The Exile and the Urchin
by K. R. Svich
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Bound together until death do us part. What kind of freedom that would be, I’ve forgotten how to imagine...
“My God!” Something scratched at my leg, dragging me sharply out of my momentary contemplation with jagged little claws. My body recoiled into itself and I grit my teeth. In the pitch black there was no hope left of hiding, only attempting to drown it.
“This time I felt it. I felt it for sure.” The only thing to stifle my would-have-been scream was the freezing temperature of the air, making it too painful to draw a sufficient amount of it into my lungs. My nails clawed at the bottomless black pit beneath me. “There’s something in here trying to crawl up my leg.”
“Don’t be stupid.” The disembodied monotone from somewhere in front, behind or beside me — I’d stopped trying to tell anymore — responded with just a hint of sarcasm before it was swallowed back up again into the darkness. All that was left for me to hear was the hollow shell of an echo. “It isn’t the 1800’s anymore.”
Another empty package, hollowed-out husks of sound thrown in my direction as I sat stranded: “This prison is so sterile it’s a wonder any living creature can sit in here without being annihilated, let alone a rodent.”
“Don’t even say that word.” Every joint in my body turned to jelly at the mere sound of it, tossed back at me in the form of a gutless, disemboweled echo — a recording, from another, hidden dimension, where its owner sat safe and removed from anything as base and tangible as a rat. My body recoiled again of its own accord. Just thinking the word was bad enough.
“Raphael?” Even to my own ears my voice was only semi-audible. It barely managed to seep its way out from behind my lips, which were fusing tighter together as the thought of something finding its way into my mouth. The word crept up like a tide of irrational fear, slowly, from where it had started at the base of my leg. “What do you think’s going to happen to us?”
A few extended moments of silence — a time lag perhaps? “No idea. Technically we don’t exist, do we?”
The hollowed-out echo hit me off-guard, hurtling unceremoniously down from wherever the original voice had taken refuge. “How do you even bring to trial someone who should have been dead three centuries ago? The paperwork would be a nightmare.”
My fingernails were frozen. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they were turning black and purple with frostbite, just like the time Raphael and I first met. Three centuries? When and how could three centuries slip by just like that? But come to think of it, it was exactly as Raphael put it; blunt numerical reality. And of course in the year twenty-one thirty a rat-infested dungeon was a lot less likely to be a concern.
That being said, even rats might have been preferable to what was waiting for the both of us in this new world, this world that had just crept out of nowhere. No, I take that back: nothing could be worse than rats. That I had learned for sure, three centuries ago, when I was picked up out of the gutter in Siberia, buried half-alive in sodden grey entrails of snow.
I still feel the pain of frostbite every now and again at the tips of my fingers, as well as the faint scratching, just as it was back then, at my half-naked, half-dead body: tiny, wingless vultures with bald tails and sharp claws on their little feet.
Just as darkness, like spilled ink bleeding across a page, started to creep over my eyes, I was roused by the crunch of heavy boots coming to a halt in the snow somewhere beside my head. Those boots and the worn hem of a pale blue overcoat were the last things I saw before ultimately sinking, what I assumed would be irretrievably, into cold, dark oblivion.
That was the winter of 1830, five years following the Decembrist Revolt against Tsar Nicolas the First’s ascension to the Russian throne. I was a girl of around twelve at the time, an urchin wandering the streets of Irkutsk, Siberia.
Raphael was a Russian military exile with a foreign name and nothing to prove his origin or status except for a tattered military coat with tarnished brass buttons. It was as if he’d never removed it since the day he’d been given his death-march orders.
Raphael took me in, gave me the name Maya, and I was raised in his house on the edge of a pine forest, removed from the town centre. Never did I know exactly where he came from and never did I think to ask.
* * *
All I know, even now, is that if he had not picked me up that day, my eyes would never have reopened. I suppose at the time, knowing that was enough. Raphael was a Decembrist exile, and as such was treated with a great deal of hospitality by the Siberian locals during the time we lived there. Never again did I go with any extreme want.
