The Moon Followers

February 18, 2012
Embers emanated from her fingertips; her palms shivered from the cool metal rods, absorbing her heat to produce the sunset flames illuminating the night. They spun, curled, and braided the air around her, leaving behind shadowy patterns that surfaced under eyelids. Fire: grazing her stomach, spiraling her silhouette. Like a lover, her scintillating intimate trailed sparks across her skin, her gravity infrequently drawing it in, and searing the skin it so cosseted. Everything about her was fire: auburn eyes that twinkled by the light of the happy moon: skin, tinged with the smoky inferno she wielded; she travelled like fire, talked like fire, smelt of fire, radiated fire, breathed fire, slept like fire, and died, in fire: they all would. Her existence was compiled of explosive sporadism; she let her love spread insuppressibly one day, only to suffocate it the next, leaving only ashes of the past in her trail. Grasping her fiery handle, she danced under the stars, under the eyes of heaven, and sent it to the moon, only for it to fall, headfirst, trailing whispers of smoke, onto the surrounding earth, which immediately caught fire and erected a wall of blaze, and her audience clapped and whistled and applauded for more, and she cried, and cried, and fell to the embrace of the earth and cried as the fire inside of her slowly, tortuously ebbed and told her nothing would ever be the same.

It was a small world: a world of polushkas and dengas: a world, in which tyrurya was a meal fit for tsars, in which everyone was his or her own tsar and ruled his or her own destiny.

He was borne from the earth. Or, at least, that’s what the other children would say. Aleksandra found him nuzzled in layers of woolen blankets. Inside the folds, forest green eyes giggled silently; a hand outstretched and pointed at the autumn moon, who smiled down on them. “Dmitri,” tumbled off of her lips, as if the infant tacitly compelled her to understand his name. Aleksandra lifted Dmitri from his riverside cradle and let him rest in her arms, atop her pulsing stomach. Soon, she would have a daughter to accompany this forest nymph. Gliding through the grass with bare feet, she whisked him away towards her small, magical world.

Children gathered and elders stared as Aleksandra slithered into the camp with a child in her arms. Her skirt bellowed and her silvery eyes were lost in his. Passing Dmitri round, one by one, the children quickly fabricated romantic theories as from where the sylvan infant came. Was he dropped from the heavens? Did his mother abandon him in a desperate attempt to escape the sentence of her crimes? Or was he simply unwanted?
“Did he come from the sea?” inquired the fiery ten year-old, Alena.
“No, Alena, we just found each other,” Aleksandra answered softly.
Regardless, they wanted him; they would raise him to be one of their own; they would teach him to sway with the heartbeat of the cosmos and to sing the songs of the souls of crickets, lemurs, serpents, grass, snails, sunflowers, ladybugs, bumblebees. Ten days after Dmitri found the circus camp, Aleksandra would give birth to a little girl; her name would be Yeva, and she would be the only child borne to Aleksandra to survive the harsh, Russian winters.
The camp moved from village to village; there was never much money to go around, but who needed it? They lived off of the earth: cultivated it, took from it only when necessary and gave back whenever possible. The fruits of the soft, bountiful soil intertwined with wispy dreams of spirits and dwarves. Vodka flowed freely; it was the only thing for which they really needed money, so, when their stocks ran low, Aleksandra charged outsiders to witness their multifaceted talents. Oftentimes, though, the philosophy was: “we should be paying them to watch us; a sight to see is something as free as the river water.” Aleksandra, Lev, and their elders would take up entire roads, putting on shows to entertain the forest creatures and villagers. Watching with awe, the children absorbed everything they saw, hoping to one day allow the transcendental gifts to swim in their veins and resonate with the calls of the wind and owls. Agripina, Filipp, Prokhor, and Alena would soon fully realize the abilities with which nature endowed them.
Years floated by; Dmitri and Yeva celebrated their first, second, third, and fourth birthdays. The circus flourished. Elders died and people scattered. The circus continued on its tentative path.
Alena celebrated her fourteenth birthday and wordlessly shined as people toasted glasses of liquor to a life they little knew. Fascinated by her self-imposed isolation, little Dmitri, plump and rosy, sat by her side and squeezed her arm. But Alena hesitantly smiled and flinched away; she took no pleasure in playful contact. She just wanted to be left alone. Dmitri, discouraged, wandered off to play with his friend who sat giggling in her mother’s arms.
Reflecting upon that night, Yeva could only articulate her retention of the first eight years of her life as the “blurry years.” Memories inserted themselves haphazardly in her internal time-line; single moments seamed the years together. In attempts to remember sentiments of innocence and youth, Yeva alternated between two occasions.
