“Freedom is Space for the Spirit” by Glen Hirshberg is a fantasy about a middle-aged German, drawn back to Russia by a mysterious invitation from a friend he knew during the wild, exuberant period in the midst of the break-up of the Soviet Union. Upon his arrival in St. Petersburg, he begins to see bears, wandering and seemingly lost.
Vasily’s message arrived by telegram, and Thomas couldn’t bring himself to open it right away. His assumption was that another of the old gang had died. He settled on the red leather couch by the fire in his Charlottenburg apartment and held the envelope, wet from the snow outside, in his hands. Eventually, Jutta stuck her head out of her sculpture studio. She wiped the back of her palm across her dusty, still-sharp cheekbones.
“Good God,” Jutta said, “is that really a telegram?”
“Obviously. He lost his cell phone somewhere?”
“Last I heard—and it was a long time ago——he still uses burners. He doesn’t trust cell phones.”
“Internet cafés all closed?”
“I don’t even think he has e-mail. He doesn’t trust that, either.”
“But he trusts his local telegraph operator? Assuming there are such people still in St. Petersburg? Or here? Or anywhere?”
Grinning, she moved toward the couch, and Thomas had to fight back a momentary and selfish flicker of annoyance. Whatever was in the telegram, he didn’t want to share it, at least not right away. Feeling childish, he watched Jutta lumber closer, her hand on her swelling belly. She smiled at him, and the orange from the fire in the grate caught in her eyes.
“What does it say?”
In the old days, at the end of Soviet times or during the wild Yeltsin years—back when they’d really been doing something, when the art had been the moment itself and not the preserving or capturing or remembering of it—Thomas would have torn open the envelope, tossed it aside. But for this one—the first in years—he fished out his pocketknife, slit the fold, withdrew the folded yellow paper, and laid the envelope carefully atop the Gerhard Richter Baader-Meinhof monograph on the end-table. Then he opened Vasily’s message, and though Jutta could see the words—English words—as well as he could, he read them aloud:
“Happening now. STOP. Invitation letter at Consulate. STOP. Hurry. STOP. FISTS.”
“You know,” said Jutta, “I’m pretty sure they don’t need to say STOP anymore.”
Thomas nodded. “Vasily probably just liked using STOP.”
“Everything about this.” To his astonishment, Thomas felt tears in his eyes.
Jutta was standing right next to him, now, staring down at the note. “They still make us get invitation letters?”
“It’s still Russia,” Thomas murmured.
“I guess,” said Jutta, and for a single moment, in her voice, he heard a hint, a suggestion of exactly the feelings he was having. And of course, that was only fair. She had been there, too. Eventually. He looked away, but Jutta’s dusty, strong-fingered hand slid over his. “Thomas,” she said. “Go.”
“I can’t. The baby.”
“Is due in three months.”
“Start in two weeks.”
“This is Vasily. Whatever he’s up to could last longer than that.”
“Get a cold. Get pneumonia. Your students will live.”
“I’m not…” he said. Then, “I don’t…”
“Call the consulate,” said Jutta. “Get Vasily’s invitation letter and your visa. Go.” Turning away, she threw a tiny sliver of soapstone into the fire; She has missed all this, too, he realized. If not for the baby they’d both assumed they were too old to expect, she’d have dropped everything and gone with him.
In truth, for that matter, she’d have gone without him.
On impulse, and to save money, he took the train. And because he’d somehow transformed, right as he entered his forties, into a tenure-tracked Juniorprofessor der situationistichen Kunst who could almost afford it, he took the fast train. He even treated himself to the last second-class bunk in the last available cabin; he was very nearly a father, after all, and long out of practice. He would be of more use to Vasily rested.
The first hours passed in a blissful, bleary-eyed blur. In the observation car, he shared zákusky and vodka with a wealthy American couple, both in their sixties, headed to Poland for some sort of pensioners’ opera-singer training camp. Thomas’s spoken English was rusty and his alcohol tolerance significantly diminished, so he wasn’t entirely sure he’d understood his companions correctly. But they laughed easily and offered him saltine crackers from their travel bags once they’d polished off the zákusky. Better still, they went silent when the train, slowed by snow, crept into the Lower Oder Valley, and the full moon shot up over the marshlands like a comet streaking over the earth, shedding snow flurries that glittered in the air and on the trees, and silvered the surface of the river.
Later, retreating to his bunk, he met his cabinmates, a blond father and his two white-blond, teenaged sons, all smoking and arguing loudly in Finnish. But they quieted without his asking. The whole time Thomas sorted through his hastily packed duffel bag, scrubbed his face with a wet wipe, changed his shirt, and tried to settle on top of the blankets, the Finns stayed silent. When he laid back, one of the sons wordlessly flicked off the light. And so, for a few minutes, wedged into a rut in the hard mattress as if anchored to a cliff face, Thomas imagined he might sleep. Then the party broke out in the corridor.
Poles, mostly, he thought, listening to their laughter streaming under the bottom of the cabin door along with their cigarette smoke. Some Czechs or Slovaks, too. Kids, mostly. When Thomas sat up, he was surprised to see his cabinmates in their bunks, all of them sleeping or at least motionless.
How can they sleep? he wondered. And then, How can they want to?
Suddenly, he was out of his berth and back in his sneakers. As quietly as he could—silly, really, given the racket from outside—he edged open the door and stepped into the hall.
Almost immediately, the gaggle of students edged away down the corridor, taking up spots at the next windows down, throwing those open to the cold, the whipping wind. They laughed as clouds of snow whirled into the train, exploding against the walls like birds smacking into glass. Smoking and shouting and drinking and laughing, the students ignored Thomas completely.
It was absurd, of course, to expect any different, except that Thomas did. After all, he’d seen so much that they hadn’t, done so much that they hadn’t: won a yearlong study fellowship to St. Petersburg State, then, with Vasily’s help, almost immediately slipped his minders (mostly, admittedly, because why would they have bothered minding him much?) and joined Vasily’s crew of expats and expelled students and poseurs and rabble. For nearly a year, they’d wallpapered windowless squatters’ digs with daisies in abandoned St. Petersburg buildings and left them for no one to find; put on silent concerts, lip-synching and gyrating, in the middle of parks in the middle of the night; rowed a convoy of johnboats festooned with homemade Big Mac wrappers down the Volkhov, under the pedestrian bridge into the thousand-year-old heart of the Novgorod Kremlin, and then set the boats on fire as the waiting militsiya closed around and finally arrested them; back home in Germany, he had ripped whole concrete chunks out of the Wall with his bare, bleeding hands and danced to “Afterlife” atop it on the very night it fell, then fled police and soldiers from both Germanys into the alleys of the West, which had seemed, to his terrified surprise, so much darker and more frightening than those in the Berlin he’d grown up knowing.
Somehow, because he really had done those things (though in another life), he’d expected these kids on this train to welcome him into their conversation, and never mind his not-so-cheap sneakers, his dry-cleaned slacks, and neat, salt-and-pepper professor’s beard.
If they only knew, he thought, not without satisfaction. He looked at the brunette girl closest in the corridor, shivering in shirtsleeves against the open window, beautiful with her cigarette clutched against her lips. She turned toward him, and he saw what was on her shirt.
For a single, ludicrous moment, Thomas was angry. A Plastic People of the Universe shirt, with a fist and flowers, and the words CHARTA 77 stenciled in rainbow letters underneath.
You have no idea, Thomas wanted to shout at her. You missed it. Those savage, magical nights in the crypts of Leipzig churches with AuSSchlag and some stolen guitars and rotten beer, or, during his St. Petersburg year, with Zoopark and a single overloaded, half-blown amp in one of the crumbling buildings Putin had now “saved”—rescuing it from ruin and squalor and the free and dreaming young—with the authorities always coming, with vodka bubbling in their bloodstreams as though from an oil vein they’d tapped themselves, he and Jutta (who had won the same fellowship he had) and Vasily’s crew and some fugitives from the Baltics hurling themselves together, flinging their voices out broken windows to be spirited off down the Prospekts into the Neva All his friends from then scattered or gone now, that whole world reduced to slogans and images, useful only for silk-screening onto oblivious young people’s T-shirts.
Then, even more ludicrously, Thomas wanted to ask where he could order such a shirt.
Turning away, he let himself laugh at himself. And that felt good, only right. It’s what they were always in danger of forgetting, had always had to remind each other about, constantly: how funny it all was. How much fun.
He moved a little ways down the corridor toward a window he could have to himself. He was still standing there hours later, staring out at the glass towers, the already-jammed roads around the half-constructed S8 as the train glided into Warsaw through the early morning gray. Everything out there looked so clean even in the sleety overcast of the morning: the squares, the rails sparkling with winter wet, the bundled-up commuters with their briefcases and ear buds. Nothing like the Poland he’d heard such grim tales of in his youth, from the few Poles he’d known then. Warsaw was just another anywhere now, even its formidable ghosts roped off, penned in their carefully preserved ghetto habitats, exactly as threatening and sad as snow leopards at a zoo.
What, he wondered, could Vasily possibly be doing, after all this time, that even he could believe might matter? That was worth coming all this way for?
