An Enchanted Wanderer: A Memoir
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 Jillian Parker
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 Jillian Parker
An Enchanted Wanderer: A Memoir
by Jillian Parker  FollowFollow
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My words are not written from the edge of a knife. They ooze from between my fingers like mud. There are seeds there, organic filaments composting....read more My writing is full of semi-permeable membranes. I have worked as a medical interpreter, lived in the former Soviet Union; currently, I am employed as an analyst. Numerous times, I have been lost in translation. I have five children. One of them is diagnosed with autism. He is a genius. I have been blessed with an overabundance of genes inscribed with a secret code that spells "mother", and this drives me to continue functioning throughout the shipwreck of what popular culture names a personal life. My pain, your pain erodes the glacier that is my heart. I am melting.
An Enchanted Wanderer: A Memoir
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An Enchanted Wanderer: A Memoir

part one

The enchanted wanderer once again perceived in himself the inspiration of a journalistic spirit and became immersed into a quiet concentration, which not one of his collocutors allowed themselves to interrupt, by even one new question. Yes-- and what more was there to ask? He had confessed the narrations of his past with all of the frankness of his simple soul, and his revelations would remain until their time in the hand of the One, which conceals its foreknowledge from the clever and the reasonable, and only sometimes reveals them to babes.”

~ Nikolai Leskov, The Enchanted Wanderer

“Here is a confession: once, I had an illicit love affair, with a city of shadows.

“There was a time, when wisps of my soul shot up the Ostankino Tower, bounced off the nearest sputnik, and landed anywhere, everywhere, in all wheres that were Moskva. And the city, when I knew her, was drab and dull, in the only shades that communism allowed. She was dingy and dusty, rickety and rusty. But oh, how I loved her. How I would love her still, if only--

“She was my drug, my obsession. I memorized the names of her streets, and inscribed her metro map like hieroglyphics into the pan of my brain. All of the stations, from Kuzminki, to Rechnoi Vokzal, were the humming elixir of our crushing embrace. I caressed the linden trees in her parks, I ran along the curves of her boulevards, I plunged into the evening in the blinking shadows of her silver screen.

“We sat together and absorbed in our intimacy: the revelations of the past's dark secrets, of the unsung heroes, of Vavilov who was ready to die for his sacred seed collection, and those who suffered in the Koliyma. We enjoyed the antics of Stirlitz, who always triumphed over his adversaries.  We played the roles of both the slave Izaura and her champion. Karlsson was our Mickey Mouse, and Krokodil Gena always knew how to make us smile. The wit of the Kukli was not fated to last in the ever-changing disco dance that was Perestroika.

“I was ready to herd her cockroaches, to be chewed out by every last Baba on the block, if I could only be within her confines.

“Never mind if I was like the girl from the provinces, the Limitchitsa who always wants to fit in but never quite does. I did not care; I was there. I burned for her always with anxious ardor, skipping along one step away from her shadows.

“Now she is changed; the streets have been re-named, the facades restored, rings of highways have been built in her, countless rubles have been poured into her to soothe her roughness, to soften her to meet the taste of the nouveau riche. But until some rogue earthquake tumbles all of her towers into her countless catacombs, a part of my heart will always be there with her, beating just beneath the crumbling tiles of a Khruschevka, and I will weep when she weeps; I will dance when she dances.

“And if an iron fist tightens around her, I will ache with her in her anguish...

...moya Moskva.”

 

2014

Perhaps I am not alone in the yearning to find signs of proof that a human being is more than a machine that is used and then discarded when it has served its utilitarian purpose. An aching longing to bear witness to human creativity has ripened in my life even as all I thought I knew or could trust has been shattered. I will go further, and admit: more than once, I have laid my life on the line for the sake of an artist. 

I once heard someone who who happens to be a math genius declare that history  is for the birds. Who needs all of those boring lists of dates and names? Calculations and equations were never my strong point, but ever since the moment I discovered words, I hugged the books containing them closely, and ran to the tall grasses to read them undisturbed. Scanning the pages, I sensed myself feeling for an invisible thread leading across the globe and back through time --to where, I did not know. 

