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September 25, 2023

A Train Trip to Murder on Strawberry Point 12

By Robert Earle

After having traveled halfway around the world, from Russia to Germany, to England, to New York, Ivan has settled in San Francisco, and in a surreal setting, reunited with his brothers Alexei and Dmitri. What should be joyful, however, is shadowed by the pursuit by the Russian Okhrana agent Smedlov, and hired detective Dickerson -- who have been charged with killing Ivan by Christina's husband...


Christina was frightened when Ivan told her where he had been. She had lain awake all night worrying he had left her ... now he returned with this news ... this family ... prayers in Hebrew ... milk all the time ... escaped from prison!

"What kind of people are these? They haven't been part of your life for twenty years!"

"I didn't sleep either. I am stunned. I cannot believe this."

"Does Valery know?"

"No, I came right here."

"Do they speak English?"

He couldn't remember. Had they? "What do you mean you worried that I left you?"

"You're always talking about leaving -- Japan, Manchuria, Sakhalin, this Port Arthur. I hate those two words. What is Port Arthur? All the time Port Arthur!"

"You imagine me just disappearing?"

"You disappeared!"

She began sobbing. He tried to comfort her.

"You could learn Russian, too," he said.

She looked at him as if he were mad, the English gentleman turned American journalist now Russian again? "Who are you? Look at your suit! You've got mud on it! You're covered with thistles."

Brushing at him with her open hand was her way of drawing him back to her. He remembered Katerina Ivanovna taking his hand as they walked out of Ward 6 and the cackling of Yetsov behind him and little Nikita asking him to leave some money ... not forget them ... send them cake ... He didn't feel as weak-kneed then as now though, and when she was finished slapping his coat and trousers, they stood facing one another, and there was something he had to tell her.

"I am not who you think I am."

"How could you be? I can't think anything. I don't know anything."

He started telling her again about Alexei -- Alyosha he called him sometimes and Alyoshenka at others -- and how he had made a new religious faith of it all "... and I haven't made any faith, but we both got to the same place -- the end of the world -- and mine begins here when all this crumbles and his, who knows? I suppose he's already in it over there. Mitya calls it death."


"His little baby Andre is like another limb, a live limb on a dead tree. Grushenka of all people bore the child herself. But they're free. My God, they suffered, but they're free!"

His mysterious laugh made her sit down. Free? She had read his articles. Each time he brought her one, she pasted it in a scrapbook of thick black paper. Russia, he wrote, would consume China and Japan and all the little countries and islands to the south, and why were the Americans so indifferent to this? Why did the Americans despise the Chinese and Japanese who had helped them build their railroads and dig their mines? What was this racial hatred that made a Russian acceptable to an American and not the Orientals? Was it the white skin? The shape of the eyes? The color and texture of the hair? Did the mass of American workers and farmers and poor folk think they somehow belonged in league with the Russian czar and his innumerable jewels, horses, servants, estates, and bars of solid gold? Did they think that eventually they, too, would sip the purest vodka in the company of the imperial czar of all the Russias and marry his daughters and eat oranges in the middle of winter and be wrapped in windproof furs and whisked from ball to ball in the grand season of festivities after the start of the new year? Is that what Americans thought freedom would give them? If you can vote but not eat, are you free? If you can work but not rest, are you free? If you can look but not touch, are you free? Were the people in New York's miserable tenements free? Were the "freed" slaves free? Were the miners in the Lead Belt free? Were the teamsters on the docks free?

Patmos saw this ending; Patmos saw this exploding; Patmos wrote that for decade after decade there would be war about these things and the least and lowliest would be fed into the dragon's mouth by the millions. Men who had no idea why they were enemies. Men who fought thousands of miles from their homes. Armies and navies colliding and exploding, reloading and exploding again.

"I don't want anything to do with your family!" she cried.


"I had mine and look at where it got me -- McGrath! Now I'm to watch you get rid of me for them?"

"Christina, Christina, I wouldn't do that."

"You already have. Look at you. Listen to you. I don't want know men who killed their father and share their woman and live on milk."

"They're my brothers!"

"But not mine!" The skin beneath her lower eyelids had grown red. She was furious with him and would fight him, pregnant or not. "We're not married, but you don't care. We can't keep living here; it's no place to raise a baby. I want a house, a yard, some help. Why don't you stop this Patmos nonsense and became a real journalist or start a business?"

"Start a business!"

"If Valery's a millionaire, let him help you. He could buy us a decent house!" She flung her arm around at the apartment with its gray and white floral wallpaper that until that moment had seemed splendid and now had the look of an ashcan. "Make us a life, Ivan! Do something or count me out!" Then she really began sobbing and ran to the bed where she thrashed her legs and kicked at him and drove him away.


They had agreed he would never go to the consulate, so Ivan sent a message and Valery appeared shortly thereafter in a tavern where, despite having also agreed they'd always speak English in public, two toffs on a tour of some kind, how could Ivan speak English about this? His words gushed out, crammed with sounds English never made -- Dmitri and Alexei, the woman Grushenka, three children, Christina wild about it, Ivan saying he wanted to sail with Dmitri on the Tiburon, go to Japan, cross over to China, get near the conflict that surely was brewing around Port Arthur and if not somehow provoke it ... make something happen ... do something!

