Like mother like daughter

The Third Component: Part I, Chapter 9

Alison Christy 20 December 2008

Photo Credit: Tim Christy

They thought of her as the annoying rational fly in the sweet molasses of their feminine agreement and camaraderie

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 9

Communal Nesting is Beneficial in the Absence of Conspecific Aggression

There was a time when Moscow was almost a bad word, conjuring up a far black world with spies and missiles poised to fire towards America at the depression of a single button. By age eleven Anna used phrases like mutually assured destruction and pre-emptive strike and Soviet occupation in casual conversation.

There was a time when Anna and Milda looked similar enough to be twins: two round-cheeked blonde girls, playing games that involved kissing and whispering and declaring that they would be best friends for the rest of their lives. But by the time they hit puberty you could barely tell they were sisters.

“God, you’re stupid,” Anna said.

Milda had just informed Anna and her mother that the Soviet Union was breeding chickens with multiple breasts and legs, chickens so deformed that they had to be kept on life support because they couldn’t breathe on their own.

Anna turned out to take after their mother’s side of the family, short with soft pale limbs and brown hair, and Milda took after their father’s Scandinavian side, with ridiculously long, straight adolescent legs and huge puppy feet.

“You’re such a baby,” Milda said. Her legs were folded up behind the front seat where Anna was sitting, and she kicked the back of the seat.

Dzintara Kalnins, an instructor at the Draudziba Latvian Saturday School, was the one who first said of the Forsch sisters: Anna is the smart one and Milda is the pretty one. A simple observation that neither of them ever forgot. Milda even brought it up occasionally when introducing Anna to her friends – self-deprecatingly, as if it was better to be the smart one.

“It doesn’t even make sense.” Anna turned around in her seat to look at Milda. “I mean, how would you ever make money off a chicken you had to keep on life support?”

“Shut up!” Milda said.

“You’d have to charge, like a million dollars per chicken.”

“I said shut up!” Milda kicked the seat again.

“That’s enough, girls.” Their mother was grim and determined in the mornings, and she steered with her knees while drinking her coffee. “Milda, stop kicking.”

She was driving them to Draudziba School on that early Saturday morning because their father had sworn that he would have nothing to do with Latvian school, which he found useless. “Why not go to Japanese school instead?” he’d say to them as they ate their cereal. “At least people will be speaking Japanese in thirty years.” Then he would take his paper into the living room and sit with his coffee beneath a framed map of Riga with a woven Latvian throw over his lap.

Milda was a Libra, but Anna and her mother shared the same star sign, which made Anna think that she and her mother should be more alike than they were. In the mornings her mother would read their horoscope out loud from the paper, never believing in them, of course, but letting Anna know what was in store for both of them, like they were sharing the same hopes for the day.

That was before it became apparent that Milda was the one who was just like their mother, interested in cute girly things like make-up and clothes and bland Hallmark card sentiment, and Anna was the odd one out, always arguing, always pointing out the rational way to think about something, always reminding them that wet hair didn’t actually cause colds or that the laws of probability suggested that every now and then someone was bound to have a dream that seemed to predict the future or that the insistence that women were better than men – instead of equal to – was emblematic of women’s actual lack of power. Before they thought of her as the annoying rational fly in the sweet molasses of their feminine agreement and camaraderie.

“My sister is so bourgeois,” Anna told John once, hanging up the phone after a conversation with Milda, who talked incessantly about her children. “They told her what to want – husband, kids, and a pay-the-bills career – and she just bought it, hook, line and sinker.”

And now, here in Russia, she thinks that this is what she wants too, even if she doesn’t necessarily want to want it.

Dzintara Kalnins was the one who said that Anna was just like her grandmother Laima. Of course, Dzintara wasn’t necessarily reliable – but Aunt Lidija had seconded the opinion, once, when Anna had talked back to her.


Anna stops at a souvenir shop on the way back to her hotel, giddy from the vodka drunk with Marina. The window of the shop is full of those little stacking matrioshka dolls, which are, she decides, the perfect gift for everyone back home. She is buzzed and excited, and some of the dolls are so funny: nesting Soviet leaders, for instance, or barely recognizable Disney characters, or nesting Beatles. She giggles to herself as she stacks and unstacks them in the store.


She and Milda had gone out to buy souvenirs in Riga when she stopped in Latvia on her way out to Russia. Those souvenirs were not for the Americans back home, though: they were for the Latvians she would meet in the Siberian town of Krolosk.

