The Exile and the Urchin
by K. R. Svich
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
One morning in autumn, I was sitting in the narrow kitchen. With an elbow rested on the worn wooden tabletop, I stared into thin air, a cup of tepid tea with milk rested precariously in my drooping right hand. The creaking of the tabletop each time I shifted to raise the cup to my lips sounded unnatural, isolated amongst the otherwise uniform, dead quiet.
The weather had started to chill and cold air seeped in through the fine cracks in the walls. I felt it creep across an exposed area of skin on my leg — a hole in my stocking. Setting the teacup down with a faint tremor as it grazed over the saucer, I leaned down and attempted to twist the hole in my stocking inward. But the fabric was stubborn. No matter how I tried it wouldn’t twist round; it would just stretch and, as a result, bunch up awkwardly round the back of my knee.
I’d never get used to these new things. As blood rushed to my head and pieces of hair started to fall out of place, a wave of frustration washed over me and I pushed my hips backward. The legs of the chair I was sitting on scraped harshly across the floorboards, causing them to shriek as splinters were torn out of them.
I paid them no heed. I kicked off my shoe and lifted my leg up, resting my heel on the edge of the tabletop. No matter how much care I took, it was always the same. Never, ever will I forget those godforsaken stockings. The hem of my dress slipped from my knee, dropping all the way down to my hips. I finally managed to pull the hole up and around to my inner thigh.
To think that anybody in this state-owned sardine-can might have walked in at any moment — one corner of my mouth curled upwards before I could help it — that would give them a show. With my leg still resting on the table, I pushed out my chest. I undid the top two buttons beneath my collar, then a third for good measure. It wasn’t that cold yet anyway.
I looked back up to check my reflection in the opposite window. It was covered by a thin coating of smog but still discernible. Pierced by the harsh white sunlight, my face appeared slightly grey. I looked at it and it looked back at me. I took another sip of the tepid tea in my white china cup, indistinguishable from all the other millions of identical white china cups in the world.
As I swallowed, the tea hit a lump halfway down my throat and the extra gulp to push it along resounded dully in my ears. All the while, I never took my eyes off my own face, obscured behind the smog. Yet, at the same time, it was clear, as if it were sitting right beside me. Monotonous and grey, yet simultaneously piercing, pulling my real eyes toward it with an invisible thread strung out across the room. It was undoubtedly me, but there was something different. That was when I noticed my left hand had stopped shaking.
Taking the teacup back, this time using my left hand, I glanced down at the remnants of the now-cold tea. Its surface lay completely flat: not a single ripple. The trembling had definitely ceased, leaving nothing but a faint tingling sensation clinging to the tips of my fingers, as if in some last-ditch attempt at survival. That was when it hit me: the wires in my head were mending. I should have been relieved, but instead I felt a sickening panic.
The methodical counting of the date; the screaming presence cramped up inside me, which had killed the child and escaped on that fateful day during the War... It was at its prime now, but that was just deception. It was leading me to the same fate as Eva. Right now, I was walking on a tightrope, still with the possibility of falling in one direction or the other. And once I tipped over, there was no way of climbing back.
Only Raphael could put a stop to it before the process carried me too far. But Raphael wasn’t going to return. It was time to go out and find him on my own. If I found him, I could escape from this maddening logic: piling bricks one by one until the tower finally reached its limit and came crashing back down on top me, trapped at its feet.
For everyone it’s different. Sometimes the tower crumbles piece by piece, causing a lump on the head, a cut lip, a bruise or a scar here or there, until finally you and it are an inseparable mess of rubble, blood and guts strewn across the ground. Sometimes, if circumstances call for it, the tower falls quickly and heavily all at once. Less excruciating both to watch and suffer through, but the mess left at the end is still the same.
But I’d been dragged from the brink of death once, and it wasn’t easy to face the prospect of going back to its mercy. I prepared to depart Leningrad. At first I considered returning to Siberia and that grey snow-sludge covered gutter, or perhaps our old house, if it was still there, on the edge of the forest in the hope Raphael might reappear. But newfound logic kicked in, and I realized the ludicrousness of that idea. No, I’d have to find his grave, at whatever corner of the continent it might be, and pull him back out with my own bare hands.
* * *
I scrounged up all the savings I had, and travelled south via Moscow, toward the old Eastern Front. From there I traced that line, bypassing Tannenberg and Warsaw on either side, all the way along the borer of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire until it was time to stop. I looked around. My arrival point was southeastern Poland, somewhere between Gorlice and Tarnow. Tall blades of luscious green grass tickled my ankles, moving with the passing seasonal breeze; late spring, I guessed.
The train tracks or road that had served as the final leg of my journey to this exact spot had disappeared and been erased from my memory as well. There was no way to turn back. All that was left were the long, lustrous blades of grass growing taller, now halfway up to my knees, roots buried deep and thriving in the blood-enriched earth.
Here in its protective shadow lay the fading tracks of a retreat and the echo of a seven-hundred thousand shell bombardment flooding across broken battle lines. The newspaper headlines had long since disintegrated, but the ashes of that day lay at my feet, a mass grave fertilizing the earth. The only way left to go was downward.
