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THE BEST IN CONTEMPORARY RUSSIAN FICTION
IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION


Irina Muravyova

THE NOMADIC SOUL

Translated by John Dewey

(from The Nomadic Soul, Glas 22)

PART ONE
(excerpt)

The beach at Lynn was empty, apart from some seagulls dotted about the smooth sands. There was a smell of rotting seaweed.
How had I come to be here? Quite simply: by driving half an hour from Boston.
But seriously: what was I doing here? What chance wind had brought me to this provincial American seaside town with its clapboard houses, and to Rabbi Zaychik's synagogue?
There was a concert taking place in the synagogue. It was rather stuffy in there, with stout Russian ladies sweltering in their best frocks. A boy of about seventeen was singing a romance to words by Sasha Chorny, clenching his fists with the effort as he intoned in an unsteady bass voice:

Sleep, my son, your Mummy's gone -
Gone to Paris, little one...

Stop! Who was this Mummy? Why Paris? And why did it all sound so strangely familiar - as if at some time I myself had been that tearful mother abandoning her curly-haired child to run off to Paris with her lover? No, don't call him that. But what, then? What was he? Could you really say he was everything in the world to her? What about that boy (christened Nikolay, but known in the family as Koko) - that boy with the fair eyelashes whose piercing cries of 'Mummy!' rang through the house every morning: wasn't he everything in the world to me?
But what have I got to do with all this this, for heaven's sake? It was another woman, do you hear - another woman who hastily gathered together a few essential items and, her face red with the effort, fastened all eleven buttons up the back of her grey travelling dress. It was she, not I, who went into the darkened nursery, bent over the cot, kissed that little face redolent of milk and made the sign of the cross over it, then closed behind her the front door of the large detached house in the Arbat that was her home.
Yet the day before... Yes, it was only the day before that they had lingered in his study with its leather upholstery and odours of stale tobacco. Outside the windows a heavy May downpour was in full spate, breaking off twigs of lilac. She was sitting on the sofa, while he stood with his back against the glass doors of a bookcase and its colourful array of bindings. His face was white and quivering, his eyes wild.
'I ask only one thing: that we keep up the appearances of marital life, so that our child can grow up in a normal family, so that he...'
Perhaps it was me after all? Perhaps it was me, shielded from the cold May rain by the walls of that house in the Arbat?
At that moment I felt nothing but detestation for his voice, for that hand with its thin wedding ring; yet I understood that they would always be with me, that I should never manage to...
'Let me go. I'll come back in a month. One month, that's all. You yourself suggested we keep up appearances, and I shall do that, I promise. But now that we've finally clarified matters... Just one month, I beg you...'
'Very well. He won't notice anything, he can stay at the dacha with my sisters and his nanny. You can go - and may God above be your judge!' There was a dull glint from his wedding ring as he gestured with his hand towards the ceiling.
The heavens showed no sign of themselves. Outside the window there was no sky at all, just rain pouring down: driving rain that filled the city with the fresh, heady fragrance of grass.

It was dry in Paris, though. Our hotel room smelled of lavender. The warmth of our hands was held by the lavender-scented soap as it slowly dried out. For the first time I woke up next to someone who for me was... what? That boy with the fair eyelashes - the curly-headed boy whose penetrating cry of 'Mummy!' rang through the house every morning - wasn't he everything in the world to me?

What chance wind took her there? Most likely the same wind which brought me today to this stuffy synagogue in the seaside resort of Lynn and, puffing out its white fluffy cheeks, deposited me on a chair next to a stout lady sweltering in her best frock. Soul drifting freely through ethereal mists, today belonging to me and beating your tiny wings so painfully against my ribs, but yesterday assigned to her who stood unmoving in the doorway of that house in the Arbat: who would be so rash as to say what wind bears you, my free, tearful soul, through a world startled into wariness as you brush against it on your passage, seeking, like a shadow cast on water, your own time and space?

* * *

'...No-one else might notice it, but I say there's an incredible likeness there. Of course, Lydia was pretty as a picture, whereas this one has her father's features, more's the pity. But her smile, her mannerisms! And her eyes! Just like her! I even find it unnerving sometimes, the way she fiddles with her plait when she gets worked up. Exactly the same gesture! How do you explain that? You could understand if she were her granddaughter, then at least she'd be directly related, wouldn't she? But Lydia was... what, her great-aunt.'

