LADY OF THE SNAKES
During Jane's miserable twenty-hour labor, she thought a lot about Masha Karkova, who had died in childbirth in 1884 along with the baby she was carrying. Jane's pain was in her back, and she crouched moaning on the rug in their tiny living room waiting for Billy to come and get her, and later she screamed staggering up and down the hospital room with its pastel prints and floral curtains, like a decent hotel only with cupboards that opened to reveal sterile pads and stainless steel. Dying seemed a likely outcome--much likelier than producing a child. As she cried Billy's name she wondered if Masha had cried out for Grigory, and if so what he had done. Not pressed a tennis ball into the small of her back the way Billy was doing, the way they'd been taught in childbirth class.
Not that it helped.
Nothing helped. Not the breathing or the shower or the shot in her arm. Billy held her face in his hands. "The baby will be out soon," he said. His face and the smell of her own sweat was all there was until the next contraction seized her. They coaxed her onto the bed and told her to push and she did, and the hospital gown came loose and the nurse kept tying it shut again. Who cared? Who cared who saw what now, or how many doctors, interns, medical students trooped in and out like packs of dogs?
How distraught--ruined!--Billy would be if she and this baby died. Jane could picture him in the cemetery, his threadbare black socks showing beneath the cuffs of the tight suit he'd worn to his mother's funeral. Oh, the pathos of those socks. "Billy," she said, partly wanting to comfort him and partly to remind him of the names they had chosen for their child in case she died, though of course he would remember. Billy looked at her with a drawn, serious face, but now the doctor was talking. The pushing, which was only supposed to take an hour, had been going on for three, and they were going to try to vacuum the baby out with some kind of extractor. The medical staff didn't seem to be worried about Jane anymore, only the baby, and that frightened her more than anything. The bright lights made yellow and purple starbursts float in front of her eyes. She didn't want to die, as Masha had died; but surviving if the baby didn't was a kind of hell she hadn't imagined before. The thought seeped sulfurously through her veins and she couldn't obey when Dr. Mooney told her, yet again, to push. She shut her eyes against the lights, but then Billy cried out and she opened them again. And there she was: Margaret Levitsky Shaw--Maisie--covered with mucus and blood, a full head of black hair sticking up on end. The room smelled of the ocean and of rust.
The nurse wrapped the baby in a blanket and gave her to Jane, a bundle so light it seemed to weigh less than the completed chapters of her dissertation. The baby's face was startled, her brow wrinkled, her head battered from the hard journey. Where had she come from? Jane thought of the passage in Grigory Karkov's novel The Lime Trees when Yelizaveta and Sergey have their first child. For a moment she got lost inside the memory of that scene, the dim chamber with candles and hot water and the baby crying, and she forgot where she was until Billy said, "You were great, Janie! You were a force of nature."
Jane was back in the room again, uneasy. She had missed the first moments of her child's life because she had been thinking about the Karkovs.
For a couple of days after Maisie was born, Billy got a substitute to take his classes and he and Jane lounged around admiring the baby. Wrapped in a blanket, smelling of skin and cotton and souring milk, Maisie slept in the bed between them. She was all face and bundled receiving blanket, her eyes a wide dark newborn blue, her tiny nostrils flaring as though she were considering the scent of the world. It was impossible to stop looking at her, trying to take in the fact of her existence. She was a new continent they had discovered, their private India, curled on her side like a bean and breathing noisily. Every few hours she woke up to mew and nurse. If she wouldn't go back to sleep after nursing, Billy carried her around against his chest and crooned to her. One night (the second? the third?) Jane watched him--really watched him, as though he were a movie or a rare specimen of wildlife that had wandered in. She watched his tall frame move back and forth across the room, his sweet face thinned by exhaustion and scrupulousness, his thick, once-blond hair as soft as a cat's fur. More hair curled across his chest, and the baby clung to it with her brand-new fingers, while light from the streetlamp leaked in around the blinds. Jane lay in the rumpled bed propped up on pillows, knowing she should use the time he was giving her to sleep. But he was so beautiful and strange carrying the baby that she couldn't shut her eyes. He seemed taller, as though he had already grown into this new role, and his face wore a more tender expression than Jane had ever seen on it. She was glad--even relieved--to see how clearly he loved their daughter, but at the same time a hiccup of uneasiness ran through her. She felt that she was on the outside. She felt she might cry, as she had cried twice already today, exhaustion hollowing her out and a powerful brew of hormones shooting poisonously through the emptiness. Jane didn't cry often, and the feeling of tears in her eyes was almost as foreign as that of the milk on he r nipples. She didn't like the way so much emotion had moved in, a guest who'd left all the faucets dripping. Who was Jane from whom unfamiliar liquids seeped, who lay beached like a whale against the pillows? Who was Billy with his darkening hair and his pale, broad shoulders hunched protectively over the baby? Maisie emitted quiet, intermittent squeaks like a smoke detector letting you know its batteries were running down. The light fell irregularly across the room in pale yellow strips through which the man and the child passed and passed again, swaying, gilded, dusty with light.
