5. Serenity

(Previous chapter: 4. Mother…tongue)

There are many reasons why I remember Sochi. This was the place where I first encountered sea waves. This was the place where I first saw the full night sky without the light pollution of a big city. This was the place where I met a part of my extended family, and the first time I met a live chicken. This was also the place where I first met grief.

My grandma grew up during the war, in a poor family with fifteen kids, in Siberia. The city is called Kemerovo, and has been the focal point of Soviet miner union activism at least since the nineteen-nineties. During the war, it was mainly a focal point of many hungry people working and dying in factories for the war machinery. It is also unbearably cold in winter — -40° Celsius (or Fahrenheit, since this is the only point on which both of the scales can agree).

There is little surprise that many of the kids from this family who survived the war have moved all the way across Russia, to warmer regions like Moldavia, or to the Black Sea. There is also little surprise, that after being so crowded for most of their childhood, not all of them are on the best terms with each other. This is one of the reasons why I not only have relatives all over the former Soviet Union, but also never have met them all.

However, my grandma and her sister in Sochi, let’s call her Mary, have kept in good contact. This is why, when my parents got the assignment, my grandma could finally introduce Mary and her husband to us — or maybe just to me. Since I was a little new to, well, everything.

From what a three-some-odd-year old kid could understand, Mary and her husband were Rich — at least as rich as you could get in the Soviet Union. He was a war veteran with merits, which, back then, meant a decent retirement pay, and she worked for a cafeteria, which meant, she dealt with food. In this position you could, conceivably, make a living stretching the food you’re serving, and selling the “savings” on the side. Personally, I would like to think that she was a completely honest woman, but if she was, I’d certainly have a problem explaining their datcha (a summer residence outside of the city), their car, and a little house where they normally lived. It was already hard enough for me to grasp the concept that people could actually own more than just their working equipment, some cheap aluminum “silverware”, bent in uncountable ways during uncountable travels, and as much clothes as they could fit into two big suitcases.

I was still struggling to understand the car — I have only been in taxis until then, I didn’t realize that one of those things could actually be Owned — when we already arrived at Mary’s little house. It was situated in a part of the city that looked like a little village on a riverbank, an island of green surrounded by a wall of five — and more storied houses of city, one side facing the inevitable mountainside.

The houses on the island were only one story high, expensive-looking one-family houses with their own little gardens, with little trees and bushes around them, concealing their backyard from their neighbors. We slipped through Mary’s miniature garden, and into the house, where we sat on soft furniture, and drank tea out of expensive china painted with red lines, until the thick velvety southern night surrounded the scenery, and it was time for us to go back “home”.

We walked back out into the garden, and I lifted my head, breathing in the unfamiliar smells of the night in Sochi, when I suddenly saw pale yellow lights blinking all around us. I stopped, gawking in amazement, and heard things buzzing past my ears, saw lights blinking right in front of my face, easily evading my clumsy attempts to catch them. A big bug landed on my chest, crawling up busily. “It likes me!” I thought, feeling its weight, and the solid grip of its little feet on my shirt. I liked it too, and watched its way curiously. It was crawling over my shirt, its little belly lighting up in long pulses, so bright I could see every detail of the bug, and also the silly picture of something unimportant on my shirt.

“You know, you can make yourself light up, too!” Mary’s husband said.

Photo by Ihor Malytskyi on Unsplash

“How?” I asked, bright-eyed, looking up at the big man, thinking, what process would possibly transfer the magic light.

He took the friendly bug sitting on my shirt, and squished it against my chest, clumsily painting something unrecognizable on my shirt with its guts, throwing the little, broken, still moving body away.

“Why are you crying?” he asked me, surprised, looking at the horrified expression on my face.

“You just killed it!” I sobbed. It wanted to be my friend, and he just killed it, just like that, for a bunch of silly lit up strokes that were already fading away, leaving nothing but a bloody mess.

“It is just a bug!” he said, laughing.

Just a bug. Just a friend. Just a life. Just like me.

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