The scene that first played in her head was when she and Dmitri were playing with dolls. Dmitri threw his down and claimed it was too girly for him to play with dolls. He stomped away and cried on Lev’s lap; they must have been only four if his reaction to emasculation was to cry about it. Yeva chortled and continued on with her games. Dmitri felt betrayed and cried some more.
She next thought of the time when she and Alena sat by the pyre, singing songs of innocence and nature. Embers twinkled near Alena’s eyelashes, and ringlets of smoke twirled around Yeva’s nostrils, occasionally being drawn in by inhalation. She must have been around seven, Alena, seventeen. Dmitri crawled up to her from behind, stuck a sunflower crown on her head, kissed it, and ran away to Lev’s tent. That exact moment was the first time chills ran down her spine, nervousness tingled through her veins, and gleeful excitement dropped in the pit of her chronically insatiable stomach. She walked to Lev’s tent, only to find him crouching behind it. Taking his clammy palms in hers, she intertwined their fingers and told him her secrets, her dreams, her fears. That was the night when friendship was grown, from fragments of the tree roots, from drops of dew, fireflies’ sparkling bosoms, and the living, breathing world that surrounded them. That was the night when Yeva and Dmitri became inseparable.
Unstoppably, the circus trailed the rivers of Eastern Europe during the upcoming years. Prokhor became the lead acrobat, and Alena’s fire dance garnered regional fame. The flexible boy began to notice the disappearance of the girl time and again. They all noticed. But no one said anything. When she returned, she looked no one in the eye and acted as if all remained the same. Some nights, she let her personality spread its wings and shed light upon the astonished circus folk. But it was inevitable to sense some part of the girl displaced from the whole. She never fully gave herself to anyone or anything. She was unflinchingly alone. The circus camp rested by a large, quaint village for three weeks.
Playing in the local forest, Dmitri, out of breath, planted himself on a tree stump. He was around eight years old. Yeva cavorted around him, stick in hand, screaming at the sky, hoping to provoke a faerie to reveal itself.
“Do you think I came from faeries?” chuckled Dmitri with earnestness.
His eyes followed her, as she confidently answered, “Yes.” She ran farther away from him, beckoning him to follow.
“How do you know?”
“No one else can talk to butterflies like you do.”
And that was that.
Alena, meanwhile, sprawled herself on the ground, and toyed with small fire-twirlers. Prokhor took a seat next to her; smoke appeared to be rising from the tip of her nose.
That day, he realized that they had always been friendly, but never friends. She was a dancer, he was an acrobat; they had similarities; he had always felt their connection. It was not one of romance, but, instead, mutual understanding. When they wanted to laugh, they immediately turned their eyes towards each other, and their eyes would chuckle together, as if sharing an esoteric handshake. When something pretentious came up in public conversation, they would turn toward each other and roll their eyes. They laughed together, thought together, and were bothered together, all in tacit understanding that the other felt the same way. Yet, why had they never shared a conversation? Why did he not know to where she disappeared for days on end? Who was she? She turned her eyes away from the distraction. They wrinkled into a smile. Sitting up, she faced him and spoke the inherent truth of the situation, which they both were thinking, but was too blunt for Prokhor to ever let slip from his own mouth.
“So now, we will be friends,” her eyes glistened like rubies; it was as if she had been waiting for this moment to happen. He wanted to take her hand, long and lean and contorted.
“I witnessed something magical today; I thought you would appreciate it,” and he enlightened her with the imagery of Agripina, executing a front aerial for the first time in her career, with intermittent comments which made Alena beam and warmly kiss his cheek for the amusing anecdote. She laughed and made travesties of all the little things she could remember, which were very few; she had an inclination for forgetfulness. Her lashes cast shadows down her cheek, and she was beautiful. But she was alone, in all aspects of the word, and he could only foresee a future disappearance, for days, maybe weeks. Asleep on the ground as dusk fell, Prokhor dreamt of a fleeing star, trapped in the maelstrom of a tumultuous macrocosm. Alena studied his silhouette in the foggy dark. She hoped he would awake before the sun, as she believed it to be bad luck to disturb a dream. He did not. She fled, for reasons not even she understood.
Weeks passed, and Alena’s return marked the beginning of another journey for the circus. Performances occurred. Travelling ensued. And they walked, and walked, and drank, and walked, halting their migration regularly to appreciate the beauty of their surroundings, the constellations who guarded them, and the great moon who accompanied them every night.
It was Yeva’s eleventh birthday. Aleksandra had always told her it was a fascinating year to be alive; it is the first year a person is fully symmetrical: body, soul, and age. Yeva flaunted the grass-woven bracelet Dmitri had made her with Lev’s guidance. Lev, atop his lion, returned to the camp, cake in hand. Three days ago had been a great show, rubles flowed, and Yeva’s birthday was an occasion for a feast. After consuming far too much out of unrestrained, juvenile excitement, she threw it up in the bushes. But her smile had never been wider.