Jane's graduate student friends came by with flowers, plastic pastel keys, stuffed animals, Chinese food. Sitting on the couch, Jane nursed the baby and ate Szechuan shrimp. She was glad to see them, to be reminded of who, until a few days ago, she was. She was glad, too, to get a chance to show Maisie off, and she liked seeing Billy hand out beers and brag.
"Don't be fooled by her apparent ignorance," he said of the snuffling baby with her plump cheeks and paintbrush hair. "She's extremely bright. She understands Russian already."
"Of course she knows Russian," said Catherine, a second-year student, a thin young woman with bright copper-colored hair who worshipped Jane a little. "Jane's been reading Karkov out loud to her for nine months!"
Jane patted Maisie's back, trying to get her to burp. The baby's head wobbled against her shoulder, and Jane lowered her face to feel the silky hair against her skin. "And Karkova, of course," she said. She was writing her dissertation on Grigory Karkov's heroines as versions of his wife, Maria Petrovna Karkova, and much of her material came from Karkova's diaries, which had been mostly ignored since publication of an excerpted edition in 1970. Masha was Karkova's pet name, used by those who knew her intimately. Jane used it only in the privacy of her own head.
"How long till you get back to Maria Petrovna?" Jane's officemate, Laura, asked. She knew that Jane's heart lay with the diaries. Jane would have liked to write her dissertation on them directly, but her adviser, who was not interested in feminist points of view, hadn't allowed it.
"Maria Petrovna is always with me," Jane said grandly. "Did I show you guys what Shombauer sent?" Shombauer was the name of the adviser, an elderly German, the first woman ever to get tenure in the department. Jane handed Maisie to Laura and got up slowly, the episiotomy stinging. She hunted around among opened packages and stacks of journals and balled-up sweaters and extra receiving blankets until she found an old-fashioned silver rattle engraved with Maisie's initials. "Isn't that something?" she said. "Isn't it so Shombauer?"
"A peace offering!" Laura bounced the baby in her arms. Jane watched Billy watch Laura as she held the baby with one hand and reached for her beer with the other. Laura's sweater had slipped down to reveal the thin burgundy strap of the kind of bra Jane had almost forgotten existed.
"I won't drop her," Laura told Billy.
"Why a peace offering?" Catherine wanted to know.
"Laura means Shombauer's whole attitude when I told her I was pregnant," Jane said. She imitated her adviser's Hamburg accent, not very nicely: " 'I thought you vere dedicated to the verk!' "
"Karkova had six children and ran Dve Reckhi and copied out Karkov's books and wrote those amazing diaries," Jane said. "And Shombauer thinks I can't write a dissertation and take care of a baby!"
"She doesn't know how good a husband you have," Billy said.
Jane smiled at him. Maria Petrovna had had a notoriously bad husband. When he wasn't writing his novels with their unflattering portraits of her he disappeared for days at a time, cavorting with peasant girls as though determined, in this arena at least, to compete with Tolstoy.
Maisie looked uncomfortable in Laura's arms. She turned her birth-battered head from side to side and smacked her lips.
"She wants to nurse," Jane said.
"Didn't you just nurse her?" Laura asked, handing the baby back.
Jane felt a sting, as though Laura had criticized her. What did Laura, with her thin bra strap and her round recreational breasts know about anything? "Her stomach is the size of a walnut," she said lightly, lifting her shirt and unsnapping the nursing bra, pushing the pad out of the way. She was glad to have Maisie back in her arms where she belonged. Nothing was sweeter than holding her daughter, except for all the times she longed to put her down.