Later, to his surprise, Thomas actually managed to sleep. He awoke to an empty cabin and, from the bustle in the corridor, understood that the train was already arriving at Vitebsk Station. He shrugged hurriedly into his coat, stuffed last night’s shirt into his bag, sucked at the thin, nicotine-tinged film of sleep on his teeth, remembered that taste, and realized abruptly that he was there.
Instantly, his gloom lifted like something he’d dreamed (this the reality, this his world, where he most belonged). Stumbling over his untied shoes in his excitement, Thomas exited the cabin, worked through the clumps of sleepy travelers, showed his invitation letter and hastily arranged tourist visa to a glazed-eyed customs official who barely even glanced at them, and ducked across the platform to emerge at last into the Vitebsk main hall. For a while, he just stood on those palatial stairs, staring up into the domed iron ceiling, his hand on the chipped marble of the banister, listening to the snarl of this least Russian of Russian cities sweeping across the grand checkerboard tile to greet him.
Though he’d packed little, he decided to check his bag into luggage storage until he had some idea where he might be staying. Then he realized he was starving, and wondered where the closest place might be to find a slab of chleb and some black coffee. Descending the stairs, he kept accidentally bumping into people who bumped him in return, glowering as he grinned back. The wind whistling in the open front doors was freezing, somehow white even when it wasn’t visible, laced with ice. Head down, hurrying, now, Thomas pushed out onto Zagorodny Prospekt and threw his arms wide to the winter. He lifted his watering eyes into the wind, turned for the metro, which was right where he’d remembered it, and saw the bear.
He froze, held still. The muscles in his back cleaved to his spine, yanking hard, as though someone was running a flag up him. He waited for the bear to lurch to its feet, for his own lips to unlock themselves, let him shout.
But the bear…
It was less than twenty feet away, not leashed as far as Thomas could see, not attached to anything or anyone, but aligned in the exact center of the parking space closest to the building. Exactly in the center, perfectly between the lines, as though it had been parked there. It had its huge, shaggy head on its paws, its legs folded beneath it, and it was watching people and cars go by with enormous brown eyes, muzzle down, mouth invisible. Snow settled on its fur and accumulated, and no one seemed even to glance at it. Thomas thought he might be looking at a lifelike statue, something animatronic, even, until the bear shuddered, shook the snow off its thick coat, and settled again.
Other than Thomas, the only people paying even the slightest attention seemed to be children who tugged at their parents’ hands, pointed with their mittens. The parents barely bothered glancing around. One man stopped in front of Thomas to snap a picture with his phone before darting back inside the station.
Only then, exhausted and starving, did Thomas come to the full realization that he had no idea where to go. He had nowhere to stay, no one to call. No one to yell “Bear!” to. In the wild Yeltsin years, when Vasily had somehow cajoled his shady new friends into forging Thomas travel documents and luring him back, he’d always somehow arrived with an address or a name, or else he’d come with somebody. Or maybe he’d just known somehow: which abandoned building, which warehouse-turned-improvised-workspace/gallery, which bridge over which canal.
And now he thought maybe he did know where to start, after all: the place they’d always come back to, sooner or later, no matter how many times they’d gotten rousted or arrested there.
Yes. He knew where to begin, assuming it was even there anymore: Malevichskaya, where it really had seemed, for those few brutal, brilliant years right before and after the Wall fell, that the world—or a world, anyway—was being born. Reborn.
If nothing else, Thomas still knew roughly where that was. To reorient himself, he set off toward the canal, burrowing through wind that was even colder than the wind he remembered. He marveled at the icicles dangling like pendants from parking signs and awnings, but even more at the crowds of bundled-up Russians bustling about their business. At a buzzing, Starbucks-colored café, Thomas gave up hunting chleb and settled for a western-style latte and a dry scone. He sat at a tiny table by the window for a while, watching snow swirl over and around everything, as though the whole Earth had been given a long, hard shake. He watched the Russians passing. The Russian women passing. He remembered the joke—which was really a truism—they’d all used to pass around, when members of Vasily’s loose collective poured into St. Petersburg from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Estonia and Germany and the Ukraine and Lithuania and Hungary:
How do you tell the real Russians? Look for the cheapest clothes.
Not anymore. Thomas felt more like a spectator at a Paris runway show (albeit an icy one): woman after woman with hair flowing long under elegant fur and faux-fur coats and hats, gliding over the ice in thigh-high black boots with six-inch heels like winter gazelles. It was disorienting, also mesmerizing. He was about to get up when, right in front of the window, one of those miraculous women slipped, banged hard against the glass before him, caught herself, and pushed upright. He caught a glimpse of red cheek, bright blue eye under an oil gush of black hair. Then the woman gazed straight into the window, straightened her coat, saw him staring back…and smiled.
This beautiful young Russian woman, striding through her city, and it was clearly her city now. And she was laughing at herself, smiling at him.
A magical, almost unimaginable moment, Thomas thought, something that would never have happened in the nervous, battered St. Petersburg he’d known. Yet again, he wondered why he’d come, what he was doing there, how anything he could offer, even as a spectator, could possibly matter now, in the world as it had become, which bore so little resemblance either to the one he remembered or the one they’d all convinced themselves they’d been creating.
He was standing now, half-thinking he might catch this woman before she left, actually speak to her, just to be speaking to someone. He’d lifted his hand to try to catch her attention when the bear reared up behind her.
The woman didn’t see it, not at first, and she didn’t see Thomas grab the table, reach out to hammer a warning on the glass, and then think better of that. It followed me, Thomas thought, heart thundering, then realized that was ridiculous.
It wasn’t even the same bear; at least, he didn’t think so. This one was blacker, also bigger, or maybe that was just how it looked up on two legs, towering over the sidewalk, swaying, ribs protruding through its patchy fur, almost more stray cat than bear except for its size.
And behind it—all around it—the Russians, in their heels and hoods, with their briefcases and smartphones, just kept walking, funneled around the bear and the woman and never even looked up.
Again, Thomas reached to bang the glass, and again he didn’t, for fear of scaring the bear or making it angry. He watched its head sink, noted the look in its eyes—not vacant, just…not here…and then it reached out one spike-clawed paw and touched the woman’s shoulder.
With a gasp Thomas saw rather than heard, the woman startled, whipped around, shrank back. And then, instead of cowering, dropping into a ball at the bear’s feet, or screaming for help, she spun on her spiked heel and hurried away, folding herself fast into the crowd. In seconds, she was gone.
And the bear, dropping to all fours, loped after her, or at least in the general direction she’d gone.
Not even bothering to button his own coat, pulling on his gloves as he moved, Thomas exited the coffee shop into the brilliant white light, the white wind, this impossible St. Petersburg of fairy tale women shadowed by bears. His next idea seemed to drop on him out of the whitening sky: he should follow the animal.
Why? He didn’t ask; he just acted. It seemed, to what was left of his old instincts, the thing to do. The city as stage, he was thinking. Remembering. The city, new…
The bear was already a full block ahead, only intermittently visible and mostly as a bubble in the crowd, a floating space the pedestrians avoided. Thomas hurried after it, trying to get closer, but for all its lumbering, the bear moved quickly, and the crowds slowly. At street corners, it paused on all fours at the edge of the curb with its paws in the slush, as though waiting for the light. But then it would just stagger out into the street, and cars would honk, stop in a spray of muck, and wait. And no one—not the drivers, not the pedestrians surging around it—seemed even to look. Or rather they looked, but blankly, as though the bear were a newspaper box or a fire hydrant, something that had always been there. Something not to trip over.
At the corner of Nevsky Prospekt, the bear lurched into a stumbling gallop, caught up to a bus, and boarded as the doors closed. The bus rumbled away over the canal toward the city center. And for a shivering moment, Thomas just stood, watching the traffic, feeling as alone as he’d ever remembered feeling, almost bereft, practically in tears.
Why? he wondered again. He realized he needed to call Jutta, knew that wouldn’t help right thisatis second, and left his phone in his pocket.
It was too cold just to stand, though, too cold even to be out here much longer. He’d had only one other idea about where to go, and he didn’t know what he would find or whether there would be any open doors waiting for him when he got to Malevichskaya. Assuming he could still find it.
He found it easily enough. As it turned out, there were signs.
Signs. And not just signs, but banners strung like flags from the sides of buildings, catching and flapping in the never-ending wind. Mostly, the banners featured scrawled graffiti, black and white, the words in German, Swedish, Arabic, for God’s sake. No esk, and niin paha and Freedom is Space for the Spirit, and when Thomas saw that, he felt an absurd surge of pride. The words were in English. But they’d been brought there by a German artist, for one of the first “exhibits” officially allowed at Malevichskaya. And they stood out—rang out—still.
It was the red Russian words underneath, though, printed in large, almost Stalinesque block lettering, that rattled Thomas most, so much, in fact, that he had trouble recognizing them at first. He parsed them out slowly.
Non-Conformist. Art. Center.
