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February 19, 2024

"Thank You, No. We're Well" 03

By Robert Earle

At the end of episode two, Katerina Ivanovna shrugged off talk of her situation and expressed her immediate priority: she is desperate for Valery Asimov tell her what happened to her former lover, Ivan Karamazov, when Ivan and Valery headed for America to carry out Lenin's subversive instructions. In this episode, Valery's memories begin with Ivan's death on a little farm across the bay from San Francisco. A czarist agent had a hand in this, but so did a husband whose wife had left him for Ivan.

Part II

Valery watched Dmitri pull Smedlov off Ivan's body and throw himself on Ivan's lifeless breast. Dmitri then kneeled in the dirt and rifled through Smedlov's coat, extracting his passport.

"Igor Smedlov!" he cried. "Who the devil is Igor Smedlov?"

"He is, or was, an Okhrana agent," Valery said.

Dmitri began hitting Smedlov's face, pummeling it and then picking up the entire head and smashing it back down against the earth.

The man Tina's husband had sent to help kill Ivan was pulling her down the road toward Tiburon. He had his little gun in the small of her back. She kept twisting to see what was happening, and he kept yanking at her, almost dragging her. Valery realized who he was: Dickerson, who'd said he wanted to import gold double-headed eagle and crown brooches into Russia. So he and Smedlov were in league somehow, through Smedlov's cunning or Tina's husband's opportunism, putting them together in the hunt for Ivan.

Alexei and Grushenka rushed over. Alexei fell to the ground, stroking Ivan's head, heedless of the blood. Grushenka clutched at Alexei's back, trying to comfort him even as she moaned and shrieked. The terrified children kept their distance. Valery took them into the house, where he told them that the king of Russia had this done to Ivan because Ivan didn't believe in kings of Russia.

Aaron the ten-year-old corrected him, "Not the king, the Czar."

"Yes, the Czar."

"What did uncle Ivan do?"

"He wrote newspaper articles that showed how Russia keeps taking lands that belong to other people and dominating them."

All this was unintelligible to Daniela, who was four. She didn't know that kings and czars sent killers out into the world to do their bidding. "What about Uncle Ivan's new wife?"

Valery said he would get her back.

"From the Czar?" Aaron asked.

"From a little czar who lives here."

"There are little czars who live here in America?" Aaron asked.

Valery shouldn't have said this, but he did. "Lots of them." What if the boy ever went back to this statement and asked him to explain the many little czars who lived in America in 1904? "I want you to stay in here now, and I'm going to go get you the baby and bring it back to you and I want you to take care of it."

"What will you be doing?" Aaron asked.

"That's what we adults must decide."

He went back outside and found the baby on the ground -- in a safe place, but on the ground -- and picked it up and took it back to Aaron and Daniela. Then he went outside again and saw Dmitri dragging Smedlov's body towards the forest while Alexei and Grushenka had brought a wheelbarrow and a horse blanket from the barn. They rolled Ivan onto the blanket and Grushenka went back to the barnyard and returned with a cloth and a pail of water. She kneeled down and washed Ivan's face with the cloth and then this hands and then folded the cloth and placed it under the back of his head, which had been torn open by the bullet. His eyes wouldn't stay completely shut. Alexei covered them with two American pennies.

"We'll never be able to explain this to the people here," Alexei said.

"To the police? No, never," Valery agreed.

"Who was that other man?"

"Tina's husband sent him."

"She was already married?"

Valery nodded.

"Mother of God," Alexei said. "What have we done?"

Grushenka looked down at Ivan and said his name and said he was blessed by trying to set other people free. "And now we bury him. Quickly," she said.

"Where?" Alexei asked.

Dmitri had almost disappeared into the forest, jerking and tugging at Smedlov's large body, holding it by the wrists and twisting it to make it fit between two trees.

"In the pasture, where the earth is soft," Grushenka said.

"Oh, dear Lord, yes," Alexei said, breaking down at the thought. "I'll make a ... " he stumbled and couldn't say coffin, wouldn't really be able to make a coffin, so he said " ... box."

