Another Pilgrim

Here it is! The Ob, the great Siberian river, is before me once again. I have made my way to this northern village, where regular transportation ends, and now stand on the banks of the Ob. To get to where I can proceed on foot across the taiga to Anastasia’s glade, I have to hire a boat or launch. Near one of the many boats hauled onto the shore, three men were disassembling their fishing tackle. I greeted them and said I was prepared to pay well for someone to take me to a certain place.
«It’s Egorich who does that here. Takes half a million for the trip," one of the muzhiks replied.
I was immediately put on my guard by the information that someone here specifically transported people to a small Siberian village forgotten in the middle of the taiga. It was just twenty-five kilometers from there to Anastasia’s glade. Also he charged a very high price, which meant there were takers. Demand determines supply. However, there’s no haggling in the North.
So I asked, «How can I find this Egorich?»
«Somewhere in the village. Probably by the store. Over there, those kids horsing around by his launch, Egorich’s grandson Vasyatka is with them. He’ll check. Go ask him.»
I’d barely said hello when Vasyatka, a sharp kid of about twelve, suddenly fired off this patter:
«You need to go? To see Anastasia? I’m on it! Just a sec and I’ll get my granddad!»
Without waiting for an answer, Vasyatka skipped off to the settlement. It was obvious to me that he didn’t need an answer. Evidently all the strangers in these parts had the same goal, in Vasyatka’s opinion.
I made myself comfortable on the riverbank and began to wait. Having nothing to do, I looked at the water and thought.
From bank to bank here, it was probably a kilometer wide. In the middle of the taiga, a land unseen even from an airplane, water has been flowing gradually through the ages. What has it taken from the past without leaving a trace? What does the Ob water still remember? Maybe it remembers how Ermak, the conqueror of Siberia, pinned to the banks of the Ob by his foes, deflected their attack alone, sword in hand, but his blood seeped into the water from his mortal wound, and then the water carried his weakened body off somewhere. What had Ermak conquered? Might his actions have been something like modern-day racketeering? Today only the river could compare, probably.
Might the forays by Chingiz Khan’s host have been more significant for the river? In antiquity, his horde was considered great. In Novosibirsk Province there is a district center called Ordinskoye-from orda, Russian for «horde»-where there is a settlement called Chingiz. Might the water recall how Chingiz Khan’s horde retreated with their stolen loot, how they tied up a young Siberian girl and the mighty vizier implored her with passionate speeches and besotted eyes to go with him without resistance, of her own free will? The girl said nothing and lowered her eyes. All the vizier’s soldiers had already fled, but he kept talking to her, kept begging for her love. Then the vizier threw her and a sack of gold across the croup of his steed, leapt into the saddle, and made a dash for the bank of the Ob on his faithful horse, saving himself from pursuit. His pursuers caught up. The vizier threw them gold, and when his sack was empty the vizier began ripping off his precious medals, awarded for conquering various countries, on the grass, at the feet of those who had chased him, but he would not let the girl go. Covered with foam, his steed had carried him to the dugouts on the bank of the Ob. Carefully, the vizier took the firmly bound girl from his steed and placed her in a boat. Then he jumped in after her. But while he was pushing the boat off from the bank, an arrow from the pursuit, which had just caught up, pierced him.
The current bore the boat away. The vizier, shot through by the arrow, lay on the stern and did not even watch the three boats of rowers drawing closer and closer with the soldiers. He looked tenderly at the maiden, who sat there calmly, silently, and was himself silent. He didn’t have the strength to say anything. The Siberian girl looked at him, too, then glanced at his pursuers and barely smiled, either at them or something else, tore the ropes from her arms and threw them into the water. The young Siberian girl took up the oars. And the pursuit’s dugouts could not catch up with her boat, where the wounded vizier lay.
Where, into what times, did the water’s current carry them, and what now, in this instant, was the cloudy river water carrying away in its memory about us?
Would the river think the big cities most important? Today, Novosibirsk, a huge city, stands on the Ob’s banks, closer to its sources. Can you feel its size and grandeur, River? Of course, it is clear to me that you might say the river water, once life-giving, is so dirty that no one can drink it. But what are we supposed to do? Where can we dispose our factories' waste? After all, we’re developing, not like our ancestors. We have lots of scientists now who live in the many academic towns around Novosibirsk. If we don’t pour our sewage into you, we will choke ourselves. Even now, the stench has made it hard to breathe in the city, and in some districts you can’t tell what it is exactly that stinks. Try to understand all this, River. You know what kind of equipment we have now. Diesel ships glide over you now, not silent dugouts. My ship has moved over your waters, as well.
