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June 27, 2022

A Train Trip to Murder on Strawberry Point 11

By Robert Earle

McGrath has ordered Smedlov the Russian agent and Dickerson the man-hunter to find and kill Ivan for stealing his wife from him. Ivan's concern has been for his anti-Czarist newspaper articles -- and for Christina, who now carries Ivan's child. Yet a man's compelling face at the shipyards now holds all of Ivan's attention.

X

The next day, standing at the same counter of the same tea shack, Ivan saw the same man doing the same things on the ship called Tiburon.

"Do you see that man over there?" he asked the hag behind the counter.

"The bald one?"

"Yes, the bald one."

"Mitya, they call him. Theodore's the last name, I believe."

"Greek?"

"No, he'll be Russian. It's what he sounds like when he don't speak English."

The Russian man named Mitya was busy. The anchor winch of the Tiburon had been disassembled and he was helping the mechanic put things right. Now and then a part -- a gear or a screw -- slipped out of their grasp and rolled from the bow to amidships. Mitya gave chase with a limp. He did this one more time before noticing that there was a man standing by the ship's hull looking up at him, a fellow in a fine suit with a gray silk vest, derby and cane.

"Mitya," the man said. "It has been so long."

These words -- something about them, that voice -- fell on the man called Mitya's ears like blows, stunning him. "Ay, my name is Mitya. So long since what?"

"Don't you recognize me?"

"Sir?"

"Ivan," Ivan said softly. "Ivan, Mitya. Ivan."

Mitya limped forward to the anchor winch, handed over the fugitive part he'd chased and then limped back to the gangplank down to the dock. Ivan was standing there waiting for him. He used to be taller than Ivan but wasn't any longer. Now he was like a woman, only reaching Ivan's shoulder. He had been beaten, starved, and then knotted into a lump of seaman's muscle. He looked up at Ivan's face and cupped it with palms and fingers that were hard and rough as wood.

"Oh, now I can die ... now I can die ... now I can die!" he sobbed.

What could be beyond seeing Ivan again except death?

The two men on the far end of the dock, Dickerson and Smedlov, watched this reunion without being able to hear what was being said. They saw the bald man dance and twist a little and stare up at the sky and raise his fist. The man in the derby, the one who did look like Dickerson, all but the nose, covered his face with his hands a moment and doubled up. Was he sobbing?

They tried to edge forward without being noticed and stopped at the tea shack counter.

"I'll have a cup," Dickerson said. "In fact, make it two." He lifted a glass cover off a plate of crullers and gestured for Smedlov to help himself, which Smedlov did, taking a large bite and then wiping his mouth carelessly with the cuff of his jacket, not wanting to take his eyes off the two fellows telling the crew of the Tiburon they'd be off and then climbing down a ladder to a sailing skiff, about fifteen feet long, and with a bit of rowing and a raising of the sail, finding enough breeze to blow them out into the bay.

"What's over there?" Dickerson asked the old woman who was pushing them their cups of tea across the counter.

"Tiburon," she said.

"Like this ship here?"

"What it's named for, sir. Five cents for the tea and the crullers."

The water smacked the skiff's hull hard and the wind clattered in its sail, but Mitya knew what he was doing, forgetting Ivan for a minute who was glad to be forgotten, tears streaming down his cheeks both from emotion and the sea air, simply watching his brother's beaten but strong body, the way he heaved the rudder and swung the sail all in a tremendous rush, desperate to reach land.

Once there they fell into one another's arms again. Ivan wanted to sit on a piling and steady himself. Mitya wouldn't hear of it for exactly the reason Ivan feared most: Alyosha and Grushenka were both near at hand, plus three children, whose names and ages flew right past Ivan, he couldn't absorb them.

"What did you say?"

"I said, 'Aaron the oldest, Deborah, and then the little one we call ... '" Mitya didn't finish what he was saying, couldn't remember what they called the little one, grabbed Ivan's shoulder all the tighter and spoke wild Russian, strange Russian like a flight of birds in sudden swarms and bursts.

