“My love involves the love before; My love is vaster passion now; Though mixed with God and Nature thou, I seem to love thee more and more.” – Alfred, Lord Tennyson
There are one thousand boys and men whose bodies are mashed in together at Starii Oskol, close to today’s border between Russia and Ukraine. One thousand halted hearts, two thousand jellied eyes.
And in an apartment block in a strange city called Kiev, Margarita, an old woman, drops her phone to the floor.
There was a land somewhere once, a land that sloped down into a river, the river once cradling a civilization and the reflection of Agrippina’s Children’s unlucky stars. As a girl, Margarita wanted to go swimming in the black water, among the undulating constellations. Then the war happened.
The Children of Agrippina belonged to two fathers, one a “proper” one, the other one not so proper. This was the reason why Margarita was rarely spoken of and to. Volodya spoke to her all the time though; he talked, talked, talked, flashing his soft smile and his good teeth, unselfconscious in the pants that Agrippina turned inside out and re-sewed. Our Mother of the Heavy Gaze, Agrippina, whose heaving breasts and bobbing curls will shrink, freeze-dried, into a small wooden frame beneath a long, streaked mirror, though one has to wonder if she’d mind, knowing how ungracious the mortal earth had been to her.
Volodya went off in the summer of ’41, but not before a picture was taken: a searing thing, where the black-and-white tones could not quite hide the blue of the eyes. His letters were carefully folded over, written in pencil, sometimes with an addendum that “my buddy let me write this on his back,” sometimes with a star or two in the margins. They were cheerful and free of bad details, like most letters from the front in the early, ugly years. Then they stopped.
Margarita grew into a woman so pretty, she landed herself a decorated war-hero and officer heading for the big times even with a divorce in her past and a kid on her hands. Her mother-in-law threw up her dark Don hands and exclaimed that there were plenty of women, and very few good men, and how on earth someone like Margarita walked in and dragged off her handsome Pyotr was as mysterious as the tide that turned the war, to her mind.
“Luck,” Volodya had told her once, flipping a coin with his knuckles and then making it appear by her ear, “is like a sleight of hand. It’s imperceptible, how it works, but there’s still a mechanism involved. I don’t know if we can ever understand the mechanism.”
Officially missing in action, never properly dead, Volodya had grown sublime and ever-present: his cheek was the skin of a ripe vacation peach, his voice was the full-bodied laughter of the boys at Pyotr’s army headquarters, the men who held their commanding officer in enough esteem to only sneak the most perfunctory of glances at lovely, tragic wife. When the twins were coming out of her and the doctor was begging her to hold on and not die, it was really Volodya who was whispering to her, talking, talking, holding her little hand in his big hand and squeezing.
On May 9th, 1945, Agrippina beat her chest and wailed. Margarita and sister Rosetta ran in from the street, flushed with the exertions of celebration, and paused in the doorway. Margarita was always apologetic, even in her old age, for having been one of the two that had not gone away and dissipated into the hills and grass and the wings of the larks. There were other deaths, of course: her singing middle sister, dead of diphtheria in a war-time winter. Margarita’s lost father, a bit of a scoundrel, all things considered, but not in a way that warranted an early grave, she always thought. Nearly thirty million others. But it was Volodya’s ghost-death, almost-death, uncertain-yet-hovering-around-the-edges-of-things-death, that was more terrible somehow. Or maybe she just loved him more.
Amnesia. It was a pretty word, like Agrippina. She flipped it over often in her mind, as Pyotr snored beside her and the girls twitched and grew in their warm beds. It was possible he was knocked out, lost to his artillery unit, his identification misplaced or taken or destroyed. It was possible a nurse’s eye fell upon him in an infirmary somewhere.
He had a good woman. And two children. A boy and a girl. Both with his eyes and mouth. They snuck hard-shelled caramel candy out of a small crystal vase his wife kept at the top of the cupboard. One day, he would call. Even as she got old, and the lost, but living Volodya even older (though she had a hard time picturing that), even after men his age began to leave earth like flocks of migrating birds hearing some call perceptible only to them, she believed that he may make contact. Even after she buried Pyotr, she waited for Volodya to call as she waited for her own end in this country that had suddenly decided to turn foreign on her, in this new century that marched bravely forward, not bothering to see if she could keep up.
The girls, meanwhile, had bad marriages, for the most part. Not quite born under the same stars, but one had to wonder. When Volodya called, she would ask him about his children and how their lives turned out. In the silences between the comings and goings of her girls and their children and their children’s spouses and girlfriends, she waited.
The man who called had been vacationing in Crimea with her youngest daughters, the twins. He called from across the ridiculous border, from Moscow, and spoke gently. He was old military, and kept himself busy in retirement with papers and databases and the lost. Lost with bullet holes for eyes and lead for brains. Lost in fields, in ditches, in the tall grass. Lost to home and country and warm, reaching hands.
Volodya, however, was not among them. Publically listed as MIA due to error, he had been interred, along with a thousand or so unlucky bodies, in a brotherly grave (that’s how they are called) at Starii Oskol. Unlucky bodies, not unlucky souls, for their souls were not in the jurisdiction of the Red Army, this the retired officer knew for certain.
“Oskol,” Margarita thought. It sounded like “oskolok” – fragment, sliver. As if life, in its final act, had decided to speak to her in lines of sly verse. She wondered why it had come to her now, this place, and thought that maybe all her waiting was really for something, or someone, else. She felt tired in her body, a good weariness, for once, the breathless, ecstatic weariness of a winning long distance runner. She put the phone away, and opened up the balcony door, and counted the stars as they came in over the tin roofs of her neighbourhood.
Lucky or unlucky, they were still and bright and hers.
I can see him in the rain, keeping a hand over his cigarette with his overcoat collar up. He seems like a nice guy. Everyone says I have his eyes, even the shape. Isn’t that funny? I’d like to come over and tap him on the shoulder and see if it may be a little like staring into a mirror.
“But not yet. Not just yet.”