Center. As in…museum? As in…
It was a relief, strangely, to turn off Nevsky and immediately find the crowds thinning, then vanishing altogether. The buildings seemed to gray with each passing block, almost to shudder back in time to a darker, lonelier, more familiar Russia. What windows there were had drawn curtains in them. The banners advertising the Center and the exhibit on current display there disappeared as Thomas approached the Center itself. He wondered if there would be more signs out front, carpeting, perhaps a few of those craggy, hunched Russian women the state had always planted inside and at the doors of every museum he’d ever been to in this country, to glower at attendees, daring anyone who crossed their path to ask a question, disturb the silence.
To his relief, he found none of those things. In fact, he somehow walked right past the shadowed, brick breezeway that led off the street and through to the old courtyard of condemned buildings. He only realized his mistake half a block later and had to double back. At the mouth of the breezeway, he stopped once more. He looked, and he listened.
There was more flapping in there, though whether of banners, clotheslines, whirling bits of refuse, birds, Thomas had no idea. There was one sure way to find out, and he really did have nowhere else to go, no other signal he could send to alert anyone he’d once known that he had come as instructed.
He moved into the breezeway, which swallowed the winter light. There were shadows aplenty in there, the wind whining as it sluiced through, stinking like sewage in a pipe. Thomas heard more flapping but no voices. Head down, he burrowed forward, wanting out of the dark, back in the light, and then he was indeed out, standing at the mouth of his old courtyard, staring up at that beautifully maintained bust of Lennon—John, of course—over the crumbling stone archway. Введите в любви, he read, the lettering and the arch of the words perfect mimics of the Arbeit Macht Frei over the gates of Auschwitz. Vasily’s idea, from decades ago. Thomas had never liked it. Vasily had assured him that was the point. Or, one possible point. Thomas could still see him posing underneath, dark eyes glittering with mischief, close-lipped smile splitting his beard like a fault line, hand in the air with a paint brush poised in his fingers like a baton.Comrades. Citizens of St. Petersburg. Your city, new…“But those words,” Thomas had protested, just the once. Meaning Arbeit macht frei. “Surely, those are nothing to laugh at.”“What else could one possibly do with them?” Vasily had answered, his grin furrowing even farther than usual up his cheeks, as though he were splitting in half right there in the courtyard. Twenty-five years and both of their countries ago.
Thomas opened his mouth to call out now but caught himself. New Russia, Putin’s Russia, Center for Non-Conformist Art this all might be. But it was still Russia. He could feel it. Reaching up, brushing the bottom of Lennon’s chin with his fingers as he passed, he slipped through the archway.
Wherever the new Center was, Thomas couldn’t see it, and there weren’t any more signs. The courtyard looked almost precisely as he remembered: two conjoined, condemned buildings where all of their studios had been, sagging into themselves like old loaves of bread, their cracked windows tilting together, the cobblestone chipped and worn underfoot, all the doors shut, daring anyone who’d come to knock.
Except that in his time—at least, in the times when anyone living and working here wasn’t being arrested or hiding from being arrested—anyone who did knock got invited in immediately, got a tour and chleb and whatever cheap vodka was handy. Got to sit and play music, if they played any, or sing along to some if they didn’t. Got to stick on clown noses and fuck drunkenly in stairwells, go off on gallivants to free-climb the sides of abandoned buildings when no one was looking, set paper boats festooned with flags or little origami figures of Gorbachev and Gromyko in kimonos drifting down the Neva toward whoever might be stirred or startled or offended or amused by them.
Today, though, his knocks brought only more silence. More flapping, which mostly came from the single, tattered banner strung like drying laundry from one of the high, leaning windows. FREEDOM IS SPACE FOR THE SPIRIT.
And also terribly lonely, he thought. For himself more than for her, he really needed to call Jutta. He did want to talk to her, let her put the phone to her belly so he could whisper to their unborn child. Tell the child where he was.
But he just couldn’t. Not yet, not here. Not in the empty echoes of this Center of nothing, which had been his Center once.
The place wasn’t just empty, he realized. It was abandoned. Thomas took in the blank, cracked windows, the black space behind them, the warped wooden doors shut tight, artful paint spattered down them like decorative bloodstains, all of it motionless and meaningless as a diorama in a museum. Which is precisely what this was.
For sentiment’s sake only, Thomas wandered a bit, shivering as the wind whistled over him, catching snow on his tongue and in his ears. He only went up the leaning, wooden staircase at the back left because his and Vasily’s room had been up there once, and he only went to the door at the end, which hadn’t been their door, because he could see something stuck to it, flapping almost silently, uselessly, like a clipped wing.
A poster, he thought at first, but there was more than one sheet of paper, a little packet clipped together and stuck to the door with a single strip of blue masking tape across the top.
An eviction notice, perhaps? Good God, a museum display of an eviction notice?
Absently, he reached out, tugged the papers from the door, and turned them over. Then he just stood in the shadows of the overhang, shivering and staring.
FROM WHERE, he read, in English, a smudged, reduced copy of the front page of one of those odd St. Petersburg newspapers published by and for some loose-knit or imaginary community of expats. FOR WHOM, OR WHAT?
Underneath the headline was a grainy photograph of a bear actually splayed on a bench, right in the middle of the Field of Mars, its head turned idly away from the camera toward the people passing on the paths, not a single one of them looking back in its direction. In the corner of the photograph, tiny but unmistakable thanks to the red ink in which it had been written, was the word FISTS.
Which wasn’t a word, of course, but an acronym, Thomas realized. Freedom is Space for the Spirit.
And that meant that this had been left here for him. By Vasily.
Turning the papers into the light, Thomas read fast, then faster. Then he went back to the beginning and started again.
None can even say when we first saw them. One day, they were just among us, as though they always had been, and now they always are. They’re on our buses, our metro cars. We glimpse their reflections in mirrors, out windows, as we sip our Arabian coffees in insulated paper cups and eye ourselves in our sleek new Italian shoes. They shamble from alleys and wander in and out of churches and the museums we have at last been granted access to, like creatures escaped from a Levitan landscape, bringing the mood of those landscapes with them. They prowl the canals and the garbage-strewn, teeming alleys around Sennaya Square at evening, bumping against harried shoppers haggling over apples, trailing bits of discarded ribbon or cloth in their claws or on the pads of their feet. Silent, hulking, aimless, they drift among us, not just toothless but mouthless…
At that, Thomas startled, glanced at the grainy photo, but he couldn’t quite make out the bear’s face. He thought furiously back, remembering the creature he’d seen in the parking space outside Vitebsk, and the second one brushing and sniffing at the smiling woman’s shoulder outside the coffee shop.
He didn’t know, hadn’t noticed. Surely, if that were true, he would have seen.
With an increasing sense of urgency, even alarm (though why, really, should he be alarmed?) he scanned the rest of the article. It revealed little. The bears had appeared only in St. Petersburg, as far as the writer knew, and only a few weeks before. There had been momentary panic, a few clumsy politsiya attempts at “roundups” that, according to the article, had felt and looked more like arrests than animal control. Almost immediately, following a brief and embarrassing episode with Tasers, captured by dozens of citizens on their sleek, new cell phones, the roundups had stopped. A politsiya official had given a brief press conference and said his force had limited resources and would be devoting them to “more pressing and concrete threats such as Chechen guerillas and homosexuals.” And from then on, the bears had been left to wander. They’d simply become part of the cityscape. An advertising gimmick, some guessed, though no one knew for what. A practical joke, but on whom, by whom?
“A work of art?” the article’s author postulated. “The Great Bear of Russia gone toothless and old, or wild and free, or gentle and loving to its own people at last? The shambling emblems of a Russia that even Russians have long since ceased to dream?”
Your city, new, Thomas thought.
The copy of the article was smudged, the lettering along the bottom virtually unreadable except for the journalist’s name—Yelena Alyakina—and the name of the paper. That was enough. Thomas would start there.
Folding the packet into his coat pocket and leaving his freezing hands there, Thomas hurried down the steps, across the empty courtyard, through the breezeway, and back out toward Nevsky Prospekt. At an internet café, he paid for fifteen minutes of computer time, located the newspaper office (which was annoyingly far, well out of the city center, but reachable by metro and a long, cold walk), and set off immediately again into the flurries.
The farther he got from the canals, from the banners on lampposts and the glittering displays in frosted shop windows, the more the streets started to look like the streets he remembered: faceless buildings hulking and gray, though even those looked different now, had most of their windows, for starters; the downturned, inward-aimed faces of passersby huddled into their tatty scarves and old galoshes, none of them catching one another’s eyes or stopping at windows to gaze at reflections or flash smiles at lonely strangers. Every ten blocks or so came one of those giant, glitzy chrome-and-neon post-Communist neighborhood centers that had sprung up all over what had once been the East when it was East no longer, complete with market, pool hall, district office, electronics stands.
Too long, while the wind worried and nipped at his insufficient coat and his thin Berlin gloves, Thomas walked, trying to leap the dirty slush pooling at every crumbling curb without bumping anyone, ducking back against buildings as Hungarian-built, Soviet-era buses lumbered past, spewing diesel fumes into the air to mix with the snow. Wheezing like bears, Thomas thought. Then he thought of Vasily, wondered where he was. And he remembered something, or almost did. Whatever it was made him feel even more lost. Also, it made him nervous, in a way he couldn’t even begin to name.
