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New Year’s 1932. Carmel by the Sea.
Rocking on the razor-musseled bay, lulled by the sleepy toll of buoy bells, the music of rigging, the eloquent stanzas of the waves, I wait for news from the sea. No boys and girls play on the deserted beach now, only a few stoic fisherman huddle on upturned buckets. The slow labor of the poet building himself a stone house at the cove’s south end makes mild entertainment. If I knew him better I’d tell him the danger of trusting to solid things. It’s an illusion. All one needs is a rented cabin, a small boat, a garden gone to seed for winter, a decent stove. I watch the lanky form of my landlord’s son crossing the shingle, coat collar up, stopping by to collect rents. I have the money in a cigar box back in my cabin, most of it anyway. It’s only five dollars, but the shack’s not built for winter. I don’t complain, there are shutters to block out a storm, and an iron stove with a solid pipe. In a few minutes, I will beach my boat on the pebbly shore and give him his due — we ’ll share a bottle of homebrew, or perhaps he comes with a flask. No liquor on the premises just now — though it will come soon, down from San Francisco. Those who love poetry, even my unreadable foreign brand, are a tender breed. Why don’t you write in English, Marina? asks my friend Elizabeth. You speak it so well.
My dilemma. My English is good enough for the little stories I publish in pulp magazines, but for poetry one needs one’s native language. The voice of the soul is not so easily translated. Though to say ‘soul’ here is already wrong. We say dusha, not just meaning the spiritual entity, but the person himself.
A tug on the line. I pull in a shining perch, shockingly alive. I add it to a rockfish in my pail and row back to shore, I have a motor
but spare the gas when I can. At times like this I surprise myself, how I’ve managed to create something of a life on this foggy shore out of the broken pieces of myself, scavenged from the sea like flotsam. Or is it jetsam...it irks me not to know the difference. I will have to consult my oracle, the giant moldy Webster’s I’ve acquired since my arrival here, the very edition we had in my childhood home that lived on a stout shelf along with the Nouveau Larousse Illustré, the Deutsches Wörterbuch, and Dahl’s Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Great Russian Language...When I was very small, I had to sit on my knees to read these great books. Why do you not write in English, Marina? Because when you are flotsam, or jetsam, you cling to what is yours.
After the landlord’s lanky son leaves, that delightful image, I lay my Webster’s on the scrubbed table in the lantern light, to learn that flotsam is the debris left from shipwreck, while jetsam is merchandise thrown overboard from a ship in crisis to lighten the load. Ship in crisis. That it was. The difference seems to be tied to the fate of the ship. Did it survive after shedding those such as myself, tossing us overboard—jetsam—to lighten the load, or did it founder, to be torn apart, mastless and rudderless, the planks and boards washed ashore—flotsam—perhaps one bearing the ship’s name. And the name was . . . Revolution.
I can hear her half a mile off, Elizabeth in her clattering jalopy. I’ve made cornbread in my iron pot, a Dutch oven...always the Dutch, showing up in surprising places. I will have to look that up. I dredge the pink-gilled perch in cornmeal and fry it with a hunk of salt pork. My mouth stirs these tasty ks, the t, the p—Hunk of salt pork...My friend has brought a crate of artichokes down from Salinas and Polish vodka—Smirnoff. Where did she find it? The Americans prefer their native bourbons and ryes. Such a blessing after the Prohibition years of bathtub hooch. Her company is so sweet—this lovely girl with lines to grace the hood of a luxury car. Yet she treats me as if I were the exotic one — her movements careful and calm. What have I done to deserve to be treated so tenderly? Am I so dikaya—wild—that I might startle and take flight like a red deer?
After dinner, she showers me with gifts, H.D.’s Red Roses to Bronze, and the new Wallace Stevens, books she, a student of literature at the University at Berkeley, can ill afford. And now she’s hiding something else behind her back, her hazel-gold eyes bright, anticipatory. I pour more vodka into our jelly-jar glasses and pretend not to notice. Finally, she holds it out, a gift wrapped in a sheet of the San Francisco paper. I flex it—thin, paperbound—and try to guess. “A layer cake? A phonograph?” Then tear open the wrapper.
