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Enchantment


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Chapter Three
Chasm

In these heady days of revolutionary change, it was hard for Ivan to concentrate on his research. The manuscripts had been sitting for hundreds of years in the churches or museums, the transcripts and photocopies for decades in the libraries. They could wait, couldn't they? For there were cafes springing up everywhere, full of conversations, discussions, arguments about Ukrainian independence; about whether Russian nationals should be expelled, given full citizenship, or something in between; about the low quality of the foreign books that were glutting the market now that restrictions had eased; about what America would or would not do to help the new nation of Ukraine; whether prices should remain under strict control or be allowed to inflate until they stabilized at "natural" levels; and on and on.

In all these conversations Ivan was something of a celebrity -- an American who spoke Russian fluently and even understood the Ukrainian language, which was patriotically being forced into duty even in intellectual discussions that used to be solely the province of Russian. He had the money to pay for coffee, and often paid for stronger drinks as well. He didn't drink alcohol himself, however -- as an athlete, he had ostentatiously not acquired his father's vodka habit. But no one pushed it on him; he could drink or not drink as he pleased, especially when he was paying.

Not that these conversations were at a particularly high level. They were just neighborhood chats and gossip and rants and diatribes. But that was the point. At the university, he would still be his father's son; in the cafes, he was himself, listened to for his own sake.

Or was it for the sake of his money? Or his Americanness? Or just good manners? Did it even matter? After enough weeks of this, Ivan began to weary of the constant conversation. No one's opinions had changed, nothing important was being decided, and Ivan was sick of the sound of his own voice, pontificating as if being American or a graduate student gave him some special expertise.

He began to spend more time with the manuscripts, doing his research, laying the groundwork for his dissertation. It was a mad project, he soon realized -- trying to reconstruct the earliest versions of the fairy tales described in the Afanasyev collection in order to determine whether Propp's theory that all fairy tales in Russian were, structurally, a single fairy tale was (1) true or false and, if true, (2) rooted in some inborn psychologically true ur-tale or in some exceptionally powerful story inherent in Russian culture. The project was mad because it was too large and included too much, because it was unprovable even if he found an answer, and because there probably was no answer to be found. Why hadn't anyone on his dissertation committee told him that the subject was impossible to deal with? Probably because they didn't realize it themselves. Or because, if it could be done, they wanted to see the results.

And then, in the midst of his despair, he began to see connections and make reconstructions. Of course his reconstructions might be merely a projection of Propp's thesis onto the material, in which case he was proving nothing; but he knew -- he knew -- that his reconstructions were not nonsensical, and they did tend to coalesce toward the pure structure Propp had devised. He was onto something, and so the research became interesting for its own sake.

Bleary-eyed, he would rise from the table when the library or museum closed, stuff his notebooks and notecards into his briefcase, and walk home through the dark streets, the gathering cold. He would collapse into bed in his tiny room, sublet from a professor of Chinese who never intruded on his privacy. Then he'd rise in the morning, his eyes still aching from the concentration of the day before, and, pausing only for a hunk of bread and a cup of coffee, return to the museum to resume again. The harder he worked, the sooner he'd be done.

That was how the autumn passed, and the winter. Shortages of coal and oil made the bitter cold even harder to bear, but, like Bob Cratchit, Ivan simply bundled up and scribbled away regardless of the chill in every building in Kiev. He was so immersed in his work that sometimes he didn't even read his mail from home -- not from Mother, not from Father, not from Ruth. It would sit in a pile until finally, on a Sunday when the library opened later, he would realize how long he'd gone without contact from home and open all the letters in a binge of homesickness. Then he'd scribble hurried and unsatisfactory answers to all of them. What was there to say? His life was within walls, under artificial lights, with row on endless row of cyrillic characters in old-fashioned handwriting shimmering in front of his eyes. What could he possibly tell them? Ate bread today. And cheese. Drank too much coffee. A dull headache all day. It was cold. The manuscript was indecipherable or trivial or not as old as they claimed. The librarian was friendly, icy, flirtatious, incompetent. The work will never end, I wish I could see you, thank you for writing to me even when I'm so unfaithful about writing back.

And then one day it wasn't cold. Leaves were budding on the trees. Ukrainians in shirtsleeves flooded the streets of Kiev, taking the sun, carrying sprigs of purple lilacs with them in celebration of spring. How ironic. Just when the season was about to make life in Kiev worth living again, Ivan realized he had accomplished all that he needed to do in Russia. Everything else could be worked out on his own, without further reference to the manuscripts. Time to go home.

Funny, though. As soon as he thought of going home, it wasn't Tantalus he thought of, or the shores of Lake Olya, or his mother's face, or sweet Ruth's embrace.

Instead he thought of a farm in the foothills of the Carpathians, with wild forest just beyond the cultivated fields. The face he saw was cousin Marek's, and what his body yearned for was not the loving embrace of a woman, but rather to hold the tools of the farm and labor until sweat poured off him and he could fall into bed every night physically spent, and rise in the morning to face a day filled with a thousand kinds of life.

Even as memories of the place flooded back to him, Ivan realized that there was key information he had never known as a child. The name of the town where he would have to transfer from train to bus, and from bus to whatever ride he could get on the road to ... what village? He had no idea how to tell a driver his destination. He didn't even know Cousin Marek's last name.

Oh well. It was just a whim.

But it was a whim that wouldn't go away. After months of barely writing to them, it was absurd to call his parents over this unscheduled side trip. But he picked up the phone and talked and waited his way through the half hour it took to make the connection.

"You want to go back there?" asked Father. "What for?"

"To see the place again," said Ivan. "I have fond memories."

"This must be a new meaning of the word 'fond.' I still have backaches from that place. The calluses haven't healed yet."

