1. Boris (The Cousin)
When the police found Sasha, they called me to come and identify his body. Uncle Peter and Aunt Oxsana were up in Tur Kej--something to do with Uncle Peter’s literacy work, so I was the one.
All the way there, in the taxi, I prayed it was a mistake. As I walked into the room where they’d put his body I was still praying. But of course it wasn’t a mistake.
I recognized him immediately--the short blond hair, the high cheekbones, the way his mouth turned up at the corners smiling, even though he was dead. His jacket and shirt were saturated with blood.
Standing beside him, I closed my eyes and tried to picture the girl who hadn’t died because Sasha had.
I imagined her gasping with terror, pressed against the wall, her hair scattered across her face, the way she must have looked when Sasha stepped in front of her and pushed her attacker away. If that’s how it happened. Even the police officer who spoke with me wasn’t exactly sure how it happened.Until that night, I had thought only someone desperate for a glance of approval from God would throw themselves at death like that. But I knew Sasha hadn’t been desperate. No one was more sure of God’s love than Sasha was.
“Yes, that’s Alexander Neyrev,” I said. “His parents are out of town. Should I call them?”
Then I sat down on the floor and covered my face with my hands. My body felt too heavy to move, my head too heavy to hold upright.
The little silver crucifix that Sasha had once given me hung like a lead weight around my neck.
“It’s roasting in here” I said. “Arjun, prop the door open and let in some fresh air.”
The exhaust fan rattled high in the red tile wall. Arjun looked up from scraping charred bits of something out of a skillet. He was sweating.
“Aren’t you hot? Prop. Open. The. Door.”
He nodded and kept scraping. I shook the extra flour off my hands, squeezed past him and wrenched open the door, getting flour and bits of dough all over the knob. I kicked a chair into position against it.
“You need your hearing checked, mop-head?” I muttered under my breath. But Arjun heard me, and his grin froze for a second, then cracked open too wide.
“Yes,” he nodded. “Yes.” He poured soap onto his sponge.
“Sorry, Arjun...” I thought about saying more, but stopped.
He didn’t look up. “Yes, yes, no problem.”
He wouldn’t have understood a long apology, but it would have made me feel better. Maybe.
“Dear God, I really do want to be sorry,” I whispered.
I finished wrapping the last few sausage links in dough and laid them out on a pan to rise before frying them. I washed my hands and turned on the gas under the pan of oil.
Rama, who had been out front, mopping the floor, came clattering back into the kitchen.
His girlfriend, Preen, walked in behind him, a baby girl on one hip and a big plastic bag in her other hand. I had told Preen not to visit Rama at the café while he was working but she ignored me. Or didn’t understand.
Rama poured the bucket of dirty water down the dishwashing sink, even though I had told him at least twenty times to use the utility sink. Then he took the baby and held her up, nuzzling her belly while she kicked and giggled. She had tiny ankle bracelets with bells on them that jingled when he lifted her above his head.
Preen said something and patted Rama’s arm. Rama gave her back the baby and opened the bag. Inside was an imitation leather jacket, a pair of expensive-looking jeans, and a couple of tee shirts. Rama tried on the jacket, tossing his head and folding his arms across his chest. Preen smiled at him.
I was glad she bought him new clothes, since I’m pretty sure he’d been wearing the same tee shirt and jeans for a month, but I wondered why he didn’t just buy them himself.
All three of them were talking at once. Rama was laughing. Preen glanced over her shoulder at me, her brow furrowed. I sensed something was wrong, but I had no way of knowing what, so I told Rama and Arjun to get back to work.
Preen said something else to Arjun in a louder voice, gesturing at Rama with her free hand, and stalked out of the kitchen, her long braid swinging behind her, the baby bouncing on her hip.
The oil was hot, so I started frying my sausage rolls.
It took me a few minutes to realize that Rama and Arjun were fighting, because they were loud even when they were getting along.
They were always shouting at each other and roughhousing for fun when they were supposed to be working.Rama punched Arjun in the face just as I was dropping another batch of sausage rolls into the hot oil. Arjun shoved him back, and Rama fell, crashing into the stove beside me. His arm hit the pan and he splashed boiling oil all over himself and the stovetop.
