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Fiction

Laima

The Third Component: Part II, Chapter 14

Alison Christy 25 January 2009

www.lablit.com/article/462

Photo Credit: Tim Christy

She's not that naïve. He should see her in the lab, in her element, moving swiftly from ice bucket to chemical hood, gloved and professional in her crisp white lab coat

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 14

Stability of Innocent and Non-innocent Ligands in Chaotic Oscillating Reactions

Anna stares out the window of the stopped train; she shifts in her seat; she flips through her book again and thinks about what might have happened to Michael Perch.

Frank let her take The Lights Up North with her to Siberia. He said she could just bring it back to him when she was passing through Moscow, or mail it to him when she got back to America. He wrote his American address on the back flap of the book. She nodded, trying to act like she cared whether or not he let her take the book with her. She had to be nice, of course; he had helped her get her ticket, buy groceries for the trip, make it to the train station on time. She owed him.

“Sasha likes American girls,” he said, apropos of nothing. They were looking over the produce in a tiny grocery store. A large man in a black uniform stood by the wall watching them; a security guard, Frank said, with nothing better to do than follow them through the store.

“He said that. I don’t know what that means,” Anna said. Apples seemed like a good choice for three days on a train. She was so tired, from the sun at the amusement park, from the adrenaline at Pushkin Square. She picked her fruit quickly, without looking at Frank.

“Yes you do,” he said.

After a prolonged pause Frank said that Sasha likes girls who think they are in control of their own lives, who are happy and sheltered and naïve. Anna laughed. She has never considered herself particularly happy, sheltered or naïve. She hardly thought she was in control – at least, not anymore – and then she pointed out that she wasn’t really American, anyway: she was Latvian.

“You’re right,” Frank said. “The immigrant experience has nothing to do with being American. Nothing at all.” He handed her a bagged loaf of dark bread. “Especially when it comes to people exiled from their homelands. I mean, you couldn’t really say that America was built on that, at all.”

“Very funny,” Anna said, but she didn’t laugh. She found cheese and sausage in the aisles and walked to the checkout line. Frank added two large bottles of beer to her pile; he said she would thank him later.

Once they were outside the store, Anna said, “You know, I’m not that naïve.” She thought to herself that he should see her in the lab, in her element, moving swiftly from ice bucket to chemical hood, efficiently vortexing, pipetting, loading tubes into a centrifuge, gloved and professional in her crisp white lab coat. “I’m different at home,” she said.

“Of course you’re naïve,” Frank said then, a little irritably. “Maybe naïve’s not the word for it, but you’re trusting. Of course you are. You trust that when you read the newspaper, the news is real and no one bribed the editor of the paper to print or cover up a certain story. You trust that when you walk into a pharmacy and fill a prescription, the medicine they give you is real and not just sugar pills. You trust that tomorrow, the dollar will be worth the same it was worth today, and you won’t have to spend fifty bucks on a loaf of bread. You trust that you will walk through your day relatively safe, and if something happens to you then there will be police officers and fire fighters waiting, and if something happens that is someone else’s fault, then you can sue them and get some compensation for whatever you’ve lost. Yes, there is corruption and yes, some people get screwed but for the most part, you trust because in America, you can.”

Anna didn’t say anything to that. At the train station Frank handed her the bags he was carrying and told her she could take the Michael Perch book with her, and she nodded, and took the book back from him, and put it in her bag. He told her to be careful and hugged her goodbye. It’s always awkward to say goodbye to someone you are pretty sure you will never see again.

**********

So no, not naïve: but here she’d been, trusting that the train would take her where she wanted to go when she wanted to get there, and here she is, sitting and waiting in a stationary car.

Tanya has been dozing with her head against the wall. Her husband has been gone for a while; maybe he has gone to the dining car. Her hand rests on her belly in a way that makes it clear to Anna that she is not plump but pregnant. When she opens her eyes again, Anna smiles at her and rubs her own belly, and Tanya smiles eagerly and nods. She pulls her shirt taut so Anna can see how big she is. Anna gives her a congratulatory smile.

“Irkutsk,” Tanya says, tapping on the timetable. “My mama.”

“Oh,” Anna says, and nods. “Tomsk,” she says. “My grandmother.” She can’t remember the word for grandmother in Russia, even though she was just talking about this with Sasha yesterday – was it only yesterday? “Vecmamina,” she says, but that’s Latvian and it confuses the woman, who shakes her head. “Mama of mama,” she says, gesturing a lower and upper mama.

Tanya nods, understanding, and says “Babushka.” Babushka, of course, Anna should have remembered that. Tanya smiles contentedly and rests her head against the wall again.

If Anna ever has a daughter, she wants to name her Laima. This is something she decided long ago, back when she and Milda were running around playing Siberia. After her grandmother, yes, but she likes the name for other reasons. Laima comes from a word meaning happiness, or luck: as in laime nelaimë – a blessing in disguise. There is even an ancient Latvian goddess named Laima, the goddess of luck, both good and bad. She was a weaver, a spinner, and a maker of textiles, a woman uniting scraps to form the pattern of existence. Latvian brides and pregnant women knitted the symbolic patterns of Laima, mistress of creation and procreation, into their gloves and baby blankets, singing dainas:

Laima’s plan is steady.
Like the sun crossing the sky.
No one dares to challenge What Laima has decreed.
On the bed lies the mother
On her chest her tiny babe.
By the window crouches Laima
Mapping out the baby’s days.
I look out upon the water.
I think of all that’s come to pass.
I see Laima in the water;
I wish she had drowned from my tears.

This is not an original mythology: Laima is a weaving goddess of Fate with two sisters, just like the Norse Norns or the Greek Moirae. Clearly someone stole the idea from someone else. But it doesn’t really matter to Anna. Like the dainas it is their Latvian heritage. And she can understand why you would want to hold on to a goddess of luck and fate in a land like this, a land that doesn’t seem to be guided by reason or religion.

And Laima is also the name of a Latvian producer of chocolate, developed in 1925, before the Second World War and before Germany and Russia started taking turns conquering and re-conquering Latvia. During the Soviet Occupation Laima was nationalized and all other chocolate-producing concerns in Latvia were liquidated. Now Laima manufactures chocolates for Latvians and tourists.

When Anna visited Milda in Riga in the summer of 1992, she spent her mornings sitting on the balcony of Milda’s tiny crumbling apartment on Valdemara Iela, drinking instant coffee and breathing in the rich smell of cocoa from the Laima factory just a few blocks away. It was the summer before she started working as a laboratory technician to gain experience before applying to graduate school, and she was completely free, with nothing, absolutely nothing to do all day but sit on the balcony and breathe in the scents of chocolate and pine trees, walk through the streets of Riga, buy groceries from the old Russian ladies at the sprawling Central Market, and spend the sunny evenings with her sister. She was single, young and nothing had been decided for her yet. It was glorious: quite simply the best time of her life.

But when she went back before coming to Moscow nothing was the same. The Laima factory had guided tours. Clean, brightly lit shopping centers had sprung up on every corner, their shelves packed with Kellogg’s cereal and German shampoo. American tourists clustered around a table at the Elkors Irish Pub. The city seemed to have grown up and forgotten all about her.

{Continued next week}