Personal Notes of Mina Bayless
You are already ashes. The whole way here I thought about facing your corpse, mauled, bitten, permanently still. All the nights on the train when I couldn’t sleep, I watched the people around me resting. I thought I could never again mistake the deepest sleep for death: the pulse in the eyelid, the sound of breathing, sounds in the throat, movement, reaction. I have nothing to compare it to because you now fit in a small blue box.
All the way into the city, Anders said, “Look, look.” Now, it seems I can’t stop staring, especially at you. I made a few phone calls, check in with Elle, but there are only so many distractions in the room. Earlier, Anders apparently got frustrated with me. “Out,” he said, pulling me behind him, “Fresh air.” We went to dinner, a small place that serves fresh pelmeni. He told me about Irkutsk, how the exiled intelligentsia made it their city, a small oasis of learning. He told me how beautiful Epiphany Cathedral is at night. I agreed to everything, not thinking. Impatient, he pulls me out into the street, to go search for something. In one of the plazas, there was a tent strewn with paper lanterns & he started walking faster.
“What is it?” I said.
“Spring celebration. As the season warms, there are small performances before Easter. Encouraging the winter to leave and the spring to stay.”
We watched musicians, contortionists, fortune tellers. Then a woman in a sky blue tunic took the stage. She called herself Sashenka & wore a scarf sewn with small mirrors & a nazar. Anders translated as she told us she had traveled around the globe, all in service to her magical arts. She had even been to America.
“What is it like?” an eager boy in the front asked (according to A).
“A topsy-turvy place,” Sashenka said sagely, “You should see it for yourself. But, it is good to be back in Russia, where the winters are cold and you can feel the ground beneath your feet.”
We, the audience, were lost in her tricks. She turned chains into doves. The flame from one of the lanterns became a huge luna moth that she set on a girl’s shoulder. A barren tree nearby yielded limes. But her specialty was card tricks. After conjoining some into crosses and flowers & throwing one into a block of wood (where it stays lodged upright), she said she had a special trick for someone who was brave enough to help her. She looked over everyone & locked eyes with me.
She pointed me out, Anders helped me through the crowd & next thing, I’m standing on a worn carpet with Sashenka. She pushed me to one edge of the stage & positioned my hand open in front of my chest, palm facing her. “Keep it open. No. Matter. What.” she said in Russian, then in English, after a shout from Anders. She walked back to the other end of the stage & with a great flourish drew the Queen of Spades. She said (twice), “Don’t move.” She took aim & in one quick motion whipped the card at me. With a sting, it bounced off my palm & flew back like a boomerang. She caught it & turned to the crowd, Queen of Hearts in one hand, a wooden coin in the other. The crowd started cheering & I was still standing there, not quite sure what just happened. Sashenka walked back over to me, turned my hand & placed the coin in my palm. “Wasn’t that fun?” she asked me in English with a smile & together we take a bow.
I’m holding it now, even as I write to you, Daddy. Someone has taken the time to carve ridges in the side & burned in fine detail a tree in bloom. It is like a small life, a token of talent & skill. I don’t know if Sashenka has made it or someone else. But it is someone else’s world in the palm of my hand.
Before we came back, Anders & I walked by the river, not saying much. He asked me if I’m still afraid. I said no. “Will you tell me what you were afraid of?” he said.
“I know languages,” I said, “I know how to turn a phrase so it reflects all the pieces of meaning. I can maneuver and argue to get what I want, the effect or the reaction I want.” I played with the coin for a sec before saying, “I can’t argue with what I don’t know. And it’s becoming clear just how much I don’t know.”
In the morning, I’ll wake up & ask Anders to take me back to the river, some isolated part of town. You’ll come too. I’ll take my portion of you, just enough to fill my hands. I’ll bend over the water & slowly let you go.