|Excerpts > Fall 2004|
The Secret Village
Rain spatters the greasy window behind the American reporter’s head as he types Marina’s answers into the portable computer on the table between them. She sits up straight in the hard plastic chair, listening to the click of keys, the hiss of raindrops, the sighs of the photographer waiting impatiently at the end of the table. Across the street, on a wide concrete ledge, two mourning doves huddle side by side. Every few minutes, the male flaps his wings and makes a move toward the smaller female, who takes a dainty sideward step and ruffles her feathers. Marina looks down to hide her smile and sees a puddle of water pooling in the lap of her skirt. Caught in a sudden cold downpour on her way to the radio station, she arrived soaking wet. Spring in Odessa.
As the reporter raises his head to ask another question, she notices that his eyes are grayish green, a melancholy color. He speaks Russian with a strong American accent, so Marina must imagine his words taking shape in the air before she can recognize them. It reminds her of her one overseas phone conversation, waiting in the pauses for the words to come through.
“When did your mother go back to the village?”
“Four years ago,” she tells him. “After my father died.”
“Your father was ill?” The reporter looks interested. “What did he die of?”
“He just died. No special reason.”
The photographer, a young and tall American woman, smirks as she peels herself from the chair and crouches down to take Marina’s picture. Marina had only moments to dry her hair on an already damp towel in the lavatory before she was shown to the conference room and left alone with the Americans. Now the photographer is seeing her from the worst angle, down looking up. Though she is very thin, the photographer seems not to mind the chill in the room. She wears blue jeans and a skimpy white T shirt, no make up.
“Heart?” the reporter asks, tapping his chest helpfully.
“No, not the heart.” Marina runs a finger under her eyelids, to wipe away the smears of mascara she envisions there. How stupid to wear my good suit, she’s thinking—the black rayon that was so crisp this morning now a sodden mess.
It isn’t fair that these two have learned so much about her in the past fifteen minutes. Age 48. Occupation, publisher’s assistant. Separated from her husband, Vladimir. One son, Alexei, age 16. She knows nothing about them, although she guesses they are lovers because of the way the reporter watches the photographer constantly, even when he appears to be concentrating on his questions. To him, of course, Marina is not exactly a person, only a piece of the story. He is about her age, she thinks, but with Americans it’s hard to tell. She isn’t sure of his name, either, only that it begins with the sound of “D.”
“Could I have a cup of tea?” Marina asks, surprising herself. She has started to shiver.
The reporter says something to the photographer about getting the tea. The young woman glances at the ceiling and strides out of the room, closing the door sharply.
“I’m sorry I didn’t think of it. You’re really wet,” the reporter says as if he has just noticed.
Vlad, has told her that Westerners are rude in this way. Compared to Russians, who force food and drink on everyone, they have little sense of hospitality. “If you have a meeting with Americans,” he used to say, “you had better bring your own vodka.” Vlad knows all about Americans.
The reporter stands up and begins to look around. Except for the table and chairs and the few things he and the photographer have brought in, the station's small conference room is bare. The linoleum floor, criss crossed with black scuff marks, is nearly the same shade of gray as the walls. There are no pictures, curtains, or rugs. He lifts up the photographer’s bag and sets it down again.
“Well,” he says, taking off his leather jacket and handing it to Marina. “Put this on.”
The leather is soft to the touch, and she can feel his warmth as she pulls the jacket around her shoulders. It has the smell of a good, expensive soap, sandalwood maybe. When he sits down at the computer again and pushes up the sleeves of his sweater, Marina sees that his forearms are covered with golden hairs. She wonders if he and the photographer have been off on a holiday. He looks at Marina expectantly.
“If you must know,” she says, “my mother claims he died from living in the city.”
“You mean from pollution?” he asks, puzzled. “Bad lungs?”
“I mean everything. It didn’t suit him.”
“Oh.” He types for a long time, and Marina watches the doves across the street.
“But did he see a doctor?” the reporter asks finally. “Was there a diagnosis?”
“Yes, here,” Marina says, touching her throat. “His diagnosis was cancer.”
Half an hour later, when she and the reporter leave the conference room, they find the photographer chatting with a spiky haired disc jockey and drinking Marina’s tea. Marina reluctantly takes the jacket off and hands it back. She wants to ask the reporter’s name, although she has heard it twice already. But the skinny photographer unnerves her, and so she heads straight for the exit door, mumbling goodbye.
“Wait,” the reporter says. He is writing something on a business card, which he hands to Marina. “Don’t forget, I will call in two days.”
She is halfway down the stairs when she hears his voice again. “Would you like a ride home?” he asks. “I have a car.”