Grushenka and Valery accompanied him to the barn, where they would get spades. They crossed paths with Dmitri who grabbed an axe and a sledgehammer, not a spade. Then Valery and Grushenka went out into the pasture where they found a thinly grown spot and began digging. In between the scraping sound of their spades, they sometimes heard the thumping and cracking sounds Dmitri was making in the woods ... and Alexei's sawing and hammering the barn ... and the baby crying ... and not crying anymore.

"How do you explain this, Valery?" Grushenka asked him. "You're the Russian consul."

"I say I saw Smedlov once in my office at the consulate and told him I didn't know anything about Ivan Karamazov and then I never saw him again."

"What about the woman's husband?"

"I don't care about him. I care about his wife. She's pregnant, Grushenka. It's Ivan's baby, not her husband's."

Grushenka dug hard with these thoughts in her mind. "We didn't know either of them," she said at last. "We call ourselves Theodore, not Karamazov."

"And Ivan called himself John Patmos here. Wherever he went, he took a different name."

"How did he live?"

"He wrote newspaper articles against the Czar."

"Good."

At a point of exhaustion, memories roiling within them like the earth sliding and sifting in the slowly deepening grave, they walked together into the woods and found Dmitri. He had severed Smedlov's feet, hands and arms, and crushed his skull and chest. Now he was hacking the pieces into smaller and smaller bits and spreading them around for the animals and carrion birds to eat. He was spattered with blood but mindless of this.

Valery vomited. Grushenka led him back out into the pasture where Ivan lay rolled in the gray horse blanket. They began digging again. After a few minutes, Dmitri joined them and spelled first one, then the other.

While Dmitri worked with his spade, Valery lay down on the grass and looked up at the tranquil sky. He listened to Alexei working fast in the barn, and he listened to the throbbing, chirping cicadas and crickets and tried to remember rising that morning, meeting Ivan and Tina, walking down to the docks, the boat ride over the water, and the marriage ceremony but all he could summon were fragments. Tina's hair, Grushenka's baby suckling through Alexei's service, that crooked, wry, vengeful look of satisfaction on Dmitri's face ... and then the men coming down the road? No, he hadn't seen them. Did not know they were there. Only the slap-slap of the shots, the little girl's scream ... and the killer who lived dragging Christina away.

Dmitri told Grushenka and Valery to go over to the brook and bring back stones because there was water in the bottom of the grave and he did not want the coffin to rise. They made many trips, creating a pile that would cover the coffin three stones deep, and then Alexei came out of the barn and said it was ready, a rectangular box made of planks, and they lifted Ivan into the box and lowered the box and covered it with stones and earth, but no cross. He wouldn't have wanted one anyway.

#

The boy understood why Russia had come to California to kill his uncle, and like his Uncle Mitya, he was determined to have revenge.

Alexei objected, "'Vengeance is mine,' sayeth the Lord."

The boy said, "Yes, Father," but wouldn't desist. He had a plan he must have meditated before any of this happened, knowing his uncle Ivan had wanted his uncle Mitya to sail to Japan and then over to the coasts of China and Russia where he could find ways to resist the Czar as he expanded his empire.

Alexei said, "I forbid it."

The boy said, "But you can't forbid Mitya. Who will look after him when he sails?"

Dmitri said, "I need no looking after. My crew is with me."

"What about a cabin boy?"

Dmitri was still lost in the world of what had happened to Ivan and didn't answer. The boy looked to his mother, who was hard like him.

"What is going on across the ocean?" she asked Valery.

Valery said, "The Czar is building a naval base at a place called Port Arthur to have access to warm water through the winter. Vladivostok and Sakhalin are too far north. The Japanese don't like it. They want control of Korea and dominance over China. There could be war."

Grushenka sat there imagining the worthlessness of Sakhalin and the horrors of the escape they'd made through Japan and across the Pacific. "The Japanese were kind to us," she said.

"Not as kind as the Americans," Alexei said.