The baby latched on unevenly and tugged hard. Jane grimaced, unlatched Maisie with her pinky, tried again. Billy brought her a cushion to rest her arm on. Embarrassed by the production, Jane went on talking about Shombauer. "I thought she'd guessed. I was sure it was written all over my face. But no, she had no idea, she was completely shocked!" The still unaccustomed tingle of milk moving through her and the awkwardness of holding the baby in the right position made it hard to keep the thread of the conversation. She thought of her adviser with her pale eyes and her thick accent and her soft, white, fluffy hair that conveyed a false impression of grandmotherliness. At heart she was hard and uncompromising; Jane knew that. Jane had always admired her for it. She spoke six languages, wore expensive suits, gray shoes with straps across the instep, large gray pearls at her neck. When Jane had said she was pregnant, Shombauer's eyes had gone cold and inhuman so that she looked suddenly like a fish, a dangerous fish, maybe a barracuda.
"Pregnant," she'd spat. Her mouth puckered as though the word itself were sour.
"Yes," Jane had said. In the low plastic student chair, she'd felt ill and bloated and slightly dull-witted. Her jeans were unbuttoned under one of Billy's T-shirts and her feet were already swollen inside her tight leather boots: three months along. She looked up at Shombauer across the oak desk. "But I'm ahead of schedule on my research. Even if I have to slow down for a month or two, I'll be fine."
"Fine," Shombauer repeated. "Fine." She let the word hang in the air between them.
Jane looked at all the books on the long shelves, hundreds of books that Shombauer had read, analyzed, critiqued, written. She felt the weight of them in the room, smelled the dusty smells of paper and glue, just like in her father's office back in California when she was a child. She had always loved the smell, but now she had to breathe through her mouth so it wouldn't make her sick.
Shombauer looked at her hard with those cold eyes: pale stones. "You can't serve two masters," she said, leaning forward, her hand resting palm up on her desk, gray and thin. An old woman's hand. "It's not possible!"
Jane sat up straighter. "I'm my own master," she said, and Shombauer leaned back again in her chair.
"Of course," she said, and smiled. It was a thin gray-pink smile, like a scar.
Now Catherine said, "It's not easy to surprise Shombauer."
Jane's huge, granite breast ached liked an arm that has fallen asleep as the baby sucked. She felt tired, suddenly, and would have liked to lie down.
Catherine held the silver toy out toward Maisie, who, never pausing in her sucking, eyed it warily as it winked and clanked. Laura began to talk about trying to catch a movie.
"Don't go yet," Jane said, although she felt if she shut her eyes she would fall asleep.
"Tell us a Maria Petrovna before we go," Catherine said.
"How about the one about the pigeons, Janie," Billy said. "It's nice and morbid."
Jane made a face, but she liked that one, too. In the middle of the night when Maisie screamed inconsolably, it was good to know others had also experienced this despair in the face of what one was told brought so much joy.
"This is from right after her first child was born," she said. " 'He is an angel, but my mind is so black with suffering that I can hardly bear to look at him. Grisha does not even know he is born yet--his son with his father's black hair and pale, knowing eyes! I have sent Ivan Stepanovich to look for him, but he is nowhere to be found...' And then, 'Just gazing at the child's tiny face, so like his father's, makes me want to climb up on the roof with the pigeons and throw myself into the street!' " She quoted in English since Billy was there, but she could have done it in Russian equally well. She had a gift for the language and translating came easily to her. She'd been surprised when she got to graduate school that it wasn't like that for everyone. Russian was another medium. Speaking it was like swimming in a rough salty ocean instead of the bland turquoise swimming pool that was English.
"That's interesting," Laura said. "Do you see a lot of that suicidal ideation in the diaries?" She stretched, exposing her firm, tanned stomach, her silver navel ring with its onyx bead. Jane's own stomach was white and soft and bulky as a pillow, mottled with blue, the purple-black seam of the linia nigra barely faded. Her hair was stringy and she had dark circles under her eyes. She looked to see if Billy was looking at Laura, but he was making faces at the baby over Jane's shoulder.