"What?" Ivan asked. "You say his name is what?"

"Andre!" Mitya cried. "It's Andre!"

They stumbled up into a sweet-smelling stretch of glade covered with strawberry plants, but there was also the scent of something heavy and earthy that made Ivan think of strawberries dipped in melted chocolate in the Café del Odeon in Paris where he once listened to a girl tell him there was no weather in Paris, only time, even the people were not there, only seemed to be, like the sun and those leafy trees. "Fiction, all of it. Even us!" she had said. "Don't you know Bergson?" He didn't, but he was seventeen and in that moment of transfixed time he decided he would stay in Paris forever, and under the watchful eye of his amused French tutor, speak to his crazy daughter and sip café au lait and eat strawberries dipped in chocolate, he holding up the ones she bit into, she holding up the ones she decided were for him. Fraise, the tutor M. Richard informed him. Fraises trempées dans le chocolat.

"No, it's cow manure," Mitya said. "If it was chocolate we'd all be two hundred kilos! All right, Grushenka, yes, she's fat. But Alyosha is thin, so thin. All he drinks, two hundred days a year, is milk!"

Ivan couldn't believe he remembered the word. "Is he a Molokan?"

"Yes, Molokan! Jew Christ believer. No church, where would we find a church?"

"Who would want a church?"

"Yes, fuck the church! Fuck Russia and fuck the Czar, too! " Mitya paused to get his breath. He was overexcited, or maybe he never made sense. "Do you know who I love besides them and you? I love one man, Anton Chekhov! He bought us a boat on Sakhalin and here we are, Ivan! Here we are!"

So the story Valery's uncle Boris once told was true? Chekhov helped them escape. "The writer?"

"Yes, yes, the writer! He set us free!"

Mitya was guiding them along a hillside, red-dotted with those bright red strawberries, toward a stand of oak trees beyond which loomed a substantial mist-wreathed mountain, and he was telling Ivan everything at once. He said they sailed away from Sakhalin into open water, were rescued by Japanese fishermen who took them to Sapporo and then they found that boat he'd seen, the Tiburon, which traded and fished and smuggled coolies and Russian and Japanese misfits who were given two cups of broth a day so they wouldn't have to move about and shit or piss, just lay there and stay put twenty-three hours a day.

"For me, it was nothing, look!" Mitya held out his manacle-scarred wrists. His heavy ankles were worse with the left one having been broken and badly reknitted, causing his limp. He yanked up his tunic to display a broad chest that was full of gnarly muscle under an integument of cicatrized skin. He'd also taken blows to the head, nose and eye sockets. How did Ivan recognize him? Ivan had no idea; Mitya was like a tree stump that had been axed almost to the ground but somehow unmistakably remained his brother.

"We got here and they said work in the codfish cannery, but I couldn't do it. The stink! The heat! I couldn't! Why not stay in Sakhalin? I wanted to go back out onto the sea. I liked it so much. Look, Ivan, look!" Mitya twisted Ivan to make him look at San Francisco Bay. He was a multiple of whom he had been, three or four times as joyous, angry, spontaneous, intense, yet simple and real. "I went to Captain Harangody and said hire me. He said he wanted a seaman. I said I would learn the knots, the machines, the nets, the water and the wind, what more did he want? I would learn the stars and the planets. He looked at me like I was crazy. I said, 'Spare yourself. Just give me my own bunk, mop or rag. Hungarians are smart and Russians are dumb? Is that what you think? Look,' I said, 'I know death. Put me in a storm, and I'll hoist the boat my shoulders and walk it home on the waves!'" Mitya laughed madly at this and stomped his good foot. "When the captain died, he loved me so much he left me the boat. I own that Tiburon! Ivan, I'm Captain Mitya with his own ship!"