Oh, old friend, he thought. Ya ne ponimayu
The newspaper office was housed in a single linoleum-tiled room on the ground floor of a particularly faceless neighborhood center, divided from a post office by a crumpled, folding plastic screen. The heat in the building apparently wasn’t working, despite the occasional clanking of pipes in the walls and overhead. Every time anyone in the winding, endless postal line—something else that clearly hadn’t changed since Soviet times—or behind one of the scattered newspaper desks spoke, more breath streamed into the air, the clouds of it floating up toward the ceiling, muffling sound and making the whole room feel like the lounge of some nineteenth-century opium den. At a black wooden desk at the front of the newspaper office, a gray-haired woman with her forehead in her hand nodded into a telephone, occasionally growled terse responses in Russian, and didn’t so much as look up when Thomas approached. He’d been standing there a good three minutes before she stuck a finger in the air that he assumed was for him and read as a signal to wait. He looked around for a chair or a bench, found none, felt instinctively that he should step back, give the woman space. But in his head were bears, and the dead, shadowed stairwells at Malevichskaya, and the packet of paper in his pocket. He stayed where he was.
After another ten minutes, when the woman still hadn’t so much as made eye contact, Thomas decided he should just stroll past her. He had never liked this about Russians, new or old: the way they dared you to challenge, would despise you if you did, would ignore you if you didn’t. He glanced out the window at the sprawling, empty lot across the street, strewn with paper cups, piles of discarded wooden planks, broken glass. That was the St. Petersburg he had known. Towering over it all was a billboard with fresh, red Cyrillic lettering, the letters dripping as though still wet, though they weren’t, not with anything but sleet.
Slowly, Thomas parsed out the unfamiliar word. Then, startled, he glanced at the desk and was surprised to see the gray-haired woman openly watching him. Her eyes behind the glasses were that impossible, transparent blue he’d only ever seen in Russian women’s faces. Lake Baikal blue, he’d always told himself, though he’d never actually been to Lake Baikal, and anyway had no idea where people with eyes that color came from. How beautiful, he thought, this person must once have been. Still was, for anyone she allowed to see her face.
She was holding the phone away from her ear and gazing openly at him. Better, and more unlikely, still, she was…not exactly smiling; that would be overstating. But for a Russian far from St. Petersburg’s bustling, cosmopolitan, tourist-swarmed heart, trapped behind a desk across a room from a post office, she was coming dangerously close.
Thomas gestured out the window at the empty lot. In his clumsy Russian, he asked, “Does that really say…paintball?”
Then the woman just up and did it, grinned outright. “Welcome to the New Russia.”
Grinning back, Thomas unfolded the copy of the article from his coat pocket and held it out, pointing at the writer’s name. “I want to see—”
But the woman was up, shoving her chair from the desk, walking away with the grin expunged from her face. She moved straight to the back of the room, hissed furiously at the little bald man back there behind the tumbling, collapsing stacks of paper on the room’s largest (though by no means newest) desk. The man stood, nodding. The top of his head barely reached the woman’s shoulders. He nodded again, patted the woman’s hand, knocked back the vodka in the well-used glass atop the nearest stack of papers, and moved toward Thomas. The woman stayed at the back, arms folded, watching through those glacial blue eyes that had been watching, Thomas thought, for a thousand years. Oh, yes, he knew that look. That mix of outrage, annoyance, and nervousness verging on terror. He’d known it all his life, though it had been years, now, since he’d last seen it.
“Dobrý den,” said the bald man. He didn’t offer Thomas a hand, and indeed didn’t even stop at the woman’s desk. Instead, he stepped toward the front door, then through it onto the sidewalk. He hadn’t brought a coat, and he didn’t stop for one. Thomas followed him out.
The moment the door closed and they had taken up positions under the inadequate overhang, the bald man whirled on Thomas, an accusatory finger punctuating his words. “You’ve upset Larisa.”
Larisa, Thomas thought. Meaning cheerful. He couldn’t remember why or how he knew that. Probably because he’d known several Larisas once. Then. Even one or two cheerful ones.
Casting about, Thomas tried to call up the Russian for Excuse me but couldn’t. Was there Russian for excuse me?
“I apologize,” he tried instead.
To his surprise, the bald man switched instantly into perfect German. “You just walk in here, waving that?” His finger stabbed at the unfolded papers Thomas still held. “What do you want with Yelena Alyakina?”
Thomas blinked, took a breath. “Want? I wish to… I just want to speak to her. About this article.”
“Why would you be interested in that?”
Abruptly, Thomas was annoyed. Or maybe that was his alarm increasing. “Weren’t you? Or were these published by mistake?”
“Who are you?”
“Who are you?” The man actually poked him, hard, right under the scarf along the collarbone.
Even after all these years in the West, Thomas instinctively recoiled at that question. And because he did, he thought he understood this newspaper’s man reaction after all. This was caution, plain and simple, instinctive and learned the hard way.
But about this? About mouthless bears? Wind whistled through him as though he wasn’t even there, was a dead tree sprouting from the cracking sidewalk.
He was nothing here. And he always had been.
Thomas almost walked away. What he really wanted to do was call Jutta, catch the next train home. But the bald man was staring at the unfolded papers in Thomas’s hands. And now he mostly looked sad. Maybe.
“I’m…” Thomas started, and realized he didn’t even know how to explain. “I was once… I am looking for them. For Vasily Litvinov—you know him?—and his… I’m just trying to find my friends.” In frustration, Thomas rubbed at his frozen cheeks and forehead with his gloved hand. The skin of the glove felt even colder than his own. “I wondered only if I could speak to…” He held up the paper, pointing out the name of the journalist once more.
All at once, the bald man burst out laughing. He folded his arms across his substantial chest, perhaps just against the cold. When he spoke, his voice was gentle and perhaps a little proud. “That would be difficult,” he said.
“I can not help you. And neither can Yelena Alyakina.” He nodded once more toward the article. “She is gone.”
“I sent her away. For her own safety, you understand. Just in case. If you want to come back next month, perhaps—”
“No,” said Thomas. “No, I don’t understand. Safety from what?”
“From what do you think?”
“But…for this? For bears in the street? Who would be upset about… And anyway, isn’t this the New Russia?”
The bald man stopped laughing, kept smiling. But this was a smile Thomas recognized. Every Russian he’d ever met had a version of it. “New Russia. Old Russia. The price is the same for both. I’m sorry. I hope you find your friends.”
With that, the editor left him in the street and returned to his office. Thomas watched through the window as he nodded curtly at Larisa and made his way, head down, to his desk.
And now, Thomas realized, he had absolutely nothing. Maybe he’d been on the wrong trail all along, and none of this had anything to do with Vasily’s telegram. The telegram itself, he realized, could have been the joke. The art. Maybe the project had been prying one-time friends from their far-away, comfortable, bourgeois lives with a few taps of tired keys and a tossed-in, worn out acronym. A cryptic STOP.
Fumbling with frigid fingers, Thomas found his cell phone in his pocket. He would call Jutta, make his way back toward the Winter Palace, perhaps drift once through the Russian Museum, stop at the market outside the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood and be a good capitalist and buy his wife one of the kitschy Stalinist chess sets she sometimes used in her own art. Then he would catch the night train back to Berlin. This time, he’d be so tired, he might even sleep, partying Poles in the corridors or no. He had already turned away in the direction of the bus stop when another hand slid into the pocket he’d just emptied.
His reaction was old, instinctive, born in industrial Berlin warehouses in the shadow of the gutted Wall, in the strobing, strafing lights and hash haze and raw hunger of those impossible nights in the winter of 1989, 1991, when the beats blasting off turntables seemed to be—really were—rattling kings off thrones and girders off buildings, when bodies and minds were hurling themselves together, combining, recombining, the people of a dozen collapsing nations smashing themselves together as though thrown into a continent-wide supercollider, charged and aroused, blindly groping and exploring and igniting. Picking each other’s pockets for pennies for food.
Slamming his own elbow against his ribs, he trapped the hand in his pocket, heard its owner cry out, whirled hard on her, and used the motion of his body to drive her to a knee in the snow. Then he stared down in surprise and alarm.
“Ana?” he said.
“Let me go,” she snarled in Russian, ripped her hand free, and stood up. She was a full foot taller than he remembered, and of course she would be; he’d last seen her when she was perhaps twelve years old, sitting where she most loved sitting, on her Uncle Vasily’s lap, smearing his beard with the paint on her fingers.
How had he even recognized her? Because she was still Ana the black-haired and black-eyed, and her face had always stuck with him. She looked like some Native American chief’s daughter, he’d always thought, with only a storybook basis for the thought: her skin a deep tan, hair wild and dark. She glared up at him now with tears in her eyes.
“Ana, I’m sorry.” He drew her to her feet, but she shoved away from him. “What are you doing here, and—”
“You have to find him,” she hissed. The knees of her shabby corduroy pants were wet through, and she slapped at them once with her hands.
“I know,” he said. “I will. That’s why I’ve come. I—”
Thomas realized he knew that, too. More than anything, he wanted to lift a hand to Ana’s face, wipe the tears not quite leaking from her lashes. But she wasn’t letting those tears fall, and he knew better.
“How did you—”
“You know her?”
Despite the unshed tears, Ana rolled her eyes. “At your service.”