I jumped out of the way, but not before a few drops of oil scalded through my shirt and jeans. Rama yelled with pain, and held up his blistering hands. Arjun froze, his own hands spread out, his eyes wide with shock at what he had just done.
I read somewhere, or maybe Sasha told me, that cold water can stop a burn from getting any worse. As soon as I shut off the gas, I grabbed Rama, dragged him over to the sink and plunged his hands under the cold tap. He struggled. Rama is small, like most Tur people. His head came barely past my shoulder, but the pain made him so wild I couldn’t hold him. He slipped again, and collapsed onto the floor.
Sasha would have calmed him down and explained exactly what was happening. But I am not Sasha, and right then I was furious.
Arjun grabbed a handful of rags and threw them at the oil slick on the stovetop.
“Get up,” I said to Rama. “We need to get you to a doctor.”
During the drive to the clinic, I called Aunt Oxsana and explained what had happened. She said she’d call Uncle Peter and have him come down as soon as his afternoon class at the University was over. She probably felt sorrier for Rama than I did, but I guessed she was angry too.It was not her idea to hire young, inexperienced Tur men to work in the café. Uncle Peter was behind that.
“Better a few broken dishes than one more member of a Nationalist gang,” was his philosophy, and he stuck to it, even after Sasha was murdered. Maybe because Sasha was murdered.
I decided to fire both Rama and Arjun, if Aunt Oxsana agreed. I was tired working with people who made me hate myself, who put the worst of me on display every day. God never gave me enough patience. The simplest conversations often seemed to end with me yelling and waving my arms, while Arjun grinned and Rama scowled. Maybe they really couldn’t understand me, or maybe they just didn’t want to.
After about half an hour, Rama came out of the exam room, heavy-eyed with painkiller, hands swathed in bandages. He sat down and then slumped sideways across two chairs and pulled his legs up to occupy another two.
I started to explain to Rama that I needed to go back to the café to help Arjun. By eight o’clock, the café would be busy. But as I looked down at Rama huddled across the chairs, I suddenly thought of Sasha. I hadn’t been able to help him. I hadn’t been there when he needed me most, but I could still help Rama. It wouldn’t be right leave him alone.
“My Uncle Peter is coming to take you home. I’ll wait with you until he gets here.”
Rama didn’t look up or move. I sat down again by his head. ‘Touch him, let him know you are here,’ something inside urged. I didn’t want to touch him. I was done pretending to be kind to someone I hated. Maybe if I patted his shoulder it would comfort him more than words he didn’t understand could, but my hand wouldn’t move. I noticed a small tattoo on his left wrist, just above the bandages, a pair of stylized bull’s horns. I had seen that same tattoo before, but not on him. I think Sanjit had one. Maybe it was some kind of gang symbol.
“Almost a year ago, my cousin was murdered,” I whispered.
Of course I knew Rama wouldn’t understand me. He was probably asleep.
“His name was Sasha. Some Tur stabbed him to death. He died trying to protect a girl, I think. I don’t really know. But I do know that it was your people, Rama. Your stupid, violent people killed the best person I ever knew. God smiled at Sasha, and at me too, when he was alive. God hasn’t smiled at me since. That is why I hate you. I am glad you got burned today.”
Saying it out loud was a relief, for a moment. Then it made me sick again.
I forced myself to touch Rama, at least his hair. Secretly, I was curious about those Tur dreadlocks and had always wanted a chance to examine them. I lifted a piece of hair and rubbed it between my fingers. It was a little greasy with some kind of scented oil.
According to Uncle Peter, the long dreadlocks are an ancient warrior tradition, from the days when the Tur ruled our nation and Dor was Beyun. Rama and Arjun and Sanjit would sometimes fiddle with each other’s hair during their lunch break, in the café kitchen, I might add, twisting strands to tighten them or wrapping them with thread. I wound pieces of his hair around and around my fingers as the pain in my stomach bubbled up into my throat and my eyes started to burn. I realized I wasn’t grieving for Sasha anymore, I was grieving for myself, the me that had died when he did, choked to death on bitter hatred.Maybe if I smiled at Rama, or gave him money, or helped him find another job, or, I don’t know, tied his hair, changed his bandages, maybe I could bring myself back to life.
