THEY MET IN A CITY NO ONE KNEW. The sun bled through the trees on dusty cobbles and outdated cars, as it had bled on haywagons and mounted kozaks before them, and on three brothers and their sister, who had come to these seven hills in a past so dim it might have just been mist off the deep river that roared past the forgotten city. The broad and bumpy streets were flanked by powder blue and white, goldenrod and white, dusty pink and white plastered buildings in a style that was clearly European, yet nowhere to be found in the Europe that everyone knew. She kept thinking of southern France as she stared at the pleasant square façades, expecting to glimpse the Mediterranean at any turn. He kept reading the red and gold plaques that marked almost every building, looking for places where his father had been during the war, reconstructing the pain of a past that wasn’t his. For her this city held no familiar past, yet every day she spent in it bound her to it in a way deeper than pain.
At the top of one hill, a hero of ambiguous repute galloped on his horse, surrounded by dormant flowerbeds and huge spotlights. Beyond him rose the golden domes of a church a hundred years older than Notre Dame. They wandered up to this plaza one late evening, drawn by the blue and white bell tower, despite a bone-dampening chill that regularly shrouded the city ever since the central government, drunk with the power of technology, had dammed an enchanted river to the north and turned the mighty torrent, the one that poets had risked exile and death to write about, into a silent monument: an inland sea.
Neither of them knew this. They only wanted to stand in the darkness and watch the cluster of golden bulbs, crosses and blazing stars. The bell tower looked like it had just been washed by a crew of careful housekeepers, a frothy confection three stories high, lit from in and out. He told her his wife had just left him. She told him she was happily married and took his hand. The city sat still around them.
They came upon the locked gates to the inner yard of the moonlit cathedral and stopped to peer in. It’s a sixteenth century padlock, he pointed out, very easy to pick. She in turn pointed out, We could as easily climb over. They strolled on in pleasant silence, thinking about the midnight walk they might have had.
She could see the blue and white tower from the windows of the office where she now worked, at the top of another hill, in a building that had once housed the ministries, then the secret police, and later the party headquarters, and still later the democratic government which, by presidential decree, was about to oust her commission yet another time. The onion domes of the ancient cathedral glowed like five suns, even on the foggiest day above the flat roofs of creamy salmon and sand-colored buildings with arched windows and rickety scrollwork balconies.
For her, the city had some of the qualities of an uneasy dream that threatened to turn nightmare: a familiar feeling that could not be corroborated by what she actually saw. The musty smell of smoking reeked from darkened doorways along one abandoned block, decay and the unknown. The same musty taste came in the plum filling of a delicate, creamy cake.
For him, the city was an unfulfilled romance, a yearning that made him want to go back home. For her, it was the possibility of home at last.
In a cobbled plaza further down, past gutted and hopeful façades with heavy-breasted caryatids holding up stone arches on bent backs and wooden walkways hiding the rotted foundations like so many grey petticoats, sat the scaled-down opera and ballet theatre, yellow as fresh butter and flanked by two-toned residences in teal, green and pale sky blue. Above the portcullis, the dictator had been replaced by the martyred poet, but over the main stage a curtain of hammers and sickles blazed, hand-woven in gold at the rate of 80 cm a year by a bevy of unknown women.
One night after an opera, the director invited all the foreigners to a creamy, mirrored and chandeliered room where they gathered around a scratched grand piano laden with dark bread, glistening cold cuts, pastries, and mandarin oranges, on posters that played tablecloth. A forest of bottles grew empty while the pianist thundered out the bittersweet melodies that threaded their childhoods and haunted their teenage years. The mezzo with the purple hair caused the mirrors to shimmer, the coloratura made the chandelier dance. Drunk on cognac, vodka, and a keg of nostalgia, they joined voices, much as they had all been doing for more than one millennium. His was a sweet if rusty tenor, hers an untrained low alto. None of these songs had ever been in a folk sampler or made the hit parade yet here, in this city, every heart knew them.
Oh you girl, with your blackthorn heart,
your lips a silent prayer,
your word that cuts me like a scythe…
Among them was the man whose voice for years sang that song to her on a scratchy old record. A graying Don Juan of 65 or so, belly strangled in a pair of belted blue jeans, wild silver hair pretended to more poetry than his arch looks and suave ruthlessness could possibly contain. She listened to the long line of divas who had lined his bed and the equally long line of male stars who had lined his coffers, but it didn’t seem to matter. It was the song that made her want to cry, its voice spilling all the despair of the poet bitter in a wretched marriage, and the desire of the forty year-old composer for their pianist’s seventeen year-old mother. This bittersweetness, this excess of passion, was what had carried her heart to this unknown city.