They reached a dusty path and came to a rivulet beyond which extended a pasture with soft deep turf and high grass. Ivan's city shoes weren't right for this. Mitya kneeled down and took them off for him, his socks as well, so that Ivan could walk barefoot through the water, up the muddy bank and through a wire fence Mitya held open for him into a pasture dotted with tussocks the cows didn't like. This was the big dairy farm, the Lyford Farm, with hundreds of head. Theirs came ten minutes further on and wasn't so big, only twenty cows, but lots of chickens, guinea hens, goats, and American vegetables -- corn, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and squash.

They came up out of the squishy pasture, recrossed the rivulet, which was wider now, and scrambled up to a road. Mitya said they could have come on the road this way the whole time if they'd docked at the landing between the codfish factory and the Navy coaling station and railroad tracks, but it was faster the way they did it. Slip past Belvedere Island and squeeze into Strawberry Point.

He was vital but coarsened, Ivan thought. If Alyosha was a Molokan, disciple of the Spirit, how could they coexist?

He slipped his thin white feet back into his stockings and shoes. They were on the Tiburon Track. That's what Mitya called it. Or did he call it the Tiburon Trace? Ivan could hardly understand him, but he hardly cared. Was this paradise? Is that where they had come? Mitya once dead alive? Alyosha surely dead alive? Grushenka alive? The further they walked, the more the chocolate strawberry air was diluted by the breeze blowing down off the mountain while a symphony of crickets and locusts and bird squawk caught them in a mysterious spell. Mitya dragged him deeper and deeper into this lovely golden green vale until they saw a little puff of smoke drifting out of a shingled house and a waterwheel built on the side of a small plank barn and a boy carrying an armful of wood.

"Who is that boy?" Ivan asked.

"Aaron, I told you -- Alyosha and Grushenka's."

"They had a child?"

"Yes, man, yes, the things ... the things ... don't ask me to tell you them all ... I can't ... I don't remember ... they will say what happened, what I did, what I said, how I behaved. I have no recollection, none!"

A tall thin gray haired man followed the boy, closing the gate behind them, leaving some cows he had just milked, their teats bright and glistening, while a heavy woman with all the brown hair in the world sat on the front porch beneath a corrugated tin roof nursing a child, her fat shoulders and large breasts exposed except for the suckling infant.

"That one's mine," Mitya said. "I wanted one and they let me fuck her. I had not fucked her in fifteen years, but the devil my dick worked and that baby is mine!"

A girl about four came out onto the porch having seen her Uncle Mitya descending the hill with a man in a suit and a felt hat with a low crown and a broad brim. She was the prettiest being Ivan had ever seen, her black hair gleaming, her eyes bright and wondering, her small nose and mouth set perfectly above her pink dimpled chin. My God, what had he ever done in his life? He had never done a thing! Look at the beautiful child!

"Ay, Deborah!" Mitya called. "Debbie, Debbie, Debbie, come see!"

Deborah came running to him. "Who are you?" she asked Ivan as she hugged Mitya by the thighs.

"Who are you?" Ivan asked in turn.

"Deborah Theodore," she said.

Mitya looked at Ivan with shamefaced joy. "We're Americans, gift of God. Alexei made up this name."

"All of you?"

"She wasn't born yet. Nor he." Mitya pointed over to Andre, as naked but for his nappy as Grushenka's breasts.

Grushenka looked at Ivan though her wilderness of hair, unable to speak. The man closing the farmyard gate fell to his knees. Mitya began swinging Deborah around him, crying, "Uncle Vanechka! Uncle Vanechka! Uncle Vanechka, come see! Come see!"

The boy who was ten or so, Aaron, put his stack of wood down and watched his father, Alexei, approach Ivan, who cupped Alexei's face with both hands.

"Yes, it's me," he said.

"Oh, my God, my savior," Alexei said. "When the ghosts walk and life is eternal, save me, save me, save me!" He fell to his knees.

As if hypnotized and struck dumb, Grushenka came over, still nursing Andre, and fell to her knees as well. Then Dmitri dropped down and Ivan did, too. There in the dirt they all looked at one another, the adults who knew one another and the children who didn't, and Alexei gave thanks in a prayer Ivan supposed was Hebrew and then they sat back on their heels and no one stirred as Ivan told his story, all of it, burning their father's house, Ward Six, Katerina Ivanovna and his recovery and then his travels with Valery and now for God's sake, another woman and who knew, maybe some kind of baby about to be born.

