1. being deeply loved by someone gives you strength,
while loving someone deeply gives you courage
The taciturn kick-boxers and I are exhausting the path of light through the trees, careening down a crevasse of road carved through remarkably straight conifers, when a full black vehicle much larger than our aluminum can charges us directly until we all come to a blinding halt, halogen antlers interlocked. Four men leap out of the car yelling, dressed in full riot-gear and with pistols, what I think are Kalashnikovs, and stammering footsteps demand we exit our vehicle. My insides twist. The three kick-boxers tell me not to say anything. We climb out cautiously, hands up. They make us put them on the car roof, spread our legs, and frisk us by running the cold machine gun barrels up the insides of our bare legs, still hot from the sauna. I assume that they are police, forgetting that this is Yeltsin’s Russia, not the Soviet Union.
I had just finished college and was avoiding responsibility. It was during the first of the big bank scandals; people were losing their life savings and no one was getting paid. This area, a couple hours north of the Kazakh border, just beyond the Urals, the beginning of Siberia, is run by the mafia. Why had I thought coming here—to work at an orphanage, of all things—was a good idea? Not that I thought that all the men at the camp were connected with the mafia. Most of them were ostensibly unemployed coaches, though some had shady ties to the Honda Civic-driving toughs in Kamensk-Uralskiy, a small city once known for its cannon works, where the orphanage was. The children were out of school, so the orphanage was emptied, and they had been sent to this summer camp in the woods, populated mostly by children who have families and would make fun of them. There was a pool, filled with water from the radioactive river nearby, and a music teacher with an accordion. The three sports they could play were chess, soccer, and kick-boxing. It was summer, so the sky got dark around 11:00 and light again around 3:00, but under the trees the darkness lingered for longer.
Druzhba (“Friendship”) was an old scout camp from the Soviet era, with a statue of Lenin and slogans about what “pioneer” children—as boy- and girl-scouts are called in Russian—should do to support the system. But my kids, from the Sinarski Children’s Home, were not pioneers of any sort. They were not forging new territory. They were more like the kick-boxers—but ones with poor balance, thrown on their backs, kicking and punching with all they had just to get up. Turtle kick-boxers. For children in Russian orphanages are like cases in Dickens novels. The only “toys” at Sinarski, which housed over two hundred kids, were one bicycle with no seat or chain and a pile of aerosol cans. I was responsible for 14 kids, between the ages of eight and 14, 24-hours-a-day, for three months. Two of mine had witnessed one of their parents murdering the other parent. One beautiful boy, Vanya, would run in a circle for 45 minutes at a time, laughing his head off. It was funny, and terrible. But after he broke into the electrician’s dacha, he was sent away. To somewhere worse.
At night, I would retreat to my room and read the two books I’d brought: the Tao Te Ching and Ulysses—one a self-help manual for a king, the other a compendium of obstacles to orgasm—both comforting in their ways. Both with something to teach me about fate.
2. can you cleanse your vision till there is no blemish?
I was supposed to be working with three other Americans—two women and another man—but, as it worked out, I was alone. The other guy, Michael, was one of the most singularly amoral people I’ve ever met. We’d bonded on the plane over a common interest in melancholic British pop music, he a lumbering, affable guy with a Master’s in Russian. The children loved him immediately. He was recently married, but fooled around with a girl who worked at the camp his first night there. She was about 17. Then he leveled with me that he didn’t care about the children and had only applied to the program to get a visa. He had a job interview in St. Petersburg and when he left, he lied to everyone at the camp that he would be back in a week. They believed him at first. I knew he would not return. I did, however, see him again, years later, on West 57th Street. Michael went ashen as I called his name. He was with the wife he’d betrayed that first night in Siberia and in the intervening period had gone to, perhaps unsurprisingly, law school.
Melinda and Serena, the two women, had mercifully been sent to a camp ten miles away. They were Mormons who did not drink, smoke, ingest caffeine, or take part in any fun that could remotely be construed as illicit. The Russians thought they were from Mars. I thought they were from Hell. They turned out to be from Spokane. They had brought three books with them: The Book of Mormon in English, The Book of Mormon in Russian, and Jane Eyre. In their light, I preferred Michael and Joyce’s Leopold Bloom. At least they appeared to enjoy life.
3. think you’re escaping and run into yourself.
longest way round is the shortest way home
I somehow managed to get away from everyone one day when I was feeling overwhelmed and take a walk on the path along the river through the forest of birches. There was a tree fallen across the path, suspended so that one had to duck under it to proceed. I was deep in thought—trying to decide whether I too would abandon this volunteer work which was turning out to be more than I bargained for—but stopped, feeling eyes on me. An owl no fewer than eighteen inches high was sitting right before me on the fallen tree, about fifteen feet away. An animal maybe fifty yards off broke a branch on the ground, and the owl swiveled in surveillance, forth and back. I was frozen, the two of us in silence, opposites: I motionless but breathing audibly and it turning like a noiseless glockenspiel. The far-off sounds faded and the owl finally came to rest its stare on me for seconds that seemed like excruciating, fascinating minutes, as if my ears were covered and my eyes as large as its discs. Then, it spread wings of four or five feet across and with a single, suddenly loud, rustled beat flew past me, leaving a dark empty space amidst the white birch stripes, and an eerie breeze.
