Hidden treasure

The Third Component: Part II, Chapter 15

Alison Christy 1 February 2008

Photo Credit: Tim Christy

Even when her experimental data looked right she could never be sure it was real: it had to be believed in, like a religion

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 15

Unidirectional Transport in the Absence of Basic Cell-to-Cell Signaling

It shouldn't really matter to her whether or not the train is moving, but Anna fidgets with the books in her bag, taps her foot nervously, and finally decides to eat some of the bread she bought at the grocery store. The bread is heavy and dense, and she considers washing it down with the beer Frank told her to buy, but she's afraid Tanya will disapprove of her drinking in the middle of the afternoon.

Back in graduate school Anna once made a Russian black bread herself, but it was a dark, flavorful rye loaf that in no way resembled the gray slice she's chewing on now. She wonders whether Russian black bread is simply an American misnomer, like Russian dressing, French fries or chicken Kiev.

John said that he didn't trust a scientist who wasn't a good cook because the procedure was virtually identical: you mixed together ingredients according to a recipe and you figured out how to optimize them for your conditions.

And Anna didn't argue with him, but she didn't think it was the same at all. Bread was solid, and the dough was there, squeezed and pulled by her own hands. She knew what each ingredient was and what it was doing there, and when she took the loaf from the oven her result was warm and understandable and edible and everyone around her congratulated her on the work she had done.

In the lab, she would put one solution into a tiny tube, add another solution, whirl it in the centrifuge – all the while hoping that something was happening in the invisible, microscopic world inside that tube. When her experimental data looked completely wrong, she had no idea why. Even when her data looked right she could never be sure it was real: it had to be believed in, like a religion. How could she know, when she never held it in her hands, when nothing about it was visible or tangible or knowable?

She baked a lot of bread in graduate school: chewy cracked wheat rolls; a sour Latvian rye; a sweet milky sandwich bread. After working with her invisible world all day she couldn't wait to get home and make something real, something she could see and taste and believe in. She thought, while she mixed and kneaded, of the long lineage of women before her who baked bread almost every day to feed their men and their children, and it made her feel connected to them, a part of her own heritage. Though they probably hated baking bread because they had to do it; there was a difference between baking bread as a hobby and baking bread for sustenance, just as there was a difference between starving herself on purpose and scrabbling for food in a labor camp.

John liked to make sauces: velouté, Hollandaise, Béarnaise. At some point he stopped eating bread; he was trying to cut down on his carbs, he said, because he never had time to get to the gym. So Anna stopped baking, because there was no point if no one ate what she baked.


When Tanya sees Anna eating she takes out some cheese and chocolate out of her bag and shares them with Anna, who cuts her some bread. They eat together in silence. Tanya seems cheerful and friendly, despite the stopped train and her prominent stomach. Milda told Anna that she hated her current stage of pregnancy, when strangers aren't sure if she's pregnant or just fat and she feels perpetually seasick. "I'm very irritable," she said when Anna first arrived. "I'm sorry in advance."

Ludis, her eldest, was five, and spoke Latvian with astonishing ease. It amazed Anna that this tiny little boy was able to simply pick up a language that she had worked on for so long and still couldn't speak perfectly.

She felt big and awkward around him; she had never been particularly good with children. But then he commanded her, in Latvian, to sing him a song, and then, because his mother told him to, he added a ludzu, meaning 'please'.

Anna was happy to sing him a song. She and Milda went to their first song festival in Michigan when they were thirteen or fourteen. They drove up with their mother and stayed in a hotel, stuffing the free shampoos and soaps into their backpacks to be saved, ridiculously, as souvenirs. When she finally walked into the festival area, Anna heard a large choir singing a song she knew: Dziedot dzimu, dziedot augu, dziedot mūžu nodzīvoju. And to her surprise all the other people in the audience were singing along to this song that no one in her normal, American life knew.

At the festival she found she could talk to complete strangers about things that she carefully avoided mentioning at school – she could say kokle or displaced persons camp or laime nelaime, and no one asked what she meant: people knew just what she was talking about and responded in kind. Like a fan of a strange, esoteric science fiction show who goes to her first convention, Anna felt like she had finally found her home and her people.