'Did Lydia die in Paris, then?'
'No, what gave you that idea? She came back just before the war broke out. She'd dragged out that month she promised to come back after. Of course, she must have taken leave of her senses, leaving her husband and running off with a lover like that. Like in some cheap novelette! Not that there was anything the least bit bohemian about her, mind you - she was more your conventional housewife, your home-loving type... She was just so besotted she couldn't think straight any more. And then there was that idiotic obsession with truthfulness that she had! How many women are unfaithful to their husbands, but keep quiet about it? But she wasn't like that... Still, what else would you expect from someone educated at the Smolny Institute? La creme de la creme, they were. As for that drip she ran off with, I can't to this day imagine where she could have picked him up. How could she, with her upbringing, consort with him openly like that, with the whole city looking on? And then Paris... That was all her idea, you know: he wasn't to blame at all, poor fellow. Do you think he wanted to come between her and her husband? Do you think he wanted to shoulder all that burden? As for her, she couldn't take it - cracked up, she did. No, I often think to myself: God forbid that my girl should ever suffer a fate like hers! And that likeness to her is something we could well do without.'
'Oh, come on - outward likeness can be a matter of pure chance!'
'What are you saying, Anya? In that case everything in the world could be pure chance, ourselves included. Tell me: isn't marriage a matter of pure chance, then?'
'It depends which marriage you're talking about...'
'I'm talking about any marriage, for heaven's sake! You remember how close my husband and I were for all those years? But then if you look at it like that, our marriage really does seem to have happened purely by chance...'

* * *

She was still in Paris, although she should long since have returned to Moscow, where the man with the plump white face sat for hours at a time in the darkened nursery, his eyes, reddened by sleepless nights, fixed on that little face redolent of milk. She should long since have returned to Russia, where following on from the rain, powdery snow had whitened houses and fences in the space of a day, and where now a cab encrusted with icy flakes drove up through this first snow to halt outside a corner house on Bolshaya Dvoryanskaya Street.
'Liza, come quickly and look, Mr Lopukhov's just arrived! The barrister I told you about, do you remember? The one who was at the Aseyevs' last summer? From St Petersburg? He's setting up in legal practice here, you know - his estate's about fifteen miles from Mummy's. Come here, Liza!'
She went over to the window, hunching her thin shoulders. She had a black ribbon tied in her plait and was wearing a blue and white plaid dress. Her hair, she herself had to admit, was thin and nothing special to look at - pigtails. Now Lydia's hair - that was something different! Lydia was in Paris, for heaven's sake. Was she out of her mind? Mummy and Daddy had been talking about her again yesterday, and Mummy had been crying. Last month Daddy had been to Moscow and seen Nikolay Vasilyevich and Koko, and he'd brought back some photographs: Koko sitting sad-eyed on a little white horse. Lydia must have been out of her mind. So that was Lopukhov, was it? He was settling up with the cab driver. Quite a young-looking face, he had. His moustache gleamed silver, as if powdered. Now he'd grabbed his bag and bounded up the steps to the front door. What was he so full of beans about?
All the following day in class she was absent-minded, as if in a dream. Fat Nadya Subbotina handed her a little album bound in velvet. It was the leavers' class, and they were all writing each other little mementos in verse. Nadya Subbotina had no plans to enrol for women's higher education: she was going to marry her cousin. They'd applied to the Synod for a special dispensation, which had been granted. What an idiot Subbotina was! She'd get married, have children and spend all her time quarrelling with the cook. That wasn't for Liza: in August she, Lala and Musya would be off on the train to Moscow - off to the women's French course in Moscow! Off to hear Shalyapin! Blok, Bely and Severyanin were all there. Lydia had told her all about it. Three Sisters at the Moscow Art Theatre! No-one would even suspect that she came from the provinces. As for that Lopukhov, there was nothing special about him. Musya said he was a hard drinker, and that he gambled at cards. And she said he went out to the gypsy camp to hear the gypsies sing. Well, Daddy used to do that when he was young, but Musya said Lopukhov had a gypsy woman as his mistress. He sounded just like the character in that story by Tolstoy, A Living Corpse!
'Write something,' said Subbotina, indicating the album with her eyes. What an idiot she was! Every last space in her album taken up, yet still she wanted more. God, who'd come up with this priceless gem?

