by Graham Povey
Posted: 12 September 2003
Word Count: 4006
Summary: The novel is set in the fictional village of Rodino, in the silver birch forests of Northern Russia. The descriptions are based on the ten years I have lived in Russia, and my travels to other far flung parts of the former Soviet Union. The theme of the book is the tension within all of us - between refuge and curiosity, between knowledge and the danger it brings, between acceptance and desire – and the different paths each of us follows in resolving these tensions.
Amidst turmoil stands a man, waist deep, naked and staggering. Head thrown back, hot rain cries salt over his stripped face, down shoulders and chest. Lit in lightning, cloaked in clouds, thrown here by the storm, he is laughing as he falls forward into empty air and back into greedy spindrift sea. Surviving because he alone does not know how to be afraid. Laughing because he could die but he is completely alive, sucking in power from the rain that fills his mouth. The boiling exhilaration of dizzy sweet madness, fear and passion as the pelted tears of rain flush the dust from the sky.
He stands against sky, he falls against sea, he stumbles and weaves. He retches, his black buoyed head struggling through waves. And he laughs, mad gulping laughter for his birth. No hollow left for fear as the water washes through his chest, the wind through his mind, cleansing, cleaning, leaving him voided and battered.
And he whispers, quiet, so quiet that the storm cannot hear his secrets.
“Set me free.”
“Set me free.”
Hands in their pockets, sky and sea whistle through bruised gums. Against the same deep distance of a new sleeping day, gulls arc around wingtips delicately caught by gentle wind fingers, and call out with brave insistence that they never left. The shore is littered with the ocean’s half chewed scraps, tooth-picked from between unwashed waves. Goblets of crude, corners of green nylon nets, rusted cans and bottles without messages, the beach tells more of the sea than the sea itself. Flotsam, jetsam, seaweed, and a corpse waiting, mortuary limbed, behind bruises and closed eyes.
Marie, alone in her storm-rocked bed, was troubled that night by strange dreams. Of her loves carried away. Of a battered body on a cold shore. Of a man she has always loved with a face she does not recognise. Of the pain of loss and not knowing why. It has been so long since these apparitions appeared. She does not understand the pictures she sees. Could it be him? She is afraid to acknowledge their prophecies. Did he return? She puts her fear down to the restlessness of sleep stolen by the storm, but still the thoughts pass and re-pass in her stomach as she moves down the beach towards her life.
She walks slowly and seriously across the shore, dedicated seeking eyes trained down for the love letter treasure of sea born amber, holding bubbles and grains, insects legs and tiny fragments of stick, cod liver beads fossiled and thrown. She pauses to brush hair from her eyes and shields her face against sun that dazzles the shapes she knows so well. Something has changed. But what? Amongst the stab of light, a dark smudge at the end of the beach catches at the corner of her eye, at the corner of her mind, and her dream tugs at her.
Each step brings pale skin detail to the stain and forces her to face the invading reality of a corpse on the beach. Is it true? Is this her dream? Surely it can’t be alive? Is it him? Why? And can she refuse? She hurries with the anxiety of death and the hope of improbable life, then pauses with the uncertainty of change. Just metres away she stops and looks back one last time into a view of warm sun and calm sea that she will never know again. She cannot stop, this time there is no escape, and she moves forward.
Too scared to touch at first, she crouches down and watches. The body is draped limp from the rape and battery of water, scratched and red-wealed. Hypothermia or drowning? She reaches down a hesitant hand and then draws it back with, with what? She doesn’t know.
She watches and awaits developments, hitched up skirt held down in the wind.
From behind closed eyes, he too must decide. Legs numb with the lapping of water. An ache runs through his side. He thinks one of his ribs may be broken. He smells seaweed and oil and sees the sun flashes of worms against his eyelids. Blood in his mouth and he wants to drink. And he seems to be naked, he can feel salt drying into his skin. Alive. He knows he has survived, and that he will never die.
No choice then. Slowly, painfully, he moves his scraped, shaven head.
With a kick to her heart she sees grey eyes opening and a hesitant smile, I mean you no harm, that turns down with a corner of pain.
She is beautiful, he has known her for ever. Her name is Marie and he met her on a park bench, layered in white, red, deepest green, its feet hammered into gravel. She loved him, left him, and now she is looking down at him with confusion and with hair flicked by the wind.
Kiss me Marie. A silent voice full of salt and hoarse blood, unsure of its strength, unsure of its language. Please kiss me Marie. Losing you was too much, it was too hard without you. I had to beg the storm to bring me back.
