Authors: Lara Prescott
I boarded the train to Moscow a rehabilitated woman, Anatoli. The city had grown in bounds during the three years I’d been gone. Cranes hoisted steel beams. Factories had taken the place of fields. Between the old two-story buildings made from logs, blocks of apartments had sprung up with thousands of windows and thousands of laundry lines stretching across their thousands of balconies. Stalin’s baroque and gothic vysotki reached for the sky with their star-topped towers, changing the cityscape and announcing to the world that we, too, could build buildings that touched the clouds.
It was April and the city was on the brink of spring. I’d come home just in time for the purple lilacs and tulips and beds of red and white pansies to emerge from their winter slumber. I imagined walking along Moscow’s wide boulevards with Borya again. I closed my eyes to savor the picture, and when I opened them again, the train had arrived. I looked anxiously down the tracks. He said he’d be waiting for me.
Boris wakes. His first thought is of a train lighting a path through the countryside, bound for the White-Stoned Mother. Under a thin quilt, he flexes his feet and pictures Olga’s rounded cheek pressed against the train’s window. How he’d loved watching her sleep, even the way she snored, soft as a distant factory whistle.
In six hours, the train carrying his beloved will pull into the station. Olga’s mother and children will wait at the edge of the tracks, standing on tiptoes to be the first to see her step off the train. In five hours, Boris is to meet her family at their apartment on Potapov Street, so that they may all go to the station together.
Three years since he heard her voice. Three years since he touched her. The last time was on a bench in the public gardens outside the editorial offices of
As they made plans for the evening, Olga had remarked on the presence of a man in a leather duster who seemed to be listening to their conversation. Boris had looked the man over and decided he was just a man sitting on a bench. “That’s all,” he told her.
“Are you sure?”
He squeezed her hand.
“Maybe you should stay with me instead of going home?” she asked.
“I must work, my love, but will see you tonight in Peredelkino. She’s in Moscow for two days,” he said, careful to never speak his wife’s name in Olga’s presence. “We can relax and have a late supper. And I’d like to get your thoughts on a new chapter.”
She agreed to the plan and kissed him on the cheek in the chaste way she did in public. He hated it when she kissed him like that, feeling more like an uncle, or, worse, her father.
Had he known their meeting on the park bench would be the last time he’d see Olga in three years, he would’ve turned his head and kissed her on her lips. He wouldn’t have rushed home to work. He would’ve believed her about the man in the leather coat. He wouldn’t have let go of her hand.
That evening, Boris waited for Olga to arrive at his dacha, but after many hours passed with no sign of her, he knew something was wrong. He went straight to Olga’s apartment, where her mother was sitting—nearly catatonic and fingering a giant slit in the sofa cushion. She looked up blankly when Boris entered the room, and answered his questions in pieces. “Men in black suits,” she said. “Two…no, three…all of her letters, her books…a black car.” Boris didn’t need exact answers to know who the men were or where they’d taken Olga.
“Where are the children?” he’d asked.
She picked up a black-and-white goose feather from the erupting cushion and rubbed it between her fingers.
“Are they here? Are they safe?”
When Olga’s mother didn’t answer, Boris went to the children’s bedroom, and he was both relieved and heartbroken to hear Mitya and Ira’s muted crying from behind the closed door.
He turned and was surprised to see Olga’s mother standing in the hallway behind him. Before he could ask another question, she pelted him with her own. “You will go and get her, won’t you? To demand her release? To undo everything?” She waved the feather in his face. “To make up for everything you’ve done. The danger you’ve put her in.”
Boris had promised Olga’s mother he’d go straight to Lubyanka and do everything in his power to save her daughter. He hadn’t told her that he had no power at all, that it would be futile to knock on Lubyanka’s gates and demand Olga’s release. That his status as Russia’s most famous living writer could do nothing when their intentions were to hurt him through her. That if anything, they’d lock him up too.
He went home, not to his dacha in Peredelkino, but to his Moscow apartment, to his wife. Zinaida was seated at their kitchen table, smoking and playing cards with friends. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” she said when he came in.
“I’ve seen many ghosts,” he told her. She’d recognized the look on her husband’s face. It was the same look he’d had many times throughout the Purges. During the Great Terror, thousands had been imprisoned, nearly all perishing in the camps. Poets, writers, artists. Boris’s friends, Zinaida’s friends. Astronomers, professors, philosophers. A decade had passed and the wounds still hadn’t healed—memories as bloody and red as the flag. She knew better than to ask what was wrong.