"Mine have," said Ivan. "I wish they hadn't. Sometimes I think I was freer on that farm than ... well, no, I guess not. Anyway, I haven't spent that much on food or whatever, so I've got plenty of money left for a trip. Does Marek have a phone?"

"Not that I know the number anymore," said Father.

"Then ask Mother, you know she'll have it squirreled away somewhere."

"Oh, yes, I'll love that conversation. 'So, Vanya is all done with his research but he's not coming home, he's going to visit his cousin while his mother languishes. What should I expect from a son who doesn't write to his parents? We can't force him to love us --'"

Ivan laughed. "Mother's not a whiner, Dad."

"Not to you," said Father. "I get a solo performance. And Ruth, she'll be glad to hear that you can wait to see her -- because you have to say hello to some cows."

Ivan laughed again.

"You seem to think I'm joking."

"No, Father, I just think you and Mother are funny." Wrong thing to say. Father didn't like to think he was amusing. "Sometimes," Ivan added.

Unmollified, Father replied, "I'm glad to provide you with entertainment. Our ratings are low -- one viewer -- but the reviews of our performance are good enough maybe we'll be renewed for another season ..."

"Come on, Father, I want to pay a call on Cousin Marek. He took us in when we needed help, should I be this close and not make the effort?"

"Close?" said Father. "As close as New York is to Miami."

"You've got the scale wrong," said Ivan. "More like from Buffalo to Syracuse."

"Tell me that again after four hours on the bus."

"Call me back when you have the information?"

"No, Mother has it right here in the book." Father gave him all the information and they said good-bye.

They refused to sell him a ticket at the train station until right before departure -- inflation was too high to be able to lock in the price even the day before. Nor could they guarantee him that the bus would even be running. "Capitalism now," said the ticket agent. "They only run the bus if there are enough passengers to pay for the fuel."

That night, after half an hour of trying, he got through by telephone to Cousin Marek.

"Little Itzak?" Marek said.

"I use 'Ivan,' mostly." Ivan was a little surprised. Cousin Marek had always called him Vanya. Ivan didn't remember that Marek had even known his Jewish name. But that was a long time ago, and perhaps the old farmer had been amused at this family of Russian intellectuals who suddenly decided to be Jews and then took up residence on a farm.

"You eating kosher?" asked Marek.

"No, not really," said Ivan. "I mean, I avoid pork, lard, things like that."

"No lard!" cried Marek. "What do you put on your bread?"

"Cheese, I hope," laughed Ivan.

"All right, we'll go out and pluck a few from the cheese tree." Marek laughed at his own joke. "Come ahead, we're glad to have you. I'll find out when the bus is coming in and I'll be there to meet you. I'm afraid all the cows you knew are long since knackered."

"They didn't like me anyway."

"You weren't much of a milker."

"I'll be no better now, I'm afraid, but I'll do whatever you need. I ... pole vault rather well." It took him a moment to think of the Ukrainian word. Marek laughed.

That night, when Ivan was through packing, he was still too full of springtime to sleep. He went outside for a walk, but even that wasn't enough. He began to jog, to run, dodging through the streets as he used to do as a child. When he was a child he had never been allowed outside to run at this time of night, and it surprised him how many people were still out and about. But it might not have been like that, before. Had there been closing laws for drinking establishments? Or a curfew? He wouldn't have known, not at his age, or if he knew he forgot.

In school in America he had picked up the American idea of life in the Soviet Union, even though he had lived there and knew it wasn't all terror and poverty. But his memories of life in Kiev had faded, or retreated out of sight, anyway, to be replaced by the American version. And it was true, partly -- the high-rises were all hideously ugly slabs of concrete with only the most slapdash attempts at aesthetics, as if socialism required that beauty be expunged from public life.

But the older parts of the city still had grace to them. He headed for the Staryy Horod, the old part of the city, and stopped only when he reached the Golden Gate, built in 1037. He touched the stone and brick columns, which had once stood in ruins but now were restored to something like their original form. When the Golden Gate was first built, and the little church atop the arch was still sheathed in the gilded copper that gave the gate its name, it was the center of Kiev, and Kiev was the center of the largest, most powerful kingdom in Europe. He imagined what it must have looked like then, with the stink and noise of medieval commerce in these streets. The trumpets blaring, and Prince Vladimir the Baptizer or Yaroslav the Wise riding with their retainers through the cheering throngs.

Ivan had no romantic notions of chivalry, of course -- Russian legends, history, and folklore had never had an "Arthurian" period of anachronistic dreaming. The people lived in squalor and filth, by modern standards. The difference between the aristocracy and the lower classes was entirely expressed in the quality of clothing and the quantity of food. By his clothes a man was known; wealth was worn on a man's body, and on the bodies of his womenfolk. So the cheering throngs would be wearing plainer colors, the traditional weave of these grasslands, while the prince and his people would be wearing silks from the east, looking for all the world like oriental potentates -- even though the princes were Scandinavians from the north, not oriental at all. The wealth of Rus' -- ancient Russia -- was in trade, and the trade was in the fabrics and spices of the east.

So of course it would not be just the smell of dung and sweat and rotting fish and vegetables -- there would be whiffs of the heady aromas of cinnamon, pepper, cumin, basil, savory, paprika. Ivan breathed deeply and almost believed that he could sense some lingering traces of the ancient days.

And with those breaths he was ready to move on. He ran down the hill into the Podil district, the area where he had grown up. Some old churches and monasteries remained, but most of the buildings dated from the 1800s. Running along these ever-more-familiar streets felt like coming home, and soon enough he found himself in the street where he had lived as a child. What came to him then was not history, but memory, and not memories of oppression or want, but rather of happiness with his parents, with his friends. Here was the postbox, here the spot where old Yuri Denisovich sat to take the sun every bright afternoon, and here was the place where Mother always came to bring treats to Baba Tila, an old Armenian or Georgian woman, somewhere foreign and mountainous and exotic, anyway. Every day or so, a little treat to the old lady. Did she still live here?


