Sort Of Like How The Name "Ethel" Is Getting Popular Again
Volume II, Issue II - Nov. 2011

At night she rechecks everything: Train tickets, pocket maps, the envelope with the currencies of four nations, birth papers with the "jew" stamp in red, parchment documents freshly inked with orders of release. She has an impulse to iron it all, to firm-out the sheet corners, to give it a starched perfection, maybe a tangible sureness, a paper cut. She does not. She stands on the balcony, listens for the memory of fireworks and friend-speak, waits for the sun to come out, tallies the list once again -- of what was lost, what disappeared, what was forgotten. This is her life ever since she signed over her party card and denounced the past.

* * *

Once upon a time there was a soviet boy, and he had a mother, and they lived behind a curtain of iron, which, because it was iron, kept things out and in in short, it was not porous. Yet behind it things still disappeared, as did the boy's watch, and sled, and father – all mysteries of a ruined land. So the woman cried all night the last time the boy's father left, but less than usual because he has left before and this time it could almost seem like her choice. She thought about calling her own father but he was away with some traveling minstrels in Prague. Her son dragged dirt into the apartment and she washed blood from his face because he had gotten into a fight with another boy, from a different tribe.

The woman's own mother called to complain about how inadequate and imbecile the department at the University was, and how she needed a new pair of winter boots because hers were scrunched up at the tops and could she have her daughter's? The daughter began to say something about what happened, or about what happened again, but stopped because the woman's own mother had not known that the boy's father had been back with the boy's mother for two months now, and wanted to leave his wife, – the other woman, at the other end of the city – but would not, and it was all again as it always was. And the woman's mother would have said, "You just can't keep a man..." and the woman's mother knows about such things, about not keeping. And again the woman thought about her own father, in Prague, and said nothing.

The woman did what she always did in moments like this. She put on her red dress and went out to the party at her friends' central Moscow apartment. Her friends seemed happily married and the husband was a diplomat or a KGB agent.

He had been an assistant to the Soviet embassy in Angola. His wife raised cats. Their gatherings were always warm and jovial, and often peppered with surprises; salt fish, black caviar, well dressed men and banned imperialist cognacs.

The mother kissed her boy on the forehead and started to leave.

"Mom, what time will you be back?" the boy asked.

"Probably late, honey. But the lonely woman downstairs will come to check on you every few hours and you can always call her."

"Okay. Can I call the Story Connect?"

"Of course, honey."

"Mom? I'm sorry I was fighting with the other boy again. He was picking on my friend with the really big shaped head, so I had to, but I won’t anymore. I promise."

"Okay honey." She looked at the black family piano at the corner of his room, the one he refuses to play. "I just want you to be safe, and not scare me. For us not to have to worry about silly things."

"I don't worry. Except when someone is being unfair and then someone else needs to do something to make it fair. That's why I hit him. But I don't worry. And I won't hit him again."

There were cracks in the wood on top piano from when the boy and his friends had played a game of 'Zhakhov's soldiers,' using the great instrument as high ground.

"Sleep." She said.

She checked the new scab below his ear and he started laughing a little.

"Very well. I'll look in on you when I'm back. Sleep now."

"Is my father going to come back? You were yelling at him."

"Your father disappeared, somewhere."


"I don't know."

"Like my watch?"

"Yes. Like your watch."

When she had gone the boy counted to a high number and then called up the Story Connect service because he often couldn't sleep. It was of the few late successes of the new regime. Somehow, in the wake of Glasnost, an initiative for the classic culturalization of young pioneers – little boys and girls – made it through the DUMA, and a free storytelling service was established for the consumption of Soviet children; filled with the complete works of Dumas, Preshenko, and Old Russian tales. The boy liked turning the large wheel on the phone.

The operator told him the story of – the hedgehog who lost his way in the woods on his way to meet the bear. It was dark and he couldn't see anything and became very afraid and then a fog opened itself before him and he saw the shape of something solid and beautiful within the dead bog and heard the near sound of a peaceful and steady splash, the sound of a horse chewing grass, standing there by itself. And all became quiet but for the hum the moon creates in a clearing of the brush. And so the hedgehog allowed himself to lay into the stream and floated down wherever was its due to take him, listening to the water below him and thinking about the magnificent creature he had seen earlier, and floating away. And then the bear pulled him from the stream and told him all about how worried he was about him, and he had tea and honey ready but the hedgehog had lost the biscuit, though this was okay because the bear was just happy he was safe. And they sat there and drank tea with jam and honey, and the bear talked and talked, and the hedgehog sat there warm and safe and listening, but not saying anything and thinking about his adventure, thinking of the dark, of how afraid he was, and how foreign and complete was the sound of that splash.

* * *

And at the party the woman in the red dress sang and danced and was her usual jovial self, pushing away all that was bitter, all that was dry. And she talked with everyone and, as always, she impressed all the guests, even allowing her words to slip into short French and English sorties, when appropriate. And her friends told her how great it was to have her around, as always. And resting on the auburn couch with a glass of a banned French wine in her hand she began a conversation with a German man who had been on the other side of the curtain and was now stationed at the consulate. And that's when she found out how easy it would be to leave, as a Jew, and an idea took root within her. To leave this land forever, and so many others have, and so many others were doing it... "Who knew it could ever pay off to be a Jew," was her jest response. But she had already begun to calculate, to see it, the products of her life here, its weights, its convoluted negations, the things that disappear, the circumference of her world each day growing smaller, the varying tones of grey... and finally, she imagined a chance, the will, to break with what she believed to be a sad and now broken tale – to run.

This thought filled her with uncommon excitement, possessing her like a foreign passion.

"It would be U.S or Israel, hypothetically speaking of course," said the man. He was talking of mythic lands. "But you would be sponsored by NAYA; it is the Jewish survivors' federation. USSR has a quota of religious asylums to release each year. The more we release the more funding we get from the West. It is a political issue and, frankly, an economic one. And I tell you, Gorbachev needs a lot of funding right now and he is very, very open to getting it from the West; actor president or not. It is the only thing keeping his power consolidated and the wolves outside of our gate. He needs time to follow through what he designs for us. We are willing to bargain, to compromise. The boundaries have changed. The cold war is over. It is simply that no one knows it yet."

Like that, the decision was made, and the course set. And though it took a year to file the papers, to save the money, to sell... well, to sell everything and the rest to give away; to denounce membership in the party, and to make way to every appropriate office, and through every, of many, necessary lines – at times a seemingly endless stack of lists – once the sound of flight had entered her mind there was no turning back. It was a life of preparing, and a life between two worlds. A waking state of disturbance and dream, of impulse and restraint, of memories and facts.

* * *

One day the woman's father returned from Prague; and the boy's father too came back to check on the boy. The snow had melted in the sun to reveal a red metal sled, and a plastic watch with a green face had drifted up through the shattered ice from where the boy had tossed it – but by then the boy and his mother too had disappeared.

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