Book 3. The Space of Love (1998)
Just another pilgrim
There she is! Again before mine eyes flows that mighty Siberian River, the Ob. I had finally reached the settlement where regular passenger service stopped, and was standing on the riverbank. In order to continue my journey to the spot where I could begin my trek through the taiga to Anastasia’s glade, I would have to hire a small motorboat. Beside one of the many boats tied up along the shore three men were laying out some fishing tackle. I said hello to them and mentioned I was ready to pay good money for transport to such-and-such a place along the Ob.
“That’s Yegorych’s department. He charges a half-million roubles for the trip there,” answered one of the men.
I was concerned right off when I heard that someone here was already making passenger runs to the tiny Siberian village hidden way up north in the taiga. It was only twenty-five kilometres from there to Anastasia’s glade. And the prices they were charging! It meant there must be takers. Demand creates a price like that. However, bargaining was something one did not do in the North, and so I asked:
‘And where do I find this Yegorych?”
“He’s somewhere in the settlement. Most likely at the store. See over there where the little tykes are playing — that’s his boat. His grandson Vasya’s with them. He’ll run and fetch him — go ask him.”
No sooner had I greeted Vasya, a bright-looking lad of twelve or thereabouts, than he started rattling off:
“So, you need to go there? To see Anastasia? Wait just a moment! I’ll go call my gramps in a sec!”
Without waiting for an answer, Vasya went dashing off to the settlement. I realised quite clearly he didn’t need an answer. It was apparent that any strangers in these parts, in Vasya’s opinion, had but one goal in mind.
I made myself as comfortable as I could by the riverbank and began to wait. There being nothing else to do, I stared at the water and drifted into thought.
The River was a good kilometre across at this point. Here amidst the boundless taiga (which you couldn’t see the whole of even from an airplane), the River had been flowing on down through the centuries. What had it carried away of the past without leaving so much as a trace? What do these Ob waters remember from those times? Perhaps they remember how Yermak,2 the ‘conqueror of Siberia’, pressed by his foes with his back against the River Ob, single-handedly tried to repel an enemy attack, and how his blood from a fatal wound seeped into the River, which then carried off his enervated body to goodness-knows--where... What did Yermak in fact conquer? Perhaps his deeds weren’t that much different from the racketeering that goes on in modern times. Probably it is only the River that is in a position to judge today.
Or perhaps of greater importance to the River may have been the raids of Genghis Khan’s troops? In ancient times his Horde was considered great indeed. There is a regional centre near Novosibirsk today known as Ordynskoe, which they seized a young Siberian maiden, while a mighty vizier, starry-eyed with love, eloquently begged her to go with him of her own free will, with no resistance. The maiden remained silent, her eyes lowered. All the soldiers under the vizier’s command had already fled, while he stayed and kept courting her with loving words. Finally he tossed her up onto the back of his steed along with a bag of gold, leapt into the saddle and made full speed for the banks of the Ob to escape his pursuers.
They began to catch up to him. The vizier started throwing the gold at them, and when the bag was empty he began tearing off his precious medals he had been awarded for conquering various lands and throwing them on the ground under his pursuers’ feet, but he did not relinquish the maiden. With frothing mane the steed carried him to the canoes at the shore of the Ob. The vizier carefully helped the maiden down from his steed and seated her in one of the boats. Then he jumped in himself. But as he was poling the boat away from the shore he was pierced by an arrow from the pursuing forces right behind them.
The current began to carry the boat downstream. The wounded vizier lay near the stern, not even aware of the three large rowing canoes filled with soldiers coming ever closer. He looked tenderly at the maiden sitting calmly and quietly beside him, and fell silent himself — he had no strength left to speak. And the maiden looked at him, and then, with a glance at the overtaking canoes, she smiled faintly at them (or maybe at something else), tore the ropes off her hands and threw them into the water. Then this young Siberian maiden took to the oars. And none of the pursuer’s craft could catch up to the boat carrying her and the wounded vizier.
To what place and into what age did the River current carry them? And what might the muddied waters of the River be carrying off at this moment in their memory of us?
Perhaps, dear River, you consider our big cities to be im-portant? A huge city, Novosibirsk, stands on the banks of the Ob, closer to its source in the south. Can you feel its great size and majesty, dear River? Of course, there’s no doubt you would have a great deal to tell about it — you would say it pours a lot of pollution into you so that your once life-giving waters are no longer drinkable. But what can we do about it —- where are we going to channel the waste from all the factories? After all, we, unlike our forebears, are in the process of developing. We have a lot of scientists working in the multitude of academic centres around Novosibirsk. And if we don’t channel our waste into you, we shan’t survive ourselves. And so the stench has made it hard to breathe in the city, and in some districts the smell is so bad and nobody even knows what it’s from. Try to make sense of all this, dear River. Do you know — the technology we have today?! Instead of noiseless canoes, it’s diesel ships that are now plying your waters. Including, at one time, my own.
