Valentin Polozov and Sergei Polozov (boy), Edimonovo Village, Russia, 1962.

Valentin

(Letter to Valentin Polozov—my uncle-cousin whom I remember from my childhood in Edimonovo village, and have met only a couple of times later in life.)

 

        “May 14.  Dear Valentin!

        First off, I want to congratulate you on reaching sixty. I wish you health, happiness, to succeed in all that you do, and to always be surrounded by good people.  Sixty is a good age.  Especially when you still have arms of steel.  Though I’ll bet that you are probably having fun thinking back on yourself at 30…  Am I right?

        I’m sure you’re more than a little surprised to get a letter from me.  How could you not be?  In my all life I have never written you, and now, suddenly, here is a letter.

        I am in Turkmenistan now, chasing my larks and sparrows around the desert.  This makes me immeasurably happy.  Perhaps because of how far away I am it now seemed especially important for me to share the memories that came pouring in for seemingly no reason.

        Not that this was all that sudden.  I am constantly thinking about my childhood, the Volga, Edimonovo, and everything that happened there.  What was sudden, however, was that instead of getting up at 5:30 a.m. as usual, I woke an hour early and jumped out of bed with the urgent need—as if a bomb had gone off in my head—to sit down and write you without putting it off another minute.

         It is very important, in addition to wishing you happy birthday, to thank you now for all the attention and patience you showed me in those already distant, warm and sunny days.  Forgive me for being sentimental, but this is important.  So, without delay: happy birthday and thank you!

         Now let me put things in order. First, that you and I have seen each other three times since I was a kid.  The first time was in August of 1972, when I came to Edimonovo with Markych.  This was the summer when there were all those fires, the smoke was everywhere, and the forest was closed to people on vacation.  I have slides of it looking like twilight at noon.  Do you remember?  There was such a strong wind that it knocked down the tower at night.

         Holy smokes, you never know what is going to happen. I spent my whole childhood believing that when I grew up, I could climb The Tower.  Climbing that thing was the first thing I did when we arrived that summer.  It proved to be nothing but an ordinary triangulation tower (by the time I climbed it, it had become almost totally decrepit—years take their toll), but it had nevertheless retained its mystique.  For the rest of my life it will remain The Mysterious Tower That Reaches The Sky.

          There was a thunderstorm the night Markych and I stayed on the island.  You know what kind of thunderstorms we have in Edimonovo—lighting descending like a tent from above and all sides at the same time.  When we got up in the morning—the Tower was gone!  It collapsed from the wind the night after I had climbed it, at 17, fulfilling the childhood dream I held for more than half my life.  It was as though it waited for me, giving me the chance to taste the accomplishment, teaching me how important it is to make it.

          The next time we saw each other was six months later when, in January of 1973, I came winter hunting with Mitya.  Do you remember him?  He had such a cheerful face and light hair that stuck out like straw in all directions.  We stopped off at your place and then went further to join the rangers on the Zavidovsky Cordon.

          The third and last time was eighteen years later when, after so many years of stories about Edimonovo, I brought my wife and son there for the first time.  We went as far as Old Melkovo, left the car in an old woman’s yard at the last house before the river and sat down on the shore to wait for someone who could take us across to come along.

           My son Teddy had never seen a body of water so large.  To him, the Moscow Sea Reservoir was truly a sea.  He dug in the sand and climbed on the footbridges, where fish scales stuck to the planks and tern were flying overhead, meanwhile everything within me trembled from the realization that I was, once again... here.

           We sat and waited, not knowing what the new system was, whether or not there was still a ferry to the other shore like before.

           Eventually, a boat came from your direction and a man in glasses got out.  An elderly woman and a teenage girl who had been steering remained in the boat.  Then the woman went over to the house and I approached the girl and asked her if she would take us across.  She answered that I needed to ask her grandmother...

           The woman soon returned, and then I recognized her immediately.  It was Valya Karavanova—Valerka’s grandmother.  Just imagine!  Thirty years later, and still I recognized her!  She too stared at me with that stern country look.

           “Polozov?”  She finally said.

          “Yes, but how did you recognize me?  Of course I recognized you from childhood— you haven’t changed one bit.  You’re Valya Karavanova, Valerka’s grandmother, aren’t you?”

           “Mother, not grandmother!  Ha, grandmother… Grandmother is 20 years since at the cemetery.  That was Valerka we just brought across, and this is his daughter.  Ah, Polozov,” she sighed.

           Valerka’s daughter turned to us with her weather-reddened nose and looked on with moderate but remote interest, the way teenagers look at something worthy of their attention, but still not directly relevant to their reality.

           Man…  I was so immersed in my childhood sensations that the actual appearance of a familiar face from that time period pushed out any sense of reality and the thirty years that had passed since then.

           My heart skipped a beat out of sheer embarrassment.

           “Oh God, of course!  Please forgive me.  I lost track of the years, distracted...”

           I bet, Valentin, you are laughing as you read this. Fifteen year intervals...

