To Russia, With Love.


One:Desert

The desert has a way of swallowing up those who trespass.

Border-band where the sky meets the earth looks wrong on my canvas. None of the colours sit right, and the clouds look too heavy once I'm taken them out of the sky. All the deserts I paint have been wrong lately: the colours, the lighting, the texture of the dust clouds, stirred up by the hooves of the wind.

I collect my paintbrushes and go inside.

"You're all dusty," observes my mother. She stands in the decaying, yellow-tinted kitchen, hands on her hips. Her apron is beginning to fray. "Did you paint anything today, Imeda?" She shakes her head and turns without answering because she knows the answer. I may as well have painted nothing because the streaks of pigment on a wide, white canvas are worth nothing. They are dusty and water and vary in thickness. The smooth, rolling lines of the desert don't fit well into the boxes my hands draw.

"Nothing I like," I offer up. The conversation dies and she turns back to the sink. The light filters in through the west window and the orange glow of an uncomfortably late afternoon makes her face glow. "What are you making for dinner?"

She looks over her shoulder. Only one side of her face glows now, and the dark eye closer to the window flashes gold. "Tyurya." For a moment, my mother is somewhere else altogether. Swaying on her feet a little, she drops the hand-towel on the counter and walks out of the kitchen.

I know how to make Tyurya: bread and water and the meat I know I bought the other day.

My mother walks out the door into the reddening shrublands.

--

Two:Pogrom

We left early in the morning, my mother and Dali and I. On foot, along a slim, thin river that curved through moist, grassy fields. My mother herded us along like animals, pushing our backs with the flat of her hands.

"Hurry on," she scolded us, in Russian once and then, voice a little lower, in Georgian. "Go."

Even then, all those years ago, the beginnings of a savage fire had burned behind her dark eyes.

My feet ached in my shoes, my shoulders grew weary of the heavy pack strapped across my back. "Where are we going?" I had asked. "When are we going to be there?" Rocks worked into my shoes and bit into my feet. They wore away the rubber and skin, and I found myself more perturbed by this than by my missing father or the rash of murders in our small town.

Dali took my hand and led me through the thickets of tall pine trees. She laced her fingers through mine, tugged me after our mother. "It isn't much further." She was twelve to my seven— older and infinitely wiser than I. Her word made as much sense as anything else.

My mother scooped my up and ran with me, over the dipping, sagging earth, towards a distant horizon.

It was much further. My mother's frail arms were too far to carry me and she handed me off to Dali. "Take care of your brother," she had said, and Dali had complied, adjusting me in her grip until she could carry me. She lurched over the grass. It was nighttime. Who walks around at night?

My mother. My sister. Me.

"Where are we going?"

My mother had considered for a moment. She ran her hands through her thick, dark hair, arranging it around her shoulders absently. Dali stopped walking and trotted over obediently, arms still wrapped tightly around me.

"Where are we going?" she echoed, without the same amount of accusation.

"I have relatives in Karachayevsk." My mother straightened her back. "In Russia. We're going to see them. Your aunt and uncle and all your cousins. Won't that be exciting? You'll have so many kids your own age." Her sentences were like chops of an ax into the trunk of a tree. Chop. Chop. Word after word, footstep after footstep, she would lead us to Russia.

Doe-eyed Dali had nodded and turned to carry me along the unworn path. My mother, clutching the straps of her leather satchel, followed without speaking.

--

Three:Absolve

"I don't want to stay here any more," I tell Dali on the phone. "I can't ever paint anything good."

For a moment, she doesn't say anything. I can hear the steady skirr of her breath on the other end of the line, beyond the static that separates us. I expected an answer right away, because Dali never does anything by halves, and rarely hesitates.

"How's mom?" she asks instead of answering. I don't want her to ask how mom is— it means I will have to answer her eventually.

"Fine. Better."

"Better than what?"

"Better."

For a long time, neither of us say anything. We just breathe quietly into our respective phones without speaking, mulling over the words stretched between us. Dali shuffles papers on the other end of the line and finally she says something —not to me— about a Ms. Kuzmina coming in at one in the afternoon tomorrow.

"You should come stay with me, Imeda," she says into the receiver. It's directed at me this time, I hear my name clearly from her distant mouth. "Mom will understand."

"No, she won't."