Ana was as much spitting as speaking, and Thomas wasn’t sure he was catching it all. Apparently, whenever the paper had a story that the editor felt might endanger the writer, that story got the byline Yelena Alyakina. And then Ms. Alyakina got sent to Turkey for a while.
Thomas was still sorting all of that out when he realized Ana had long since stopped explaining and was instead jabbing a finger at his coat.
“Your pocket. Thomas, now. Mudak.”
“My…” Thomas glanced down at his coat, and the wind whipped snow in his face. Until that moment, there had been sun somewhere overhead, out of sight but there, which was why the world had seemed so white. But now, it was graying as he breathed.
“I was putting something in,” Ana said more slowly, as though he were the child. “Not taking out. After Vasily gave me the story…or, after Alyosha made him—”
Ana stamped a booted foot hard enough to crack the ice atop the sidewalk. “Before they went into hiding. Vasily left that for you. In case you ever came. I don’t think he really thought you’d come.”
“He didn’t?” Thomas murmured. Then he shook his head. It didn’t matter. “Why not just give it to me?”
Ana’s voice came out bitter, mocking, not at all the way he’d ever heard her address or talk about her uncle. “Just following instructions. He thought you’d appreciate the game. He’s seven years old and always has been.” The tears almost escaped this time, but she beat them flat with her lashes. “Also, something is wrong.”
In his pocket, Thomas found the crumpled scrap of brown paper Ana had stuffed there. It wasn’t stationery or even from a sketchbook; it had been cut from a bag. On it was a sketch, crude, very much indeed like something drawn by a seven-year-old. Because Vasily can’t draw, Thomas remembered. He has no artistic skill whatsoever except his brain. His raw talent.
At first, Thomas couldn’t even figure out what the sketch represented. The moment he did, words he’d forgotten he even knew spilled from his mouth, as though Vasily had reached through the paper and nicked him. “Koltooshy Pavlovo,” he said.
“What?” Ana whispered, and from her whisper, he suspected she felt the same tremor of unease he did. He wondered if she knew why, because he wasn’t at all sure he could explain.
“I…” In frustration, Thomas shook his head. “How’s your German?”
Ana shook her head. “Not enough.”
“It’s a gorilla,” Thomas said, in English. “He… We were walking there once. In the woods, out by the Pavlov Institute. Someone we knew was holed up out there. Hiding out, I think. We couldn’t find the apartment, and there were many abandoned buildings, or maybe they weren’t actually abandoned, but anyway, we couldn’t find anyone. And in the woods—not even in a clearing, it was just leaning on this hillside, like it had dropped from a plane—was this miserable iron cage. Maybe…” He held up his hands, illustrating the size. “Two meters by three? Maybe? And inside it…” The shiver that had been building under his ribs rippled across his skin, and the wind kicked up and spirited it away, taking a part of him with it. “Inside it, there were two gorillas.”
Ana looked as though she might shove him into traffic. She had always been Vasily’s favorite, all of their favorite, really. Their little collective’s mascot. Hers was the ferocious, black-eyed face of the blazing future none of them had actually believed was coming. Not really.
Had it come, though? Was this it?
“The gorillas were pathetic, Ana. You could see ribs. Their hair was falling out. It was like they’d been there, by themselves, for years. Just maybe left out in the woods. Part of some experiment that had been discontinued. Or maybe they’d escaped. That was your uncle’s joke. They’d maneuvered their cage off the back of a truck and tumbled down this incline and come to rest there.”
“That joke isn’t funny.”
“Very few of Vasily’s jokes were funny.”
“Alyosha,” Ana mouthed, or at least, that’s what Thomas thought she mouthed. Certainly, she was tearing up again.
Thomas spoke slowly. He felt as if he were edging up to something, peering over the edge of something. “That was the day he told me about the bear ceremony.”
Ana jerked, looked up, stumbled half a step back. For a few seconds, she just glared at him.
“There’s a bus,” she snarled. “Come on!” Grabbing his hand, she did indeed tug him straight out into the road, and then they were splashing across it, ankles-deep in slush as boxy, rusted Russian cars blared at them and drivers screamed obscenities through closed windows. The bus driver, wrapped up tight in a hooded parka, glanced in their direction—Thomas saw him register them—closed the bus doors, and started pulling away from the curb.
And Ana darted right into the bus’s path, stopped dead, and aimed that glare of hers straight through the blowing snow and diesel smoke into the bus’s front window.
Then, to Thomas’s amazement, the driver laughed. He honked hard and opened the door. Ana pulled Thomas around the side and up the bus steps.
Fumbling in his pockets again, Thomas said, “Ana, I don’t have… I don’t even know the correct…”
But Ana had already paid. She received two tickets back from the scowling, balaclava-clad ticket woman standing next to the driver and started shouldering through the old men blocking the path toward the back of the bus. Thomas followed. The bus lurched into traffic through a black cloud of its own exhaust, and Ana pulled up short, tipping back against him. He put out an arm to steady her, glanced up, and so came face to face, at last, with a bear.
For a long, surreal moment, he just stood there. Bodies bumped wordlessly against him, no more apologetic or even sentient than boats in a marina. No one else turned around, or dove for the front of the bus, or screamed. As far as Thomas could tell, only he and Ana even bothered looking. Everyone else was pointedly looking elsewhere. Anywhere but at the bear.
And it really was a bear, not a man in costume. It was up on two legs, well over six feet tall, hunching to fit under the roof. Once, it shook itself, blowing air out its snout. The snout itself was black and wet, the mangy fur falling out in patches, flecked with snow and dirt. What looked like a scrap of tissue was stuck to one twitching ear, as though the creature had nicked itself shaving. Under the snout, it had more patchy fur but no teeth. No opening, even, where a mouth could have been, which made the face look… Exposed was the only word that popped into Thomas’s mind. Not just bare but stripped. Like a wall scraped of a mural. Like Malevichskaya with no one in it. Like an empty lot, cleared even of rubble.
But it was the eyes that he would remember most. They did, occasionally, swing down toward him or brush over him, deep brown and full of feeling, but not any feeling Thomas recognized. At some point, it occurred to him—absurdly, because given the absurdity of the entire situation, why would this matter?—that the time of year was wrong. That whatever was happening had been ill conceived, right from the beginning.
“Shouldn’t you be sleeping?” he said softly, to the bear, in Russian.
Ana was no longer clinging to his arm, though she’d edged back alongside him, as close to clear of the animal as she could get without leaving his side. Thomas could feel her gaze on him, but he ignored it for the moment.
The bear’s ears twitched. It gazed back, or maybe just gazed, not as though it understood or would answer if it could. Twenty minutes before the bus reached Koltooshy Pavlovo, at the edge of some sort of military compound ringed with woods, the animal abruptly stirred, dropped to all fours, bumped Thomas and Ana and the old men aside, and lumbered out of the bus. Before Thomas could even see where it went, the bus pulled away.
“He was gone so long,” Ana murmured, seemingly to herself.
Thomas closed his eyes, tried to blink away the animal’s face, to fight down the feeling that he was drifting farther by the second from anywhere he had ever imagined or wanted to be. When he opened his eyes again, he saw woods, snow slanting sideways as it turned to sleet, Russians huddled around benches at exposed bus stops, motionless as crows on wires.
“Vasily, you mean? Where did he go?”
“East. Home, he said. Bullshit, as usual, because he’d never even been there. We don’t have relatives there, now, none that anyone I know has ever spoken of. I don’t even know if there are Nivkh—our people—there anymore. But that’s where he went. Way out in the taiga somewhere. For years, Thomas. He’s been gone for years. He left no number, no address, no way to reach him. He never wrote. He never called. And I don’t mean just us, either. I’ve run into most of your old, idiot crowd. Yakov. Timofeev. Larisa.”
The names chimed in Thomas like bells rung for the dead, even though he had no reason to think any of them had died. They’d just stopped being who they were, same as he had. Grown up, given in, gotten married, gotten tired, gotten sane.
“How are they?” Thomas asked.
“Old,” Ana snapped. Once again, she looked as though she wanted to slap him.
“Vasily.” If they’d been outside, Thomas was fairly certain she would have spit. “I actually thought we’d never hear from him again. God, I wish we hadn’t.”
Did her voice just break? Thomas wondered. If it had, she got control of it immediately.
“Then, one day…” She balled her gloved fists against her chest. “Not more than three months ago…there he was. Just plunked in one of those new, overpriced cafés near Dom Knigi, with an entire tray of chleb piled up in front of him that he was devouring by the fistfuls, as if he hadn’t eaten during the whole time he’d been away. As if he’d been in a gulag and just gotten released.
“Also, already, it was like the old days. Except instead of you and Jutta and Yakov and Timofeev and Larisa, he had a whole new set of…what is the English…acolytes ringed around him, lapping up his every lunatic word.” She glanced up, grabbed Thomas’s eyes with her own. “Sorry. ‘Friends.’”
“Acolytes is fine,” Thomas muttered. “Acolytes is probably right.”
“Ridiculous people. Bearded students from St. Petersburg State, or bums from the street. A whole new generation of so-called artists.” Her voice dropped so low that Thomas almost missed the last bit. But he heard her all right. “My artist,” she said.