“Dear God, I don’t want to hate him,” I whispered. “He never did anything to me.”
Nothing I did could change who I was. Hateful. I wasn’t kind enough to deserve kindness. I wasn’t forgiving enough to deserve forgiveness. I could have learned a few Tur words instead of mocking Arjun’s mangled Sev. I could have smiled at Rama’s baby when Preen brought her in this afternoon, instead of yelling at him to get back to work. I couldn’t share the love that people who know they’re loved can’t help sharing, because I didn’t have it.
Through the blur of tears I saw Uncle Peter walking in the clinic door. He smiled at me, then bent down and touched Rama’s shoulder. He said something in Tur and Rama startled awake, his eyes widening when he saw who it was. All the kitchen crew love my uncle, they even call him “Kah” which is the Tur word for “uncle,” but I don’t think Rama wanted Uncle Peter to see him that way. Rama sat up and started talking.
Uncle Peter’s blue eyes grew serious and the lines in his forehead deepened.
Rama started to cry. He sobbed, his eyes streamed and his nose ran and he wiped it with the back of his bandaged hand until a heavyset woman in maroon scrubs came out from the nurses’ station and handed him a box of tissues. When Uncle Peter sat down beside him, Rama dropped his head down on my uncle’s shoulder.
After a while, Uncle Peter called Aunt Oxsana. “Love, if it’s all right with you, Rama will be staying with us for a few days. Apparently he’s been sleeping in the park, but he can’t do that now.”
I didn’t hear Aunt Oxsana’s reply, but I knew it would be yes. She probably went and found a blanket and pillow to put on the couch for Rama as soon as she hung up.Uncle Peter turned to me.
“Thanks for waiting with him, Boris. What an unfortunate accident.”
“It wasn’t exactly an accident. He and Arjun were having a fistfight in the kitchen.”
“Oh. I see. This is the end of his career at the café, I suppose?”
“I’ll have to talk to Aunt Oxsana about that. She’s still the one officially in charge.”
“Boris, Rama was explaining to me that he’s working here in Dor to pay off a debt his father owes. He told me that a relative’s barn burned down and his father was involved in starting the fire. I’m not sure of all the details. Rama probably isn’t either.”
“How much can it cost to rebuild a barn?”
“There were about a dozen cattle killed or injured too, and cattle are cash on legs for the mountain Tur. Every bit of his salary has been going toward that debt since he started working. Is it two years now? He’s also managed to acquire a girlfriend and a baby since moving to Dor. A busy young man.” Uncle Peter smiled, though his eyes were still troubled.
Rama had been staring at his bandaged hands in his lap throughout our conversation. When Uncle Peter stopped talking he looked up at me.
“Very, very sad,” he said. “Very shame.”
I had never heard him speak a whole sentence in Sev before.
“We’re not going to fire you. You get another chance,” I told him, slowly, but not slowly enough to make him feel stupid.
Uncle Peter had some questions for the nurse, but I got up to go. I was thinking about the café, about Arjun grinning at impatient customers while borscht boiled over on the oily stovetop.
When I stood, Rama stood too, then he knelt in front of me and brushed his hand across my shoes two or three times. Uncle Peter smiled at my puzzled face.
“He’s telling you thank you,” he said. “It’s a way of showing deep respect, better than words.”
I didn’t know what to say. Somehow God had taken the fake, forced kindness that was all I had to give and made it real for Rama. If my love felt real to him, did that mean it was real?
When I got back to the café, Arjun was dicing potatoes and Sanjit was washing dishes. I was impressed that Arjun had thought to call him up.
“Where is Rama?” Arjun asked me when I got back to the café. “Clinic?”
“No, he’s with my uncle. He’s going to be staying with them a few days. At. My. Uncle’s. House.” I repeated.
“House is close,” Arjun muttered, looking at me. I wasn’t sure if it was a question.
“Yes, it’s pretty close. What’s wrong?”
“Rama is not good. Not a good man. Angry. He say he is killing...” Arjun made a slashing motion across his own throat with his hand. I winced.
“When he said that, he was crazy with pain. You shouldn’t worry about anything he said this afternoon.”
