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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"Oh, is that all it is?" asked Esther.
"Of course there's the biological imperative toward reproduction," said
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
"I do my share of book clutching. Can't help it that my eyes are still
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
So he stood and waited for it to come to him.
Copyright © 1999 Orson Scott Card
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