Valery didn't say a word until Ivan had finished. Then he murmured, "Yes, yes, you should."

Ivan almost disbelieved his ears. "What about Christina and the baby?"

"Give them over to Alexei and Grushenka," Valery said quietly. "Look, Ivan, we're done for. Smedlov's here."

Ivan was incredulous. "Smedlov's here? Half way around the world?"

"He's after you and setting traps for me. We're both his prey." He told Ivan about Dickerson and the gold jewelry. "They're tied in together. We'll have to put Patmos in the closet with Taciturn," he said. "All that's over for now."

Ivan bridled. He wanted to keep Patmos alive and take him with Dmitri to Japan and China. Or what about tricking Smedlov and this Dickerson out of the gold jewelry and sending it to Katerina Ivanovna for River?

"That's exactly what I thought, but please, it's only bait, not goods. Bait to bribe me."

They debated this point. Ivan kept insisting only to avoid discussing further what Valery really believed he should do: "Yes, sail with Mitya -- that's exactly it -- and leave Christina with Alyosha and Grushenka."

"But she won't agree, don't you understand?" Ivan said. "Why wouldn't you take her?" he finally asked.

"You know she would only see it one way -- you abandoning her to me -- and she doesn't want me."

"But she can't speak Russian and they can barely speak English."

"Ivan, no. We've been through that. You go; you have your adventure; you come back; and we get on with it. But no more Patmos, no more Taciturn. Just go!"

Ivan said Valery would have to help him take Christina across the water and show her she could be comfortable there. "She has to see that I'm not the only one who doesn't find these people strange."

"You mean I won't find them strange? After what you've told me about them and how Dostoevsky portrayed them?"

"How are Russians supposed to be? Look at you and me, pursued to the far corners of the earth! What is Christina to think?"

She knew exactly what to think the moment she saw Valery slip through the door behind Ivan. There was more trouble. Immediately she assumed it was McGrath.

"I just knew he would come after us. Every day I wake up to that and now there are three of us," she said, placing her hand on her stomach, "and I don't want it."

"No, Christina, please," Valery said. "It's not McGrath. Listen to me: it's something else, what Ivan has been writing. He has to go away for a while."

"Go away where?"

"Where he can't be found. Where you couldn't say if you were ever asked."

She looked back and forth from Valery to Ivan and back to Valery again. She had become freckly and her blonde hair had grown longer and darker since he had last seen her. She was not as beautiful but lovelier, more vulnerable. What should she do? What if McGrath were out there? The thought had never occurred to Valery, but she could be right. What if McGrath were the one who sent Dickerson to him? He composed himself the way he had seen his father compose himself a hundred times, erasing his unease.

"It is our Russian state police, not McGrath," he said, "and that isn't good for any of us. We need, if I may put it this way, people we can turn to ... beyond ourselves."

"What people?"

"I am thinking of Ivan's brothers, whom he's told you about." Valery's voice was calm and reasonable.

"Have you read this book about them?"

"Yes, I have."

"And you want -- "

"Christina, the book was a book, only a book. These are not the people in that book and never were."

He knew he should not have said, "never were," and regretted it the moment he said it. For all he knew, they absolutely were those people. Ivan had been one of them, exactly one of them, when he first met him, though he was not the same Ivan now. Now he was almost as steady as Valery, looking closely at Christina, wanting her to yield.

"What can the Russian state police do in America?" she asked.

"It's not what they would be permitted to do," Valery said.

"It's what they did to my brother when they had him in their grasp," Ivan said.

"They would do the same to you?"

"Yes, I imagine so. Which is why I must elude and defeat them."

What had she gotten into? She felt helpless and foresaw herself becoming more helpless when the baby was born. "Sometimes people need to get away. I understand that," she said. "After all ... look at what I did."

They sat in silence for several moments. Christina picked up her knitting needles and the needles began clicking, quite quickly. Outside, darkness had fallen and been smothered in fog. Inside the moody wavering light of oil lamps lapped on the walls.

"You say your younger brother is almost a priest," she said at last, though not looking up.

"I guess you could say that," Ivan said.

"What if he married us?"

Ivan knew immediately he should have paused and pondered this. He couldn't, though. "But you're already married!"

She kept on working her needles, however, dismissing his words, her mind suddenly made up. "No, I'm not. I lied. It was all a lie. God knew that. He's still waiting for me to tell the truth."

God? Ivan maintained his external composure but grew extremely upset. He imagined himself kneeling as Alexei summoned God's blessing. Impossible. He'd exiled God. There was no more God. Let Lenin be God if he wanted to.

Valery knew exactly what Ivan was thinking and intervened. "I think taking you to meet his brothers would be important to Ivan and allowing his brother to wed you is exactly how this ought to be done."

"But I don't believe in 'God,'" Ivan objected.

"It doesn't matter. Christina apparently does."

"Do you really?" Ivan asked her.

Christina didn't answer him directly. Just said, "I think Valery is right. It's two against one. You lose."

She had stopped clicking her needles to say this, then restarted when she was done. The booties would be one pink and one blue. She'd be ready for anything. Even this.

Article © Robert Earle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-04-08
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