He told her he wanted to walk the city all night–all that yearning made him too restless. His father’s pain was easier to bear than his own. My father came here, he said pointing to a silent building with red and gold plaques, he came with the army from his lush village in the rural west, just as the first seedlings were battling the retreating frosts. The great patriotic war against the fascists had begun. His father was nineteen.
A bitter wind began to blow as they wandered down the cobbled side street to a broad boulevard that was now named after the martyred poet but still ended, at the foot of a 3-mile swath of naked poplars flanking a mall with sparsely-placed wrought iron and wood benches, at the base of a statue of the victorious revolutionary dictator, eyes still blindly full of visions of a glorious future the country had never shared. Despite the chill, she could see old men playing chess here in the summer sun, or arguing in clusters over the merits of this or that nationalistic party, based on loyalties whose roots were hard to fathom after three generations of silence, and children chasing dogs between their parents’ legs. He was thinking of the beardless boy in itchy woolen gear and stiff shiny boots tramping past the mall, wondering whether the fascists would come that day or the next, whether the nationalists would rise to their side or against them. In the end both sides had their great national heroes, and each side called the other traitor. After the war, the heads of red heroes sprang up like so many iron weeds throughout the land, on pedestals, on walls, on rooftops and in ransacked altarpieces, in churches turned museums and halls of the people, over the watering holes of crippled veterans and the playpens of toddling children. The others disappeared, into files labeled ‘fascist enemy of the people,’ into unmarked graves, into cattlecars with no known destination that vanished in the night and reappeared days or weeks later in the desolate gulag.
My father once stayed here, he said, peering at the dim golden lettering of yet another plaque. He showed me this building… at least I think it is this one, it’s next to a clinic. They walked up to a rotunda, enormous bare windows covered with sheets of unpainted wood to the midpoint some two and a half meters above the street-level, shabby walls a painful shade of blue, filled with fluorescent light and the mechanical arms of machinery that could not be seen from the outside. Cavernous. Imagine undergoing surgery in such a place, he said. The plaque on the next darkened entry explained: ‘Lying-In Hospital’. Who was being born at this time of night, in this chilly fortress of blue? she wondered, shivering.
The country was torn on every level between the nationalists, the hard-liners, and the pragmatists. On the streets, in the schools, in front rooms and kitchens, even speech was split in three between the language of the land, the language of the empire, and a curious hybrid simply called “surrogate”. Raised to love her language from birth, she came to this unfamiliar land speaking long-forgotten words in an accent older people recognized from the time of the patriotic war, a time long before her birth, from a place where the mountains curved west, a place that she’d never seen. As the days went by she fumbled futilely to learn the current forms, forgetting the words she did know, those whose roots lay closer to the language of the land that had been severed before she was born. While people marveled at the purity of her speech, she found herself stumbling closer and closer to speechlessness.
How this people loved language! One week they feted the great poet in concert halls, in schools, on radio and television; the next week they commemorated the great 19th century composer with equal fanfare. She agreed to come with him to this concert. She’d forgotten how long-winded such soirées could be: flocks of silver-tongued orators declaiming ever more elaborately, ornately and mellifluously into the yawning air, each one repeating in slightly more rococo fashion the mundane notes of a life surely every adult in the audience knew all too well. How many ways can one narrate a single person’s lineage, nascence, maturity and death? Among her people, 55 million ways, given enough time and occasions: a litany of compositions, a novena of institutes and conservatories, an entire rosary of obscure or well-known collaborators–singers, composers, conductors, musicians, and lyricists–each of whom provided yet another divertimento. He nudged her arm and she smiled at him, knowing that he was thinking the same things. The scrollwork of words bloomed more golden and florid by the minute; the plaster angels’ smiles grew stiff, the air filled with coughs, whispers and restless shufflings; the gild darkened imperceptibly, the orator grew hoarse; the seven-year old sitting next to her wandered off to never-never-land, politely staring straight ahead, past the North Star; guests of honor in their spotlit chairs contemplated early retirement; applause burst out prematurely, smothering the words that everyone deemed conclusive. But no: taking a deep gulp of water, turning another page, the speaker went on! The crowd gasped in awe, the man behind her, a well-known choral director, leaned forward and whispered loudly in her ear: where did he dig up all those details–I thought I knew this man’s life inside-out. Only among my people, she thought, smiling at the plaster angel–we’re never too nice for words. The angel winked at her, face smooth inside its wreath of gold, mouth curved invitingly. She followed the creamy white curves up to the ceiling where stars shone in a dark blue sky.
