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The Third Component: Part III, Chapter 36

Alison Christy 28 June 2009

She tells him that she is a scientist, and never just knows anything. There are too many decisions to make, and not enough control over the outcome

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 36

“Grandmother Cells” versus “Ensemble Coding”: Representation of Stimuli in the Primate Temporal Visual Cortex

Now Frank is telling her that he is leaving and asking her to come with him, back to Moscow. To Moscow: to the cracked worn streets, the smell of diesel exhaust and sausage, the thick gray buildings propped precariously against the sky. He tries to tell her what their life would be like, if she came to stay with him, but she doesn’t believe him. How could you make plans here, how could you predict anything when the very act of prediction encourages catastrophe?

“Aren’t you done here?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” she says, and she doesn’t.

He says later that night that he knew they had a chance together the first time he saw her, limping down Varvarka on her sprained ankle. “You looked so determined,” he says. “You know how sometimes you just know?”

She is surprised; she expected him to say vulnerable instead of determined.

She tells him that she is a scientist, and never just knows anything.

She thinks there are too many decisions to make, and not enough control over the outcome.

If you think Anna should go back to Moscow with Frank, turn to page 64.

If you think Anna should adopt Michael Perch’s son, take him back to America, and use him as a guide to plan the rest of her life, turn to page 75.

If you think Anna should wait in Krolosk for Michael Perch or for the impending cold, dark winter, whichever comes first, turn to page 122.

If you think Anna has done everything wrong and made all the wrong choices, just turn back.


The block of sunlight coming through the wooden window frame moves slowly up Anna’s body to land directly on her face, but her body remains motionless on the worn brown couch.

Ths whole thing has been the wrong story. It should have been a straightforward quest, with a valiant heroine who gathers her weapons, charges in, conquers her foes and brings her bounty home to wild applause. It was supposed to be a story without twisted ankles and stranger’s apartments, without bombs, without pickpockets or police. She made the wrong choices and now this is where it ends, with Anna staring motionless at the bright undersides of her eyelids on the couch of the woman who isn’t her grandmother.

Laima will come in soon, and wake Anna by stroking her hair, and make her tea and bread with fish for breakfast. And then they will spend their morning in the garden, weeding and mulching and fighting away mosquitoes and black flies. And they will have more fish for lunch, and then they will wash their clothes on the metal washboard, or prepare some vegetables for canning, or Anna will take down the ancient untuned kokle that Laima’s husband used to play before he died five years ago: a rough kokle that he clearly made himself, and she will put it on her lap and try to play it. And Frank is gone, which was what she wanted, because there were a hundred reasons why he should go and she should stay behind.

It has been three days since Frank left. Every day the wind in Krolosk gets cooler, and each day as she shivers in Laima’s garden Anna wishes she hadn’t left the windbreaker behind in Tomsk.

She should never have gone jogging, she should never have gone to his apartment in the first place; she should have trusted her instincts when she was there with him in the dark elevator and turned right back around. There were so many chances to fix everything.

As they drove home from the outlet stores the day they bought the windbreaker, Anna asked her mother why she had never gone back to Latvia.

“You always said we’d move back,” Anna said, shifting the bags at her feet on the passenger’s side. “As soon as we could.”

“Oh,” her mother said. “Well, your father doesn’t want to move back.”

“You could go anyway,” Anna said.

Her voice was high-pitched and adolescent. She wasn’t asking because she wanted to know, she was just pointing out that her mother hadn’t done what she had said she was going to do. And she didn’t really listen to whatever her mother said: there wasn’t much to go back for, she wouldn’t remember much anyway, and she thought it was better to just move on with her life.

“You could still go for a vacation,” Anna said irritably. “To visit your daughter. And your grandchildren.”

“Maybe someday,” her mother said with a shrug.

Now Anna wishes she had listened. Maybe there are reasons to stay where you are: never to risk the return. Because you can never step into the same river twice, and you can never go back to the place you came from.

Laima is so happy to have her there, to have someone to take care of; she has been so lonely since her husband died, and she has spent decades missing her own daughters. Laima calls her granddaughter, Mazmeita, and Anna calls her grandma, Vecmamina.

And Anna is a different person, now: the young Anna, the one who insisted on showers, who owned more than one pair of jeans, who checked her e-mail and went to work in the lab everyday, who went jogging even on vacation, even in Moscow; the Anna who hung her feet over the edge of a boat traveling to Krolosk, seems pink and soft and new compared to this Anna, who shits in outhouses and bathes in rainwater and eats fish and boiled potatoes and pulls weeds out of the dirt. This Anna imagines her dark hair replaced by Laima’s thin white hair, her skin loose and cracked, her body slumped and pillowy, but she is not afraid of the change; growing old doesn’t matter here, in exile. This Anna almost craves the coming bleak winter of ice and desolation, the dark twenty-hour nights, each day so simply another quest for survival.

This Anna has difficulty understanding why she was so obsessed with a writer she had never met and had no hopes of meeting. She doesn’t remember when this changed, either; where was the epiphany, the sudden revelation? Now she can look at his author photo without longing, without that ache throughout her entire torso, and she doesn’t know how that happened.

Maybe it came from her friendship with Mariya, whose claim to Michael Perch was greater than hers would ever be. Maybe from Alexei, whose very existence made Michael Perch almost too real. Or maybe it was Frank, but that’s something she decides not to think about.

{Continued next week}