Alyosha, he thought.
“They all laughed when he laughed. They nodded along while he rambled and dribbled crumbs all over himself. Same prityazatel’nyy black beard, probably dyed, now. Same beady little bird eyes.”
Again, as the bus shook her against him, Ana looked up at Thomas. In her, though, Thomas saw feelings he did recognize and in fact knew all too well. “Don’t misunderstand, Thomas. Please. I loved Vasily. I loved my uncle. I love him. But he’s a fraud—”
“—and he’s a clown. And he has always considered everyone he ever met as pawns. You understood this, yes?”
“I…understood that. Yes.” He hadn’t always. Certainly, he had at the end.
“And when he called to me, that day he reappeared, he didn’t jump up to hug me. He was excited to see me, all right. He was even more excited because he was sitting there with my…with Alyosha. With my friend. He wanted me to see that. So, naturally, I was the last piece he needed.”
“Yes,” Thomas said, already comprehending. He marveled at Ana’s clarity. She was Vasily’s niece, for sure. “You were the audience.”
“I was someone to tell.”
Yet again, Thomas felt that shudder of apprehension that had plagued him ever since his arrival. Only, now it had intensified. “Okay. So. What did he tell you?”
Sucking in her cheeks, she did a pretty fair impersonation of Vasily’s excited, reedy whine. “‘I’m going to turn it inside out, Ana. I’m going to make the city new.’ That’s what he said, and that’s all he would say, and Alyosha wouldn’t say any more either. He just laughed when my uncle did. Three weeks later, I saw my first bear.”
In the sleet, the bus had slowed, its single working windshield wiper slapping at the cracked front glass, more like a whapping cat’s tail than a blade. Around him, people seemed to have settled as the clusters of riders thinned, looking down in their laps and eying each other sidelong. Almost no one else on the bus seemed to be speaking.
“Ana,” Thomas said after a time, partly just to keep from leaping off the bus, from running, though he had no idea where he would go or why he felt so sure he should go there quickly. “You think Vasily has something to do with the bears.”
She shrugged. “The night after I saw my first bear—at the market, next to an onion stand—Vasily showed up at my flat. I… He was so drunk, he could hardly even stand. He’d already thrown up all over himself, probably more than once. And he was spouting such nonsense. ‘Bears, Ana. We’ll set them free.’ There was something about some military complex. Or zoo. Or laboratory. All those things, actually. ‘It’s rescue!’ he kept shouting. ‘It’s a party!’ Then he threw up on my floor, on my new rug, and I threw him out on the street and told him to come back sober. I remember he laughed at that, so I said, ‘Less drunk.’ And he said, ‘See you.’
“The next day, Alyosha called and woke me up to say he was going off with V. V, he said, as if anyone ever called my uncle that. He said they’d be underground for a while, that he’d call as soon as he was back. And that was the last I heard from either of them.”
A zoo, Thomas thought. Military complex? “I don’t understand,” he finally said. “Why would even Vasily want—”
“We’re here,” Ana said abruptly. “Scheisse.” To the driver, she snapped, “Podozhdi.”
The bus lurched to a stop, eliciting glares from turned-up faces all around them. An old woman in a balaclava barked something at Ana, and she laughed as she tugged Thomas off the bus. Before Thomas had even gotten all the way free, the doors were sighing shut. The bus plowed back into traffic, spraying muck and slush.
“What did that woman say?” Thomas mumbled, bending to wipe at least some of the sleet off his pants before realizing it was hopeless. He was wet through.
“She said, ‘Your friend’s Western tones are grating to my ears.’”
Still hunched, Thomas glanced up. “You’re kidding.”
“This is not something I do,” Ana said. If she’d smiled then, he might have gathered her to him, held her, told her it would be all right.
Instead, she looked past him down the sidewalk at the pedestrian bridge that angled away from the community center, across a little reservoir into surprisingly dark and tangled woods. “Thomas? I think we should hurry.”
Without another word, they started toward the bridge. Sleet swept across them, stitching the air into a grimy gray curtain that rippled with their passing, brushing wetly against them. A very few locals, sticking to the muddy track from the apartment complexes up the hill, scurried by with their heads down. The bridge’s railings were weirdly white wood that looked almost plastic, and on the rippling surface of the little reservoir, a single duck floated, its feathers Soviet-housing-complex brown and mottled. By the time Thomas and Ana reached the trees, water was rilling down their necks into their coats. It felt frigid, and worse, gummy. More like mucus than rain.
Under the scant cover of a bare hemlock tree, Ana pulled Thomas to a stop, and they stood for a moment, listening to the forest rattle with the patter. Just visible through the snarled bushes and dead hemlocks ahead, Thomas could already make out the hulking brick buildings of the Pavlov Institute, where the great man himself had made that most Russian of scientific discoveries: that living things are slaves to their patterns, and do what they are conditioned to do.
“Okay,” Ana said, wringing her hair. “Where?”
Shivering, Thomas eyed her. “What?”
“You brought us here. You said you’d been here with Vasily. This is where he sent you. Where?”
She was getting ready to shove or yell at him again. It was almost funny in a terrible sort of way. In a way Vasily would have found funny. “Ana. I have no idea. How would I…” His voice trailed away.
He had been here once. But he was fairly certain that except for the Pavlov Institute buildings, which they hadn’t entered, few or none of the other structures around them had even existed then. And the woods had seemed wider and wilder, less like an overgrown yard, more like somewhere gorillas, or bears, might be…
“This way,” he said abruptly, and stepped back out into the sleet. How did he know? He didn’t. But here he was, leaning into the wet, wild wind with his nose in the air like a dog. Like Pavlov’s dog. Vasily’s dog.
Shoving aside branches, ignoring the freezing water streaming down his neck into his sweater, he moved left, then forward, past buildings, down a little slope he didn’t exactly remember, but there was something in his brain, a scent, a memory of a sight, something.
“Thomas?” Ana said, and her voice now was the one she’d had when he’d known her last. When she was a little girl. “The bear ceremony. What did Vasily tell you about the bear ceremony?”
Mostly, Thomas was watching the woods, staring into each not-quite clearing, each shadowed wild place in the lee of those brooding, lightless buildings that had been lightless then, too, that he and Vasily had imagined were lightless always but vibrating with sound, not at all unlike their squatters’ studios at Malevichskaya. In fact, they’d imagined these buildings haunted by Pavlov and his dogs, ringing and barking to each other in the dark.
“I don’t remember, Ana. Nothing, I don’t think. That…bears were important? That your people—”
“Our people,” she snorted.
“—picked a bear. Every winter, right? And invited guests. Lots of guests, from far away.” Guests from far away, he thought, noting and then suppressing the thought with a shudder.
And then he realized that he was sure: whatever was happening here, Vasily had done it. Even the time of year was right, after all. Vasily had told him, years ago: the Nivkh bear ceremony was a winter festival. A feast involving ritual dancing, some sort of teasing of the bear (What had that line in the article said? “A brief and embarrassing episode with Tasers…”). A celebration.
“There,” he said suddenly, and stopped ankle-deep in a rutted row of muck plowed some indefinite time before by some sort of multi-wheeled military something.
Without waiting for Ana, he plunged off the path, down another surprisingly steep incline, through an accidental—no, natural—hedge of tall, dead bushes, their thorns brittle, breaking against his coat sleeves like old brick, like chunks from the smashed-in Wall. He burst into a little copse, not so much a clearing as a half-open space under two towering dead hemlocks, like an amphitheater tipped up on its side. In the center of the copse, right where the shadows met the light, propped between half-visible, centuries-old underground roots, sat the gorilla cage.
“This is it,” he whispered, as Ana burst through the hedge and reached him. “We found it.”
Together, they stared at the rusting black iron bars of the cage. The door hung open, half off its cracked hinges, as though whatever had been in there really had escaped. The idea thrilled Thomas, somehow: those two bedraggled, shriveled apes loose in these woods, maybe crouched right over their heads on the dead branches. He remembered the gorillas’ eyes, their alien, animal gazes, not so close to human after all, and he shuddered and glanced up. Of course, there was nothing above but empty sky, sleet slanting down.
“Found what?” Ana said, her voice furious, exhausted, disgusted. To Thomas’s alarm, she sank to her haunches, dropping her head into her gloved hands. With her wet, black hair streaming down her back, she looked at once peaceful and wild, crouching there. Like a gorilla, or a bear. She looked up. The wildness in her did not dissipate. “Is that all he told you?”
“About this?” Thomas said. “About what we’re doing here? He didn’t tell me anything, remember? He drew me a gorilla on a bag and you—”
“About the bear ceremony. I’m gathering he didn’t tell you the end.”
“It has an end?”
“It has…” Ana snatched up some sticks in her fist and snapped them between her fingers. “I hardly remember. These were children’s stories, you understand. Something my ded and my babushka taught us. My parents didn’t even want them talking about it after we moved to Moscow. They had a huge fight about it once. My parents wanted us to be ‘proper Russians.’ I think Babushka actually attended one, one time. She said at the end, they—”
“Oh, blin!” came a snarl from up the hill. “Shit, shit, shit. What are the chances?”
