On nights when there would be a cultural house dance, the brothers would leave for the village early, hitch a ride beyond the dom kultura to the abandoned land where, long ago, for one near-orphaned year—their father drowned, their mother lost to grief—they had lived as boys, slept in the straw inside their uncle’s izba, sharing the farmhouse with his nesting hens, woke mornings to the scent of fresh-laid eggs, the crackle of kindling catching, Dyadya Avya huffing the stove into heat, smiling at them through the smoke. All around the there had stretched the vast collective versts of the kolkhoz. All day they had worked the fields beside the kolkhozniki. Farmers who were now gone as their dead dyadya, fields overgrown as Avya’s grave.
Now, getting off whatever truck or tractor they had ridden out, Dima and Yarik would stand in the receding rumble, the thrum of crickets in the chest-high grass, the swallows chattering in the empty barn, sometimes their uncle’s old Yurlov rooster belting out a call. They would let it finish—such crowing: so long, so lonesome, its brood all gone—before they crossed the road into the Cowbane-choked field. Side by side the brothers would push through the knapweed blooms, the high seedheads of Cagongrass, towards the forest, into the trees, until all around them the world was made of birches. Above: the canopy of small leaves stirring. Down from it dropped trunks so white they seemed a thousand beams of sunlight piercing to the forest floor. And the brothers walked among them, the shrushing so synchronous someone listening from afar would have thought it was one man, walked until they came to the place they had always known as theirs.
Once, it might have been a hunting cottage, its walls collapsed in dark log piles now, or perhaps some eremitic chapel reverberating with the mumbles of a wild-eyed recluse. When they first found it, there seemed a steeple engulfed by caved-in roof, a bulbous dome subsided into rot, a door decayed as if to invite them in. And in they had burrowed, hauling at rocks, digging a tunnel, two small boys with bruised arms and faces blackened but inside a hideaway just big enough for them. Through it tree trunks grew, their bark rough as rooster legs, their roots spread out like talons and, lying in the soil-scented dark, the brothers had named it Baba Yaga’s after the fabled hut atop its two hen’s feet, whispered stories of the witch beneath a forest floor abloom with mushrooms. On the mound above hundreds of them grew—purple blewits and golden chanterelles, ox tongues stiff and red, milk-caps and pheasants backs and puff balls huge and white—spread bright as a quilt beneath the trees. Each time the boys left they picked it apart, filled their baskets. And each time they returned to it regrown.
Even now. Through, full grown themselves, their adult eyes recognized the remains of a bench, the bowl of a ladle, a stone stove fit with a metal basin filled with rocks, and they knew it was just some old banya, a bathhouse peasant farmers might once have used before the State took over and let it rot. Still, the darkness stirred their dreams. Lying beside each other, they would talk of the day they’d buy back their uncle’s izba, move together out to the farm, spend the rest of their lives working side by side, live out their years just them alone, out here, together.
Down in the mushroom scented dark, their voices would drift into silence, their breathing into sleep, falling in synch until it seemed slow and heavy as the huffing of some hibernating bear. Sometimes they’d wake to the wo-hoo, woho-uhwo-ho of Ural Owl calling to its mate. Sometimes they’d hear the distant keening of a kolyosnaya lira, sometimes a burst of laughter on the breeze. And if they slept until the dancing had already started, it would come to them across the field like the dom kultura’s pulse, a throbbing that, when they crawled out from their warren, would seem to shake the stars.
In the field they’d join the flickering flashlight beams of all the others swarming, follow the tractors and trucks that crammed the road, feel the bonfire on their faces as all around everyone would clamber through the doorway into the hall. Inside, the air would be all smoke and wet-wool waft and heat of the crowd, alive with thuds of mud-matted boots as they all surged upon the dance floor, laughter in their eyes, vodka in their cheeks, whoops and cries and the guitar’s sudden strumming, the plucking of the gusli, the fiddler bending to his bow. Hands on hips and waists, boots banging down, the crowd would begin to dance. Barinyas and troikas, kamarinskayas and khorovods. The brothers wading in. Dima with his high-kneed stomps, Yarik’s horse-in-harness prancing. Until the musicians would break, the crowd would clear, the clapping would begin: the Cossack competition. Always, if the brothers were there, they danced it. And if they danced it, they won.
At the bandleader’s call, the floor full of dancers would go still: crouched low, hovering on haunches, one leg stretched straight, the other bent beneath. The rules were simple: everyone at the same low squat, the same single kick per beat, the beats quickening, the legs tiring, the dancers collapsing until only one remained. There came the balalaika trill. The singer’s voice: long vowel swooping up and up. And the first beat would boom from the band, the second drowned beneath the crash of half a hundred heels hitting the floor as one, another hundred hands coming together in the rhythm-keeping clapping of the crowd. Everyone had their strategies: bare-footers hitched heavy skirts high up their thighs; boot-wearers padded their heels with hay; collaborators circled up, held shoulders for balance; singles crossed their arms, or pumped them, or flapped at the air as if hoping for lift. But Dima and Yarik would simply face each other, grip each other’s hands and, leaning back, lash their right legs out, their left, kicks so synchronized the muscles of one seemed to move the other’s, locked eyes blinking simultaneously at sweat, grins tighter and tighter until their jaws bulged, their thighs shook, the
floor around them shook, the shaking floor emptier and emptier, and then just them, the thunderous clapping, the frenzied music, the brothers holding on.