This had been quite the opposite of a night in the forest the following week, when I’d dealt with the stress of being there differently. I’d gotten terribly drunk with the camp staff, which consisted mostly of people who worked at the camp in summer but who, during the year in Kamensk, were normally nurses, janitors, cafeteria workers, and from that enormous professional class the Soviets called “engineers.” Drinking vodka with them on other nights, I had found myself forced to be strategic about rationing food so that I could make it to the bottom of the bottle. Following their lead, I would take a big whiff of black bread before downing my shot. I would take every piece of chocolate or shashlik offered. But when you triumphantly reach the end of that bottle, suddenly a full one emerges from under the table, and you realize, glancing down, that there are six more on the floor. On this particular night, in a clearing, around a big fire, we had danced and laughed—a lot of jokes about hedgehogs, the humor of which was lost on me. A fat nurse in her fifties, with gold teeth and curly hair in an unnatural orange peeking out from under her kerchief, had gotten down on her knees amidst cajoling and hoots and proposed marriage to me on the condition that I took her back to America.
I don’t know how I made it back to my room, but I was poked awake by sunlight and the giggling of a crowd of children perpendicular to my gaze, as I lay face-down on the steps up to my door, thankfully not quite in the vomit I’d indecorously deposited alongside them.
4. we walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men,
young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. but always meeting ourselves
The day I had the machine gun in my crotch, it was 91° and we were coming back from the farm in Mermansk that belonged to one of the kick-boxers’ parents—the one who hadn’t even the courtesy to grunt and who looked like he had been carved out of tooth enamel with a dirty, blunt instrument.
We were all sore from a barefoot soccer game earlier in the day. Not everyone who worked at the camp had sport shoes, so, to be fair, no one wore them. This I was used to by then. What hurt was that the stocky, thickly muscled maintenance guy had nailed me with his shins of steel, and I was still hobbling a bit. He was covered in jet hair from his furry toes to his Windex-blue eyes—one of the strange Eurasian looks of Siberia. My friend Genya took him out for me later in the game, laughing. Genya was a martial arts enthusiast and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, who’d come home at age 19 so disturbed that he’d attempted to commit seppuku with a sword. The astonishingly long, deep, twisted scars on his abdomen quaked with laughter as he celebrated his takedown.
One of the kick-boxing coaches, Volodya, had said the silent kick-boxer was from a farm down the road where they had a sauna. So we had smoked some stinky Kazakh weed after the game and driven out there in Volodya’s half-cylinder car. I was a little apprehensive since I had heard gunfire out that way a few days before and the swimming instructor’s wife had been murdered by the mafia in Kamensk (as a message to her brother) and he had not dared to go into the city for her funeral.
The farm was actually a little outside Mermansk, which was itself only a crossroads marked with three Siberian houses—dark brown with the elaborate blue and white window casings. The quiet pedi-pugilist’s mother had given us milk directly from their cow and some radishes, while her son stoked the fire in the “sauna.” We filed into his room, which had newspapers nailed to the walls—to cut down on the wind from across the plain, I guess—and a large glass cabinet with about 40 bottles of local vodka and several thousand flies. The so-called sauna consisted of a small set of planks that he had constructed around an old iron furnace hull, which he filled with wood and set alight. It got so hot in there that we had to wear hats so that our ears wouldn’t blister. We went in two at a time—the silent one and Volodya, and me and the fourth one of us, the young guy. The young kick-boxer didn’t seem to have only kick-boxing going for him. He was handsome and muscular, with more on the ball mentally than the other two, or so it had seemed in the couple weeks I’d seen him around with Masha, a trampy girl I’d wanted to sleep with, who wasn’t his girlfriend either. I’d stayed away from her though, for it seemed likely that I could get hurt by someone for making overtures to her.
As I entered the sauna, I hit a moistureless wall and I struggled to figure out whether I’d die faster breathing in the pure heat or not breathing at all. But, Mitya (I think the young guy’s name was Dimitri) pushed me in and before I had any time to strain my eyes and lungs open, much less acclimate, he began brutally beating my shocked body with leafy birch branches. I was surprised to find that this was masochistically soothing and, for reasons that I didn’t entirely understand, took no small pleasure in beating him back. We stayed in as long as endurance allowed—about four minutes—and then let the real masochists back in.
Afterwards, we walked around the farm a little, eating bitter salted cucumbers from the silent one’s silent mother’s garden—a silence uninterrupted by gunfire. Twilight seemed far away, off across the steppe, but we knew that beneath the birches and pines it was already night.