Ivan slowed, stopped in front of the building. His first thought was that he had no idea which room belonged to the old lady, since they had never gone inside. Baba Tila was always at the stoop, wasn't she? No. She sat at the window right beside the stoop, so Mother climbed three steps and then handed the treat to Baba Tila through the window. Treats, Mother called them, but as often as not they were just leaves. For tea, Mother said, so that was a treat. But once it was dirt. Mother only looked at him with disgust when he laughed about it. "Baba Tila grows plants in her window box," she said.

"But it's just dirt. That's not much of a treat, is it?"

He couldn't remember how Mother answered. Perhaps she hadn't. Perhaps she simply closed the box, took his hand, and went out for the walk. How old was he then? Three? Five? It was hard to remember. The visits to Baba Tila stopped when he went to school. Or no, probably they didn't -- Mother simply went without him, while he was in school.

A man of perhaps forty came up the street, just a little ahead of himself in the night's drinking. He climbed the stoop, then paused at the door and looked back down at Ivan.

"You want somebody?" he said. "It's late."

"I used to know somebody who lived here," he said. "Baba Tila. An old lady. That apartment, right in front."

"Dead," said the man.

"You knew her?"

"No," he said. "But after she died nobody would rent the place. It was a pigsty, had a smell to it or something. It was empty when I moved in, but they didn't even show it to me. I asked, too. Ground floor front -- I could have used that. Stuck me three flights up in back."

"Doesn't matter," said Ivan. "Childhood memory, that's all."

"Just so you're not one of those damned burglars. Cause if I catch you breaking in I'll shatter your bones, I hope you know that."

"I'm an American student," said Ivan. "No burglar."

"American," scoffed the man. "And I'm Chinese." He went inside.

Ivan was flattered. He hadn't lost his native accent, not a bit of it, if a suspicious man refused to believe he was a foreigner. Cool.

Ivan walked away, began to break into a jog, and then turned and went back and looked up again at Baba Tila's window. He remembered that a couple of times when Mother brought him here, Baba Tila had not been home. Those times, Mother had left her gift on the window sill, and then had reached up and taken something -- he never saw what -- concealed in the stones on the near side of the window, just out of sight from the steps. Remembering this, he had to reach up and feel the place where things had been concealed, touch the stones his mother had touched. And yes, of course there was the faintest tinge of a hope, a thrill of possible discovery: What if there was something hidden there for Mother after all these years, that he could bring home to her?

Ridiculous; but he could not resist the impulse. He stood on the top step and leaned over. It was an easy-enough reach -- he was taller than his mother, after all, and she had not had to strain. His fingers skimmed along the surface of the stones that rose up the left edge of the window, then probed again into the cracks, into the gap between wooden window frame and stone wall.

And there was something. In a gap between, about where Mother's hands had always reached, he felt a corner of something. He stroked it with his finger, once, twice, each time drawing the corner of it a little farther out. The third time it emerged enough the he could grasp the corner, draw out the whole thing. A folded slip of paper. Damp, stained and weathered, mottled and rippled and warped by the reshaping of winters -- how many of them? All the winters since Baba Tila died? Or all the winters since Mother had stopped coming to see her? Was this paper a message to Mother? Or to some other visitor who took Mother's place?

He opened it. The writing was unreadable in the faint light available to him. It might not be readable at all. He refolded it and put it in his pocket, then jogged away, heading for his apartment.

There, under the bright light in the kitchen, he opened the note again, and found he could read it well enough, despite the streaking and staining of the paper. It was simple enough:

Deliver this message.

Simple, but recursive to the point of meaninglessness. Nothing else was written on the paper, so the instruction to deliver the message apparently was the message. But to whom was he to deliver it? And was he the intended message-bearer, anyway? Hardly likely. Maybe the paper had been attached to some other paper that had slipped farther back into the crevice. Or maybe itwas part of a large message which had been removed long ago, this little instructional note having been overlooked. But even as he thought of this, he knew it wasn't true. If there was another message with this one, containing the message itself and the name of the person to whom it should be delivered, why would this cover note be needed? When one addresses an envelope and puts a stamp on it, one hardly needs to then attach a note to the envelope saying, "Deliver this letter." One gives it to the postman and he does his job.

Who was the postman? What was the message? One thing was certain: Whoever was meant to be the messenger, whoever it was who might have made sense of this recursive note, had not picked up the message for many years. Indeed, all meaning was now utterly lost, and all that remained was this brief writing which might as well have been in Minoan Linear A for all the luck he would ever have in deciphering it.

But it was found in the place where Baba Tila left things for Mother, and Mother would want to have it. Ivan took the note and tucked it into his luggage, an inside pocket of the carry-on bag. Even if he forgot it, it would be there when he got home, he'd find it again as he was unpacking, and he'd take it to Mother. Maybe she'd explain to him then who Baba Tila was and why she brought her gifts. Maybe she'd tell him what this message meant. Though, more than likely, Mother would simply go enigmatic on him, give him one of her inscrutable smiles, and tell him that if he didn't already understand, he never would.

Women always said things like that, and it made him crazy. It's as if every conversation with a woman was a test, and men always failed it, because they always lacked the key to the code and so they never quite understood what the conversation was really about. If, just once, the man could understand, really comprehend the whole of the conversation, then the perfect union between male and female would be possible. But instead men and women continued to cohabit, even to love each other, without ever quite crossing over the chasm of misunderstanding between them.

And I'm marrying Ruthie?