Dmitri held her hand at the fire as Filipp’s horses jumped over pyres and Aleksandra’s snakes coiled over her limbs on command. Agripina and Prokhor performed their newly learned routine, and Alena helped Lev carve a wooden cat for Yeva.
The heat of Dmitri’s hand in hers faded. Confused, Yeva turned toward him. He bade her follow.
Tree branches shifted together to frame the moon and constellations above, watching with prescience. Yeva strolled toward the glowing river, searching for Dmitri. Taking her hand, he led her deeper into the forest. He described how faeries told him that the forest was his home. Faerie dust coated him. He built a small house of sticks and mud. He wanted them to stay and live there forever, just the two of them.
Yeva snatched her hand from his and ran and cried: “Why do you want to stay?”
“This is my home. The faeries told me. You, you told me.”
“But we don’t stay in one place—we have to keep going, but I don’t know where—if we just keep walking—walking—we’ll discover where we belong—where we were always walking to—not yet—not here—this isn’t where the road ends. We have to keep going.” She moved further away.
“The butterflies—they hug my shoulder and tickle my ear—it’s weird, Yeva.”
“Dmitri, I was lying about the faeries—about the butterflies. It was a game. It was just a game. Your home is with Aleksandra and Lev and everyone—that’s both of our homes. We’re not like everyone else. We don’t stay in one place. We keep moving. We run. That’s why Alena’s always gone. That’s why you found us—you’re meant to run too.”
“I’m not one of you guys. I don’t belong here. I was just unwanted and you were the only people who’d take me. That doesn’t mean I’m meant to follow some wind or run with some moon. I’m just an outsider. And this is where I belong.”
Yeva saw her reflection in his eyes. Her entire self was entangled in his soul. She was inside of him. But the wind called. It bade her follow. She ran.
Dmitri sat by the house and sobbed as his fantastic dreams were crushed. He did not want to be alone like Alena. But the forest made his pulse reverberate in his ears and around him. He could feel the faeries under his toes. He tore the house down and jumped into the glass-like river. It was almost November. Dripping with crystals, he turned his back on the sylvan haven and returned to his home: as intangible, dynamic, and preternatural as he left it. Yeva grabbed him and thanked the moon and tree branches for bringing him back to her.
Never again did Dmitri ask Yeva to stay in one location with him. A need to linger for longer than a few weeks never ceased to haunt him, though. Normalcy was restored as Aleksandra dried his long, shaggy hair with blankets. Lev chuckled when he learned of the vast hopes of the small boy he considered a son. And nobody remained behind when the circus once again departed, as Dmitri’s dismantled house sat forever by itself by the glowing river. Three more years passed. Aleksandra would steal the hearts of several fleeting men, as did Alena and Agripina, blossoming young women. But their elders time and again taught them that love was to be feared, ignored, or postponed.
Aleksandra gathered nuts in the forest; soon, they would be leaving Smolensk for Moscow, a dreadfully long, yet promising journey. When they arrived at Moscow, they could make hundreds, maybe even thousands of rubles, eat like tsars, perhaps meet the Tsar himself, if he was so inclined to vacation in Moscow at the time, and continue moving toward St. Petersburg. Feeling a presence other than herself in the forest clearing, she spun around to find Lev watching her.
“Oh! Lev. What is it? You scared me.”
“I was just—Dmitri and Yeva. They were playing in the stars. That was my dream. I woke up realizing they’re nearly fourteen. Prok’s nearly twenty-six. We’re so old Lex. What happened? How old am I now? Thirty-something-or-other? Or am I forty? Or fifty? God, Dmitri looks up to me. What a sham. All I am is some dirty, lonely guy with a lion for a best friend with no wife, no children, or real ones at least, no nothing. What are we doing? I just—I don’t know,” he stumbled for more words, desperately trying to articulate his rambling anxieties, “Tell me what you’ve been thinking, Lex. You’ve been so quiet the past couple days. Your reticence—it makes the days travel slower.”
“I’m almost thirty-eight. That means you’re forty. Leave me alone, gramps—you should be getting your stuff together. We need to keep going.”
“Come on, talk to me. We don’t need to go just yet. Tell me what you’re thinking. Why so preoccupied with leaving?”
“We’ve been here long enough. How long has it been? A month? Christ, we are so far behind.”
“Admit it—the only reason you want to leave is because of Nicolai.”
“It isn’t the only reason. Nicolai plays a part in it, but a month is too long to stay in one village too. Anyhow, why should he ask me to marry him?”