I wonder whether the river remembers me. Me on the ship, the largest passenger ship we had. The ship wasn’t new, of course, and at full steam all its diesel engines and propeller made such a racket, we could barely listen to music in the bar.
What does the river consider most important and retain in its memory? Before, I would look at its banks from the high deck of my ship, from the windows of the aft bar, to the sounds of Malinin’s songs and ballads:
On a fine white horse, I’d ride to town,
For the tavern mistress’s smile fair,
On the bridge, I caught the miller’s scowl,
And with the tavern’s mistress spent the night.
At the time, the people going about their business on the banks had seemed trifling and insignificant. Now I was one of them.
I also thought about how I was going to convince Anastasia not to prevent me from having contact with my son. Such a strange situation had come about. All my life I’d dreamed of a son. I’d imagined playing with him when he was little. Then raise him. When my son grew up he would be a good helper to me. We would be in business together. I have a son now, and though he’s not near me, it’s still nice to know that a being so close to me and so desired exists on this earth. Before my departure, I’d taken tremendous satisfaction in buying all kinds of unnecessary children’s things for my baby. Buying is one thing. Whether I would be able to give them was still a question. If I’d had my son by an ordinary woman, whether from the country or the city-it didn’t matter-everything would be simple and clear. Almost any woman would like to know that the father of her child was concerned and trying to give the child everything he needed and to take part in his upbringing. If a man doesn’t do this voluntarily, many women sue for support. But Anastasia was a taiga hermit, and she had her own views on life, her own understanding of values. Even before my son’s birth, she told me, «He has no need of any material goods as you understand them. He will have everything from the very beginning. You will undoubtedly want to bring the baby some pointless rattle, but he absolutely doesn’t need it. You need it for your self-satisfaction: 'How good and concerned I am.'»
My goodness. «He has no need of any material goods." But what can a parent give his newborn then, especially his father? It’s still too soon to give the nursing infant a fatherly upbringing. How can I express my love toward him then? How can I express my concern? The mother nurses him, so it’s easier for her. She’s already involved, but what is the father supposed to do? In civilized conditions, he can help around the house and worry about the family’s material well-being. But Anastasia doesn’t need all that. She has nothing but her taiga glade. Her hearth takes care of itself and actually takes complete care of her. Therefore, it will also serve the baby when it sees he comes from her. I wonder what kind of money it would take to have something like that? Buying or leasing five hectares of land long term isn’t that hard now, but how and for what money can you buy the love and devotion of a wolf, bear, bugs, and eagle? Anastasia herself may not need any of our civilization’s achievements, but why should the child suffer for his mother’s world-view? The child doesn’t even have normal toys. Here, too, she sees everything her own way. «A child does not need pointless rattles. They harm him. They lead him away from the truth," she says.
I think her statements are either utter superstition or at least have a definite kink. Did humanity really invent so many different toys for children for nothing? But so as not to argue with Anastasia, I didn’t buy any rattles but I did buy an erector set that had this written on the box: «Play for the development of children’s intellect." And I bought the disposable diapers the whole world uses. And baby food, too. Which simply delighted me with its convenience of preparation. You open the box, and inside is a hermetically sealed, waterproof foil package. You cut open the packet with scissors, sprinkle the powder into warm water, stir, and it’s all ready. There are different kinds of powder: buckwheat, rice, and other cereals.
It also says on the box that it contains various vitamin supplements. I remember before, when my daughter Polina was still very little, I had to go to the community kitchen every day for her food, while here I’d bought a box and you could feed my child without any problem. You didn’t even have to cook it. Mix it in water and that’s it. I knew Anastasia did not boil water and therefore before buying a lot I bought one box. I tried mixing the powder in the box with room temperature water, and it dissolved. I tasted it and it tasted fine, only bland because there was no salt, though for children it probably shouldn’t have salt. I decided Anastasia wouldn’t be able to find any arguments against this powder. It’s absurd to refuse this kind of convenience. And she would have to have some respect for our technocratic world. It not only produces weapons but thinks about children, too. However, what worried me most from what Anastasia had said-primarily because it was incomprehensible-was the following: Anastasia had said that for me to have contact with my son, I had to achieve a certain purity of intentions and cleanse myself internally, only I didn’t know what specifically I was supposed to cleanse myself of.
