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The Third Component: Part II, Chapter 23

Alison Christy 29 March 2009

Photo Credit: Tim Christy

You don’t have to major in biology, her mother had said – you could still get a job with some other degree

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 23

Determination of Cellular Fate Following Induced Migration

How many times has it been said: Siberia is not a place, but a metaphor. But then you find yourself there, in the middle of the metaphor, and it turns out that Siberia is a place after all, with a ground and a sky and libraries and hospitals, a place where people live and deal with all the little irritations and ambitions of life. A normal place, a place where Siberia is normal.

Who, given a choice, would live his life here, where the summers are short and mosquito-laden and the winters are long and bleak? And yet people chose to come here; this was the American West, the European Indies, a land of mythical promise and impossible, fabulous tall tales. Simultaneously a land of darkness and privation and a land of wild opportunity; Siberia could be the vehicle for all sorts of metaphoric tenors.

Still, it is one thing to choose Siberia now, when each building is constructed with central heating, when hot water gushes through the indoor plumbing and bread is available all year round. It is one thing to choose to live in a Siberia with markets where you can buy leather boots and heavy, fur-lined coats.

And it is another thing to have chosen to live here before, when the land was vast and un-colonized, before Yermak of the Cossacks expanded Russia into the vast wilderness, back when tribes chased reindeer across the tundra and lived in small wooden tents. The Khanti, the Mansi, the Kets, the Selkups, the Evenks, the Nganasans – somehow all of these people came to live here, where there was no chance of agriculture and barely a chance of surviving the winter. What were they thinking, as they moved farther north, as the winters got colder and colder and the landscape more and more forbidding? Did they never consider turning around and going back to their cattle and the relatively warm shores further south?

– Michael Perch, from the introduction to The Lights Up North: Indigenous Siberia, Transit Press, 1995.

Tomsk, August 13, 2000: The water from the sink in Anna’s hotel room freezes her hands as she tries to wash her underwear and socks with the thin shampoo she bought in Moscow. She wrings her socks out as hard as she can, chafing her red, stiff hands, and drapes them over the back of her chair to drip on the floor. There is no way they will dry before she has to leave today; they will probably end up getting the rest of her clothes damp when she has to pack them away in her bag.

Finished, she puts her chilled hands under her shirt, onto her own warm stomach, and considers the rolling suitcase she never should have brought. Her duffel bag would have sufficed, but there were so many things she might have wanted – a heavy sweater, dainty high heels, a bathing suit, a pretty red dress in case she went somewhere nice – that she hadn’t used at all, and now, dragging the rolling suitcase behind her everywhere, lifting it awkwardly up steps with the duffel bag slung painfully around her shoulders, each unworn item seemed frivolous and stupid.

She hasn’t even worn the windbreaker that her mother bought her, even though they made a special trip out to the outlet stores to get it. She told her mother she didn’t need anything, really, she was fine, but her mother wanted to take her; surely there was something Anna could use, she said. And then in the camping store, after Anna had insisted that she didn’t need hiking boots or aluminum forks or water purification tablets, her mother had taken several pastel windbreakers from the rack and held them up to Anna, one after the other, musing aloud whether pale pink was better than lavender. Anna said that if she had to get one, she wanted black, only black, because the guide book said that Russians didn’t wear bright colors and she didn’t want to stand out. She wouldn’t wear a purple windbreaker anyway, even in America.

“But you don’t look good in black,” her mother said, and Anna, exasperated, grabbed the nearest black jacket and took it to the register.

As they were waiting in line at the register her mother said it again: “You know you don’t have to go, you can still back out at any time.” And then she said that maybe Anna should wait, and go with Milda, who was living out there, after all, and knew how to handle things.

It was the same thing when Anna decided to major in biology in college. Really, honey? You don’t have to, her mother had said. I’m sure you can still get a job with some other degree. And then for years her mother told people that Anna might be considering a major in biology, or chemistry – even after Anna had declared her major, even when she was applying for graduate school, even after she had established to everyone else who knew her that this was what she wanted to do with her life.

But this was her mother: she expected the world to be a certain way and she was simply confused and bewildered when other people didn’t see it that way.

Anna can remember clearly the time when her father announced that their mother’s father had fought with Hitler. She was nine years old, maybe ten; her hair was in braids, which meant she was still in elementary school. Her mother had been rambling on about something all evening, about Latvian politics and her family, maybe even about how valiantly her family fought against Russia. Her father said, suddenly, that Karlis and Konrad had fought with Hitler, and that now there were no Jews left in Latvia – none.

Her mother looked at her father in a way that Anna had never seen before and got up from the table and walked out of the room. Anna and Milda were left staring uncomfortably at their plates while their father followed her out of the room, and Anna can still remember, as if it were yesterday, how she pressed her mashed potatoes against the green border of the plate, how her knife cast a shadow on the blue plastic placemat, how the messy ends of her braids dangled down over her shoulders.

John thinks that epigenetic modifications could make people more like their mothers, but Anna thinks that these phenomena could possibly skip a generation.

{Continued next week}