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The Third Component: Part I, Chapter 10

Alison Christy 28 December 2008

www.lablit.com/article/453

Photo Credit: Tim Christy

She wants to be an Anna with a purpose, an obsession, something that will wash over her and then carry her through her life

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 10

Adjustments to the Competition-Colonization Model in Periods of Rapid Population Growth

September 8, 1999: In the middle of the night, a blast, a flash of explosives, and an apartment building crumbles: 94 people die, seven of them children. One hundred fifty more are physically wounded, and the ones who haven’t been hurt have still lost their homes and all of their possessions, and worst of all any sense of security: they will never forget that one moment you can be lying in your bed beside your spouse, sound asleep or lying awake, your mind filled with thoughts of your job or something you shouldn’t have said or that pimple on your chin, and then, the next moment the entire world can literally fall to pieces around you.

September 13, 1999: Eight storeys collapse in a wave of dust and debris. One hundred eighteen dead; two hundred wounded. By now everyone living in Moscow understands his own terrible vulnerability. The Russian government blames terrorists from separatist Chechnya – Chechens who normally target military and police forces, not innocent civilians – and who have not made any effort to claim these attacks as their own.

September 22, 1999: Bus driver Alexei Kartofelnikov informs the police of a suspicious car parked outside his 13-storey apartment building in the town of Ryazan. The police discover three sacks of powder and a timing device in the basement. The FSB come and remove all evidence of the bags and claim that they were just running a test, and that the substance in the bags was simply sugar – sugar that happened to resemble the potent explosive hexogen. But what kind of test were they running? Who were they testing? And why did these bags simply vanish?

Perhaps the better question is who stands to gain from these apartment bombings? Not the Chechens, for whom this means another war with a bigger and stronger country. But Yeltsin, for one, can declare war on the Chechens and even a state of emergency, if he wants. He can ride the country’s fear through the next election, moving Prime Minister Putin directly into power and protecting the interests of his friends. Oh, and let’s not forget that Chechnya has oil.

This is not a light matter. We need an intense and incorruptible international investigation into the September apartment bombings. And if it is found that our government truly did commit such an atrocity – killing two hundred of its own civilians as they lay in their beds simply for political reasons – then we need another revolution. No one should have to live in this kind of fear.

– Michael Perch, from “Government-Contracted Killings: Are You Next?” The Moscow Voice, September 24, 1999.

Striking women are everywhere in this country: thin and unsmiling in sharp heels and sunglasses and shirts that end above their flat stomachs. Massive, hideous, Soviet buildings loom over the street. Anna takes a photograph of the McDonalds, of course, and of a grocery store with gaudy chandeliers and gilt arches on its walls. She stops at Pushkin Square and follows the flow of people into the Metro station.

Together they all move down an escalator to a little underground tunnel full of shops and kiosks. A woman sits in front of a stand of Russian Orthodox icons; another has a shop of perfumes; another, a variety of drugstore items.

“Skolka?” Anna asks the woman behind the icon table in phrase-book Russian. How much?

**********

There was an ancient Russian icon at the Tretyakov gallery that has stuck in Anna’s mind: just a piece of wood painted a silvery gold behind a hooded Madonna holding a baby up to her pointed face. The baby had a angular small head and a long body like a miniature adult, but his mother gently cupped her hand beneath him, her other hand affectionately touching his sleeve, his face pressed sweetly against hers, his arm stretched out across her chest as though to embrace her.

Marina had said something about Constantinople and the role of the ikonostasis in the divine liturgy. Anna looked at the icon and thought about John, her Ph.D. advisor and ex-boyfriend, and his ex-wife Carol.

John married young, before he had even started the work in protein folding that made his name in the field. In his photos his ex-wife Carol was a young, pretty girl with long pale hair and skinny wrists sticking out of the arms of a wide peasant shirt, one arm around his neck and a cigarette in her other hand. Her eyes were half-closed, she was smiling, she looked wild and spontaneous and fun. At their wedding she wore a wide white hippy dress and flowers in her hair, all of her so pale she almost blended in with the white sky behind her.