She loved the song festivals after that, but she stopped going when she was in graduate school; she still knew the songs, but it became harder to talk with the other people there when being Latvian was no longer the primary focus of her life.

So when Ludis asked for a song, Anna started to sing that same song:

I was born singing, I grew up singing,
I lived my life singing,
And I sang when you took me
To the sandy white dunes.

Milda smiled at her, but Ludis looked away, clearly unhappy with Anna's choice.

"He doesn't know that one," Milda said. "Try Ruby Tuesday. He loves the Stones."

"I love the Rolling Stones," Ludis said in English, jumping up and down with astonishing energy, and he started to sing, in English: "She would never say where she came from…".

Anna looked at the boy nervously and asked Milda which folk songs Ludis did know.

"He's Latvian, Anna," Milda said. "He was born here. He doesn't have to sing about it."

Irritable, yes: but she had apologized in advance.


It has been forty-five minutes since the train attendant came by, and the train still hasn't moved. Perm, Anna thinks, absent-mindedly brushing the breadcrumbs off the coupe's folding table into a plastic trash bag. She decides to look for a reference to Perm in Michael Perch's We Will Be Sure To Express Your Concerns to Moscow.

Perm: mentioned on page 63, where it was included in a list of cities that were formerly closed to foreigners; on page 71 in a reference to Doctor Zhivago; and on page 124:

The German government encourages visitors to Dachau. It is a way to apologize and to make money from tourism. We're sorry, they say, come visit us, we won't do it again. Germans take their own children there to point out the horrible things their grandparents did. Following the Second World War they had to deal with a combination of harsh outside pressure and their own (almost pathological) need for redemption through confession.

But when it comes to the Soviet gulags, no one wants to admit anything. Here, there was no regime change, no liberation, no real lustration. The same people stayed in power and they didn't want other people perusing their dirty past. So they simply destroyed all evidence of the gulags. What gulags, they say, raising their hands innocently. You can't prove anything.

The gulag of Perm-36, constructed in 1946 as a prison logging camp, became a maximum security prison in the seventies. They sent the most problematic political criminals to Perm, the most vocal and determined, the most famous Soviet dissidents and human rights activists – including Nobel Prize-nominated poet Vasyl Stus, who died there in 1985 one month (conveniently) before the Nobel Prize winner was announced.

In the late 1980s television crews from Estonia and the Ukraine came and filmed the labor camp. The Soviet government reacted, of course, by moving in swiftly to destroy the entire facility. A group called the Perm Memorial Society managed to drum up international awareness and reconstruct the old camp. Now the Memorial Center for the History of Political Repressions is the only Gulag Museum in Russia, located in Perm-36, the only surviving complex from the Soviet Gulag system.

Anna quickly pushes the curtains aside and looks out the window. Clearly, this is why the train stopped in Perm. She was supposed to get out here, she was supposed to see the Gulag Museum. All those days in Moscow looking for some clue, and all this time there was a museum, just a day away, that could tell her everything she ever wanted to know about her grandmother's life. She scrambles, grabs her things, and starts packing them into her bags.

Tanya sits up, looking startled. Anna stops. She wants to explain, but she doesn't know what to say, so she keeps throwing her books and clothes and food into her duffle bag.

And then, as if her decision to stay was the very signal the conductor was waiting for, the whistle blows, and the train begins to move.

Anna runs into the corridor anyway, dragging her rolling suitcase and carrying the duffle bag, but the trees are already speeding by the window, moving faster and faster. She flings her bag to the floor and punches her fist against the cold glass of the window.

She missed it. She missed it. She has to remember to be alert. But will be okay, she hasn't ruined anything. She can get out in Ekaterinburg and return to Perm. It was a choice and she didn't realize it and so she chose wrongly. Things happen for a reason. She can go back, though. She can fix it.

But then she feels a slight nudge of uncertainty: what if this happened for a reason too? Maybe she was supposed to discover the Gulag Museum a little too late, and let it pass by. Maybe there would be a bomb there. Maybe there would be a rapist or a pickpocket.

How can you know the unknowable, how can you study what you can't see?

She leans the top of her head against the window and closes her eyes. She doesn't have to decide right now. She'll decide when they get to Ekaterinburg.

{Continued next week}