This was madness. Rouble notes clenched in one hand, my brother’s thumb bone in a jar in the other.
“I need a boat,” I said, as matter of fact as I could manage.
The man had watched from the ticket window while I parked the car. I’d run through the rain, out of breath when I reached him, my hip killing me, my eyes filmy. Glancing back at the car, I saw the top of Mama’s head peeking over the lower rim of the misty rear window. Her fingers circled to rub a spyhole.
The man probably saw it all but made no comment. While the jetty creaked beneath me, he wrote my name in his book. The lake beyond looked uninviting.
“Where will you go? A rough destination is all I need.”
“Mologa? You do know…?”
“Yes…” I cut him off. Didn’t need all that again, not now. I knew all about Mologa.
He puffed his fringe upwards and moved his pencil to the next column.
“Purpose of trip?”
I sighed. How could I answer “Resurrection”?
When my brother Ilya and I were teenagers, more than twenty years before, our lonely mother often took us to watch the birds on Stalin’s new inland sea. From the city of Yaroslavl, a two hour drive away, we would travel to eat lunch beside the water, in the car if it was raining. Either way, always an apple core’s throw from the spreading mud of the shore, within a breath of its organic reek.
It was the only place Mama came alive, the only break she took from a life huddled beside the stove in a home she hated. Muttering her own personal mythology to herself through the long, quiet hours of the night.
At the waterside she was a different person, keen to tell us all about the birds. The reservoir edges were wild desolation, alive with the slime and slurp of the primal ooze. A few metres out, old wooden posts poked above the surface to make perches for gulls and cormorants. Mama would sit very still, sipping from a cup, nibbling on her bread, binoculars to hand. Her voice rose like a heron’s croak whenever she wanted to draw our attention to some distant speck wading in the shallows on the shoreline. Her face glowing pink in the cold wind from the lake’s northern edge, seventy miles away.
Each visit, there was a moment when she fell silent, staring out at the immensity of the water. It affronted her as much as it drew her, this assault upon nature’s perfection, the bending of the land to the purposes of the present, when all the time it belonged to the deep past. She’d furrow her brow and hawk up her guts to project a ball of phlegm on to the ground.
“Mother Volga. Look what they did to her.”
Papa had called it an improvement, but he was director of the Rybinsk hydropower project and dictated what progress looked like. I was born in the year the engineers came, the builders with their machines trailing the NKVD as they cleared the people from their farms and villages, the bones from the cemeteries. Our hometown, Mologa, was razed by dynamite and pick-axe. Forests were levelled, marshlands reclaimed, animals herded and dispossessed. I saw an elk ushered on to a raft, floating down the river as the reservoir filled, and soon the old Volga was gone, its inlets drowned, its islets swallowed. Its northernmost loop bloated into lapping waves as far as the eye could see, our home flooded into a memory.
Papa had set an example by moving us to a new state-built apartment. He said city life was better. We swung between home and school as he flitted between family man and absentee. I remember fragments from this time. Trips on the steamboats down the newly swollen waterways. His attempts at dancing to the music of the balalaika players in the square, his size eleven shoes gleaming in the sun. His laughter, long and loud, before the anger came. Before he left us and Mama forbade us to mention him again.
“There…redshank. D’you see, boys? The mud gives them life.”
“Yes, Mama. We see.” There it was, seen across the disturbance in the water where the mighty river entered the lake.
Ilya and I spoke as one. Mama had the lake and the birds, and she had us, such as we were. Her hope was this place would change us for the better. But we mocked her. Her looks, her smell, her love of the old religion, the even older ways. We compared her to the Baba Yaga, Russian folklore’s sorceress, Ilya spitting it in her face and making her scream.