Dali sighs and shuffles more papers aimlessly on her desk to look busy. I cradle the receiver between my cheek and my shoulder and sit on one of the chairs, still listening to my sister and her endless sighing. "Yes, she will," she protests. She clicks her tongue, though it just sounds like sharp blips of concentrated static to me. "Tell her you need inspiration."

I consider, leaning back into the pillows of the couch. "I don't know if she'll buy that," I say, eyes fluttering shut. I want cold water with ice and a slice of lemon. I want to be glamorous like the people on TV with the purple plastic shades and the slender, pale bodies.

"You'd like it here," Dali continues. I hear her press the phone against the material of her shirt and she says something in a firm, business-like voice before her breath returns. "Moscow is a good city. Lots of people to lose yourself in. I like it here. Come visit me."

Part of me wants to argue with her. Our mother is beginning to die off, wither like a flower left unwatered. Everyone agrees she'll be nothing but dust in a few years, even if her body insists upon lingering. To deprive her of another child would be cruel.

Another sigh crinkles in my ear. "She doesn't even really know what's going on half the time anyway." Dali clicks a pen. She's getting irritated with my hesitation. Hesitation makes her infinitely nervous. "Just for a little while, Meda. Not forever. You don't have to decide now. Just think about it for a little while."

A little while. I nod and curl up in the sagging couch. "I'll think about it," I say. In my head, I flip through every failed painting of the desert, stacked up and stuck together, collecting dust in one corner of my room. "And it's not forever. Not permanent."

We fall into the pattern of breathing, of half-formed words jumping to the front of our mouths only to be crushed between our lips.

"Just come visit me," says Dali finally. "Just come. It's not your responsibility to take care of her."

It is, and we know it, but I doubt that this will stop me.

--

Four:Versification

I wonder if I space out all my thoughts, if I could turn them into poetry. Into songs I could sing to someone besides myself. I wonder if they would be beautiful, written like poetry, even the most mundane things.

Looking out the window

On a train into Moscow,

900 kilometers of barren deserts and trees and

More deserts,

Roll by.

The water tastes bad. That would make a bad poem. I don't write that down on the little notepad I clutch in my hands. I bought it at the last stop so I could take notes, so when I compose those stilted letters to my mother, I will know what to say. I've already written five of them, about the train, and I don't think I'll ever send them.

I don't think they're letters to my mother any more.

The woman with one diamond earring

Dangling from an ear like

A sea shell

Hands me a cold glass of water,
Orders me to

"Drink."

I drink cold water from a red plastic cup that I end up leaving on the window sill. Outside, the landscape begins to change again: houses and businesses pop up on either side of the train as it winds its way over the wasteland that is autumn. The angular lines of the urban landscape replace the rolling deserts and lonely pine trees.

Horizontal lines becomes

Squares and squares

And rectangles

Light glows from the windows of

Strangers I will never know

--

Five:Hands-off

Dali meets me at the train station. She's grown older in a year— her eyes have darkened, mouth thinned, hair grown long to the middle of her back. She has traded her canvas work pants for a tight, floral-print skirt and smeared lipstick the color of cranberries. Her braid hangs limps and swings with her steps over the cracked pavement.

"It's not a far walk," she tells me. Then, mouth drawn and body taut, she loops one willow tree arm around my shoulders and tugs me against her. "I'm glad you're here, Meda."

We walk through the crowded streets, away from the bus station. Indicating with long, manicured fingernails, Dali points out various stores. "The video store," she says. "The best sushi in the district." We don't get near enough for me to touch any of the store fronts, or even slow long enough for me to look in. I take her word for it. We breeze past an internet cafe and a bookstore. "The owner at the bookstore is a prick."

Georgian sounds strange in her mouth, all the syllables I am familiar with strung together in a voice that isn't really my sister's.

Her apartment is small, plain— brown walls, windows with green sills, a stalk of lucky bamboo growing out of a slim china vase. Dali sets down her blue backpack beside the door. "You can have my bedroom," she offers.

I shake my head, setting my own bag down on the sagging bluish couch. "It's okay." The cushions are squishy and absorb my tired body into themselves.

"We're getting take-out," says Dali. She walks over to her cotton-candy pink telephone with the fake rotary dial, sitting on the kitchen counter. "You still like Chinese, right?"

I sit still and nod, and the stranger I am staying with punches in the numbers on the keypad.


So SerialXLain proposed we do this...50 prompts thing with the same set of words (although she's using them in a slightly different order). Go read hers, it's really interesting. This is kind of blah so far.

Reviews?