She lays a hand on him and feels burning heat flooding up through her arm. A face she has never seen on this man she has always loved and without knowing why she leans down to kiss him. She leans down with soft lips on his and lets the calm relentless power of the sea flood through her with the waves of his touch. Her salt tears wash his salted face and she holds him, in joy and in grief, in knowledge and in emptiness, she cries for her dream that brought him here, for the finding, for the journey and for the certain knowledge that she will lose him again.
“You must never leave me again Andrei. Never, do you hear me? You must stay with me for ever, we will escape the past and the future, and accept nothing but this now. Promise me this. Never leave me again.”
And so we leave them to their discoveries and to their mysteries, in rising sun over the pebbles of the beach and the petulant protest of the sea, huddled woman over twice born man, both held in promises of eternity that cannot be kept.
The summer is a magical time here and, like all northern magic, short lived. But enjoy it while you can. Hot days under a high sky, the air swollen with moisture, left heavy and restless until a whipping wind brings the relief of torrents of rain. And then the washed calm of long evenings.
Now the village is quiet, basking with slow-lidded eyes, with blood warmed by the sun, safe in its ignorance of a new arrival. They are separated from the sea by a barricade of forest, but they felt the storm of course - gulls sought refuge over their roofs and rain lashed vengefully at their gardens. Through the morning they repaired the damage, nailing down planks that had worked loose from the walls, replacing broken glass in the hot houses, tying vegetables back to the support of their canes. They work lightly, without resentment, with the unbounded, settled patience of people who know that the sky will do as it pleases. The air strokes cool and clean on their skin, the paint of their houses sparkles after the rain. The water has soaked into leaves, into flowers, into the richness of the soil, and the gentle drying breath of the sun lifts their colours and smells into the morning.
Their houses line a single dusty street and, behind, the gardens stretch lazily. From above, far above, the houses are fence threaded like beads, yellow, blue, green, their colours litmus-drawing up the brightness of grass and leaves. Sink closer, and you see that their design is similar, wooden clad over log walls, with high triangled tin roofs dipping low over front verandas. Come nearer still and the riot of differences emerges. Most have just one floor, only a few sheltering a separate room under the eaves, each was born in the simplicity of a neatly squared central block, but over the years they have grown into unique age, spreading ground runners through a confusion of added rooms and tacked on outhouses. Their painted boards are stitched with a crazy exuberance of fretted hems, with punched tracks of white wooden diamonds that pierce lace lines across the planks. From inside careful frames careful eyes watch quietly, peering though old uneven glass that twists at the shapes of the world, studded with little squares of colour, and behind each window blinks the eyelid screen of white cotton curtains. Their intricate variety is endless, dazzling beauty.
Look up again, into day’s slow advance, out across the fields towards the forest, along the shaded length of the river to the point where it disappears into its banks. Your eyes meet only the sky for they are alone here, or at least they are well sheltered within isolation. They have no visitors, no grandmother coming to see a grandchild from the next village, no passing seller of trinkets, no peddler of long tales. They do not seek out life beyond the circle of their flat earth sight. They are happy and they have everything they need. Water and wood and twisting ingenuity. Food grown and food gathered, summer their storehouse for the long winter evenings of steam baths leaping into snow. They are content.
Maslyonok, Opyonok, Lisichka, Volnushki, Bely Grib. The forest offers them up, gifts of sweet white meats to this village it holds in so close. On the table, two enamel bowls stand, glossed chalk blue, wide, full. You would try to paint them, but nothing can compare with this richness and complexity, the deep brown of fluted bellies, the sharp new clipped white of the stems, thin stalks pushing into delicate coned heads, or little fat legs holding up stout merry heaviness. A child stands next to the table, butterfly bright in a cotton dress as she leans low to fill herself with the notes of the earth and the forest, carried into the wooden walls of the kitchen in endless shades of close matched colours, lifted with ransomed grass stalks and fallen leaves. The girl is young, her name is Vasilisa, and she sings as she runs sweet fingers over the warmth of the mushrooms, busy with her midday game of assembling these jigsaw pieces, forming neat little piles against the oak of the table as she picks out order from the big bowls. You would not understand her song - even she does not know the words - but it does not matter. She is singing to the doll propped up loose limbed against one of the bowls, rag sewn, white cloth legs with tiny birch bark slippers, wide skirted, little beads for eyes and braided wool for its corn coloured hair. Vasilisa’s work is also her game and she is serious with a child’s innocent solemnity, and painstaking in her sorting and sizing. But finally she finishes, she smiles quietly, tucks her doll into one deep lace edged pocket, and then spins out into the sun. Her mother told her “Carry this doll with you always and she will keep you safe” and so she does as she was told. She has no other promise to keep.