"Who was cruel?" the boy asked. "Wasn't it the czar? He sent that man to kill Uncle Ivan."

They sat in the cabin having listened to Alexei pray out loud. Then he read psalms and they drank milk and said they were like Abel and Cain now, meaning Ivan and Smedlov. Ivan was in the pasture, the shepherd slain. Smedlov was doomed to wander in the forests, homeless, in search of lands that never would be his. So God willed it.

The boy said to his father, "Why did you call me Aaron if you didn't want me to be Aaron? Aaron helped Moses escape the Pharaoh. Why won't you let me help us escape the Czar?"

Valery realized that this was the real language of the farm, how they talked and thought. All the furniture was handmade, the cabin was handmade, and there was something handmade about this group of Russians nestled beneath the mountain across the bay from San Francisco. There were no gold gilt wooden framed chairs with silk cushions, strings of pearls, monocles or polished woods, and the only history that mattered was myth. Valery was loathe to disturb it. They'd gone from hell in Sakhalin and come to paradise in Strawberry Point and back to hell again. Let them be.

Speaking of Dmitri's voyage, Grushenka asked Alexei, "What could they possibly do? They will sail, fish, help people escape, and sail back. The same as always."

Alexei turned to Valery. "Is that what Ivan meant -- to go over there with Mitya the same as always?"

"No, he meant to intervene if he could, perhaps warn the Japanese that they were right about the Czar and tell the world what he saw out there."

"You don't think the world already knows?" Alexei asked Valery, much as he had once, as a youth, challenged Ivan.

"The world is not a world at all. Ivan wanted to make it a world so that what Japan and China knew, America and England would know, everyone would know. It was his mission."

"I like that mission," Mitya said. "I can coast in and see what's what."

Changing her position, Grushenka said, "You could lose your boat if you do."

The boy said, "I don't plan to live my life here. I'm going away. I won't stay."

Alexei looked at Aaron as if he didn't know him. Valery sensed that he was so involved in his faith, clutched at it so fiercely, had been saved and preserved by it so often and for so long, that he literally could not let it go. He wasn't the wandering spirit Father Zosima told to go forth from the monastery as a young man. He was stronger. More determined. What did he have to do with the Czar and the Czar with him?

"Nowhere is any different from anywhere else," Alexei said. "In the Kingdom of Heaven, yes. On this earth, no."

"Sakhalin wasn't different from this?" the boy asked. "Good isn't different from evil? Why should the dragon slay us and not us the dragon?"

"You don't know what you're talking about," his father said to him.

"How will I ever find out? What will you do now, Uncle Mitya? Sell the boat and milk cows, too?"

"I've said what I will do," Dmitri said.

"And that's what I want to do!"

Grushenka lifted her chin and looked at her son. Aaron wouldn't stop; he wouldn't let go. They might call themselves Theodore now -- gifts of God -- but there was no hiding the truth: he was a Karamazov. "Let him go, Alyosha," she said.

Alexei seemed to feel the surge in Aaron's spirit as distinctly as everyone else now. "Would it help topple the Czar?" he asked Valery.

Valery said, "I don't know."

"What will you do?"

"We were talking about what I will do!" Aaron exclaimed.

"I am asking Valery now. Then we will talk about you," Alexei said.

Valery knew what he would do: He'd search for Christina McGrath and try to help her. He said this and it seemed to put the family council on a different footing. There was no kingdom of heaven in what he said, just Christina and her baby.

"Let him go," Grushenka said again. "He isn't a boy anymore, don't you see?"

"Mitya?" Alexei asked.

Mitya had his head clasped between his hands and was looking down at the floor between his spread knees. He was mourning again, caught up in losing Ivan. The others waited. If it weren't for Aaron, they all would have been like that. It was how they felt. "If you say he can sail with me, all right. If not, I don't take him."

"I'll find another boat if I have to!" Aaron cried.

"Sail then, sail!" Alexei said sharply.


"...this group of Russians nestled beneath the mountain across the bay from San Francisco ..."

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Article © Robert Earle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-09-10
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