Birch by Dasha Maiorova
Dasha Maiorova is a Belarus-born writer who lives and works on Dharawal Country in Sydney’s southwest. In 2020 she was runner-up for the Deborah Cass Prize, and won the Heroines Women’s Writing Prize for fiction. Her writing has been published in The Big Issue, Voiceworks and Baby Teeth. She writes about books, reading and more at www.dashamaiorova.com
The train will derail.
The Pobedy departed Leningrad’s Moskovsky Station on a summer morning still yawning awake, on the fifteenth of June nineteen-ninety – but it would not arrive in Moscow. It was destined to collide with another train heading in the opposite direction, the inverse journey of its own.
The sun lingered behind swathes of cloud and a girl with her face pressed to the window did not finish her game of counting them. Ahead, at the gradual turn of the tracks, she saw the engine of the Pobedy as it travelled through the pine trees, and the cracked paintwork of the driver’s compartment.
Teaspoons rattling on the tea lady’s cart mimicked the onward chugging of the passenger train and the chatter of school children aboard, returning to country fields in the village pockets on the way to Moscow.
They would never come home.
The girl heard a bird-like shriek. A whistle. Then the brakes, screaming in agony. The Pobedy shuddered. School bags and satchels spilled from ceiling nets. Brakes seizing, the Pobedy continued its slide forward, seeming not to slow at all.
Through the pines, the girl watched as sparks shot from under the other train. The white eye lit up in warning; blinking at its twin once, twice, in disbelief. She whimpered. At the midpoint between the Pobedy and the oncoming train a figure stood unmoving: a man on the tracks, unfazed by the machines’ roaring approach. He glowed white under the glare of the locomotive headlight. His head bowed in mournful reproach. This small girl already knew what it meant to mourn.
Too late, the brakes gained purchase. An explosion bellowed through the carriages, an impact not only of force but sound. The train crumpled inwards. Vapour scorched through the full length of the thirteen passenger cars, obliterating glass from windows.
The carriages settled on their sides, twisted as wooden toys discarded by a child. The dead were silent and the dying held their breaths. Those children still able to scream, screamed. A bar pierced the girl’s thin chest. A new smile was torn beside a mouth that never had cause to smile before.
Spilled, charred limbs crowded Alyona’s thoughts as she waited in a holding area of Saint Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport. The corridor bore the resigned shabbiness of an interrogation cell. Discarded customs declarations and incoming passenger cards formed a patchwork on the linoleum. Fluorescent bulbs spat yellow light over the pockmarked ceiling tiles.
Following the flight, it seemed time would remain suspended. Alyona spied a glance at the Soviet clock mounted on the wall across the hallway. An object of functional lines, a face without character.
Hunching on the bench with her suitcase wedged between her knees, Alyona began again to gnaw at her cuticles. Her spare hand strayed to her collar button, then to her hair. She brushed it behind one ear and then back in front again. To appear at-ease and inconspicuous she tried to maintain a slow, steady breath. It was a wasted effort. No matter what she did, Alyona could not hide her face.
A light flashed above the door opposite, indicating that she could finally enter the office. Inside, an immigration clerk peered over the frame of her glasses at Alyona. The officer had eyebrows thin as spiders’ legs and they rose in appraisal of the young woman. Alyona’s photo lay atop the open file on her desk.
She had supplied the passport-sized image months ago. In it, an indignant Alyona stared from under a fringe since grown out. Her hair loose around her cheeks, to cover her marked face. They warned Alyona in the consulate that any mistake in her application, even a photograph too much in shadow, would likely terminate her chances of entering Russia. She still refused to pull back her hair.
That image, that file, had since passed between many examining hands. The paleness of her skin surprised her. The blue-grey gash beside her mouth did not. She appeared older in the photo than she expected.
The clerk indicated the empty chair before the desk and began clacking at her keyboard. She hesitated, her gaze hovering over her monitor. Her glasses glowed with the reflection of the screen, obscuring her expression. She did not look at Alyona but rather through her. In return, Alyona averted her eyes, studying the brutal Cyrillic letters labelling a badge on the desk. She could not decipher and name and title scored there.