The spring season was proving less charmed than the fall of her first visit had been. She took to wearing a scarf and he a hat on their late night walks. One evening he suggested they look for a certain restaurant, somewhere, he said, under an archway along the central avenue, the crossroad all the former party’s hotels and all the costliest state stores, understocked and less well kept than they had been before the world began to remember. The restaurant, named after the god of intellect rather than his more appropriately hedonistic sibling, had recently been taken over by a Swiss chef and boasted continental food, continental prices and continental money.
Starting from his hotel after a late supper, they climbed the hill named after the martyred poet, and climbed down it to where the central market anchored the main avenue, a theater-like hall crowded every day with the wealth of the land–grapes, apples, mandarins, dried fruit, pork, beef, pickles, cabbage, potatoes, herbs, carrots, tomatoes, eggs, flowers, chickens, nuts, melons, pomegranates by the cartload spilling over dark polished counters. Five kinds of raisins, a dozen breeds of apples, crisp, small cucumbers that never tasted bitter; butter, cream and milk that tasted of cow, not added vitamin D and Pasteur; bread as rich as the deep dark chornozem that gave birth to it– mostly presided over by almond-skinned men in ragged dark suits who spoke a different dialect, and stocky women in white kerchiefs, gnarled, thickset hands, and selling for prices only a party member, a thief, or a foreigner could comfortably afford.
They turned up the central avenue, where a surprising number of people were still strolling about in twos and threes, softly speaking in the dark, arm-in-arm, and occasionally looking curiously at the two of them. The shabby 40-year old busses were still running every 6 or 7 minutes, though no longer crushed with passengers. Trees and vines clung leafless to their shadows in the sparse, sulfurous lighting and cars, despite the recent halt in oil delivery from their better-known neighbor–who once again had signed a paper that had no meaning–continued to clatter up and down the boulevards, lights at half strength and motors coughing in an unhealthy way. Militia dotted each intersection, stopping drivers randomly to collect a small bribe and supplement marginal incomes, or to confiscate a license when alcohol was at issue.
A hangover from the three years of prohibition declared by the last president of all the republics, whose purple-stained head had since faded into the mists that sometimes surrounded his dacha, this did not tell about the shutting down of an entire soul-salving industry overnight, the smashing of millions of brown and white and green-colored bottles filled with the pungent or sweet or tongue-biting spirits of grain and vine and bush, or the tearing apart of ancient dusty vineyards throughout the sunny peninsula that jutted into their dark sea. For three years moonshine and mafia took care of the people. A second disaster struck the empire: on the banks of a fairy-tale river running through the memory of a fairy-tale forest where mushrooms and wildberries had once grown lush and magical, a concrete tomb unearthed itself, radiating dead matter into the soil, the air, the groundwater. Then a third disaster shook the empire: in the far south a mountain range collapsed, swallowing tens of thousands of the almond-skinned people. Looking at the fatally hemorrhaging state of the union, the last president declared that it was time to reset the national compass and began to secretly prepare a comfortable retirement. Prohibition was lifted; cheap spirits were once again bottled but everyone agreed the quality was not the same: how can you rebuild an ancient vineyard in five seasons?
By now he and she had wandered much of the curving avenue, past the square where five streets neatly converged on a fountain, past the beheaded pedestal whose statue of the dictator had quietly gone into storage with the help of Japanese technology and some explosives, and somehow past the archway they were looking for. He remembered a street number; they asked a chubby militiaman in kozak hat and belted khaki greatcoat with red and gold trim. Over there, the other side of the empty pedestal. They drifted back in a drunken course, now veering close to an ill-lit doorway to check its address, now swinging back towards the curb, until they found a number and began to count buildings. Set back from the street and storefronts, they found the archway–really a bridge spanning the entrance to a hidden side street that curved uphill in the dark, with windows along its length some three stories above them, as though someone had simply carved through the building to get to the alley.
There’s an apartment in there, he said pointing, where the head of the secret police once lived. She thought of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice spanning its final watery avenue. The winding street was not well-lit, but looked more western than any she had seen so far: a few neon signs beckoned into cafés, a children’s shop, a printing service; other, more discreet providers hinted at wealth, comfort. Under a tall overhang they found the sign of the Greek god and Swiss chef in joint venture and examined the proper handwritten menu in its illuminated glass case. Familiar cuisine in three languages, familiar prices in American dollars. He opened the heavy wooden door for her and they went in.
A well-lit square island bar with clean-cut, well-muscled young men sitting on three sides, like a team of off-duty mercenaries. A slightly older man came out from behind the bar and explained to them, very courteously, that the kitchen was already closed. Not even a snack, she asked, feigning disappointment although they had eaten well at the hotel. No food. That’s okay he smiled at the waiter, we’ll just have a drink, and they sat on high stools at a tiny round table. Everything looked both familiar and strange to them. If only they’d sweep the floors more often, he said. If only the lighting were more intimate, she said. They ordered two coffees and two shots of a French liqueur. In true continental style, the demitasses arrived with a cube of sugar and a wrapped Swiss chocolate on the side.
