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Fiction

The morning after

The Third Component: Part III, Chapter 34

Alison Christy 14 June 2009

www.lablit.com/article/516

In this land without mirrors, showers, or closets every small routine of her life has broken down and disintegrated around her

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 34

Characterization of Genomic Islands in Siberian Archaeon T. sibiricus

In the winter, Michael Perch writes, Krolosk is desolate. Snow wipes clean the fields and gardens. The river and ponds freeze over and snow covers the ice, making everything a uniform white. Stoves and saunas are the only sources of warmth in the village: children and the elderly sleep above the stove, so they won’t be able to watch their breath forming ice crystals on the bed covers as they fall asleep. Their bodies steam in the freezing air as they climb out of bed in the mornings. Dried or smoked fish with occasional bread or potatoes are the only food available, three meals a day. There is no sun. Men and women drink heavily and their children trudge through the snow to the schoolhouse every dark morning, hungry and cold.

But right now the wooden split-rail fences barely contain the dark-green leaves of cabbage, beets and potato plants that spill over against the dark earth. The world is almost embarrassingly wet and fecund, wildflowers shooting up through the thick grass, marshy ponds glittering in the sunlight between the wooden houses, swaddled by warm green fields.

There is no plumbing on the island, and no electricity except for a single generator owned and used only by Dima, at night. Anna squats in the dark, close outhouse, waving at mosquitoes and squinting at photographs of Stalin and Lenin and clean, blond-haired children on the Communist literature left in the outhouse as toilet paper. She bathes in Dima’s homemade outdoor sauna, sweating in a tiny dark room, dipping a plastic bowl into a rain barrel and pouring rainwater over her naked body.

Her lips feel swollen and awkward and she has a throbbing tic in one eyelid. There was a woman once who used a hair dryer, who carefully applied eyeliner and lip gloss, who searched through the clothes in her closet for the ones that fit her best and matched each other. She was that woman, but in this land without mirrors, showers, or closets every small routine of her life has broken down and disintegrated around her and none of it matters. After bathing in the rain barrel she pulls on her dirty jeans and yesterday’s T-shirt and pushes her hair away from her face.

Dima takes her down the rickety paths to another gray wooden house, and knocks: a tall woman with darkly made-up eyes and unconvincingly honey-colored hair opens the door. “Mariya,” she says, shaking Anna’s hand. She is pretty too, like Michael’s other women, though her limbs are long and stringy and a small belly shows through her tight polyester shirt.

She speaks to Anna in a halting Latvian. “I hear you are a friend of Michael’s?”

Anna considers lying. “No, not really,” she says. “I’ve read his books.”

Dima leaves them alone; he is taking Frank fishing with the rest of the men. Sexual dimorphism, Anna thinks.

Mariya takes her inside the house. On the couch – the same brown patterned couch that Anna slept on the night before – under faded shiny wallpaper, sits a little boy, playing with a metal truck. Mariya gestures toward him, displaying him to Anna like an animal in a strange zoo.

Anna doesn’t know what to do: do you shake a little boy’s hand, or are you supposed to hug him? The resemblance is unmistakable, even for Anna, who has only seen Michael Perch in photographs.

“He looks just like Michael,” she tells Mariya.

Mariya nods.

“Have you seen him recently?” Anna asks. “Michael?”

Mariya smiles shyly, covering her corroded teeth with her hand. Not since before Alexei was born, she says. She tells Anna that Michael was sweet and romantic, and though she knew, deep down, that he would never stay with her, a part of her thought that he might. Mariya puts her hand on her heart in a melodramatic way that reminds Anna of Marina, though Mariya’s movements are soft, more awkward, less energetic.

But now Anna finds herself getting annoyed with all of this. Michael was wonderful, Michael was brave, Michael was beautiful, Michael was everything a man could be and more. Then where is he? she wants to ask. How can she have an entire quest and never meet the man that the signs have been pointing to all along?

Instead she asks Mariya to tell her about herself: what she does during the day, whether she has traveled far from Krolosk, who her friends are, what she wants from life.

Mariya smiles again and invites her to sit at the little lace-covered wooden table in her kitchen and drink coffee. She even opens a package of cookies, carefully, arranging them delicately on the saucer of a teacup as though afraid that a cookie might break.

She works at Dima’s store most days, she tells Anna. Anna visited the store, briefly, before they left Dima’s house in the morning; the only store in the village, it was a small room of his house made to look like an actual store, stocked with bottles of beer and vodka and boxes of pasta and rice, and a few canned foods on the shelves. The winter must be miserable, she thought, looking at the little wooden shelves. It must seem to last forever.

Anna asks Mariya if she’s ever thought of leaving Krolosk; if she dreamed, for instance, of marrying Michael Perch and moving to America.