“Thank you,” she calls up. “But I have to stop at the market on the way.” Marina looks at the card in her palm. Donald Sparrow, Associated Press. She slips the card into her purse and snaps it closed.
This is Alexei’s night to have dinner at her apartment, so Marina goes into the butcher shop, hoping for pork cutlets. She buys meat once a week, when Alexei comes. The line is short this afternoon, she notes gratefully, and as she stands waiting she eyes the grinning pig’s head in the case. What does a person do with an entire pig’s head? she wonders. Marina smiles back at the pig, sorry to think of it ending its days in a soup pot, perhaps, its ears festooned with cabbage leaves and onions.
She decides to buy three lamb sausages, two for Alexei and one for her. At least tonight she will have the Americans to tell him about. She can laugh about the pool of rainwater in her skirt, the photographer drinking her tea. Now that Alexei lives with his father, Marina misses their end of the day talk. The hardest thing, she thinks, is having no one at home to talk with, no one to hear even when you say an ordinary thing, like “Ah, look, it’s snowing.”
She doesn’t blame Alexei for choosing to live with Vlad, though she was hurt last year when he asked to move, when he said he needed more time with his father. A boy his age likes some freedom, a little spending money, she keeps reminding herself. Why should he share her cramped apartment, where he has to sleep on the fold out couch and endure her worries? At Vlad’s, he has his own room, a great luxury.
“Little mother,” Alexei says, hugging her from behind and nuzzling her neck like a puppy. Alexei likes to come in quietly, to surprise her, and she usually pretends not to hear him. He smells sweet, probably from drinking sodas and eating candy.
Marina turns from the stove and looks him over. Alexei is fresh from the shower, dressed like an American teenager in baggy cargo pants and a black T shirt, damp curls falling over his forehead. “You’ve grown since last week,” she says, handing him a fistful of silverware. “Go set the table.”
“Dad’s girlfriend moved out,” Alexei tells her as soon as they sit down to eat. He fills his mouth with sausage and potato, holds up a finger to let her know there is more information coming. “Day before yesterday,” he says, swallowing. “She told him she couldn’t take the excitement any longer.”
“I’m sorry,” Marina says, and Alexei rolls his eyes, “Really,” she insists. “Elena is a decent person.”
She remembers the shock of running into Alexei and Elena in the street a few months ago, how at a distance, before she recognized them, they seemed a mother and son out on some errand. Face to face on the sidewalk, the three of them said hello, what a lovely day, and up close Marina thought this other woman looked too young to be Alexei’s mother. An aunt, maybe, or a cousin. Then Alexei kissed her quickly on the cheek before going on with Elena. How awful, watching them from behind, Alexei with a string bag of groceries in each hand, Elena’s auburn hair shining in the sun. Going home to Vlad.
“She didn’t like hiding in the closet,” Alexei says.
Before Marina can ask, he tells her how Vlad saw some men walking up the sidewalk toward their building and said “Oh, shit.” How he switched off the radio and the lights and told Alexei and Elena, “Quick, in here!” The three of them hunkered down in the tiny bedroom closet and listened as the men banged on their apartment door and then kicked it open. “I think they knew we were there, but they didn’t really want to find us,” Alexei says. “They talked about ‘that scum, Vlad’ and knocked some things around. Then they took the radio and Elena’s purse and left.”
Marina forces herself to remain calm, even though her heart is bumping crazily. It’s Vlad’s gambling or, more likely, one of his black market deals to blame.
“When we came out, we were all sweaty,” Alexei continues, “and we were laughing, but Elena started to cry when she found her purse missing. While Dad was fixing the door, she packed up her two suitcases, and then she stopped in the doorway and held out her hand. Not to shake hands goodbye, but like this, for money.”
Marina looks at her son’s upturned palm, still smooth and pink. For the first time, she wonders if Alexei is working for his father. Vlad had promised her that wouldn’t happen. “Besides,” he’d added, when they were discussing Alexei’s wish to move in with him, “I’m giving all that up. I have a legitimate business, nothing to worry about.”
“You know what he said, watching her drive away in the taxi?” Alexei asks his mother. “He said, ‘There goes two years of my life.’”
After Alexei leaves, Marina fills a dish pan with hot water and soap. She would like to drink a bit of vodka and smoke a cigarette, but since she has neither, she washes the dishes slowly and carefully, enjoying the warmth of the task as she thinks about Elena and Vlad. Naturally enough, she feels some satisfaction in knowing Elena is out of the picture. Though Marina had resisted Vlad’s every attempt to win her back, she couldn’t quite believe it when he finally gave up on her and found someone else.