A crowd of well-dressed young people suddenly emerged from the nearly empty dining room, down past draped brown velvet with gold tasseled cords and a few stone steps from the bar area. They, too, looked both familiar and strange. She said, it’s hard to peg people here–I can’t tell who they are or what they do, all the cues are off. The young men looked like well-brought-up young gangsters; the young women, not quite attached yet clearly following signals she and he could not read, like newly-hired molls. To her eyes, too many of the young girls she saw in the bars and hotels had that same look: blackened eyes, crimsoned cheeks and lips against china white, flawless skin, whorehouse hair and skin-tight clothes that didn’t always match, occasionally an outfit so eccentric it might have come off a theatre set, but mostly dressed like naughty office girls. And their eyes seemed filled with carefully masked despair: sometimes hard and bright, brows arched knowingly, sometimes soft and blank, like a bed waiting to be used–as thought they were caught in a dark dream and not sure of the rules. But they could see the other side of the precipice, the one their mothers had fallen down, like so many silent rocks whose weight could not be borne: husbands who drank heavily and too often faithless; three-generation households to maintain without even a washing machine; ill-paying jobs with abusive bosses; and of course, children. Backs broken by thirty-five, these women dyed their hair in shades of orange and red and faded into a mass of undistinguishable wrinkles, waistless outfits and thick stockings that sagged around knees and ankles.
The young men reminded him of the paramilitary cadres he had seen in other eastern countries, he told her: plucked at an early age from orphanages, for their looks, their physiques, their personalities, they were raised a family of men among others like them, trained into loyalty to their leader alone; discouraged from bonding with women; cosseted, their every need taken care of at the same time as they were rigorously trained to fight and guard. A corps of ideal manhood: big-boned, well-developed good looks, skill, a self-possessed intelligence–and, she thought, entirely lacking the spark of individuality, of creativity, of love. She realized that what she really meant was, they had no soul.
He ordered a third coffee. Only they and the cluster of boys at the bar remained in the restaurant, but there was no sense of urgency–it seemed as though they could all sit there through the night, sipping and gossiping. He stirred the coffee slowly and began a new story. During that same point in the war when his father found himself marching down these cobbled streets in fear of a fascist attack, his mother had been on her way to this city with her father and two brothers. But she fell ill with the flu and they went east without her. Her father and his two sons were, unlike most in the western regions of the land, staunch believers in the new social order and wanted to join the struggle against reactionary nationalists and invading fascists. In their zeal, they were taken for spies from a neighboring country, and shot instead. It was two years before she found this out, and by then his mother had fled to the West herself.
The moon was getting full that night as they walked slowly back to her hotel. He wondered if it had been on a night like this that his father began to question what he was doing.
The phone rang sharply as she was drifting into a dreamless sleep. I just spoke with my sister, he said. She could hear him breathe roughly. My son is starting to forget me. He began to cry. She sat in the dark, holding the receiver very quietly and listening to his tears fall. Through the lace curtains moonlight drifted like a light snow on the some books and the picture of her husband she kept on the table. You know, he finally said, my son is only three, how can I spend the rest of my life apart from him?
As the revolutionary front slowly beat back the fascists and plowed westward across the burnt-out prairie towards the lush mountain regions whose foothills were so familiar to him, his father made up his mind to desert and head south, to the other side of the mountains. Not wanting to be encumbered, he left one night under a moonless sky with only a knife, a hunk of bread, a few pieces of dried fruit, and a small bottle of horilka. He had heard that there was heavy fighting south of the mountains, but north, for hundreds of miles–to the Arctic for all he knew–was only the army he had deserted.
He told her this over dinner the last time they met. Finding himself in a deadly zone where both sides saw him as the enemy, his father had retreated into the mountains and fled by night as winter drew on. He lost three toes to frostbite before reaching a town that was more-or-less neutral. When at 22 he arrived a new immigrant in the distant city that was to be the birthplace of his son, the father’s face, like most of his generation, was that of a 40-year old.
She looked at his soft face, half-hidden behind thick glasses, old enough now to be his young father’s father, yet only now learning about the nature of war–and she knew he would always belong to this city.
Two days later, he left for home.
The city struggled on with the cold and rain, and with some last fits of snow which threatened the boldest green buds, until finally, a month later, the sun began to steadily warm the cobbles and the chestnuts burst into bloom.