Russian. Kem byt’? A book for children—Who Will I Become? by Vladimir Mayakovsky. My heart catches in my throat like fingers in a slammed door. Mayakovsky, dead two years now. Dead by his own hand. Or maybe not. You never know. But dead just the same.
“Do you know it?” she asks, eager to have surprised me.
I shake my head, remembering the last time I saw him, in Pet- rograd at the House of Arts, a robust and charismatic man, full of swagger. Who Will I Become? Inside, the same stepped verse he came to favor. This is the ship that sailed on without me: 1928, Government Press. And here are the child’s choices: doctor, worker, auto mechanic, pilot, streetcar conductor, engineer. But no Chekist. No apparatchik. And nowhere a poet. Nowhere a cloud in trousers.
I get very drunk that night in the little cabin, and recite aloud everything I know penned by Vladimir Vladimirovich. I sing it as he did, that thrilling bass voice, booming like the waves, so Elizabeth can hear the music. When I run out of his poems, I move on to Klebnikov, Chernikov, Kuriakin. My pretty friend cannot believe how many lines I know by heart, but this is nothing. There’s no end to the flow once the gate is opened. Here, they teach children to think, but they don’t train the memory. I suppose they cannot imagine what a person might be called upon to endure, when a line of poetry can mean the difference between despair and strength. I
drip candlewax into my glass, watched the drops swirl and adhere. “What are you doing?” she asks.
“It ’s something we used to do, to tell our fortunes.” I recite for her:
On St. Basil’s eve, cast the wax in water. At midnight cast the wax.
Sing the songs the girls have sung
since ancient times.
Prepare, my dear
If you dare, my dear to see your future.
The Pouring of the Wax (January 1916–February 1917)
1 St. Basil’s Eve
Midnight, New Year’s Eve, three young witches gathered in the city that was once St. Petersburg. Though that silver sound, St. Petersburg, had been erased, and how oddly the new one struck our ears: Petrograd. A sound like bronze. Like horseshoes on stone, hammer on anvil, thunder in the name—Petrograd. No longer Petersburg of bells and water, that city of mirrors, of transparent twilights, Tchaikovsky ballets and Pushkin’s genius. Its name had been changed by war—Petersburg was thought too German, though the name is Dutch.
Petrograd. The sound is bronze, and this is a story of bronze.
That night, the cusp of the New Year, 1916, we three prepared to conjure the future in the nursery of a grand flat on Furshtatskaya Street. Down the hall, the sounds of a large New Year’s Eve soiree filtered under the door—scraps of music, women’s high laughter, the scent of roasted goose and Christmas pine. Behind us, my younger brother Seryozha sketched in the window seat as we girls prepared the basin and the candle.
Below in the street, harness bells announced sleighs busying themselves transporting guests to parties all along the snow-filled parkway. But in the warm room before the tiled stove, we breathlessly circled the basin we’d placed on the old scarred nursery table, its weathered apron ringed with painted sailor boys, waiting for midnight. I stroked the worn tabletop where I’d learned to make my letters, those shaky As and Бs and Bs, outlined the spot where my brother Volodya gouged his initials into the tabletop. Volodya, now fighting in the snows of Bohemia, an officer of cavalry. And we brand-new women in evening gowns waited to see our fortunes. I close my eyes and breathe in the scent of that long- ago room, beeswax and my mother’s perfume, which I’d dabbed on my breasts. I still see Varvara in her ill-fitting black taffeta gown, and Mina in a homemade dress of light blue velvet, and me in russet silk with an olive overlay, my hair piled on my head, sculpted that morning by M. Laruelle in the Nevsky Passazh. Seryozha—my brother, my lost one — with his long poet ’s locks, sported a Russian blouse and full trousers stuck into soft boots in shocking defiance of wartime custom, which dictates that even noncombatants strive for a military air.