Half-stumbling, half-plunging down the hill on the other side of the copse came a gray-haired dwarf in a splotchy green overcoat, spectacles in one hand, what looked like—and, indeed, turned out to be—an iPad in the other.
He had both arms flung wide for balance, and not until he’d reached Ana and Thomas did his hood slide back so they could see his face.
“Uncle Vasily?” Ana breathed, stood, and started forward.
But he was already past her, diving into the gorilla cage, yanking the door shut with a clang, spinning in what seemed six directions at once as he gathered a pencil, a notebook, a stained gray rug, and a bunch of browned bananas out of the mounds of dead leaves on the floor of the cage. Plopping himself on the carpet, Vasily opened his iPad case, pulled free a single banana and half-peeled it, slid the pencil behind his ear and the spectacles onto his face. Only then did he look up.
“Oh. Guten Tag, Ana. Thomas. You got my messages.” He spoke mostly English, with sprinkles of Russian, then German.
Thomas stared at his friend. Even grayed—and he was all the way gray, and also beardless, clean-shaven as a little boy—and even sitting in a gorilla cage in the middle of the woods, Vasily looked only like himself. It was the eyes, Thomas thought, it had always been the eyes: expressive but also unfathomable, mesmerizing. Rasputin without the power-lust. Situationist Rasputin.
“You were supposed to find me this way,” Vasily said, grinning. “I’ve been sitting out here for days, waiting. And so of course, I get up to use the toilet in that building there and replenish my banana supply, and that’s when you show up. Come in here! Let me embrace you.”
For one ridiculous moment, Thomas didn’t want to enter the cage. Then he started forward, and as he did, Ana bumped him aside, grabbed the bars, and rattled them. “Uncle Vasily, where’s Alyosha?”
Just like that, Vasily forgot Thomas was there. Thomas watched it happen. At this moment, Ana was the better audience. Therefore, she was the center of Vasily’s world.
“Ahh.” He spread his hands, shrugged, and smiled. “How would I know?”
“He’s not with you? He said he was with you.”
“He did? When?”
“Uncle Vasily. Please. Where are they hiding?”
Vasily just grinned wider, his mouth like a red rip in the gray day.
Ana shook the bars, still more snarling than pleading, but not much more. “Where is Alyosha?” She sank back to her crouch, meeting his gaze at eye-level.
“Vaska,” Thomas said, stepping up beside Ana but instinctively staying outside the cage, in her world, not his.
Mouth full of banana, Vasily ignored them both. Many times, Thomas had seen him like this. Asking direct questions would be pointless, counterproductive. He would only discuss what he wanted to discuss. And what he wanted to discuss was his art.
“Vaska. This… Your bear ceremony. That’s what this is? You learned it in the East?”
“Learned it? Well. I conceived it there. Yes.”
“From just being in that world, Thomas. Oh, you should have come. You should have seen—you would not believe—how those people still live. In those villages, way out in the taiga, with winter coming in. Half-dark all the time except when it’s completely dark. Snow so deep that it took me weeks, once I got back, to walk right again. It was as if I’d been on a ship and couldn’t get my land legs. Most of them still live in these little, tiny huts with wood stoves, except the ones who live in the one giant Soviet apartment monolith they built for the Party members and oil workers’ families in the middle of the only square in what they call a town. So, what do they do at night, when they’re not working? When no one’s watching?”
It took Thomas a moment to realize Vasily actually expected an answer. Ana, he suspected, was close to leaping through the bars to wring her uncle’s neck. On the path above them on the other side of the hedge, people tramped up and down through the muck. The sleet had eased some, softening into ordinary, white St. Petersburg snow.
“I don’t know, Vasily. What do they do? Play snow football?”
“Hah. Yes. Sometimes. Also, they have an annual Stalin’s head ice-sculpting contest. That’s quite something to see.”
“The better question is, are they kidding? I was among them for four years. Still have no idea. Wonderful. But mostly, I am sorry to report, what they do at night is watch.”
“Watch. You mean storms? The ice?”
He snorted. “Their cell phones. They have a brand-new tower. They watch a lot of One Night of Love.” Taking another bite of banana, Vasily grinned again. “They…what’s the American phrase…they binge-watch. They drink. They have drinking games based on plot twists. Very inventive. Very amusing.” His voice dropped to a whisper, and he poked a single index finger up in the air. “And then—only sometimes, and only very late at night, when they’re huddled around their stoves or their radiators, and a brand-new wind comes howling down off the Pole, and they think no one else alive could possibly be watching or listening—do you know what they do, Thomas? They pray.”
“Such prayer, Thomas. Do you remember going to Orthodox masses with me? Just to watch all those people stand in their nooks, their private corners, for hours and hours, while priests chanted and stepped out among them and went back up on their stages or whatever they call them, doing all those incomprehensible, ritualized things? Well, this praying makes that look…” For the first time, Vasily met Thomas’s gaze straight on. There were tears in his eyes. Here was the Vasily Thomas had known, marveling at and even loving the world. Thomas had forgotten he could do this. That this was the very center of his art, of his whole being.
“New,” Vasily breathed. “Young. Diluted. What the Orthodox do…what we do, any of us…it’s like the ghost of prayer. The atavistic memory of prayer.”
“Vaska,” Thomas said. “Tell me about the bear ceremony.”
At that, the tears in Vasily’s eyes actually spilled over. His hand rose to his cheek, spread across his stubble-free cheek as though feeling the wall of a cave. As though Vasily had never felt such a cheek before. “Oh, Thomas. The bear ceremony. Such an inadequate name.”
“Chert poberi,” Ana hissed, clutching the bars.
“I only saw the one,” Vasily said. “But such a one. And afterward…I learned. I learned, Thomas. I talked to the shamans. They’re all shamans-by-night now, of course. Grocery clerks or oil field worms by day, if you can call what they have up there day. I went to their huts or their flats. I brought them vodka, and vodka, and more vodka. And I listened while they talked. I heard what they knew, all the forgotten things they know. And eventually, when they realized that I was learning, they started teaching me. And I realized, at last, what gift I could bring back to poor, confused, mafia-infested, Starbucks-infected, Putinized, brutalized, baffled, beautiful St. Petersburg: a memory from an even more savage, beautiful time we’ve all forgotten, or denied, or repressed, or dreamed. A kiss—my kiss—to the northernmost city in the world, from the far East they’ve forgotten is even there.”
Abruptly, he giggled. “Or it would be a kiss. If not for what happened with the damn mouths. Oh, my poor students. Your poor Alyosha, Ana. I didn’t intend that.”
“Poor Alyosha?” Ana whispered. Abruptly, she stood. Reared, really. Anyone but Vasily would have lunged for the cage door, smashed it shut, prayed it locked, to keep Ana out. “Where is he?” she said.
Only then did Vasily seem actually to register the question. He met her gaze straight on. “You’ve probably seen him more recently than I have.”
Understanding dawned so fast in Thomas, and so softly, it was like awakening, or remembering. Ana understood too, he suspected, because she hadn’t lunged, had gone frighteningly quiet. Maybe she’d somehow guessed all along.
But how could she have? It was absurd. Insane. Impossible.
Ana gave the bars one more feeble rattle, banged her forehead against them. “Uncle Vasily,” she said. “Just say it.”
Thomas started to ask how, realized that was always the wrong question, with all art but especially with Vasily’s. Also, what did it matter? It had happened. There were more important questions now: What did it mean? Was it meant to be temporary?
Could any of them be saved?
“Vaska. How long have they…since you did this? Since your ceremony? If you did this…changed them…and if they have no mouths…”
Vasily was up, now, striding back and forth through the leaves, waving the last nub of banana like some fat stub of lecturer’s chalk. “It’s the most wondrous part, really, isn’t it? The best part. Because, Thomas, Ana, even I don’t know! Did I do it wrong? Did I misunderstand the instructions they gave me? Or did they leave something out? This could be their art. Do you understand? Their joke. The grocery-clerk shamans of the nowhere-East, conjuring fairy-tale man-bears with no mouths, tricking a madman”—he stopped in mid-babble, whirled, did a little curtsey, and went right back to pacing, waving the banana—“into turning them loose to wander and wonder and slowly starve to death on the streets of the city Russians built to connect them to the world that isn’t Russia. That whole winking world of marvels beyond the Urals, across the Black Sea, that we never have quite made sense or become part of…”
Reasoning with him, Thomas knew, was useless. It was also the only possible or sane course. The only chance. “Vasily. These bears. These…students. Your students.”
“They participated willingly, Thomas. Gleefully. They gave themselves to the moment, as we all learned to do. I told them exactly what was going to happen. Except for the mouths. I didn’t know about the mouths.”
“And the ending,” Ana said, her voice no longer angry, spilling from her lips in a haze of heavy, white breath. “I am thinking you didn’t mention the ending.”
“So, you do remember,” Vasily said, practically dancing. “Ana, you probably know more about the Nivkh bear ceremony than I do; your grandparents actually grew up there and—”
“I remember my babushka’s stories. You monster. Zver. I remember the ending.”
“The ending?” Thomas asked, and Ana turned to him. Her expression seemed so far away and fragmented, it was as though he were viewing it through a kaleidoscope.