We were savages, always worse by the water. Children of the reedy shore at the Volga’s edge, where solid land became sucking mortality at the wrong placing of a foot. We may have lived in a city now, but we’d formed beside this river and it flowed within us still. There in our edginess, in our windswept, home-trimmed hairstyles, our holed jumpers, our dirty boots. Surly, shocking kids, filled with a wild and ragged contentment as long as we were together. We’d scheme away, agreeing how we’d play our games with her, twisting her words and laughing them away behind her back. She wouldn’t change us and nothing the world could show us would dissolve our bond. Blood and mud were one.
“Common redshank,” I’d say.
“No, spotted redshank,” said Ilya.
“No, common.” I smiled at him and he grinned back.
Mama was confused and fell quiet, mouthing empty prayers to herself. Ilya and I smoked cigarettes in front of her and laughed through her discomfort, enjoying the strength of our togetherness. We looked beyond this watery world, to the orange-toed sun touching the far shore. It was imprinted with the outline of the chemical-factory towers.
The future, and the past, the sum total of our lives. Oh yes, we saw the waders drilling for worms and insects, the wild ducks calling over the salt marshes, the white-fronted geese chasing each other’s shadows. We saw the power and the beauty of the sea eagles swinging in their circles on high. We knew their names but never admitted it to her, even to each other, not until we returned there as adults and Ilya talked of little but Gagarin – because by then Ilya had been selected as a cosmonaut, had trained at Star City, and soon would go into space. For fame, honour and glory.
And death. Ilya died.
I have often wondered what was in his mind in his final minutes. I used to daydream a version of it in idle moments, based on what I knew, augmented by terrors I could only imagine.
How can those of us who have never left the Earth see the impossible? I chose to ride like a firebird beside him, my feathers filled with stardust and dreams. The blackness of space vanquished by the blue shining rim of Earth rising before my eyes. His tiny Soyuz capsule inching towards it, glowing pink at first, then a raging orange. Sparks turning to flame as it made its fiery descent through the atmosphere, to emerge above the Russian steppe, the Motherland awaiting its son. I heard his voice on the radio, unintelligible in the wild static, and a feeling grew in me that I could never keep up with him. I stopped, hovering, and I prayed for him as I’d not done in years, as his parachutes failed and there was nothing to slow his descent. He turned to a shrinking dot against the brown land below, then he was an impact, then he was a fire burning bright beside the Kama river.
Two weeks before his mission, we’d walked side by side again at the reservoir.
“I’m excited. Curious. Wanting to get on with it.”
His eyes were solid grey, unwavering. “Never that. The training teaches us to handle it. And Yuri says we’ll always meet again.”
I compared us as he spoke. He had unshakeable belief, mental and physical strength. Walking me hard, his endurance was plain to see. My breathing was hard around my cigarette, his at a minimum. I was his flipside. I’d done nothing all this time, just about holding a job as a drunken mechanic at the bus depot until my arthritis became a nagging constant, the pain in my hip a chastisement for a life of sloth. And this was just the physical. Our psychological differences these days ran like cracks in old china. I didn’t know if they’d always been there, but of the two of us it was he who had the drive to go to Moscow and I who had stayed here.
At the water’s edge he stopped, pointing out to the shore across the wide width of the Volga, a half mile away.
“Do you remember when we made it over there, looking for shellfish?”
“Gathering mussels in the ruins of Mologa. Yes, I do.”
“We found three. It was almost worth dying for.”
I laughed at that, remembering steering our boat back, Mama a speck of anguish on the shore and Ilya standing in the bow, arms stretched, hair flowing on the wind as he yelled obscenities at her he knew she’d never hear.
“What was the point, Ilya?”
“Because we could. For the adventure. And to mess her up a bit more.” He came to a halt, tapping at a stone with his boot. Softly he said, “How’s she been?” I was their only link.
“She’s become stranger than ever. Talks of the old times, more than she did. Religion crossed with magic and nature – all of this. Did you know she has chickens in the yard now?”
“Yes, her own birds to keep. She seems happier but there is only so much I can do. Will you see her while you’re here?”
