Time on her hands

The Third Component: Part II, Chapter 13

Alison Christy 18 January 2009

Photo Credit: Tim Christy

She thinks that if her grandmother survived the gulag, then it might mean that she has some gene that could help her survive anything

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.

Part II. Chapter 13

Physiological and Psychological Response to Observed Traumatic Event


To examine the effect of an observed traumatic event on stress response, commitment to a previously determined quest, and subjective feelings of danger and insecurity, we selected five time points to measure the response of Anna Forsch to injured humans. It was found that immediately following the observed event, levels of stress hormones including corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), cortisol and epinephrine were dramatically elevated, but these levels began to taper almost immediately and were normal by 1 hour post-event. However, for at least 24 hours following the event, hormone levels rose more dramatically in response to even minor stressors, suggesting an increased sensitivity to stress leading to an apparent disassociation of magnitude of response from severity of event.

Subjective feelings of “danger” and “insecurity” were also increased immediately following the observed traumatic event, decreasing in correlation with distance of the subject from the city of Moscow. The subject’s commitment to her quest also decreased as she traveled further from Moscow. Subject began to express the desire to “go home.”


Somewhere in Russia, August 9, 2000: There is plenty of time to think when you are riding on the Trans-Siberian Railway. It takes over a day to get from Moscow to Ekaterinberg, and that’s just the first leg. You can only sleep so much, you can only stare out the window so much, and even if you’ve brought two books with you from America (Turn Left at the Yak in the Road: A Life of Travel and We Will Be Sure To Express Your Concerns To Moscow: A Long Look at the New Russia) and borrowed one from an American in Moscow (The Lights Up North: Indigenous Siberia), and have printouts of several articles written by the vanished and probably late journalist and political/travel writer Michael Perch, you find that you can only read so much before the dry words start to irritate your eyes. If you had a friend with you, you could talk, or play cards or something; or, if you spoke Russian, you could make friends with the three Russians sharing your second-class coupe on the train.

But Anna doesn’t speak Russian beyond the obligatory hello, please, yes, no, thank you, goodbye, grandmother, I want, I need – coincidentally, the exact same phrases her coupe-mates seem to have learned in English. She did point to herself, say Anna, and tell the woman that she was a student – Ya studentka, she said as Sasha had taught her, to which the woman replied, “I em assistant,” and Anna said Of what? and the woman smiled apologetically and shrugged.

It is selfish, and above all unscientific, but she has the strange sense that the bombing happened for her, as some kind of mystical warning: this is a dangerous world where people are killed: keep on your toes. She is vigilant on the train: she watches everything carefully. If they killed Michael Perch, they could even be trying to kill her, because she had printed those articles, because she was trying to find her grandmother – a woman they had effectively killed years ago.

She finds herself anxious to get farther away from Moscow. She thinks of Siberia as a void where nothing can harm her. Which is strange, when she considers how her grandmother might have felt, riding on a different train, possibly along these very tracks, looking out at these same mountains and fields.

Once, in college, Anna ate nothing for three days and lay on the cold floor of her dorm room, an icy wind from the window blowing through her thin clothes. She felt thin, light, ethereal, her bones pressing through her skin, jutting against the ground, her entire body tensed against the cold, her toes numb, her stomach gnawing her from the inside.

It was an experiment. She wanted to find out what it might have been like to live like her grandmother did, in a prison camp miles from home in the paralyzing cold of Siberia. Food was everywhere; the window could be closed; she could easily go take a warm shower. She could close her eyes and pretend to be sleeping on the floor of a cabin in a gulag with the cold wind blowing in, but she knew her space heater was waiting for her whenever she wanted it. There was no way she could ever know. Instead of struggling to keep warm and fed she was struggling to be cold and hungry; there were always confounding factors in this kind of experiment.

She had closed the window and crawled under her down comforter, wondered if the women in her grandmother’s gulag were just a little bit pleased when they started losing weight from the hard gulag work and lack of food. She wondered if they competed with each other, if they worried about their thinning hair, if they formed cliques, if they gossiped together, or if the sickness and the death in the camp really changed all the ways that women normally interact.

She wondered whether she would have survived.

She thinks that if she finds Laima in Siberia, if it is true that her grandmother survived the gulag, then it might mean that she has something in herself too – some gene, some hereditary factor, some hardy trait that could help her survive anything.


Anna is not used to an overabundance of time. She is an American woman accustomed to working and doing and accomplishing things. Even on the weekends, even on vacation, she jogs, she reads, she shops: she occupies herself. But now she has no choice but to sit on the bench seat, jostled by the train, watching the trees and lakes and mountains move by outside the window.

She thinks the woman in her coupe is about her age. Her name is Tanya, plump with pale skin and red cheeks and traveling with a man who might be her husband. He has a mustache and wears a black leather jacket that stinks of cheap cigarettes. They sleep on the bottom bunks in the coupe where everyone sits during the day, but they smile at Anna and wordlessly offer her a seat by the window.

The other person sleeping in the coupe, on the top bunk across from Anna, is a teenager or a little older, wearing beige camouflage pants with a crushed packet of cigarettes in the front pocket. He spends most of his time in a coupe down the hall, talking loudly with friends of the same age. When in this room he sits by the window and reads what appears to be a pornographic magazine: one leg jiggling, sniffing loudly and rubbing his nose on his arm; or he pulls himself up to his upper bunk with thin but muscular arms and rummages violently in his olive duffel. He makes Anna nervous; his movements seem harsh and unchecked, as if at any moment he could punch something or someone. She is relieved when he leaves the coupe again.

The timetable on the little fold-out table under the window says they should have left the city of Perm fifteen minutes ago. Anna gives Tanya a questioning look and taps her watch. The woman shakes her head and shrugs with an exaggerated furrow on her brow. The train attendant comes by and says something to the couple before turning to Anna and telling her, “There is problem. We stay thirty minutes.”

“What kind of problem?” Anna asks.

The train attendant sighs loudly. “There is problem. We stay thirty minutes.” She walks out of their coupe.

Anna flips through her book, looks out the window, walks out into the hallway to stand by the windows in the hall. There is nothing to see.

{Continued next week}