           Among the mountains and deserts that surround me, I remember Edimonovo not with nostalgia, but with serenity and satisfaction at the fact that everything there happened as it should have.  This is possible only with the happy memories of childhood, those special moments that later determined so many important things, perhaps even the critical aspects of one’s life.  Without Edimonovo, I never would have become an ornithologist—of that I have no doubt, and here you played an important role.  Of course, you will not likely remember any of it, but certain aspects in my childish perception impressed themselves on me very deeply.

           First—the time I pestered you for a month to take me on a hunt.  I was five or six at the time, and you were a few years out of the Army.

           Finally, one day we agreed that we would go the next morning.  I was so excited that night that I almost couldn’t sleep!  Mama wakes me up, and you’re sitting next to my bed in a black naval pea-coat.  I remember that coat down to the texture of its fabric, the scratches on the brass buttons and the special, masculine scent—cheap strong tobacco and something else, indistinguishable.

           We left the house and walked past the cemetery with a very unique fence: squat wooden posts, three round peeled tree trunks between each of them, one above the other, spaced one or two feet apart.  Gray from the sun and wind, by evening they were warm to the touch.   They were perfect for climbing, as if made for that purpose—their size and the space between them was just right.  They were good to sit or stand on, and even for lying on your stomach to watch the slow sunset over the cemetery cross silhouettes.  In the lilac thickets, there were fragments of ancient obelisks—black marble with incomprehensible old writing, the remains of some displaced foreign barons.  I used to think about their strange foreign names—who were they?  What in the world brought them to our Edimonovo?

            Then we went into the field where the Tower was still standing, and met some man there—he was herding cows.  You two sat down for a smoke and started talking about something I didn’t understand.  He nodded at the small caliber rifle as if to say, what are you doing with that thing?  You answered that “this puppy has been pestering the life out of me and I have agreed to take him on a hunt.”

            I clearly remember that at that very moment I suddenly understood that all of this was just a game set up for my benefit, but I simply did not have the strength to give in and be disillusioned, or to renounce this “rifle hunt.”  Not only did I not give any sign that I understood, but even pushed this understanding away, shielding myself from it by examining the rifle bolt and the worn polished barrel, with anticipation of this special event—shooting a rifle on a hunt.  

            The bolt with a ball on the handle resembled a children’s toy, but lay deep inside the ominous dark-polished lock, like a snake under a rock.  It was immediately obvious that it was dangerous, and I gazed at it with fear and respect.

            There was a deep scratch on the rifle stock; that is, there were innumerable scratches on it, but this one was especially deep, a black scar with a triangular dent from some dull, hard object— probably the head of an axe.

While the two of you were talking, I looked around the forest by the Tower at the Crooked Pine nearby—it would be a fine thing to climb it, but there was no time now, after all we were on a rifle hunt; I could barely keep still in my impatience.

            When you finished your cigarettes, we went further into the hollow toward the forest.  Here there was a barn, standing all by itself, where two years later Valerka and Tolka would hide cheap tobacco in a green tea tin can to be smoked in secret. Though I was a member of the gang and sat with them to keep them company, sniffing this sweetish smoke, I myself did not partake (the foundations of my upbringing were unshakable).  Once I tried to inhale, but the wave of panic at the sin I was committing kept me from enjoying it.

            Next, we passed through a dark aspen grove into the depths of the forest before the first clearings that the locals called Grasshops.  These Grasshops still capture my imagination.  Why? They were just like any other clearing. When I came back in 1972, I took Markych there just to make sure that everything was still where it was supposed to be.  They didn’t seem so huge as they had back in the day.  But the mystery associated with them stayed with me, probably because of their name.  As a child, I was certain (and still believe to this day) that this name came from the crazy clacking of the grasshoppers in the midday heat of summer, when nothing could drown them out.

            It was as if something had happened to these grasshoppers, something special, so important that they no longer engaged in the everyday business of insects but only clacked and clacked as hard as they could in an ecstatic, euphoric effort.  The next day they would do the same, and the next day and the next.  I still think that even if something important happened every day, they would never get accustomed to it but would yell and yell in these clearings. 

            I remember my unbearable fatigue as I walked through there, the air shimmering above the grass and all the multicolored summer weeds when we were returning after a morning’s hike for mushrooms or berries.  I would be dragging along in the heat in my rubber boots— so out of place at noon— scarcely lifting my feet, burdened with all the warm clothes I had taken off. I’d dream of finally getting home, throwing everything off, and running barefoot down the warm path to the shore, nearly jumping out of my skin with impatience (“Hurry, Mom!”), and grabbing a rough-skinned cucumber on the way.   At the gate, past the vegetable patch, in the shadow of the high grass along the fence where the path was still cold and wet from the dew, each time such a surprise to my bare feet…  But I am straying off topic.

            So, you and I were approaching the Grasshops, and there at the а outskirts, a good-sized aspen had fallen. 

“Look at this,” you said, “an aspen!  There must be hares around, since they like aspen bark better than anything… Keep an eye out for them.”

            Naturally, I couldn’t see a thing. 

            “I was right.  There’s a hare over there, see it?” Valentin continued.  “Well shoot it, Serega (short for Sergei; less formal than another short form—Serezha)!”