In addition to his status as a political rebel, Raphael became the most sought-after bachelor in our town. Despite several years of hard labour following his arrest, not a single day of it had managed to eat into his youth or his looks. A literal onslaught of women would brave the foot-deep snow all the way up to our house, just to deliver baskets filled with homemade confections.
At first, I could barely put any of it in my mouth; and even if I managed to swallow, the utter foreignness of that type of sweet food made my stomach ache. But gradually, as more and more women flooded the doorstep, I started to get used to the sugar, and eventually craved it to the point I would nag Raphael constantly for more.
To everyone around us, Raphael was the handsome older brother and I the adorable little sister, both of whom people fawned over, even if, in my case, it was more in an attempt to gain his affection rather than any genuine interest in me. Some were markedly more persistent than others, and some of them looking back on it now, Raphael himself seemed reasonably fond of.
Nonetheless, I forgot all of their names and faces long ago, all except one. She was called Eva. Her grey-blue eyes with pale-gold hair made her stand in belligerent contrast with the cruel, bitter cold surroundings. Her image is one of the few burned in painstaking detail, within my permanent memory.
She was also the only one I recall ever really caring about me, if not more than Raphael himself. She worked as a teacher at the local school, and it was really thanks to her that I learned to read and write at all. Eventually Raphael hired her as my tutor, but for me more than anything, she became like an elder sister.
I’m not sure exactly how their relationship stood behind the public display. But, for a while I remember being incredibly happy in our obscure version of a family. To this day I still believe Eva to have been one of the rare people born into this world who are genuinely and unconditionally kind.
That was why I was sad the day I noticed she was gone. I can’t remember exactly when or how it happened, but one day she was simply gone, as if she had never even been there. It was such a seamless occurrence that I probably took a long time before actually becoming aware of it.
Eva had been caught in the constantly shape-shifting labyrinth of time, with no way of being retrieved, while Raphael and I carried on uninhibited. The path might twist and turn and morph unexpectedly, but somehow it always did so around us, as we marched forward, one unconscious step after the other.
* * *
Then the year 1914 rolled around, and the Great War upturned everything. This time not even we walked by completely unscathed. Raphael rejoined the Russian Army. Either that, or he simply returned to his post after what had been in effect, an extended period of leave. Yet again it was never something that even occurred to me as a question. He did have to change his jacket, though.
By then we had moved to St. Petersburg, at the time Petrograd, and I took a job working in a munitions factory just before he left. The sky was clouded and the air thick with factory smoke being churned out of gargantuan brick chimneys lining the horizon — the great, mighty trees in the forest of the New World. Thin rays of sunlight that managed to filter through the thick industrial canopy were tinged to a yellowish grey, making everything appear like a monochrome photograph.
“It’s goodbye for now, Maya. Work hard and take care. I love you.” Those were the final words he spoke to me, kneeling on the pavement with a hand placed on my shoulder. It was the very first time I felt a sense of unease, thin and vague, but no less real.
It wasn’t long, however, until room for any arbitrary thought or existential contemplation was scoured from my mind as the grueling burden of manual labour in the munitions factory started to weigh down heavily on my juvenile body.
I stood before an open furnace, like a gargantuan, fiery womb giving birth to a tireless stream of cast-iron grenades and 18-pound artillery shells. Every drop of sweat was like acid, searing through another layer of skin. Every crack of an aching joint was yet another crack to the surface of a fragile case, as if something inside was taking advantage of its temporary vulnerability in order to escape. Ultimately however the surface remained intact, even as the shallow fractures gradually extended their reach.
It was when German bombers made their appearance over the city that the breaking point came. An eerie whistle hijacking the midday breeze followed by the horrible sound of a bomb dropping less than a street away. Shockwaves coursed through the factory floor. Window glass disintegrated before it could even fall from the frame, and I distinctly remember a fine trail of powder, caressing my cheek in a deceptively calming manner as it cascaded its way down from the ceiling.