"Not that I can think of," Jane said.
"Let us know if you start to feel like that," Catherine said. "We'll make sure you get Prozac."
"I'm okay," Jane said. "Though I was kind of preoccupied with death during the labor. I kept thinking about how Maria Petrovna died in childbirth."
Billy put his arm around her.
"Karkova died in childbirth?" Catherine said. "I don't remember that." She was more interested in Akhmatova than in the male novelists, but she was sharp.
"Yes," Jane said, leaning back into the warmth of Billy's arm. "She was pregnant with what would have been their seventh child." But suddenly she wasn't sure. Usually she was confident in her recall of fact. She wondered whether her confusion could be related to the hormones.
Catherine shrugged, losing interest. The light was fading outside the apartment windows. It was time to go.
Laura got up. "Maybe she did commit suicide," she said, putting on her coat. "If she wanted to throw herself off the roof after one kid, imagine how she felt at the prospect of seven!"
Catherine carried the plates into the kitchen, came back, and kissed Jane. "Are you all right? You look exhausted," she said.
"I'm fine," Jane said, yawning. "I just need to catch up on my sleep."
But after they left and Billy took Maisie so Jane could get some rest, she couldn't sleep. She lay on the rumpled sheets of the bed that was no longer ever made and thought about what Catherine had said. She knew she couldn't possibly be wrong about the way Masha had died, but nonetheless the need to confirm it drove her out of bed and across the hall to her study. She would sleep better after she had looked it up.
The study was a tiny room, hardly bigger than a closet, dominated by a poster of the Kremlin domes on the wall. The secondhand desk was littered with the jade figurines her father had brought back from China when she was a child, little dogs and long-billed birds and smiling men with braids. Books in English, Russian, and German crammed the brick-and-board shelves, and papers were piled everywhere. She dug out a copy of James Delholland's biography of Grigory Karkov, sat on the floor, and opened to the passage on Masha's death.
By 1884 the publication of Dmitri Arkadyevich was five years behind him and still Karkov was not near to producing a new novel. The manuscript for the book he was at work on the early 1880s has been lost; after the death of Maria Petrovna in the summer of 1884, he abandoned it in favor of the story of an itinerant pilgrim of the kind that occasionally wandered through the countryside around Kovo. This work, as we shall see, is much concerned with death (and the related issues of folk cures, superstition, and spiritual redemption), doubtless provoked by the sudden passing of the novelist's wife.
Maria Petrovna, confined with her seventh pregnancy, died on August 2, throwing the household into a state of grief and confusion. Maria's sister, Vera Petrovna Lensky, who came to Dve Reckhi from Moscow to help care for the children as well as to attend her sister's funeral, wrote to her friend, the Countess Lydia Stogova, "You have never seen anything like the sorry state of affairs here! The children, poor darlings, weep and stare and refuse to bathe. Katya is so upset she will speak to no one. The servants go around with tears streaming down their faces and spill the soup. And as for my brother-in-law! He has shut himself up in his study and refuses to come out. I have never seen a man so destroyed by grief. What will become of this family, I don't pretend to guess."
Jane closed the book and shut her eyes, her tired brain trying to make sense of the passage, which seemed to raise more questions than it answered. Delholland did not, after all, come out and say that Masha had died in childbirth, though that was certainly the implication. What did "confined" mean, exactly? Why did people still employ coy language to talk about childbearing? She thought of her own obstetrician who had used language to obfuscate in a different way, speaking of the "discomfort" of labor.
But even if Masha hadn't died in childbirth, there was no reason to believe she had taken her own life. There were lots of ways to die, especially in 1884 in the middle of nowhere. Diptheria, scarlet fever, influenza. Vanya, Masha's sixth child, had died of pneumonia just two years before his mother's death, when he was only four.
Jane had thought she'd known how terrible a blow that must have been, but now that Maisie was born, she felt the horror of it in a new way, in her bones. Masha had not written much about her feelings--or anything else--in the months following Vanya's death, but Jane recalled this passage:
I would have thought my Vanyushka's dying--and my own subsequent collapse--would have driven Grisha to the other side of the Earth to escape. But in fact he has been at dinner every night, Anya says, pale as death and hardly touching the soup but scolding the children if they fail to eat, or forget their table manners. Forms of behavior are what we have to fall back on when the pit of Hell gapes, he says, and I am grateful to him for having any idea about how to proceed, as I have none.