"But what have I accomplished?" he asked. "In all this time -- nothing! Not a thing!"

"What more do you need to do?" Alexei asked.

"Isn't this enough for all of us?" Grushenka asked him.

"Bring them here, this Christina and your friend Valery," Dmitri urged him.

"I will, I will," Ivan said, but having left out more than half of the why behind his wandering and mentioning only the what, he wouldn't let go of Alexei's question. "I want to do something more, I don't like this world, you know I never did." He reached over, squeezed Dmitri's shoulders, and asked, "Is he finished? Why does he sail? My God, he tells me he goes back to the coasts of Asia and Russia, and I want to go with him. What does he do there, eh? Look at him, what does he do?"

They all looked at Dmitri, who grinned back at them and began to sputter and laugh and make no sense.

Grushenka spoke to clear things up. She was a thick, stout woman now who could handle a baby without thinking and tell a story at the same time. "I always loved this one even when I hated him and he hated me," she said, meaning Dmitri. "And I loved this one," meaning Alexei, "because if I didn't, we'd both die and for what? He," she turned again to Dmitri, "never killed your old papa. Kristina Ivanovna lied. Why did she lie? Did she ever say? But you told the truth, Vanechka. The bastard son Smyrdayakov killed your father. So how many more of us innocents must be pulled out of Russia's mouth like teeth? That's why Mitya sails. He doesn't catch fish, he catches men and sets them free."

No one would have thought, looking at him, that Dmitri would be likened to Christ, unless it be the dead one. In fact Ivan thought that Dmitri looked more like the tattered-suited devil who had visited and taunted him in Skotoprigonyevsk, driving him mad.

"There was a man in London who told me about being tortured by having his teeth pulled out, one by one," he said.

"Gone is gone," Dmitri said, opening his mouth wide to reveal the gray pink rims of his mostly toothless gums.

"Everything changes but God," Alexei said. He was built the way a rail fence is built, limbs knitted into limbs, strong and straight. The boy Aaron had stretched out in the dirt and put his head in Alexei's lap. The girl, Deborah, sat in Dmitri's lap.

No one wanted to move, the adults transfixed by their memories, the children transfixed by memories entailing only the life they'd led between Tiburon and Strawberry Point, the field clearing, the house building, cattle buying, calving, long lonely spells when Dmitri was gone, seasons subtly colder and warmer, wetter and drier. Grushenka saw no point in moving an inch beyond the roadbed, the rivulet, the trees and the first slopes of the mountain. Dmitri was no walker, either, not with his foot, but sometimes Alexei would wander up into the valley, offering the Word, or hike onto the mountain, called Tamalpais, and make retreats there, Aaron along with him too. They carried bread, cheese, blankets and their milk. Alexei's gray hair was thin at the top but long. There was a Christ as you imagined him, Ivan thought, listening to his brother talk about drawing people into the gospel, bringing them over from Dmitri's Tiburon to the landing at Tiburon and then leading them out to where they, like the Theodores, could settle and be helped by one another and worship together.

"Old Believers?" Ivan asked at one point.

"Not old, new," Alexei corrected him. "Molokans," he insisted, sensing Ivan avoiding the word. "We are the Steadfast here, not the Jumpers."

"It's all very strange to me," Ivan said, seeking communion with Alexei. His belief seemed to have grown deeper and taken root exactly as the elder Zosima had wanted. But here in California! Here in America! "I don't believe in anything except the apocalypse and the end. Every day I wake up and its over, every night I go to sleep and its over. I dig against the lava tide. I know it's over. All of it's over."

"It's always been over," Alexei said. "From the beginning, if we only understood. He ran his fingers through Aaron's hair. "He looks like me, he is me, his son will be me, and I will be them." He quoted the scripture: "'Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.'"

"None of it true, but all of it true," Ivan said. A strange mood befell him. "We're lost in our movements and struggle, but what else can we do?"