5. be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are
when you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you
I got one day off that whole summer, which I spent curled up in a ball on Zoya’s couch in Kamensk, the victim of intestinal mutiny. I had been so careful not to drink any unboiled water. I’d gotten used to drinking immersion-coil-heated Nescafé in the scorch of summer. But the night before, Zoya, the sexagenarian English teacher who was working at the camp, had brought me back to her apartment in the city so that I could meet her children and their spouses, and drink—a lot.
Before they all arrived, she and I watched a game show on which three carpenters used axes, their traditional tool, in various competitions: making as thin and long a shaving as possible from a long plank, hammering in a giant nail through a beefsteak tomato as deeply as possible without injuring the tomato. The winner, after demonstrating not inconsiderable skill, won a boom box, the runner-up (no joke) cans of beans.
Hours later, after many swigs of vodka and much conversation about everyone’s lack of money, Zoya brought out a tray with small glasses of water on it and I was so parched that I greedily downed two. Months later, my gastroenterologist in New York said I had the worst stool test results he had ever seen—bacillary dysentery, giardia, and two other kinds of parasites I don’t remember the names of. He gave me two courses of the highest dose of flagyll he’d ever given, a drug that kills just about every living thing in one’s body. I had diarrhea for the next month after that night at Zoya’s, getting to know well the camp’s white-washed toilet hut, an enclosed platform with a hole in it, that the children jokingly called Bely Dom, “the White House.”
My gastro-intestinal tract finally evened out seven years later.
6. we mold clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that makes the vessel useful
The children would be particularly rambunctious when it was time to put them to bed. Once, histrionic, 11-year-old Kolya was standing on top of a dresser introducing a dance routine two of the girls were to do by announcing, arms outstretched: “Paramount Pictures presents…!”—the only English words I’d heard him say all summer. Kolya was the youngest of four Uzbek kids at Sinarski who had the same mom and four different dads, so each with a slightly different skin-tone. Kolya was the darkest and thus the most picked on. He was my unofficial Sancho Panza, the one who dreaded most the day I was to leave. I was told only the week, not the day or time, they were to come for me.
The day they came, the children were in the middle of a variety show the whole camp had put together. The announcement came over the loudspeaker—the one that had woken me up in the morning with songs like “Purple Rain” and “Jailhouse Rock”—that Robert was leaving. The performance ended in a vocal explosion—audience and performers alike—running, screaming at me, and out of the hall. As I dashed back to my dacha to throw together my few things, a crowd of at least a hundred children—not just my 14, but all the others at the camp I’d played with and known—mobbed me. Most of them burst into tears: “Don’t leave us! Don’t leave us, Robert!” In the midst of all this, Vera Nikolaevna, a woman I had worked with closely, begged me out of nowhere to take her with me, sobbing. As I climbed aboard the small bus that had rolled up, the children shook it, screaming and bawling.
It was arranged that I would spend two days relaxing at a sanatorium in Kamensk, unfortunately with the Mormons. I would stare out over broken Kamensk for two days and say almost nothing to them. I turned to my Lao-Tzu and Joyce on the bedside table, but they were as silent as the kick-boxer’s mother on the farm.
7. hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past
At the sanatorium, my mind drifted back to that day that I’d had the Kalashnikov in my back, a moment in which my ears were not filled with laughter or even sobs, but with frantic shouting, extinguishing the images of the children, the owl, the pragmatically romantic nurse in the forest. I had nothing on me except my room key on a string around my neck, and my clothes were distinctly un-First-World in origin, so I wasn’t worried about being robbed or found out. And yet, we had heard of random people around there being shot for no particular reason.
But then, out of the somber gloaming of the road through the forest a third vehicle careered to a screech and men in more professional looking outfits began screaming at our menacing friskers. The Kalashnikov-wielders darted into their car and toward the light between the trees down-road, the M16-handling “professionals” in immediate pursuit. Almost before I could turn around, we were free to go, dramatically unmolested, not entirely sure what had just happened.
The prospects for the kids at the Sinarski Children’s Home were not promising. Twenty years later and with a ten-year-old girl now myself, I know that most of the girls either became prostitutes or went to work in the remaining factories in Kamensk or are unemployed at the jobs they may have trained for. The boys are probably marginally employed, rich gangsters, in prison, or dead, unless they fled for the oil and gas fields. My mother has sent Zoya money for operations for uterine cancer.
Having finally wrestled the children into bed that night, I stumbled back to my own room, trying to decide whether to read Lao-Tzu or Joyce. What light would they shed on the fact that I had so easily escaped one of the gruesome fates that so many come to here? Muscles sore from soccer, my skin smooth from the sauna, I didn’t read at all. I lay staring at the cracks in the dacha ceiling, listening to the machine gunfire down the road.