Leaving the Soviet Union in 1989, my mother and I took the so-called Passage of Guilt through Italy, waiting for permission to enter America. Surviving a Southern European winter was the hard part.
People think it doesn’t get cold in Southern Europe, but it does. Maybe not a snow-packed Eastern winter, but cold enough that you need to build a fire.
I was in Italy when it was cold, around Christmas time in 1989, when it was so cold that I saw people fighting for wood. My mother and I were in Nettuno, a small coastal town a six-hour bus ride south of Rome where large center squares bristle with shoppers. The buildings are yellow and white, long faded to perfection, and not one rooftop is flat.
The people fighting were Russian émigrés. Russians are like that; they see point A and point B and the line between them becomes an inflexible meridian. The locals learned to ignore them because the Russians would soon be gone. Coastal towns in Italy were meant as a transit point, not a destination. Once in a while an elderly man would lean to his wife and say, “animali persi” or “lost animals”—the Russians, who fought for wood.
Russian people are a gift. God gave them to the world to confuse everybody, like a bird with gills, or post-modernism. They’ve seen their share of life and think they know everything. But then sometimes the wind gives people a different gift. It howls, the temperature drops, and for a moment the sky covers with something and a large branch nearly falls on you, but it doesn’t. Some violent force pushed you out of the way. But then you need to drag the branch. I saw this when I was in Italy. But I was a kid then. I can only tell it the way I remember it. If you tell yourself the same story long enough it becomes sad and broody, but if you tell the story to someone else, it refines itself, unveiled—like a good joke.
Here is a Russian joke: Every time the Soviet Union wanted to make friends with the West it would let out some Jews. In 1989, right before the fall of the Union, the Soviets really wanted some friends, so they let out half a million Jews from all walks of life. As long as they could legally prove their Jewish blood and get their forms and party cards submitted on time, they could leave.
Even non-Jews had scrambled for a way to prove that they were Jewish. The rate of adult circumcisions went up dramatically—people really wanted to leave. People wanted to leave not because it was cold, not even because they had grown hungry, but because there was no hope left. That’s why my mother and I left—at night and on a train—in search of hope. My father stayed behind.
Most of those who left went the same way, and our route was dubbed the “passage of guilt.” First we took a train out of the country, looking out the window as the forests changed shapes, becoming more manicured, less imposing, while snacking on boiled eggs and Kielbasa. My mother told me stories of forest creatures, and as the scene of the forests changed, so did the creatures of my mother’s imagination evolve and bend. The train stopped in Vienna, and we got on a bus that went into the mountains. Our destination was a big inn, where we were huddled in a basement. It was a nice basement, divided into rooms. We ate bouillon soup and took short walks to a shack that sold yogurt. Most of us spent a month or so at the inn waiting for our emigration number to be called. When it was called, we got back on the bus and on a nicer train to Rome. In Rome we were told to wait but to make something of our time. We were given a small stipend to help with this waiting. But Rome was expensive and cluttered, so we went to other towns already full of Russian émigrés. That’s when we ended up in Nettuno. There we waited again—long enough to become afraid and to talk of what we had left behind. I didn’t think about these things, but I know my mother did. I wondered what she was thinking and I think that’s was when it got cold in Southern Italy.
We rented space in the kitchen and living area of a one-bedroom apartment. The bedroom of the apartment was occupied by another Russian family who had been waiting longer then we had. We blocked off our area—furnished with a bed and dresser—with curtains. There was no insulation, and it got cold at night. It may have been cold during the day too, but we weren’t around; my mother was either trying to make money doing odd jobs or filling out more forms in yet another language, and I was playing in the streets, soaking up a foreign language, and embracing the thrill of adolescent hooliganism.
At night my mother tried a number of things to warm us. She had scored us extra blankets from the Red Cross, found large rocks by the beach, boiled them, and placed them at the corners of the bed-cover, finally covering us with the blankets. For all that we lacked, there were also some pleasant surprises, like a fireplace just beyond our curtained area of the apartment. My mother would find small branches and burn them. It helped, but only a little. I would find tossed books and magazines, but they burned out quickly. There she was, a highly educated woman, trying to find some way to make use of that fireplace, snapping twigs and ripping papers. I watched her through the crease of the curtain, fixated by her movements as she fed the fire and stared into it.
Once a week in Nettuno we went to a large meeting area to hear a well-dressed Italian Jew call out the numbers of those who were finally headed to Tel Aviv or New York. If your number was called, you’d be on a plane in about a week. Sometimes, you would be delayed at the airport, kept seated for a few more hours because there were papers to check and more papers to fill out; but you’d liked this—at last, this was the vacation part. It was the metamorphosis of emigrant to immigrant, free of worry or nostalgia, the one moment when we carried nothing.