When she lies down in bed, Marina realizes that she never told Alexei about the Americans at the radio station and how they were doing a story on the old people who had returned to their homes near Chernobyl. Drifting toward sleep, she lets her mind dwell on the image of Alexei hiding in a closet with his father and decides to call his school from her office the next day, to reassure herself.
The once elegant school building smells like rancid cheese. The plaster walls are cracked, their paint faded to the color of dust. Climbing the stairs to the headmaster’s office on the second floor, Marina looks out at the schoolyard tucked between the back of the building and the row of houses just beyond a narrow alley. There is hardly room to run or skip or bounce a ball. At recess, the children must be packed in like sardines, Marina reflects. Who could blame the older ones if they occasionally slipped into the alley for a smoke? Not like her own country school, where they ate their lunches outside on the grass.
As the headmaster and his wife, Boris and Lena Genkin, stand to greet Marina, she imagines their heels clicking together. The Genkins are two old style Soviets, both wearing dark blue suits nipped in at the waist. Lena, who teaches physics and chemistry, is said to be brilliant. Marina wonders again why she married Boris, with the alarming tufts of hair sprouting from his ears, but perhaps unruly hairs are also a sign of intelligence.
When the three of them sit down, Marina notices that Lena and Boris have made identical tents of their hands on top of the headmaster’s desk. They look at her uncertainly, waiting for her to begin.
“Thank you for staying late to see me,” Marina says, and the two Genkins nod. Marina clears her throat. She almost tells them that she couldn’t leave work early today because she had to leave early yesterday to meet an American journalist, but she decides they wouldn’t approve.
After a minute, the headmaster says, “And how is Alexei? Making a good recovery?”
Marina feels as if the floor is floating away and grasps the sides of her chair with both hands.
“Is everything all right?” Lena Genkin asks.
“I’m not sure,” Marina says. “I don’t understand.”
The Genkins look at each other, untent their hands. “The pneumonia,” Boris says.
Marina stares at him until Lena Genkin says, “The letter was signed by you.”
“The letter,” Marina repeats. “Ah . . .”
“Alexei’s friend Serge brought the letter, signed by you, saying Alexei had pneumonia. Your letter said to send his books and assignments home with Serge. That was more than a week ago,” Lena Genkin explains excitedly. “Serge brought another letter in just yesterday saying Alexei would be out another week, also signed by you. No reason to think it wasn’t your letter.”
Back on the street, Marina prickles with embarrassment. She knows the Genkins didn’t believe her when she finally got her wits back and said she had written the letters, of course. Yes, she had assured them, Alexei was making a good recovery. She had only stopped by to say that Serge had lost the most recent assignments and ask if it would be too much trouble to write them out again. They must forgive her for being muddled. She is so tired from working and taking care of Alexei. Furious as she is with Alexei and Vlad, she doesn’t want her son expelled from school.
When Marina calls Vlad’s apartment later that night, his phone rings and rings. She wishes her mother still lived close by, in the tiny flat where her father died from his throat cancer. Marina could walk there in ten minutes, make a pot of tea, ask her mother’s advice.
“The old mother loves Vlad,” her husband used to say, dancing her mother out of the kitchen. It was true. “Overlook a thing or two,” her mother would tell Marina when she worried about Vlad’s shady deals. “He puts food on the table, doesn’t he? He has a good heart.”
Marina’s heart had opened to Vlad the first time she met him, almost before he had finished shaking her hand. “This is Vladimir,” her friend Katya had said, introducing him as an afterthought. He was twenty four then, tall, awkward, with scuffed shoes and too short pants that showed his thin socks. Back then, Marina and Katya worked together at a restaurant and had gone to a party with Katya’s brother, hoping to meet a certain kind of young man. But when Katya touched her arm and said “Come on,” Marina didn’t notice. She stood rooted to the floor, looking up at Vladimir, taking in his not quite clean shirt and frayed collar, trying to think of something else to say. Later, she and Vlad would joke about their first conversation, how he had started talking about the discovery of woolly mammoth bones near Odessa. He had read an article in the newspaper, not very carefully. And then Marina kept plying him with questions, forcing him to make things up.
“If you don’t kiss me right now, I’m going to tell you all about the woolly mammoth,” Vlad would tease her, trying to end a spat. Often it worked.
Marina thought her love for him—which she couldn’t help, there it was—would give him confidence, build him up. His charm lay coiled inside like a bud, and when it began to warm and bloom, she could see that he had believed in himself all along.
