the Ringing cedars of Russia
Vladimir Megre English translation by John Woodsworth

Book 1. Anastasia (1996)

A strange girl


The summer before, our convoy ship had docked at one of the villages not far from these parts. We needed to buy bulk meat for the restaurant and spend some time in port.

Sixty kilometres farther on there would be a particularly dangerous section of the river, which meant our ship could not travel through there at night (certain sections of the river were not equipped with navigation lights). So as not to waste time, we began announcing over our outdoor loudspeaker system as well as the local radio that we were throwing a party that evening aboard our vessel.

The sleek white ship standing at the dock, glistening with a huge array of lights, and alive with the music pouring forth from it inevitably attracted the young people of the village to such occasions. Indeed, on this particular evening, practically the entire local youth population could be seen making its way to the ship’s gangplank.

Upon coming aboard, like any first-time visitors, they immediately set about taking a look around the whole ship to see what they could see. After touring the main, middle and upper decks, they ended up congregating in the restaurant and bar. The female contingent, as a rule, took to dancing, while the male half preferred drinking. The unusual circumstance of being on a ship plus the music and alcohol always engendered a state of excitement, occasionally making big trouble for the crew Almost always there was not enough time, and the party-goers made a collective appeal to extend the festivities just a bit longer — say, by half an hour, and then more and more into the night.

On this particular occasion I was alone in my cabin, listening to the music wafting up from the restaurant, and attempting to make modifications to the convoy’s schedule for the remainder of the trip. All at once I felt myselfbeing stared at. I turned around and glimpsed her eyes on the other side of the window glass. That was nothing unusual — visitors often liked looking into the ship’s cabins.

I got up and opened the window. She didn’t go away. She continued looking at me with some embarrassment. I felt I wanted to do something for this woman standing alone on the deck just outside my cabin. I wondered why she wasn’t dancing like the others — perhaps she was somehow unhappy? I offered to show her around the ship, and she silently nodded. I took her all over the ship, showed her the main office — which frequently impressed visitors with its elegant appointments: the rug covering the floor, the soft leather furniture, the computers. Then I invited her into my cabin, which consisted of a study-cum-sleeping-quarters and a carpeted reception room equipped with fine furniture, TV and VCR. I was probably most delighted at the time to impress a poor country girl with the achievements of our civilised world.

I opened in front of her a box of candies, poured two glasses of champagne and, thinking to add the finishing touches to the impression, put on a videotape of Vika Tsyganova  singing “Love and death” {Liubov i smert). The videotape included a number of other songs performed by my favourite artists. She lightly touched the champagne glass to her lips, looked intently at me, and asked:

“It’s a challenge, eh?”

I expected just about any kind of question except that one. The expedition had indeed turned out to be quite a challenge, what with the difficult navigation conditions on the river and the crew (mainly students from the marine academy) smoking pot and pilfering merchandise from the store. We were frequently behind schedule and couldn’t get to our planned stops on time where our arrival had been advertised in advance. These burdens and other worries often deprived me of the opportunity not only to admire the landscape along the river but even to get a normal sleep.

I muttered something meaningless to her — something like, “Never mind, we’ll get through!”, then turned toward the window and polished off my glass of champagne.

We went on talking about this, that or the other, listening to the videotape in the background. We talked right up until the ship docked once more at the end of the party cruise. Then I escorted her to the gangplank. Upon returning to my cabin, I made a mental note: there was something very strange and unusual about this woman, and I was left with an unexpected feeling of lightness and brightness after talking with her. That night I had my first good sleep in many days. At long last I understood why: the woman on the ship had been Anastasia.

“So that was you, Anastasia?!”

“Yes. There, in your cabin, I memorised all the songs which I later sang to you in the forest. They were playing while we were talking. You see how simple it all is?”

“How did you happen to come on board?”

“I was interested in seeing what was going on, how you all lived. After all, Vladimir, I had been spending my whole time just taking care of dachniks.

“That day I had hurried to the village, sold the dried mushrooms which the squirrels had collected, and bought a ticket to your party cruise. Now I know a lot more about the class of people you call entrepreneurs. And I know you pretty well too.

