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Enchantment


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Chapter Two
True Love

So Father's plan had worked after all. When they arrived in Vienna, it was a matter of a few hours' paperwork to confirm his appointment as a professor of Slavic languages at Mohegan University in western New York, where he would join a distinguished language faculty, the Russian jewel in a polyglot crown. Soon the family was established in what seemed to them a spacious house with a wild garden that led down to the shore of Lake Olalaga -- which quickly became the familiar "Olya," the common nickname for "Olga ," and sometimes, in whimsical moods, "Olya-Olen'ka," as if the lake were a character in a folktale.

Raised on stories of America -- and especially New York -- being a jumble of slums and pollution, Vanya found the woods and farms and rolling hills of western New York to be a miracle. But none of the woods was half so ancient or dangerous-seeming as the forest around Cousin Marek's farm, and Vanya soon found that America might be an exciting place to arrive, but living there could become, in time, as boring as anything else.

Yet his father was satisfied. Vanya reached America young enough to become truly bilingual, quickly learning to speak English without a foreign accent, and taking to the way Americans pronounced his name -- Ívan instead of Iván -- eye-vun instead of ee-vahn -- eye-vun instead of ee-vahn -- so readily that it was soon the name he used for himself, with "Vanya" surviving only as his family's nickname for him.

His father and mother were not so linguistically fortunate -- Father would never lose his guttural Russian accent, and Mother made no effort to progress beyond American money and the names of items at the grocery store. It meant that Mother's world barely reached beyond their house, and, though Father lectured at other colleges and enjoyed his students, he, too, centered his life around his son.

Ivan felt the pressure of his parents' sacrifice every day of his life. They did not speak of it; they didn't have to. Ivan did his best to take advantage of the opportunities his father and mother had given him, working hard at his schoolwork and studying many other things besides. They had no cause to complain of him. And when he was tempted to protest their sometimes heavy-handed regulation of his life, he remembered what they had given up for him. Friends, relatives, their native land.

Ivan's respite from his parents' expectations was the same one he had found in Russia: He ran. And when he got old enough for high school athletics, he not only continued with long-distance running, he also took up all the games of the decathlon. Javelin, hurdles, discus, sprints -- he was sometimes the best at one or another, but what set him apart from the rest of the track team was his consistency: His combined score was always good, and he was always in contention at every meet. He lettered three years at Tantalus High, and when he began to attend Mohegan University, he made their track team easily.

His parents and their friends never understood his need for athletics. Some even seemed to think it was funny -- a Jewish athlete? -- until Ivan coldly pointed out that Israel didn't bring in Christians to fill out its Olympic team. Only once, near the end of Ivan's junior year in high school, did Father suggest that the time wasted on athletics would be better spent refining his mind. "The body goes by the time you're forty, but the mind continues -- so why invest in the part that cannot last? It isn't possible to divide your interests this way and do well at anything." Ivan's reply was to skip a day of finals while he ran all the way around Lake Olya. He ended up having to do makeup work that summer to stay on track for graduation; Father never again suggested that he give up sports.

But Ivan was not really rejecting his father. During Ivan's years at the university, he gravitated to history, languages, and folklore; when he entered graduate school, he became his father's most apt pupil. Together they immersed themselves in the oldest dialects of Ukrainian, Bulgarian, and Serbian. For one year they even conducted all their conversations in Old Church Slavonic, lapsing into Russian or English only when the vocabulary didn't allow a modern thought to be expressed.

Everyone could see how proud Father was at Ivan's exceptional performance -- several papers published in first-rate journals even before he entered the graduate program -- but what they never were was close. Not as Ivan imagined American fathers and sons were close. Ivan did not speak to his father about his dreams, his yearnings, his frustrations, his hopes. He certainly never mentioned that he still had nightmares about a circular chasm in the forest, where some unnameable creature stirred under the leaves.

Nor did Ivan speak much more readily to Mother -- but Mother seemed to know most of his feelings anyway, or guess, or perhaps invent them. When he was in high school he would come home smitten with love for this or that girl, and Mother would know it even though he said nothing. "Who is she?" she'd ask. When he told her -- and it was always easier just to tell -- she would study his face and say, "It isn't love."

The first few times he insisted that it was too love, and what did she know, being old, with true love long since replaced by habit? But over time he learned to accept her assessment. Especially when, now and then, she would say, "Oh, poor boy, it is love this time, and she's going to hurt you." To his grief, she was never wrong.

"How do you know?" he demanded once.

"Your face is an open book to me."

"No, really."

"I'm a witch, I know these things."

"Mother, I'm serious."

"If you won't listen to my answers, why do you ask me questions?