Until one night when, on the eve of Ivan Kupala, Yarik disappeared. One moment he was by the bonfire, then gone. Dima scanned the nightswamped field, the darker woods. Soon, the women would wander out there, pretend to search for the Chernova Ruta: fabled fern blossom, once-yearly bloom, augury of love’s success; he knew none of them believed in it, knew they wanted to be hunted themselves instead. The candles in their hands would flash find me, the garlands in the hair of unwed ones take me, the young men watching, wading out towards the trees, the same who, now, still stood around the bonfire, waiting, whooping while they jumped the flames, the night streaked with the red blurs of their boots.
But Dima came into the light looking only at the faces. He could feel the heat growing on his own. Smoke filled his throat. He turned to look towards the woods again. From far off, over by the Kosha’s bank, there came a cry—Hai!—and singing: On the Day of Ivan-Kupala…—he could just make out the women’s voices—… her fortune sought … the cluster of them by the water … plucked the flowers to make her garlands … the moonwhite blooms they pulled out of their hair. Between them and him the field was lashed with shafts thrown by the dom kultura’s windows and out there he could see the spark of a button, a pale knee jutting, eddies in the grass. She strewed them on the river’s breast. Something jabbed at Dima’s ribs. A bottle, a hand passing it to him. He took it, turned back to the fire, drank.
By the time the call for the Cossack dancing came through the crowd, his belly was warm, his chest hot beneath his fire-baked shirt. He could feel the smoke in his skull, stuffed like padding between bone and brain. Someone asked him if he was going to dance. Someone asked him where his brother was. He had long since ceased to feel the burn of the vodka on his throat.
Inside, the crowd was already packed against the wall. He pushed his way through, found a space just large enough for him. The band began to tune. To Dima’s right, a farm couple clasped hands, crouched down. To his left, three men in machinist coveralls held each other’s forearms, right legs jutting from their circle like spokes. He stood above the floorful of squatted dancers, staring into the wall of those who’d come to watch. The singer coughed. Someone shouted something about him, his brother; it sent a murmuring through the crowd. He lowered himself. And when the first note wailed, he threw his boot out with the rest, drew it in with them on the next beat. He didn’t know what to do with his hands, held them out a little from his body, awkward and jerking as if, without anything to grip, they’d ceased to be a part of him at all. His legs, too, moved on their own, jolted him so hard he could feel his brain thud, and he tried to focus on nothing but not falling, to think of nothing but the kick, the kick, the kick. Next to him, the group of machinists tangled up, crashed guffawing to the floor. Half the dancers were already down, others walking wobbly-legged off into the crowd. His own legs had begun to shake. He watched them like they were strange animals latched onto him to keep themselves from falling, felt resentment that they might pull him down as well. When he next looked up, the floor was emptier again, a few red faces left, clenched teeth and strained necks and some shouting in pain along with each kick. He reached down and put his hands on his thighs, felt them working, was flooded with regret for his resentment the moment before. He was glad to help, glad to have them, would make his purpose to pull them through.
He would not have looked up again if the clapping of the crowd hadn’t broken suddenly apart. It quieted like a rainstorm petering out, then roared back with the wildness of hail, loosed from the rhythm of the band, mixed with shouts that rose up through it. Over by the entrance, people were parting, pushing others behind them, making way. Through the cheering crowd there came a woman, her head thrown back in laughter, flowers scattered in her swinging hair. Arms held out as if for balance, she shook her way strangely forward, jerking and leaning and righting herself and jerking forward again. Until the last line of revelers between her and Dima broke away and he saw the cheers of the crowd hadn’t been for her alone.
Beneath her crouched his brother. Yarik came into the clearing with her on his shoulders, his arms squeezed tight around her legs, his own legs kicking, out and back and out again, heels hammering the floorboards in synch with Dima’s own. Dima could feel their blows in his knees. He could feel the shaking with each kick that brought his brother closer. The tendons stood out on Yarik’s neck, and Dima could feel that, too. On his own shoulders: her weight. A spike of pain shot through his legs. But his brother was beaming, his eyes all laughter. Beneath her laughter, her head thrown back. Her hair was tangled with leaves, Yarik’s boot soles clogged with mud. And with each shake their bodies made, Dima watched another piece of the forest fall to the floor.
Josh Weil is the author of the novel The Great Glass Sea,and a novella collection, a New York Times Editors Choice that won the Sue Kaufman Prize from The American Academy of Arts and Letters and a “5 Under 35” Award from the National Book Foundation. His other writing has appeared in Granta, Esquire, and The New York Times. A recipient of fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, MacDowell, Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, he has been Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bowling Green State University and Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi. He lives in the northern the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Portlanders: Josh will be reading tonight at Powell’s On Hawthorne at 7:30pm.