I wonder whether the River remembers me. How I sailed up and down it on my ship — the largest passenger vessel in our fleet. It wasn’t new, of course, the ship, and at full speed all its diesel engines and propellers made such a roar that it was even hard to hear the music in the bar.
What does the River cherish in its memory as the most important thing? In times past I would watch its shores from the upper deck of my ship, from the windows of the bar at the stern, listening to Malinin’s songs and romances:
I was going to the city upon a white steed
When a pub-mistress smiled at me sweetly indeed.
Having caught on the bridge the old miller’s sly glance,
1 remained the whole night with that mistress, entranced.
The people busy with their activities along the shore seemed at the time to me petty and insignificant. Now I was one of them.
Another thing I thought about was how to convince Anastasia not to prevent me from communicating with my son. The situation was a strange one indeed, the way it had turned out. All my life I dreamt of having a son. I pictured how I would play with him as a little tyke, and then how I would raise him. When my son grew up, he would be a great help to me. We’d be business partners.
Now I have a son. And even though he’s not around, it’s still a jolly thing to know that somewhere on Earth there’s a human being as close to you as that, your own flesh and blood, someone you very much wanted.
Before leaving I took great delight in purchasing for my son all sorts of basic kiddie things. Anyway, I went and bought them, sure, but whether or not I’ll be able to give them to him — well, that’s still a question mark. If my son had been borne by an ordinary woman — it wouldn’t matter whether she were a country or a city girl — it would all be so simple and straightforward. Any woman would be delighted that her child’s father was concerned and really trying to provide him with everything he needed, and take part in his upbringing. 4
In fact, if he didn’t do this voluntarily, a lot of women would be applying for alimony
But Anastasia was a taiga recluse with her own views on life and her own understanding of values. Even before our son’s birth she made it clear to me:
“He doesn’t need any material goods in your sense of the term. He will have everything he needs right from the start. YDU have the desire to give our baby some sort of senseless trinkets, which he doesn’t need at all. You are the one who needs them for your own self-satisfaction, so you can say: ‘Look at how good and attentive I am!”’
Why on earth would she say something like that — “He doesn’t need any material goods”? Come on, now! What can a parent give his newborn child, then? Especially a father? It’s still too early to start raising a breast-feeding infant in a fatherly way. How then can I express my relationship to him? How can I show him I care for him? A mother can breast-feed her baby, it’s easier for her, she’s already doing something, but what can a father do? In civilised circumstances he can help around the house, fix things up, take financial care of his family. But Anastasia doesn’t need anything like that. All she has is her glade in the taiga. Her ‘household’ takes care of itself and waits on her hand and foot, which means the boy will get the same treatment once he’s seen as coming from her.
I wonder how much it would cost to buy that kind of service? Sure, one can purchase or get a long-term lease on a few hectares of land easy enough, but what price can you put on the love and loyalty of a she-wolf, a she-bear, bugs and an eagle? Maybe Anastasia doesn’t need any of the accomplishments of our civilisation, but why should the child have to suffer for his mother’s crazy world-view? The child can’t even have normal toys! She sees everything her own way “The child doesn’t need senseless trinkets, they’ll only do him harm, distract him from the truth,” she says.
Maybe in what she says there is some sort of quirky exag-geration or even downright superstition. There must be some reason mankind has invented so many different toys for kids! But so as not to quarrel with Anastasia, I didn’t buy him any rattles — instead I got him a kiddie’s constructor set, where the label on the box reads: “Develops children’s intellect”. Along with a quantity of disposable diapers, which the whole world uses today. And I bought a whole lot of powdered baby food. I’m really amazed at how easy they’ve made it. You open the box and there’s a hermetically sealed package of waterproof foil. Tou just take a pair of scissors, cut open the packet, pour the contents into warm water, stir and... presto, it’s all ready. They’ve got all sorts of powders — buckwheat, rice and other cereal grains.
The box says it has all sorts of vitamin additives. I remember, back when my daughter Polina was really little, having to go every day to the ‘children’s kitchen’,5 and now all you need do is buy a bunch of boxes and you can feed your own child with no trouble whatsoever. You don’t even have to heat it up. Just dissolve in water, and that’s it. I knew Anastasia didn’t boil herself any water, and so, before buying up a whole lot, I bought a single box and tried adding the contents to water at room temperature — and it worked. I tried tasting it. It tasted normal — hardly any flavour, because there was no salt, but likely that’s the way it should be for kids.