When the earth in evening's shade is lurking,
I'll wait for my doorbell to give voice.
Dear friend, your duty you'll be shirking
If to visit me then is not your choice.

She turned the page to avoid being contaminated by such drivel and wrote out in a sloping hand:

My soul is like a nest where, fluttering
And struggling to be free, young fledglings sing, -
But, when the last of these has learned to fly,
Will be to an abandoned house akin,
With doors ajar, through which the autumn sky
Sends the first snow, and fallen leaves drift in.

Odd that this poem of Alexander's should have lodged so firmly in her memory. He'd given it to her last summer at their dacha: taken it out of his waistcoat pocket and presented it to her. That morning they'd picked water-lilies at Chudin Pond. There'd been a lot of people there, but only one rowing boat, and that was leaky. Alexander had been invited to stay with them by her brother, Sasha. In her mind she conjured up a picture of her brother: thin, stooping, with long arms, and wearing the uniform of a railway engineering student. One couldn't even say he looked all that young. In fact, for a twenty-four-year-old his face didn't look young at all, with its sallow complexion and enormous bulging eyes. He'd contracted tuberculosis as a child, and Mummy (who had just buried her eldest daughter - another Lydia, after whom our Lydia was named) had dropped everything and whisked him off to various health spas for a year. She'd put him on a diet of fresh German milk straight from the cow, pumped him full of sea air, and nursed him through it. Even so he'd continued to suffer poor health. The slightest thing would bring on a feverish chill. How on earth did he cope with studying in St Petersburg, built on those marshes? Nanny always said, 'Children bring their parents nothing but woe,' and she was right. Sasha coughing, Lydia in Paris... What did all that do to Mummy? Oh, if it weren't for the French course she wouldn't leave her for anything in the world, she'd never go to Moscow! After all, she could get married too if she wanted, to Alexander. For hadn't he fallen in love with her then, after the water-lilies? 'He's handsome, a real Prince Charming,' Nanny had said. A prince he might be, yet he'd blushed to the roots of his hair when he'd given her that poem! He hadn't said anything about being in love, though. Only before he was due to leave had he knocked at the door of her room, his jacket buttoned up, his hair neatly parted and gleaming.

'I do not venture to ask for your hand in marriage, Liza,' he'd said to her, 'for I know I should be refused. Yet permit me, as they say in uplifting books, to hope. Permit me to wait.'
And he'd kissed her hand, elegantly and with old-world gallantry. That evening, unable to keep it to herself, she'd told her mother all about it. Her mother had laughed at first, but then she'd looked sad. Of course, she'd remembered Lydia. Most of her thoughts revolved around Lydia these days.
It was really embarrassing having to walk around with a satchel on her back like some little schoolkid. She was grown-up now, a young lady, soon to be a student on a women's higher education course. But Mummy didn't want her to develop a stoop like Sasha and wouldn't let her carry a bag.
He came out of his front door just as she was approaching hers on the opposite side. The street was empty, and sparse flakes of dry snow fluttered in the bright sunlight. He paused for an instant, glancing at her absent-mindedly. Their eyes met. There was nothing special about him. Lopukhov by name, Lopukhov by nature, she thought. He smiled as he pulled his gloves on. She frowned, unable to decide whether he'd smiled at her or not, and stood watching him go with her mouth half-open, quite forgetting that this was not at all the done thing for a grown-up young lady, soon to be a student. Her shoulders were aching from the satchel. He had set off down the road at a brisk pace, almost running, with flakes of dry snow settling on his back as he went.

* * *

'...I have a craven fear of returning home, even though thoughts of Koko torment me more than ever. If you can, Mummy, if I may ask your forbearance at least in this, then do not condemn me. The thought that my whole life is finished fills me with horror. I have recurring dreams about locked gates: I have only to fall asleep to see them in front of me. Nikolay Vasilyevich would take me back at once, but the very thought of resuming our senseless life together throws me into despair. I know what you will think when you read this letter, Mummy dear: you will think of my selfishness, my terrible self-absorption, and no doubt you will be right. Otherwise, would all this have happened? However that may be, I hope that my health will recover, and that three months from now I shall embrace you all again, and that you will find it in your heart to forgive me...'