“He loves you, Aleksandra.”
“And? Love slowly turns into dependency. Dependency turns permanency, mundaneness, insanity—soon, I would be nothing more than a servant. And how would I dance in the snow or perform if I were preoccupied cooking his supper?”
“Lex; stop denouncing every man who lends his emotions to you as a slave-holder. I loved you, I still do—I would do that to you. Neither would he.”
“Let’s just stop talking about this. I don’t love him anyway, never will, he’s far too hairy—always smells like trout—doesn’t care for his cat well enough—boots never shined.”
“Ha! My boots are always shined.”
“I guess that means I love you!” she kissed him on the mouth and hugged him and forced him to waltz. “Do you really still love me? After everything? Even after Yeva?”
“Of course I still love you. You should’ve told me she was mine—I deserved to know—she did too—she still does. But I forgive you; I forgave you a long time ago, when I saw that she didn’t need me as a father; she needs me as Lev.”
“Well, I still love you too.”
“Why aren’t we married?”
“It’s just too late. What difference would it make? We basically are. Come on, just stop talking, it’s ruining this moment. We’ve had this conversation so many times, even if it hasn’t been spoken. Enjoy the sunset. Watch the fireflies. They’re dancing for us, for once. What a nice change.” Lev kissed her cheek and her ear and her nose, and she laughed, and they danced with the fireflies until they were just silhouettes dusted with twilight.
The old friends walked together, arm in arm, back to the camp. They found that Alena, who had been missing for two weeks since they arrived in Viasma, had yet to come back. They were almost half-way to Moscow, and it had been a relatively quick journey thus far. No one wanted tolerate her disappearing act. Aleksandra and Yeva and Prokhor, however, refused to let anyone continue until she returned.
Dull and alone, Yeva, thought about Dmitri. She looked into his fabricated eyes. She could feel him looking back; perhaps he was thinking of her too? At that exact moment, their minds intermingled: twisting, spinning, like the web of a spider, or the crystal maze of a snowflake, blending together to be one. If they gazed at one another, through the medium of their minds, would the contact, the connection, be real? Like the stare, engaged through a mirror or reflection; you stare into the glass, only for your eyes to lock with those of a mirror person: a projection, an image of the thing in flesh. Is it real? Is that how you cross into an alternate realm; a realm of glass figurines, with eyes that radiate warmth, but encapsulate in ice when touched? Or is it simply a reflection: a mindless, heartless image of what you wish you to hold, tangibly, in your arms?
Where was Alena, she continued to muse. Mirror or flesh, she was just a projection. You can see her; you can sense fire, burning under her skin, warm your frostbitten existence. But when you go to touch, embrace, she simply shattered. Where was she?
There was a village close-by; she could not have gone far. Lev searched for her. Aleksandra, despite her refusal to leave the girl behind, was anxious to continue moving. The shoulder bones of his lion rose, then fell, then rose again and fell. Lev was always calmed by the vacillating motion of the golden, bony body of his pet. His tail swung. The motion of the pendulum dizzied him.
Snow lay peacefully in front of him, behind him, above him, but none fell; its descent, impending.
He was caught amidst symmetry, and his intrusion on the equilibrium of nature irked him. Above him, lay a vast sky of white; below him, sat a deep, snowy ocean. Where did he belong in this? Was there another Lev, atop a lion, who tight-roped across the sky for the single purpose of according with terraqueous balance? He continued moving, comforted by the setting moon.
Yeva, meanwhile, inspected an evergreen tower in front of her. It contoured in the strangest of ways at its peak, as if leaning to whisper something in its neighbor’s ear. Suddenly, the abrasive touch of old wool gripped her bare arm: Dmitri! Bundled to the point where only his eyes and mouth were exposed, he opposed her barely covered figure.
“What are you doing? Why aren’t you wearing anything? It’s freezing.” She noticed that his lemur, Momo, accompanied him in the hood of his parka.
“I wasn’t cold until you showed up. Seeing how many layers you’re wearing, I’m now realizing how cold it actually is.” She shivered as the temperature dawned on her. She made a ball of snow, and threw it at Dmitri’s visible flesh.
“Now my face is freezing, you ryvok! Why did you do that?” he playfully fumed.
“You made me cold. I had to retaliate.”
“I’m sorry; can we be friends again?” She accepted, and he grabbed her and flung them both to the ground, and Yeva and laughed and kicked and jerked; Dmitri obliged so she stuffed snow into his face. He made room in his jacket into which she could crawl; Yeva acquiesced. Her white-flecked hair became locks of rain. They peered into the snowy sky, not speaking. Snowflakes suddenly raced toward the earth. Everything looked blurry: animate. If Dmitri squinted, the snowflakes all appeared to zigzag in tandem.