Janis watched Milda’s boys while she and Anna walked down by the Freedom Monument, built in 1935, during Latvia’s first independence. The locals call the statue of the woman who holds up three stars Milda.

Now there are always young, upright Latvian men standing guard by the statue, and bright bouquets piled under the carved words Tevzeme un Brivibai: Freedom and Fatherland. In Soviet times people joked that the statue was a travel agency, and leaving flowers at Milda’s feet would buy you a one-way ticket to Siberia.

“So, you’re not dating your professor anymore?” the human Milda asked, hesitantly.

“He broke up with me,” Anna said. The sun was bright in the square and glinted off the old-fashioned, four-wheeled roller skates of two little girls. The girls held hands, and one, slightly taller, showed the other how to move her feet. Their yellow sun-dresses were almost unbearably bright in the sun, and it was so cute and so apt, like a scene from a cheesy movie – two little girls happy together just like they used to be, et cetera – that it was irritating. Anna wondered where their parents were. Didn’t they have kidnappings in Riga?

“We reached a point where we needed to either get married or not,” Anna said. “I was finishing graduate school. It was time to make decisions, and he made his.”

Milda laughed. “I hope you didn’t say that to him.”

“More or less,” Anna said.

“Oh, Anna,” Milda said. She giggled. “I’m sorry, it’s kind of funny.”

“It would be,” Anna said. “Except that I feel like I’ve wasted a lot of time.”

They walked by the famous clock in the square, advertising Laima chocolates. She could take it as a sign – a big clock with her grandmother’s name, the same name as the Latvian goddess of fate, written on it – though of course it was only an advertisement and of course Anna already knew it would be there.

“It’s not necessarily wasted.” Milda fiddled with her gold wedding band, trying absent-mindedly and unsuccessfully to tug it off her swollen finger. “I mean, you enjoyed being together, you learned from each other.”

“I guess.”

“You’re not working toward some end goal. This isn’t a postgraduate program,” Milda said.

Easy for you to say, Anna thought. She didn't say anything, however: after all, Milda didn’t say what she must have been thinking, that she had never approved of the relationship. It was, naturally, against university policy, and a bad idea in general. He was essentially her boss, not to mention sixteen years her senior with two teenaged kids. Anna should have known better.

They walked into the Old Town, through the narrow cobblestoned streets to a little store that carried cheap amber jewelry, linen tablecloths and mittens. On one shelf they found a huge necklace made up of irregular amber chunks larger than fists, sitting beside a large replica of a ship made entirely of amber.

“They should levy a tax on tourists who buy hideous things,” Anna said in a low voice. “An Oh-My-God-What-Were-You-Thinking tax.”

“A Damn-You-Have-Really-Bad-Taste tax,” Milda giggled, covering her mouth with her hand.

“Or they should confiscate these things at customs on the other end,” Anna said. “ ‘I’m sorry, ma’am, we can’t allow you to bring something this ugly into our country.’ ”

“ 'No, ma’am, I’m afraid that’s truly beyond the boundaries of decency. In fact it’s considered a crime against humanity,’ ” Milda said.

“ 'Ma’am,' ” Anna said sternly, “'I’m afraid this souvenir has been outlawed by the Geneva Convention.’”

They had to leave the store then, they were laughing so hard, and Milda hugged Anna and told her she missed her.

“I know a place where you can buy a picture of Jesus encrusted with amber,” Milda said.

“It’s so different, isn’t it?” Anna asked her. “I was just here eight years ago, and so much has changed.”

“I know,” Milda said. “It’s a good change though. We’re getting real grocery stores, and Walters un Rapa has a whole section of books in English. I can actually find vanilla and frozen vegetables in the stores now.” She laughed. “I’m holding out for some good American food. Bagels and pizza. Then I’ll be truly happy.”

“Of course then you might as well live in America,” Anna said. “If that’s what you want.”

Milda looked away. “It’s not like that and you know it,” she said.

“I should probably leave for Moscow tomorrow,” Anna said. She looked away from her sister into the store window, as if she were deciding between the amber and the linen and the little blond-haired Latvian dolls.


Back in the Hotel Rossiya Anna unnests all the dolls and lines them up on the dresser. The many generations of dolls stare back at her as she sits on her bed, drinking inadvisable tap water to still her headache. She doesn’t understand why she bought so many. Who on earth will she give them to? Then she renests the dolls, carelessly, mixing Brezhnev with Ringo, Lisa Simpson and a big flowered babushka, and then she goes to sleep.

{Continued next week}