Arjun shrugged. “Rama is not good,” he repeated, as if I was the one who struggled to understand Sev.
“Rama give my sister one baby,” said Arjun softly. “Your sister?””My sister. Yes. Preen. He gives my sister one baby girl, but no money, no house, nothing. She gives everything. Now she has baby again. Inside.”
“She’s pregnant?””Yes, pregnant. Rama saying this to me today.”
“Is that why you were fighting?”
Sanjit went out to take orders from new customers, and I took over dishwashing. I wondered if Arjun knew that Rama never saw a penny of his salary and couldn’t give Preen or his daughter anything, no matter how much he might want to. I remembered him slumped against my uncle’s shoulder, too discouraged to sit upright, and now I saw sadness and anger and fear in Arjun’s eyes.They made me think of an ikon in my grandparents’ church in Dovni, one that had fascinated me as a child. It showed Christ on the cross, gleaming white in the middle of crowds of dark faces that swirled around Him like smoke, all yelling, crying, smothering Him. The artist had painted Jesus black too, up to the waist, and the edges where the black and white met were blurred, as if the darkness was still rising and was going to cover Him completely. Even back then I knew I was part of the darkness that swallowed Him, but I wanted so badly to be one who helped take it away, to be loved enough, to be pure enough, to bear it, like Jesus did.
When Rama got hurt, I helped him because I had to, not because I cared about him. Now I really did care, and I wanted another chance to show it.
Sliding plates into the soapy water, I prayed that God would be merciful and give me another chance too.Suddenly my hands were on fire. At first I thought I had accidently bumped the hot tap open more. Sometimes it comes out scalding. I fumbled for it but it was off. My rinsing water was barely warm. I sucked in breath to keep from shouting in pain and stared at my dripping hands, expecting to see them redden and blister, but they didn’t look any different.
“Boris! You are ok?” Arjun’s voice sounded blurry. “Sit down. You are sick.” He pulled me towards a chair.
“No, it’s my hands. I’m burned,” I gasped. I expected the skin on my hands to start peeling off.
The kitchen door swung open behind us. I thought it was Sanjit, but when I looked around I realized it was Rama. He was wearing an ugly yellow plaid shirt that I’m pretty sure was Uncle Peter’s, and his dreadlocks, which had been loose in the morning, were tied in a knot at the top of his head. Uncle Peter must have helped him, unless...
I noticed he had torn the thick outer layer of bandages off his hands and only the gauze was left, sticking to his raw skin. Arjun’s and Rama’s eyes flashed simultaneously to the big knife on the counter beside the potatoes that Arjun had been dicing. Rama stepped over and picked it up. Arjun backed away from him.
“No, Rama. Please no,” I whispered.
Arjun bumped into the wall and stopped, cornered. He raised his hands to defend himself.
Rama was saying something, but he didn’t sound angry. He waved his free hand and the one holding the knife back and forth. Arjun looked more surprised than scared.
Then Rama turned back to the counter, picked up a potato and chopped it in two.
I yelled at Rama that he needed to get out of the kitchen, he shouldn’t be handling the food with open wounds. He ignored me. Arjun reached out and put his hands on Rama’s wrists and pulled him around. Rama tossed the knife into the sink. They were both smiling. Arjun held Rama’s hands palm up in his own and studied them, while Rama slowly curled and uncurled his fingers.
My own fingers felt like they had been set on fire. Or plunged into boiling oil.
I remembered something that Uncle Peter had told me soon after his son Sasha was murdered.
“God loved Sasha enough to entrust him with a short life and a violent death,” he had said. “Challenges like those aren’t for everyone, but God knew Sasha would be faithful and use whatever he was given wisely. God only gives gifts like that to the ones He loves the most.”
At the time, I was too hurt to understand. That kind of love seemed worse than hatred.
But sitting there in the little café kitchen in the middle of the night, sick to my stomach with pain, it started to make sense. Whatever I thought about myself, God must know I was good enough, loving enough, to bear Rama’s pain for him.
He loved Rama enough to take it away, but how much must He love me to entrust me with someone else’s searing pain--just like Jesus, the one He loves most of all.