“He’s too smart for his own good,” her father had remarked when Marina took Vlad to meet her parents for the first time. She had left Vlad in the house with her mother and found her father standing at the edge of the garden smoking his pipe. “And I don’t like the way he looks at you, as if he’s starving for a good meal,” he added, knocking the bowl of the pipe against his boot heel. Marina watched the red ash scatter. Her father’s words, intended as a warning, filled her with joy.
Even her father grew fond of Vlad, who, in another time and place, might have been an inventor or a politician. As it was, he and a friend started a salvage business, rescuing mantelpieces, chandeliers, entire staircases from grand old buildings and selling them to buyers overseas. From there, because he was hungry and unafraid, it was a short step to the kind of business he tried to hide from her. “You don’t need to go out at midnight to sell a newel post,” she told him more than once. “Maybe not,” he would say. “But if you have a choice, it’s stupid to be poor.” He and his partner weren’t hurting anyone, he insisted, just playing the game. She had split with Vlad to protect Alexei from his bad influence, and now look.
The next morning is Saturday, so Marina has only half a day in the office. The American reporter, Donald Sparrow, calls her just as she is leaving, and they make arrangements for their trip to the village on Sunday. He will pick her up at 9:00 a.m., he says, and he looks forward to seeing her. She likes the sound of his voice on the telephone, likes to have a man calling her at the office. For a moment, she imagines traveling into the country with Donald Sparrow, the way she will be able to watch his clean profile as he drives, the golden hairs on his arms, and then she remembers the photographer.
Vlad, rumpled and unshaven, is just making coffee when Marina arrives at his apartment.
“This is a nice surprise,” he says, blinking at her.
“I came to see Alexei,” she answers, walking past him, looking around. The apartment is surprisingly clean and orderly.
“He’s sleeping,” Vlad says. “You know teenagers, they sleep forever.”
“That’s crazy. It’s nearly two in the afternoon. Besides, I need to talk to him, so go wake him up.”
Alexei comes out wrapped in a sheet, his face puffy, and sits on the couch. “Coffee, please,” he says, and Vlad goes to get it.
“Big night?” Marina asks.
Her son yawns and shudders at the same time. He shakes his head.
When Vlad returns with two cups of coffee, Marina says to Alexei. “Funny you didn’t tell me about your pneumonia when you came for dinner.”
She’s pleased by the look of amazement that crosses his face.
“I never would have known if Headmaster Genkin hadn’t asked about you,” she continues. “He and his wife are very concerned.”
Alexei starts to take a sip of coffee, changes his mind. He sits and stares into his cup.
“What’s this?” Vlad says, and Marina wonders what he knows.
“Your son hasn’t been to school in two weeks,” she says. “And do you know why?”
Vlad and Alexei are both looking at her with interest. Why indeed?
“I lied for you once,” Marina says, moving along, “but no more. Monday you are back at school.”
Alexei pulls the sheet up around his shoulders, shuts his eyes. “Fine,” he says.
“This is not a trivial matter,” Marina insists. “I won’t let you ruin your life for a bit of money—or fun—whatever it is you think you're doing.”
Vlad walks with her to the door and leans against it. “Honestly, I didn’t know about the two weeks.” He combs his hair back with his fingers. “I have let him stay out a day now and then to help me—but nothing illegal, ever.”
“You need to pay attention. You’re too caught up in your schemes,” she tells him. “If I can’t trust you with Alexei . . . I don’t know.”
Vlad touches her cheek for a moment and promises he will do better. He then suggests that the three of them meet for Sunday lunch. “We can take a walk by the sea, like a family.”
“Too late for that,” Marina replies. She tells him about the Americans and the trip to the village to visit her mother.
“I had better come with you,” Vlad says.
“No.” Marina takes hold of the door handle and Vlad steps aside. “I’m sorry about Elena,” she says on her way out.
The day has turned warm, so Marina decides to walk home. About halfway there, she makes a detour through a small park, hoping the trees just budding out, the green shoots pushing up through their cover of dead leaves will help to calm her. Along the pathway a young father strolls proudly, holding a baby in each arm. His wife walks beside him, pleasantly unencumbered for the moment, with two fingers crooked through his belt loop. “Twins,” he says to Marina as they go by.
She remembers how small Alexei seemed as a baby in Vlad’s big hands. It was often Vlad who got out of bed to comfort their crying boy in the night. He would carry Alexei draped over his shoulder, back and forth across the front room, singing softly. Sometimes, when she woke before it was light to nurse Alexei, she would find the two of them asleep in a chair, and she would have to pry Alexei from his father’s arms. How could Vlad have tolerated the strange, gritty men who started coming by at all hours to “talk business,” the way they stubbed out their cigarettes in the kitchen sink?