U menia net was the Russian for the last phrase--literally, nothing is with me, nothing in my pocket, nothing in my house. Net.
U menia net, Jane thought, curling up on the floor among the stacks of books and the dust bunnies, her head resting on the Delholland biography. Was it possible--was it?--that after two years of trying, Masha had given up the struggle to proceed with life? Could she have killed herself? Jane thought about it, making an effort but failing to imagine it. Suicide just wasn't possible for the Masha Jane knew, especially not with a child inside her on the verge of being born.
And yet Jane found her mind could not quite let the idea go. Who, after all, could say what another person would do? And how scholarly was it to assert that she knew Masha so well--so intimately--that she could rule out the possibility? Might Masha have found, at the moment of crisis, that she could not bear to bring another child into the world? Another hostage to fortune; another baby to replace Vanya, who could never be replaced? And what if she had experienced what would today be called postpartum depression with her other babies, as the passage about throwing herself off the roof suggested? Could the anticipation of that, too, have deranged her? I have none, Jane thought again, and the words, written over a hundred years before, made her shiver.
And if it were true, after all, it would certainly open up some interesting literary possibilities. Each chapter of Jane's dissertation explored how a female character from each of Karkov's five major novels could be read as a version (seldom a flattering one) of his wife. The protagonist of Karkov's final novel, Lady of the Snakes--Dama Zmiev in Russian--had required a somewhat tortuous argument: that she was a kind of anti-Masha, embodying the freedom and power that Masha, as a married woman of her time, could never have. The narrative described the woman (she was unnamed throughout the novel) leaving her five children in the middle of the night and wandering across the countryside as a mystical healer, ministering to the peasants. She carried live snakes in her basket and cured the sick. At the end of the book, she committed suicide. Could Karkov actually have modeled the Snake Woman's death on his wife's? How neat--and what an extraordinary scholarly scoop--if he had.
Poor Masha! Jane thought, as she had thought so often before. Her journals revealed a woman of warm intelligence, enormous energy, a sharp eye for the natural world, and a haunting, lyrical prose style. How had a woman like that survived the life of constraint and restriction fortune had dealt her, stuck in the provinces, mired in her traditional role? Not that she wasn't lucky in many ways. She was a member of the upper classes, she had servants and clothes to wear and good food to eat. The estate might be losing money, but actual poverty wasn't a threat.
Nevertheless, Jane thought. Nevertheless. Nineteen years of living with an unfaithful, irascible husband; of looking after a large family (making clothes, ordering meals, supervising education, nursing the sick); of managing the sprawling, unprosperous estate; of being her husband's scribe (making fair copies of the scribbled drafts of three of his novels at night so he had clean pages to begin with the next morning); and then losing a child on top of all that! I might well have killed myself, Jane thought, under the weight of it.
And certainly, if Masha had taken her own life, the family would have done everything they could to conceal it. Maybe the evidence of the cause of death had been destroyed and that was why Delholland's sentence was ambiguous. Why, after all--if Masha had died of some common disease like influenza--had Delholland not just gone ahead and said so?
I'll have to look into it, Jane thought, drifting off to sleep on the floor with all the lights on, as soon as I can find the time.
Billy went back to work. In the mornings he set his alarm for six-thirty and was out the door by a seven-fifteen, pants clips around his ankles to keep his cuffs out of his bicycle chain, having downed two cups of coffee, a yogurt, and a piece of toast. Jane had to drink milk--five cups a day the doctor said. She forced herself, trying not to picture the hot udder of its origin. She'd spent the summer she was twelve on a farm in the San Joaquin Valley, but the close, straw-and-manure smell of the barn had sickened her, and she'd kept her distance from the cows. Now she more or less was one.
This morning Maisie nursed at five and then blessedly went back to sleep till almost eight. Jane nursed her again and then got out of bed and carried her down the hall into the kitchen. The little table was covered with newspapers, empty cups, wilted flowers in a carafe. She thought of Masha, of her description of the dawn, gray and silent and grim as a cat hunting. She thought of Masha's rants and recriminations against Grigory, out all night somewhere, Katya ill and little Nikolai teething and Grigory's mother and sister visiting from Moscow. And here was Jane, fortunate in her good husband and free from visiting relatives (her mother, in from California for a few days, had stayed in a hotel).