But when Anna finally met her, Carol turned out to be a large woman in a pink sweatshirt, with huge breasts and tanned skin and bottle-blond hair that curled around her broad shoulders, apparently satisfied with her cute little house in Minneapolis where they drove to pick up his adolescent daughters for the weekend, with her fully-stocked pantry and her mass-produced needlepoint that said Bless this Mess and her second husband, Ken, who liked to mow the lawn and watch the Weather Channel and fix broken appliances. She made John seem childish, somehow, with her maternal air of competence, and he even acted even more childishly around her, pouting, scowling, informing her that she was no longer the boss of him.

John said it was having kids that did it; he said that there was a hormonal switch in women’s brains that turned them content and accepting once they had given birth. He said it was a terrifying thing. There was a time when Anna agreed with him, when she thought she might never want to have children if it meant changing so completely and giving herself up to a new maternal, complacent Anna. But now she wants it. She wants to be an Anna with a purpose, an obsession, something that will wash over her and then carry her through her life.

She wants to be this mother-madonna, she thinks, the woman who can be worshipped because she has become a part of time and immortality and, like a person asleep, has stepped out of reality and cannot be reached.

**********

But the angular Madonna from the Tretyakov gallery isn’t there in the underground mezzanine at Pushkin Square, so Anna buys a different two-dollar icon for Milda: another angular Madonna, close enough. The Madonna is better than the nesting dolls, she thinks: a spiritual, solemn mother, instead of an earthy, kitschy one who multiplies unthinkingly, budding like a yeast cell to produce identical replicas of itself.

Then she re-enters the flow of people, washed along with them to another escalator that descends to the actual Metro platform.

This escalator seems to drop for miles, leading the long row of immobile people deep into the earth, like some painting of sinners descending into hell. She looks across the metal divider to the people across the way, who move slowly upward toward the light as if they have fulfilled their suffering and been pardoned – though their faces are stony and lifeless with no hint of rapture. She steps aside for two young men who are weaving quickly down the stairs, carrying open beer bottles though it is barely noon.

The platform does have pillars, and dainty chandeliers, and a marble floor. Very pretty but strangely unnecessary, Anna thinks; why would someone construct the hideously functional Hotel Rossiya and then decorate a subway station like a ballroom? In her world, designers try to cloak functionality with beauty, not hide all beauty behind large concrete walls.

A train is coming; Anna feels the wind and hears the distant rumble and she steps back superstitiously, away from the tracks, before it comes into the station. She is reminded of riding the subway in Chicago with her mother and sister when she was little, her mother carrying bags of Christmas presents, tugging on her daughters' hands, keeping them away from the edge.

When the train jerks to a halt, the doors burst open and people pour from the cars as other people pack themselves tightly back in again: each car is a tin box full of people, stacked directly next to each other without any space to move. She watches them shove themselves in from the platform, more than she thought could fit in one car, and she feels claustrophobic and threatened, as though she were one of them. She is glad that she is not carrying a purse, that her money is strapped to her stomach underneath her clothes, and that her passport is in a safe at the hotel. Even if she felt someone picking her pocket in that kind of crowd, there would be very little she could do about it.

The people push by her to the long escalator up: hundreds of faceless people. There are things that can be known for certain about the people moving around her in determined lines: every one gestated in a woman’s womb; every one eats and defecates; and every one will someday breathe a last breath. It is a chilling, mind-boggling thought: every single person was born and must one day die. This man in front of her, stinking of armpit in his black T-shirt that appears to advertise a German heavy metal band: he had a mother, and he will one day die. That woman with the bluish lipstick: had a mother, will die. The little girl in pink holding on to her mother’s hand. The old man carrying a glittery silver plastic bag that reads Rave Girl.

Anna pushes her way into the upward flow of people, traveling back to the surface on a long escalator with the rest of the ascendant. She takes a deep breath when she gets to the top and finally can move away from everyone else.

She sees a sign that says Internet Café, in English, and she walks toward it. She intends only to check her e-mail; but she finds herself at the website of the Moscow Voice, the paper Michael Perch used to work for. A quick search for his name reveals several articles he wrote in 1999, right before his disappearance. She prints out the articles like a movie sleuth, and makes her way down Tverskaya Street with the pages tucked inside her handbag.

{Continued next week}