2. Oxsana (The Mother)
My son Alexander’s first birthday party was spoiled by a gunfight in our street. My mother had come for the celebration, and my sister Petra with her son Boris, who must have been almost four at the time, and one or two other people. Just when I’d gone to the kitchen to for some matches to light the birthday candles, I heard shooting in the street.
People started yelling and screaming, doors slammed, a car screeched off. The shooting continued.
I grabbed Alexander, Petra grabbed Boris, my mother grabbed the birthday cake, and we all ran down the stairs to my neighbor Katrin’s apartment and crowded into her bedroom at the back.
We didn’t have any plates or forks, and Alexander kept reaching for the cake and whimpering, so I held him over it while he squealed and shoved crumbly, sticky blue handfuls into his mouth. We all watched him and laughed until we could hardly breathe.
The day after what would have been Alexander’s twenty-second birthday, Peter and I volunteered at an eye clinic down in the Pasha area.
Peter spent most of the time walking around saying hello to everyone whom he knew, which seemed to be nearly everyone there. He had an armful of his “Literacy for Adult Speakers of Tur,” and every now and then he would give a copy away. However, he had agreed to help with the eye exams, and I was getting up to remind him that he had, when he came hurrying back to me.
“Pavel just called to tell me he’s sick and he’s not going to be able to give that lecture for me after all.” He glanced at his watch. “Which means, dear, I should have left ten minutes ago. Wish me luck, because I’m going to be very late.”
He passed me the rest of his books. “Would you offer these to anybody else who might be interested?” he said.
“Peter, I’m busy.”
He smiled at me in that endearing, infuriating way he has and set the stack of books down beside me on the table.”Thank you! I’ll see you after three.”
By three o’clock we’d finished the last exam, packed up the vision charts and the other equipment, and all the volunteers but me had gone home. I had to wait for Peter to give me a ride.
I was just thinking about having a cup of tea when a girl walked in through the swinging glass doors at the front. She was Tur, young and pretty, the purple cartoon owl on her shirt stretched tight over her chest, her hair bleached blond with two inches of black at the roots. She looked confused, turning this way and that, until she saw me sitting near the window.
“Are you here for the clinic?” I asked her, “I’m sorry, we’re finished for today.”
“Oh,” she said. “But you still have extra glasses, don’t you? I really need new glasses. Mine broke.”
“I’m afraid we don’t. We gave out every single pair we had, over a hundred pairs, I think.”
I smiled at her. She didn’t smile back. Then I remembered I had another pair in my purse.
“Actually, I have an extra pair myself. I have more pairs than I need, really.”
I pulled a rhinestone-studded, pink and purple leopard print eyeglasses case out of my purse, and as soon as I did, I wished I hadn’t. I’d forgotten that my extra glasses were in that case.
“They’re reading glasses, so they might not be what you want, but you can try them.” I had to force the words past the sadness rising in my throat. When Alexander told us he was going to be an ocular surgeon, my nephew Boris presented that stupid case to him as a joke, with a pair of thick-framed bifocals inside. I bent over and fumbled under my chair for my tea thermos so the girl wouldn’t see my tears.
The girl opened the case and slipped on the glasses--mine, not Boris’s joke pair, of course. She looked up and down, adjusted them a little.
“I think these might work,” she said. Then she paused. She studied my face. My nose turns red if I even think about crying.
“Are you--?” she began.
“I was just going to have a cup of tea now all the work is done,” I said quickly. “Would you like some? I have shortbread biscuits too.”
“No, that’s all right,” said the girl. “My name is Bina, by the way.”
“I’m Oxsana,” I said.
Just then I remembered that I hadn’t given away a single copy of Peter’s literacy course. That meant when he came to pick me up, I would be subjected to a long lecture on how the government school system practically forces Tur people into illiteracy in their own language by not offering classes in Tur as well as Sev. Eyes ... glasses ... being able to read. I suppose handing out literacy material at an eye clinic made sense, in a way.
Bina was Tur. She might be interested in the course, or know somebody who was.
I pulled out one of the courses, the shiny textbook and workbook still wrapped in plastic film, with ‘Literacy for Adult Speakers of Tur’ on the front, and ‘By Peter Neyrev’ underneath. I ripped off the film and handed them to Bina.