But still, Jane's life was transformed as suddenly as a plot of land was transformed by a developer. This is what women's lives are like, she thought with a start in the dim kitchen, her bare feet cold against the linoleum. It had never occurred to her--not really--that women's lives were still so deeply different from men's. Now she saw it, and it shocked her. She had thought the world had changed since Masha's day, but here it was, its iron demands the same as they had always been. She had thought she would not live as Masha had lived, always for others, but now this was her life: nursing and walking, eating cheese and crackers with a free hand. Changing diapers, changing her own milk-soured shirts. Sitting in the glare of the blank computer screen in a spare half hour. At night she slept in bursts with the baby wedged between her breast and Billy's back, her nightgown pulled up to her neck. Just finished nursing, ready to nurse again. Home alone with Maisie, it was impossible to get anything done. She couldn't understand it; the baby slept eighteen hours a day. Still, six o'clock found Jane in her bathrobe on the old brown couch exhausted and hungry, the baby curled against her chest or latched onto her nipple, which had been stretched so much it looked like a caterpillar.
Maisie wanted to nurse all the time. She liked to sleep in Jane's arms. She hated the bassinet with its quilted lining and screamed when Jane put her in it, her face going red and her fat limbs flailing. No matter how deeply asleep she seemed to be, the minute her back was cradled by something unbreathing, she knew it and startled awake. "Clever baby," Billy said, but he didn't have to hold Maisie while trying to open a can of soup, or read the mail, or go to the bathroom.
Jane tried working with Maisie on a cushion in her lap, but it would slide, and it was hard to hold her arms up over the baby to reach the keyboard. She tried holding Maisie in one arm and writing longhand but her words slipped diagonally down across the page, unintelligible. Her back ached. Her mind felt damp and boggy. "Peanut," she crooned. "Radish seed." She rubbed her cheek against the baby's downy hair, kissed her feet, held her close. "Mommy needs to get some work done. Why won't you sleep?"
Maisie mewed like a kitten and yawned, her whole face caught up in it, her startled eyes seeming to wonder what was happening. Already those eyes were changing color from that deep ocean blue to a paler, odd bluish brown like the outside of an oyster shell. When she looked at Jane, her gaze was steady and thoughtful as though she were on the verge of comprehending who Jane was. No one had ever looked at her like that before.
In the evenings, when Billy was in charge, he put Maisie in the bassinet and let her scream.
"How can you leave her there?" Jane asked, coming in from her study to stand in the doorway.
"She's screaming anyway. What difference does it make where she does it?" Billy said, looking up from his lesson plan or his magazine, or the bowl of cereal he was eating since no one had made dinner.
"It makes a difference," Jane insisted.
"Sometimes people need to be left alone," Billy said. "Even babies."
Maybe he was right. Maisie was certainly calmer with him. Why was that? How could Maisie, at one month of age, even distinguish one person from another? Although Masha claimed her babies could always tell her apart from the wet nurse who had nourished them from their first hours: "If Kostya turns to Yelizaveta Pavlovna with delight as though her round white breasts were twin moons, still he turns his face to my face as though I were the sun, bringing light and warmth and joy." Jane did not feel that Maisie absorbed joy from her. The baby looked at her with the same troubled, anxious expression with which she regarded the rest of the world, as though the street, her crib, and her mom and dad were all seeded with explosives and you never knew when something was going to go off.
Maisie had not been a planned child, but Jane and Billy were married; they were old enough. They had met in college, in Thad Everhardt's Karkov seminar. Billy was an English major dabbling in Russian literature. He liked Karkov, but he wasn't a devotee like Jane, who banged on his dorm room door early one Saturday morning in December of their freshman year, her dark hair studded with snow, her eyes alight. "Get your boots on," she'd said and dragged him outside, where the year's first snowfall had already blanketed the streets. They had been friends then, not quite dating, but her mittened hand held onto his all the way up to the quad, where she let go to pull a book out of her pocket. It was Dmitri Arkadyevich, the Sigelman translation, which they had been assigned for class.