Then, when he was twenty-four, the Berlin Wall came down. The family watched everything on television. As he switched off the set, Father said, "Now you can go back to Russia to do your research for your dissertation."

"My dissertation doesn't require research with sources inside Russia."

"So change your topic," said Father. "Are you crazy? Don't you want to go back?"

Yes, he wanted to go back. But not for research. He wanted to go back because he still saw a certain leaf-covered clearing in his dreams, and the face of a woman, and a monster in a chasm; and for the same reason, he did not want to go, because he was afraid that the place didn't exist, and because he was afraid that maybe it did.

So he spent months finishing up his classwork and passing his comprehensives. Then he did the groundwork research for his dissertation and it was late in July, only six weeks before his ticket back to Kiev. Naturally, that was when he met Ruth Meyer.

She was the daughter of a medical professor in Ithaca, a couple of lakes away in western New York. They met at a Presbyterian wedding -- the groom was a friend of Ivan's from the track team in college, the bride a roommate of Ruth's. They reached for the same hors-d'oeuvre on a plate and within a few minutes stood outside on the porch of the house, watching a thunderstorm come in from the southwest. By the time the rain came they were holding hands.

"Say something to me in Old Russian," she said.

Old Russian was too modern for him. In Old Church Slavonic, he said, "You are beautiful and wise and I intend to marry you."

She closed her eyes as if in ecstasy. "I love it that you speak a language to me that no other woman will ever hear from you."

"But you don't understand it," he pointed out.

"Yes I do," said Ruth, her eyes still closed.

He laughed; but what if she had understood? "What did I say?"

"You told me that you hoped I'd fall in love with you."

"No I didn't." But his embarrassed laugh was a confession that she had come rather close to the mark.

"Yes you did," she said, opening her eyes. "Everything you do says that."

After the wedding, Ivan came home to his mother and sat down across from her in the living room. After a few moments she looked up at him.

"Well?" he said. "Is it love, or is it nothing?"

Her expression solemn, Mother said, "It's definitely something."

"I'm going to marry her," he announced.

"Does she know this?"

"She knows everything," he said. "She knows what I think as I'm thinking it."

"If only she knew before you thought it, you'd never have to think again."

"I'm serious, Mother," he said.

"And I'm not?"

"Don't tease me. This is love."

By now Father was in the room; there's something about the mention of marriage that brings parents, no matter what they were doing. "What, you fall in love now, when you're about to leave the country for a year?"

"Maybe I can postpone the trip," said Ivan, knowing as he said it that it was a stupid idea.

"That's good, marry now when you don't have a doctor's degree," said Father. "Her father plans to support you?"


"I know, I have to go. But I hate waiting," said Ivan.

"Learn patience," said Father.

"In Russia you learn patience," said Ivan. "In America you learn action."

"So it's a good thing you're going to Russia," said Father. "Patience is useful much more often, and you especially need to learn it if you plan to have children."

Ivan laughed giddily at the idea. "I'm going to be such a good father!" he cried.

"And why not?" asked Mother. "You learned from the best."

"Of course I did," he said. "Both of you. You did the best you could with a strange kid like me."

"I'm glad you understand," said Mother. That wry smile. Was it possible she wasn't joking? That she had never been joking?

During the weeks before he flew to Kiev, he spent more time in Ithaca than in Tantalus. His mother seemed sad or worried whenever he saw her, which wasn't often. One time, concerned about her, he said, "You're not losing me, Mother. I'm in love."

"I never had you," she said, "not since you escaped from the womb." She looked away from him.

"What is it, then?"

"Have you told her your Jewish name?" she asked, changing the subject.

"Oh, right, Itzak Shlomo," he said. "It hasn't come up. Does it matter?"

"Don't do it," she said.

"Don't what? Tell her my Jewish name? Why would I? Why shouldn't I?"

She rolled her eyes. "I'm such a fool. Now you will, because I asked you not to."

"When would it come up? Why does it matter? I haven't used the name since we came here. Our synagogue is Conservative, so is theirs, nobody cares if I have a gentile name."

Mother gripped his arms and spoke fiercely, for once without a smile. "You can't marry her," she said.

"What are you talking about? We're definitely not first cousins, if that's what you're worried about."

"You remember the story of the Sky, the Rat, and the Well?"

Of course he did. It was a tale she had told him as a child, and he studied it again in folklore class. A not-so-nice rabbinical student rescues a young woman from a well, but only after she promises to sleep with him. Once she's out of the well, she insists that he promise to marry her, so that they are betrothed. Their only witnesses are the sky, the well, and a passing rat. Back home, he forgets his promise and marries someone else, while she turns down suitor after suitor until she finally pretends to go mad in order to make them go away. Then his first two children die, one bitten by a diseased rat, the other from falling down a well. He remembers the witnesses to his betrothal and confesses to his wife; she does not condemn him, but insists that they divorce peacefully so he can go and honor his promise to the young woman. So that's how it happens that he ends up keeping his word after all. The moral of the story was to keep your oaths because God is always your witness, but Ivan for the life of him couldn't figure out what she was getting at.