“I don’t know if you’d be interested in this. My husband hands them out in the most ridiculous places, and makes me do it too. It’s free, of course. Anyway, you probably ought to try reading something with those glasses, just to make sure they’re right for you.”
“I can hardly even read Sev. School was not my thing,” said Bina. “But my boyfriend might like to see it. He’s a Nationalist, so...” She looked up at me again, face suddenly guarded. “You’re not Tur, are you?” she said.
Lots of people have asked me that, over the years, probably because I’m short with dark hair and eyes.She turned the textbook over, and my husband Peter’s face smiled up at us from the back cover. It’s ironic that his face appears on so much material written for and about the Tur, because it is quintessentially Sevian, pointed nose, pale eyes, wide cheekbones. Alexander looked exactly like him.
Bina dropped the book. She stared at me, fists pressed against her mouth, her eyes wide.
“That’s ... your ... husband?” she whispered.
“Did you ... did you have a...”
She didn’t need to say any more. I knew what she was going to say. I knew who she was.We stared at each other.
“Oh, dear God, help me,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry, so sorry, I can’t tell you how sorry I am. So sorry.”
She wrapped her arms around herself, doubling over as if she had cramps. Her high white ponytail fell forward.I wanted to get up and walk around the table to her, but I couldn’t move. I thought I might faint if I tried to stand up.I had told myself that meeting this girl, if it ever happened, would be proof that God had used my son’s life well. I was about to hear the story of my son’s sacrifice from the lips of the redeemed girl herself.
“Tell me about that night,” I said. “The night my son was killed.”
My voice hummed in my ears. Bina backed away when I reached toward her. She swallowed a sob.
“My boyfriend Taj and I were having a fight, in the alleyway between our apartment buildings. He was drunk.” She took a long breath. “We were both drunk. He ... he grabbed me by the arm and pushed me against the wall. I was screaming, mostly because I was angry. I knew he wasn’t going to hurt me ... much.
And then this Sevian man, your son, came running up and grabbed Taj from behind and pushed him down. And Taj had a knife. I didn’t know that he had a knife.”She paused.
“Tell me everything,” I said.
“It was an ... an accident. A mistake. I don’t think Taj meant to kill him. I don’t even know how it happened. Taj stabbed him, there,” she touched the side of her neck. “He fell down and in a minute or two, he was gone.”
“It was an accident,” I whispered. “A mistake.”
She nodded, biting her knuckles again.
What if Alexander had tried to talk with Taj instead of knocking him down in the dark? What if he’d waited two minutes to see if Bina was really in danger? But he wouldn’t have been Alexander if he could have seen someone in trouble and not run to help.
“And ... what did you do then?” I asked.
“I called the police,” she said, “Taj ran off, but I waited for them to come. I didn’t want to leave ... your son ... alone.”
“Bina, what’s wrong?” said a man’s voice. I didn’t see him until he was standing right in front of me, beside Bina. “What’s taking you so long? I told you the clinic was over already.
“This is Taj, I thought, as I looked at the man, and I must have said it aloud, because Bina shook her head, the tiniest motion, her face wet and her eyes all shiny with tears.
“Not him,” she mouthed.
“Don’t lie to me,” I said. “This is Taj.”
Taj looked at me, his eyebrows raised, and smiled, confused. He was tall, for a Tur, and he had thick black letters tattooed down one side of his neck. Something on a silver chain, probably a crucifix, hung down beneath his shirt. He was a little sunburned across his nose and cheekbones.
I laced my shaking fingers together in my lap. I wanted to say something else, but I couldn’t find any more words.
“The clinic was over at three o’clock,” said Taj to Bina. “Now come on, let’s get out of here.”
“I know, I know, but I thought maybe I could still get a new pair of glasses,” said Bina. She started to cry.
“What is wrong? Stop crying,” he said. He scowled at me. Maybe he thought I was the reason Bina was crying. He was right, but he couldn’t possibly have guessed who I was.
He put his arm around Bina and pulled her close. My heart was pounding so hard they must be able to hear it. I wanted to run away and never stop running. I wanted to scream and keep screaming until Peter came and did whatever the right thing to do in the situation might be. But I didn’t do anything. I sat and stared at Taj and Bina as she sobbed against Taj’s shoulder.