The speechless moment dragged on. Alyona’s heartbeat echoed through her body. She wondered if even the clerk could hear it: the drumming of her fear. She refocused her attention on a calendar pinned to the back wall of the clerk’s office. A mountain range. Snow-capped forest glowing against a red sky. Today’s date unmarked, of no significance to the woman who hung it there.
A printer on the desk groaned to life, making Alyona jump. Several pages of dense text spewed from its mouth. The clerk gathered them together and stamped them each with a flourishing emblem. From her position, Alyona distinguished an inverted crown and a pair of hooked anchors. The crest of Saint Petersburg.
“Sign here.” The immigration officer tapped a long fingernail against a blank line at the end of the document. Alyona’s breath quickened. The cryptic letters on the page blurred. She scrawled her signature and pushed the papers back toward the clerk, who stapled them without ceremony.
“Very good. The matter of entry is resolved. It is done.” The officer’s tone intended as a brush-off. She spoke English with a laboured, throaty accent. “A statement of validity will be issued to your designated place of residence. You are required to register with the nearest legal authority within three days, with your host acting as witness. Penalties apply if you do not do so.”
A fresh stack of papers appeared before Alyona. On the second line: her name, typed in that square, formidable language.
“My grandmother is unwell. She cannot leave her apartment,” Alyona stuttered in a tongue grown unfamiliar.
“Oh, you speak Russian.” A raised eyebrow. A fingernail trailed the text of Alyona’s documentation. “I see here, she is on a widow’s pension. Have her sign for you, then. I’ll give you a declaration form.”
Relief and uncertainty in equal measure collapsed like lead through Alyona’s chest. “I am surprised. I was expecting–”
“What did you expect?” The clerk narrowed her eyes. Alyona held that gaze for a second. Beneath the desk, she pressed her nails into her palms.
“Your application took into concern… special circumstances. In truth, I don’t understand it. Your case is the first of this category I’ve come across – and from Australia, of all places. You should be glad for the expedited process. Next year, upon reaching the age of twenty-five, you’d be stamped a ‘stateless person’, with no recourse to enter the country with such ease.”
No. It had not been easy.
The clerk’s authority reminded her of Lena, her guardian. The woman who had so nearly prevented Alyona from coming to Russia. From coming home. Another year, and Alyona could not have returned.
“Thank you,” she said instead.
“The arrivals hall is that way. You should be able to get a taxi to the city without any difficulty at this time of day. Unless someone is meeting you?”
Alyona shook her head, but the clerk had already dismissed her with a vague gesture in the direction of the door. “Welcome to Saint Petersburg.”
Alyona knew she overpaid for the journey. The cab was meterless. She gave the driver an address on a slip of paper, and he quoted a price. That was all he said.
The car wove through a city bearing no resemblance to the Saint Petersburg Alyona had imagined. She was unprepared for a route landmarked by soot-coloured bridges, factories enclosed in barbed-wire fences, and multi-storey complexes glittering with smashed windows. She alternated her attention between watching the dismal passing suburbs and the driver’s hands on the steering wheel. Faded tattoos marked the backs of his fingers. His eyes met hers in the rear-view mirror. Bloodshot and unperturbed by the marks on her face, as though scars by a woman’s mouth were a frequent sight in his world.
He left her at a road heaped with rotted leaves. Concrete slab khrushchyovka apartment blocks towered above her. Each more dismal than its neighbour. If the driver had not flicked a hand in the direction of a particular block, Alyona would never have guessed which of those sixties’ government-constructed buildings was her grandmother’s. The blocks cast bulky shadows over the road, mirroring the rows of yet more disposable Soviet-era khrushchyovkii. Each flat had its own small balcony. Some were cheery with ornate gardens of vines and potted flowers so lush they spilled into neighbours’ territories. Others were stacked with debris.