Yeva rolled from the warmth of the jacket; at that point, she did not care about the cold. She just wanted to hug the snow. She reeled, and barreled, spread her limbs wide, and returned to Dmitri, kissed him on the cheek, and thought what they both understood to be true. But for the sake of purity, neither uttered the words implicit in their interactions.
Dmitri played with her hair and gazed up at the girl he innately loved; she was beautifully contrasted. She was an existence of paradox. He liked the sharp freckle on her chin and the soft curve of her nose. He liked how her eyes constantly flicked about and rarely fixed on anything, except for the moments where they gripped another pair for three or four seconds: instants prolonged and encumbered by their singularity. He liked her knuckles and bony wrists, her dominating laugh and the way she stared at trees and nothingness. He liked how she thought she could hurt him and how her upper lip curled into itself to reveal her crookedly aligned teeth. He wanted to hug her smile. He wanted to drink the glow of her skin. And at that moment, he wanted to press his smile into hers and let her lips explore his. But he refrained and kissed her back on the cheek. Both adolescents wished upon the flakes surrounding them that the moment would last forever.
It didn’t.
Lev reached a village of white, as the moon arose from hiding. In the center, he found Alena. She was performing. Despite the frigid weather, people and melodies danced, perhaps in hopes of creating an illusion of warmth; friction sparks where amazing things occur. Leaving his lion by a gate, he approached the mass of onlookers. He noticed their eyes reflect the fire, and they seemed to scintillate all on their own. Then, he turned his eyes toward the girl at the center; she was smiling and transfixed as she twirled the destructive toy. It was a pleasantly bizarre feeling to be the audience of a circus performer, so he lingered in the crowd awhile, recollecting the happy, forlorn seven-year-old who stumbled upon the camp once upon a time. Soon after, though, their eyes locked and the impending snow tumbled down its icy path. Her fire immediately extinguished. She grabbed the coins at her nearly bare feet and stomped away, angered by his intrusion on the escape she treasured as her own. The crowds followed her and one boy, probably three years older than she, grabbed her arm, and she kissed him on the mouth. She looked him in the eye and led him away with a tantalizing grin. Tired, Lev walked away.
He paced by a decrepit pub. Alena, defeated at last, emerged from the dark. Her presence consumed the light from a nearby torch. “If you hadn’t come, I would’ve stayed here.”
“So that means you aren’t staying. Why the change of mind?”
“It was more a change of heart. You reminded me of Prok and Lex and Yeva. It’s so easy to forget the old when swept up in a rush of new. I take you all for granted.”
He sensed that she was not wholly there. Part of her was off climbing a mountain or kissing boys in dark crevices; anywhere except admitting her inherent faults. At that moment, Lev realized that this girl, who loved so strongly, let trivialities control her life. She would never change. But he had no choice except to draw his arm around her lean shoulders and lead her to the lion, so anxiously and dutifully waiting.
“Thanks for coming to get me, though. I would’ve gotten bored here and wanted to leave.” Lev nodded and prayed to the treetops. The pair mounted the lion and proceeded home.
“Do you remember when you stumbled across our circus camp? How long ago was that? Almost ten years ago, right?”
“Ha, no! I was six or seven or eight. That was seventeen years ago. Are you really getting that old?”
“Why must everyone antagonize my age? The years have passed so quickly! It is hard to keep up. Especially when you acquire a new disability with each passing year! Why, it was yesterday when I keeled over after just a few hours of collecting kindling. I keeled over. That never happened two years ago. Ah—soon I will be one of those funny old men who scare children and kick puppies.”
“Lev! You have such an inaccurate perception of yourself. You’re the jolliest old man in the world.” Alena fiendishly beamed. “But yes, I remember when I found you guys. Why?”
“Very clever. Well, I never asked you before because I never thought the time was right. But—where did you come from?” Lev turned his head so his profile faced her, paused, and turned back to face the moon.
“Well, I had a father. I remember that much. I had two sisters too. One looked exactly like me, we must have been twins. And the other was older. My father was the sweetest man in the world. His face was always rough to the touch; it comforted me because his skin reminded me of tree bark. He brought us to the ballet every Sunday; that’s when I discovered I wanted to dance,” Alena smiled to herself and continued. “I have this memory of practicing with my sisters, and my father paid a man to paint our portrait. It was as big as this lion, and as real as me and you. I couldn’t believe it.” Her tone shifted. Lev anticipated that this was not a happy story. “This one day, though, I walked in on my father. He was crying. He had been for some time. I sat on his lap and asked what was wrong. Apparently we had been robbed, everything, including the portrait, was gone. He had to send me and my sisters to work. But I was angry and selfish. I went to work. I was only seven. Some woman whipped my fingers, and I was even angrier. I just wanted to dance. I worked, for months, and the last day before I left—” Alena stopped. She did not want to carry on telling the tale.