Well, why not? She loved him. He loved her. In the absence of understanding, that was as good a reason as any for living together and making babies and raising them up and throwing them out of the house and then going through the long slow decline together until one of them died and left the other alone again, understanding as little as ever about what their spouses really wanted, who they really were.

Was that tragedy? Or was that comedy?

Was there really any difference?

*

The semester had just ended, and Ruthie was over for a visit. Esther Smetski had liked her son's fiancee from the start, but she hadn't enjoyed spending time with her ever since she realized that Vanya mustn't marry the girl. It wasn't Ruthie's fault, was it? Something Vanya had done. Something that happened to him that the boy himself didn't understand, but he was encumbered, he wasn't free to marry, and here was this girl with his ring, with a right to come to the Smetski house and cluck her tongue over what a bad correspondent Vanya was.

"My mother keeps saying 'he doesn't act like a young man in love' and I have to keep explaining to her that he's doing research, he's buried, he spends all day writing and reading and he hardly wants to do more of it when the libraries close." Ruthie's voice sounded almost amused by the whole thing, but by now she had delivered this speech often enough that it no longer seemed to conceal wounded feelings. She really didn't mind that much that Vanya didn't write.

Piotr nodded and smiled mechanically. Esther knew from years of experience that Piotr only barely tolerated small talk, and when the small talk had already been said many times before, it was all he could do to keep from getting up and stalking out of the room and doing something productive. But for Vanya's sake he smiled. He nodded.

"But he must write to you, Piotr," said Ruthie. "About his research." Piotr. What a name for a Jew. Of course he had his Jewish name, taken when he converted, but his academic reputation had been established under the name Piotr Smetski, and he wasn't about to make people switch to calling him Ruven Shlomo.

"No, not often," said Piotr. "I'll have plenty of time to hear about it when I look at drafts of his dissertation." He smiled wryly.

As they talked for a few minutes about the work Vanya would have to do when he came home, Esther tuned out their conversation and thought about Vanya, about how strange it was that this other woman, this girl-child, should speak of her son so possessively, should speak of his future as if it were her own future. When I held him in my arms, when I whispered his true name into his ear for only God and me to hear and understand, I did not do it just to hand him over, a scant two decades or so later, to this American girl, this doctor's daughter, this child of money, of imitation country clubs. There was majesty in the child, and only banality in this marriage.

Fool! she said to herself. Marriage is about banality. Its purpose is banality, to create an environment of surpassing safety and predictability for young children to grow up in, the foundation of life, the root of inner peace. What do I want for him, a troublesome, restless woman? A queen? She almost laughed at herself.

"Was that funny?" asked Ruthie, feigning perplexity.

"I'm sorry," said Esther. "My mind wandered for a moment, and I was thinking of something else. What are we talking about?"

"Whatever it is, it looks like what you were thinking was more entertaining," said Ruthie. "Tell us!"

"Yes, please," said Piotr, his irony only barely concealed; what he meant was, please save me from having to talk to this person. Was this girl so stupid she couldn't hear it? Piotr, you must not be snide in front of her. We'll be listening to her for many years, unless Vanya acquires a sudden rush of wisdom.

"It's hard for me sometimes," said Esther. "Listening to English. I have to work so hard."

"I wish my Russian were a little better," said Ruthie.

"You have no Russian," said Piotr, surprised. "Have you?"

"I can say 'palazhusta'."

"'Pozhalusta'," Piotr corrected her. "Please."

Ruthie laughed. "See? Even that I can't get right. I'm afraid our children won't be bilingual."

But at the mention of children, she got a faraway look and glanced toward the window.

Something wrong with talking about children. Esther felt an alarm going off inside her. Suddenly the girl doesn't want children. This is how God orders things. In all the old stories, when a man married a woman he had no right to marry, the marriage was barren. In the old days, the woman tried but couldn't conceive or bear a child. These days, though, the woman can decide to be barren. But it amounts to the same thing, doesn't it? Vanya must not marry this girl. If only he would listen to his mother.

"The way children talk these days," said Piotr, "you'll be lucky if they're lingual at all."

Esther leaned forward a little in her chair. Ruthie at once focused on her. She might not realize it consciously, but the girl knew she had let something slip, and she knew Esther had picked up on it. That was the way communication was among women, most of the time; few women realized it, but they all depended on it. "Women's intuition" wasn't intuition at all, it was heightened observation, unconscious registration of subtle clues. Ruthie knew that her mother-in-law didn't want the marriage, and knew that somehow she had just given fuel to that cause; Ruthie knew this, but didn't realize that she knew it. She simply felt uncomfortable, on edge, and she noticed more when she was conversing with her future mother-in-law. Esther didn't need to be told any of this. She knew, because she had trained herself to know these things. It was a school at least as rigorous as any university, but there was no diploma, no extra title to add to her name. She simply knew things, and, unlike most women, knew exactly why and how she knew.

"Ruthie, you know you aren't planning on having a lot of children," said Esther. At once she softened the remark with a more general observation. "American girls don't want so many children these days."

"You only had the one," said Ruthie, still smiling, but definitely on the defensive, with a remark like that.

Esther let her own ancient sorrow rise to the surface a little; her eyes watered. "Not for lack of desire," she said. The emotion was real enough; choosing to show it at this moment, however, was entirely artificial. And it worked.

"Of course you wanted to fulfil your traditional role as a Jewish wife and mother," said Ruthie. "That's the religion of scarcity. You feel the obligation to produce sons to become rabbis and daughters to give birth to more sons in the next generation."

"Oh, is that all it is?" asked Esther.

"Of course there's the biological imperative toward reproduction," said Ruthie.

"Such big words," murmured Esther. Piotr wasn't entirely unobservant. He caught the irony in Esther's voice and grew more alert to what Ruthie was saying.

