At exactly ten minutes to eleven I slip out the front door and onto the landing, gently pulling the door behind me, leaving it open just a crack. At this hour, Papa usually listens to the BBC in the kitchen, where the jamming isn’t so bad. The radio is on the windowsill and he sits in front of it, with his back turned to me. Papa is obsessed with world events. A few days ago there was a coup in Chile. He doesn’t hear, or doesn’t want to hear, how I sneak down the hall. He’s not the nosy type. One time, without even turning around, he unexpectedly asked where I was going. When I said that I just wanted to see if Mama was coming, he nodded his head and immersed himself in the news of the world again. I’m ashamed to admit that I can’t sit still until Mama comes home.
If it’s cold, I throw a coat over my shoulders. Then I run downstairs, go out onto the street, and walk a little way till I get to my lookout post. Lomonosov Street is straight, and you can see way down it. From my post I can make out the crossing of Lomonosov and Pronksy streets. That’s where Mama should appear if she’s coming on the number 3 tram. The street is empty at this hour, especially during the dark months of the year. I stare at the crossing, concentrating on Mama with all my might. Three times a week she teaches at an evening language school to earn some extra money. Her classes end at 9.15. And three times a week I sneak outside, leaving the door open just a crack. Because if I don’t go to my lookout post and watch for her, she won’t come back at all.
There she is in the distance, listing slightly to one side, carrying her heavy briefcase. Mama walks slowly: her working day started at nine in the morning. She teaches in a high school during the day. I leave my post when she passes the entrance to the government ministry building. Now nothing will happen to her, I know. Lomonosov Street will carry her to me, like the current of a river. But she’ll get angry if she sees me outside, alone in the dark. I fly to the front door and into our apartment. Sometimes, I’m so excited, I tell Papa: Mama’s coming! I rescued her again, but he doesn’t need to know that. The main thing is that we have survived one more day, and it finishes like a circumference, where the beginning and end meet. And that creates the harmony of the world, as Heraclitus the Dark says.
In January of this year, I struck root. How did it feel? Like resting against something warm. Like a new organ coming to life inside my body. Like something lost in me had returned. Like someone was calling from the other side of a river. And the voice has a name. The name is: fateha.
The name surfaced from the bowels of the internet in the National Archives of Estonia in Tartu, where I found my mother’s job application. At the end of the 1970s Mama applied for a job in the computing center. Evidently, she was required to submit a list of all her relatives on a questionnaire. I had high expectations of the KGB archives – merged with the National Archives – where I hoped to find information about my parents. During the Second World War, Mama had crossed into territory occupied by the Germans. As someone with a dubious past, she was registered with the KGB. They summoned her regularly. But, not long before Estonian independence, the KGB purged its archives – covering its tracks – so I had to be satisfied with only a few insignificant applications and questionnaires.
Insignificant – until suddenly I saw the name Fateha Bedretdinova. Born 1904, died 12 October 1943 in the town of Kingisepp during the bombardment of the Leningrad Oblast. That was my grandmother’s name, then. Mama always called her ‘Mama’, and I never thought to ask what her name was. Perhaps Mama did mention her name at some point, but it had escaped my memory. So, for me, she had remained ‘Mama’s Mama’. Right under Fateha was the name Tagir – my uncle, born in 1931. He was killed at the same time.
For some reason, after finding their names, their birthdates and the dates of their deaths written on the KGB questionnaire in my mother’s clear handwriting, it is as though I am seeing them for the first time. They are standing on the other side of the river. Mama is there, too. She is very young, younger than she is in the photographs in the family archive. But it was Fateha who called to me. From the moment my grandfather disappeared, at the very beginning of the war, and she and her four children had fled from the shooting toward the West, Fateha was the head of the family. Indeed, as Mama tells it, my grandmother always ruled the roost, although, by Muslim tradition, the right of dominion was the prerogative of men.
Now, despite her stern character, Fateha smiled at me and called my name. She has known me a long time already; I’m the daughter of her daughter, of course – the daughter she gave birth to and raised for seventeen years. Mama and Tagir are silent, but Tagir waves his hand at me, and Mama watches me attentively. So that’s who my daughter will be, she seems to be thinking, if I survive the conflagration of the world. The river’s current is powerful, but it doesn’t bring Mama to me, as Lomonosov Street once did. We stand on opposite shores, and only a decrepit immortal with an unkempt beard and a bedraggled tunic is permitted to cross. But, as Heraclitus says, immortals are mortal, and mortals are immortal.
One evening I am standing at my post, staring at the crossing of Lomonosov and Pronksy streets, but Mama doesn’t appear. As always, I left home at exactly 10.10, and now it feels like I’ve been here for an eternity. I can’t go home – how can I leave my post? – but I can’t bear it anymore. I’m frightened, and the fear in my heart wants to escape, wants me to do something. Now it’s turning into tears. I can’t even lift my hand to wipe them away, and I swallow the salty dampness that rolls down my face.
My feet come to their senses first. They take me along Lomonosov Street, past the ministry, past the entrance to the little guardhouse in front of it, past the gray residential building built by German prisoners of war – who also built our block of flats – past the Estonian television centre with its glass hall. The current of the river seems to reverse its course, and in a single moment it takes me right to the sacred crossing. At the newspaper stand on the corner I run onto Pronksy Street and crash into a stranger. ‘Little girl, has something happened?’ the woman asks me in surprise. ‘I’m looking for my mama!’ I sob. She says something else, but I run further down Pronksy. But Pronksy is deserted. Mama isn’t there, and will never be there again.
Somehow or other, I run back to Lomonosov and dash home. But I’m not me anymore; I’m some other little girl. She flies into the entryway and runs to the door of the apartment that she left open just a crack. But the door is closed. She begins to pound on it. It opens right away. Mama. Her face is tear-stained. ‘Where on earth have you been? What? Looking for me?’ Mama is terribly upset from worrying, and she scolds the little girl and, at the same time, Papa, for not looking after her.
Today she came home from work on the number 4 tram. While I was running down Lomonosov, she came home by way of Kreitswald Street, which runs into Lomonosov on the left side, almost in front of our building. And now I’m myself again, and I babble something incoherent. I can’t admit that more than anything in the world, I’m afraid she’ll all of a sudden disappear, like her mama disappeared. And that’s why, three evenings a week, I sneak out to rescue her.
And at this very moment, Fateha is trying to save herself and her four children, two girls and two boys, from fire. For in the river of life, the machine of existence, all times are present. Or, rather, as the ancient Greeks thought, in the realm of existence there is no past or future: everything occurs ‘now’, in the present, simultaneously.
While Fateha and her children are fleeing westward from their hometown, which has become the firing line in the war, in another city on the Sea of Azov, hospitals and theaters – where thousands of people are hiding – are under bombardment. Unidentified bodies are buried in hastily dug trenches – committed to the earth before the next bombardment. Five volunteers, who have rescued abandoned animals, are forced to leave their shelter because of the constant shelling. They take twenty cats and dogs with them – leaving the others behind. Meanwhile, according to reconnaissance reports, a supersonic missile has been fired at a target in another part of the country for the first time.
Sign in to Granta.com.