By the time Olga’s train arrives, she will have been traveling for four days. From Potma, she will have marched, then taken a train, then another train before reaching Moscow.
Boris gets out of bed and dresses in a clean white Oxford shirt and brown homespun pants with suspenders. Careful not to wake his sleeping wife, he walks down the stairs, slips on his rubber boots, and leaves the dacha through the side porch.
The sun’s crown appears over the tips of the budding birch trees as Boris walks the path through the forest. He hears a pair of magpies chattering somewhere in the branches and pauses to look up but can’t locate them. The path weaves its way toward a stream that’s risen considerably from the newly melted snow. Boris stops on the narrow footbridge and takes a deep breath. He loves the smell of the cold water flowing below.
From the sun, Boris estimates the time to be six o’clock. Instead of walking through the cemetery, around the perimeter of the Patriarch’s summer residence and down to the writers’ club, as he usually does, Boris cuts over to the main road to take the faster route home. He wants at least an hour or two to write before leaving to meet Olga’s family in Moscow.
There’s a light on in the kitchen as he approaches. Zinaida’s heating up the stove and cooking Boris’s usual breakfast: two fried eggs with dried dill. Despite a chill in the air, Boris strips and washes himself in his outdoor tub. Even after his dacha was winterized with a new bathroom and hot water, Boris still prefers to bathe outside, the cold water a pleasant shock to the system.
As Boris dries off with a musty towel, his old dog greets him by licking the drops of water trailing down his long, skinny legs. Boris pets Tobik’s head and chides the half-blind mutt for not joining him on his morning walk yet again.
Boris’s ears are assaulted by the sound of the television as he enters the dacha. Zinaida had insisted on having a television installed. He’d fought it for months but gave in when she threatened to stop preparing his meals. The television, a luxury, is replaying Stalin’s funeral for the hundredth time. Boris pauses to watch as the camera focuses on the most grief-stricken faces in the crowd. He grimaces, then turns it off.
“What’s that?” Zinaida calls from the kitchen.
“Good morning,” Boris answers. He’s not hungry but sits anyway. She sets his plate down and pours him a cup of tea. She doesn’t join her husband at the table, instead turning back to the sink to wash the frying pan while smoking a cigarette, letting the ashes fall into the drain.
“Could you open the window, Z?” Boris asks. He hates the smell of cigarettes, and although Zinaida promised to cut back, she has yet to. She sighs, stubs it out, and finishes washing the dishes. Boris looks at his wife in the morning light streaming in from the window above the sink. The lines on her forehead and rolls of skin banding her neck are blurred for a moment and she looks just the picture of the woman he’d married twenty years earlier. He thinks about telling her she looks lovely, but a pang of guilt because he’s about to meet Olga stops him.
The clock in the hallway chimes seven. Olga’s train arrives in four hours. Boris forces himself to finish his breakfast. Swallowing the last bite of eggs, he pushes his chair back from the table.
“Off to write?” Zinaida asks.
With the question, Boris begins to suspect his wife already knows his plans. “Yes,” he answers. “As always. But just an hour or so. I have business in the city.”
“Weren’t you just there yesterday?”
“That was two days ago, dear.” He pauses. He’s out of practice in lying to his wife. “I’m meeting with an editor at
He’s interested in some new translations.”
“Perhaps I’ll join you,” she says. “I have some shopping to do.”
“Next time, Zina. We’ll make a day of it. Maybe take a walk and smell the budding lime trees.”
Zinaida nods. She takes his plate and washes it in silence.
Boris sits at his writing desk. From the wicker basket at his feet, he takes the pages he wrote the day before. He frowns and strikes through a sentence with a fountain pen, then a paragraph, then a page. He pulls out a fresh sheet of paper and attempts the scene again.
The desk had belonged to Titsian Tabidze, the great Georgian poet and his dear friend. In ’37, during the height of the Purge, Titsian was taken from his home one autumn evening. His wife, Nina, had run into the street, chasing after the black car in her bare feet. When they charged him with treason for committing
Titsian named his favorite eighteenth-century poet, Besiki, as his only accomplice.
Boris has imagined many times what happened to Titsian after the black car took him away, believing that if he doesn’t imagine his friend’s fate, Titsian will have suffered alone. He often tells himself there’s still a possibility his friend is alive, but Nina gave up such hope long ago. When she gave Boris her husband’s desk, she told him he must continue Titsian’s good work. “Write the great novel you’ve dreamed of,” she told him. Boris accepted Nina’s gift, but he never felt worthy of it.