It would have been easier to understand if she had said I had to shave, or stop smoking, and, when I approached the child, wear clean clothing. But she spoke of consciousness and internal cleansing. Where do they sell the brush to cleanse something inside you? What was so very dirty inside me? I may not be better than others, but I’m no worse, either. If every woman started presenting the man with demands like this, one big purgatory would have to be set up for humanity. This is illegal. I’ve brought Anastasia an excerpt from the Civil Code which says that one parent does not have the right to deprive the other without grounds of the opportunity to see his own child, even if the parents are divorced. Of course, our laws mean little to Anastasia, but this is still a weighty argument. After all, most people follow the laws. I also could have spoken more sternly with Anastasia. She and I should have equal rights to the child. I’d had the idea of speaking more sternly with her before, too, but now I’d had second thoughts about my original decision. Here’s why: in my backpack, along with everything else, were readers' letters. I didn’t take them all because a great many letters come in. They wouldn’t have all fit. In many letters readers regard Anastasia with understanding. They call her a messiah, a taiga fairy, a goddess, and dedicate poems and songs to her. Some speak to her as if she were their closest friend. This stream of letters compelled me to make a great effort to make sense of my own actions and statements.
I had to sit on the bank by Egorich’s launch for three hours or so. Night was approaching when I saw two men coming toward me and Egorich’s grandson with them. The first, elderly, looked to be about sixty. He was wearing a canvas raincoat and rubber boots and had a flushed face. He’d obviously been drinking because he swayed slightly as he walked. The other, younger, about thirty, was sturdily built. When they came closer I saw streaks of gray in the younger Siberian’s dark brown hair. The older man started to speak as soon as he got close.
«Hey there, traveler! Want to see Anastasia? We’ll take you. Get out five hundred thousand for carriage plus two bottles.»
I already knew I wasn’t the only one trying to get to Anastasia, which was why his fee was so high. For them I was just another pilgrim going where Anastasia resided. But I still asked, «Why do you think I need to see some Anastasia and not just go to the village?»
«Okay, the village, if you say so. Get out your five hundred anyway. If you don’t have five hundred, we won’t take you to the village.»
Egorich was not speaking very nicely to me.
«They take that much money for transport and aren’t friendly," I thought. «Why is that?»
I had no choice but to agree, though. But instead of being happy about the money and, most importantly, the two bottles of vodka, which he sent his younger partner off for, Egorich treated me with even more hostility. He sat down on a rock next to me and muttered to himself.
«The village. . . . What village? Six houses of people barely alive-the whole village. Nobody needs that village.»
«Do you take visitors to see Anastasia often? Is it a good business transporting them?» I asked Egorich to get the conversation going and temper his hostility. But Egorich answered with irritation.
«Who invited them? Uninvited dolts hauling themselves there. Nothing stops them. Did she invite them? Did she? No! She told one about her life. He wrote a book. Fine. Write. But why give away the place? We never did. He meets her once and writes about her whole life, and gives away the place. Even the old women realized she’d have no peace if it was given away.»
«You mean you’ve read the book about Anastasia?»
«I don’t read books. Sasha, my partner, likes to read books. But we won’t take you to the village right away. Too far. The propeller on the launch is kind of weak. We’ll go as far as the fishing shack and spend the night there. In the morning Sasha will take you the rest of the way while I fish.»
«So be it," I agreed, and I thought, «It’s good Egorich doesn’t know I’m the author of the book about Anastasia.»
Sasha, Egorich’s buddy, brought the vodka. They stowed the fishing tackle in the boat, and then Egorich’s grandson Vasyatka nearly scotched the trip. He started asking Egorich for money for a new radio.
«I’ve already hauled a pole over for the antenna and figured out how to put it up," Vasyatka said, «and I have the wire for the antenna. When you attach the antenna to the radio you catch lots of different stations.»

Книга:  Volume III: The Dimention of Love