“Where am I?”
“Where are we indeed?”
“Who are you?”
“Who are we indeed?”
“Yes, I and I, together, we make we.”
“Stop… don’t… smile like that… it scares me.”
“It scares us, too. Why do we make us smile like this?”
“WE BELONG TO US!”
Aleksei shifted in his sleep, and his heart skipped a few beats, worrying about falling off the limb. To his amazement, he did not feel the sensation of falling. He did not feel much of anything. It was as if he was floating mid-air.
He blinked and saw the stars through a double paned window and yawned luxuriously. He found himself, in what he was sure, was the softest bed he had ever been in. He was tempted to fall back asleep but he forced himself to sit up. It was then he realized that he was in someone else’s clothes.
How long was I out? He wondered.
His black coat was hanging on a hook and Yegor’s hat was on a shelf above it. He stood up, the old wood floor creaked under his feet. He grabbed the coat and hat and stepped quietly through the door and down the stairs into the main room.
There was an overstuffed couch on the right, and on the other side, there was a kitchen with a pot-belly stove. From which he smelled the fragrance of simmering onion soup. The whole room was warm and inviting. It reminded him about something one would find on a holidays’ greeting card.
He heard a male voice to his right, “Awake at last, are we?”
Aleksei noticed the man staring out the window in the corner, next to the couch. He spoke politely to him, “Da, gaspadin, I am. And may I ask, who are you?”
The man turned to face him, his gray hair shimmering in the moonlight, his dark beard defining his powerful face. “Minya zovut Beredei Stepunin, and this,” he said, gesturing to a woman, standing before the stove, “is my lovely wife Irina.”
Aleksei had to agree that she was indeed a lovely woman. Age had been kind to her, and her plentiful wrinkles made her face seem to always smile.
Aleksei bowed reverently, uncertain of how else to express his gratitude. “Minya zavut Aleksei Yakovich Sharov. I’m very thankful for the warm bed you graciously provided me.”
The man grunted, “Indeed. Who in their right mind sleeps in a tree on a cold March night? It’s not even spring. If we had not found you, you may well have frozen to death.” he paused to examine him, then asked, “Speaking of which, why were you in these woods?”
“It’s a long and quite…” Aleksei paused, thinking over his next words carefully, “complicated story. You would not believe me if I told you.”
“I have plenty of time to hear it,” Beredei replied, “and I need a reason not to send you in to the authorities.”
“Oh Bered’,” Irina interrupted, “Leave the poor dear alone until he eats.” She smiled warmly at the youth. “He has the face of an angel. He certainly is not a crook.”
The man sighed heavily, and grumbled, “Even the devil himself is said to be the most beautiful of heavenly creatures.” Despite his caution, he did not stop his wife to give the boy a seat as she fussed over him.
Aleksei heard the floorboards creek behind him. He turned and saw that the sound was made by a bundled-up girl, as she removed her boots. She was no older than thirteen, with raven hair and stunning blue eyes. She had just come in from the chicken coup with a full basket of eggs. Her face lit up with a smile, which showed obvious resemblance to her mother.
“Allo! Minya zavut Duscha,” she greeted, extending her hand.
Aleksei shook it in greeting. “Good to meet you,” he hesitated, “Duscha.” he grinned awkwardly when he said her name. He felt shy calling a girl ‘sweetheart’, even if it was her name.
“She found you,” Irina said. “Duscha woke up in the middle of the night and went out in the cold. And it’s a good thing she did! You would have died! An angel must be watching over you.”
“Humph,” Beredei said, “and because of aforesaid angel, it took a full hour to get you out of that tree.”
Irina shook her head disapprovingly, “Oh come now, would it have been better that he froze to death? Can you imagine us explaining why there was a corpse on our property? Terrible!”
Duscha sat right next to Aleksei at the table. The simple onion soup was placed before him. Hard chunks of lard were floating in it, and a pleasant scent flooded his nostrils.
He wanted to dig in but he waited as his hosts bowed their heads for grace. Instinctually he began reciting the prayer, “Baruch atah Adonai, Elohenu Melech ha…” He stopped when he noticed he was praying alone and they were staring quizzically at him. “Sorry,” he said quietly, “force of habit.”
“So you are a Jew?” Irina asked.
“Was a Jew, I’m Orthodox now, but old habits die hard.” Aleksei said smiling.
Beredei coughed, “Well, don't be disrespectful, finish the blessing!”
“Oh, da!” he replied, “…Melech ha olam, ha motzi lechem min ha aretz.”
“Amen.” they all uttered.
Aleksei attacked his bowl, but tried hard to remain polite. He had the spoon in his mouth when Beredei began his interrogation. “So, young man, what brings you here? I want to hear it all.”
It pained Aleksei to put down the spoon, but he decided he must tell these people something. So he recounted how he had stowed away on a train, saying he was low on money.
“It does not fit,” Beredei finally spoke. He stared at Aleksei as if trying to burn into his mind. “If you’re on a train, why didn’t you ride it to the station? You could have easily sneaked by. Why jump out twenty kilometres away from the destination? Unless you’re running from the law, are you?”
Aleksei chuckled slightly, “If I was a criminal, would I answer that question honestly?”
Beredei’s reply was irritated, “But you are a criminal. What do you call stowing away?”
“Oh,” Aleksei thought quickly, and responded, “Alright, I guess I’m a criminal, and yes I am on the run, but not from the law. The only illegal thing I have done thus far is stowaway. I was trying to get out of St. Petersburg. My father borrowed some money from, certain people, and, uh, it was not safe to stay.” He looked around. They were all patiently waiting for him to continue his narrative.
He sighed, thinking quickly what he should and should not say. He did not like to lie, but he knew they would never believe the truth. He continued, “So, they are demanding my sister to pay the debt and I'm hoping to get some money to pay it off. My father had already asked my uncle, but I think I could convince him to help if I met him in person. My father has... a reputation, so I don't think my uncle understands how serious this is.”
“Then why did you still jump off the train early?” Beredei asked, still not convinced. “Into the middle of the woods,”
“Well, that’s the tricky part. The creditors tried to hold me for ransom, but I evaded them. I was worried about stopping in the station, so I jumped off early.” Aleksei answered, trying to think of an explanation. He was positive he was ripping off some prime-time mystery drama. “I promise sir, I don‘t want any trouble. I just need to find my uncle. You don’t even have to trust me. If you can just get me any closer to Moscow, I will be out of your way.”
Beredei rubbed his beard in deep thought. He finally spoke. “I will drop you off in the suburbs. You should be able to find your way from there, you think? This is not because I trust you one bit, but I see no harm in remaining uninvolved in… whatever you are wrapped up in.”
“Spasibo sir.” Aleksei bowed his head respectfully.
“Don’t thank me yet. I can’t just leave now. I have farm chores first. The animals don’t feed themselves, and the wood doesn’t chop and stack automatically. Having some help for a few hours would be quite excellent. Furthermore, you’ll get some bus money out of the deal.”
Aleksei smiled in good humour. Capitalism at its best.