He looked to the sky. “I have no option but to go. Perhaps when I am famous, then I’ll see her.”
On the way home he slipped, dipped a shoe off the path, the mud sucking at it in a bid to remove it. We laughed and I steadied him while he pulled his leg back. Broad smiles in the teeth of the wind, the first raindrops hitting our faces, everything an echo of the past – my brother and I.
When I told her months later, Mama said this was the moment his fate was decided. It was her who knew first, her screams coming down three flights of stairs as I made my back up laden with groceries. I got to her as fast as I could and eased the phone from her clammy hand as she sank into her chair.
The voice on the other end was dry but sensitive, the script prepared, the words selected to persuade as much as sympathise. They talked of Ilya as a newborn. A fresh, homegrown hero of the nation. His death at once a sadness and a glorious step on the road to the future.
That was how we were told to think about him. We only forgot it briefly when the jar was delivered, his thumb bone the only part left identifiable by the flames. Mama took it out and held it against the light, and whispered it would find a place in the church of her youth. We cried then, but in public we were solid citizens of the nation. Ilya’s new role was thrust upon the world through the televised state funeral, a much-repeated grainy procession through Red Square, with Mama and I playing our part, rabbit-eyed at the head. The flower-shrouded urn containing his ashes, cremated once in the accident and twice to make sure, was placed within a niche in the Kremlin Wall, and that was only the beginning. Ilya’s eternal life as a hero had begun.
So much for fame, honour, glory. It never felt that way to me. The future had failed Ilya, and it had failed me. When I’d replaced the receiver, as Mama sobbed herself to silence in ever-ebbing spirals, I’d gone out on the balcony and watched the traffic on the street below. I kept my eyes very still, my vision reduced to focus only on small details, trying to grasp sanity through extreme concentration. The shape of the rear lights on the cars. The faces of the drivers, fixed forwards on the road, tuned to the midday news on their radios. The pattern of the cracks on the empty asphalt in the black spaces between the cars.
“Purpose of trip?”
I sighed. How could I answer “Resurrection”? I barely believed it myself.
“My mother wishes to be near Mologa. Her hometown. You understand.”
“Many feel the same.”
Mama lodged herself in the bow, hunched against the misty rain. I sat at the tiller, the engine burbling beneath me as we headed out on to the reservoir. Between us on the empty seat sat the jar. Within it, Ilya’s blackened thumb bone, the clippings of his golden hair Mama kept from when he was a baby, and a healthy helping of Volga mud she had scooped from the shore. The whole concoction shaken like a cocktail.
I didn’t believe, I couldn’t. I just sat back and watched her mouth moving, and her hair blowing back flat on her wrinkled scalp.
“More to the right,” she called as we approached the far shore. I steered over and cut the engine so that we drifted in the shallows. She peered down into the water until she saw whatever she imagined was down there after all this time. I moved forward to sit beside her, catching the words of her prayer before she lowered her voice to hide it.
“…give rest to the souls of Thy departed servants in a place of brightness, a place of refreshment, a place of repose…”
For me, the old beliefs had got us nowhere, but she fumbled the lid off the jar, more words cascading from her as she shook the contents into the water. The prayer becoming a spell, a call to the ancient magic. We watched it sink to the sunken belfries of Mologa’s cathedral that lay broken somewhere beneath us, and the bubbles rose in response, silver beads of hope streaming to the surface. Mama droned on and I listened with indifference and growing despair.
The light changed slowly. The rain stopped and the sun emerged. A solitary gull called as it lifted over the water and passed beyond the trees. I looked over at Mama who watched it, smiling now. Still the same strange, troubled creature she always had been, but where once I’d have ridiculed her, now I felt an empty pity. For her, for myself – I could not tell.
Mark Left lives in Warwickshire, UK, and is a Senior Editor for @VirtualZine. He won first place in the Cambridge Short Story Prize 2018 and has been published in various places online. He is currently editing his first novel and can be found on Twitter as @ottobottle
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