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The Third Component: Part III, Chapter 32

Alison Christy 31 May 2009

The village looks to Anna like something constructed for tourists, created to show visitors how people once lived, ages ago

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 32

Novel and Unexpected Biodiversity Identified in Water-Saturated River Sediment

Krolosk, August 13, 2000: The children wait on the bank as the boat approaches the island, fidgeting with their sign while the young woman who is apparently in charge shakes her finger and tells them to hold still. There are maybe twenty of them, at different heights, all thin, almost bony, and fragile-looking. As they get closer Anna can see a few of the older girls whispering to each other, or smiling at the boat, but most of the children are solemn and serious about the business of greeting their foreign guests. The smaller ones have muddy knees. One wears a T-shirt that says “Brittany Speers” and another has a baseball cap bearing the logo of the New York Yankees.

Dima puts a wooden plank between the boat and the muddy shore. He takes Anna’s hand in his small rough one and they walk down it. She steps onto the mud and feels her shoes sink in, and she tries to shift them out of the mud as a small, hunched woman hurries clumsily toward her, babbling quickly in Latvian.

The old woman grabs Anna’s hand and shakes it, furiously. Her sparse white hair is covered with a bright scarf and her face is creased and brown. A dirty apron covers her polyester housedress.

Dima says, “Laima, this is your granddaughter.” He is grinning.

“Vecmamina?” Anna says. Grandma?

Anna’s grandmother’s milky blue eyes fill with tears and she hugs Anna’s head to her own.

“So pretty, so pretty,” her grandmother says, stroking Anna’s cheeks and hair with hands crusted with black dirt.

“My mother says I look like you,” Anna says.

The children start singing a Latvian folk song, led by the young woman. Even here, even halfway across the world, they all know the same songs, and it seems to Anna that this is the most beautiful moment she could have ever imagined. Tears slide down her cheeks and she wipes them away as she sings along with the skinny children, smiling at her grandmother.


The island is a brilliant summer green. The grass grows up almost to her knees and fat blue flies hum on the tips where the grass springs into seed. The sidewalks cutting through the grass and mud are gray and wooden, carved to fit together like Lincoln Logs but still slightly wobbly under their feet. Anna follows her grandmother down these rocking wooden sidewalks to a small, gray, low-ceilinged wooden log cabin with worn, colorful sheets draped over a clothesline in the yard.

The wooden houses, the wooden sidewalks, and the wooden fences sticking haphazardly up out of the wild green grass are surprisingly pretty: the village looks to Anna like something constructed for tourists, a faux-village like Jamestown, created to show visitors how people once lived, ages ago. A wooden canoe, hollowed out from a tree trunk, sits in the overgrown grass by the water, with its wooden oars resting in the hollow, too pretty and natural to be a sign of poverty: Anna can only imagine a privileged community, like Nantucket, where espresso machines and air conditioners are tucked away inside quaintly primitive homes. As she walks down the sidewalks she can barely remember the Krolosk in Michael Perch’s article, where people survive on the fish they catch and where everyone drinks heavily through the long winters.

In the little room inside the front door Anna slips off her muddy shoes, leaving them next to her grandmother's heavy rubber boots, and enters the small kitchen in her socks.

“Tea, tea. You like tea?” the old woman says. Anna nods as she takes in the small kitchen: the tiny metal stove, the painted wooden cabinets. The peeling wallpaper is faded and dirty, the curtains are stained and the house smells of fresh dirt and undeodorized old woman, but the colors are the same as everywhere else in Russia: orange curtains, brown rug, green sugar bowl, blue vase.

Laima sets out tin teacups and saucers on the woven tablecloth with knobby, shaking hands and starts a pot of water on the gas burner. Every few minutes her eyes fill with water again and she puts her hands on either side of Anna’s head and squeezes. Her skin is soft and loose and her middle protrudes dramatically under her apron, like a pregnant woman’s.

“My mother is doing well,” Anna says. “She wants to see you.”

Laima’s eyes fill with tears again. “I thought she was dead,” she says. She speaks Latvian quickly, and she has very few teeth; it is very hard for Anna to understand her.

“We thought you were dead,” Anna says.

“Well,” Laima says. “Well.”

Laima pours them each a cup of tea, and sits down across the table. Anna tells her about Latvian Saturday School and about her sister Milda and her brother Corey. It is too hot for tea: Anna feels her hair curling with sweat and her face flushing, but her grandmother keeps refilling her cup and nodding, so she keeps talking. She tells her about her decision to go to graduate school to study biology and about her relationship with John. Her grandmother keeps nodding, her mouth and chin trembling involuntarily as though she were chewing cud, so Anna tells her about the bombing at Pushkin Square and about Tanya who stole her money on the train.

“Please,” Anna says finally, pushing her teacup away, “tell me about you. How long have you been in Krolosk?”

“A long time,” her grandmother says. “Many years. I had a husband here. He died.”

“Inta wrote us a letter,” Anna says. “She made it back to Riga. She told us how bad it was, in the gulag.” She uses the word gulag, though she doesn’t know if that’s what Laima would have called it.

“Inta,” the old woman says, her red bleary eyes squinting thoughtfully.

“Your friend,” Anna says. “From the gulag. The… camp.”

Laima pours more tea into Anna’s cup. “Inta,” she says. “How is your mother?”

“She’s fine,” Anna says again. She can’t remember how to say the word retired in Latvian. “She doesn’t work anymore,” she says.

“She was always so pretty,” Laima mumbles, and Anna has to strain her ears to catch her words. “Three daughters,” Laima says. “I had three daughters.”

“Oh,” Anna says, confused. She had always thought her mother was an only child. “And where are they now?”

“All dead,” Laima says, her mouth trembling and chewing. Her eyes fill with water again, and she pats Anna’s hand with her soft knobby one. “She was always so pretty.”

Anna squeezes her hand. “Aunt Lidija died two years ago,” she says.

“Lidija…” Laima says, squinting again.

“Your sister,” Anna says. Laima squints. Anna takes a painful gulp of tea: the tea seems to have edges that cut her throat, and she coughs.

“Yes, my sister.” Laima looks thoughtfully out the dusty window, her mouth still moving. “Do you know this song?” she asks, and she starts to sing a folksong, but it is garbled too much in her toothless mouth and Anna can only tell that it has something to do with bees. “My baby loved that song,” she says. “She said, mama, mama, sing me that song.” She keeps singing, softly, to herself.

Anna pushes her teacup away and takes a deep breath. “I have photos,” she says. “I brought photos from America. Do you want to see?”

{Continued next week}