Into Siberia

Photo: Melissa Maldonado

He was perched on a granite stone that was searing his bare legs. Baked by the sun, it was emanating a warmth that might have been comfortable during a crisp evening or if a cool breeze would dare to disturb the moist heavy stillness. But with that relentless blazing orb beating down on him, the stone only intensified his suffering. Even so, this was hardly a match for the boiling turmoil inside of him.

The unbearable summer heat was addling his mind and tugging his thoughts along illusory roads towards the overcrowded air-conditioned shops of the cosmopolitan and buzzing St. Petersburg. But it wasn’t just the mechanical rush of cold air on clammy skin that he was missing. He had grown up there. His short life had rooted and sprouted there. The hustle and the bustle were a sanctuary of sorts. A reassuring sign that he was not alone in the world. And even though this feeling of camaraderie was mostly artificial – the constant din of 4.5 million co-inhabitants is hardly an indicator for human connection and belonging – it was more than he had now.

Thrust into this new existence in a rural backwater surprisingly close to the allegorical Siberia, he finally realized how remote his new corner of the world indeed was, and that perhaps the vast Siberian emptiness was not overly metaphorized after all.

He contemplated this as he weaved a parched blade of some wild weed around his fingers. With each loop, the brittle stem crackled and crumbled leaving its residue strewn across his lap. Everything here appeared to be falling to bits. His own world included.

When his mother announced they would be leaving his hometown to live in her native Cherdantsevo he was none too surprised. Things had been getting increasingly difficult for them. Money was scarce, and along with it all of life’s creature comforts, and more and more often its necessities as well. His mother was cleaning the homes of the next generation of elite autocrats and aristocrats at all hours of the day and night. Well, so she said. He had taken to feigning sleep when she waltzed into their cramped one room apartment in a perfumed cloud of scents far more akin to spirits than lye. He had started to simply roll over instead of jolt upright when her phone and some needy client beckoned her awake at some ungodly hour. He rocked himself back to sleep as she quietly got dressed and took a swig from one of the many glass bottles that she had begun depositing in strategic locations: the ledge of the bathroom sink, the wobbly kitchen table, the small shelf by the entryway that had previously been reserved for keys and unopened bills. He knew it was time for them to leave.

He watched as the local boys his age not so cautiously tiptoed across a concrete beam before splashing down into the Sysert. These Cherdantsevo lads were made of seemingly tougher stuff than he was. Their language was coarser and less refined, and they exuded a certain fearlessness. Their wits were also far sharper when it came to the art of subterfuge. They were known troublemakers. And they wanted nothing to do with a well-to-do city castoff. If only they knew the truth. Their stories and his probably had more parallels than they realized. If they were to swap tales of domestic misfortune and woe, they would soon see that calamity had nothing to do with geography. But he didn’t want to be reminded of that part of St. Petersburg. His urge to be a part of something again, to be welcomed, to be accepted was not quite as strong as his desire to forget those less pleasant and strongly suppressed inklings he had about his mother’s late night calls, or the solitude he felt at having to fake ignorance although both mother and son were painfully aware of the truth. No. He was happy to be shunned from the inner sanctum of these boys, who might understand his pain all too well.

Disembodied legs dangled for a nanosecond on their way into the murky river. As the torso slipped into view, he realized how disjointed he himself was feeling. As if bits of him were dangling here and trying to reconnect to some other part of him he had left behind. It appeared as if this lost corner of the world was a breeding ground for metaphors.

If only the heat would let up. If only there were some indication that his mother’s life, and his along with it, were not still spinning out of control. If only he could be sure that their escape from St. Petersburg was not actually a headlong dive into some other trap. A burning inferno that would soon enough morph into a frozen expanse populated by a mysterious folk – by all accounts his kinsmen – so foreign to him that they might as well be their own species.

It was more the giant splash than the muffled cry that drew his attention out of his nightmarish musings and back to the beam. Two of the smaller ganglier boys had jumped down into the water. The slabs of concrete they were balanced on must have been covered in algae because they were clearly struggling not to slip off into the gushing waterfall. At that moment they both tugged backwards and a head popped into view. It was the obvious ringleader of their gang of thugs: a bulky fellow with a home etched tattoo on his neck. Except his usual menacing glare had been wiped from his face. He appeared to be unconscious. And though his two much smaller cohorts were fighting with all their strength to pull him from the rushing water, his dead weight and the tow of the current were proving to be the worthier opponents.

His instinctual and primordial human desire to belong was suddenly awakened. He could jump in and be a hero. They would celebrate his daring and his readiness to risk his own safety for the life of another. He would no longer be the metropolitan misfit. He, and by default his mother, would be adopted by the village clan. And with that kind of support, real fellowship not the loneliness of the masses, they just might be able to crawl out of the abyss they had sunk into. By pulling this boy back from the precipice, they could be drawn out from the murky depths. A life for a life. Tit for tat.

In that instant, their eyes locked. The boy beckoned to him with a wild urgency in his stare and a flip of the neck indicating that he should come over. Share in the struggle. Be a part of some whole. Belong.