”

She sits back and smiles. “I do not know, maybe it is just me, that I have these senses of people. I am very sensitive,” she says.

“Sure,” says Anna.

“I have always lived in Moscow,” Marina says, spreading her arms wide. “Can’t you see it?”

Marina talks quickly and incessantly, moving fluidly from one topic to the next, her accented voice pleasant and lulling. She says she lives with her mother and her grandmother, in a single room; she says her mother worries about her, all the time, wanting her to find a boyfriend, to remarry, to have children as soon as possible.

A fat, grey cat appears to live in the café, and Marina bends down to the floor, petting it and cooing to it. Suddenly Marina notices something in Anna’s handbag, and springs on it so quickly that Anna flinches.

“Michael Perch?” Marina says, waving the book that Anna borrowed from Frank: The Lights Up North: Indigenous Siberia. “You’re reading Michael Perch?” She opens the book and flips through the pages quickly.

“Have you read it?” Anna asks.

“I knew him,” Marina says, rubbing her hand over the author photo on the back cover of the book. “I met him here in Moscow. He was so intelligent, and he had the most beautiful eyes. The eyes of a beautiful soul.” She hugs the book to her chest as if it were the man himself. “A beautiful soul.”

Strange she hadn’t thought that was possible, that the disappeared author Michael Perch was someone who actually walked these streets, who might have interacted with the people around her. Someone who could be not only a guide, but a beautiful soul. “Didn’t he disappear?” she asks.

Marina snorts. “And by disappeared you mean they will find him one day at the bottom of the Don.” She drops the book dramatically on the table and lights another cigarette, inhaling deeply. “He was so strong, you know? He said no, I will write about Chechnya, I will write about the apartment bombings, and nothing can stop me. And so, what do they do? They kill him.”

Apartment bombings, Anna thinks. She has heard something about this but she can’t remember the details; just a vague memory of a front-page headline.

Marina accidentally kicks the cat under the table and she clucks to it in apology. “I never read newspapers,” she volunteers. “Just lies and lies.”

Anna intends to say something about American journalism but Marina changes the subject again and starts talking about Frank. She is in love with Frank, she tells Anna. She says he is everything that Russian men are not: honest, dependable, funny, considerate. She says that she knows he loves her too, but he doesn’t want to be tied down, he wants to be free, he wants to see the world. Marina sniffs and drops her burning cigarette into the ashtray so she can blow her nose into her napkin, delicately, turning away from the table.

Anna does not ask about why Marina left with the American the night before, or how that turned out in the end. It seems to her that this is probably none of her business.

Marina tells Anna that she is a very religious person – putting her hand to the silver cross around her neck – which surprises Anna, who has never thought of Russia as a religious place; although, she reflects, she has seen nothing but churches and cathedrals and icons since she arrived. Marina says that she believes that God wants her to be with Frank. He brought them together initially and He will bring them together again; she says that she knows Frank will eventually decide he wants to be with her.

As Marina explains to Anna that the numbers in her own name and her birth date add up to the same numbers in Frank’s name and birth date, Anna suddenly wants to call John, just to say hello, just to hear his familiar voice. She wants to say, hey, you remember that girl Laurie that Sam dated for a while? Marina reminds me of her, only crazier. She wants to hear him laugh and say yeah, that must be exhausting.

She drinks her vodka, hoping that the burn in her throat will banish the sudden empty feeling in her stomach. She has no one to share any of this with, and all of her experiences will just be stories that she’ll tell herself later, because no one else will ever want to hear them.

It seems to her that it will be impossible for her to build up the kind of history she had with John ever again. There would be so much to explain, so many intimate jokes to develop. If it took her three years to get to this point with John, then she will be at least thirty-three before she’s ready to marry anyone else, and then if that one doesn’t work out, she will be at least thirty-six, and so on. Assuming she meets someone right away.

Marina has the grey cat on her lap now, and she is moaning softly, kissing it and stroking its sides with her long fingernails. The cat stretches its head above the table, curling its long pink tongue toward a spill of tomato juice and watching Anna with cold, emotionless green eyes.

If she had to choose, Anna thinks, she would rather Michael Perch be a rational, objective observer than a beautiful soul. He is, after all the only guide to this country she can trust.

{Continued next week}