During second grade, I devoured the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and convinced my twin sister firstly, to read them with me, and secondly, to pretend that we were elves. We traced the maps of Lothlorien and Rivendell in the sandbox. If you pronounce the secret code word, I’ll tell you my Elvish name.

We are mirror twins, my sister and I. While walking on the left side of the road, she’d hold up her dominant left hand, and I, my right, from my side of the road. The two hands confessed to one another all manner of fabulous fancies. We memorized the royal lineage of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, reciting the names from Conqueror to Queen. We dabbled in the Hapsburgs and gobbled up Greek myths.

One day during my eighth year, my life took a hairpin turn in a direction that would eventually lead me far away from my mirror. We happened to be visiting a local museum for the first time. I found myself staring in fascination at dioramas of miniature plastic tribesmen perched in epoxy streams, gathering figurative fish. A cross section of the oil pipeline emphasized a major source of our local livelihoods. Enormous depictions of snow-covered mountains and glaciers glared loudly from the walls.

In one section of the museum, artifacts from the history of Alaska had been assembled in approximations of the houses belonging to different peoples and cultures. Near one of those cross-sectioned huts, a museum employee had turned on a tape recorder. I was drawn to the dark plastic rectangle, and could not walk away. Voices sang to me in a scratchy recording: the antiphonal chant of an all-male choir, in a foreign language. I looked around to see if anyone else was as affected by the music as I was. No, they didn't seem to be. 

The language in the recording was speaking to me, a simple antiphon, acapella: a lonely, repetitive, smooth, mysterious, compelling, warm, rich, guttural river. There was something about the music that I was almost, but not quite, able to decipher, something for which I had no words. A museum guide explained to the group that the music was a recording of Russian monks, and it was being played to illustrate how Russians who came to Alaska during the eighteenth century might have sounded. 

My young brain groped and searched in vain for the elusive song behind that song. Soon it would lead me on, like a pied piper, to read Russian novels and poetry, to listen to Russian music, and then inevitably on to Russia herself. I was a magical child. In one of my worlds, I was a Russian girl, who told all of her dreams to an invisible Russian uncle, and hoped against hope to meet him some day.

When I was about sixteen, I voluntarily gave up my voice. It was as if I laid it on the back of a chair absent-mindedly and left it there. It was easier than one might think, because, as a twin, I could let my sister speak for me. If someone said, “Are you girls going to the party,” she could answer, “Yes,” or “No,” and I’d let this be my status as well.

Somewhere in the silence, I waited while unseen shapes gathered and formed themselves into sounds. Human beings are blessed with the gift of sharing syllables with one another that magically transform from one state to another; a trick gases and solids also have a habit of performing. The sounds are transferred back into symbols, into words, on the page, and from there, if they are lucky, they might catch the attention of a pair of eyes, or perhaps voice will recite them aloud.

At long last, I have begun to confess some of the tales of my selves. Forgive me for any incongruous or clumsy sentences. I have yet to become accustomed to the sound of my own voice.

Because we must begin somewhere, let us first yield the stage to one of my dear ones: my ex-mother-in-law, Tatyana Mikhailovna.

1991

Part I: A Perfect Peach

Tatyana Mikhailovna was accustomed to opening her eyes early on weekday mornings. Her body did not need an alarm clock to know that it was time for a cup of coffee. She rolled off the bed and pulled her new orange calico housecoat from its resting place on the back of a chair, slipped it on, and passed through the dingy corridor into the tiny kitchen. A match flashed, and then the gas sprung to life under the kettle. Pink plastic curlers tumbled into the pot on the other burner.


While she waited for the kettle to sing, she measured ground coffee into the turka, and four tea-spoonfuls of sugar, just as precisely as she would have measured chemicals in the lab. The curlers burbled in their pot. She set them aside to cool, but left the gas burning, and held the turka over it, stirring until the sweet aroma of melted sugar and coffee reached her nose. It then was time to add the boiling water, and for the turka to begin its delicate dance over the fire. Just before the bubbling brew reached the rim, she drew it away from the heat, and then she returned it, repeating the process a second and third time, then flicking off the flame. She sliced a piece of bread, peeled the top off of a chunk of butter, and poured the coffee into an orange china cup, punctuated with large white polka dots, and began sipping the potent concoction.