“What happened?”
“I don’t want to tell you.”
“You don’t have to.”
“No—no. It doesn’t matter anymore—it was so long ago.”
Lev waited. He watched her eyes flicker between the sky; her hands; the snow; her hands. She was so beautiful. But she was more troubled than anyone could have understood. Goddamnit she was so beautiful.
“All right. I was working, and then it was time to leave. And out of nowhere, a man, he—I was just seven, he was so big and I didn’t know what had happened—I—I was just seven. All of a sudden I found myself half naked and alone in a dark factory. I would’ve been fine. But then blood starting dripping down my leg. I was scared of what my father would say. I thought he would blame me. So I ran away. I was just seven! And I was selfish and angry. And that’s when I found you guys.” Alena did not cry. She told Lev not to say anything; she knew he was sorry, but there was not much to say about it. It happened. She just wanted to forget. He finally understood Alena, or at least more so than before. He shed a tear for the fragile and hopeful child being exploited in the most of awful of ways. He wanted it to crystallize. This pain was permanent. He said nothing. They persisted through the blizzard until they reached the camp.
When they arrived, Aleksandra shouted, “Ah so she returns! So she was not just a figment of my imagination! Now can we please keep moving?” And so they travelled.
Months passed. Performances in blurred villages made the sprint. Birthdays passed. Years passed. Much changed and much stayed the same. At times, Alena considered veering off like she always had. After she had revealed her past to Lev, though, she felt a slightly greater connection to the family whom she had never considered as such. She was happy. She had always been happy, but it was a sentiment prone to despondency, rage, resentment, and restlessness. Before, she saw stability as subject to change, interruption, and corruption. Now, she found comfort in it. She wanted to drink it in. She wanted to marry Prokhor and find a little, lost girl like herself nineteen years ago and teach her the meaning of home. She liked watching Yeva study the techniques of acrobats from Aleksandra and Agripina. She liked seeing Dmitri handle his Lemur, teaching it dances and tricks. Dmitri and Yeva were certainly growing up, as was she. The year was 1913. But that did not matter to them. Only retrospectively would that year hold great significance.
One year later, Dmitri and Yeva bantered over something or other; neither paid attention to their respective arguments; what they were really saying; their only pursuit was to acquire the other’s elusive laugh. They walked into the city of Moscow from the forest in which they had made camp. Moscow had been their home for almost a year; Dmitri planned on staying here forever. There was plenty of forestry surrounding the magnificent, colorful, domed city to settle in. He never wanted to leave this magical place, because at last it felt like home. Yeva felt the same way.
The moon crumbled. The wind paused to listen. Trouble had been brewing in the world surrounding the travelling circus for some time, and, at this exact moment, it was coming to a boil, explosive and deadly. A man jumped to a ledge in the direct heart of the great city; he spoke of assassinations and wars, hatred, and centuries-long resentment. The Russians had to fight to defend countries unheard of against enemies unknown. Dmitri and Yeva’s world instantaneously expanded, from a world of villages, forests, and rivers, to one of oceans, countries, and empires. This is when the word war was introduced to their vocabulary. This is when nothing would ever be the same.
Aleksandra strove to find Dmitri and Yeva in the mass of people. She felt the mood of the crowd tense. Everyone was in a panic, yet all stood in static. Fear mounted as diplomatic words marched from his lips; they burned and pillaged the minds of the young and old; they rebuilt a dystopia shrouded in death, shrapnel, and many, many flames.
Dmitri stood alone in the crowd; Yeva had fled to locate Aleksandra. He was grabbed by the arm of a man in uniform and handed a paper labeled, “Conscription.” Quickly and mercilessly, Russia yanked his fate from his fingertips; it blasted a hole through his forehead and extracted the sacred asset. Nobody knew how he evaded conscription in the past, but they would not allow it to continue; they were unaware of his nomadic lifestyle.
He appeared healthy. That was the only requirement.
He tried to find Yeva or Aleksandra or Lev or someone. But he did not. Too many forces conspired against him; to say good bye, to even fathom it, was mere impossibility. The last words he said to Yeva were, “Grass’ only use is for you to vent your smelly feet.” He, at that moment, realized what they had been debating. It was foolish. Everything was; the plenary of his existence seemed utterly, unchangeably inane at this point. Reality bombarded him and he was coerced into a vehicle swelled with other captured youth.