“So you don’t get glasses today. No problem. Now tell me why are you so upset?” he said.
She shook her head. “It’s nothing. I’m fine. Let’s go.”
He led her away, and I sat there, stunned, staring at them until they walked out the door.
“Oh, Alexander, Alexander, oh, Sasha,” I heard myself moaning, and I wondered if I’d started while they were still in earshot, but they had never looked back.
I wanted Bina to explain why she was still with Taj. I wanted her to be someone worth losing Alexander for. If the truth was that my Alexander had made a terrible mistake and thrown away his life at the age of twenty-one to save a woman who didn’t need, or didn’t want, saving, then the truth was the last thing I wanted. If he had to die, he should die a hero, his life offered, not wasted. Of course God doesn’t waste anything done in love, even a mistake, but still I cried, because nothing was the way I needed ... no, wanted, it to be.
I put the empty eyeglasses case back in my purse. Some of the rhinestones had fallen off.It didn’t occur to me until much later that I ought to have called the police. I didn’t even think of calling Peter, or Boris. I just sat there. I poured myself a glass of tea and sipped it slowly. Peter would be there to pick me up in a few minutes, and I didn’t want to look like I’d spent the afternoon crying when he arrived.
3. Peter (The Father)
President Morsav died on the first of October. That spring, he had survived an assassination attempt, but cancer took him in the fall.
The Nationalist Sevian gang, or milita, if you will, that calls itself “The White Horses,” decided to take the opportunity to overthrow the government and wipe out the Tur population of Dor while they were at it. The Nationalist Tur gang, Rayad, had government-overthrowing aspirations too, but even the Rayad leaders knew it was an impossibility. They would do better to focus their energies on defending their people.
October fourth was the day I recorded Arjun’s grandmother-in-law reciting the story of “The Last Wolf King” for the CD that goes with the new addition of my “Myths and Legends of the Tur.”
That day, I dropped by the cafe for lunch because I was hoping to talk with Arjun. When I went into the kitchen, only Sanjit was there and one of Rayad’s “Mayhem and Death for the Sevian Oppressors,” songs was blaring out of his phone. He was sweeping the floor, singing along softly to himself.
When he saw me, his face went red. He fumbled with the phone, silenced it and hurried out of the kitchen without looking at me. Perhaps he thought I hadn’t heard those kinds of songs before.
I sat down on the bench by the kitchen’s back door and Arjun came in a minute or two later, greeting me with his gap-toothed smile.
“Come sit for a minute,” I said, patting the bench beside me. “I need your help with something.”
I showed him the first addition of “Myths and Legends,” because I couldn’t remember if I’d showed it to him before. Of course I’d already given him multiple copies of “Literacy for Adult Speakers of Tur.” I think he can read Tur fairly well now.He traced the Sev letters on the shiny cover of my anthology.
“So, Tayar and the Moon’s Daughter, and the story of Rama and Lashmi, and The Last Wolf King, and the Black Bull Songs are all in here? Translated into Sev?” he asked.
“Yes, that’s right. Those, and many more. Each story is written in Tur and Sev in parallel columns. Tur to help preserve the language, Sev so the majority of people in our country can enjoy these stories.”
He bent his head over the open book. I couldn’t see his expression. “Now the same Sevians who are shaking their heads over a news story about someone Tur, someone named Tayar, even, getting drunk and jumping off a bridge, can go on to read the story of Tayar and the Moon’s Daughter,” he said. “That doesn’t seem right.”
Besides Lashmi, the Indian Queen, Tayar is the Tur peoples’ greatest legendary hero.
“I think my translation is important for that very reason,” I said. “I spent eight years on this anthology, because I hope that having part of the Tur soul accessible to the Sevian majority in our country will help build respect, and trust, between us. I think you Tur go out of your way to be different, exclusive, because you know you’re struggling to survive--at least as a distinct people with a viable language. Sevians and Tur really aren’t so different. Technically, we’re all Sevian because we live in Sevia, right? Half the time I can’t even tell who’s Tur and who’s Sevian when I’m walking down the street.”
“I always can,” said Arjun.
My nephew Boris walked in.
Arjun straightened up and called out, “Hello Boris, my friend! You are very fine? The girlfriend is fine?”