Titsian wasn’t the first of Boris’s friends to have been taken. Boris often pictures them at night, when he can’t sleep, running their fates through his mind one at a time. There is Osip, shivering in a transit camp, knowing his end was near. Paolo, walking up the steps of the Writers’ Union and standing still for a moment before putting a gun to his head. And Marina, tying the noose, then throwing the rope up over a ceiling beam.
It was well known that Stalin had enjoyed Boris’s poetry. And what did it mean to have such a man find kinship through his words? To what had the Red Tsar connected? It was a hard truth, knowing he no longer owned his words once they were in the world. Once published, they were available for anyone to claim, even a madman. And it was even harder knowing he’d been struck from Stalin’s list, the madman having told his minions to leave the Holy Fool, the Cloud Dweller, alone.
Boris hears the muffled chimes of the downstairs clock strike eight. Olga’s train arrives in three hours, and he’s yet to write a single word. The scene that flowed so easily the day before now refuses to appear.
almost ten years earlier, and although he’s made much progress, he still wishes he could go back to the days when the novel first came to him, when it was still pouring from some untapped pool inside him. It had felt like finding a new lover—the obsession, the infatuation, his thoughts on nothing else, his characters infiltrating his dreams, his heart weightless with every new discovery, every sentence, every scene. At times, Boris had felt it was the only thing keeping him alive.
Shortly before Olga’s arrest, the authorities had pulped twenty-five thousand copies of Boris’s
When he couldn’t sleep, Boris would often imagine his words dissolving into the milky slush.
The increasing censorship, in combination with his lover’s arrest, inflamed Boris to finish
He’d retreated to the country to write but found himself unable to. This block provoked an anxiety that felt like needle pricks across his chest. Eventually the needles became knives, and he soon found himself confined to a hospital bed. He’d had a heart attack, and there, with tubes hooked up to him and a bedpan by his side, Boris wondered who would inherit the desk Nina had given him. Would Titsian’s desk be passed down to one of his sons? Or perhaps to another writer? Or would someone take an ax to it for firewood, to keep his widow and children warm when he’d failed to? They could add his unfinished novel to the pyre.
Boris recovered from his heart attack in time to witness the end of an era. Stalin was dead and Olga would return to him. Things could go on as they had before.
Boris goes to his standing desk, thinking the change in posture will inspire movement in his pen. But it doesn’t. He looks out the window. The sun slants across the lower half of his garden and he estimates Olga’s train will arrive in two hours. He must leave within the hour to be on time to meet her family. He watches a small flock of ducks land in the yard and begin picking for worms in the newly upturned earth.
Boris neglected the garden for those three years that Olga was in Potma. The first spring after Olga was taken, Zinaida took it upon herself to clear the weeds for planting. Boris had been out on his morning walk when Zinaida began the task, and when he returned to the dacha, she was halfway through cutting the net of weeds with pruning shears. He’d called out to her to stop, but she pretended not to hear him. He opened the gate and ran into the garden. “No,” he insisted, taking the shears from her hand.
Zinaida dropped to her knees. “The world hasn’t stopped,” she cried out. “It’s here. It’s right here!” She yanked a fistful of weeds from the earth and threw them at his feet.
Zinaida never attempted to clear the weeds again, and each time she passed the garden she refused to even look at it. Soon the garden became so overgrown that even Boris had trouble deciphering its original perimeter.
That is, until Boris read Olga’s postcard and saw the date:
That very afternoon, he spent hours turning up the newly thawed earth with a shovel. The next day, he burned the leaves and weeds in a small fire at the edge of his property and filled a wheelbarrow with rocks that had migrated into the garden. He fertilized the soil by burying a few trout a meter deep. He repaired the wooden bench that had fallen into disrepair. Sitting on it for the first time in three years, he mapped out which crops he’d plant and where. First red kale and spinach. Then dill, strawberries, currants, gooseberries, and cucumbers. Then squash, potatoes, and radishes. Then onions and leeks. After solidifying his garden plans, Boris began contemplating what Olga’s homecoming would entail.
Three years earlier, Boris couldn’t have imagined a world without Olga at its center. And although there was never a day in which he hadn’t thought of her, the longing he felt lessened over time, and he’d begun to appreciate how simple his life had become. How he no longer felt the guilt of lying to his wife, the embarrassment of people talking, of Zinaida’s knowing but never addressing the matter. He no longer felt the anxiety that came with Olga’s many changing moods, and the helplessness he felt in not being able to give her everything she demanded.