Alyona could not remember when she last felt so small. Even her lungs tightened, a sensation of her body wanting to close in on itself. She had arrived in Saint Petersburg. She was on the cusp of discovery, of unearthing all that remained of her history, yet she felt no sense of homecoming.
She tried to guess which window in the dirty grey expanse she would soon be looking out of. Her body acted before she made the decision to key the flat number into the intercom – 11. The device crackled to life. An entry buzzer sounded.
As Alyona pushed through the security door, she glimpsed a clutch of wilted sunflowers tethered to hooks on the side of the building. Though weak and bent by early autumnal chill, they were bright flares compared to the darkness within.
A bare bulb spit light in erratic bursts from the ceiling. The rustle of Alyona’s coat and the tread of her boots too loud against the blistered walls. Ahead, a timber block propped open the doors to a graffiti-emblazoned lift. A hand-lettered sign hung from the wood, declaring a hazardous proposition in exclamation marks. Alyona peered through the jagged spiral of stairs stretching six or seven landings above. She estimated flat eleven would be on the fourth floor.
Nowhere else to go except up.
Movement above. Light shimmered on a metal door, opened just for her. As Alyona climbed the final steps of the landing, she saw the figure silhouetted there.
“Irina Alexandrovna?” she asked.
The figure – a woman – shuffled forward. She was very small, and very old. She wore a long cotton dress beneath a pilled cardigan and slippers covered in stains.
“Alyonochka!” The old woman’s voice wavered in the stairway.
Alyona stood awkwardly at the last step. She turned her face down as she dropped the suitcase by her feet. The old woman addressed her again by the diminutive Alyonochka!, her voice made small by weeping. She seemed unable to contain herself.
The old woman placed her hands on either side of Alyona’s arms. She drew Alyona against her bird-like chest in a stilted embrace. Their height difference made it easier for Alyona to turn her face away. She hoped the old woman could not detect the mad beating of her heart. In Alyona’s ears, the thudding smothered all other sound.
“Finally, you’ve come back. You’re home!” Irina Alexandrovna sobbed. Her familiar, bittersweet smell struck Alyona as savagely as a blow. Coarse grey hair tied in a bun with an aroma… salt, sugar, cooked apples.
Sunshine baking dust in a carpeted room. Toys in a wicker basket. Alyona’s child-self reached for a worn doll. The memory was devastation. Alyona clutched back. She gripped the fabric of her grandmother’s cardigan as though to cling tighter to the memory-scent overwhelming her.
Wooden ornaments lined the windowsills of Irina Alexandrovna’s flat. Hand-hewn spoons, rearing bears, wolves arch-backed and howling. Browned tapestries hung on the walls, speckled with flakes of paper crackled from the ceiling. Irina Alexandrovna watched Alyona expectantly, as though wishing for some recognition on her granddaughter’s behalf.
A threadbare sofa designated the sitting room, its centre dominated by an unceremonious pile of books, stacked like chopped wood. Each title stripped of its spine.
Alyona finally spoke, though without directly addressing her grandmother: “You’re a reader…”
Irina Alexandrovna stared at the torn covers. Her expression carried surprise. “I gathered them when I was able to go up and down the stairs. Everyone throws books away nowadays. They throw everything away. No one knows what’s needed until the time comes, but everything can be useful in the end.”
She smiled a distant, unhappy smile. Alyona saw the glimmer of gold-capped molars at the back of her mouth.
“My girl, you must not be used to these things. Here, take off your boots. You must wear these when you’re inside.”
The old woman practically fell to the floor beside Alyona to help pull off her shoes. She presented Alyona with a pair of indoor slippers. They were paper light, with thin rubber soles designed for nothing more than to keep the immediate chill of the bare floor from her feet.
“These are your tapochki. I kept them especially for you. Look – they fit perfectly. I knew you would come.” Her voice turned hoarse. She sank back onto her knees, in a crouch virtually animal. “It hurts to know you will only see me like this.”