I was sixteen, the same age as the century, my brother one year younger. Waiting for midnight, our three heads converging over the basin of water: Varvara’s cropped hair, the dusty blue-black of a crow; Mina’s, ash-blonde as Finnish birch, woven into that old- fashioned braided crown she couldn’t be persuaded to abandon; and me, with hair the red of young foxes crossing a field of snow. Waiting to see our fortunes. Kem byt’? indeed.
A sun, a seal, a wedding ring. A house, a plow, a prison cell.
It seems like a scene in a glass globe to me now. I want to turn it over and set the snow to swirling. I want to shout to my young self, stop! Don’t be in such a hurry to peel back the petals of the future. It will be here soon enough, and it won’t be quite the bloom you expect. Just stay there, in that precious mo- ment, at the hinge of time...But I was in love with the Future, in love with the idea of Fate. There’s nothing more romantic to the young — until its dogs sink their teeth into your calf and pull you to the ground.
On St. Basil’s eve, we cast the wax in water. And the country too had poured its wax In the year of the 9 and the 6.
What sign did I hope to receive that night? The laurel crown, the lyre? Or perhaps some evidence of grand passion—some ardent Pushkin or soulful Blok. Or maybe a boy I already knew — Danya from dancing class, Stiva with whom I’d skated in the park the day before and dazzled with my spins and reckless arabesques. Or perhaps an officer like the ones who lingered before the gates of our school in the afternoons, courting the senior girls. I see her there, staring impatiently into the candle flame, a girl both brash and shy, awkward and feigning sophistication in hopes of being thought mysterious, so that people would long to discover her secrets. I want her to stay in that moment before the world changed, before the wax was poured, and the future assembling like brilliant horses loaded into a starting gate. Wait!
My younger self looks up. She senses me there in the room, a vague but troubling presence, I swear she catches a glimpse of me in the window’s reflection—the woman from the future, neither young nor old, bathed in grief and compromise, wearing her own two eyes. A shudder passes through her like a draft.
Midnight arrived in a clangor of bells from all the nearby churches, Preobrazhensky, St. Pantaleimon, the Church of the Spilled Blood, bells echoing throughout the city, escorting in the New Year. Solemnly, I handed the candle to Mina, who pushed her spectacles up on her nose and bent her blonde head over the basin. Precise as the scientist she was, she dripped the wax onto the water as I prayed for a good omen. The lozenges of wax spun, adhered, linked together into a turning shape, the water trembling, limpid in candlelight. To my grave disappointment, I detected no laurel wreath, no lyre. No couples kissing, no linked wedding rings.
Varvara squinted, turning her head this way and that. “A boot?”
Seryozha peered over our shoulders. Curiosity had got the better of him. He pointed with a long, graphite-dark finger. “It’s a ship. Don’t you see — the hull, the sails?”
A ship was good—travel, adventure! Maybe I’d become an adventurer, and cross the South Seas like Stevenson...though the German blockade sat firmly between me and the immediate realization of such a heady destiny. Or perhaps it was a metaphor for another kind of journey. Could not love be seen as a journey? Or the route to fame and glory? Try as I might to tease out the mean- ing, it never would have occurred to me its final dimensions, the scope, the nature of the journey.
Varvara poured for Mina. The wax coalesced—a cloud, a sleigh? We concurred—a key! She beamed. Surely she would unlock the secrets of the world, the next Mendeleev or Madame Curie. No one considered that a key might lock as well as unlock.
And Varvara? The swirling dollops resolved themselves into—a broom. We shouted with laughter. Our radical, feminist, reader of Kollontai, of Marx and Engels, Rousseau and Robespierre—a housewife! “Maybe it’s a torch,” she said sulkily.
“Maybe it’s your new form of transport.” Seryozha quipped, settling himself back into the window seat.
She sieved the little wax droplets from the water and crushed them together, threw the lump in the trash, wiped her wet hands on a towel. “I’m not playing this stupid game anymore.”
Seryozha refused his turn, pretending it was a silly girl’s pastime, though I knew he was more superstitious than anyone. And behind us, in the red corner, the icon of the Virgin of Tikhvin gazed down at us, her expression the saddest, the most tender I had ever seen. She knew it all already. The ship, the key, the broom.