I decided Anastasia wouldn’t be able to come up with any arguments against this powder. It would be silly to say no to a convenience like that. And that means she’ll have to start showing a little respect to our technocratic world. It doesn’t just produce weapons, it thinks about children too.
But the thing that disturbed me most about what Anastasia said, especially since it didn’t seem to make any sense, was this: she said that in order for me to communicate with my son, I would have to achieve a certain purity of thought, i.e., cleanse my inner parts. Only it wasn’t clear to me just what inner parts I should cleanse.
It would have been understandable if she’d said I should shave, or shouldn’t smoke, when I visited the child, or I should wear clean clothing. But she goes and talks on and on about conscious awareness and inner purging. And just where do they sell the brush that I can purge anything there with? Anyway, what have I got inside me that’s so dirty? Maybe I’m not better than others, but I’m no worse either. Hey, if every woman started making a demand like that on her man, you’d have to set up a bloody purgatory for all mankind! It’s... it’s illegitimate, that’s what it is!
I brought along a clipping from the civil code, where it says that one parent has no right to deprive the other of seeing their child without due cause, even if the parents are divorced. Of course, our laws don’t mean very much to Anastasia, but still, it’s a pretty strong argument. After all, the majority of people do observe the law. I ought to be able to take a hard line with Anastasia, too. We should have equal rights to our child.
I had thought earlier of taking a harder line with her. But now I’ve had some doubts about my initial decision, and here’s why Along with everything else in my backpack, I had brought along some letters from readers. I didn’t bring them all, because I keep getting so many I wouldn’t begin to have room for them all. Many of the readers care a great deal about Anastasia. They call her a messiah, a fairy of the taiga, a goddess; they dedicate songs and poems to her. And some of them address her as though she were their bosom friend. This flood of letters got me reconsidering my words and actions in respect to Anastasia.
I had about a three-hour wait sitting beside Yegorych’s boat. It was already late in the afternoon when I saw two men approach in the company of Yegorych’s grandson. The first was getting on in years, he looked to be at least sixty He wore a cloth raincoat and rubber boots. He was red in the face, obviously tipsy, since he staggered slightly as he walked. The second was younger, around thirty, and had a strong build. As they came closer, I noticed streaks of grey in the younger Siberian’s dark-blond hair. The elder of the two came up to me and said:
“Hello there, traveller! So, you’re off to see Anastasia? We’ll take you. It’ll be five hundr’d thousand for the trip plus two bottles6 surcharge.”
It was already clear to me that I wasn’t the only one trying to reach Anastasia. That was why the price was so high. To them I was just another pilgrim on my way to Anastasia’s habitat. But still I asked:
“How did you decide that I was going to see somebody named Anastasia, and not just to the village?”
“If you be goin’ to the village or no, you’d better have the five hundr’d thousand ready. If you don’t have the right amount, we won’t take you there.”
Yegorych’s tone toward me wasn’t exactly friendly.
They charge so much for the trip and yet don’t talk very friendly, I thought. Why would that be?
Still, there was no alternative, and I had to accept the terms. But instead of being happy at all that money, and especially the two bottles of vodka he sent his young assistant to buy at the settlement, his attitude toward me only hardened. He sat down beside me on a rock and kept muttering to himself:
“To the village — what village? Six houses with people just barely я live — you call that a village? Who needs a village like that?”
“And do you often take visitors to see Anastasia? I’ll bet you earn a pretty penny transporting them, eh?” I asked Yegorych, mostly to get a conversation going and soften his enmity But Yegorych only answered in irritation:
‘And who invited them to visit? We’ve got too many uninvited jerks barging in here. Nothing stops them. Did she invite them? Did she? No, she bloody well didn’t! She told one bloke about her life. He goes and writes a book. Fine, write a book. But why give the location away? We never did. And here he meets with her once, and writes about her life, and gives the place away That’s something even females can understand: if you give it away, that’s the end of her peace and quiet.”
“Does that mean you’ve read the book about Anastasia?”
“I don’t read books. Sashka,7 my workmate here, he’s a real bookworm. Anyway, we can’t get you to the village tonight. Too far. The motor on the boat’s not too strong. Well make it as far as a fisherman’s hut, spend the night there. Tomorrow Sashka’ll take you on, while I do a bit of fishing.”
‘All right,” I agreed, thinking it was just as well Yegorych had no idea I was the one who wrote about Anastasia.
Sashka, Yegorych’s assistant, arrived with the vodka. Then they put the fishing tackle into the boat, at which point Yegorych’s grandson Vasya all but cut the trip short. He started asking Yegorych for money to buy a new radio receiver.
“I’ve already fixed up a pole with an antenna — I’ve figured out how to set it up,” said Vasya. ‘And I’ve got the antenna wire already. A1 you have to do is plug the antenna into the receiver and you pick up a whole bunch of stations right off.”