A chord snapped in Alyona. She kept it tight within her, that anger at Lena. She could have come earlier, would have – if only she’d known. But Lena kept everything from her, even the existence of this poor, frail woman.
“I came because I’m going to help you. You won’t be alone here anymore.”
Alyona thought she should place her hand on the shivering angle of Irina Alexandrovna’s shoulder. The moment she did so, a terrible jagged rasp came from her lungs. Irina Alexandrovna staggered to her feet. Her next steps took her to the adjoining kitchenette.
Alyona followed her. Words of panic slipped from her lips. “Please – babushka – what’s wrong? Let me – let me help.”
Irina Alexandrovna’s eyes were half-moon crescents of pain. She doubled over, degraded, feeble. Almost the feeblest creature Alyona had ever seen.
In the helpless eyes of the old woman, Alyona saw the eyes of another. She had seen such pain before in her false mother Lena. Lena, staring heavy-lidded at blood spilling from her body, unalarmed but aching. Alyona hadn’t helped her. The sight of pain made her afraid.
Irina Alexandrovna was fumbling with a glass jar containing a small quantity of pills. Alyona took it from her jolting hands.
Her grandmother held up two fingers and Alyona dispensed a pair of circular tablets into her palm. The old woman’s hand quivered so violently she nearly threw the pills clear. Her motions reminiscent of a baby bird, she managed to swallow them. The image made Alyona uneasy. She inspected the pill bottle with its faded label. The text, even to one able to read Russian, was an indecipherable scramble of typewritten characters. She replaced it on a shelf beside a collection of similarly indistinguishable medications.
Irina Alexandrovna slumped onto a stool by the kitchen window. “Is this really what you want? To see an old woman live out her last days? I never wanted to become like this. There is no one left. Except you, my dear Alyonochka. You are the last I have in the world.”
To her own amazement, Alyona reached out again to the old woman. Touch – initiated of her own volition – a rare and unimaginable thing in her former life. She clasped her grandmother’s hand, the fingers gnarled as knots in an ancient tree branch.
In English Alyona told her: “It’s my duty to look after you. You asked Lena for me. All these years, I did not come, because she never told me. I’m here now.”
There was no way Irina Alexandrovna could have understood, but she smiled again, faintly, knowingly. “You have a lovely voice, my kind girl. But I like it better in Russian.”
Alyona sat in the bedroom she would now call her own. She studied its sparse furnishings: the bare wooden desk, the chipboard drawer in cherry veneer, the upholstered chair curdling foam at its seams. She listened to Irina Alexandrovna pottering in the kitchen down the hallway. The clink of plates and cutlery pierced the walls.
Grateful for a moment of reprieve, no longer watched or waited on, she mapped out the apartment in her mind. None of it appeared through familiarity.
A steel door shut away both the stairway and the outside world. A storage alcove for coats and shoes made up the entryway immediately within the flat. Following the entry, the sitting room with its sunken sofa and mutilated books. The doors to two bedrooms, Irina Alexandrovna’s and Alyona’s, framed either side of the lounge. Then there was the kitchen, almost too small for both grandmother and granddaughter to stand within together, and a bathroom dominated by a freestanding tub veined with rust.
No room spoke to Alyona’s memory. She had been there before, according to Lena’s retelling, for a short time in her childhood after her injury. The thought of it made her place a fingertip to the fibrous tissue at her collarbone, as though the scar might make her remember.
The fingers of her other hand pinched the zipper tongue of her unopened suitcase.
Lena warned Alyona she would only find pain and loss in Russia. Alyona refused to trust her: the woman who kept the truth out of reach. In Sydney, as Alyona peeled away layers of fabrication, milling through forged birth certificates and paperwork bonded in red tape, the name of an elderly woman remained. Irina Alexandrovna Stepanova remained. Some of those documents identifying her grandmother’s address remained buried in her luggage, but Alyona could not reveal them. Fragments of a foreign life cluttered the rest – clothes, planning documents, the practical miscellanea of a former Alyona who did not belong here.