"We can do nothing," Alexei said.

"Do you really think that after these thousands of years, all God ever wanted was for us to be still? No evil could reach us if only we were still?"

Alexei wasn't a boy anymore who would answer Ivan's questions simply because he asked them. He just looked at him with silent love, convinced that everything died and multiplied, sacrificed its own seed. He had lost everything and fallen to the ground, hadn't he, and yet now there he sat ... with Ivan ... with Dmitri ... and the rest!

Grushenka urged them go into the house to eat. Ivan was astonished to find that all the walls were shelves and all the shelves were laden with bags of potatoes, preserved vegetables, fruits, jams, boxes of flour and meal and sacks of seeds and nuts and in every space that otherwise would be empty, glass jars of water.

"What is all this?"

"It's our ark," Grushenka said.

They had been on the ocean for nineteen days before the Japanese fishermen rescued them. By then there was nothing in their stomachs or mouths. None of them could move; all of them were parched.

"No more 'nothing' never again," Mitya said, who ate a large piece of bread and bowl of stew in two minutes, uninterruptedly, ravenously, shoveling the food into his mouth in continuous jerky thrusts.

"This was how many years ago?" Ivan asked.

"Nine. We count by Aaron," Alyosha said.

"He was born on the Tiburon," Grushenka said.

"She couldn't work, so I worked twice," Dmitri said. "The cannery as long as I could, but I told you, I couldn't stand it."

"What about you?" Ivan asked Alexei.

At first Alexei worked on the Lyford Farm. He was weak, but they were kind to him, and he drank the milk, they let him have all he needed, and he felt his old death-in-life transform into life-in-death, his after-life. Now Dmitri and Grushenka were free. That was his purpose on earth. They would go on.

"We weren't meant for one another," he said, meaning him and Grushenka.

Ivan said, "My friend Valery's uncle Boris told Dostoevsky that maybe you were."

The three of them knew about the book; Chekhov had mentioned it. Other prisoners on Sakhalin knew about it.

"A plague on Dostoevsky," Grushenka said

"Old Boris Asimov?" Mitya asked.

"Who always wore a blue nankeen waistcoat? Do you remember him?" Ivan asked.

Dmitri didn't have the best memory, but Grushenka remembered Boris Asimov, the landowner. "Kristina Ivanovna's neighbor, yes?"

Mention of Kristina Ivanovna upset Dmitri. "I never loved her but you did," he said to Ivan, "and she loved you. How could she have read my letter in court? That's what did me in!"

The children, Aaron and Deborah, looked at Dmitri, done in, yes, but still there, battered, bald, exasperated, enraged.

"We all love her now," Alexei interjected. "God loves her, and we love God."

Grushenka wouldn't have it. "What do you answer to Mitya's question, Vanechka? Tell us."

"I don't know how she could have done it, and neither does she. We lived inside out. Everything that should be hidden was revealed; everything that should be revealed was hidden. Your Bible says that," he told Alexei. "And we are to wait. Only 'then' will all be clear. But when is 'then?' I burned the old man's house and was sent to Ward 6 and Katerina Ivanovna rescued me. She fed me and gave me books and offered me girls and brought me Valery, who became my friend."

"This redeems her?" Grushenka scoffed.

"She doesn't want to be redeemed. She wants to be punished. She's always wanted to be punished."

"Punishment is the greatest gift of God," Alexei said.

The children were asleep. It was too wet and dark to go back across the bay. A wind made the roof rattle and hum. Over on his pallet, Dmitri groaned. Ivan, lying on his pallet, heard it all and, despite the darkness, saw it all, Grushenka's hand cupping the infant's head, the older boy curled up next to his sister, and Alexei, a long fallen feather, stretched out by the door.

At the first blue light of dawn, Alyosha arose and went out to the animals. The baby began suckling again. Andre and Deborah slept on. Dmitri whispered to Ivan, asking if he was ready. Ivan said yes and they got up and walked toward sunrise and the skiff.

Article © Robert Earle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-03-25
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