In the morning, when Donald Sparrow drives up, Marina is waiting outside on the front steps with baskets of food and jars of water in a box. She was awake half the night cooking a meal to eat at her mother’s house and packing everything she could spare from the cupboards.
“You look nice,” he says, taking a basket from her. Marina laughs lightly, wondering if he is merely remembering her disheveled appearance at the radio station.
The American has a razor cut on his chin, a dot of dried blood, but otherwise he appears fresh and well rested. She is not imagining it, Marina decides, there is a bit of nervousness between them as they carry her supplies to the car and pack them into the back seat next to the camera bags.
“Where is your photographer?” she asks as Donald Sparrow opens the passenger door for her.
“Kit, she won’t go up there,” he says. “I have to take pictures myself.”
Kit. A skinny name, too. Marina couldn’t possibly let this American reporter see her undressed. Or perhaps she could if not for the pad of fat that now covers her formerly sleek stomach. Marina pokes at it, pretending to adjust her seat belt. Yes, still there, soft and spongy as rising dough.
So she relaxes in the seat of the little car and listens to Donald Sparrow telling the story of how he started as a photographer himself, at a weekly newspaper in the town where he went to college. He is not like some men, though, who talk and talk and never think to ask you a thing about yourself.
“You don’t seem like a farm girl,” he says after a while. “What was it like for you, growing up in such an isolated place?”
“We didn't know it was isolated,” Marina answers. “The farms were small, so people lived fairly close together, and there was common land, where we worked side by side with our neighbors. It was like living in a big family—you know, the jokes and the singing and then the complaining and fighting. Really, though, it was a fine place for children, a safe place.” She tells him about her childhood friends, how they would walk to school together, go exploring in the countryside. “Everything was fascinating,” she says. “I remember when one boy's father killed a black snake. His whole family went around to every house with the snake in a burlap sack to show it off. They were treated as very special guests. And if they hadn't brought the snake to your house, you would have felt slighted.”
She begins to giggle at the memory of Mikhail's father, who had a long, pointy beard, the way he ceremoniously untied the top of the sack and poured the length of the black snake onto their tiny back porch. “He looked like a wizard,” she says, “only very solemn,” and she's pleased that Donald laughs too.
“But how in the world did you get to the city?” he wants to know.
“My mother's wicked cousin, Svetlana. She went to Odessa as a governess, and then she became a piano teacher. Somehow she convinced my parents to let me go and live with her when I finished school.”
“Even though she was wicked?”
“She wasn't really. That's what my father called her, for a joke. She wasn't married, so she seemed a bit exotic I suppose. Then, at the age of forty five, she married a German doctor and went off to live in Hamburg.”
“I'm glad you didn't follow her there,” Donald says.
Marina has to look away because her eyes suddenly fill with tears. It has been a long time since someone took such an interest in her, since her own life seemed worth talking about.
Eventually he asks, “You and your husband are separated, but not divorced?”
“Yes.” Marina tries to think of a way to explain why.
She doesn’t know why. It’s easy enough to get a divorce, even in Odessa. You bribe one or two people—and there you are, free and unattached. When Elena moved in with Vlad, Marina expected him to ask for a divorce, but the subject never came up. Which is likely the real reason Elena moved out.
Marina takes a deep breath, keeps her eyes straight ahead. “And you and Kit? You are together?”
His surprised laugh tells her they are not.
“For one thing,” he says, “Kit is about half my age. And for another, we don’t get along very well.” He looks pleased, though, as if Marina has paid him a compliment.
“Oh,” she says, “too bad.” It occurs to her that she’s flirting.
“I was married for sixteen years,” he continues matter of factly. “My wife didn’t like it that I was away so much.”
“And you couldn’t make a change?” Marina asks. “Stay closer to home?”
“To be honest, I didn’t want to. She was important to me, but I also liked leaving her now and then.”
This is a slightly discouraging perspective, but Marina decides not to dwell on it. “In America,” she says, “I think maybe beginnings and endings are important. Here, everything goes on and on and on. If we come to a river, say, we don’t always cross it. Sometimes maybe we float with the current, see where it takes us.”
He turns and smiles at her. Such a beautiful smile!
They are quiet then, watching the countryside unfold, counting the abandoned farms, the tractors rusting in weedy fields. Marina thinks ahead to her mother, who will not be expecting them. Always it pains her to think of her mother in the little house alone or outside tending her garden, as if everything were normal. As if the chickens didn’t lay poison eggs.
“How often do you visit?” Donald asks as they get near.
“About every three months,” Marina tells him. “We bring supplies, help out with repairs, get her firewood in.”
“Yes, Vlad always drives me. He and my mother are close.”
“Don’t you worry about the radiation for yourselves?”