The sounds of work in the village have faded by the time she finishes, and she knows that everyone is down by the river. Arms swinging over the bright curls of her skirt, she dances circles along the little path under the low branches of apple trees. She turns left out of the white wooden gate, then left again along the path that slopes down between the gardens to the river, past the weathered little shrine that guards them, perched on a stake, holding out its welcome or its warning. At the end of the path, the slow swaying column of the river curves sinuously upstream from the swimming jetty. Vasilisa sees no one when she reaches its bank, but the welcoming sounds of voices and laughter are blown by the breeze from over the slope of trees. Even before she reaches them she imagines the scene. There will be a group of men strung out on each side of the river, on one side it will be easier because they can use the path the villagers have trodden into the length of the bank, on the other side more difficult because there is no path and they must struggle through wet unkempt grass, around trees and over rocks. She turns the corner into the brightness of her pictured thought, caught up in the fast detail of the two groups of three men with the skipping rope stretch of the net strung between them. For a moment she stops in delight at their laughter and their cheerful straining from the far bank as bare feet slip down the steep slope towards the braided water, tracks of mud squealing between toes and splashing over knees. The net is weighted from below so that it strokes along the river bed, the key is to keep its top line above the surface of the water to keep the fish from escaping, and at the same time to keep it moving forwards through the slick of water weeds. Slowly, persistently, they are heading upstream towards a shallow in the river, where water panics over a bed of glistening pebbles before falling back into slower and safer depths; here they will be able to gather in the catch. Sloping, sprawling, the rest of the villagers are gathered in the grass, shouting encouragement as muddy feet skid down the bank and the top of the net dips splashing into the water.
Now laughing too, Vasilisa runs, stumbling in her excitement, along the last stretch of the path, across the meadow and straight into Timofei’s generous arms, her favourite bearded Timofei. He scoops her up with a shout of welcome, pressing her in.
“Vasilisa, my fair Vasilisa. I was looking for you, where have you been?”
“I had to work. I wanted to finish sorting the mushrooms.” Her voice is full of her innocent responsibility. “I’m going to help grandmother pickle them this afternoon so I had to finish before I came down to the river. But I found you anyway. Uncle Timofei, tell me, why was there such a storm? Where did it come from? It woke me up at night, I was so frightened.” She leans back against his arms and watches for the truth in his eyes.
“Don’t worry child. It was just a storm, and now it’s over.” But still his gaze flicks out towards the sea and its secrets.
“But why, why did it happen?” Her child’s insistence still believes in adult knowledge, she wants reasons not reassurance.
“I don’t know Vasilisa. Maybe the sea gods were angry and they wanted to show us what they can do. Anyway, let them shout over the sea, we have the warmth of our houses to shelter in. Don’t worry child, it’s over already. I tell you what, now that you’re here, let’s go over and see what they’ve caught.”
Set down, she gathers one heavy hand between her light fingers and leads him across the fall of the field towards the river. Behind them a trail of villagers forms with sun filled faces, carrying baskets and buckets down to the water’s edge. They laugh and shout as they line cold footed across the shallow stones, ready to reap the flashing fish if they try to escape upstream, locked in the certainty of their shared purpose. The two teams of men are close already, as their net moves into the shallows, one man jumps waist deep into the river to gather in the edges, and the water fills with nervous silver slashes squeezed between the walls of the net and a row of waiting hands. They scoop up the thrashing bodies with yells and screams of excitement against splashes of clear light. Sometimes the fish break free in a rush of shining scales, and the smaller fishes are thrown back into the deeper water, others are held down into the baskets that gradually fill until they are carried thrashing to the shore. At first the children help, but soon they are distracted by a search for sparkling pebbles to add to their collections, and they wander off behind the row of adults. Timofei waits on the shore as Vasilisa joins the other children, kicking off her shoes and walking out into the water, filling her pockets with the stones that catch her eye. When finally all the buckets and baskets are full, the men let loose the ends of the net, allowing a few more lucky survivors to dart back downstream, and the laughing villagers gather on the bank to dry out in the afternoon sun.
Vasilisa joins Timofei again in the grass, sets her doll down before them, and starts to show him the stones she has gathered, a jeweller’s loupe eyed pride in her intense concentration as she turns each one over in her fingers. Still wet, the stones glisten in her hand, flecked with crystal, shot through with light, and she passes each one to him for his approval. Timofei looks with serious attention at each of the stones before handing it back to her, but his mind is on the seashore, and he is swollen by an impatience that he can scarcely contain in his wide chest, an impatience that tells him something is happening.