"But in the feminine Judaism, in the loving Bible, you have only as many children as you need. Like Eve, with only two sons, and bearing a third only when one of the first two died. She was free, not cursed at all -- the curse was from the other Bible."

"Other Bible?" asked Piotr.

"Two Bibles, conflated, one hidden inside the other," said Ruthie. "The Bible of scarcity is the book with the curses in it. Adam earns his living by the sweat of his face; Eve bears children in sorrow and is ruled over by her husband. A zero-sum game where it's all right to drive the original inhabitants out of Canaan and keep their land, where if a man can't pronounce the word shibboleth it's all right to kill him because he's an outsider. That's the Bible of killing and hatred and a jealous God who wants all idol-worshipers killed -- struck by lightning at Elijah's bidding or slaughtered by the swords of the Levites when Moses gave the command."

"You're quite the scholar," said Piotr.

"Not me," said Ruthie. "But my class in Feminist Judaism this semester really opened my eyes."

"Ah," said Piotr.

"A woman's value doesn't come from child-bearing and obedience. It comes from her boldly making decisions -- like Eve's decision to eat the fruit and know something. It was Adam who followed her; she was the rebel, he was the follower. And yet what is it called, 'the Fall of Adam'!"

"That's what the Christians call it, anyway," said Piotr. His bemusement was growing.

"It's the Bible of scarcity that makes Jews think they have the right to displace the Palestinians. In the feminine Bible, the lamb lies down with the lion."

"Lions are always glad when lambs act like that," said Piotr. "Saves all that energy wasted in hunting and chasing."

"Now you're teasing me," said Ruthie, reverting from feminist lecturer to sweet little thing when the latter seemed like the best way to win. And sure enough, Piotr at once began to backpedal.

"Of course, I know you didn't mean it that way, I was joking," he said.

"You must think I'm some kind of radical or apostate or something," said Ruthie.

No, thought Esther. I just think you're a girl who has seized upon the philosophy that will allow you not to bear children to my son, whom you're not supposed to marry.

"Of course not," said Piotr.

"But Esther does," said Ruthie.

There it was, the gauntlet thrown down.

"I'm sure it was an interesting class," said Esther. "But you know how hard it is for me to follow English."

Ruthie got the faintest smirk on her face. "Ivan says you understand English fine except when you don't want to."

So the boy was more observant than she had thought. "Is that what Vanya says?" Esther answered, letting herself sound a little hurt. "Maybe he's right. When I'm upset, it's harder to concentrate on listening to English."

"So I did say something to upset you," said Esther.

"I'm upset that my boy should be so heartless as to postpone coming home to his fiancee. It must be breaking your poor heart. Not having your young man, now that's scarcity, nu?"

The conversation returned to safer ground, and after a few more minutes Ruthie left, heading home to see her parents. "You mean you came here first, before you saw your own mother?" asked Esther. "You're so sweet."

"She was hoping for word from our son the non-writer of letters," said Piotr.

With a laugh and kisses all around, Ruthie left.

"'Nu?'" asked Piotr as soon as Ruthie was gone. "Are you suddenly taking up Yiddish?"

"I hear it from women in the synagogue, I pick it up," said Esther.

Piotr switched to Russian. "And here I believed you when you told me your family had been Jews living in Russia even before the Goths came through, long before Yiddish was invented in Germany."

"You never believed that," said Esther mildly. "You read it in a history somewhere that Russian Jews all migrated in from Germany and so you know my family tradition can't be true."

"Why not?" he said. "Does it matter? What it means is that you keep your own set of rules. Jews so ancient that they don't think the Talmud deserves all the authority it gets. Jews who can make a sandwich of beef and cheese."

"But not ham and cheese," she said, smiling.

"That Ruthie," said Piotr. "Do you think she really believes that feminist nonsense about the nice feminine Bible hidden inside the nasty masculine Bible?"

"She does for now," said Esther. "But like most college feminists, she's not going to let the theory stop her from marrying."

"And you're an expert on this?"

"I hear the women at synagogue talking about their daughters." She imitated them in English. "'Oy! The younger generation always knows more than the older! Two thousand years Jewish women have more rights than Christian women ever had, but suddenly we're oppressed, and it takes my daughter to tell me?'"

Piotr laughed at her take on the matrons of the synagogue. "You know what I was thinking? She got so excited when she was spouting this ahistorical countertextual nonsense, and I caught myself thinking, 'What an idiot her teacher must be,' and thinking about her teacher made me realize -- the kind of excitement she was showing as she mindlessly spouted back the nonsense she learned in college, that's just like the excitement some of my own students show. And it occurred to me that what we professors think of as a 'brilliant student' is nothing but a student who is enthusiastically converted to whatever idiotic ideas we've been teaching them."

"Self-knowledge is a painful thing," said Esther. "To learn that your best students are parrots after all."

"Ah, but students who fill their heads with my ideas and spew them back on command, they are at least saying intelligent things, even if they all come from me."

"Especially if they all come from you."

"It's my mission in life." He kissed her. "Filling empty heads."

"And mine is filling empty stomachs," she said. "Now that she's gone, we can have supper. I only had two pork chops, I couldn't have shared with her."

He looked her sharply for a moment, then realized she was joking. "Really, what's for dinner."

"Soup," she said. "Can't you smell it?"

"The house always smells like good food," said Piotr. "It's the perfume of love."

Over supper, they talked of many things and, sometimes, talked not at all, enjoying the comfortable silence that comes from long friendship, from shared life. Only when she was rising from the table to carry dishes to the sink did Esther broach the subject that was most on her mind.

"Do you think there's any chance that Vanya's lack of letters to Ruthie means that he doesn't want to marry her after all?"