“A bit. That’s why we don’t come more often. And we never bring Alexei.”
“It must be very hard.”
“My heart is breaking for her,” Marina says as they turn into the cart path that leads to the crooked red house in the distance.
Donald reaches across the gear shift to take her hand, and Marina is certain his gesture is more than sympathy. It seems odd, but pleasant too, that they are still holding hands when the car stops with a sudden bump near the back porch. Even though her mother rushes out the door to see who has arrived, and Marina longs to embrace her, she doesn’t want to leave the car.
“You didn’t say you were coming,” her mother says, kissing her daughter’s cheeks while aiming skeptical looks at the American. Marina notices something strange about her mother’s speech, how she barely opens her mouth.
“No time,” Marina says. She has already told Donald that there are no telephones, that letters must be sent with a visiting relative or friend. It is illegal to live here in the Exclusion Zone, and so officially this village does not exist. Unofficially, it is known as derevnya kotoroi net, the village that is not.
As Donald explains why he has come, Marina studies her mother for signs of decay. Though her hair is thinning and her face slightly sunken, her cheeks are pink, and she seems full of life.
“Where is Vlad?” her mother demands, turning from the American in mid sentence.
“How should I know?” Marina replies breezily and skips up the steps to hold the door for Donald.
In the dim light inside the house, Marina recognizes a man and woman, her mother’s closest neighbors, sitting in the parlor. “My friends Masha and Pavel,” her mother says to Donald.
“See, we are building a windmill,” Pavel says, pointing to a crude sketch on the table in front of the couch. “We are going to make electricity.” His fingers are knobby and stiff with arthritis.
Donald picks up the drawing and studies it, but Marina feels a familiar hollowness in her chest and looks away. She prefers not to contemplate these three old ones struggling with hammers and saws, guy wires, who knows what all. A doomed project, surely. If only her mother lived in a nice little dacha near the city, Marina could visit her with Alexei and Serge, other friends. They could take her mother’s gifts of beets and cabbages back to the city, instead of tossing them in a ditch as soon as the red house fades from view.
Pavel wants to show Donald the windmill site, and once he gets to his feet, the old man seems spry enough. He holds his hand out to Masha and pulls her up too so that she can help the women carry in food from the car.
“They are not married,” Marina’s mother whispers, nodding toward Masha, who limps across the porch ahead of them.
“What?” Why is her mother speaking in this odd way?
“Masha and Pavel. Not married,” her mother says in the same muffled fashion. “Pavel’s roof caved in last winter, and he moved into Masha’s house. I mean into her bed, too.”
“Good for them,” Marina says.
“Oh, aren’t you the modern one?” Marina’s mother takes her arm as they go down the steps, but she frowns at the American walking along beside Pavel toward a hump of earth that looks like a large anthill.
When the two men return, the dinner Marina brought is set out, cold because it is too much trouble to start the wood cookstove just to heat food in fine weather. Donald removes a bottle of expensive vodka from one of the camera bags and sets it in the center of the table.
“Excellent,” says Pavel, rubbing his hands together and going to the cupboard to get glasses, as if it were his own house. He makes the first toast, too, raising his glass to “our guests” and swallowing the vodka in three happy gulps.
Donald toasts the windmill, and then he demonstrates his cassette recorder—no bigger than a pack of cards—as the bowls of food are passed around the table.
“That’s not me!” Masha exclaims when Donald plays back the poem she recites.
“Yes, it is you,” Pavel says. “You exactly.”
When they’ve finished eating, Donald gets out his two cameras. Everyone takes a turn looking at the others through the close up lens, and Pavel pours more vodka.
“Now I can see the hairs on Masha’s nose,” he says, twisting the focus ring back and forth. “One, two, three, four . . . Lovely.”
In the vodka warmth, Marina notices her mother relaxing, softening a bit toward Donald. He really is quite easy with them, more like a friend than a reporter. They seem eager to talk to him, and quickly the conversation turns serious.
“We tried to stay here, my husband and I,” her mother is saying. “After the explosion. Some others, too. But they made us leave one day. ‘You can’t be here!’ the young soldiers shouted at us. ‘You must go now.’ They had rifles. They looked like space men in their orange suits, but they took off their head protectors and smoked cigarettes while they waited for us to gather a few things and get in the army truck that would take us away.”
Marina remembers well the day her parents arrived at their apartment in Odessa, two frightened refugees. They hadn’t been able to bring their cow or chickens or their beloved donkey Kola. The soldiers had promised to take care of them, but Marina’s father told her they started shooting the animals as soon as the truck pulled away. That was his last memory of home, he said, one startled scream from Kola as he was shot.
