"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
Ivan laughed giddily at the idea. "I'm going to be such a good father!" he
"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
She rolled her eyes. "I'm such a fool. Now you will, because I asked you
"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."
"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
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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