"I'm not betrothed to anyone else but Ruth," he said.

"You think I don't know that?" she said. "But there's something."

"Something what?"

"I dreamed about that story."

"This is about a dream?"

"You were the man and Ruth was the one he never should have married. Vanya, it won't work out. This is not the right girl for you."

"Mother, she is, you just have to trust me on this." Impulsively he bent down and kissed his mother's cheek. "I love you, Mother," he said.

When he stood straight again, he saw that tears dripped down her cheeks. He realized that it was the first time he had kissed his mother in years, the first time he told her he loved her since -- maybe since he was eight or nine. Or younger.

But she wasn't crying because of his kiss. "Do what you do," said Mother softly. "When the time comes, you must trust me."

"What time? What is this, a game of riddles?"

She shook her head, turned away from him, and left the room.

Of course he told Ruth all about the conversation. "Why shouldn't I know your Jewish name?" asked Ruth, shaking her head, laughing.

"It's not like it was my real name," said Ivan. "I never even heard it until we were about to emigrate. We aren't very good Jews, you know."

"Oh, I know," she said. "As I recall, at Denise's wedding you were reaching for a shrimp."

"So were you," he said. "But I'm the one that got it."

She raised an eyebrow. "I was reaching for you," she said. "So I got mine, too."

He laughed with her, but he didn't really like the joke. Their meeting was pure chance, or so he had always thought. But now she had raised another possibility, and he didn't care for it. Was I set up? If she manipulated that, what else might she have plotted?

No, no, that was complete nonsense, he told himself. It was Mother's weird objection, that's what made him suspicious. And besides, what if she had plotted to meet him? He should be insulted? Beautiful, intelligent girl maneuvers to meet awkward, penniless grad student -- how often did that happen? Oh, all the time -- in grad students' dreams.

Mother was so eager for him to get out of New York -- and away from Ruth -- that for the last week he had to keep asking her for clothes each morning because she had already packed everything. "I don't need to take all my clothes with me," he said. "I'm a student. Everyone will expect me to wear shirts for several days between washings." She shrugged and gave him a shirt -- but from her ironing, not from his luggage.

All of Ruth's family came to the airport at Rochester to see him off, and so did Father. But Mother wasn't there, and that made Ivan a little angry and a little sad. All these years, he had thought that Mother's amused smile was because she was secretly smarter than Ivan or Father. But now it turned out that she was superstitious, troubled by dreams and folktales. He felt cheated. He felt that Mother had been cheated, too, not to be educated better than that. Was that something she picked up from her Jewish grandparents? Or was it deeper than that? Not to see her son off on a trip that would take at least six months -- it wasn't right.

But he had other things to worry about. Being jovial with Ruth's mother and father, saying good-bye in restrained and manly fashion to his father, and then prying Ruth away as she clung to him, weeping, kissing him again and again. "I feel like I've died or something," he said. She only cried harder. That had been a stupid thing to say, as he was about to board a plane.

After all her mother's remonstrances and her father's patient instructions to let the boy go, it was Ivan's father who was finally able to lead her away so Ivan could get on the plane. He loved Ruth, yes, and his family, and her parents, too, but as he walked down the tube to the plane, he felt a burden sliding off his shoulders. His step had a jaunty bounce to it.

Why should he feel like that, suddenly lighter, suddenly free? If anything, this journey was a burden. Whatever he was able to accomplish in his research would be the foundation of his career, his whole future. When he came back, he would become a graduate and a husband, which meant that his childhood was truly over. But he would still be hanging fire until he became a professor and a father. That was when his adulthood would begin. The real burdens of life. That's what I'm beginning with this trip to Russia.

Only when he was belted into his seat and the plane pulled back from the gate did it occur to him why he felt so free. Coming to America, all the burden of his parents' hopes and dreams had been put onto his shoulders. Now he was heading back to Russia, where he had not had such burdens, or at least had not been aware of them. Russia might have been a place of repression for most people, but for him, as a child, it was a place of freedom, as America had never been.

Before we are citizens, he thought, we are children, and it is as children that we come to understand freedom and authority, liberty and duty. I have done my duty. I have bowed to authority. Mostly. And now, like Russia, I can set aside those burdens for a little while and see what happens.

Copyright © 1999 Orson Scott Card

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