“I feel I owe you a huge apology I did not know how things would turn out, that I would be so drastically altering your future. Only I can no longer do anything about it, since they have seen to the fulfilment of this plan, and they are answerable only to God. For a time now you and your family will have great difficulties and challenges to overcome, but then that will all pass.”

Still not understanding what Anastasia was specifically talking about, I intuitively felt that something was about to unfold itself to me that would go way beyond the usual parameters of our existence, something directly concerning me.

I asked Anastasia to tell me in more detail what she meant by altering my destiny and “challenges”. Listening to her at the time, I simply could not imagine how accurately her predictions would soon start bang realised in real life. She continued her recounting, once more bringing me back to events of the past year.

“Back then, on the ship,” she said, “you showed me everything, even your cabin, treated me to candies, offered me champagne, and then escorted me to the gangplank, but I did not leave the riverbank right away. I stood on the shore near some bushes, and I could see through the lighted windows of the bar how the young people of the village were still dancing and having a good time.

“You showed me everything, but you did not take me to the bar. I guessed why — I was not appropriately dressed, my head was covered in a shawl, my cardigan was not stylish, my skirt was too long. But I could take off the shawl. My cardigan was neat and clean, and I had pressed my skirt carefully with my hands before I came to see you.”

I really hadn’t taken Anastasia to the bar that evening on account of her rather strange clothes, beneath which, as it was now clear, this young girl had been hiding her remarkable beauty — something that immediately set her apart from everyone else. And I said to her: 'Anastasia, why would you have wanted to go to the bar? Do you mean you would have gone dancing there in your galoshes? Anyway, how would you know what dances young people do today?”

“I was not wearing galoshes at the time. When I exchanged my mushrooms for money to buy a ticket to your ship, I also bought a pair of shoes from the same woman. Granted, they were old shoes, and were tight on me, but I cleaned them with grass. As for dancing, all I would need is a one-time look, and that would be it. And what a dancer Pd be!”

“You were, I suppose, offended at me that night?”

“I was not offended. But if you had taken me to the bar, I do not know whether that would have been a good or a bad thing, but events might have turned out differently, and all this might not have happened. But I do not now regret that things happened the way they did.”

“So what happened? What happened that night that was so terrible?”

'After you escorted me off the ship, you did not return right away to your cabin. First you dropped in to see the captain, and then the two of you headed for the bar. For you that was a normal thing to do. The moment you entered you both made an impression on the public. The captain looked prim and proper in his uniform. You were very elegant and gave a most respectable appearance. You were known to many in this village —- the famous Megre. The owner of a

convoy of ships unique in these parts. And you fully realised that you were making an impression.

“You sat down at a table with three young country girls. They were all only eighteen years old, just out of school.

“The waiters immediately brought champagne, candies and new wine-glasses to your table — prettier than the ones that were there before. You took one of the girls by the hand, bent over and started whispering something in her ear... compliments, I understand they are called. Then you danced with her several times and the conversation continued. The girl’s eyes were radiant, as if she were in another world, a fairy-tale world. You took the girl out on deck, and gave her a tour of the ship, just as you had me. You took her into your cabin and treated her to champagne and candies just like me. But there was something a little different in the way you behaved with this young girl. You were in a cheerful mood. With me you were serious and even morose, but with her you were cheerful I could see all that very well through the lighted window of your cabin and, possibly, I felt a little as though I wanted to be there in the place of that girl.” “You don’t mean to tell me you were jealous, Anastasia?”

“I do not know, it was somehow an unfamiliar feeling for me.”

I recalled that evening and these young country girls who were trying so hard to look older and more modern.

The next morning Captain Senchenko  and I once again had a laugh at their night-time antics on the dock. Then in my cabin I realised that this girl was in such a state that she was ready to go to any lengths... but I didn’t have any thought about wanting to possess her. I told Anastasia about this, and she replied:

“Still, you had stolen her heart. The two of you went out on deck, it was drizzling, and you threw your jacket over the girl’s shoulders. Then you took her back to the bar.”