Boris smiled. “Yes, I’m fine. Anna’s doing well too.”
He tied a white canvas apron around himself and opened the refrigerator. He took out jars of pickled vegetables--beets, carrots, cucumbers, and started spooning them out into little bowls.
“I don’t want to see your Tur language and culture disappear any more than you do, Arjun,” I said.
“After all, my whole life revolves around studying it, teaching it, and trying to preserve it. But if your people aren’t willing to share, I can assure you it will soon be gone.”
Arjun nodded. He didn’t say anything.
“I am planning to publish a second edition of this anthology that includes a CD of recordings of Tur people reciting the traditional stories the way they’ve been passed down through generations. It was my wife’s idea. I’ve made most of the recordings already, but I’m looking for someone who can recite “The Last Wolf King.”
“I know that one, said Arjun, his face relaxing into a smile.
“In the Days Before,
Sundar was Rais from Beyun to the sea.
He was more feared than any Rais before,
More merciless, more powerful than any Rais before,
Even Lashmi the Raisa who led the Tur out of Hind.
The Plains People and the Mountain People called him the Wolf Rais,
Because the pit of the Black Wolf yawned beside his throne.
All the chieftains of Tur Fen and Tur Kej and Duna and Lash and Sevia sent him tribute every year,
Ten black bulls and ten black cows.
Their fear made his power flourish and bloom.
One spring, in the Days Before,
The Chieftain of Duna looked down from his walls and saw that there were no black cattle in the pens.
The snows melted late and the people were starving...”
Arjun stopped and thought for a minute. “Well, I used to know it all. I’m losing my edge,” he sighed. “If Rama was still working here he’d be able to help me out. Let’s see ... Ram, the chieftain’s son travels to Beyun and tells Sundar the Rais that they have no tribute cattle this year, and Sundar is furious and says he’ll throw Ram into the Wolf Pit since he can’t provide the cattle ... I know! You should talk to my grandmother-in-law.”
Arjun and his family had a little second-floor apartment in Pasha, which is the neighborhood where most of Dor’s Tur people live.
I’d visited them there several times, but I didn’t think I’d met his wife’s grandmother.
“I will certainly do that. When can I come?”
“Why not come this evening? My shift ends early today, we’ll go home together. But now I need to get back to work, or Boris is going to start yelling at me.” Arjun turned around.
“Boris,” he said, seeing my nephew getting the broom out of the corner, “The floor is sweep. Sanjit doing it before.”
Boris walked over and sat down on the bench next to me.
“Are you going down to Pasha neighborhood this evening? What is Aunt Oxsana going to say about that? You never did buy that gun I wanted you to get, did you?”
“Too many questions,” I laughed.
“You might get robbed,” he said.
Sometimes I almost forget that Boris isn’t really my son. He’s lived with us ever since he came to Dor when he was sixteen to go to school here. But this particular conversation always reminds me that he isn’t. I need to explain things to him that Sasha would have understood without words.
“Boris, I have never carried a gun and I won’t start now. For me, that would be breaking trust with my friends who live in Pasha.”
“You could take trust too far and get killed. I think about that a lot, ever since we lost Sasha the way we did.”
Arjun brought us beers. He must have heard Sasha’s name in our conversation because he didn’t make eye contact with either of us.
I had never told Arjun the details of Sasha’s death. I never told him a Tur man had stabbed my son, but somehow he found out, or guessed. It made no difference to me who killed Sasha ... Tur, or Russian, or Greek, or Sevian. It didn’t change the work I did, or the amount of time I spent in Pasha or Sevdarad, or how much I loved the Tur people.
It made a difference to Arjun, though. “I am sorry,” he had said, when he heard about Sasha’s death.
He didn’t use the word that meant, “I’m sad for you,” but the one that meant, “Forgive me.”
“Thank you, but this has nothing to do with you,” I told him.
He shook his head. “Yes it does. I’m Tur,” he said.
“Have you seen Rama lately?” I asked Arjun in the taxi on the way to his house.
Rama, his brother-in-law, used to work at Oxsana’s cafe too.
“I heard he’s joined Rayad,” I said. “The gang, not the band.”
“Yes,” said Arjun.