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Fiction

Dasha and Dima

The Third Component: Part II, Chapter 30

Alison Christy 17 May 2009

www.lablit.com/article/503

Photo Credit: Tim Christy

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 30

Guidelines for Preparation of Young and At-Risk Maritime Travelers

“I told them that you were an American journalist investigating the disappearance of Michael Perch, and that I was your translator,” Frank says, once they are outside, walking through the mud in the direction of the Central Market.

“What did they say?” Anna asks. She yanks at her rolling suitcase, which is wobbling irritatingly on its single wheel. He isn’t there. She was absolutely sure. She didn’t realize how sure she was until they said he wasn’t there.

“They haven’t seen him for years,” Frank says. “Darya remembers him, but she didn’t know he had disappeared.”

“Darya?” Anna asks.

“Darya Petrovna,” Frank says. “The younger woman.”

Darya. The plump woman with the dark hair – could that really be Dasha? From Michael Perch’s writing Anna imagined her slim, sparkling, flirtatious. Could so much have changed in four years?

“Galina – the older one – thought you were an American spy,” Frank says. He laughs. “They must have a pretty poor opinion of us, if they think we would send you as a spy.”

Anna laughs too. “If I were a spy,” she says, “I don’t think I’d spend much time in Kolpashevo.”

“You’d be surprised,” Frank says. “There’s a closed city not too far from here, with a nuclear reactor and a uranium plant. Maybe we should stop by, on our way back.” He adjusts his guitar case over his shoulder. “Incidentally, Darya thought that Perch was probably killed by a jealous woman,” he says. “So you can add that to your list of theories.”

“Done,” Anna says. “Thanks.”

**********

At the entrance to the Central Market, there is a long table, occupied by five old women, each with her own pile of vegetables and a different colored scarf wrapped around her head. They look old, serious, dark and wrinkled like trees, like the peeling birches surrounding the market.

Standing beside the table is a small, dark man, smoking. When he sees Anna and Frank he throws his cigarette to the side and walks toward them. “Ya Dima,” he says. He shakes Frank’s hand; the two men talk briefly in Russian.

Anna feels self-conscious. Dima knew right away that they were American; everyone, everywhere must know right away that she is American. She wonders what would she look like and what would she be doing if she had grown up in Kolpashevo. The women in the market all appear to be older than herself, but maybe they’ve just been worn down by weather and time.

Dima then turns to Anna and says, in heavily accented Latvian, “Anna, it is so nice to meet you.”

Anna is surprised, but she responds in Latvian, “It is nice to meet you too.”

Dima walks them through the small outdoor market, buying round yellow melons and green peppers from stooped women to take back to Krolosk for his store. In Latvian, Dima asks Anna about her trip and her home in America, and she likes him immediately: his face is active and expressive and he seems intensely pleased. It is impossible to believe that anything would ever work out poorly for him.

The other men who carry Dima’s boxes are less interesting: rough-looking, blue-eyed men with blank, unintelligent faces, one almost bald, one with wheat-colored hair. She and Dima walk ahead of Frank and these other men, and because he seems interested she tells him about her studies, her work with yeast – as much as she can tell him with the Latvian she knows.

“You are a doctor,” he says. “That is wonderful. You must come see our medpunkt.” A doctor lives on the island, he tells her, assigned by the state. She takes care of all stomach aches and minor illnesses that don’t require a trip to the hospital in Kolpashevo. “She is not very good. You can tell her how to take better care of us,” Dima says, lighting a cigarette and taking a deep pull.

“I’m not that kind of doctor,” Anna says, but Dima smiles and says that of course she is, and he offers her his arm.

**********

The boat waiting for them on the muddy bank of the river is small and rusted. It doesn’t matter, Anna tells herself, that she didn’t find what she was looking for in Kolpashevo. What she is really looking for is farther away, in Krolosk. She didn’t come to Russia to look for Michael Perch; she came here to look for her grandmother, Laima Lapegale. Nothing has been lost. Not yet, anyway.

But as she takes Dima’s hand and puts a timid mud-coated foot on the wobbly two-by-four he uses as a gangplank, she can’t help the feeling that she should simply stop here, turn around, apologize to Dima and Frank, and go home.

What does she know about Laima, anyway? An oval portrait, bent at one corner, a woman with dark hair. Her teacher Dzintara Kalnins remembered a clever girl, clever and smart, who thought she would one day teach school; Aunt Lidija remembered a jealous, stubborn, attention-loving younger sister, though she insisted that one should never speak ill of the dead. Her mother remembers almost nothing. What if Laima is alive – will Anna bring her back to America? Will her mother be happy to know her own mother is alive?

It occurs to Anna – though she must have known it before – that her grandmother will be a very old woman. Anna has always pictured her young: a young woman in her twenties shipped off to Siberia, her hair long and her eyes sad like a character in a movie. Younger, actually, than Anna is now.

But this grandmother will be old, possibly thin and angular and irritable like Aunt Lidija; an aggressive skeleton like Dzintara Kalnins, or maybe round and wrinkled with false teeth and a strange powdery smell like Grandma Forsch; maybe crumpled like the beggar on the street in Tomsk. Even if Laima survived Siberia, the young Laima is dead; will be deader, once Anna meets the old Laima.

She is not Orpheus; she can’t bring back the Laima that was. Her mother will always have been raised by Aunt Lidija, and Anna and Milda will always have grown up pretending to be gulag victims because they were fascinated by the misery of their own relatives.

If only she had found Michael, she thinks, then she wouldn’t worry. Somehow it would all make sense.

She watches, nervously, as Dima’s men bring their boxes on board the small boat. Dima starts the motor with the sound of a revving lawn mower, and the boat moves away from the shore, down the river, away from the market, toward the island of Krolosk.

{Continued next week}