"No," said Piotr. "I think he isn't thinking about her. He's thinking about his work."

"And when you're working, you don't love me?" asked Esther.

"We're married," he said, "and you're here."

"And if you were in Russia like Vanya, you wouldn't write to me either?"

He thought for just a moment. "I wouldn't go without you," he finally said.

"Very carefully chosen words," she said.

"I wouldn't be without you," he repeated. "Without you, I wouldn't be."

She kissed him and then washed the dishes as he returned to reading and grading student papers.

*

Cousin Marek was as good as his word, sitting there in one of the village trucks waiting for him. "Everyone's glad you're back," he said. "All grown." Marek laughed. "A Jewish scholar is supposed to have glasses and clutch a book."

"I do my share of book clutching. Can't help it that my eyes are still good."

"I was teasing you. Because you have shoulders. Seeing you as a boy, who would have guessed?"

The pole vault, the discus, the javelin, putting the shot, that's what had given him shoulders like a blacksmith. Sprints and hurdles, those were the cause of his thighs. Mile after mile of endurance running, that was what kept him lithe and lean. And all of this would sound foolish, Ivan knew, to a man whose massive muscles all came from the labor of farming. Ivan's body had been shaped by competition and meditation, Marek's by making the earth produce something for other people to eat. It didn't feel right to Ivan, to talk much about athletics. So he turned the subject back onto Marek himself. "You must still be carrying that calf up the stairs."

Marek looked puzzled.

"American joke," said Ivan. "A tall tale. The story is, a farmer carried a calf up the stairs every day. His wife asked him why, he says, 'I want to be strong enough to carry him when he's a bull.'"

Marek thought for a moment. "Bull won't let you carry him up the stairs, even if he'd fit."

"That's why it's a joke."

Marek burst out laughing and punched Ivan heavily on the arm. "You think I don't get this joke? Only it's a Ukrainian joke, Ukrainians must have carried this joke to America!"

Ivan laughed and tried not to rub his arm. He might have muscles, but it wasn't as if he'd ever boxed or wrestled or anything. He wasn't used to getting punched. He wondered if Cousin Marek had punched Father a lot when he lived here. That would explain why Father wanted never to come back.

It was after dark when they got to the farm. The place seemed strange, until Marek explained the differences. "New henhouses over there," he said. "There's more of a market for eggs now, so we grow them, ship them straight to Lviv in refrigerator cars. Capitalism! And everything looks so bright because we have enough electricity that you can turn on the lights in every room in the house at once."

"But you never actually do that," said Ivan.

"No, no, of course not," said Marek. "There are two of us, so there should never be more than two lights on at once, and only one when we're in the same room. Now you're here, sometimes three lights!" He laughed again.

Marek's wife, Sophia, had incredible quantities of food waiting for Ivan -- crepes filled with cottage cheese and topped with sour cream, meat-filled cabbage rolls, broth with beads of fat floating on the surface, dumplings filled with fruit, mushrooms stewed in sour cream. He knew enough to plunge in and eat until he felt sick. There was nothing else he could do, unless he wanted to offend them his first night. "I never eat this much at home," he explained. "You can't fix so much food for me in the future, I'll get sick."

"Look at you, all skin and bones, complaining about too much food," said Sophia. She pinched at his arm, expecting apparently to find him it as slender as when he was a boy. Instead, she found herself having to use two hands to span his upper arms. Marek roared with laughter. "Not so skinny," said Marek.

"Hitch up the old oxplow," said Sophia. "As long as he's here to pull, we don't need to use the tractor."

They had prepared the same bed he had slept in as a boy, but everyone had to laugh when they realized that it was like trying to play a piano sonata on an accordion. He wasn't going to fit. So he ended up sleeping in the bed his parents had shared.

He didn't sleep well, however. The bed was softer than what he was used to, and it was a strange place; or maybe it's because it wasn't a strange place, but rather a familiar one from a time of great stress in his childhood, but whatever the cause, he kept waking up. Finally, just at dawn, he woke up needing to pee so badly that he couldn't lie in bed any longer. Tired as he still was, sore from tossing and turning, he had to wince his way out of bed and into some clothes. Here in the foothills, spring wasn't so far advanced, and it would be cold, heading for the outhouse.

Once he was outside, though, hugging himself against the cold and peering through a cloud of his own breath in the faint dawn light, he realized that the outhouse wasn't where he remembered. The henhouses were there now. He began to circle the house, looking for a well-worn path that would show where the outhouse was now. He made a complete circuit of the house, and then, thinking he must have overlooked the building in his weariness and the dim light, he began another circuit. It was only Cousin Marek on the porch, laughing at him, that made him realize his mistake.

"You never heard of indoor toilets, boy?" asked Marek. "Where did you pee last night?"

"I peed at the station," Ivan answered. "I ate and just fell into bed and slept when I got here."

Marek pointed out the add-on structure on the gable end of the house. "One bathroom upstairs, one downstairs, just like America," he said. "Cost me a whole year's profit plus half a beef each to the plumber and the electrician, but Sophia says it's worth it, not having to trudge outside all winter long."

"Lead me to it," said Ivan, "before I explode."

Breakfast threatened to be as heavy as dinner, from the sounds Sophia was making in the kitchen. Ivan couldn't keep eating at that pace. So before he went out for his morning run, he stopped in the kitchen and gave Sophia a hug and greeted her and then said, "I'll only stay until I've eaten enough food to equal twice my body weight. At the rate you're cooking, that means I'll be heading out sometime tomorrow afternoon."

She laughed as if it were a joke.

"Sophia, I beg you." He got down on his knees. "I'm an athlete, I run, I can't eat so much."

"Eat what you want, nobody's putting a gun to your head," she said.