"Listen to this," Jane said, and she read out loud: " 'As he stood in the street and watched the first flakes float down from a sky the color of goose feathers, Dmitri Arkadyevich felt his heart lift and swell until it seemed to fill his chest with a passionate fluttering....' "
When she finished the passage, she held out her arms to watch the flakes catch in the palms of her mittens. "I love it!" she said. "It snowed exactly once in my whole childhood. We really only knew about snow from TV."
"We used to build snow forts," said Billy, who had grown up in Connecticut. "Me and my brothers. Snow balls, ice balls. We used to hide in the bushes until the bus stopped at the corner, and when the driver opened the doors, we'd throw our snowballs in and run."
"That's terrible!" Jane put her hand to her mouth and tasted the pure cold, her tongue pushing through the snow to the wool of her mitten, which tasted so different, so animal.
Laughing transformed him. His muscles relaxed and his face opened up. Other people were like that, Jane knew, with insides and outsides, like geodes, but with her, everything was on the surface. "My brother never did anything like that," she said, thinking of Davis with his comic books and his chemistry set. She could feel Billy watching her, feel his eyes fixed on her. He was so close she could see the individual snowflakes landing on his short, blunt, dark eyelashes. When he kissed her, she kept her eyes open and he did, too. His eyes were pale blue mixed with gray, and his lips were cold at first, but in a minute they were warm, and to her surprise her own chest, like Mitya's, filled with a passionate fluttering as she and Billy stood kissing in the snow.
It was November, the year was winding down. Each day was the coldest Maisie had ever known, each night the longest night. Jane was at her desk one evening working on 1873. It was a bad year for the Karkovs. They were in debt, and Masha's youngest sister, Sofya, died of scarlet fever. Words poured out of Masha as she grieved--memories of Sofya as a baby blowing kisses from her pram, as a little girl splashing in the river, all dressed up for her first ball. There was a long description of the funeral: the icy rain, the family huddled together watching the box lowered into the muddy earth. It was clearly the model for the funeral of little Igor in Karkov's novel Silent Passage. "And then the wind came up and rattled the skeletal oak leaves still clinging to the branches of the trees that lined the cemetery wall. The sleet hissed against the coffin as the men lowered the ropes. It was unbearable to leave her there, alone in the cold and wet," Masha had written, and Karkov's novel, too, mentioned the skeletal oak leaves and the sound of the sleet.
Distracted by the noise of the television through the closed door, Jane got up and went into the living room, where Billy sat on the couch watching the basketball game, the baby in her red onesie curled like a bug on his chest.
"You've got to see this, Janie," Billy said. "Two minutes left and the Celtics are down by five."
Jane's eyes were filled with tears, her mind caught in the wet Russian graveyard with the cold rain and the mud and the wind whipping the heavy branches of the trees back and forth, everyone clutching their hats and weeping. "Maria Petrovna's little sister died," Jane said. She was partly crying for herself, too, though she could hardly admit it: for how hard her own life felt to her even though she knew herself to be lucky. Lucky! Only twenty-five and already she had a good husband, a healthy child, a promising career. What was wrong with her that she didn't feel her own luck? That she had felt happier before--before Maisie--was a truth too terrible to acknowledge for more than an instant before shutting it out again. The days dragged on, hour after tedious hour, watching Maisie like watching grass grow. She didn't do anything. She slept and ate and fussed and looked around. She needed Jane--profoundly, entirely--but not because of who Jane was. It was Jane's arms and breasts Maisie needed: her animal warmth. Jane might as well have been a wet nurse.The fact that she loved Maisie, that she would without hesitating step in front of a moving car for her, was irrelevant. What kind of a mother--of a person--was she, to feel this way? Better to cry for Masha and the dead.
Billy stretched his long legs out into the middle of this room, his big Converse All Stars planted firmly on the rug. "They all died," he said.