“That was 1987,” her mother continues. “It was good to be close to Marina and Vlad and baby Alexei, of course, but my husband and I, we were not city people.”
She stops and pats Marina’s arm, and Marina wonders again about her sunken cheeks, her cautious way of speaking.
“Radiation,” Pavel says, sipping at his vodka now. “I don’t believe in it.”
“He’s teasing you,” Masha tells Donald.
“Well then,” Pavel says as he moves his chair closer to Masha’s and drapes his arm over her shoulder. “Let’s just say I’m too ugly to die.”
“Are there any younger people living here?” Donald asks them.
“I am the youngest,” Masha says proudly. “Seventy three.”
“Her birthday was last week,” Pavel says. “I baked her a cake.”
Masha’s birthday sets off another round of toasts, and Marina goes into the pantry to get one of the water jars she brought. Time to switch to water so she won’t be foolish around Donald. She lets herself think of the ride back to Odessa, wonders what will happen when they reach her apartment. As she looks up and down the narrow shelves, Marina hears the voices of her mother and Masha and Pavel, trying to explain why no other place, only this bit of land they live on, is truly home. The Russian peasant’s story, the blessed land, living on the bones of the ancestors. Marina hates this story.
Suddenly a small glass on the top shelf catches her eye. It holds seven or eight pieces of marble or perhaps ivory, and there is something unsettling about their shape. Marina lifts the glass and holds it up to the light from the narrow window. Human teeth!
Her mother’s, she realizes in the same moment she hears a car coming down the path. She looks out the window to see Vlad’s gray Lada pulling up beside Donald’s car. “Shit!” she says out loud. “What is he doing?”
Listening to the surprised, happy greetings as Vlad comes in, Marina tries desperately to think of an escape. She hears her mother saying, “Donald Sparrow, this is Vlad, my son in law,” and she wants to spirit Donald out the door and drive away with him. She wants to tell him what she has learned about her mother. Maybe he will have some useful American idea. But her legs feel as if they have turned to jelly. She sighs and goes out to see Vlad placing two bottles of vodka on the table. He won’t meet her eye.
“I came out to work today,” Vlad announces. “Split wood, spade the garden, anything you like.”
“Wonderful,” Pavel says, jumping up to get his windmill drawing.
Marina notices Donald watching her, and she shrugs, raises her eyebrows. Stay calm, she tells herself. Donald can finish his interview, take his pictures, and we can leave. Not necessary to take Vlad into account. Even so, it pleases her just a bit for Vlad to find her in the company of this handsome American.
“Here,” Marina’s mother says, setting a place for Vlad at the table. “We saved you some food. Marina brought your favorite dessert—poppy seed cake.”
Marina shakes her head, sets the water down, and pours herself another glass of vodka.
“Sparrow,” Vlad says to Donald. “An interesting name. It’s a kind of small bird, am I right?”
“Your vocabulary is good,” Donald says stiffly as Pavel spreads the drawing out in front of Vlad. “I like this windmill idea,” he continues, “but I think it needs to be built on a higher elevation, and I think maybe it should be metal, not wood.”
“Oh yes, metal for sure,” Vlad says, glancing over Pavel’s sketch. “I have an idea. Do you have more paper?”
“When Kit and I were in South Africa last year, I saw some interesting windmills that looked like they were made from World War II airplane propellers,” Donald says. “The blades were fairly long.”
Kit in South Africa? Marina wonders what it means, especially the casual way he said it. Maybe they were on assignment together, like now.
“Possibly American P 39s,” Vlad says. “I know a guy who could get one of those propellers.” He takes a good look at Donald for the first time and adds, “I have an import export business. Marina may have told you already.”
“No, she didn’t mention it,” Donald replies. “Actually, I said they looked like airplane propellers. I mean, a real propeller would be too heavy, wouldn’t it?”
“You modify it,” Vlad says, as if speaking to a dimwitted person. “Look here.” He begins his own sketch on the paper Marina’s mother has brought. “You don’t need all the original mechanism in the housing, because the blades don’t have to turn an engine. So you can take a lot of that stuff out and make it simple. If you put in roller bearings here and here, the blades turn nice and easy, even in a light wind.”
Peering over their shoulders, Pavel says, “But we have only wood to build with. We don’t have metal. We don’t have machine parts.”
“No worries,” Vlad tells him. “I can get everything.”
“What are you saying?” Donald takes the pencil from Vlad’s hand. “I doubt you can waltz in here with airplane propellers anytime you feel like it. Now that I think about it, a wooden windmill does make more sense.” He begins a new sketch next to Vlad’s.
