The Third Component: Part II, Chapter 29

Alison Christy 10 May 2009

Photo Credit: Tim Christy

You would think that a scientist, of all people, would be able to accept and interpret the data from the world around him

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 29

Assessment of Risk of Bias in Randomized Clinical Trials

Anna drops her duffel bag inside the door of the little museum and gives her eyes a moment to adjust. Past the empty front desk, an old woman is sweeping a dust mop in wide arcs over the shiny tile floor. Anna walks toward her, her shoes echoing loudly. When the old woman looks up Anna smiles, and the woman hurries toward her, dragging the mop and speaking loudly and angrily in Russian.

Anna looks at her blankly. Ya ne gavaryoo parusski, she says: I don’t speak Russian.

The woman, who is white-haired but dark-skinned with almost Asian features, talks even more loudly and points to a box sitting by the door. Then she points to Anna’s feet and the muddy footprints she has left behind her, like wet question marks.

Anna apologizes – Izvenitye – and tiptoes back to the box, which holds gray cloth booties; she puts them on over her shoes and scuffs her way back into the main room.

The mopping woman gestures brusquely toward the exhibits and then starts violently mopping up Anna’s tracks. But Anna pursues her, and says, “Darya Petrovna?”

The woman shakes her head and keeps mopping.

Anna points to a door that appears to lead to a back room, and says again, “Darya Petrovna?”

The woman shakes her head again. “Galina Arkadyevna,” she says loudly, pointing to herself, and she keeps mopping.

“Not you,” Anna says. She opens her bag, pulling out her Russian phrase book and one of Michael Perch’s books. “Michael Perch?” she says, pointing to his author photo. “Michael Perch?”

She hands the woman her phrase book. The woman takes it, reluctantly, and looks at the cover. Then she hands it back to Anna and continues mopping.

The door to the outside opens, sending a bright shaft of light into the room, and a man comes into the museum, stopping to slip a pair of booties over his shoes before shuffling over to the exhibits.

“Michael Perch?” Anna tries again, pointing to the photo, to the door behind the desk. “Darya Petrovna?”

The woman says something to her, clearly annoyed, leans her mop against the wall, and walks into the back room.

Maybe she is going to get something, Anna thinks. Maybe she’ll find someone who speaks English.

She waits there for a moment, in the middle of the room, and then she drifts over towards the exhibits along the wall, sheltered behind glass windows: mannequins dressed up like Indians, a sled made from birch bark, a stuffed reindeer. The man is in the adjoining room, crouched down and looking closely at a painted ceramic pot.

It reminds her of a trip she took in elementary school to a museum on an Indian reservation: the same beads and feathers, the same pots and stone tools. The same teepee-like tents, even; these appear to be made out of thin trees, stacked into a triangular wooden structure with a hole at the top for a fire. The grainy black-and-white photo beside the fake wooden teepee shows two unsmiling dark-cheeked fur-wrapped children standing on a cleared path beside a real teepee structure in the woods, surrounded by massive dunes of snow, and the thought of their cold, cold life makes Anna shiver. Women gave birth in that blistering cold, she thinks, and somehow their babies must have survived their childhoods, fallen in love, and conceived their own children. All in those tiny huts, with only fire and reindeer fur for warmth.

She shivers again, chilled by the dark sad eyes of the little children in the photo, and then she thinks: epigenetics. Each one that survives the winter passes down new genetic changes to help their offspring survive the winters. What doesn’t kill us makes our children stronger. The cold doesn’t bother them, she thinks. They are simply stronger than she is.

She moves on to another exhibit of recent Kolpashevo history. There is a flag, bearing Lenin’s head, surrounded by Soviet posters, schoolbooks and cheap tin medals backed by blue felt. Here there are more photographs of children, standing erect and formal in little starched uniforms, and of adults marching in parades with bright red flags.

Anna was twenty-one and away at college when the Soviet Union collapsed. She called her mother as soon as she heard, and they both cried. Sure, the Berlin Wall had come down, but the Soviet Union was so much bigger, so much more threatening, so much scarier than East Germany: who could believe it? And then there was free Latvia; she didn’t even know what that meant, really, but she had been waiting for it and longing for it her entire life.

John said he was crushed by the fall of the Soviet Union. He had always argued that communism was the ideal political system, and that all the bad things they heard about the Soviet Union were simply American propaganda. And then came the fall, and everyone said, see, that’ll show you, capitalism was best after all.

“But really,” John said, “it was just that the Soviets didn’t do communism well.”

It occurs to Anna now that John would never change his mind, no matter how many times he watched communism fail. You would think that a scientist, of all people, would be able to accept and interpret the data from the world around him, and form new hypotheses based on new results; and yet she knew that no matter how many experiments were performed, John would never accept that his central hypothesis might be faulty.

She wonders about the e-mail he sent, waiting in her inbox, and about John, halfway around the world, waiting for her answer.

She looks over toward the door where the woman disappeared. She has ten minutes to get to the Central Market.

The man is standing in the same room as her, now, looking at the wooden teepee. Anna starts to move into the second room to avoid him, when he looks around directly at her, and she is startled to see that it is Frank. She is suddenly reminded one of those frogs that camouflages itself as a patch of moss and can’t be seen until it moves.

“Oh,” she says, “I didn’t realize that was you.” All her planned speeches from the previous evening are gone, and she isn’t sure what to say. “Listen –”

“Look, I’m sorry about last night,” he says, interrupting her. “I overreacted.” He smiles. “So did you find out what you wanted to know?”

“No,” Anna says. “Not even close. But how did you find this place?” she asks. “The sign was hidden.”

“I called this morning, before I came,” Frank says. “It turns out they’re only open by appointment, anyway.” He walks through the exhibition room and knocks on the door behind the desk.

“Are we going to be late?” Anna asks nervously. “For the Central Market?”

“It’ll only take a second,” Frank says.

The white-haired woman finally answers the door, with another, younger woman peeking out from behind her; plump with asymmetrical features and straight, dark hair. Frank introduces himself and Anna and then says something in Russian that makes both women giggle girlishly and come out from behind the door. He asks them something and they answer him together, their voices overlapping as they attempt to explain something to him. The older woman gestures toward Anna and laughs, and Anna feels herself blushing.

She watches them talk to each other, animatedly, until Frank bows slightly to both women and they giggle.

Then he turns to Anna. “They haven’t seen him,” he says. “Are you ready to go?”

They haven’t seen him. How is that possible?

“Are you sure?” Anna says.

“That’s what they said.”

Anna looks at the book in her hand, and at her phrase book. “Okay,” she says. “Spasiba,” she says to the two women. “Dostvydanya.” She feels Frank’s hand on her lower back, guiding her toward the door where they both remove their booties, pick up their bags, and emerge into the blinding sunlight.

{Continued next week}