Everybody ran. I must have run also, or perhaps I was carried — I was barely conscious at the time. Whatever it was inside me had broken free, leaving the shell in pieces. But it was yet to find its legs after lying dormant and in seclusion for so long. In that brief period of shock and oblivion, I experienced the closest thing I can imagine to literal brain death.
Perhaps that’s because something did in fact die very suddenly inside of me. The enduring child that would already have been phased out gradually over a natural process of life was ripped all at once from the wiring of my brain in barely a full second, and as a result the entire system shorted out.
When I came to, I found myself laid out on a stretcher. After a few minutes or hours of half-hearted writhing, like a crushed insect still with the dregs of sensitivity still left clinging to the decapitated part of its body, I eventually started to get a grasp of my surroundings. Though I continued to writhe from the clouded, semi-sensation of pain, I gathered enough wits about me to realize my body was still in one piece.
The same thing couldn’t be said for most of the other people lying about haphazardly across that makeshift hospital ward. Sounds of agonized moaning and screaming constantly reverberated in the background of my hazy half-consciousness, even as I tried to sleep. Sleeping was hard enough when my body refused to stop twitching.
The doctors called it shell shock. To me it felt more like the stems of the torn wires in my brain were setting off sparks inside my skull. There was a gaping hole and something was trying to spawn at the bottom of it. If only I could reach my hands in there and crush it back down. But all I could do was twitch as I was tormented by simultaneous emptiness and the inexplicable, unsettling feeling of a new, unfamiliar presence starting to take form in the background.
Once the shockwaves in my body had settled enough for me to walk again, I was released from the hospital. Only my left hand refused to stop twitching but, according to the doctors, it was a minor impediment compared with what I might have suffered.
It wasn’t until I returned to work that I heard on the same day the bombs fell over Petrograd, Raphael’s unit had come under fire from heavy artillery on the Eastern front. Bogged down in the swamps and starved of everything from ammunition to food itself, the casualties had been devastating.
If I wrote once, I wrote a hundred times expecting no reply and not receiving any. Even if there was any word of Raphael’s fate, chances were it would be no-one’s priority to carry it to the ears of a child factory worker. The war carried on day in and day out, and I continued to sweat in the munitions factory until one day the gears came to a grinding halt.
* * *
By that time the date had changed again, this time to 1917. Tsar Nicolas was pushed off the throne, and October saw the seizure of Petrograd by the Bolshevik Red Guard. The monarchy was through, and so was the Great War for Russia. Any living soldiers on the outside were to return.
And so I waited. It was the first time I recall ever paying such purposeful attention to numerical dates. A day started to feel like a day, and a month like a month, at least in the same way other people always talked about it. They became tangible measurements, identical bricks piled one on top of the other, all the while their weight accumulating and their shadow growing.
In 1918, the Tsar and his entire family were executed. Civil war secured its grip on the country, hacking and scouring away the ruins of the old and forging on top of its grave the new Socialist state.
Still Raphael did not return. Now that the days and months were real, it became clear that if he hadn’t come back by now, he probably wasn’t going to. This was different from when Eva had just faded out before I even noticed.
With each passing year. my body grew taller and my cheeks and jawline became more defined as the last of the juvenility was chiseled from my face. I wondered when it was going to stop. Being able to read and write had saved me at least from age translating into roughness and wear that marred the faces of others who stayed in the factories.
I found a place as an administrative assistant for the Ministry of Internal Affairs and slipped neatly and compactly into the corner of a communal apartment in the rigid, orderly labyrinth that was the new Leningrad. Straight lines were easy to follow, and I became almost as unconscious to the tangible turning of the date as I had been before it had even started existing.
And so I blended in with very little upset, so long as I kept my twitching hand buried in my pocket. At the time I felt there would be nothing more detrimental than if it was somehow discovered that the wires in my head hadn’t been completely fused back together. It was as if I was still reeling back and forth, across the border between one state of existence and another.
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by K. R. Svich