War is a learned institution; Dmitri came to realize during the early stages of his transformation into a soldier. No human ever arrives on Earth with knowledge of how to shoot a revolver, sink a ship, burn a village, or kill a man. No human ever comes into being with a desire to do any of these things either. The desire never grasped Dmitri, nor did it for many of his comrades. They marched. Some died in the process. The first death, of a man named Aleksei, traumatized the entire regiment. Many died in the process. With every departure, though, it became more and more customary to quickly and easily accept a man’s fate. Because the moment a man paused to appreciate and despair over the loss of a friend, he quickly joined him.
If war was good at anything, it was at showing a man how much he truly, desperately wanted to live: or, perhaps, not to live. Dmitri marched and killed and despaired quietly: over the death of his friends, his enemies: over the destruction of the woodland and people whom he left behind.
He did so until he was taken hostage by a troop of Germans. The grimy, lifeless wall of a foreign cellar soon became his only friend for months, maybe years. He lost track of time. Occasionally, men entered his corner of darkness to beat or whip him. They roared like lions in a strange tongue, most likely shouting obscenities and insults. His soul decayed. But Dmitri only tried to see Lev in these men and diffused his frustration. Oftentimes, he found himself pondering the whereabouts of Prokhor or Filipp. Had they been swept up by the fury of war also? Or had they somehow dodged its stranglehold? Dmitri, lusting for freedom, even for battle, at times, was not aware that his captivity was the single reason he would survive. His return to his family, his Yeva, and his forest consumed his dreams for the three years he sat alone, downtrodden, and silent in a German cellar.
Little did Dmitri know, though, that the family was fully assembled, with the exception of himself. Prokhor and Filipp had not gone into the city when Dmitri was seized. They regrouped with Aleksandra and the others at the end of that day in late July. They shed tears over the loss of Dmitri to the machinations of those more powerful than them and begged the omnipotent trees to let him return. But life attempted to keep moving; it had to.
To keep busy, they all continued to perform. Money was tighter than ever, as well as food. Alena began to disappear again. For months, only her memory remained in the camp. No one knew where she went. But everyone understood and wished they could do the same. It was too important, though, that they not disperse in case Dmitri reappeared. By day, Yeva tried to forget him. She could not deny to herself the fact that he would die. But by night, he was all of which her dreams consisted. Her soul refused to let him go, but she consciously struggled to erase the memories of his early semblances of facial hair, his grassy eyes, his ability to teach Momo how to steal, and to subsequently teach Momo that it is wrong to do so. She missed his chubby thumbs and fear of bumblebees. Her soul dissolved. But she continued to deny herself of this truth. She wanted to stay strong in case Aleksandra fell weak.
Wandering into a village within walking distance of the camp, Yeva sought vodka to calm her anxious mother. No stalls were open in the small, lively town, though: strange. She inched farther in and saw a wall of fire, panting and encircling a sobbing, emaciated, radiant woman. It was Alena. She collapsed to the ground and townspeople extinguished the flames, cheered, and walked away. The only person who dared approach was Yeva. She touched her grinding shoulder. Alena flinched away. Turning her wet face toward Yeva, she released her embrace on the earth in exchange for that of Yeva. She guided her back to the camp, and there was a semblance of normalcy for one night.
It was just a semblance.
Two years passed, and Yeva had the first good feeling she had had since the day Dmitri was taken. It enveloped her, like a blazing fire, and told her that the war would end soon, that her best friend would return, and that things would return to normal. She went to sleep that night with visions of forgotten faeries, of playful butterflies and whispering trees. And while she dreamt of images so beautiful and so contrasted with her customary Dmitri-consumed dreams, flames engulfed the tent in which she snoozed. A German-borne blaze travelled from tent to tent, from dream to dream, and swallowed up existences more profound and natural than the unknowing soldiers could have ever imagined. Yeva was dancing in the forest with her younger self, and Alena with the Russian ballet. Lev was riding Zebras in Zimbabwe. Prokhor was doing acrobatics on the moon. Filipp was riding horses. Agripina was catching butterflies. Their souls flew that night, carried by the shape of the smoke rising from the embers on the ground. They whorled and sung until they reached their precious moon. Aleksandra returned, after weeping by the river, to find the camp burnt and her family floating in the air around her; it was as if their souls, entrapped in slithering smoke, hoping to adjoin and cultivate, one last time, the earth that, for so long, nourished them.
Aleksandra fell to the ground and sobbed and wailed incoherent jumbles of tears and words. Why did she have to leave? If she had not left, she could be with them now. Dmitri was most likely dead. She was all that remained. Why couldn’t Yeva have been the one to wander off that night? Or at least Alena or Prokhor or someone whose life remained unfulfilled. She considered running back to the river to drown herself, but she had neither willpower nor physical strength to trudge all the way there and execute such a dreadful demise. So, she walked toward Moscow.