"I'm afraid of seeing your frown, if I take small helpings. I'm afraid of hurting the feelings of the greatest cook in all Ukraine."

"What do I care about her?" she demanded. "You won't hurt my feelings, because I take no pride in my cooking, I know it's plain food, you must have much better food in America."

Ivan laughed and kissed her, but he knew he was doomed. If he didn't want to spend his whole visit hearing how much better American food must be compared to the miserable Ukrainian fare that she did such a bad job of cooking, he would eat copious helpings of everything.

So he'd better get in a good long run today, and plenty of work. Though what work there might be for him he couldn't guess -- the farm must be fully mechanized by now, and Ivan had never driven a tractor in his life. He wouldn't know how to begin plowing or planting.

He jogged to the road, stretched against the stiffness of his joints and the cold of the morning, then took off at an easy loping pace that he knew he could keep up half the day, or longer. To survive Sophia's copious meals, he would have to have a good long run every day. Maybe two.

The roads had been improved a little, too. Not much, for these last few years hadn't been easy in the Soviet Union. Not a lot of money for capital expenditures or infrastructure maintenance. Yet the roads were smoothly graded. Maybe the locals got together and did it themselves, not waiting for government to come in with money. That's how government began, wasn't it? Collective labor. And then somebody got lazy and hired a substitute, and pretty soon it was all taxes instead of the sweat of your back. But it began here, on roads like these, villagers with axes cutting down trees, with picks and spades and prybars pulling out stumps, with sledges and scrapers leveling the road. That's work even I could do, thought Ivan. But it's already done.

Then, abruptly, he realized where he was. North through those trees, and then bearing a little to the northwest, he'd find the trees growing tall and massive, with a canopy so thick that no underbrush grew. And then a clearing in the middle, a circular chasm filled with leaves, and something moving within the leaves.

He couldn't understand his own fear, but there it was. He half expected to see some huge creature, the guardian of the chasm, leap out of the woods and slap his head right off his shoulders, as if it had been waiting for him all these years to punish his intrusion. Irrational, he told himself. Pure foolishness. It never happened anyway, it was a dream born of my fears and anger in that time. No chasm, not even a clearing, and certainly no creature swimming in a lake of leaves, an airshark circling and circling, rustling the detritus of ancient trees as it kept watch for the next curious trespasser to topple down within reach.

Ivan shook his head and laughed at himself, his voice too loud in the suddenly bright light of sunrise, sounding a little forced. Whistling past a graveyard, wasn't that the saying? He ran on, staying with the road, another mile or two, pretending that he wasn't thinking any more about that childish nightmare, pretending that he wasn't remembering the face of a woman becoming visible, a woman lying on a bed in a pedestal surrounded by dangers.

Since Ivan was currently leaning toward the idea that fairy tales converged because they satisfied innate psychological hungers, he couldn't help but wonder what fairy tale he had constructed for himself, with this dream. What kind of inner hungers had stirred him as a child, to make him invent a place like that, a woman so beautiful, a danger so ineffable and dreamlike? Was he the hero, torn from his home, and so now he needed some goal for his quest? Or some monster hiding in the leafy deep to do battle with? All of it designed to give meaning to the meaninglessness of his parents' decision to uproot him, not just from his home, but from his name, his identity, his native language, his friends. Or maybe it was just a way of making concrete the nameless dread that all those changes caused in him. In that case it had served its purpose, this dream. All his fears could be placed under the leaves in that forest, and then be left behind when he boarded the airplane and left Russia behind him. Safe at last, the monster forever trapped under a distant bed.

Now that he was a happy, well-adjusted adult, he should have no more need for such a tale. Yet he could not stop thinking about the woman, the chasm, the guardian that stirred the leaves as it passed. So there was something else going on here, some hunger that was still unsatisfied. Ah, yes. It wasn't just the monster that made the dream haunt him. It was the woman on the island. He had been just the age for such inexplicable dreams when he first thought up this personal myth -- the hormones of puberty were flowing, but no physical changes had yet begun, so he had all kinds of desires but no idea yet what the object of those desires might be. A chaste princess on an island in the forest! Dry leaves instead of water in the moat. The princess on a pedestal, covered by dead plants, which swirl away from his feet as soon as he tries to cross the meadow-chasm to save her.

Now, as an adult, he could laugh at his own fantasies, pretended to be amused at his younger self. But he was not good at fooling himself, not deliberately, anyway. He was still afraid. More afraid than ever. Coming back down the road he had to pass the same place, and tired as he was, he sprinted past it. Let nothing leap from the woods, except to find me already running as fast as the wind to get away from it.

Soon enough, he was home, sweating and hungry, to join Marek at the breakfast table. Only Marek wasn't there.

"Still milking?" asked Ivan.

"Oh, no, he's plowing," Sophia explained. "He takes bread and cheese and sausage with him. Can't waste a moment getting the ground ready for planting, once the soil thaws in the spring."

Ivan looked at the table, covered with bread, fritters, a bowl of kasha, open-faced sandwiches, canned peas. "So you and I have to eat this huge breakfast between us?"

She laughed again. "Oh, I don't even eat breakfast anymore, just tea and a nibble of bread."

"This is for me?"

"Only as much as you want. I know you eat so much better every day, fine hamburgers and milkshakes, but --"

"Don't talk about that vile American food when I have this to eat!" Faking gusto, he sat down and began to wolf it down. No doubt about it, he was going to have to get Marek to take him to the fields tomorrow. He might not be any good at plowing, but he couldn't take another breakfast like this.

After breakfast, Ivan tried to help with the housework, but was met with stubborn refusal. Sophia was not going to have a man doing women's work in her house. It was against nature. So, using his nonexistent woodman's skills, Ivan went out to the tractor shed and followed the trail of the heavy equipment until he found the field that Cousin Marek was plowing that day. Sure enough, there was the tractor, in the middle of a half-plowed field, and yonder was Marek in the shade of a tree, eating bread and cheese and sausage. Marek saw him and waved to him, called to him.