“Of the bear ceremony,” Ana said flatly. “When the shamans murder and dismember the bear.”
Vasily had snatched up his iPad, and now he was staring into it, waving his finger and talking to it like a wizard over a cauldron. “Ooh,” he said. “Look! They’re gathering.”
He held up the iPad. On it was displayed what Thomas first took for some sort of game screen, a grid with little dots moving over it. Then—by the blue veins of the canals—he realized he was looking at St. Petersburg, a street map of the city center. And then he understood what the dots were.
“What…” Ana started, but Thomas waved her to silence.
“Bears?” he said. He didn’t have to manufacture any of the wonder Vasily expected when his acolytes addressed him. Wonder was certainly one of the things he was feeling. “How did… You’re tracking them?”
“GPS,” Vasily crowed. “In little pendants around their necks. Like pet tags.” He beamed.
Transformed, mouthless man-bears under a shaman’s spell. Their every aimless, hopeless movement tracked via satellite. Old-world magic, new-world magic. New Russia and old. As art, Thomas thought…as Situationist prank…it was…
“I think maybe you better hurry,” Vasily said to Ana, his voice suddenly soft, almost human. Almost an uncle’s, and with real love in it. “Moya lyubimaya. I think perhaps it is ending.”
Pounding her fists once more against the cage, Ana whirled and ran. For a single second, Thomas hesitated, thinking there was something he should say to Vasily, do for or maybe to him. But Vasily was just standing amid the leaves, not even looking at Thomas anymore, and suddenly, he seemed so small. Forgotten, older, soon to be old, as empty of purpose or thought or hope—whatever that might be or once have been—as the gorillas they’d once glimpsed here, all those years ago.
Spinning away, Thomas stumbled up the incline and after Ana through the flurrying snow.
Of course, this being St. Petersburg, not Paris or London or New York or, God knew, Berlin—and the sprawling outskirts of St. Petersburg, at that—it took them almost two hours, by bus and then metro, and then another metro to reach Nevsky Prospekt. By the time they reemerged onto the street, the day had already darkened. Flurries filled the air, winking against the glowing streetlights and the brilliantly lit Winter Palace like migrating snow sprites swarming over the rooftops and street stalls and buses, settling on the drawn-up hoods and scarves of all the people—the dozens, the hundreds of people—surging, seemingly as one, toward the Palace Embankment.
Shivering in the cold, Ana grabbed his hand. “Oh, Thomas,” she breathed, the first words she’d uttered other than Russian curses and her Alyosha’s name since they’d left the woods around the Pavlov Institute.
“Come on,” he said, pulling her along through the crowd.
They couldn’t run—there were too many people—but they moved fast, angling sideways, cutting between couples and families, darting around parked cars and between idled buses stranded in the surge of pedestrians. They rode the surge. It felt, Thomas realized, surprisingly like those last days at the Wall. Or rather, those first days of Wall-lessness, with people massing like water at the lip of a crumbling dam, sloshing over it, exploding through it.
Except without the joy, somehow. Without the convulsive release.
Without the hope, he understood abruptly. Which had probably been imaginary, or at least ephemeral, even then. But it had been there. Whereas this…this was just about seeing now. About being there to see. That was all anyone, East or West, hoped for anymore.
The crowd hustled them forward, spilled out onto the Palace Embankment where traffic had stopped dead, the few cars along it seeming to float in the roiling river of people like unmanned gondolas. Still clutching Ana’s hand, Thomas pulled her forward, nudging and bumping bystanders aside, until he somehow found them a spot right up against the stone wall separating the streets from the Neva. Not until Anna was safely ensconced alongside him did he look up. And not until she gasped did he see what she had seen.
The bears—all of them, if Vasily’s tracking devices had been working properly, two dozen, at least—were on the bridge. On Troitskiy Most. Some of them were just lying in the center of the traffic lanes, muzzles down. Two had draped themselves over the stone barrier facing the Winter Palace, heads slumped, like pelts hanging themselves out to dry. The rest were staggering aimlessly around up there, thudding into each other, stumbling to their knees and lurching back onto their feet. Occasionally, one turned fully in Thomas’s direction. It was those moments he would never afterward shake from his dreams: those eyes, devoid of everything but life; those blank, mouthless spaces, which should have rendered the faces friendlier, like stuffed things, but instead just made them ridiculous. Paper creatures ripped from some giant’s pop-up book, impossible to put back, impossible to sustain or corral or save. Of no tangible worth to anyone.
At either end of the bridge, police had established roadblocks and barriers, and they were making a great show of waving rifles around, though even they seemed confused about where to aim, whether their purpose was to keep people away or bears on the bridge. Around them, almost everyone but Thomas and Ana had cell phones out, and they were snapping photos silently, checking the photos on their screens.
For a long moment—Thomas would remember it as barely a breath—the whole city froze, as though posing for a portrait: snow in streetlight, the Neva and the palaces and the Peter and Paul Fortress and the long blue muzzles of the guns glittering in the blue-black dark, and the faces, dark and light and European and Mongolian and old and even older and, very occasionally, young, all massed together, as individual as snowflakes and also as fractal. One face.
Then—not slowly—one of the bears draped over the stone barrier reared up, swaying on two feet. As one, all the rifles at either end of the bridge and all the raised cell phones along the embankment swung toward it, locked in. The bear paid no attention, seemed instead to be staring up at the stars, and it was shaking, its whole body shuddering and rippling.
“It’s roaring,” Ana murmured, her voice seeming to wisp apart as it streamed into the air.
And Thomas realized she was right. Not that he’d ever seen this happen before, or ever would again, but there was no question: that, right there, was how a mouthless bear roared. And now, it was doing it harder, positively bellowing its…whatever it was—frustration? Hunger? Desperation? Loneliness?—in absolute silence.
Right beside that bear, two more rose up, and there was a thunderous, impressively unified click as a hundred safety catches popped off a hundred rifles. But no one shot, and the silence rippled and resettled with the snow as more bears rose in twos and threes.
Then they were all up, swaying, shuddering, heads thrown back, muzzles straight up in the air. For at most five seconds, all of them shuddered and strained together, as though a whole bear-forest had somehow sprouted right in the center of Trinity Bridge.
Did one of them slip? Knock into the others? Thomas would never be sure. All he knew with any certainty was what he saw, as Ana clutched his hand, sobbed silently beside him, hung there, leaning into the night over the Neva:
The first bear, the one who’d risen, gave a last heaving, soundless bellow. Then—as though it had somehow roared itself out of its skin—its body sagged all the way forward, its legs bumping the stone barrier as it tumbled off the bridge into the air. Before it had even landed, other bears followed, tipping forward one after another like lemmings, plummeting into the river and sending up spumes of icy spray that drove the crowd ducking and shouting backward.
But Thomas and Ana stayed where they were, watching bears surface one by one, the water bearing them up, ferrying their broken, motionless bodies down the canals, through the snow-draped night and out of St. Petersburg toward the Gulf of Finland.
There should have been…Thomas wasn’t even sure what. A collective wail. A chorus of gasps. A moment of silence, just to mark that something had happened. Was passing. Something living.
Then the police whirled on the crowd. Briefly, Thomas panicked, thought they might open fire, worried he could end up trapped—or shot—against this wall in the midst of a riot, a mindless surge.
Instead, with astonishing speed, the crowd along the embankment dissolved into its thousand separate parts, its couples and tour groups, its office mates and solitary travelers bumping and cutting behind and in front of one another. This wasn’t a surge, just a separation. And by the time he realized that, got himself steady on his feet, and cleared his head, Ana was gone.
“Ana!” he called, just once, thought he saw her across the street, head down, black hair streaming as she burrowed through the throng. If I were you, throng, Thomas thought, with a smile so faint that the first movement of his head melted it off his face, I’d get out of her way.
“Turkish?” he heard a laughing voice say, in English, right next to him.
Surprised, he turned, started to answer, “German,” and realized the man—kid, really, college kid—was talking to the speckle-faced, green-eyed, laughing redhead he was tugging behind him.
Food, Thomas realized. They were talking about food.
“This place is incredible,” the girl said. And then they were gone too. And Thomas was practically ripping his gloves off his hands, pulling out his phone and punching at the speed-dial.
“Jutta?” he said before she’d even spoken, had barely even answered. “Jutta, it’s me.”
“Yes, I hear that,” she said. Laughing.
His wife, laughing. Thomas almost hung up on her, too, almost threw the phone into the Neva, let it follow the bears. The dead and beautiful bears.
“And so?” Jutta was saying, her laughing voice filling his ear. “Did you find him? What has he got up to now?”
Oh, you know, Thomas very nearly answered. Killing some kids. Watching Russians Snapchat it.
“Can I talk to our son?” he said.
“Can you…” Jutta started, and Thomas thought she’d actually heard, understood. But of course she hadn’t. She was still laughing. “Here he is.”
Of course, Thomas had nothing to say to him, either. Except, in the end, “Hello.” And so, he said that. Then he said it again. And he went on doing that, in his mind, out loud, to his son, all the way back to Vitebsk Station to catch the next train home.
“Freedom is Space for the Spirit” copyright © 2016 by Glen Hirshberg
Art copyright © 2016 by Greg Ruth