* * *

I returned to Moscow just before the outbreak of war. By a strange coincidence it was pouring rain. Rivulets ran down the dark-green signboard with its black lettering: Dr N.V. Filitsyn. Nervous and psychiatric disorders. The front door opened, and someone came out, putting up a silk umbrella as he went on his way. My legs felt like jelly as I stepped forwards, out of the rain and into the darkened hallway.
He was standing in the doorway of his study, not looking at me.

Stop! What is this? I'm getting confused here. What have I got to do with it? I'm sitting in this synagogue in the provincial seaside resort of Lynn, brought here by a wind that puffed up its white cheeks and blew, drying my grey travelling dress on the way.
How many years have gone by... No wonder it's dry...

She removed her hat and sank down on a chair. Neither of them said anything for a while, and he did not look at her.
'Where's Koko?'
He did not turn his head or alter the direction of his rigid gaze.
'I said, where's Koko?' she repeated in a faint voice, frightened now.
'Koko's with his aunts,' he replied calmly. 'They're bringing him here tomorrow. I thought it would be better for us to discuss matters in his absence.'
'I'm not prepared to discuss anything, I've just come back to be with Koko. I can't imagine how we're going to sort things out between us, because...'
'Because you persist in being another man's mistress!' he suddenly yelled, fixing his bloodshot eyes on her face. 'How I hate you! Yes, I hate you,' he repeated in a loud whisper, savouring the words. 'You have no right to return to this house, you have no right to touch our child with hands that have touched... How I hate you!'
'Then why did you allow me to return?' she whispered.
'Why? Because I love him, because he is everything to me! I have nothing, nobody apart from him. If it weren't for him I should have strung myself up long before now. Yes, strung myself up from the nearest hook, without a second thought! He may be only six years old, but he understands everything, everything! Only he can reconcile me to this sordid life. And you're his mother, more's the pity for him and me. Do you really think I could deprive him of his mother, of what is his by right? Just the fact of asking why I allowed you to return shows your complete and utter lack of understanding!'
'What do you want me to do now, then?' she asked quietly. 'Wait, don't shout at me - for the sake of all that's holy, don't shout at me, hear me out. The fact is, I'm not well, there's something wrong with my heart. Let me finish! I don't ask for pity of any kind, because in this terrible mess we're in you will always be in the right and I shall be the guilty party, but I...'
'I don't give a damn for your ailments! Not a damn, do you hear? I prayed to God to send you at least some punishment for all we've been through, for all that my son has had to suffer in his poor little heart!'
'Very well, I shall say no more. Even if you wish me dead...'
'I don't wish you dead. I don't wish anything for you, it's all a matter of complete indifference to me. You can stay here as lady of the house, in full charge of domestic arrangements. I'm well aware that your inborn depravity gives you no choice but to continue with this sordid liaison or even seek out some new one. You're no more to blame for your proclivities than my patients for their hallucinations and obsessions. Your psyche has just become enslaved by the flesh: it's not uncommon. I even feel sorry for you, if that makes you feel any better...'

My arms and legs had gone dead. All I could feel was this bird fluttering in my throat, constantly struggling to spread its wings and escape, and so allow me to draw breath. But its wings wouldn't spread, and I couldn't get any air...

...and then came her automatic response, filling the silence that had fallen in the hallway: 'What proclivities? Why do you have to insult me like that?'
'My God, you're so naive I could laugh!' he said, and gave a rapid burst of laughter. 'Can't you see what I'm talking about - what I became aware of during the very first months of our married life? You were still practically a child, but I saw through you completely! You never loved me, you were as cold as a fish towards me, and yet your instinctive depravity gave birth to this quite outstanding artistry, this awful seductive allure - even in your relations with me, for whom you had no feelings of love! Do you think I don't remember the way you used to smile at me at nights? You even contrived to turn your pregnancy into a kind of display. In the final month, when you started to walk with that duck-like waddle, you even managed to flaunt that in such a way as to make everyone ogle you and your body!'
'I feel unwell. I shall go to my room if you have no objection.'
'You do that.' And with a cough he made way to let her pass.