“Oh no,” Mariya says. She says that she loves Krolosk and that it is the ideal place to live, because of its fusion of Latvian and Russian culture. She knows everyone in Krolosk and they all know her, and have known her since she was a baby; she wouldn’t know what to do in a place filled with strangers.

“You could change yourself everyday and no one would know,” Mariya says.

“I guess you could,” Anna says. Alexei is trying to climb into his mother’s lap; when Anna catches his eye, he grins shyly and rubs his face against his mother’s legs. She chides him in Russian, trying to pry his hands away from her legs.

“Does he know any Latvian folksongs?” Anna asks.

**********

When she sees Frank approaching with the other men, her heart leaps and she tries to suppress it. But Mariya must notice something, because she smiles again and says shyly, “He is your boyfriend?”

“I don’t know,” Anna says. They are sitting outside, and Mariya is casually weeding her vegetable garden while Alexei jumps from stone to stone on the path. She begins to tell Mariya about Frank but then stops. Frank may claim that he doesn’t speak Latvian but she can’t know for sure, and he is approaching rapidly.

“Did you catch anything?” she asks him in English when he is closer; and he says that he did, and he puts his hand, almost absentmindedly, on her waist. Mariya raises her eyebrows at Anna, hiding her mouth with her hand.

They eat the freshly-caught fish in Mariya’s kitchen, talking together in a strange cacophonous mixture of languages. The men and Mariya speak Russian mixed with Latvian, Frank speaks Russian and English and Anna speaks Latvian and English, so words fly across the table and then must be translated for those who don’t understand. They mostly talk about fish, with specific words for fish and angling implements that Anna never learned in Latvian, which leads to additional confusion. Mariya appears to be flirting with one of the fishermen, a deep-voiced man with blue eyes and dark, sweaty chest hair, and Alexei giggles loudly as he hides under the table and runs his toy car over their feet.

As Mariya clears away the dishes, Dima suggests that Frank and Anna take a walk around the island to get a sense of what it is like. Mariya brings them heavy rubber boots, and they set off, along the water.

Left alone with Frank, Anna doesn’t know what to say. They walk through the mud and the high grass, swatting at the fat, lazy mosquitoes that leave streaks of bright red blood on their arms and necks.

Finally Frank sits down on a log that is resting on the muddy shore, and Anna sits down beside him. They are away from the houses now; the river stretches green and blue in front of them, with a dense forest on the other side.

“In the winter they go hunting,” Frank says suddenly. He scoops up a handful of pebbles from the bank, and throws one at the water. It hits with a tiny thuk. “The men all go to another island and live in a tiny house in the woods for a month and they spend the entire month killing bears and catching rats through holes in the river ice.”

“What do they do the rest of the time?” Anna asks. “In the winter, I mean?”

“They drink,” Frank says. He tosses another stone toward the water and they watch it hit.

There is a huge, iridescent green fly the size of Anna’s thumb in the mud on her boot. She swipes at it, knocking off the fly but getting mud on her hand. She wipes her hand on her jeans, leaving a reddish-brown smear that will have to stay on her jeans until she can wash them in the hotel sink back in Tomsk. Tomsk, which must be a million miles away; Tomsk, which once seemed to her like the middle of nowhere until she came to Krolosk, the true middle of nowhere.

“Listen,” Frank says suddenly, and she closes her eyes and does; to him and to the sounds of flies and mosquitoes and birds, and to the gentle sound of the river. “There was a time when I was the one who wanted to be with Marina and she didn’t want to be with me,” his voice says. “But you probably know about that.”

Anna shakes her head, still listening.

“No?” Frank throws another rock; she can hear it travel further this time. Blop. “She didn’t tell you that she left me for Michael Perch?”

It is such a ridiculous idea that Anna opens her eyes and almost laughs. Surely the world is larger and more complex and that; surely the casting director of her life could find someone other than Michael Perch to play Marina’s Lover. But Frank’s face is cold and serious, as he looks out over the water and pitches his rocks, one after the other.

“It didn’t last,” he says finally. “And then there were some other guys and at some point she decided that she really wanted me. And you’re right, I’ve taken advantage of that. It’s not something I’m proud of.” Thuk. Thuk. Blop.

There is another fly, fat and iridescent, trembling on her knee. Instead of swiping at it, she bends closer and looks at it: the flat reddish eyes, the frail wings, the trembling feelers and legs, like the detailed sepia drawings of Robert Hooke. A mosquito stings her neck and she slaps it, rubbing at the bloody smear; her movements send the fly on her knee shooting off over the water.

“What if you’re lying to me?” she asks. “How do I know?”

They both look out over the water in silence. Finally he puts his arm around her waist and kisses her, and she closes her eyes in the warm sunlight, glad that they don’t have to talk anymore.

{Continued next week}