Three years, two revolutions, and hundreds of wars, under the façade of one, passed. Russia pulled out of the war, which continued to rage, when the Bolsheviks took over control. Germany, in turn, released its Russian prisoners. Aleksandra earned money on the streets by charging people to witness her charm her snakes. She craved forest life, but she refused to return, as trees, rivers, and the once-friendly brush now only evoked images of fiery, brutal death.
Dmitri, still very much alive, wanted to breathe in the open air of which he had been previously deprived. With visions of Yeva’s smiling face, now three years older than how he left it, and awaiting his arrival, he joyfully and purposefully made his way back. Hope filled his veins as he pictured once again travelling the Russian terrain with his circus family. He walked from Germany to Austria-Hungary. Sometimes, he would take trains, and other times he would convince passerby vehicles to drive him some distance. But he preferred to walk and let the soil sink deep into his toes to reestablish kinship. He departed on this journey when he was nearly twenty. He would reach his home, shattered and in ashes, but, still, his home, at the age of twenty-one.
The year was now 1918. Aleksandra lay in the streets, coughing. She had heard of the Spanish flu pandemic. She never anticipated being touched by its invisible force. Shivering and alone, Aleksandra strained her eyes open so she could gaze at the woman who stood before her. Her name was Anya, and she leaned down to help the sick, aging woman off of the ground and into her nearby home, where a bed awaited her.
But Aleksandra was weak. As far as she knew, she was starkly alone in an unkind world. So when the time came to make the choice between giving up and struggling to live, Aleksandra did not put up a fight. She told Anya her story; of the sylvan boy, borne from the earth, who probably died in battle without ever kissing her daughter’s curly mouth; of her countless lovers but only love; of girls who were the physical embodiments of flame, and lions, and lemurs named Momo, and snow, lots and lots of snow, mixed with vodka and wind and berries. She told her what it is like to constantly run from nothing to nothing, and to talk to snakes, and to watch horses leap over pyres.
Suddenly, the pixelated and perpetually lost woman closed her eyes, and let her hand fall limp at the side of the bed. The other hesitated to let its warmth slip away. But, eventually, it fell cold and Aleksandra’s body graciously accepted the end. Anya wept and stared at the lifeless visage before her until she had the strength to scrawl down the woman’s story.
After over a year of travel, Dmitri arrived in Moscow, excited, youthful, and overflowing with love he desperately wished to release. But he locked it safely within his grasp for Yeva. December was approaching, and he recollected how, five years ago, he had been in the very place he would soon be again: the forest, around a campfire, among the only family he ever had. He whistled with merriment. Searching the surrounding forest with no success, he was struck by the thought that they may have left, thinking him dead. Dmitri soon frantically began asking anyone whom he could find about the whereabouts of the travelling circus that was once there, situated. Nobody understood, of course, until a petite woman overheard his desperation: “Is your name Dmitri, by any chance?”
“Yes, my name is Dmitri.”
“I know where your family is. Please, follow me.” And she led him to the house in which Aleksandra departed from the earth. Dmitri, however, did not know this. He sat down on the fateful bed, unaware of the significance it held during Aleksandra’s last days. “Let me just start off by telling you that my name is Anya, and I lent Aleksandra my home while she was sick. She told me your story; all of your stories.”
“Wait, what? Aleksandra is sick? Where is she then?”
“Please, allow me to continue. Your family: Yeva, Lev, Alena, all of them died in a fire started by Germans invading local villages. Aleksandra was the only one who survived. But then the Spanish flu killed her. I’m so sorry.”
At that moment, Dmitri stiffened with shock. The people for whom he walked thousands of miles, for whom he lived, were gone. His family, who wanted him when no one else did, had been killed by the enemies whose deaths he silently mourned. Everything: gone; Alena’s own matter was used against her in a quick anticlimax. Alena did not deserve to be the grotesque recipient of the wrath of German flames. She was fire. It didn’t make sense for her to die in it. And Yeva: the sunshine whose every curve and mannerism he understood: gone. He recollected. He thought of all the missed opportunities, all the wasted time. Why did he hold back? His reasons seemed trifling now. He let trivialities control his life. But Yeva was nothing but ashes, dispersed through the air in hundreds of thousands of directions. And there was no way to bring her back. There was no way to make their moments last forever. Yeva’s memory, once compiled of energy, warmth, slippery, wet hair, freckles, crooked teeth, snow, and faeries now seethed with regret and remorse. Dmitri could never bring her back. He could never bring any of them back. Anya handed him the book in which she recorded Aleksandra’s tale. Dmitri embraced her with thanks. And he walked out the door. And the moon was yellow. And snow did not fall. And wind stood still. And he travelled. And he walked. And he walked.

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