“What were you doing, Anastasia, standing the whole time in the bushes in the rain?”

“That was nothing. The drizzle was good and caressing. Only it interfered with my view. And I did not want my skirt and shawl to get wet. They were my mother’s. My mother left them to me. But I was very lucky I found a cellophane bag on the shore. I took off my skirt and shawl, put them in the bag and hid it under my cardigan.”

'Anastasia, if you didn’t go home and it started to rain, you should have come back to the ship.”

“I could not have done that. You had already seen me off, and you had other concerns. Besides, everything was shutting down.

“When the party came to an end and the ship was due to depart, at the girls’ request, especially the girl who was with you in your cabin, you delayed the departure. At that point everything was in your power, including their hearts, and you were intoxicated with this power. The young people of the village were grateful to the girls, and the girls too felt imbued with a sense of power, through you. They completely forgot about the young lads who were with them in the bar, guys they had been friends with in school.

“You and the captain escorted them to the gangplank. Then you went back to your cabin. The captain went up to the bridge, and then the signal sounded, and the ship slowly, very slowly began to pull away from the dock. The girl you had danced with stood on the shore beside her girlfriends and the young people who had waited around to see the ship off.

“Her heart was beating so strongly, it was almost trying to leap out of her breast and fly away. Her thoughts and feelings were all mixed up.

“Behind her back could be seen the outlines of the village houses with their darkened windows, while in front of her the sleek white steamship was departing for ever, illuminated with a host of lights, still abundantly pouring forth its music across the water and the night-time riverbank.

“The sleek white ship was where you were, after saying so many marvellous things to her she had never heard before, so charming and alluring.

'And all that was slowly distancing itself from her, for ever.

“Then she decided to do something in the sight of everyone. She squeezed her fingers into a fist and began shouting desperately: й1 love you, Vladimir!5 And she did it again, and again. Did you hear her shouting?”

"Yes,” I replied.

"You could not help hearing her, and members of your crew heard her too. Some of them went out on deck and began laughing at the girl.

"I did not want them to laugh at the girl. Then they stopped laughing, as if they had suddenly come to their senses. But you did not come out on deck, and the ship continued slowly moving away She thought you could not hear her, and she continued stubbornly crying out: ‘I love you, Vladimir!5.

"Then some of her girlfriends joined in, and they all cried out together. I wondered what that feeling was like — love, which makes people lose control of themselves, or, perhaps, I wanted to help that girl, and so I shouted with them: 'I love you, Vladimir!5

"It seemed as though I had forgotten at that moment that it was not enough just to simply utter words — there definitely had to be behind them feelings, an awareness and trustworthiness of natural information.

"Now I know how strong that feeling is, and it is hardly subject to reason.

"The country girl later began to go into a slump and take to the bottle, and it was a challenge for me to help her. Now she is married and burdened down with everyday cares. And I have had to add her love to mine.55

The story of the girl threw me a little off balance. Anastasia’s account managed to resurrect that evening in my memory in full detail, and everything had really happened just as she said. It was very real.

Anastasia’s unique declaration of love did not make any impression on me. After seeing her lifestyle and getting to know how she looked at the world, I saw her more and more as some unreal personage, even though she was sitting right beside me and I could simply reach out my hand and touch her. A consciousness accustomed to judge things by other criteria could not accept her as an existing reality And while at the beginning of our encounter I had been attracted to her, she no longer aroused in me the emotions I once had. I asked:

“So, you think these new feelings appeared in you just by chance?”

“They are desirable, they are important,” replied Anastasia. “They are pleasant even, but I wanted you to love me too. I realised that once you got to know me and my world a little more closely, you would not be able to accept me as a normal person — as simply Man. Perhaps you would even be afraid of me occasionally...

‘And that is exactly what happened. I myself am to blame. I have made many mistakes. I was anxious, for some reason, all the time. I was in a hurry, and I did not have the time to explain everything to you as I should. Perhaps it all just turned out silly? Eh? Do I need to reform myself?”

And with those words her lips hinted at a sad smile. She touched her breast with her hand, and I at once remembered what had happened that morning when I was in the glade with Anastasia.

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