The passage of guilt was filled with stories like this: cold, homeless nights, of sewing pockets in your underwear to hide valuables, and the friends and loved ones left behind. But I did not know all this back then. I was a boy. I saw it, but did not understand, because my eyes had not yet given shape to the contours of nostalgia or sadness. I would not understand until much later, until another language had become my land—but I do remember the day that I began to sense it.
One cold night my mother and I were huddled close together, coming back from the meeting place in the park. Our number had not been called. It was a crisp, milky sort of night, and the sidewalks were nearly abandoned. I had been thinking about the fun I had had earlier that night; the shouting and pushing with other kids in the park had made me feel a part of something. I felt religious camaraderie with my people: I had wanted to fall to the ground and crawl through the tangle of feet, to punch somebody and have him embrace me, to stand on someone’s shoulders and yell with all my might like a jackal pup.
My mother was walking quietly and kept tugging at the hood of my jacket, pulling me closer. I kept trying to squirm away. As if to say: Mom, you don’t need to hold on to me. Don’t you know what I have seen already? Don’t you know that I spend my days in a world much greater then I am? That I have learned how to judge an intersection, how to work a squeegee on a windshield in under seven seconds, how to know when another Russian kid is bigger and stronger than me, how to distinguish Odessa Jews from Moscow Jews, because you don’t pick fights with Odessa Jews? I have learned how to reach into someone’s coat pocket without them noticing the intrusion or even sensing my presence. I have learned how to talk to the bartenders at the small local bars, convincing them to let me in, allowing me to play video games there for hours—a mascot. I have learned how to scavenger the dumps at night and how to evaluate the worthiness of trash, and I have learned, where, when, and to whom I should sell my finds. I have learned where you hold our money, and that you do not keep track of it. How to make friends at a soccer field without fully speaking the language, how to walk the street without being bothered, how to pocket fruit and candy from a street stand, how to dry wet socks on the go—mom, don’t you know that I have learned all of that?
The wind picked up to a thick wheeze when we were still about 20 blocks from our place. And then the sky went dark. A broken howling rose up around us and the voice of the wind became saturated with one long reverberation—something cracked above us. Suddenly, instead of pulling me, my mother pushed me forward, throwing me down on the ground. In front of us lay a small tree.
Hours later, I lay in bed very warm, drifting in and out of sleep. When I would open my eyes, I watched my mother sitting on the stool, slowly pushing and turning the tree in the fireplace. We could not chop the tree as we had no ax. She sat there all night, warm and satisfied, slowly turning that tree.
But this isn’t what I most remember, not wood fibers turning to ash before my eyes, not my mother on the stool with large shadows working over her face, nor the plane ride to New York two months later, the taste of fried chicken at the motel near Kennedy airport, or the 20-seater that flew us to our final location, in Florida. What I remember is what happened after the tree fell.
My mother stood there and looked at the small tree, and I think in that moment the tree became a branch, and then just became a hunk of wood—because she grabbed onto it and began dragging it. I was behind and tried to take up the back of the tree, but I got tired and had to stop. I watched her drag the tree forward; she reminded me of a mule with her head down. I stopped and began to cry. I could not help it. It was as if everything had hit me at once—the cord between leaving and going forward had snapped—and I felt so sad for her, and I felt sad for everything we had left behind. I no longer wanted to embrace or punch anybody, or even yell. I finally knew what cold was; it is the soft white that punctures you.
My mother stopped and we sat on the tree. We just sat there. People walked by and whispered. “Senzatetto,” “perso,” “zingari,” homeless, lost, gypsies—but we ignored them. We were in our own little world, and our stories did not coincide with those around us. She hugged me and told me that it was all going to be fine, and that there was nothing to worry or feel sad about, because this is an adventure—like that of the Le Petit Prince. And people walked by and disappeared—the world around us falling silent. They moved forward to their homes and their families, their possessions and their plans, their romances and disappointments. They moved along the meridian of their land, moved by the gravity of their forces. And we moved on as well, all while losing those things, surrendering the seeds of our life; our people, our home, our family—our wheat fields.
We finally got up from our tree and started on our way. My mother sang to me as we went along, as we carried the tree together, and I got tired and she dragged the tree herself. She sang old Russian songs of Luferov and Visodsky, she sang old gypsy songs with chimes in her voice, and she sang old Jewish songs and emigrant songs. I can no longer remember the words; they are the seeds scattered behind in translation.
Nikita Nelin was born in Moscow in 1980 and emigrated with his mother in 1989. He earned an MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College and currently lives in New Orleans, where he is working on a novel.
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