Jane wondered if he was thinking of his own mother. Sofya died, Jane thought; they all died. Billy's mother, also named Margaret, had died two summers after they graduated, and one day this infant Margaret would die, too. She looked at Billy, but his eyes were still on the television. Maybe he wasn't thinking of his mother. His face was set in a laconic concentration that was similar to the expression he wore during sex. Sometimes he seemed to disappear inside his skin as inside a locked room. If Jane asked what he was thinking, he was likely to smile and shrug and say, "Nothing," or else to mention sports. Jane wondered if, as she did, he missed the time they used to have just to be together, talking or going to the movies or riding their bikes around the reservoir. She was afraid to ask him. For the first time there were things about herself she didn't want Billy to know. So she, too, she supposed, was locking herself away.
Outside the window a few flakes of snow swirled around the streetlight. Jane thought of the passage in Dmitri Arkadyevich that she had read to Billy that December morning when their life together was itself a white, blank field of untrodden snow; when Karkov had still been her hero rather than the ambiguous figure he had now become--charming, immensely talented, volatile, faithless.
It wasn't until her second year of graduate school that Jane had discovered Karkova's diaries, which had been published only in a slim, highly abridged edition and never translated into English. Slowly she saw how Karkov had taken Masha--the facts of her childhood and her physical person, her joys and terrors, even the stutter that had sometimes plagued her in society--and twisted them, showing everything in its worst light, to create the character of Olga in Dmitri Arkadyevich, the only one of his novels critics ever compared to Tolstoy. At the same time, he took the best of himself for Mitya--poor Mitya, who married Olga Petrovna, the beautiful woman who tormented him with her sly stupidity, her jealous fits and her hypochondria!
When Masha read Dmitri Arkadyevich (she had been his copyist for the first three novels, but this book had been transcribed by a bright peasant boy from the estate), she wrote in her diary,
Well, I have read it. At first I wept for myself and for what people will think. And indeed they will consider it true, or mostly true. But what is odd is that as I read I was so drawn into the story that I ceased to care that this was how Grisha saw me, or that he would expose us to the world in this manner. He is a cat burglar for art, sneaking around in the dark. He would steal anything for his work--words, secrets--anything he could get his hands on. He is like a sponge, soaking up the nectar and blood of life and wringing it out on the pages of his novels.
I do not mean that to sound so cold and terrible. Despite everything, I admire him. There is no question he is a great genius.
It was when she read this that Jane's heart began to harden toward Grigory Karkov and open toward his wife.
The light from the television flickered as the basketball game went into overtime and the baby slept and the steam rushed into the radiators, and Jane's thoughts gathered like a great wave.
"Billy," she said. "I'm never going to finish if we don't get someone to help with Maisie!"
The words seemed to hang in the air, visible, spelled out in neon. It was as close as she could get to saying what she felt: that she would die if she couldn't finish her thesis, and that not finishing seemed increasingly likely. Even as each day saw her work pushed along a little farther, the amount not done seemed to yawn wider still, until she felt she was teetering on the edge of a precipice of mental dullness and misjudgment, of things undone.
Maybe it was just the lack of sleep.
Billy nodded. "I was thinking about that, too," he said.
And just like that, Jane's heart lifted. The canyon at her feet shrank to a muddy ditch. His words unlocked her, made her feel again that he knew her, that they were traveling through life together on the same tidy ship, standing at the rail and seeing the same view: hills and valleys and shadowy, unknown forests.
"It'll be good for Maisie," Billy said. "To have someone else besides just us in her life."
Of course it would! Jane thought. Why did she assume that what was good for her would be bad for her daughter? What kind of oppositional nonsense was that? The warmth she felt for Billy was liquid, pervasive: very much, in its physicality, like her love for the baby.
She sat down next to them on the couch and leaned over to press her nose into Maisie's head, feeling the steady thrumming pulse, breathing in the clean astringency of soap and the ripe peach smell that seemed to be the essence of her. She stretched out on the sofa, thinking how lovely it would be to work without one ear always cocked--to dive deep down into the ocean of Masha's world like the swimmer she was. No more of this wading, this dog-paddling she'd been doing. She thought how much she loved Billy, and how far she had come from the house on Euclid Avenue where her parents had their own spheres (his the third-floor study with its view of the backyard and the tops of the Berkeley hills, hers the kitchen, the living room, the cluttered front porch). She was ready to embark on the adventure of her own existence, as soon as she could get a little more sleep.
© copyright 2007 - Rachel Pastan
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