Marina watches Vlad calmly take a drink of vodka as he squints at Donald’s drawing. She notices Vlad’s belly beginning to sag over his belt, his unruly hair. Beside him, Donald so trim and neat. She wishes she could think more clearly.
“That will never work,” Vlad tells him.
“Why not?” Donald keeps the pencil moving. He’s shading in the blades, adding a hill and some trees in the background.
“Because you have no idea what you’re doing,” Vlad says.
The pencil stops. “Is that right? Well, I have an idea you’re making promises you can’t keep. I have an idea these people can’t make a windmill out of nothing.”
“You are so wrong,” Vlad says, stepping away from the table and pushing his chair aside. “That is what we do best, make something out of nothing.”
Pavel backs away from them, holds up his hands. “Wait,” he says. “It was only an idea, something to talk about on a Sunday afternoon.”
“At least we might talk some sense,” Vlad says.
“Look, I have a job to do.” Giving them all a dark look, Donald crosses the room and begins loading film into one of his cameras.
“Why did you have to come here?” Marina demands, turning to Vlad. Knowing how unjust her question is only makes her angrier.
For once Vlad has no answer. Marina snatches her mother’s sweater from the hook by the back door and goes outside.
Now it is late afternoon, and the sun is moving down behind the trees, casting deep shadows. She buttons the sweater and walks off toward the hummock where Pavel took Donald earlier. From the top of the little rise, her mother’s house looks as if it might blow over in a strong wind. Her house, too, when she was a girl. She remembers the geese in the yard, the broad, sweet face of Kola when she scratched behind his long ears. Now green moss grows on the roof. The gingerbread decorations her father put up around the porch and the eaves are rotting, falling to the ground.
When Marina hears the back door open, she already knows it’s Vlad. He waves and starts toward her, as if nothing has happened. She wishes she could stop time right there, watching Vlad as he walks across the spring grass.
He comes up beside her and follows her gaze back toward the house.
“What are they doing in there?” she asks him.
“Your mother is getting everyone settled down so the Sparrow can take their pictures. In fact, he would like to take your picture with them. I volunteered to come out and tell you.”
“You weren’t very nice to him.”
“Why should I be? He’s trying to seduce my wife.”
“Oh, your wife. You think so? Where is Alexei, anyway?”
“He took my father to a film this afternoon,” Vlad tells her. “After, they are going to finish Alexei’s homework so he can go to school tomorrow.”
“Good.” Marina sighs. “My mother’s teeth are falling out.”
“I know,” Vlad says.
“Why is she so stubborn?”
“You’re asking about stubborn? You tell me.” Vlad is not joking. He takes Marina by the shoulders, holds her at arm’s length. “You tell me,” he says again, gently.
A terrible thing happens. Marina wants to fall into Vlad’s arms. She wants to weep. She looks away from him and sees Donald standing on the steps.
“Do I have to fight with the American?” Vlad asks her. She thinks he may be joking now.
She reaches out to brush a wrinkle from the front of his shirt. “This is a nice shirt,” she says. “Blue, it’s a good color for you.”
“Yes, well, you gave it to me.”
“It’s an old shirt, then.”
“You might give me a new one. I mean if this one gets ripped in a fight.”
“You think you can fix everything so easily?”
“I can only hope,” Vlad replies, letting go of her.
“My father used to say hope is a thread.”
“I remember.” Vlad smiles at her. “He had many wise sayings, but who knows what he meant half the time.”
“Do you think you might really build a windmill?” Marina asks him as they walk toward the car, where Donald is waiting for her.
“Pavel and I are definitely going to build a windmill.”
“Will it work? I mean, if it did, it would help them so much.”
“You have no faith in us?”
Vlad stops and lets her walk ahead, and Donald watches her with the kind of detachment she remembers from the radio station. She notices again his gray green eyes, more curious now than melancholy. What will she say?
“I’m sorry, but I won’t be going back with you,” she announces, pulling her hands up into the sleeves of the sweater.
“Are you sure? I mean, do I have any say in this?” He looks beyond her to Vlad.
“No. What I mean is . . . Vlad and I, we’ve known each other a long time.”
“And I’m a stranger.”
“You are,” Marina says, her head suddenly clearing. “A nice stranger, I think.”
“But who knows?” Donald replies. He gets into the car, starts it, backs out, all his movements very precise and crisp. He rolls down the window, but instead of speaking, he gives Marina a salute and drives away.
As she watches the glow of tail lights moving into the distance, Marina feels Vlad standing behind her, then the warm pressure of his hand on the back of her neck, lifting her hair. She hears voices and the clatter of dishes inside the house, as if this were an ordinary evening somewhere.