            “I see it, I see it, give me the rifle!” I say, even though I can’t see a thing.  You loaded the rifle for me, laid it across your knees and said, “Well take good aim, site the target right under the little apple, and hold your breath”.  As if I could breathe,  stopping long before my cheek touched the stock.  I made my best effort to aim, looking for a place I thought might be most suitable for a hare, if there had really been one.  Then there was the whip crack sound of the rifle shot.  Then you said with regret, “Oh, you missed Serega, it ran away!  But maybe it didn’t.  Just in case, try another shot!”  I was trembling all over as I had begun breathing again after the shot.

            “Okay,” I said, “I’ll shoot, there he is sitting under the branches…”  Again, the crack of the shot.

            “Now he definitely got away!” you said. “Well, never mind that too much, you’ll have better luck next time…”

            We sat there for a while, looking into the dark depths of the forest, then walked back in silence.  You were in your own thoughts, and I was trying to decide, shaken, whether I should feel bad that it had all been pretend…

            The second moment I remember was when we rowed out to the island and picked up— what fools!—a whole boatload of baby terns, about twenty of them, thinking they were gulls.  The sun was bright, there were lilies on the water, the multicolored soft chicks huddling under their smooth, heavy leaves, and everything around filled with the shrill, desperate cries of adult birds diving at us.  Then we rowed back to the village shore and began to release them, and one after another they all headed straight back for the island like a flotilla of small downy boats.

             Krasolym was on the shore, walking toward the boats with oars over his shoulder. He was a bit “under the weather” (influence) as usual.  His permanently watery eyes were tearing under his red lids, but he was working, so his gaze was stern.  He was wearing a green official cap with an insignia, his amazing Japanese waders given to him by a rich hunter from Moscow, and his knife on his belt.

             Every summer for three years I had been staring at that knife from afar.  Its elk antler handle was worn into brown wavy curves, white bone glistening on the iron knob. The leather sheath was attached with a clasp to a ring on his belt, clattering and swinging as he walked.

             At the time, I thought that we would not be able to escape the ranger’s punishment for illegal capturing of the birds, but you exchanged words on some unrelated matter, and he didn’t even seem to notice us kids.

             By the way, how is Krasolym?  I caught a glimpse of him on my last visit.  I was struck how, 30 years after that sunny morning on the shore, he had ceased to be the giant with rare boots that reached up so high, a wonderful knife on his belt, and shining insignia on his cap way up above my head.  Instead, he looked like a dried-up old man, half tired, half drunk, calmly looking out his window.  He clearly recognized me, as if saying with a secret smile “C'est la vie,  Serega…” He must have passed by now?

            The third and final time we saw each other was when you took me mowing. The cart clattered over the uneven forest road.  I proudly held the reins in my scuffed up hands.  Before my eyes was the broad back of the horse with its rust-colored tail, the high curtain of the viburnum with its useless red grapes shining through on either side of us. (These aren’t like the edible but awfully bitter ashberry that you can throw like a handful of buckshot at the squealing girls.)  Then—the scythe and the smell of freshly mown angelica, and spitting elderberries through its fragrant hollow stalks while you mowed.

            On the way back, a bunch of hay in the cart, the feel of hardened canvas straps on my palm, and me—sitting high up on top of it, joggling back and forth, afraid of falling…

            You see: a negligible detail to an adult, an ordinary day, even a part of it, can for a child become a memory for the rest of his life.  That’s how it was with me.

            Well, Valentin, I will bring this to an end, as it’s already getting pretty long.  I console myself by thinking that this is the first letter I’ve sent, and it is coming from far away.   I hope that it will be pleasant for you to recall those times, and I promise that when I return home, I will come out and visit you.  I’ll tell you about everything I’ve been doing out here in the desert and will find out what you have been up to. Indeed, I heard that the people in the neighborhood unanimously asked for you as their representative, and that the old ladies, as in times past, still adore you for your constant help with everything.

             I look forward to sitting with you and looking at who we are now, the extension of who we were then – in my childhood and your youth.  That’s all.

             Once again, I wish you a happy birthday, and send you health and happiness.  We will see each other again.

             Yours, Sergei.”

 

              As it happened, I did not mail this letter.  Feeling its significance, I decided to send it with somebody flying to Moscow from Turkmenistan, and have it mailed from there to be sure he would get it, thinking that I still had some time before his birthday. But nobody was going that way, and I didn’t get the chance to do it.  When I got back to Moscow in June, I found out that his birthday, instead of June 16, as I thought, was really in May, and that he had passed away unexpectedly two days before his sixtieth, which coincided— perhaps to the second—with the time when I unexpectedly woke up earlier than usual feeling such a clear need to write to him immediately and for the first time…

 

“P.S.       

Dear Valentin,

              Forgive me for not managing to thank you in life.  If we do see each other again, perhaps no apology will be necessary.  We will simply remember how we were.  We will sit on the sunny bank of the Volga, dangling our feet into the shallow water, stirring up the sandy bottom with our toes, and I will thank you for always being so good to me.  Then, you will throw your cigarette butt into the water, push the boat off from the shore, and say “Ah, forget it, Serega… Let’s go!”

(From "Fasciatus")