Ivan utterly refused the offer of food. "I just ate enough breakfast to feed Napoleon's army. If he'd run across your wife, Cousin Marek, he would have taken Moscow and history would have changed utterly."

Marek laughed. "You think Sophia cooks too much food? Wrong, my young friend. She cooks exactly the amount of food needed by a man who works himself to the point of exhaustion every day. The problem is not to get her to cook less. The problem is to work hard enough that her meals are exactly right for you!"

"There isn't that much work in all the world."

"You say that because you read so many books, so you think that thinking is work."

"I notice you didn't eat breakfast this morning."

"Because I was going to sit on a tractor and drive it around all day."

"So give me some job to do that will use up this food that sits like a lump in my belly!"

Which is why Ivan found himself repiling all the hay in the barn, miserably hot work with periodic stops for sneezing fits. At the end of the job, he was dripping with sweat and too filthy and itchy to stand it for another moment. Yet when he got to the back door of the house, Sophia wouldn't let him in. "You think I want all that hay in my house?" she said, looking him over. "Get those clothes off and leave them in the laundry shed. I'll run a bath for you. I remember you always came home filthy as a child, too. Sweating like a pig. And stinking like a goat!" But she said it all so cheerfully that Ivan could only smile his agreement and obey.

Just as Marek had predicted, the day's work really had earned out the breakfast Ivan had eaten. He wasn't terribly hungry at dinnertime, but at least he didn't still feel bloated from breakfast. And when he kept dozing off during the meal, he realized that he had finally earned the right to refuse to eat without giving offense. "You poor thing," said Sophia. "Get to bed before you fall asleep in your cabbage rolls."

He woke again at dawn, just like the day before, and even stiffer in his joints and muscles. His back ached from his labor with the hayfork. His hands were sore despite the work gloves he had worn. His first impulse was to roll over and go back to sleep. But he knew that would lead nowhere. He had to get up and work the stiffness out of his body.

He thought of running another way, down toward the village, perhaps, instead of toward the forest. But in the village he would have to talk to people -- it wasn't Kiev, where strangers let strangers pass without a conversation. And at this hour of the day, he preferred solitude. Besides, was he going to let his own private myth keep him away from the most beautiful part of this countryside?

So he ran to the place where the path led into the woods, and passed it by without a second look. And when he came back, he didn't especially hurry, either. The place had lost its power over him.

Yeah, right. That night, despite an exhausting day spent at the filthy job of cleaning out chicken coops, he kept waking up from one long dream. The same dream as before. And when he woke up in the morning, he knew something that he hadn't understood before.

When Mother told him he mustn't marry Ruth because of her dream, he had thought it was just foolishness on her part. But now he wondered. She knew him better than anyone, didn't she? Maybe she knew something she couldn't put it into words, something she didn't really understand. Maybe she understood what it was in his life that made this imaginary place so important to him. The Jewish folktale she had dreamed of was about encumbrances that made a marriage impossible. Well, couldn't Mother have understood, at some deep level, that Ivan was somehow encumbered in a way that kept him from being free to truly give himself in marriage? That's why she dreamed the dream she did, and why he dreamed his own dream of this woman who was definitely not Ruth, this woman who was unattainable, protected by a monster in a moat. Maybe he had to overcome this fear before it was right for him to marry Ruth. Maybe that was why he had conceived this impulsive desire to come back to Cousin Marek's farm. Precisely because he could not go home and become Ruth's husband as long as that monster still prowled in the chasm around the unattainable sleeping woman.

But if this was all psychological, how was he going to resolve it?

Maybe the first step was simply to go to the place and satisfy himself that it didn't exist. Oh, there might be a meadow, but it wouldn't be perfectly round, there wouldn't be a woman in the middle, and the leaves would lie on ordinary ground, and not a chasm at all. Maybe he had to see that his memory was false in order to begin the process of mending this tear in his psyche.

So on this morning, he headed straight for the path in the woods, and instead of hesitating, he boldly, fearlessly jogged into the forest and made his way among the trees.

The path was not clearly marked, and his memory of the whole journey through the woods wasn't all that clear. If the place didn't really exist at all, not even a meadow, then how would he know that he had found where it wasn't in order to prove to his unconscious mind that the monster wasn't real, that the imprisoned woman did not exist and therefore did not depend on him for rescue.

He needn't have worried. Though the run was long, he recognized the way the underbrush cleared and knew he was getting closer. The climax forest with its massive trunks and lack of underbrush, that turned out to be real, so that running here was like taking a jog through an endless Parthenon, column after massive column rising out of sight to some pale-green vault of unimaginable hugeness. He was getting closer, closer ...

And then he was there. The clearing in the forest. Perfectly round, covered with leaves. Exactly as he had seen it for all these years in his dreams and memories.

Real.

But of course it was real. The meadow was real. But there was no woman in the middle, just a slight rise in the ground. And no chasm, either, for when he stepped closer the leaves did not swirl away from his feet and reveal a --

The leaves swirled away from his feet. He stood on the lip of a chasm, just like the one he had remembered so well. Not imaginary at all.

And there on the far side, movement under the leaves, churning it up like a gopher eating its way under the lawn, only faster, faster, heading right for him.

When he came here before, that movement had made him run away in blind panic. But he was older now, more confident of his own abilities. If he outran this thing as a child, then he could certainly outrun it now. And maybe there was no need to run. Maybe it was trapped in the chasm and could not get out.

So he stood and waited for it to come to him.

Copyright © 1999 Orson Scott Card

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