“You know, I really should see how Marie is. She hasn’t been up to see us for a while. Not today I suppose; we’ll be busy with the fish. You will help me won’t you, Vasilisa? But tomorrow morning I shall go down and see what is happening with Marie.”
His decision made, he gathers Vasilisa up from the grass. Laughing, he swings her high onto his back, picks up a bucket full of quiet fish in his spare hand and paces off towards the village. Around him the villagers form a bright escort for his determined strides, but he is lost in secret thoughts and he hardly sees them, he hardly feels the press of Vasilisa’s sun stroked legs around his hips or her waving arms on his neck, hardly feels the weight of the metal bucket in his hand, and he is unconscious that he swings it from one hand to the other as he pushes on through the clinging grass. His body follows the path with the insistence of a riderless horse returning to the stable carrying its mute warning, with an unspoken empty-saddled summoning of aid. Right between the plots, a hand reaching up to brush away the branches of the dipping trees, right again onto the village street, and he is already pushing open the rough grained door of his house.
The door leads first into a roofed area for the animals, a cow, white chickens that cry out with welcome or hunger at the opening of the door. Inside, it is luxuriously dark after the brightness of the day, and the air is lung heavy with the mixed warmth of the animals’ breathing and the sweetness of hay. Timofei sets down Vasilisa onto the dirt floor and she follows his impatience up the small flight of stairs that leads into the main house, her afternoon plans forgotten. She is used to his moods, happy when he talks, but excited too by this silent urgency because she knows that something will happen. That something will happen, that she will be the witness and she will be the one who can announce it, pronounce it, or hold it within herself for ever.
His easel stands stiff legged next to a stool and a small table in the slashing light of the window. It is empty now, but the table swarms with brushes, jars of water, tubes of paint, where does he get them? Heaped sketchbooks and smeared disorder. His hands work fast and with exact nervousness, first a canvas from the floor; one foot pushes away the stool, and he clamps the wooden frame into place. He pauses, watching, questioning its criss-cross blankness for a sign of what it will become, like a sculptor peering into a block of marble to find chiselled birth. Then urgent fingered interrogation, pushing aside brushes from the table, searching through the paint tubes, wiping his palms clean against his shirt as he stumbles across a stub of charcoal, held up to the light as triumphantly as Vasilisa with her forgotten stones. She has disappeared from his view, from his knowledge, perched on the stained long cushions of the bench that scrapes at the wall behind him, her eyes following his every angry line over the canvas. Fast, confusing, white fills with black. First, sweeping black muscles of clouds mass high, then slashing black darts cut down through the sky into a boiling black sea, and she presses back, shocked by the force of what he draws. The sea pounds and shivers with pain, ripping its peaked form from his hands, fighting the air for its place, loud and insistent. And then, finally, walking out of it, out of the speed of his fingers, into the room, against her child’s face, she sees that a man is being born. She knows that Timofei is lost, alone, he is so far away, consumed by the sea’s fury, battling and desperate as if it is only his speed, his skill, that can answer the man’s plea, that can deliver him. As if with each tight charcoal line Timofei pulls the man closer, draws human form into him against the spurred background of water, designs him and selects him. One thumb smudges clouds into their hard edges, and he scratches the charcoal lightning back down through the sky. Set me free, set me free. He pauses, draws back and then starts again, working spurred froth into the sea, it fills the man’s mouth. The man thrusts his hands into the air as he clutches for something, anything, to hold on to. Can he survive?
When Timofei finishes his drawing, the light is fading, and the tension of his creation slowly slumps from his shoulders. He looks around wearily, his eyes lighting on the bucket of rainbow sheened fish in the corner, on the quiet evening, and then behind him to see Vasilisa’s silent form on the bench.
“And what are you doing here young lady? I thought you had mushrooms to pickle. Your grandmother will be angry at me. Martha can be very strict sometimes, you know she worries about you.”
She smiles at this man she loves and puts her doll back into her pocket.
“Don’t worry uncle Timofei, she won’t be angry. I’ll tell her that I had to stay with you, that I had to make sure nothing happened to you. She’ll understand. But probably I should go now that you have finished. I can go now that I know you’re safe. But tell me, what have you drawn? Who is he?”
He turns back to the easel and stands for long minutes, tracing the harsh lines of his sketch as if he sees it for the first time. As if he is trying to understand himself what he has done.
“I’m not sure Vasilisa. A man coming out of the sea, coming to join us. It looks so like Andrei, although the face is different somehow. But how can it be him? He left us. Why would he come back?”
He falls down beside Vasilisa on the cushions of the bench and stares into the distance of a clouded sky framed by the clear dusk in the window. What has he done?
“Why would he come back?”
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