I knelt in the long grass. Parts of it reached all the way up to my shoulders, caressing the sides of my body. Another gust of wind filtered through the narrow gaps between the fine blades as I slowly wrapped by fingers around a handful of them. The breeze grew stronger, picking up tresses of my hair and moving them like puppet strings around my head. I noticed for the first time how long my hair had grown since the start of my journey. As the breeze waned, the long overgrown tresses dropped limply to my sides, and every blade of grass fell perfectly still.
Never again did I experience such an eerily flawless moment of unadulterated stillness and silence as I did on that day. I could have sworn I heard the sound of my own internal organs churning as I closed my grip tight around the handful of grass and wrenched it out of the ground, roots and all.
Torn pieces of earth and debris went flying. I took hold of another fistful and pulled again. Ground that had lain dormant and unbroken for so long exploded into pieces beneath my hands. Shards of buried shrapnel left cuts between my fingers, and beads of sweat trickling down like tiny rivers between adrenaline-engorged veins on the tops of my hands stung the open wounds.
The sky became overcast, and a few isolated drops of rain made contact with my skin. The next thing I noticed was my entire body being drenched from head to toe. It happened in complete absence of the gradual build-up of a normal rainstorm, as if someone had flicked some artificial switch hidden behind the imposing grey cover stretched out like a sheet of iron across the sky. Had the season changed already, or was this just the erratic weather of a foreign land?
The sweat and rain drenching my body became indistinguishable as I continued to tear away at chunks of earth — caught in an endless cycle of orderly, methodical fervor.
When I finally managed to grab hold of a break in the ongoing cycle to pause for breath, I found myself kneeling at the foot of a dark gaping trench, like a hideous scar across the face of the formerly peaceful, undisturbed pasture. The rain continued to fall heavily, to the point I feared I might drown as my lungs fought for every scrap dry air they could find to inhale.
Never in my life had I experienced fear that gripped me so tightly. I might have cried if there’d been any point to it, but the rain would just drown out the tears anyway. With hair stuck to my face and mud all the way from my bleeding fingertips to my elbows I turned my head, unable to bear the miserable sight in front of me a second longer.
That was when, from behind the sodden tresses of tangled hair over my face, I made out a lone dark figure. It stood tall and still against the rain beating down on its shoulders, solemn and silent at the foot of the massive up-turned grave. Not like a mourner, but rather taking the edge off its hideousness.
“Raphael...” My voice very nearly failed me, but it was yet to be drowned out completely.
“You’ve grown.” It was Raphael’s voice, the same as it had ever been, but for the first time I felt a strange jab in my chest when I heard it. His service uniform looked much more disheveled than the day I had seen him off as a twelve-year-old in Petrograd. But it was still the same pale-blue double-breasted trench coat, the hem resting halfway down his shins, which were laced tightly into black boots. The boots were scuffed and worn but the very same ones nonetheless.
Unshaved stubble lined the base of his jaw and his cheeks were noticeably hollow. Drops of rain accumulated at the ends of his unkempt hair and eyelashes until they plummeted, tracing all the way down into each of those sunken crevices. He looked at me and I looked back at him, still yet to make a move. Both of us stood frozen before the final set of crossroads, at the foot of this muddy, washed out grave. “Just make the choice you’ll regret the least.” Raphael’s tone was flat and emotionless — a blank slate.
I thought about that day in the munitions factory when the bombs had hit and I’d finally been able to rip off the skin that had imprisoned me, tear away the shackles that had stunted my growth for decades. I’d been freed from juvenility that day. But the hinges of those shackles, though they grew rustier and more worn hadn’t yet fully eroded. It was here right now that I would either tear the final link, or bring them back together.
I wavered. The truth was that I’d almost grown fond of being able to restrain and categorize everything around me into a logical set of numbers. If I could rationalize it, to some degree I could control it. As tedious as it was, I’d be lying if I said I never found it comforting. In so many ways it was infinitely preferable to wandering in a never-ending vagueness, only noticing change after all traces of what was before had vanished, people disappearing only after it was too late to say goodbye.
I could never admit it, but sometimes I almost wished I could have just died cleanly in that Siberian gutter. Almost. I trod over he sodden ground toward Raphael. Standing for the first time almost eye to eye, I didn’t wait for a familiar hug or pat on the shoulder. Seizing his lapel, I held it in a death grip as I kissed him straight on the mouth.
My sodden clothing clung to every line of my body, turning transparent to the point it looked like it might dissolve straight into my skin. With the rain drenching me from head to toe, the shackles snapped shut again around my wrists and ankles, but I was too preoccupied to notice.
I felt his arms wrap around my shoulders, but there was something different in the way he held me this time. Not to mention the physical sensation of being held itself, completely different from before. My breasts, which strained the fabric covering them, pressed tightly against the upper part of Raphael’s torso. His breathing hitched and I grew increasingly conscious of the way my rain-drenched clothing did more to make me appear naked than if I’d been wearing nothing at all.
My skin was laid bare, and the former outer shell re-formed and re-hardened over the top. It hasn’t suffered a crack ever since. A bond forged from a love pure and infinitely toxic. The road re-appeared, and we left that isolated, overshadowed place to its renewed misery hauled up from beneath the ground — at least until the grass grew back.
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by K. R. Svich