Tatyana checked her profile one last time in the hallway mirror while she unlocked the three sets of deadbolts on the heavy door. Her fine, mousy-blonde hair encircled her face now, in proper, uniform, soldier-like ringlets. She added a touch of the usual orange-red lipstick, slipped on the well-worn beige loafers with one-inch heels, tightened the belt on her overcoat, hoisted her heavy leather bag, and click-clacked down the four flights of stairs which led to the outside world.

Today promised to be a long one. She had lectures scheduled at the Institute all morning, and exam preps at several of the local schools in the afternoon. The fastest way to reach the Institute was to stride around the back of the apartment building, through the orchard at a diagonal, cross the main road, (which always made her nervous), and walk along a field half a mile until she reached the Institute. 

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Sometimes she returned home for lunch, but not today. "Mikhailovna," said her colleague Vera Markovna when it was break-time, "We want you to come to our faculty room for tea." So she found herself passing the statue of Lenin (who stood at attention in front of a set of curtains which, because of exposure to the sun, were no longer red, but a dull pink), and up the stone stairs of the oldest building in the Institute.

"’S dnyom rozhdenia!" ("Happy Birthday, Tatyana!") chirped a flock of greying female colleagues. She flushed in embarrassment, and accepted  a cup of tea from Vera. Her friend pressed a large round packet wrapped in foil into her hands and told her to take it home. Buterbrodi and soup were passed around. Spoons clinked for a few minutes, then chairs scraped, as the women gathered their bags and departed for their next classes.

Tatyana was not obligated to do exam prep, but she had insisted upon taking the job. She knew that the young students were much like her own children, that they needed a lot of nudging to do that which came natural to her: to see their surroundings as a series of theorems, equations and chemical reactions. There were so many elegant explanations in the world of physics, but not many young people who could understand all of the intricacies involved in the function of a glucose molecule, for example. 

It was almost 9 pm by the time Tanya climbed the stairs to the 4th floor and drew back the deadbolts at her own place. She noticed that a baton of fresh French bread had appeared from the local store, and a platter of baked chicken and mashed potatoes awaited her on the kitchen table. Yura had not appeared for a few days. He had announced that he was going off with the guys to ceremoniously burn his Party ticket. She had rolled her eyes without comment, hearing that. Her memory of harsher times (when arriving late to work could mean being denounced and sent to the Gulag) must be more vivid than his.

Where was that foil packet? Here it was, on top of the pile of documents. "Look!" Tanya exclaimed as she opened it. "Markovna, you are a magician," she said. The packet was lined with juicy dates which contained perfect walnut halves in their centers (probably from Vera's own tree), tiny walnut-shaped cakes (two halves baked and then frosted together with a buttery icing, just barely sweetened, and sprinkled with dark sugar), and a row of peach-sized globes. She held one in her palm, marveling. The two pound-cake halves fit together seamlessly. 

Vera had somehow found, or manufactured, food coloring (she was, after all, a scientist) and had rolled the confection in several layers of colored sugar: red, white, and yellow...until it bore an uncanny resemblance to a real peach. Almost too beautiful to eat, bless her heart. Tatyana sat, musing on the way the colors bled into one another, and it reminded her somehow of the Soviet cartoon depicting crimson force of communism in its inevitable spread ‘round the ripening apple of the world. She smiled wryly, placed the “peach” in the center of her favorite saucer, and smoothed the foil over it.

Yura stumbled home just before Tanya drifted off to sleep. He set a small box of chocolates on the ironing table, and fell snoring into bed. Tanya didn't even get a chance to glance into his sparkling, "wild hare" eyes, or to ask him how the ticket-burning had gone, before he had turned his back to her. Wrapped in her house coat, Tanya curled up next to Yura, pretending to watch the late night news show on television. She didn't hear me creep into the room much later to turn off the television set, which, because the television programming had ended for the day, had begun shrieking unmercifully, like a starving cockatiel.

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